Saturday, 30 November 2013

Yet another snow-free November (third in a row)

Nothing too anomalous; snow usually appears in Warsaw towards the end of this month. Other than the briefest flurry last Monday and a brief dip into freezing temperatures on Wednesday morning, this November has not brought much by way of wintery portent. It has been wet and dull this week, weather that does nothing to lift the spirit.

Yesterday in Katowice, the thermometers in the streets showed double-digit temperatures, it's colder up here in central Poland with a daytime high of +4C and steady light rain.

Below: ul. Trombity, Monday morning; a light frost, a few flakes of snow would fall later in the day.

Here in Jeziorki we are keeping our fingers crossed for a winter that's light on snow. The main sewer has been laid in the street outside and into our estate, but now each house has to be connected to it. Work will not commence until after winter; the more snow falls, the more waterlogged the earth will be, and the more complicated (and expensive) it will be to dig the trenches from under each house to lay the waste-water outfall pipes linking our plumbing with the sewer.

Below: late November Warsaw city-centre skyline. Five to four in the afternoon.

The heaviest snowfalls can be expected between mid-December and mid-February. So a snow-free November is meaningless, and predicting future months' weather on the basis of this one is futile.

This time last year:
Another November without snow

This time two years ago:
Snow-free November

This time three years ago:
Krakowskie Przedmieście in the snow

This time four years ago:
Ul. Poloneza closed for the building of the S2
[four years later, the Poloneza is open, the S2 is open]

Friday, 29 November 2013

Crumbling King Coal - Katowice

Shot from the train from Wrocław to Katowice... scenes like this I associate with the early years of political and economic transformation in Poland, and yet, here we are, nearly a decade into EU membership, and yet this is the image that visitors get of Poland's coal mining heartland.

One would think that high global prices for scrap iron and steel, driven by China's insatiable appetite for raw materials, coupled with developers' desire for prime brownfield sites by the railway tracks (with EU funds available for redevelopment) would have cleared this mess years ago.

This is the Kleofas coal mine, closed down in 2004. It is part of Katowicki Holding Węglowy, a state-owned company. Poland's equivalent of the National Audit Office, NIK, was scathing about KHW in a report published this year - criticising the company for numerous occasions on which squandered public money on jollies for trade unionists, foreign trips, gifts and alcohol.

What's state-owned is nobody's, no one is in a hurry to get things done. Keep the gravy train rolling, jobs for the boys, whether those jobs add value to the economy or not. It is a wonder that so many companies remain state-owned in Poland, considering the contrast between the efficiency of privately-owned and what is still administered by the state treasury.

When there's a general lack of public money for healthcare or nursery education, why is taxpayers' money being spent on these dinosaurs?

High time to get to grips with these industries and clean up Katowice (where people still burn coal to keep their tenements warm, with resultant clouds of black smoke billowing all over the city centre).

Scenes like this project a poor image of the country to passing rail passengers. The Ministry of the State Treasury should step in to move things along at a faster pace.

This time last year:
Street cries of Old Poland

This time two years ago:
The gorgeousness of Warsaw at dusk

This time three years ago:
I'm so glad I'm living in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Candid photography

This time five years ago:
Archival photos of Jeziorki's Rampa in action

This time six years ago:
Red sky in the morning...

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Regent's Canal

In London for a day, with two hours of the afternoon to myself between the end of the conference I'd chaired and the journey back to Luton Airport, I took a stroll through Regent's Park. Passing the place where two scenes of Withnail and I were filmed (the wolves in London Zoo have been replaced by llamas), I made my way to the Regent's Canal, in search of some 19th C. brickwork. I was not to be disappointed.

Residential narrowboats; Prince Albert Rd in the distance, nice Victorian wall to the right

Camden Lock, 1820. At the other end a signpost reads "Liverpool 302 miles"

This boat is charmingly called the Frog and Roastbeef

Looking along the towpath towards Regent's Park Rd, Primrose Hill school beyond the bridge

Bridge carrying Oval Rd over the canal; faux castle dates back to 1977

Towpath bridge crosses inlet to former gin warehouse, built in 1894.

This time two years ago:
An end to the entitlement way of thinking

This time last year:
West Ealing - drab and sad suburb

This time two years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time four years ago:
Late autumn drive-time

Monday, 25 November 2013

Keep an eye on Ukraine...

Events in Ukraine since the government there turned its back on an association agreement with the EU on Friday are rapidly unfolding. Ukrainians, tired of being held back economically and developmentally by a succession of kleptocrats, have taken to the streets, protesting their desire to join the mainstream of European civilisation.

It is clear that is it is not in Russia's interests to allow that to happen. Although Ukrainian president Yanukovych is no ally of Putin's, he is sufficiently venal to be Putin's pliant puppet. Putin may similarly reciprocate a coolness towards Yanukovych, but he knows where the Ukrainian president's darker secrets are hidden. Yanukovych's first loyalty lies with the personal fortunes of himself, his family and his cronies - the long-term future of his nation comes far behind.

Sadly, there's little by way of alternatives for the Ukrainian voter, keen for the way of life that EU membership could one day offer them. Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned former premier, was as venal as Yanukovich; Yushchenko, elected to office after the Orange Revolution of nine years ago, turned out to be too weak to deal with the rapacious oligarchs. And there's something about Vitaly Klitschko, former boxer-turned-presidential-hopeful that makes me suspect that if he wins the 2015 vote, he too will spoil and reveal himself as a strongman seeking ever-greater power for himself.

Yet the massive turnouts by protesters in Kiev, Kharkov and other Ukrainian cities gives one hope that ordinary people, who really have had enough when comparing their lot with the living standards and prospects of their post-communist neighbours to the west, have woken up to the fact that they have been deprived of the right to a decent life by a bunch of liars and thieves.

It is certainly Poland's geopolitical imperative to ensure a buffer zone to the east between its borders and Russia; Ukraine as a member of the EU would be most welcome. One day, when that happens, and EU structural and cohesion funds start turning the largest non-Russian European soviet republic into a normal country, when Ukrainians can work legally across the EU, when Ukraine once again becomes the breadbasket of Europe, Poles will be able to sleep a little more safely.

Until then, we must not lose sight of Ukraine and its people, and hope that somehow democracy and common sense will prevail, and the brutal pressure of Russia on its neighbours will ease up.

This time last year:
Płock by day, Płock by night

This time two years ago:
Warning ahead of railway timetable change

This time six years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Papusza: a key to understanding the Roma issue

With Britain in a state of unease about the full opening of its borders on 1 January to Romanians and Bulgarians, the question of Roma (or 'Gypsies' if you are not of the politically correct persuasion) has come to the fore in the UK media. Romania and Bulgaria are home to the largest Roma populations in the EU, and the opportunity for them to travel freely to the UK strikes fear into the heart of every right-thinking Daily Mail reader - and many others.

For most European citizens, the idea that a nomadic ethnic group several million strong that still exists to this day by begging and busking is difficult to comprehend.

Here in Poland (with a low percentage of Roma within its borders compared to Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic or the aforementioned Romania and Bulgaria), some enlightenment has come in the form of a film and a book. Though both have the same title, Papusza, they are entirely different works, though both about the same subject -  the Gypsy (she disliked the term 'Roma') poet, Bronisława Weis.

The book is by Angelika Kuźniak, is a reportage based on interviews, letters and published materials, interspersed with excellent photographs (the best by Jerzy Dorożyński, for the ethnographical museum in Tarnów, taken in the early '60s as the decision to settle Poland's Gypsies was taken). Below: my favourite photo from the book - a tabor (convoy of caravans) winds through a poor Polish village, 1963 (click to enlarge).

The film - made by husband-and-wife team Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze - is beautifully shot in black and white and tells basically the same story, though with minor differences. The film took six years to make - most of the time spent in painstakingly researching the subject to achieve a true story that looked authentic on screen. We travel from pre-war Wołyń to post-war Gorzów Wielkopolski, touching upon the Porajmos - the Roma holocaust in WW2. Like the book, the film was meticulously researched. Below: a still from the film. Many of the scenes are carefully framed tableaux, set against beautiful Polish countryside.

Papusza was clearly a powerful voice in 20th Century Polish poetry; her writing was no primitive folklore but multi-layered, intense and deeply original. The film mirrors this beautifully. The scene showing Papusza's birth, in a forest; a young woman is lying in the undergrowth, calling for her mother... in the foreground, things are stirring... a thousand butterflies? No... it is the wind picking up fallen leaves - a magical scene.

The natural beauty of the forests, the streams, the sky, the wild animals; I think that Papusza, like many poets, was born with a form of synaesthesia - cross-sensory hypersensitivity to stimuli which in her case would be readily transformed into words.

A second factor marking Papusza as outside of the ordinary was that she refused to take illiteracy as her predestined condition. As a child, she taught herself to read, aided as we see in the book and in the film by a Jewish shopkeeper. Her family would try to stop this foolishness, tearing up scraps of newspaper from which she was teaching herself.

And then there was the coincidence which brought her into the public eye. Jerzy Ficowski, a Polish writer and former AK soldier, hiding from the communist security services in the late 1940s, just happened upon her tabor (group of caravans travelling together). Meeting Papusza, he recognised her rare talents; they kept in touch; she sent him poems which he translated and had published in Polish literary magazines. The great Polish poet Julian Tuwim persuaded Ficowski to publish a major work on Poland's gypsies, which appeared in 1953. This book caused Papusza a great deal of grief, as it was believed that she had betrayed to Ficowski the secrets of Gypsy laws and customs to the gadzios - everyone who was not Roma.

Papusza was ostracized and lived apart from her people until her death in 1987, having endured several spells in mental hospitals.

The book and the film show Roma life in realistic terms - the superstition, the patriarchal nature of their society (Papusza is shown to have been bought as a 15 year-old bride by a man 22 years her senior, who was often abusive towards her), the way that Gypsy women and children would go into towns to beg, tell fortunes and steal what they could (chickens, sweets, purses). The men would earn their way by playing Gypsy music (very well shown in the film) and horse-trading; then drinking (always vodka), while pouring scorn on the settled lifestyle that revolved around work. Women do the work - the washing, the feeding, the child-care - after a long day's begging or chiromancy in the gadzio towns. Education was frowned on; a waste of time.

And yet much of lyrical beauty of a bygone way of life  is captured in Papusza's poetry and in the film. Poland's Gypsies were forcibly made to settle by the communist government in 1965 after a long campaign to encourage voluntary settlement.

While the book and the film go a long way to increase understanding of the Gypsy way of life, they do not offer any solution to the problem - of a people that do not wish to be integrated into mainstream society, yet needs that society in a parasitical way for alms, and now increasingly, EU money.

Below: Roma beggars abuse people's sympathy and basic human kindness. A girl, around 17 or 18, hoiks her three year-old daughter /sister /niece from one tram to another, extracting alms from the soft-hearted. Really, this is no way to support ones' family. Photos taken two months ago.

Below: limping with a crutch, or (again on the tram routes up and down Puławska much favoured by Roma mendicants) falling to one's knees and pathetically singing a tuneless song. We don't need no education, indeed. What is society to do? It's not so much of a problem in Poland (most Poles are too stony-hearted and inured to Roma ways), but Britain fears that scenes such as these will suddenly become commonplace after 1 January.

The Roma remain their own worst enemy. Denying their own children a right to education (many of the beggars are of school age) perpetuates their plight, retarding them further in comparison with a society that's rapidly getting richer and ever more technologically enabled.

These problems could be seen from the outset of Papusza's story, the pre-war scene where a Gypsy encampment is burnt down by a group of Poles taking revenge for a beating one of them received from Gypsies he'd insulted at a local tavern; the Jewish storekeepers taking extra care of their merchandise when the Gypsy women and children came to town begging. The situation has hardly changed in a hundred years, yet the gadzio community has moved from agriculture via industry to an IT-driven economy while the Gipsies are still reliant on begging.

I thoroughly recommend the book and the film, and suspect that the film will go on to have a great career in art-house cinemas around the world for its lyrical beauty and profound story. Below: the final shot of the film. One to see.

This time three years ago:
London travel notes - from Luton to Ealing

This time four years ago:
Silent and Unseen - at your bookshops now
(today, sadly, long out of print)

This time five years ago:
Rat-run absurdity

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Unnecessary lighting wastes money

I mentioned that from the train one can see the southern stump of the S79, beyond the S2 junction, all illuminated but with no traffic on it - and none expected this side of 2020. So I cycled down this evening to take a look. Yes indeed. Over 100 high-pressure sodium vapour lamps switched on... Each with a lifespan of 18,000 hours, or 1,500 days, or just over four years. So these lamps will probably have be changed twice before the S79 finally gets extended to become the S7 as it runs through Lesznowola down to Grójec.

In September, premier Donald Tusk announced that he has prioritised the completion of Warsaw's southern bypass, the S2, at the expense of the linking the S7 north and south of the capital with existing express roads, the S8 (to the north) and S79 (to the south). This means that this bit of road will remain unused for the whole of the 2014-2020 EU budget perspective and probably a few years into the next one. If there is a next one.

How much do these lights cost to keep switched on for an average of 12 hours a day? Below: a short film made while cycling along the unopen stretch of the S79, heading south. To the right, traffic coming down off the S79 merges with westbound traffic on the S2; to the left, traffic coming off the S2 merges with northbound traffic on the S79.

This is a fine example of public money being wasted through poor planning. This stretch of road had been almost completed - only the markings are missing; the crash barriers and lamps are there, the asphalt's up to the final layer.

I would dearly love to see this bit of road stretched southwards as soon as possible - if not to connect the S79 to Grójec, then at least to connect it to ul. Baletowa to relieve some of the local traffic and funnel it onto a proper dual carriageway. Or would it be too much to ask to have the S79/S7 be extended to Lesznowola to meet the Piaseczno to Magdalenka road?

Until then, the lights should be switched off here. Especially when there are stretches of the S2 and S79 which are open to traffic and are bathed in darkness at night, with the lighting switched off.

This is a wild estimate, but 100 lamps, each with 600W bulbs would use up around 200,000zł a year of electricity, plus the cost of replacing each light-bulb twice over the eight-year period.

Meanwhile, on the stretch of the S2 between ul. Poloneza and ul. Hołubcowa, the lamps are not switched on at night, leaving the expressway in the dark.

(I wrote about the premature switching-on of lighting on the north end of the S79 last November, but it would only be on for a mere nine months before the expressway was opened to traffic.)

Surely Poland's highways authority GDDKiA has better things to spend money on.

This time last year:
Warsaw's heros on the walls

This time two year:
Tax dodge or public service?

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's woodlands in autumn

This time five years ago:
Still here, the early snow

This time six years ago:
Another point of view

Friday, 22 November 2013

Leeds - so much nicer in the daylight

I've not visited Leeds since student days and now I'm back twice in a week. Last week I arrived and departed the city in darkness, and my impressions were not positive. This time, being able to walk around in daylight hours (from the station to Leeds Town Hall and from the Ibis Budget (yes, free in-room wi-fi and only £30 a night), I saw enough great Brictorian architecture to change my impression of the city.

Look at the magnificence of this building - Kirkgate Market, which was (largely) completed by 1904, with the initial construction being started in 1875. Look at the wealth of ornamentation and just feel the civic pride. Britain has always been a nation of shopkeepers - and good ones at that.

And what have we here? This is where the very first Marks & Spencer was opened by Michael Marks (a Polish Jew) and Yorkshireman Thomas Spencer, in 1894. This shrine to the original penny bazaar was opened in 2012 to commemorate the birthplace of one of the UK's great retailing brands - well-known in Warsaw too. Standing on the left of the photo is fellow-blogger Paddisław.

To quote Babcia Wanda - 'kiedyś tu była synagoga - dziś to pub!' But the Mogen David on the gable is deceptive - this was the city's Masonic Hall (from 1866 to 1901 when it moved to larger premises). Surprising, then, that it's now an Irish theme pub (though owned and operated by Mitchells and Butler, once the brewer of Birmingham). A Masonic theme pub - now that would be interesting!

Below: the building (centre) was the Church Army Hostel for Men, across the road Turton's Wharf and Warehouse. Fine brick-built Victorian edifices both (though the warehouse I find more appealing in its austere simplicity).

Below: 'kiedyś to był bank, dziś to pub' - the domed former headquarters of the Yorkshire District Bank (1899) on the corner of Boar Lane and Bishopsgate Street.

Below: Kiedyś to był pub, dziś to jest pub - the Duck and Drake is one of many names given to ale houses occupying this building since the first half of the 19th Century.

Below: Leeds General Infirmary (1869, Sir George Gilbert Scott) high Victorian neo gothic. Lovely stuff, especially when the facade catches some late-afternoon November sunshine.

Left: a turret of Leeds Central Library, 1884, snapped from the steps of the Town Hall. The civic pride of Victorian Leeds is still evident wherever the 1960s architects didn't pay off local government officials to tear down Brictorian loveliness and replace it with tawdry tat.

Below: the Leeds City School, opened 1889, converted into local authority offices in 1994.

The end of the Victorian era brought with it greater simplicity of architectural style; below: the Arts and Crafts buildings along Great George Street with St Anne's Catholic Cathedral (1904) behind them; the tower of Leeds Town Hall looms on the horizon (right).

And finally, to end my overview of Leeds' Bricktoriana - I cannot leave the city without a nod to the Town Hall, a monument to the city's strong sense of self-belief - somewhat lost in today's era of diversity.

Leeds - I take it back - it has some fantastic vistas on offer for fans of Bricktorian Britain.

I, too, remember where I was when JFK was shot

On a dark and sad November evening, a post about memory rather than about history. The global media has written enough this week about John Kennedy's legacy. For me, it was the first major historical event of which I retain memories. During the Cuban Missile Crisis a year and a month earlier, my parents were extremely concerned; I had just started primary school and remember nothing of those worries.

At home watching television with my parents. I was six, the full import of what was happening was lost on me, though in my consciousness, America was a violent country where people routinely shot one another. My parents sat in front of the television watching BBC news with a sense of gloom. My attempts to cheer them up failed. That evening, the BBC rescheduled its programmes and put on some light entertainment - TV comedian Harry Worth.

In that episode, Harry pulls out of his wicker basket an old teddy bear, which he says he only brings out on special occasions. I joked " when a president gets shot", again trying to raise spirits. This time the joke was met with a rebuke from my father.

Above: photo taken that evening by my father Bohdan Dembinski of the 405-line b&w TV set as the news was being reported from America on the BBC.

This article from The Independent is interesting for those who stayed up watching TV a bit later than my bedtime.

Forty-five years on, my memory of that evening was the Novemberness of it all; the gloom, the three-bar electric heater radiating dull orange light, the utilitarian grey and black furniture, the flickering black and white 405-line TV set, the sadness in my parents' hearts.

This time two years ago:
Bad customer service - a camera repairer to avoid

This time four years ago:
November weather notes

This time five years ago:
First snow, winter 2008-09

This time six years ago:

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Autumn or spring?

On my way to the Embassy today along the Kanał Piaseczyński I noticed something unusual - not only were there large numbers of deciduous trees still boasting a fair amount of foliage, but that many of them were green rather than yellow or orange or indeed brown. With a blue sky as background, the scene looked Most vernal, and yet here we are in late November... (photos rendered naturally, no tweaking of colours on Photoshop)

Beech (buk)

Maple (klon)

Anyone know what this one is? (czy ktoś wie jakie to drzewo?)
The weather forecast for the next three days remains dry and above freezing (between 4C and 8C), no chance of snow then this week. If there's no snow this month, it will be the third November in a row in Warsaw.

This time last year:
Shedding light on an unused road
[it will be another eight months before the S79 opens - but for those eight months, the road was lit every night]

This time three years ago:
S2-S79 Elka from the air (there was still talk of it opening in time for Euro 2012!)

This time two years ago:
Fish and chips in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Spirit of place - anomalous familiarity moments

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Cause and effect?

I wrote two weeks ago about the new initiative by Warsaw's city authorities to create a one-stop shop for complaints about one's street. So I e-mailed the city to complain about the mess left on ul. Kórnicka by the builders who'd complete phase 1 of the flood prevention work. Two days later I was informed that the issue was sorted. Since then, I've been travelling, but on Sunday morning, I went to take a look at what was happening on Kórnicka.

Below: it seems that things are as they were - people with development potential in the area of tidiness are still leaving their fast-food wrappers in the road, the huge mound of earth between Kórnicka and the ponds is still there. But what's that on the horizon...?

Below: the builders are back! Trucks, equipment - the base itself has been tidied up - good news.

There's still much to do - all these bricks, I presume, will form the hardcore that will be rollered under asphalt on the far end of ul. Dumki? Just enough to give a nice, smooth surface for cyclists and pedestrians. No cars please!

Below: looking down ul. Dumki from Kórnicka. Now the builders are back, I hope there will be a return to the tempo of work we had this time last year, when a great deal was achieved in a short space of time.

Now the question - cause and effect. Are the builders back because I used the city's 19115 service to complain about the mess on Kórnicka? Or were they scheduled to come back and start clearing up? Did Ms Gronkiewicz-Waltz launch the 19115 service as a result of the failed referendum to oust her from office, or was she planning to do this many months ago?

I'm sure some one in city hall knows the answers to both of these questions...

This time last year:
Foggy days and Warsaw's airports

This time three years ago:
Local elections - the lure of ultra-localism

This time four years ago:
Synchronicity of shape: Powiśle, California and Hanger Lane

Friday, 15 November 2013

Brictorian Birmingham

Birmingham - England's Second City, former Workshop of the World, Britain's manufacturing heartland. Lots of Bricktoriana to be seen, lots of klimat to be enjoyed. Rather than be driven to the exhibition centre, I decided to walk. Exercise is necessary for mind and spirit.

Below: view from my bedroom window - Brindleyplace (one word, no space), a development begun in the early 1990s, the brickwork is contemporary but sympathetic with the city's Victorian heritage. Named after Joseph Brindley, one of the creators of Birmingham's canal network, this agreeable development of new buildings stands on what was a derelict industrial site.

Below: looking along the Birmingham Old Line Canal as it passes under Granville Street. Turn left at the end for the Gas Street Basin. The conurbation is criss-crossed with over 100 miles (160km) of navigable canals; much of the 18th Century infrastructure, wharves and warehouses, locks and bridges, is still in place and functioning, though now mainly as a tourist and leisure facility, hosting also residential narrowboats.

Below: a 1920s boozer abuts some nice brickwork; corner of Granville Street and Broad Street. The adornments on the pub roof boast the logo of Mitchells and Butlers, the Birmingham brewers that ceased brewing beer a decade ago and now manage pubs under different brands, including O'Neills,such as this one.

Below: further down Granville Street - brick arches with stone lintels on the second floor, solid, respectable Victorian architecture, scrubbed clean of grime and soot.

Below: plainer, early Victorian brick frontage with stone lintels over the windows. Note almost complete lack of decorative elements, and yet the simplicity of the design pleases the eye. This was the Hopkinson Tinplate Factory back in 1839.

Below: the same early Victorian brickwork, at ease with more modern architecture on this sunny morning. The building is now home to the Arts Council.

Below: Birmingham cobblestone. Much of what was underfoot in Birmingham would have looked like this before asphalt became ubiquitous. Slippery when wet and bumpy, it puts one in mind of clattering horse-drawn carts and bone-shaking bicycle rides.

Below: Engineering Blue - the bricks used to build the bridges, tunnels and retaining walls of Victorian Britain, built to support heavy loads for centuries. This canal bridge needs some pointing between the bricks though; the look like they might come loose in a decade or three.

Neither brick nor Victorian but still worthy of posting here; St Thomas' Church, a neoclassical edifice built after 1818 to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Waterloo. This is one of two 'Waterloo churches' in the city. St Thomas' was bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, leaving only the tower and entrance and rear portico. The space between has been preserved as a Peace Garden, though the tower itself is closed off from the public being in danger of collapse.

Below: into the Birmingham suburb of Edgbaston, this is the Calthorpe Park keeper's lodge on the corner of Pershore Road and Speedwell Street. It dates back to 1857, the height of the Victorian craze for neogothic ornamentation. Above the first floor window, the coat of arms of the City of Birmingham, and its motto: 'Forward'.

Birmingham has come a long way since the 1960s when ugly monstrosities like the Bull Ring Centre and New Street Station were allowed to be built. The latest wave of development boasts architecture that is generally at one with the city's heritage.

This time last year:
Welcome to Lemmingrad

This time three years ago:
Dream highway

This time four years ago:
The Days are Marching

This time six years ago:
First snow, 2007

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Hotel wi-fi: free of charge or a paid-for service?

Travelling around England and Poland I've been stayed at a wide variety of hotels from scruffy guest houses (when I'm paying) to four- and five-star hotels (when there's a corporate sponsor). A basic rule of thumb is - the cheaper the hotel, the greater the likelihood that in-room wi-fi is free of charge.

Staying at the Gateshead Hilton (**** £100 a night), Newcastle, "charges are applicable". Edinburgh's Holiday Inn (****, £100 a night) offers its guests a "wireless fee". Yet at the Craig House Hotel in Edinburgh (£29 a night) wi-fi is free. As it is in the Ibis Budget (£31 a night).

So I was surprised and delighted that The Queens hotel in Leeds and the Nottingham Belfry (both ****, both in the QHotels group) offered free in-room wi-fi. Brilliant! QHotels also offer a shoe polishing machine and a Corby trouser press in each room.

The Daily Telegraph had an article about this subject a few months ago - here it is (worth noting the results of the online poll here - 92.5% of respondents think that it is not acceptable for hotels to charge guests for in-room wi-fi access)

There was free wi-fi in the conference area at the Gateshead Hitlon, though only after typing in a login and password; each session lasted an hour, after which you had to log in again and enter password. So there I talking to a potential client, about to google something for him on my laptop, to discover that once again that day I needed to log on. And the conference organisers were paying top whack to use this venue. So much better to have it free and limitless. At the QHotels, I could catch up with business and news in my room, and use my laptop during the event, all seemlessly.

This is how things should be. I'm sure that free wi-fi will extend across the upper end of the hotel industry because of the normal pressure of competition from cheaper hotels.

Since wi-fi has made its way into hotel rooms, I've found that just as at home, I'm not switching on the television. TV has become an old-fashioned way to accessing video content (zero control over when you watch, and little control over what you watch). I'm sure that in ten years' time, few hotels will bother investing in traditional TV sets for their rooms. What is more likely will be free ultra-high speed broadband wi-fi, and if there is a TV, it will be video-on-demand rather than old-school BBC1/ BBC2/ ITV/ Channel4/ Channel5 set-up.

The cheaper the hotel, the freer the wi-fi
Now it's time to leave the Nottingham Belfry and travel down to Birmingham, to a Hitlon hotel, where wi-fi will be a paid-for extra. Thank you, I won't. And I will make a point of avoiding any hotel that continues to charge extra for wi-fi if I can possibly help it.

Follow-up: Thursday 14 November - the Hitlon Garden Inn claims it has complimentary wi-fi 'in every guest room'... except it doesn't work. On the third floor (of seven) anyway. Ah... And the Hitlon Garden Inn does not have TV sets in the rooms - there's an iMac instead, which proves that my prediction (two paragraphs above) is indeed coming true. TV is becoming history.

This time last year:
An advanced plan to escape the Hammer of Darkness

This time two years ago:
Poppies and pride

This time three years ago:
Setting sun in the mountains

This time four years ago:
That learning moment

This time five years ago:
Along the Polish-Czech border

This time six years ago:
Ul. Poleczki - remember it this way?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Leeds, a city with its character ripped out

The Victorian heart of Leeds was left largely unscathed by Luftwaffe bombs, but in the 1960s, property developers and venal local politicians saw to it that magnificent architecture was torn down and replaced by shoddiness and ugliness. In particular, this is the city of John Poulson, the architect and developer who bribed officials in local government and nationalised industries to win contracts across the north of England.

Leeds is Britain's third-largest city and fourth-largest metropolitan area; the largest city of Yorkshire. Bricktorian Britain still makes its presence felt. Below: delapidation on the A64. Note the tree growing out of the brickwork, the moss on the stone parapet, the wiring pinned haphazardly to the wall.

Below: the view from my hotel room, overlooking Leeds station, and standing above it in darkness, City House, designed by Poulson in 1962. It is a drab insipid development entirely lacking in merit.

All is not lost, however. The Queens Hotel, in which I'm staying, was built in 1936 and has been restored to its former Art Deco glory. Very filmic - it reminds me of the Hotel Earle from Barton Fink  'Look on me! I'll show you the life of the mind!' or indeed the Overlook Hotel from The Shining... "Redrum... Redrum... REDRUM!" The Queens is full of Art Deco touches that delight the eye; the lifts are numbered Car 1 and Car 2; the room doors, the light fixtures; if you are into Art Deco, the interior of The Queens will let you forget about the drabness outside.

Yesterday Newcastle, today Leeds, tomorrow Nottingham - my progress through the North continues. Outside, the sky remains cloudless.

This time last year:
Węzeł Lotnisko (now Węzeł W-wa Południe) - works continue
[amazing to think they completed it within 10 months]

This time five years ago:
To Lepiarzówka, on the Polish-Czech border

This time six years ago:
Its Independence Day