Saturday, 27 April 2013

Toyah's latest book reviewed

First, a disclosure; I have know the author and blogger Krzysztof Osiejuk since the summer of 1996; we met on holiday with our families in Penrhos, North Wales and became firm friends - Krzysztof has introduced me to much excellent music and great movies, and many's the single malt whisky we've enjoyed together while watching outstanding films or just chatting about life. Sadly, the Smolensk disaster has left a major division between us, much as it has within Polish society as a whole. For Krzysztof, it was the deliberate assassination of President Lech Kaczyński; for me, an accident that resulted from sloppy procedures in the air and on the ground. I fear that this new status quo will remain for years to come.

Anyway, on with the narrative. Krzysztof's first book, O siedmiokilogramowym liściu i inne historie, written under the Toyah pseudonym, is a collection of his pre-Smolensk blog posts, written during the glory days when he was Polityka's political blogger of the year (2009). Sadly, the posts are not dated, which would have been useful to future historians. Because this is the pre-Smolensk, there's less rancour, a lighter tone; those early years of PiS in parliamentary opposition with a PiS president in office now seen strangely exotic.

Toyah's second book, Twój pierwszy elementarz, written in the style of an ABC primer, was written after April 2010. Essentially, it stands as a who's who of Polish politics and blogging (even I get an entry!); with everyone neatly categorised into nasi ('ours') or else as tools of 'the system' (system), witting or otherwise. Many famous Poles, we learn, are or have been agents (of Moscow, of the security services, of the system) or are (as in my case), 'lemmings' (lemingi), who passively accept today's reality. An excellent guide to the works of the PiS mindset.

Krzysztof's first book published under his own name is Marki, dolary, banany i biusztonosz marki Triumph, is a much-needed first hand account of Poland's transition from communism to what we have today. An autobiography that moves from childhood and adolescence in Katowice (or indeed Stalinogród, which is what the city was called when Krzysztof was born), through his student days, Martial Law and the political and economic transformation to today's Poland - which he doesn't much care for.

Cover art by Marek Kamieński
For those of my readers who did not experience daily life in Poland under communism, a time of "endless waiting," he recalls, this book makes for an educational, and indeed entertaining, read. In particular the relationship between the citizen and the authorities, and the consumer and the market. Two anecdotes from the book merit recounting in full.

One was a taxi ride from Katowice to Sosnowiec. As his taxi was approaching the destination, the driver recognised a militia-man (milicjant) at traffic lights and began chatting to him. The militia-man got into the front passenger seat and continued the conversation with the driver in the stationary car, who was ignoring his passenger as the taxi-meter continued to spin. Krzysztof did not dare butt in to remind the driver that he was still in the car. After a while, the militia-man turned around to Krzysztof and announced that he didn't like his hair-cut. Krzysztof maintained a polite tongue, explained why he was going to Sosnowiec (to register for his studies), but was noted down anyway. The taxi ride turned out to be extremely expensive - and there was nothing - nothing at all - that he could do about it.

The other concerns his first job. He was directed to work at the Zenit department store in Katowice as a junior radio and TV sales assistant. This was in the mid-1970s, when Edward Gierek was First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party, and sought to buy popularity by borrowing money from the West and spending it on the production of consumer goods, to create the illusion of prosperity. Krzysztof recalls, however, that none, literally none, of the radios (Śnieżka and Jubilat brand) worked. It was a similar case with televisions, but unlike the radios, there was demand for TVs. When anyone wanted to buy one, it would be plugged into the mains - and would not function. It was repacked, put into a store-room, and when the store-room was full, men from the Unitra factory would turn up, fix them, and place a sticker on each one saying 'Pre-sale repair' (naprawa przedsprzedażna).

As a citizen, as a consumer, in PRL you had next to no rights whatsoever. And yet if things were so bad back then, why is everything today so bad? There is a note of nostalgia running through the book, in particular to his childhood; Krzysztof was blessed with wonderful parents. And to times when you could spend blissful hours with friends, listening to music, talking about life, drinking, smoking, not worrying about the future.

Harbingers of the transformation to come - the introduction of democracy and the free market - were Krzysztof's journeys to 1980s West Germany, and for him the smell of fresh products. For me, my memories of trips to communist Poland are also connected with smell - the aroma of cheap newsprint by a Ruch kiosk, the smoke from Sport and Popularne cigarettes, that tantalising blend of damp, disinfectant and stale cooking smells of a tenement staircase

A note of mortality creeps in every now and then - so many of Krzysztof's friends have passed on; far more than would have been the case for a similar age cohort in the west. Better healthcare, healthier lifestyles, more to live for. And that sense of injustice - the children of the old communists went on to achieve wealth, those that fought for freedom live in relative poverty.

Marki, dolary, banany i biusztonosz marki Triumph is a worthwhile read for those interested in recent Polish history; an eyewitness testimony to bygone times that have changed beyond recognition in less than a quarter of a century. [It is available online for a mere 30 złotys or six quid plus postage] There is room in the English language for accounts of day-to-day life before, during and after transformation from communism to market democracy; I'm sure these will help future generations understand better this particular moment in human history, and its early 21st-century fallout.

I learn from the book that Krzysztof reckons he's got another three books inside him. I look forward to reading them all!

This time last year:
The Shard changes London's skyline

This time two years ago:
In praise of Warsaw's trams

This time three years ago:
Plans for the railway line to Radom
[three years on: what's changed?]


Marcin said...

Hi Michael,

Let me point out something. As on my family and social background I grew up at the liberal-leftist surrounding. You know, a modern, socially sensible, moderate catholic (rather Christian than catholic), progressive, materialistic and relatively wealthy inteligencja. My parents (both highly educated, father with the PhD in psychology, and mother, a pedagogue) involved in the Solidarity movement, substantially open-minded and so on. Within the family or many friends of it’s surrounding, there was no room for intolerance, obscurity, skepticism and alike. And obviously, there constantly existed a memory about some of national heroes, with the Pope, JP II, on a top of that. Apart of him, there were some others, like Kuroń, Geremek, Michnik, Brzeziński and some other minor - mostly those promoted by the liberal and leftist propaganda.

And at the edge of 80.s and 90.s, when I entered adultery, I mostly shared attitudes, points of view and beliefs of my family (both my parents and my older brother) and it’s friends and peers. Moreover, I involved myself in the Elections of 1989, and I joined the Solidarity Election Committee. Well, I kept in mind of many of a so called "improprieties and faults" of the communist times, including: chocolate-like products (mainly rhubarb-based); foaming milk because of some of detergents in it; so called kartki (coupons) for the most of products; a single pair of shoes for a given season (mainly winter or summer); gasoline, vodka, cigarettes and chocolate as a medium of exchange; a toilet paper inside of a zwyczajna sausage; oranges occasionally; a permanent goods shortage; standing in a tens of meters of cues; special, exclusive stores (so called za żółtymi firankami, "behind of the yellow curtains" – name’s origin was because at shop windows of such stores there hung curtains in order to cover up an inside look and a color of such curtains was yellow because of a permanent unwashed of them) for the Party nomenclatura;… and… a total grayness, dullness, hopelessness, system’s stupidity and some of famous and well-known communist crimes (like priest Jerzy assassination, killing of Grzegorz Przemyk and alike – by the way Mike, mind you sometime write something about that (?))… And? And nowadays, I do not favor those times, nor the present ones. Why?

Marcin said...

Well, at the times of a transition – mainly the all 90.s – I considered myself as a strongly liberal, open- and free-market-oriented democrat (with the monetarist inclination), and was a blindly and frenetically pro-capitalism proponent with a strong focus on a gain factor, private property, supply-side economics, labor effectiveness fetish, GDP factor superiority, market excellence, a state supportive role; ideological honest of a human being… - based on a mainstream and a core line of a so called "the first opposition newspaper" (hahaha). Newspaper, that I uncritically believed in. You know…, there were "ours" and heroes. Fortunately, I have never admired that the most influential and progressive leftist weekly… Bygone, looking at myself by present eyes contrary to those times, I may describe myself as being then like a "proto-lemming", very naive, childish, "one-book" doctrinated, close-minded, ignorant, with the acquired points of view rather than worked out ones, to some extent politically correct brain-washed, Western-oriented (with a delicate cosmopolitan influence)… Yes, yes, yes… a good pattern of the young-educated-urban body ("The Best Of Lemmings" – style) with enormous prospects and so on. But, as only as I was becoming older and older, there has begun a gradual, constant and deeper and deeper change of my opinions, points of view, hierarchy of values and attitudes toward persons, facts, events and circumstances.

How, an above has happened? Just simply. Though, as much is that tolerable to read and hear in a mainstream propaganda, that Poles are en masse anti-Semitic, taking into consideration what the fascist Vichy government has done with the Jews? … as much is that tolerable to read and hear in a mainstream propaganda, that Poles are en masse dirty, taking into consideration a huge mess in some of Italian towns and cities? … as much is that tolerable to read and hear in a mainstream propaganda, that Poles are en masse lazy, taking into consideration some of a specific "French-style" attitude toward working? … as much is that tolerable to read and hear in a mainstream propaganda, that Poles are en masse obscure and non-innovative, taking into consideration that Polish-origins Steve Wozniak was a founder of the Apple Computers? … as much is that tolerable to read and hear in a mainstream propaganda, that Poles are en masse hypocrites, taking into consideration that if Englishman (–woman, respectively) says “yes” then very often it means “no”? … as much is that tolerable to read and hear in a mainstream propaganda, that Poles are en masse poorly educated, taking into consideration that (according to the Gallup) gross of Americans are illiterate on that what the capital of the States is, and if only they know it, where it lays? … as much is … and, so on, and so on?

Marcin said...

So, being wander all of those "as much is", I begun confront that propaganda with a second gazette - "Rzeczpospolita". And… with a deep surprise, I discovered that that’s possible to write more calmly, more objectively, without a condemning, stereotypes, that irritating mentoring and pedagogical conceit, emotional exaltation… - regarding similar facts, persons, circumstances and so on. So, for months, I’ve bought both papers. And as much that "the first opposition gazette", it’s editors, publishers, experts, commentators and writers were becoming more and more irritating, subjective, doctrinal and to the most extent Poles and Poland biased, then with a greater and greater pleasure I’ve read "Rzeczpospolita". Besides of them both, I’ve also begun reading other papers, politically-oriented to the right-wing from the "Rzeczpospolita". Simultaneously, after the graduation, I begun working.

And, as only I confronted all of that, that I read in the "first opposition gazette", with those that was publicized at other mediums, enforcing that by some of practical and professional experiences, I’ve felt that my political orientation has gradually changing, up to the so called "Rywin affair" and others of those times. With every enterprise collapsed; with every wave of unemployed; with every zloty frauded; with every lies in my TV set and radio; with every arrogance of authorities; with every article and paragraph of rules and laws enacted due of someone’s interest; with a growing corruption; with…, with… and with, I’ve felt that all of those mess with the Solidarity movement, 1989 Elections and alike seems to be a great affair, a huge lie… and a one big dirt. I’ve also remind myself, as how and with what tricks some of international internships have being granted, when I was a member of one of a student association, then it has completed of an entire view of that dirt. So, I understand Toyah.

Marcin said...

I understand him, that a tolerance for is very often cynically changed on for a tolerance from. And, his writing is to loudly express his (but not only) "no" toward all of that mess. For instance, you, Mike, are interested in a lack of pavements, cycle roads, a good infrastructure and so on. Good for you, but you should try to understand, that a lack of all of that is not a kind of a dispensation of Providence, but a soar and a rude cause of the two decades politics, that is similar to a neocolonial, looking deeply inside. Yes, I’m of that academic year of the SGH, during which we’ve studied from the translation scripts of "Economics" by D. Begg, S. Fisher and R. Dornbusch, and among others there Chapter 20 of the Part points about "Net Economic Welfare" (NEW) measure. No matter what surplus on the Gross Domestic Product side you obtain, hence still you may suffer a lack of pavements, cycle roads, a good infrastructure, excellent healthcare, public services, education and so, if the NEW factor stands poorly low, because of a creative accountancy, "plagues" euphemism, another euphemism, "asymmetry of information", transactional cost… and others like that. But that is necessary to change a paradigm, ways of thinking, attitudes and mentality, to understand of all of that neoinstitutional jargon and to compare that with a current economic situation. No matter, how many LED tv sets, comps, mobile phones, autos, house equipment and so on an economy is affordable to sell on a market, if an institutional framework is deeply rotted, corrupted, demoralized, incompetent and so on. Hence, that is not a language of a classic liberalism and a parliamentary democracy. That’s a kind of a common thinking of a syndicalism and corporationism, rat-racing and a discrete-governing by oligarchy and plutocracy. And PiS permanently talks about that.


Michael Dembinski said...

Marcin - the Washington Consensus has proved wanting after 2009. But here in Poland, the key problem lies with the poor quality of the state administration. I'm all in favour of greater equality (a Gini co-efficient for Poland nearer that of Scandinavia than the US); but to make that work there must be more efficient transfer of taxation revenues towards measures that work - such as infrastructure - and less money spent on a bloated and inefficient administration.

I too have taken to reading Rzeczpospolita and Polska The Times as an antidote to Wyborcza (though it's still my main source of print news). Being able to have several points of view is useful in these troubled times - as long as one can clearly see a way forward.

Anonymous said...

A good piece of promotion for a shitty writer. That's why book reviews should not be by friends, if they are to be thorough, otherwise they end up being propaganda. You are just one step away from admitting that - once the author finally makes it as the minister of something in the only genuine government - the writing you advertise should be compulsory history textbook. Hail to sales!

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Anonymous

I stand by every word I wrote. Krzysztof - minister of anything in a PiS government? Perish the thought!