Thursday, 30 May 2013

Railway history - the big picture

A big thank-you to AdtheLad for sending me the link to the BBC documentary about the history of railways presented by Dan Snow. I watched all three parts over two days, and a Most interesting series it turned out to be. The railway age, for those with an ability to be amazed, began nearly two centuries ago. I may be bolder than the documentary in saying that nothing changed human history so dramatically in so short a space of time.

If you want to watch it - and I highly recommend giving over three hours of your life to do so (you'll have to find it on YouTube - the links I originally posted are dead).

I have minor issues with the staid and formulaic BBC documentary approach - presenter strides Purposefully Forward towards camera, saying things... like THIS. And then SUDDENLY ( - pause - ) Coming To A STOP. For emphasis. And then, (now in long shot, making gesture with hands) the presenter - moves away from camera - having MADE... his - POINT. But then Dan Snow is son of the BBC's Peter Snow* and nephew of Channel 4's John Snow. The music descends inevitably into yet another poor pastiche of Philip Glass's Koyanisquaatsi. In other words, the BBC's documentary-making technique has not moved on in a quarter of a century.

But never mind that - the content is compelling - even if you're not a train buff. If history's your attunement, then this series is extremely satisfying.

The central thesis is that the coming of the railways changed everything for ever. Of all the developments of human creation, this is the one that fomented social change faster and more thoroughly than any other - including the internet.

Like the internet, the railway was a convergence of two existing technologies. In the case of the internet - telephones (which had been around for the best part of a century) and computers (half a century). In the case of railways - it was the convergence of two 18th Century innovations: iron rails (which had been in use in horse-drawn colliery trackways), and steam engines (which had been used, again in collieries, for pumping out water).

The internet has made existing things (looking up information, watching film, listening to music, etc, immeasurably faster), railways brought things physically closer together.

But the history of the dawn of railways is incredibly fascinating. Those first steam engines, cobbled together with the technology of the blacksmith, were able to move trains at speeds far greater than those that animal muscle could accomplish, for far greater distances. In the beginning though, the motivation was to be able to move ever-greater volumes of coal faster and further. Moving people by railway was an afterthought. Freight was first. It was the reason the Liverpool and Manchester Railway opened in 1830 (183 years ago! Seven years before Victoria's coronation!) - to get goods from the manufacturing city of Manchester to the port of Liverpool.

The next two decades would see the United Kingdom criss-crossed by 7,000 miles (11,300km) of rail. The social change that rail would bring would be immense. Thomas Cook invented tourism. Time became coordinated (until the railways came, every town ran to its own, slightly different, time). But most of all, railways contributed to the spread of knowledge, literature, the novel as an art form - thanks to W.H.Smith and his 500 bookshops on railway stations across the UK. National daily newspapers could bind the nation. Labourers and their families could afford to visit the seaside for the first time. The speed and scale of the change were historically unprecedented.

Sadly, the series ends with the second world war; Britain has been overtaken by the USA and USSR as the global power, the car has taken over from the train. No space for nationalisation, Beeching and his cuts, privatisation and the current rail renaissance (more people use trains today than at any time in Britain's history). The BBC could have given Dan Snow a fourth part to the series to trace the decline and rebound of railways in the second half of the 20th Century and into the internet age.

* Peter Snow narrated a wonderful VHS video about Polish steam railways, made shortly after communism had collapsed.

This time two years ago:
New lick of paint for Powiśle

This time three years ago:
The secrets of success - intelligence, drive and luck

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Can human anger ever be positive?

The notion of 'righteous anger' - of wrathfulness in the service of a Greater Good - is worth considering. If it ever right to lose one's temper - even if in doing so, one believes it will alter another person's behaviour for the better?

Hitler was often prone to hysterical ranting, especially when things weren't going his way. Stalin, on the other hand, rarely lost his composure.

Television, film and theatrical drama are all full of angry people, shouting furiously at one another. It makes for strong entertainment. Rarely are we invited to laugh at the angry - and yet, that's the best way of diffusing the tension. John Cleese (in particular as Basil Faulty) and Warren Mitchell (as Alf Garnett) Here's Basil Fawlty, showing how funny anger aimed at an inanimate object can appear (below):



And here's Alf Garnett going into one, though against a human adversary, Spike Milligan (below):



Interestingly, in both scenes we have the 'counting to three'; the anger never spills over into violence with Alf Garnett; from the first series (1966) through to the last (1992) we know that verbally aggressive as Alf is, he is essentially non-violent.

Losing one's temper to the point where further speech becomes incoherent is the point where anger ceases to have any useful vector; at this point one has lost the argument.

The reptile brain has taken over, the primitive has triumphed over sophistication.

This time last year:
A telling Metro vignette

This time two years ago:
How I almost saved the life of Barack Obama

This time four years ago:
Ansel Adams, Count Basie, Sir John Betjeman

This time six years ago:
The hissing of the summer lawns

Sunday, 26 May 2013

W-wa Dawidy, W-wa Jeziorki, Nowa Iwiczna - three railway stations in need of repair

SISKOM, the Warsaw transport think-tank, published a report last week about the dire state of the capital's stations from the point of view of disabled access*. The report states that only 14 of Warsaw's 49 stations are currently accessible by the disabled (29%). Only six have any bicycle-parking facilities. Ten have wheelchair lifts that have been vandalised or are otherwise not functioning [bring back the stocks]. Only three have warning strips and tactile guiding paths for the visually impaired as stipulated in European Standards** (W-wa Lotnisko "Chopina", W-wa Centralna and W-wa Stadion).

Our local stations, W-wa Jeziorki and W-wa Dawidy (one stop closer to the city centre) were singled out for not having hardened access to the platforms from the road. And of course no warning strips nor tactile paths.

A big thanks, then, to Marcin Daniecki who visited the two stations - plus Nowa Iwiczna (one stop beyond Warsaw's city limits) to record the current state, in the year of Our Lord 2013, in the ninth year of Poland's membership of the European Union, in the 24th year since the downfall of communism.

Let's start at W-wa Dawidy, which for a long time lacked even a station sign to inform passengers as to where they were.

As mentioned by SISKOM - not even a lick of asphalt between platform and road.

No barriers, but not in the sense SISKOM meant it. No barriers, no lights, no gatekeeper, no audible warnings - just a few roadsigns. The level crossing on ul. Baletowa. A potentially fatal spot on the Warsaw-Radom main line.
Improvised platform access at the north end of the station, a sign that PKP PLK tacitly accept that passengers leave the station this way too.
A yellow line warns the normally sighted of the edge of the platform, but it's a potentially fatal trip-hazard. No sign of tactile guiding paths or any aids for the blind.

Now onto W-wa Jeziorki, the station at the epicentre of this blog. Like W-wa Dawidy, there no hardened access from the road to the platform. Unlike W-wa Dawidy, W-wa Jeziorki does have an adjacent bus stop, a proper manned level crossing with barriers, and a impromptu Park+Ride (drivers leaving their cars higgledy-piggledy along the muddy verges of ul. Gogolińska).

I've mentioned before the dangerous pedestrian crossing at W-wa Jeziorki; no pavement means you're forced to share the roadway...

...with oncoming cars and trucks. This is totally unacceptable in this day and age.

Passengers making their way to the bus stop would rather cross the track than risk the road. The railway authorities would rather that people died on the busy road with no pavement than risk being hit by a (infrequent) train - so they put up a barrier here. But people will still go over it or under it rather than use the dangerous road.

As the SISKOM report mentions, just like W-wa Dawidy, W-wa Jeziorki boasts only a muddy track linking platform and road rather than a paved or asphalted path.
And now onto Nowa Iwiczna. No longer in Warsaw, it is in Zone 2 of the Warsaw Agglomeration transport network. One stop beyond W-wa Jeziorki, and your quarterly ticket no longer costs 250zł, but 474zł, a daily ticket not 15zł but 24zł. This is a big disincentive for the just-out-of-towners to use public transport.

Proper pavement! Proper Park+Ride! Boy, Nowa Iwiczna's got it all!

Well, not quite. Uneven and again potentially fatal platform edges...

...unguarded level crossing...

.... and because Nowa Iwiczna station is built on a curve, there's an even greater gap between the train and the platform. "Mind the gap"? "Mind the gulf" more like.

All photos: Marcin Daniecki.

*When it comes to disabled access, London is far worse, by the way. Try crossing platforms at Castlebar Park, the nearest station to my parents' house, in a wheelchair or with a pram, for example. Few London Underground stations have wheelchair access.

** Here are the UK government's guidelines regarding disabled accessibility to railway stations.

This time last year:
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time two years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time three years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time four years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Rainy night in Jeziorki tests new retention ponds

"It rained and it rained/Both night and day" [John Lee Hooker, Tupelo]. Not a biblical downpour that would have had Noah reaching for his hammer, but steady, uninterrupted, heavy rain that lasted over 16 hours. Yesterday evening, rain water was rising up the drive, by this morning the front garden was inundated.


The amount of water that fell on our property was similar to that experienced in the Corpus Christi storm of 3 June 2010. This was no cloudburst, no thunder or lightning, no tempestuous winds, just hour upon hour of heavy rain - the equivalent, we were warned, of a month's rainfall in a single day.

Yet another anomalous weather event; a good opportunity to see how the new retention ponds have fared. Their task - to prevent flooding of local houses, roads and fields. I set off by bike to inspect the neighbourhood and how it's been affected by the rains.


Above and below: certainly looking around the nearby fields, there's been a good deal of podtopienie (localised flooding). Many of the fields around ul. Trombity have had their level raised by humus dredged from the bottom of the pond. It seems not to have done the trick.


Below: the road itself is relatively dry; there's no long stretch of submerged asphalt as there was in June 2010, nor are the spur roads (ul. Dumki and Trombity 24) too badly affected.


Below: the same spot, 4 June 2010 - a massive difference; here the renovated retention ponds have proved their worth.

Below: at the end of ul. Trombity, looking along the drainage ditch running parallel to ul. Kórnicka; brim-full of rainwater. The bottom end of the field immediately behind me (between Trombity and the railway line) is flooded, as usual. The new retention ponds have done little or nothing to protect the most vulnerable fields; my advice would be to dig more drainage ditches and make existing ones wider and deeper.


A similar story by the retention ponds along ul. Pozytywki (below). The fields are flooded, the road is dry...


...and the retention pond has swallowed the rainwater, its banks are dry and secure. Note the turf that has been planted at the water's edge. Starting to look quite attractive around here!


Below: Wąsal pond, between Pozytywki, Katarynki and Czarkowskiego. Again, it's been edged with new turf, and as we can see, it's nowhere near full. [Panoramic photo - two pics merged into one.]


Below: most important proof that the renovated ponds are working (at least as far as protecting roads and buildings - as we can see fields are still liable to flooding). Looking north along ul. Puławska, towards the junction with Karczunkowska. Three years ago, that security guard box in the foreground had floated off into floodwater, and Puławska was a river from one side to the other.


Below: ul. Puławska on the morning of 4 June 2010...


In terms of preventing this kind of catastrophe, the newly-renovated ponds have done their job well. Let's just hope they will not be put to a greater test by anomalous weather events in future. However, better drainage of fields into the ponds would do our local farmers a great favour. Despite the millions of zlotys that have been spent on flood prevention in Jeziorki, the lower-lying fields remain vulnerable.

This time last year:
Wide-angle under Pl. Wilsona

This time two years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time three years ago:
Questions about our biology and spirituality

This time four years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time five years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Friday, 24 May 2013

A life in balance 12: Arrogance vs. Humility

No one likes a big-head, but then again dealing with a shrinking violet tends to be frustrating. The arrogant, who try to dominate the world through bullying and an uncivilised 'might-is-right' approach, find that civilised society will come up with laws, rules, regulations, to keep them in check, and to keep unbridled arrogance in check. (Humour, incidentally, is a great weapon to keep the arrogant in their place.)


Countries where the arrogant can ride roughshod with impunity over those with lower self-esteem tend to be more corrupt, poorer, less well developed.

In other words, unbridled arrogance is a bad thing for communities and nations.

But a certain degree of pride in oneself is needed. Debasement, low self-worth, can lead into a spiral of negativity. As an attitude, 'I am not worthy, so I will not strive to improve my lot" is also bad for communities and nations.

Across the spectrum of the population, from the proud, bold people with their gold wrist-watches in their big, black SUVs, to the humble who are put upon by their greedy bosses, there exists a delicate equilibrium. If pushed too far, the humble, who go through life saying sorry, will rise up and find new people to boss them about (cf. the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution etc).

The arrogance-humility spectrum is to do with self-confidence. You need to have plenty of it in life to survive and thrive - but not too much.

There are thousands of books telling people how to be more self-confident. There are hardly any aimed at arrogant people telling them how to rein back, how to avoid being seen as arrogant, boastful or proud. I'm amazed at the number of people without the self-criticism to note how boastful they appear to others in everyday speech.

This is Most notable when I'm about to go on TokFM radio's business-and-economics talk-show, EKG. Before going on air, the guests will try to out-boast one another with tales of their skiing holidays in Gstaad or the Himalayas, their new Harley-Davidson motorbike or their latest i-gadgets, acquired in New York, Dubai or Singapore.

But even so, when it comes to setting the slider, I would err on the side of arrogance. It is indeed a competitive world, and if you don't fly your own flag, no one else will. (Well, your parents will always say you're marvellous - and that does help!). But keep that arrogance in check. Don't just hide it - analyse it and master it. Remain self-confident, but temper that with a healthy dose of humility.

At the other end of the spectrum - if you wallow in self-doubt, bow low to all and sundry and suffer from low self-esteem, take a look at this task-oriented approach. Work out what you're good at; build on that, gain self-confidence in that area and stand your ground. Then extend that approach to other areas.

A wise Rabbi once wrote: "you have to accept two contradictory statements as being simultaneously true. One - the universe was made for you. Two - you are as insignificant as a grain of sand". Learn to balance the two, and you will find harmony and purpose.

This time last year:
Warsaw looking good ahead of the football-fan influx

This time two years ago: This time three years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

The fast and the slow

Two days ago, Czester the first born had opened his eyes. As of this evening, Bonus the last born (so called because the ultrasound of their mother didn't indicate clearly whether the litter consisted of three or indeed of four kittens) is still blind. Below: Bonus with the little soul patch on his chin looks quite a sharp character, and happy with life so far.


Czester opened his eyes at the age of nine days; Bonus, born some four hours later, is still blind at the age of 11 days, 48 hours behind his oldest brother. The whole litter is roughly the same size - there's no evident runt among them - but Bonus is slower to develop at this stage (he was always the camera-shy one in early photos, happily hiding under or behind the rest of his siblings).

UPDATE: Thursday 23 May, evening - I come home to find that Bonus's eyes have finally opened; 13 days after birth, all the kittens have sight.

This time last year:
Short story: The Devil is Doubt - Part One

This time two years ago:
Stormclouds are raging all around my door

This time three years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time four years ago:
Coal line rarity

Monday, 20 May 2013

A Life in Balance 11: Prescriptive vs. Descriptive

How do you say 'six hundred' Polish? Sześćset, yes - but how do you pronounce that? Most Poles would pronounce it 'Szejset' [SHAYset], when the correct answer is 'sześć-set' ['SHESHCHset'].

Correct answer says who? Prescriptivists, that's who. The folks who will tell you that 'to boldly go where no man has gone before' is wrong because it's a split infinitive, and that 'If I were a rich man' is correct because 'were' is the subjunctive form to the verb 'to be', while you can't say 'Me and John went to the shop' because 'me' is accusative and not nominative. (You can't say 'me went to the shop' so why say 'me and John went to the shop'?) 

A different point of view is taken by Descriptivists. They will say that if the overwhelming balance of Poles go around saying 'szejset', then that is what '600' is. People insisting otherwise are Canutes (incidentally King Canute's mum was daughter of Polish king, Mieszko I), battling spuriously against a rising tide of contemporary usage, and languages are living things after all. Descriptivists will happily accept txtspk ('C U L8R' = 'see you later') as part of the vernacular.

So - where to set the slider between 'thus it is and only thus' and 'anything goes'? This is where I'd put it...


If we go deeper, we will see that a tendency to the prescriptivist shows a leaning towards conservatism - trying to preserve the beauty and order of things as they are, red telephone boxes, 1960s architecture, Ikarus buses, use of liturgical Latin - while the descriptivists are happier with change, indeed want to press on with a world that's continually changing. If prescriptivists are inflexible stick-in-the-muds, descriptivists will bend with the wind blowing from wherever. See this excellent take on the debate in the Economist's Johnson blog.

Sześćset is difficult to say, especially after that number of millilitres of red wine. Szejset is far easier. And so linguistic evolution - or linguistic erosion - is continually taking place. But then if you accept 'szejset' as 600, what's its genitive if not sześciuset?

When I was a small boy, driving in the car with my father, I'd ask him 'Gdzie jedziemy?' (Where are we going?) He'd answer 'W aucie' ('in the car'). What I should have asked him is 'Dokąd jedziemy?' ('Whither are we going?') Now, the word 'whither' has disappeared from common English usage, and I must report that dokąd is heading that way too. (To see how words or phrases come and go over the centuries in several languages - sadly though not Polish yet, have a look at Google's Ngram viewer.) And here, things like 'Ms' for 'Miss'/'Mrs' or the singular 'they' are changes that I'm happy to go along with.

Obviously neologisms must follow human progress, otherwise we'll be unable to give names to new inventions. Note how the Polish for bicycle is 'rower' [from the British manufacturer 'Rover'] rather than the more Latin-derived terms 'welocyped' or 'bicykl'; this would have been determined by popular usage rather than by a committee of linguistic guardians like the Rada Języka Polskiego

Like any writer and editor, I take professional pride in writing correctly and in being able to correct mistakes made by others. I make my living from having that slight edge over the majority of the English-speaking world in being able to spot a verb of incomplete predication being incorrectly used (with an adverb rather than with a adjective) or knowing how to use apostrophes correctly.

But - a question for Poles - when does one finally accept FabRYka over FABryka or JAPko over JABŁko?

This is a tricky one, because neither 'anything goes' descriptivists nor fussy stickler prescriptivists are right; you've got to move with the times, but you must maintain certain basic rules without which all descends into chaos. There will always be those who look to set rules, by which all should abide. These rules can be useful, guiding us away from the dangers of Babel and linguistic anarchy; but they can also be restrictive, restraining genuine creativity. Once again, I refer you to another excellent Johnson blog post from the Economist - Shakespeare (whom descriptivists hold up as one of their own) was a veritable motor of neologisms.
Shakespeare ... self-consciously played with the language. He was so good at it that many of his innovations stayed in the language, whereas they would have struck his audience as either new and fresh, or odd, in his day.
The key word here is 'consciously'. You've gotta be, as reggae duo, the Jolly Brothers, observed, be a conscious man (or indeed woman) when toying with language. Explore the boundaries, play with the new, but do so with awareness. Don't break linguistic rules unless you are aware of what you're doing - and do so with good, creative, reason. If what you write, what you say, catches on, it becomes a meme, it spreads, it becomes the new rule. 'The old order changeth, yielding place to new'.

 I'd set the slider somewhere in the middle, but with a small bias towards prescriptivism; it is, after all, my bread and butter.

This time last year:

This time four years ago:
Why Poland can no longer afford to keep the grosz

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Czester opens his eyes

After one week and two days, half of our four new-born kittens now have their eyes open. Czester the marmalade tom, the first-born, was first to gaze curiously at the world around him, followed by Izadora, the only female in the litter, the second-born. The remaining two kittens are still blind. Ears are gaining definition in all four.

A kitten needs on average three weeks to become fully sighted and hearing; it will be breast-fed by its mother for eight to 12 weeks, after which it should become fully autonomous.


Czester is a born fighter, this first portrait shows his masculine mien and his determined character. Note the claws! "Boy, you is a gennleman an' a mousecatcher!" Enjoy this wonderful 1948 episode of Tom and Jerry, when Lightning interupts the delicate equilibrium between Tom and Jerry...

Why are the shops shut today?

I was shopping at Auchan yesterday morning. There was a large sign outside that said that the shop would be shut on Sunday 19 May. At the check-out, I asked the cashier to confirm this, and the following dialogue ensued:
Me: Sklep jest jutro zamknięty? ['The shop's shut tomorrow?']
Cashier: Zamknięty. Jakieś święto. ['It's shut. Some religious feast.']
Jakieś święto. 'Some religious feast.' One wouldn't say that about Christmas or Easter, or about secular holidays, such as Independence Day or Constitution Day. I'm sure everyone - from the youngest to the oldest, of all levels of eduction - would be able to say or even write something meaningful about each of those days.

But today's feast - Pentecost - is as mysterious as the Holy Spirit himself (yes, male). Ask all but the most knowledgeable Catholics what Pentecost is about, and you'll not get too many illuminating answers. On All Saints' Day, Poles will visit their ancestors' graves - a moving tradition that most Poles participate in. Christmas and Easter are exceptionally important holidays and religious feasts. But closing the shops to commemorate the Holy Spirit's descending upon the Twelve Apostles seems a bit... obscurantist.

Pentecost Sunday was made a day off work in 2006 by that bizarre coalition of PiS, LPR and Samoobrona. It affects mostly retailers, though petrol stations remain open. It keeps catching many Poles off-guard, as Pentecost is not one of those religious feasts that people automatically look forward to or have in their family calendars.

So why have it? It reflects a rare blend of traditional, religious conservatism and left-wing  trade-unionism that's extremely Polish. I cannot see the Parliamentary Labour Party agitating for shops to be shut in the UK on Pentecost Sunday. Well, as I can't go shopping today, I'll go for a walk or something!

This time last year:
Jeziorki at its most beautiful

This time three years ago:
Useful and useless in my wallet

This time four years ago:
In search of the dream klimat - remote viewing made real

This time five years ago:
Zakopane to Kraków in 3hrs 45min

This time six years ago:
The year's most beautiful day?


Saturday, 18 May 2013

From yellow to white

These pairs of photos were taken in two successive weeks; the first ones - with dandelions in bloom - on 8 May, the seconds ones - with the dandelions gone to seed - on 17 May. Below: ul. Osmańska.



Below: looking across to ul. Puławska from Wilanowska bus station. Note also how much more in leaf are the trees in the background.



I noticed this week that here and there, the authorities are mowing grass verges and lawns, to keep the city tidy, and presumably to relieve the hay fever of those allergic to dandelion seed.

This is the first time I've consciously witnessed how quickly and how thoroughly the dandelion appears in Warsaw, how yellow it makes the city's grassy areas appear, and how quickly that yellow flower gives way to seed-bearing puffballs. I prefer the yellow.

This time last year:
The good topiarist

This time three years ago:
Wettest. May. Ever.

This time five years ago:
Blackpool-in-the-Tatras

Friday, 17 May 2013

Ethereal and transient

Last week the dandelions were yellow. This week they went to seed, turning into puff-balls of white. Some shots then with the lens set at f14-f16 for great depth of field, and a long exposure on 100 ISO. Passing cyclists appeared blurred, ephemeral...

Below: Al. Ujazdowskie on the corner of Ul. Piękna. Just behind the cyclist - the installation Komin by Bartosz Sandecki that's been standing here since February.


Below: Al. Ujazdowskie around the junction with Al. Róż. Another cyclist rushes by.


Below: Al. Ujazdowskie by Pl. Na Rozdrożu.


Below: ul. Poleczki, Poleczki business park. A similar scene; dandelions, blurred cyclist.


The transience of the daffodil - yellow one week, a white puff-ball of seed the next. Yet looking more permanent that the cyclists hurrying by.

This time last year:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time two years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

This time four years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop, rural USA or Poland

This time six years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Banning the smelly passenger

The front-page lead in today's Metro reminded me of an unpleasant tram journey a few weeks ago. It was a warm spring day about 10am; I boarded a new, low-floor Swing tram at Wilanowska, heading into town. The tram was quite full, only a few seats left, towards the rear. I sat down. Immediately, a hideous stench assailed my nostrils. It smelt like someone had left a bag of sweat- and urine-soaked rags mixed in with rotting pigs' entrails under a seat. "Fu, panie!"

I looked round to see other passengers also looking round to identify the source of the disgusting odour, subconsciously ticking off fellow travellers who did not match the stereotype of a brudas. One by one, people started drifting towards the front of the tram. The rear third of the Swing was all but empty - save for a filthy-looking woman of around 60, dressed in several layers of thick and grimy clothing sitting on the bench seat at the very back of the tram. She reeked.

Some people got off the tram to catch the next one, others either put up with the crush in the front of the tram (as did I, being in a hurry to get to the office) or - in the case of three people who seemed oblivious to the stench - carried on within nose-shot of the offending person.

The article, Pojadą tylko umyci ('Only The Washed Will Ride') says that in Warsaw alone, each winter's day over 20 such incidents occur which result in the tram or bus driver having to ask the foetid person off. In summer, it's only eight.

Gdańsk's public transport authority surveyed its passengers as to what annoy them the most about its service. Delayed buses? Traffic jams? Breakdowns? Not a bit of it. A staggering 91.6% said it was the przykry (annoying/obnoxious/sad) smell of fellow passengers. In comparison, a mere 21% said they were irritated by people drinking alcohol on the bus.

Already, Gdańsk, along with Łódz, Wrocław and Olsztyn's public transport authorities have regulations banning people of 'dirty and scruffy appearance' or who's dirty appearance disgusts'. Warsaw introduced a similar ban in January; Lublin will follow suit next week.

The target of these bans is mainly the homeless; often people who've not bathed in many days.

Is this right? Vulnerable people - who in many cases are suffering from mental problems, for whom public transport is a refuge from the weather, may have hygiene issues, but can they be denied the right to ride a tram or bus if they are in possession of a valid ticket?

Metro asked Poland's human rights ombudsman and former chairman of the Constitutional Tribunal, Andrzej Zoll, whether restricting a person on account of their smell is not in breach of the Constitution. "Grossly offensive odour limits the rights of other persons, so I would allow such bans," he replied. Former justice minister, Prof. Zbigniew Ćwiąkalski, concurred; "A carrier can introduce such limitations."

Good to see common sense prevailing.

Times have moved on. Poland's general standards of person hygiene have improved hugely over the past two decades, thanks to the FMCG companies that have raised the game in terms of how frequently society should use their products. The last time I read an article in the Polish media about passenger odours, around 2001, those complaining of them were labelled perfumowani gogusiowie by the more robust online commentators ('perfumed ponces' would be a good translation).

When the bulk of Oxford's colleges were being built during the 16th Century, the student residents were not equipped with bathing facilities, as term-time was only ten weeks long, and so too short a period to expect students to bathe. Even in the middle of the last century, bathing and hair-washing (with shampoo) was a weekly endeavour for Britain's middle classes, as John Betjeman's Middlesex (1954) attests:
"Hiding hair which Friday nightly/Delicately drowns in Drene"
Today, daily showering or bathing has become the norm (in cities anyway). Polish men are not ashamed to use deodorant or aftershave, and the general background odour on daytime public transport is no different than in London. Which makes sharing a tram journey with a evil-smelling homeless person all the more memorable. The question of how society should cope with such people, who evidently has deep-rooted and manifold problems is a deeper one.

Coming back to my olfactorially-challenging  journey; no one seemed keen to inform the driver; we all knew that this would result in a delay of several minutes while the malodorous passenger was shown off the tram. And so we all just put up with it. At least as far as Pl. Zbawiciela.

[Supplementary, Friday 17 May: This morning I was on an early bus into town, the 709 which left Karczunkowska bus stop at 05:38. The smell of unwashed armpits and last night's vodka was far more noticeable than on my usual buses, which leave Jeziorki around eight am.]

This time last year:
Inside Filtry - Warsaw's waterworks (Museum Night 2011)

This time three years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night 2010

This time four years ago:
On transcendence

Monday, 13 May 2013

The Opel Adam and its place among city cars

Having had the chance to examine the new Opel Adam at close quarters, I must say I find it lacking. Though at first sight (especially in maroon with a white roof) it looks funky, contemporary and urban-cool, the more thought I give the car the more I see it as a belated effort to enter a market that's long been carved up. By the Mini (at the premium end), the Fiat 500 (in the middle), with the Toyota Aygo and its French clones, the Citroen C1 and Peugeot 107 (at the lower end).

One thing really disappoints - the Opel Adam's fuel economy around town. This is a car designed for urban traffic, so the urban economy figures are the ones that really count. And what do we get driving around town in the 1.2-litre Opel Adam? A pathetic 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres. That's worse than what my dear old 1993 Nissan Micra was turning in when I was still driving to work every day (a very creditable 6.6l/100km). In other words, 20 years of technological advance - and here's a brand new car that officially owns up to delivering early-1990s style fuel economy.

Compare with the must frugal of Fiat 500s, the TwinAir version. This one burns 4.7 litres for every 100km of traffic jam. The Toyota Aygo, which is a much cheaper - and indeed less trendy - little car, burns 5.1 litres per 100km around town. But the champion when it comes to miserliness in urban driving is the three-door, 1.1 litre, diesel-engined version of the Kia Rio, which sips a mere 3.5 litres for the same distance (100km = 62 miles) - and 3.0 litres on the open road. Now that's impressive. It goes twice as far around town as the brand new Opel Adam's most frugal version.

The cost of getting it wrong in this market is huge. Fiat 500s are flying off the production line in Tychy, southern Poland. So much so, that even after Fiat, bending to populist pressures back home, moved the manufacture of the new Panda to Italy causing big lay-offs in Tychy, many of those laid off have been taken on again and the factory's working weekend shifts again - because of demand for the 500. At the other end of the spectrum, Toyota's oddball (and ludicrously priced) iQ continues to be a rare sight on Poland's roads.

The new Volkswagen Up! and its brethren, the Skoda CityGo and Seat Miii are just too boxy and utilitarian; the original Ford Ka and Renault Twingo (pron. Twango) were both far nicer and more original than their replacements, the Hyundai i10 is plain ugly.

The dear sweet Mini has won a strong share of the premium city-car market; it is desirable (unlike the upmarket Smart or the iQ) and there are now plenty of used examples to be seen on Warsaw's ulice and aleje. The Mini range is ever expanding, new variants continue to pop up, but the classic Mini Cooper (in British Racing Green or burgundy with white roof, or off-white with black roof ) is remains the ultimate in urban motoring chic. The Mini is chic because it has heritage; the original Mini won Monte Carlo Rallies, it was driven by pop stars and proletarians, and was in continuous production for over 40 years. The new Mini has already been in production for nearly a third of that period. And a diesel-engined Mini will consume 4.2 litres of fuel around town. That's four-point-two, as opposed to seven-point-one. [Official UK government figures]. Having said that, I'm none too keen on the Mini Countryman. If this is a Mini, it hangs down below the knees.

Back to the Adam Opel. If the car's styling appeals to the inner hipster in you, it may be worth waiting a year or two until it gets equipped with a more modern engine. Until then, it's a display of the contemporary aesthetic - but it's carting around, and carted around by - a rather ancient power unit. The Fiat 500 runs rings around it.

Think twice - and then some more - before buying a new car. Best to stick with a quarterly travel card (for Warsaw at least) - for 250 złotys (around fifty quid), this is the best way to get around town. Hop off the bus, Metro or tram outside the office - and don't worry about finding a parking spot - or paying for it. Or filling up the car every fortnight. Or insuring and servicing it annually. Take a taxi when needed, or hire a car. But spending your own money to buy a car is the worst waste of money you will ever make in your life.

Unless you buy a Morgan, but that, dear readers, is another story altogether!

This time last year:
Biblical sky

This time three years ago:
Travel broadens the spirit

This time six years ago:
On the farm next door

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Thoughts about life, occasioned by witnessing a kitten's birth

"The beginning and the end of everything is the most interesting" wrote 14th C. Japanese author and philosopher Yoshida Kenko (who deserves more study). And indeed, watching Moni's cat giving birth yesterday was Most interesting. Watching life replicate, intelligent life to a significant degree; though cats can't fly to the moon, create synthetic insulin or mobile phone networks or even open tins of cat-food, they are sentient beings, capable of rich emotions, curiosity, simple logical thought and basic communication. And of course, they can replicate with ease.

Watching the heroic travails of Lila the cat, until not too long ago a frivolous, playful kitten, has given me a renewed appreciation what is meant by 'female' and 'motherhood'; such a strong instinct that's not mirrored in the male. The father has done his deed, sowed his seed and said sayonara. His genes have been transferred into the next generation and to achieve that result, his input has been brief and exclusively pleasurable. The mother has spent nine weeks in pregnancy and will spend the next eight to 12 weeks of her life feeding and grooming their joint offspring on her own. Her maternal instinct is extremely strong. Pick up one of the kittens, and she will immediately rise to claim it back in no uncertain terms. And she is fastidiously hygienic.

Motherhood is a reason for living; I now feel sorry for our older cat Papusia (the feline zeppelin) that we had her sterilised and that she never went through the pain and joy of bringing offspring into this world. Whether Papusia feels resentment to us humans for depriving her of the chance to be a mother, I don't know.

These ponderings lead to wonder why we have obstinately chosen to make God male, a father, rather than a mother. Surely motherhood is more divine than fatherhood.

But there was a darker side. The youngest kitten, Bonus, was clearly the runt of the litter. One morning, several days after giving birth, I caught Lila trying to dump little Bonus first under my wife's bed, then under Eddie's bed. In both cases, I brought poor Bonus down the birthing box and the rest of the brood. But ten days later, Bonus was dead - a lung infection, the vet said. His mother sensed he was weak and did not want to waste resources on him. Tough - life's hard and then you die (aged ten days).

The complexity of life is also apparent. Those little living structures, after a mere nine weeks on from fertilised egg stage and still devoid of sight, can root through their mother's fur, locate a nipple, and fight off siblings equally anxious to feed. Four new little brains, with neurons being connected by the thousand every minute as they acquire new experiences and skills, have come into this eco-system; in time they will be hunting mice, voles, birds and moles in the garden as their ancestors have done.


Above: today's pic of Lila and brood, the last cat (Bonus, black with a white stripe around the neck) is somewhere underneath his mum. Below: a 55-second film of the same event, with added feline squirming.



Below: Lila aka Jinks the Sphinx in more carefree times when the only thing she needed to worry about was finding a warm radiator on top of which to spend a winter's day.


This time last year:
Waiting for the footbridge on Puławska

This time two years ago:
Lost in the wonder of it all

This time three years ago:
Bicycle review

This time four years ago:
A Celebration of the Garden

Friday, 10 May 2013

Kitten time!

I mentioned a few weeks ago that Moni's cat Lila was pregnant. This morning, out they popped. It's spring, nature is bursting into leaf, into life. It's wonderful to observe. A thought crossed my mind - with a cat's average lifespan being 12-14 years, I should outlive these kittens before I hit 70! (all else being well).

First out, a marmalade tom. The second I actually witnessed emerging - a white one with black patches. The vet's USG suggested at least three inside, so as I write I'm at home waiting for the rest of the litter to appear. Below: mum and first two kittens in the birthing box.


Note to kittens: you'll not find your mother's nipples on her neck or her ankle. Still, the kittens are doing well for three hours old, visibly stronger already. Lila is a young and healthy cat, complications were not expected. She ate both placentas, licked the kittens and herself clean. I just hope the rest of the litter emerges soon...

Just after midday, the third kitten, mostly white with a black patch on its rear quarters, emerged. All doing fine! Below: the trio of blind kittens, feeding hard, the youngest one to the right, the oldest in the middle.


A fourth one popped out at half past one, black, with white markings (below, immediately to the right of Lila's forepaws). No tortoiseshells, sadly... Smells like they're all male...


With their mother gone for her first feed after giving birth (other than placenta), the quartet pose together for their first group shot (the final kitten to be born seems camera shy, and is lurking in the back). I take the opportunity to snip back the kittens' umbilical cords.


Watch them as they grow on this blog!

This time last year:
Warsaw - Centrum to Jeziorki by train with super-wide lens

This time two years ago:
Loose Lips Sink Ships - part II

This time three years ago:
Jeziorki in the infra red

This time four years ago:
Some rain, at last!

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Al. Szucha in bloom

Aleja Jana Chrystiana Szucha, named after German architect and freemason, Johann Christian Schuch, links Pl. Unii Lubelskiej and Pl. Na Rozdrożu. I work here, and I must say, I'm rather proud to do so. A much better address than ul. Nowogrodzka in Warsaw's mid-town where we were before.

There are many notable buildings along Al. Szucha; the infamous one is shown below - no. 25, home to the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Today, looking much less grim, with orange and purple flowers blooming outside, it is where you'll find the education ministry (Ministerstwo Edukacji Narodowej).


Further on down towards my office is no. 23, which is home to the foreign ministry (Ministerstwo Spraw Zewnętrznych). Again, a cheerful floral display enlivens the external walls of the corridors of power.


Another gorgeous day with temperatures hitting 29C, spring in Warsaw at its finest. This really is the best time to visit - the week between the May Day holidays (1-3 May) and the Ice Saints (12-15 May) generally offers some fine weather, not too hot or humid; the greenery is at its freshest, and the flowers have all exploded into bloom.

This time last year:
From Warsaw's highest bar

This time two years ago:
Loose Lips Sink Ships - Part One

This time three years ago:
Driving home at the end of the working day
[in the days when it was still socially acceptable to do so]

This time 25 years ago:
Poland's worst aviation disaster
[just across the road from Jeziorki]

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

More May Mleczery

While the verges and lawns are densely spattered with brightest yellow, it's time to get down. To about three inches off the ground with that absolutely splendid 10-24mm Nikkor to catch nature's splendour from ankle height.

Below: Jeziorki, ul. Karczunkowska, Trombity bus stop. Tuesday morning. It's somewhat overcast, but the dandelions are making merry.


Below: dandelions in Wyczółki, ul. Osmańska, Wednesday morning. Sunshine and heat.


Below: the central reservation, ul. Puławska, junction with Pileckiego and Poleczki. Wednesday morning rush-hour. A vivid storm of yellow assaults the eye.


Below: Wilanowska-Puławska junction, from the bus loop. A tram is just about visible in the distance.


Below: Puławska/Wilanowska junction - the verge between the road and the tram-tracks


Below: a beautiful sunny evening, though now in the shade the dandy lions haven't yet furled their leaves for the night.


The weather has been extraordinarily wonderful, with clear skies, top temperatures above 25C and warm evenings. But the Ice Saints are just around the corner...

This time last year:
Warsaw's city centre - a deli-free zone

This time two years ago:
Patching up the holes

This time three years ago:
In search of the sublime aesthetic

This time six years ago:
Flying in from the Faroes

Monday, 6 May 2013

Mlecznie - or the Dandy Lions

It's that time of year, when the dandelion is in bloom again. Everywhere, across the whole of Warsaw. Wherever there's some grass, the dandelions are out. Mlecz in Polish, mleczno, the adjective - also meaning 'milky'. Dandelion is pronounced 'DAN-dee-lion' in English, rather than 'dan-DELL-yon'. The word comes from the French, dents de lion or lion's teeth.

Below: if Wordsworth could compare his daffodils (żonkile) with this lot, his heart would also with pleasure fill. Except that these dandelions weren't dancing - just looking pretty in the morning sun against a cloudless sky. Junction of ul. Puławska and Poloneza.


Below: more mlecz, this time on the central reservation of ul. Indiry Gandhi. Ms Gandhi is still the only female premier to have a Warsaw street named after her. The three blue cylinders in the middle of the frame are ventilators from the Metro, which runs beneath this point.


Below: looking southbound along ul. Indiry Gandhi; photo taken on 55-300mm zoom set at 300mm.


Below: on Pl. Unii Lubelskiej, ul. Marszałkowska running off to the left, Al. Szucha to the right. The 10-24mm lens set at 10mm (15mm equivalent on 35mm film camera or full-frame digital) has amazing depth of field, giving a rodent's eye-view.


Below: evening rush hour, ul. Marynarska. Oceans of dandelions here too. Further on up the road, I saw two more photographers with the same idea, squatting down, taking low-angle shots of dandelions.


The good weather and the brilliant yellow flowers will soon pass, but thanks to digital photography, they now belong to the ages.

This time last year:
Early-May thunderstorm

This time two years ago:
Men at work

This time three years ago:
What's the Polish for 'to bully'?

This time four years ago:
Making plans for Jeziorki: Hołubcowa bis
[Not surprisingly, nothing has come of these plans]

This time five years ago:
The stirring sight of sunset

This time six years ago:
Blessed rain - after two dry weeks