Saturday, 31 May 2014

Jeziorki, magic hour, late-May

After a lengthy afternoon nap, time for a walk, just as the sun was sinking low. Now that the retention ponds are complete, Jeziorki has become even more attractive as a place to live. Ul. Dumki, once an impassible bog and dumping ground for fly-tipped rubbish, is now somewhere you want to walk. The further, unasphalted reaches of the road can be turned into a muddy mess whenever it rains by car tyres, so it would be good so see it turned into a footpath/cycle path closed off for cars. And the main purpose of the redevelopment of this area, flood prevention, is working fine as the past few days of heavy rain have not resulted in soggy fields and bits of Jeziorki under water.

Known by film-makers as 'the magic hour', 30 minutes before and after the sun sets, this period of the day when accompanied by the right weather, touches the soul. Click on the photos below to enlarge and enjoy. A minimal amount of tweaking of saturation and vividity in Adobe Lightroom was used to get the sense of what I saw and felt.

Soundtrack in my mind as I did the 4km circular walk - the Beach Boys' sublime Surf's Up.

This time last year:
Railway history - the big picture

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

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

Thursday, 29 May 2014

On both shoulders

In a Saturday edition of the Financial Times, there was a life-style piece about rucksacks being worn with suits to the office. Its author begins with an anecdote about the first time he saw someone wearing a rucksack to a financial institution in the City of London in the early 1990s. It was an American, who became the butt of office jokes for it. At that time, the briefcase was de rigeur. Twenty years on, and the briefcase has the same prospects for the future as the fax machine.

We are bipedal and symmetrical. We should distribute weight evenly. Last week, when in London for four days, I brought my stuff over in a wheeled suitcase. Once at my parents', I needed a smaller bag for use around town. The low-cost airlines allow only one piece of cabin baggage; having the suitcase meant nothing else. So I borrowed a bag with a shoulder strap from my parents, into which I put a rain-jacket and some papers. Not much weight. But after walking a couple of miles with this weight on my left shoulder, I could feel strains in unusual places - left thigh, right hip, eventually left shoulder. Warning signals. So I shortened the strap and put the strap behind my neck, round the front of both arms, with the bag on the small of my back. That did the trick - the pains went quickly. This taught me an important lesson - use a rucksack when walking.

When I started secondary school in 1969 at the age of 11, all pupils had to bring their books to school in briefcases; heavy leather bags with a handle. The only choice was black or brown, carrying it in your left hand or right hand. No shoulder straps to ease the burden. Below: this is what my school briefcase looked like. Weighed down with a Golden Treasury of English Poetry, a Kennedy's Revised Latin Primer, and a Concise Oxford Dictionary, to name three of the heavier tomes I had to drag around, the briefcase formed a loathsome object that I came to hate.

Schoolchildren in Poland carried their books in rucksacks, the weight evenly distributed across both shoulders. The tornister was a far better thought-through design for young backs and growing bones. Although also designed for carrying text books, exercise books, pencil cases and rulers, the tornister was equipped with shoulder straps (below). Once on the wearer's back, it formed no obstacle to free and symmetrical movement.

Carrying several kilo in one hand for a distance of nearly two miles (over 3km) was, for an 11 year-old, not a clever thing to do.

By the sixth form, most of us grew long hair, wore greatcoats and carried our schoolbooks in army-surplus haversacks, with the names of rock-bands embellished in biro, slung casually over one shoulder. Plus there was less homework and by then we'd got wise to dragging around unnecessary books.

As the decades passed, briefcases grew straps so that they could be hung from one shoulder. (Google images of 'briefcase' and you'll see that today most come with a shoulder strap.) Certainly more convenient than a handle, but a single shoulder strap is still not the answer. From the mid-1980s to late 2012, I'd carry the stuff I needed at work to and fro in a Billingham bag. Stylish and practical (if you're on a photo-shoot), this bag even when nearly empty was proving to be a great strain on my shoulder.

And so, on 21 November 2012, I bought a rucksack - not one designed for back-packing across the Himalayas, but something urban that could be worn with a suit. My Samsonite X-Blade rucksack is a miracle of design. Very light (1.2kg/2.65lbs), padded straps, padded back, it is small enough to be carried on free of charge on board low-cost airlines, yet large enough carry a laptop, charger, papers, one change of clothes and couple of lenses. After a year and half of almost daily use, it is still in perfect condition, no scuff-marks; zips working faultlessly. Black is a practical colour for hauling around town on public transport. And formal enough to wear to the office. But above all, given that on average I walk over 11,000 paces each day, most of them wearing this rucksack, it means comfort and freedom from shoulder sprains.

If only these things were around in 1969 (and we'd been allowed to carry our school books in them!)

This time three years ago:
How I almost saved Barrack Obama

This time five years ago:
Some anniversaries missed

This time seven years ago:
Hissing of the summer lawns

Monday, 26 May 2014

Call it what it is: Okęcie

Flying home to Warsaw yesterday, it occurred to me that there's still a huge gap between the official and the vernacular. Despite the fact that over 13 years having elapsed since Okęcie was officially re-named 'Warsaw Chopin Airport', hardly anyone not employed by Polskie Porty Lotnicze (Polish Airports) actually refers to the place as anything other than 'Okęcie' [pron. Ock-ENCH-yeh].

"Okęcie, OK!"
Taxi drivers, local residents, Poles from other towns and cities still say 'Okęcie' rather than 'Lotnisko Chopina' (the genitive form). And they insist on 'Okęcie' with a vengeance. Look up 'Warsaw Chopin Airport' on Wikipedia and you'll find the following words in the article's second paragraph: "Despite the official change, "Okecie" ("Lotnisko Okęcie") remains in popular and industry use, including air traffic and aerodrome references."

Actually, in 2001, Okęcie was re-named Międzynarodowy Port Lotniczy imienia Fryderyka Chopina, (official translation: Frederic Chopin International Airport; literal translation International Aviation Port in the Fryderyk's Chopin's name). This was a name so clunky it had to be changed to Lotnisko Chopina w Warszawie (official translation: Warsaw Chopin Airport; literal translation Airport of Chopin in Warsaw) in January 2010 in the hope of gaining in popularity - it did not.

Celebrating its 80th birthday last year, the airport's administration had to keep quiet about the fact that the airport's official name does not enjoy widespread use, or that for 67 of those 80 years it was officially called something else. Maybe its to do with Mr Chopin being the son of a bloody foreign migrant with a difficult-to-pronounce surname.

In general, the names of few airports named after people have gained traction. Flying to John Lennon? Er, no, Liverpool, actually. Naming airports after people is so un-British. Tel Aviv - Ben who? Toronto -Enough already! Few Poles can say who Kraków's airport is named after (Shame on you!). Two exceptions - Paris CdG, and above all New York's JFK. Globally recognised. Given that Fryderyk Chopin's middle name was Franciszek, maybe 'Warsaw FFC' might catch on? (Or not.)

Helping to make things difficult is the naming convention. In Polish, the genitive form is used - Lotnisko Chopina is literally 'Airport of Chopin' or 'Chopin's Airport'. Adding the extra 'a' to a name that is globally familiar can be disconcerting to foreigners in Warsaw for the first time and seeing the name spelt differently on signposts and stations.

How does one pronounce it? The British pronounce 'Chopin' in a manner approximating to the French way - SHOW-pan. Or Show-PAN if you fancy yourself as an intellectual. But then add the 'a' at the end and you get - what? 'SHOW-pannah', 'Show-PIE-ner' or 'Show-pan-AY'? And how do Poles pronounce 'Chopina'? - Shoh-PEN-uh... This is all very confusing when you're in a hurry to catch your plane. The railways do their bit too. The English language announcement at W-wa Śródmieście talks of the 'train to the Warsaw SHOW-pen airport arriving at Platform 3'.

I'm in a bind over this one. I can understand the authorities' reluctance to backpedal, but Poles are sticking to Okęcie. Maybe rename it after another famous Polish composer? Certainly Wojciech Kilar would not make the shortlist. Or simply rename the composer of the Etude Revolutionaire or Nocturne in E flat major 'Fryderyk Okęcie'. Which I've started doing.

This time last year:
Three stations in need of repair

This time two years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time three years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time five years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time six years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Sam Smith, Shepherd Neame and Routemaster buses

Three days in London - walking between venues to take in the town. There's nothing like heritage, history and originality to sell a city to tourists, and London plays up splendidly to a global audience. Below: The Cittie of Yorke pub. Although there's been a pub here for well over half a millennium (574 years actually), the current building dates back to the 1920s. The pub belongs to Samuel Smith's Old Brewery, an independent brewer, in business since 1758.

When seeing the sights, appropriate transport makes the experience more memorable - like this 42 year-old Morris Minor convertible, below.

Even older, and still in everyday service, London's iconic Routemaster is no longer a familiar sight. Only two routes - the 9 and the 15 - are served by the open-rear platformed buses. Below: RM871, dating back to January 1962, with St Paul's cathedral in the background.

Slightly younger, Routemaster RM1941(1964 vintage) about to pass Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub rebuilt in 1667, also owned and operated by Samuel Smiths.

The old brewers are coming back. Encouraged by the EU's Progressive Beer Duty (introduce in Britain by Gordon Brown in 2002), smaller local breweries are advancing as the global players lose market share. And mainstream pub landlords are also encouraged to sell a range of craft ales alongside the more prosaic fare.

Above and below: two views of RM2050, also dating back from 1964. Seeing London from the top deck of one of these is far superior to being crushed into the Tube. London's Underground has charm aplenty too, but if you're in town for a short stay and are not in a tearing hurry, the Routemaster is great. The two heritage lines run from Kensington to Trafalgar Square (9) and from Trafalgar Square to the Tower of London (15).

The Westminster Arms, across the road from the Abbey. This pub is owned by Shepherd Neame, Britain's oldest brewery (established in 1698), and like Samuel Smiths, independent. As with the Routemaster bus, heritage sells. Tourists want something that's exclusive to a city, region or country.

While I'm delighted that craft brewing of artisan beers has taken off in Poland, something that popping into Warsaw's Kufle i kapsle or Cuda na kiju will confirm, it will still take centuries to create that same sense of true tradition that London can boast. Lucky old London - not invaded by foreigners since 1066.

This time last year:
Rainy night in Jeziorki - no flood this time!

This time
This time two years ago:
Wide-angle under Pl. Wilsona

This time three years ago:
Ranking a better life

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

This time five years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time six years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Sunday, 18 May 2014

W-wa Zachodnia's Peron 8 (was W-wa Wola)

It is two years to the day that the station formerly called W-wa Wola was renamed W-wa Zachodnia Peron (platform) 8. Standing a full quarter of a mile (425 metres) from W-wa Zachodnia's other suburban platforms (2 and 3), the new Peron 8 was rebranded to give passengers the impression of a convenient interchange. It is not. To get to Peron 8, you need to cross the full length of the tunnel that links all seven platforms of the main bit of W-wa Zachodnia, climb a flight of stairs back up to street level, turn left and walk along a car park access road, down a short footpath of broken paving slabs, over several under-used railway tracks until you reach a pedestrian level crossing - over this, and you've reached Peron 8.

The platform serves trains to W-wa Gdańska, Legionowo, Nasielsk, Ciechanów and Działdowo, to the north-north east of Warsaw.

And here it is. Below. W-wa Zachodnia Peron 8, formerly W-wa Wola, created in the mid-1980s on what was a freight-only line, to allow workers from the various factories in Wola to get to work more easily.

Below: looking south towards the main line as it heads out towards the west. There is good signage explaining the somewhat distant main part of W-wa Zachodnia (platforms 1 to 7). Note the barriers guarding the pedestrian level crossing. One of the strange things here is the public address system announcing train arrivals and departures at platforms a long way from here, well out of eyeshot of Peron 8.

Below: the train on the left is an SKM service arrived from Wieliszew (north of Warsaw), while the train on the right is an KM service departing for Działdowo. For a Sunday, both services appeared busy. After the SKM train's arrival, a steady stream of people made their way to the main part of W-wa Zachodnia.

It kind of makes sense. W-wa Wola felt like an isolated outpost, a part of Warsaw's rail network without relevance to the wider whole. Now, despite the long walk (imagine this in the pouring rain with heavy bags and yelling children), at least there's some joined-upness about the connection.

This time last year:
From yellow to white - dandelions go to seed

This time two years ago:
The good topiarist

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

This time six years ago:

Saturday, 17 May 2014

We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can we?

Fans of photography will be doubly thrilled that the new documentary film about the life and work of reclusive American photographer Vivian Maier has just appeared in Warsaw's cinemas, just as a six-week long exhibition of her work (represented by just 40 prints) has started at Warsaw's Leica Gallery (ul. Mysia 3, to 23 June).

The Vivian Maier story is truly amazing. An American woman who worked all her life as a nanny owned a professional-quality camera (a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex which takes 6cm x 6cm negatives) and took it with her at all times, snapping street scenes. She took over 150,000 photos in her lifetime, had relatively few of them printed, none exhibited.

She died two years after a young collector and historian, John Maloof, chanced upon a cache of her negatives at a storage locker auction. The Vivian Maier story is as much the story of John Maloof, who recognised the intrinsic value of what he'd discovered, then sought to uncover the facts about Ms Maier and get her photos into the public eye.

Her photos are remarkable - they rank alongside the works of some of the great photographers of the 20th century - Elliot Erwitt being one that readily springs to mind. And yet, as a person Vivian Maier was incredibly withdrawn, obsessive (and an obsessive hoarder too). We know much about her from the families that employed her as a nanny, grown-up children talking about going on walks with her to the rougher parts of town as she photographed street scenes. Yet we don't know where she learned her craft. Were there piles of Popular Photography among her boxes of possessions? Did she attend night school?

Vivian Maier's visual style was predicated to a large degree by her equipment. Shooting with the Rolleiflex at waist height, staring down onto the focusing screen from above, she would have avoided eye contact with her subject. The square format meant one less compositional issue to worry about - whether to hold the camera vertically or horizontally. By the 1960s, the Rolleiflex appeared old-fashioned; her subjects did not take her as seriously as they would have taken a male photographer challengingly raising a single-lens reflex camera like a Nikon F with motordrive and big lens to his eye. The Rolleiflex had just the one, non-interchangeable lens, with a fixed focal length of 80mm (the equivalent of 48mm on a 35mm or full-frame FX digital camera, 32mm on a DX camera). In other words, neither a wide-angle nor a telephoto lens; one that approximates the angle of view of the human eye. To zoom the Rolleiflex, simply walk backwards or forwards until you get the right composition in your viewfinder. And you are limited to just 12 shots before you have to change film, which is not easy to do, especially in strong sunlight.

She took an average of around 30-40 rolls of film a month (360-480 photos), every month, for over three decades. A prodigious output - in later years she'd not even get round to having the films processed. All her films were processed by photo labs - she didn't have her own darkroom, we don't know whether she asked for her rolls of 6x6 film to be handled specially. Vivian Maier recorded a world that was being increasingly covered by photography. Yet compared to today - when an easy-to-use smartphone camera is in the hands of one-third of mankind, ready to record everything and share it online - there was very little material like this around. As the internet fills up with pictorial artefacts from our recent past, we see just how few street scenes there are that give us such profound glimpses into everyday life just half a century ago. Much of what we see is posed, stilted. But Ms Maier's photos are properly composed and offer context and meaning from which we can read so much.

To take photos like Vivian Maier these days is simple. Have a camera around your neck wherever you go. And snap. Snap and snap. There's no longer any cost of developing your photos - just upload them to your computer. You want black and white? Strip out the colour using photo editing software. You want square format? Crop to fit. Autofocus means you can have your camera at waist height, like Ms Maier did, dangling from its strap. You don't even need to look down onto the focusing screen to get the image sharp - the camera will do it for you. Photography has never been cheaper or technically easier.

I have given just 15 photos that I have snapped the full Vivian Maier treatment. Square crop, 100% colour desaturation, white frame. I tend not to upload my street photography online, but just this once, here's a short burst. Starting with one taken accidentally at the Leica Gallery in Warsaw (below)...

Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, Patelnia, May 2014
Below: Warsaw Metro, May 2014
Below: Warsaw, W-wa Śródmieście station, May 2014
Below: Warsaw bistro scene, June 2019

Below: Warsaw, July 2019

Below: On the train to Warsaw, July 2019

Below: bar underneath Warsaw West station, November 2019

Below: having fed the birds. Warsaw, December 2019

Below: Santa Claus is coming to town. Warsaw, December 2019

Below: Warsaw bar where you can still smoke, January 2020

Below: buying tickets, Warszawa Śródmieście station, September 2020

Below: ...finally a Vivian Maier-style self portrait in a mirror

And there we are. Sixteen spontaneous snaps and a selfie, hardly any planning or effort. Camera set to 'program', autofocus, auto-ISO, auto-bloody-everything, kit lens, and a bit of work in the digital darkroom and there we are.

The bulk of what I snapped doesn't make the cut. The trick is in the editing. And here's where the hard work that John Maloof put into this project after his lucky find has paid off. If the canon of Ms Maier's work turns out to be some 1,000 images, of which 100 become instantly recognisable by future generations, it will be as much the merit of Mr Maloof in his role as Ms Maier's curator as of the photographer herself.

We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - but first we have to want to.

As leader of the legendary heavy-metal band Bad News, Vim Fuego said about his talent: "I could play Stairway To Heaven when I was twelve. Jimmy Page didn't actually write it until he was twenty-two. I think that says quite a lot."

This time last year:
Ethereal and transient

This time two years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time three years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

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

This time seven years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Jeziorki spring pictorial

The snows of the last, brief and mild winter are a memory; having to take heavy overcoats off when entering a cafe a thing of the past. Moving towards mid-May, and that annual explosion of nature is now behind us. The flowering and going to seed of the dandelion happened some two weeks earlier this year compared to 2013, the short winter accelerating the re-birth.

Jeziorki's make-over is a success. You can now walk from ul. Kórnicka past the ponds all the way roudn via ul. Dumki to ul. Trombity without having to change from loafers to wellies. Many local folk are now making the most of the new amenities to go for a stroll, try some fishing, spot birds, cycle off-road or just enjoy the unique klimat of this wonderful rus-in-urbe.

Below: angler's haven: if fishing's your thing, Jeziorki now beckons those with rod and reel to cast a fly after work. Since the retention ponds have been completed, the number of anglers fishing here has risen from zero to a handful. Has someone bothered to stock the ponds with fish?

At this time of year, you can really appreciate living in Jeziorki. Returning from work, I get off a station earlier, at W-wa Dawidy, to enjoy a long walk home. While it's some 50 minutes from the city centre to my house, the daily commute time (spent perusing the news media online) is balanced by quality of life. Akin to John Betjeman's Metro-Land, Jeziorki allows the city clerk to turn countryman again.

Magic hour on ul. Dumki; the storm has passed; the air is clear, the low sun illuminates the trees by the ponds; the sun will set soon.

Fields and orchards; placid, fertile landscapes. Arable fields, meadows and orchards. And here we are, less than nine miles from the very centre of Warsaw. And yet this could be ninety years ago.

Ah now! This is like a Dutch Master's oil painting - look at the shore on the right hand side. All that's needed are some Roman ruins in the foreground and some shepherds doing dramatic gestures.

This is the time of year I wish could last for ever; an eternal spring, timeless, majestic and splendid. But all things must pass. Soon high summer; then humid August; glorious, golden early-autumn - and then the days come crashing in - predominant light and warmth give way to gloom and cold, which in turn make us more appreciative of days like this. Enjoy them while they're here.

This time last year:
Kitten time! (Czester is one today)

This time two years ago:
Warsaw - Centrum to Jeziorki by train with super-wide lens

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

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in the infra red

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

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Two rainbows

My journey to work yesterday was interrupted by the closure of the Metro's middle section, due to the detection of gas in the tunnels. Turns out it was not gas as such, but the chemical used to give (odourless) gas a characteristic smell, tert-Butylthiol (TBM). This incident occurring as it did at the height of the high school final exam week (the matura, which Eddie is currently taking), there is a suspicion that this incident was some form of sabotage.

Anyway, unable to take the Metro to work, I took the tram from Wilanowska, and passing Pl. Zbawiciela, I had the chance of getting a clear shot at Warsaw's rainbow, restored after having being torched for the third (or is it fourth? I lose count) time. Note the fire hydrant in the middle foreground! Yesterday's Gazeta Stołeczna published a poll in which 61% of Varsovians are in favour of keeping the rainbow.  When it first appeared ahead of the Euro2012 football championships, I was sceptical, but now I find myself quite fond of this new symbol of the Polish capital's increasing tolerance.

This evening, arriving home from work, I saw a beautiful double rainbow over Jeziorki, which I snapped from the balcony with my 10-24mm Nikkor zoomed out widest. A polarising filter helped to crank out the maximum from the rainbow, with pleasing result. Under the rainbow, the State Valuable Paper Creation Plant (Państwowa Wytwórnia Papierów Wartościowych) caught in the rays of the evening sun.

This time last year:
Dandelions in bloom (about two weeks later than this year)

This time two years ago:
Warsaw's city centre - a deli-free zone
[Today, the rather poor delis have gone, replaced by better shops. Differ or die.]

This time three years ago:
Patching up the holes

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

This time seven years ago:
Flying in from the Faroes

Monday, 5 May 2014

More about the Ladder of Authority

Much as we like think of ourselves as the greatest species to inhabit our planet, we are but mammals, viviparous, hairy and with breast-feeding females. Scrape away the veneer of civilisation, and we find we have much in common with our biological cousins, from three middle-ear bones per ear and a neo-cortex.

As within most mammal societies, we homo sapiens naturally order ourselves into a hierarchy, based on dominance and submission. In other mammals, there's a 'top dog' and an 'underdog'; an 'alpha male/female' and the runt of the litter. A leader, many followers, and outsiders.

We think of ourselves as a species that differs from animals by dint of our sophistication and intellect; and yet, much as we try to deny it, it is our mammalian nature that casts a natural hierarchy upon us. If tens of thousands of years of human evolution have adapted us to live, cooperate and collaborate together in society, we have still failed to cast off that instinct to dominate one another within a hierarchy. The gradations within that hierarchy may appear small when we cast our eyes around us, but taken across mankind as a whole, they are huge.

If we can at least be aware of this, we can to some degree consciously mitigate its effects on us and on our society.

Take a walk into the crowded city street, a busy shopping mall, a rush-hour train. Cast your eyes over your fellow human beings. The way they bear themselves, the way they dress, how they hold their head, where they direct their gaze – at the floor or towards your eye – these things tell you much about their place in the pecking order. It's a hierarchy that no one talks about yet everyone can see. We live in a hierarchy like any other social mammalian. There are cues, signals, behaviours, that determine our place.

“The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate”, runs a verse from Cecil Frances Alexander's Anglican hymn, now omitted. Then, during the 20th Century, along came social revolution – equality. Suddenly, we were ALL equal! Wealth is not just the preserve of the toff – who didn't earn it but inherited it. A happy conjugation of politics, economics and history that allow the hard-working and talented to earn and save, building up capital, allowed the Western world to enjoy the most successful period in history. The industrial revolution that required a new caste of engineers and accountants created a middle class that flourished from the late 18th Century onward, generating new wealth, passing it down to their offspring in the form of property.

Once upon a time there were tribes of us humans, roaming the savannah, gifted with huge brains (compared to other animals), able to communicate effectively, able to fashion tools, gifted with the ability to sing, and laugh, and to cooperate with one another. We were then hunter-gatherers; our tribes needed to be diverse to survive. Picking on the taciturn flint-napper because he was a bit lacking in social skills so he'd leave the tribe would be counterproductive. The same for the shaman, whose wild screams at the moon would lead us to a successful hunt. But as the tribes spread out over the earth, and adapted agriculture - driven by the planting, harvesting, storing and trading of grain - the leaders of the more effective societies gained in power, prestige and riches. They eventually evolved into the kings of nation-states and created a system of gathering tributes from their dukes and knights, who in turn collected tribute from their serfs. Feudalism was about having the biggest fists and setting those fists to hammer out a hierarchy from the top down. The onward march of civilisation is all about working out the antidote to might-is-right.

The story of civilisation is about the less-powerful tempering the instincts of those born with natural tendency to seize resources and power from those weaker than themselves. Religion – in particular Christianity – helped temper the powerful, although they used their bishops to turn the religion of Jesus to their advantage – the doctrine of the divine right of kings. "Think your king a brutal, rapacious thief? Turn the other cheek. (Matthew 5:38-42.)" Law also helped, as did the code of chivalry, which turned into everyday politeness. Politeness is a very important civilising force; the powerful put into place by a convention that frowned upon boorish behaviour. Christianity became co-opted by the elite to become a force for social order rather than a force for revolutionary social levelling.

And politeness – hat-tipping, opening doors for ladies, has evolved into political correctness – not wishing to hurt the feelings of those deemed to be disadvantaged by birth. To those of different race, ability, gender, there's also the original group of underdogs – the poor, the weak, the downtrodden.

How aware of this are we in our daily lives, as we seek to find order and security for ourselves? How much are we gaining at somebody else's expense, and how much are others gaining at our expense?

All things for further consideration...

This time last year:
By bike, south of Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Functionalist architecture in Warsaw

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

This time five years ago:
Making plans

This time six years ago:
The setting sun stirs my soul

This time seven years ago:
Rain ends the drought

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Polish Hercules over Jeziorki

Truly the workhorse of Western armed forces, the Lockheed C-130 Hercules has had an amazingly long-lived career as a military transport aircraft. The prototype flew almost 60 years ago (August 1954), while the C-130E variant (of which Poland has five) entered service over half a century ago (1962). In use with 71 air forces around the world of which 15 are European, the C-130 is a hugely successful and long-lived design.

This one (below, serial number 1504) was in use with the USAF since 1971. With the USAF serial number 70-1276, it saw service in the UK, based in Mildenhall in the late 1970s. Good to see the szachownica (red-and-white chequerboard) gracing it today, coming into land over Jeziorki.

Last week Warsaw's Okęcie airport celebrated its 80th birthday; the C-130 has been around for three-quarters of that period! Makes you appreciate the huge leap forward in aviation between 1934 (Douglas DC-2, forerunner of the famous Dakota first flew in that year) and 1954 (B-52, C-130 still in active service).

This time last year:
Looking for The Zone, in and around Jeziorki

This time three years ago:
I awake to snow, on 4 May

This time seven years ago:
This is not America. No?

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Digbeth, Birmingham 5

Two hectic days in England - the challenge being to get to Manchester and back on days when there are no low-cost flights from Warsaw to either Liverpool or Doncaster or back. The answer - the 6:00 from Okęcie to Luton, thence by bus to Derby, and by train across the Pennines, just in time for a 15:00 seminar start that I was to chair. The National Express coach took its time, meandering through the East Midlands, calling at Milton Keynes, Leicester and Nottingham before arriving in Derby. On the way back, I took a National Express coach from Manchester to Luton Airport, changing at Birmingham.

The new coach station is located in Digbeth, Birmingham 5, on the site of the old Midland Red bus depot, just a few paces from a pub and music venue that I'd often frequent while a student at Warwick University - the Barrel Organ (now the Dubliner). It was here that I would see Ricky Cool and the Icebergs - the band that had an enormous formative influence on my musical tastes to this day. American music from the late '40s and early '50s - from jump blues and R&B (Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, Little Walter, Jimmy Liggins) through Western Swing (Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys) and Country & Western (Hank Williams, Tennessee Ernie Ford), all delivered with excellent musicianship and a large dose of humour. I must have seen Ricky Cool and the Iceberg 20+ times before the band reformed as Ricky Cool and the Rialtos, then as Ricky Cool and the Big Town Playboys. They still tread the boards as Ricky Cool and the Hoola-Boola Boys, though I've yet to see this line-up...

I had an hour and ten minutes between the Manchester coach arriving in Digbeth and the one for Luton departing, so, after a pint of mild and packet of scratchings at the Dubliner, gazing at the empty stage, I took myself around Digbeth in search of Bricktorian Britain. And here it is...

Below: the Selfridges building (left) stands at odds with the spire of St Martin in the Bull Ring. Welcome to Birmingham, Britain's Second City.

Below: the Big Bull's Head public house, on the corner of Digbeth and Milk Street. Across the road, an old advert for dog food has been restored to its former glory.

Below: under the viaduct on Oxford St. It's built from Staffordshire Blue brick that has a hard, impervious surface and high strength. The viaduct carries the railway line to Leamington Spa and Stratford-upon-Avon.

Left: under the viaduct (on the opposite side of the road to that shown above), the cast iron screen of a public lavatory, or Temple of Relief. For Gentlemen only, Victorian lady-folk needing to spend a penny had to look elsewhere. The local authorities have blocked off this facility, though vandals have broken in. It's now used (unofficially) for what it was originally built for.

Below: ensuring that law and order in Digbeth, the local police station is quite an imposing edifice, with clock tower and balustraded roof. It is neither Victorian (built in 1911) nor brick (stuccoed Italianate in appearance)

Below: Meriden St, and the premises of Norton Hydraulics. Note the motto of the City of Birmingham on the roof gable - 'Forward'. A reminder that Birmingham was once the workshop of the world.

Below: looking north up Meriden St (Meriden, about 15 miles away, is traditionally said to be located at the very centre of England). Victorian brickwork - factories, warehouses, viaducts - abounds.

By purest Coencidence, just after arriving home from my two days in England, I was tidying my room and sorting through boxes of mementos of yesteryear, when I came across no fewer than three Ricky Cool and the Icebergs playlists, at least two of which were picked up after a gig at the Barrel Organ.

Below: here they are...

"The Tennessee Local is a smoky little, pokey little train..." Indeed, Jack.

This time last year:
Still months away from the opening of the S2/S79

This time two years ago:
Looking at progress along the S79 (how little has been achieved!)

This time three years ago:
Snow on 3 May

This time four years ago:
Two Polands

This time five years ago:
A delightful weekend in the country

This time six years ago:
The dismantling of the Rampa

This time seven years ago:
Flag day