Sunday, 31 May 2015

London vs. Warsaw - where's it better to live?

Big thanks to regular commentator Dr Marcin from around the corner, who as well as providing me with tip-offs regarding local development, also acts as a warning klaxon in the ideology department.

When I said a few days ago that I much preferred living in Warsaw to London, here is his riposte:
"London v. Warsaw: 
  • Substantially well developed public transport network
  • Better town-planning order
  • Cleaner
  • Not-destroyed pavements
  • Lack of stand-out ramshackle houses
  • Much more polite public services workers (for instance bus drivers)
  • A better information system
  • Greater ethnic/cultural diversity
  • Fewer gated residential estates
  • More theatres/cinemas/museums/art galleries
  • More airports
  • More sport/recreational facilities
  • More recreational green fields
  • More universities/higher schools/colleges
  • Substantially younger population
  • Substantially higher average salary
  • Much lower level of corruption
  • 38th v. 84th place in Mercer's 2015 Quality of Living Survey
  • Lower VAT "
So here's mine.

First things first: Warsaw is a much smaller city than London. Even if you question the official population statistics (1.8 million) and look upon Warsaw as an agglomeration rather than a city artificially constrained by its city limits, it's still around four times smaller in terms of population and three times smaller in terms of area than London. Therefore it has lower population density. So we'll not be comparing like with like - size wise, Warsaw's more akin to Birmingham or Manchester, the two urban areas competing for the role of England's second city. In London, you are lost, a minnow. In Warsaw, the chances of bumping into someone familiar is much higher.

But the key thing is economy. Let's get right to the point: London is an immeasurably richer city than Warsaw because of the accumulation of capital. Not being invaded or partitioned has its benefits. You can find yourself living in a £6m Kensington town house for no other reason than because your great-grandfather had the gumption to buy it for £3,000 back in 1910. Wages in London are artificially pumped up by City bonuses, which distort the housing market, an effect magnified by the endless demand for London property from the world's rich.

At the heart of the 'where's best to live' debate is a comparison of how much you can earn in both cities. The figure to bear in mind is this: the average salary in London, after tax, is a little over two and half times higher than average salary in Warsaw. Two and half. (Well, 2.65 to be precise.)

Sources: Gross average salary for London, £27,999, May 2015, after-tax pay calculated via the Salary Calculator. Gross average salary for Warsaw, 5624.89 zł, March 2015, after-tax pay calculated via Kalkulator Wynagrodzeń.

Average after-tax salaries compared

London Warsaw
£/month £1,844

£/year £22,126

zl/month 14,835 zl
3,985 zl

Right. Let's now look at living costs.

If you want to buy a family house of average size in Zones Four or Five - a three-bedroom terraced house with some 150m2 of useable space - you will need to budget for around £400,000 (over two million zlotys). To be able to put down a deposit on said house, you'd need around a 10% deposit, or £40,000. According to the Guardian (4 May 2015), quoting a KPMG report, you need to be earning £77,000 a year gross in order to be able to be a first-time property buyer in London. So a couple each earning £38,500 could afford to buy a place in London. And the average wage there is £27,999.

[One question I constantly have about the sustainability of Central London's economy is how in God's name does the service sector manages to find people to work in it. There are people working in cafes, restaurants, pubs, hotels, shops, earning £12,000 to £15,000 a year. How do they do it? Where do they live? Do they commute in from Zone Six, where you can still rent a small one-bedroom flat for £500 a month? Or do they live four to a room in Zone One, living on Tesco Value Sliced White Bread and baked beans?]

On the edges of Warsaw you'll find 150m2 houses selling for less than 800,000 zlotys (£140,000). According to this 2015 report, the median salary in Warsaw is 6,000 zlotys/month or 50,000 zlotys a year after tax. So a similar situation to that in London... BUT the killer is the transport.

A quarterly Warsaw central zone public transport pass costs 250 zlotys (at today's exchange rate, that's £43). This gives you a bit more geographic coverage than London Zones 1-3, a bit less than 1-4. Now, a weekly Zone 1-3 travelcard costs £37.70, a weekly Zone 1-4 travelcard costs £46.10. So public transport is 13 times more expensive in London than in Warsaw. And remember, folks, that median take-home pay in London is just two-and-half times higher than in London.

If you're dumb enough to drive to work (unless you have a company car), with cars and petrol costing pretty much the same in both cities, more fool you.

How much UK house will your salary buy? Have a look at this handy calculator.

Finally, my Warsaw vs. London arguments
  • Lower crime rate (burglaries, assault, car theft etc)
  • Far fewer knife-murders and stabbings in schools
  • Far less drugs in schools
  • Far fewer people wanting to blow you up for religious reasons
  • Safer to walk the streets at night
  • Faster rate of improvement in many areas of life
  • Proximity to countryside (my bedroom, 9 miles from the city centre, looks out over farmland)
  • Lower population density
  • No poncy class system
  • Ability to buy fresh seasonal produce from farmers' stalls on street corners all over town
  • Better climate (although this is changing)
  • Sense of pride in, and direct connect with, Warsaw's history
  • Sense of pride that I'm living in the city that my father is from
[Compare crime concerns here.]

So, I'm happy to be here, no plans of going back to London. I już!

This time last year:
Jeziorki, magic hour
[Read this post, you'll see why I love where I live]

This time three years ago:
Świdnica, one of Poland's lesser-known pearls

This time six years ago:
Spirit of place
[Another 'why I love Jeziorki so' post. Walking around for an hour without bumping into a single soul? Try doing that within a nine-mile radius of Hyde Park Corner!]

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Rural Mazovian toponyms on the way to the Pilica

Riding south out of Warsaw, I pass Nowa Wola, Jaroszowa Wola, Wola Prażmowska, Wola Wągrodzka, Wola Kukalska, Łychowska Wola, Wola Boglewska, Dobra Wola, Wola Palczewska, Biejkowska Wola, Stromiecka Wola or Brzeska Wola. Why so many Wolas? (Wola is pronounced 'VOH-luh')

From Wikipedia: Wola in Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, (in Latin libera villa, libertas ) a name given to agricultural villages, appearing from the 13th Century, historically constituting a separate category of settlements in Poland. Settlers were given plots of land and exemption from all rents, fees, and taxes for a number of years. In exchange, feudal landlords, granting these rights, would expect forests to be cleared and cultivation to take place.

Another toponymic suffix that pops up here and there in rural Mazovia is Kolonia (as in Kolonia Brzeźce, Bobrek-Kolonia, Promnia-Kolonia, Częstoniew-Kolonia) - simply 'colony'. People from one village would set up an outlying colony in nearby woods. And then there's Parcela (plural Parcele) as in Michałów-Parcele, Palczew-Parcela, Falęcice-Parcela. Also easy to translate - literally, a parcel of land.

You'll also find plenty of Budy, a word that means huts, shacks, kennels even. Not a complimentary term for your village, should you live in one. (Budy Brankowskie, Budy Michałowskie, Budy Sułkowskie, Budy Opożdżewskie)

Settlements named after Christian names with the suffix 'ów' are extremely common across Poland, every other village in southern Mazowsze seems to have such a name: Michałów, Stefanków, Franciszków, Bronisławów, Edwardów, Henryków, Janów, Józefów.

Other suffixes passed along the way: '-ówka' (as in Kędzierzówka, Jesiówka)  '-izna' or 'yzna' (as in Jakubowizna, or Jazgarzewszczyzna*, down the road from Jazgarzew); '-izna' denotes the gift of land (think 'darowizna'). The diminutive '-ek' (as in Czachówek, or in Budziszynek, down the road from Budziszyn) is common. Another very common suffix is '-wice' as in Drwalewice, near Drwalew, Staniszewice or Sułkowice).

Less common in the south of Mazowsze are '-in' suffixes; these are more often to seen in the west of the province, as in Gostynin, Gąbin, Krubin, Dobrzelin, Żychlin, Kornelin.

Other 'easy ones' that translate perfectly from English: Nowy-something (New + name ) and, occasionally, as if to make the point, Stary- something (Old+name); Something Dolny and Something Górny (Lower + name and Upper + name). Duży-something, Mały-something (Large + name and Small + name). However, these are not just prefixes; they can be suffixes too. (Lekarcice Nowe and Lekarcice Stare).

Like in Britain, where toponyms are clues to history (-chester suffixes indicate Roman settlements, while -by indicate Danish ones). I'm sure some Polish local historian has carried out such a survey.

So then - late May, Mazovian country roads, south of Warsaw, to the Pilica (the first major river crossing the main southbound routes from Warsaw). Below: bucolic scene, Brzeźce. In Poland, fields tend not to be enclosed, so to stop cattle from straying, they are chained to the spot. This one, being led from field to dairy for milking, is dragging its chain along the asphalt.

Below: the Pilica at Biejków, looking east. A lovely river, paths on either banks and eminently suitable for boating or canoeing.

Below: the Pilica at Biejków, looking west. The river rises in Silesia, heads north towards Piotrków Trybunalski, then swings east and heads that way until it meets the Vistula north-east of Warka.


Below: the lure of the open road, somewhere north of the Pilica.

* Jazgarzewszczyzna, the second longest single-element placename in Poland - 17 letters long.  Siemieniakowszczyzna, at 20, is the champ.

This time last year:
Carrying the weight on both shoulders

This time two years ago:
Railway history - the big picture

This time four years ago:
A new lick of paint form W-wa Powiśle

This time five years ago:
The ingredients of success

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Making sense of Andrzej Duda's win

The pundits, the pollsters, Warsaw's chattering classes (which by definition includes me) got it wrong. The first-round shock victory of Andrzej Duda in the first round of the presidential elections on 10 May were merely to serve as a wake-up call to the idle PO-voting elite who couldn't be bothered to get back from their działki to vote because in any case, Komorowski would win the second round.

And why not? In the first round Mr Duda might have beaten the incumbent by less than one percentage point on a turnout of less than half of Poland's registered voters. In other words, less than one in six of all Poles voted for Mr Duda in the first round. Clearly, thought President Komorowski's advisors and supporters, in the second round, as long as enough of the remaining five-sixths who didn't vote Duda in round one turned up to vote rationally, the right result would be assured.

Bearing in mind that third place in the first round was taken by some pop singer, and supporters of pop singers tend not to see eye-to-eye with religious conservatives, it was assumed [by whom? by the chattering classes] that this element of the disgruntled youth would come to its senses and support the status quo.

But it was not to be. As we now know, Mr Duda beat President Komorowski by two percentage points, the closest result in the history of post-1989 presidential elections.


On the part of Bronisław Komorowski and his team - complacency. The pollsters got it totally wrong. Far more wrong than the British pollsters telling the nation that Labour would beat the Tories on 7 May. So wrong in fact that their wiarygodność had evaporated totally.

Not a single poll - not one - expected Mr Duda to win the first round. Polling during the last week of the campaign showed a comfortable eight to 12 points lead for Mr Komorowski from most pollsters, with only one outlier predicting a dead heat. [Yet on a ride in southern Mazowsze, between Białobrzegi and Warka, the weekend between the first and second round, I could only see posters for Duda. Not a single one for Komorowski.]

What could possibly go wrong? Back in February, pollsters were showing 65% support for the incumbent and a 40+ percentage point lead over the second-placed Mr Duda.

So - what did go wrong? Too few PO activists and supporters considered the possibility than in a second round run-off (which was looking increasingly likely from late-March onwards, since when pollsters began suggesting that the president was unlikely to win in the first round), the young and disgruntled would cast their votes for a religious conservative candidate.

Why did the young and the left-wing decided to throw in their lot with Mr Duda?

They took the bait, so sweetly laid. It was explained to them that the reason they were jobless or poorly-paid was because a callous, greedy elite was doing them down. The answer, suggested candidate Duda, is to redistribute. But not from rich to poor.

Reducing retirement age from 67 (for men and women) to 60 (for women) and 65 (for men). Despite the fact that Poles on average live six years longer than they did in 1989. Who's going to pay for this? Those Poles who are still working. And now they complain about low wages and high taxes.

In all honesty, the Polish state pension system will be unable to pay its obligations, and if the whole thing were to stick together, we'd need to be working to 72, not 67. So Mr Duda's promises are a case of kicking the can down the street, for our children's generation to pick up the tab. Big time.

No mention among Mr Duda's shiny promises of slimming down a bloated and inefficient public administration (which lazy, complacent PO have failed to do over the past seven and half year in offices).

No mention of spurring on Polish innovation by getting universities to focus on commercialising the brilliant ideas of their talented students (who have been tending to commercialise them abroad).

No mention of streamlining the red tape that holds back entrepreneurs from growing their businesses by taking on more employees.

So, to my shame, last Sunday Polish voters have followed those in Greece and Spain who've believed the Pied Piper politicians who promise them a painless road to a brighter tomorrow.

OK - let's step back. What does this really mean? What did last year's European Parliamentary elections mean to the UK? The largest party representing British voters, with one-third of all UK seats in Brussels, is UKIP. Which was slaughtered in the general election earlier this month. Why did Brits vote for UKIP in the Euro-elections? Because 'it's a protest vote'. And because 'the European Parliamentary elections don't matter'.

Do the Polish presidential elections matter? In terms of how the outcome affects the nation, nowhere near the same extent as the American or French presidential elections. More akin to the German or Italian ones.

Does this election mean that PiS can win an outright victory in the parliamentary election this autumn? PO has suddenly and violently been woken up from its lethargic complacency. For years it has been winning elections by saying 'if not us - that lot', pointing at Messrs Kaczyński, Macierewicz and Ziobro. This worked as long as Jarosław Kaczyński was the public face of PiS. But by fielding a man one generation younger, the spell was broken.

The generational issue is crucial. The IPSOS exit poll, which proved to be very accurate, broke down the electorate by age and place of residence. It's no surprise that rural Poland tended to vote Duda while urban Poland tended to vote Komorowski. But what was a huge surprise is that the youngest cohort of voters (under the age of 30) were the strongest supporters of Mr Duda. While the next-youngest age-group in the electorate, the 30 to 40 year-olds,  proved to be the staunchest supporters of Mr Komorowski. Once young Poles have their feet on the property ladder, once they start worrying about prospects for their children, once they have some appreciation of how the economy works, they're inclined to vote for stability, not airy-fairy promises. But the youngest voters see Poland as a country of high youth unemployment, low wages and low job security. So they voted to smash the system responsible. Without a credible idea for a better system.

Mr Duda's victory is a like a window opening and letting in a sharp, icy gust of wind into a stuffy, airless room full of the same stale breath.

The big unknown unknown between now and the autumn is whether a new party, akin to the now largely defunct Ruch Palikota, will emerge to occupy the economic and socially liberal quarter. (We must learn to stop talking about 'left' and 'right' and look at politics in a two-axis way).

Mr Duda and PiS occupy the socially conservative but economically socialist quarter. The old communists, the SLD, socially liberal but economically socialist, were annihilated in this election. PSL, the 'peasants' party' is an old-school jobs-for-the-boys who'd join any coalition just to keep its placemen in jobs.

PO have held the centre ground, with a large measure of success compared to other countries in the EU, none of which can boast the same economic record from 2008 to today.

So - there's a vacancy in the top-right quadrant. Will Mr Pop-singer be in time to set up a party to occupy this ground? Or will former finance minister and reformation hero, Prof. Leszek Balcerowicz and economist Ryszard Petru ride to the rescue of fiscal prudence and financial rectitude?

The next six months will be extremely interesting - not to say fraught. Everything is at stake. The progress that Poland has made in rebuilding its economy can come spluttering to a halt if a redistributionist government pull all the wrong macroeconomic levers.

What can the ruling PO party do to hang onto power? Less and less. Summer holidays are looming, a credible legislative programme that sets out to answer the issues faced by the youngest voters is unlikely to take shape in time for the autumn parliamentary elections.

The key to the result of the parliamentary elections will be the shape of the coalition that takes power some time after the votes have been counted. Of the four parties in Sejm, PiS would never form a coalition with fellow economic redistributionists, the SLD, because of their history and PiS's social conservatism. PiS wouldn't in the current situation form a coalition with PO. PSL would form a coalition with Beelzebub if it would help its rank and file gets jobs in the public administration. But PSL may not make the 5% threshold to get back into Sejm. PiS has - until Sunday's election - failed to break through the glass barrier to reach for the levers of power. Last Sunday showed that with a change of leader who can appeal to the disgruntled young, PiS has the chance to get elected as the majority party in government.

The current government has five months to get its act together and to play, as David Cameron did so successfully, on the economic arguments. OK, there are major issues about how widely Poland's economic success has been spread. But the urban 30-40 year-olds who've painstakingly started putting a life together on the basis of economic and political stability will not take kindly to seeing their prospects dashed by crass economic mismanagement.

Populism is a real threat to growth. This argument needs to be brought to the fore and shouted from the rooftops between now and the parliamentary elections,

If there's one thing worse than outright liars at the helm, it's amateurs.

This time last year:
Call it what it is: Okęcie

This time two years ago:
Three stations in need of repair

This time three years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time four years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time six years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time seven years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Sunday, 24 May 2015

Okęcie airport opens 'new' 'old' terminal

In my 18 years in Poland, Okęcie airport has always been the portal to the 'Old Country'. The end of the runway is less than 4,500m from our house. When flying back Kingdomside for work or holiday or family reasons, it's almost always through Okęcie. I fly through the airport eight times a year on average, and over the years I've seen the place improve and improve.

The latest improvement involves the re-opening earlier this week of the 'old' 'new' terminal, built in 1992. So many changes over the years - the new and the newly-refurbished old, now joined together seamlessly. The modernisation took the best part of three years to complete. In good time for the summer holiday rush.

So now Okęcie has it all - a rail link to the city centre, a motorway link to the outside world, two bright, modern terminals, plenty of shops and bars, gates where you can sit and wait in comfort, an excellent website that no longer takes hours to load and a Twitter feed lauded as the best in Poland. The S2/S79 link means that in a taxi at 5am I can get to Okęcie from home in 12 minutes.

The important thing to remember in what Sector your check-in desk is located. All desks in Sector A are to be found in the 'new' old terminal. Once you've passed through security, the gates (45 of them) are all accessible from one long corridor spanning both terminals

Below: do you remember when this was all in a rather disgusting shade of magenta? All that's missing is the glider, suspended from the ceiling...

Something entirely new is Sector B (below), to be found between the 'new' old terminal and the old 'new' terminal. Architecturally this reminds me of the drabber bits of Heathrow and Gatwick. Ah - sectors C, D and E are still to be found in the 'old' new terminal.

There are plenty of new shops, now offering greater choice than the old Aelia/Keraniss duopoly. And more bars and restaurants. What's this? A Scottish restaurant! Located on the ground floor level of the 'new' old terminal, under Sector A.

From the 'new' old terminal, there's an underground passageway linking directly the train station (W-wa Lotnisko Chopina) and the long-distance bus terminus. Today, this looks like part of a nuclear bomb shelter, but in time I'm sure the grey walls will carry advertising.

Once back out at street level by the train station, you can take a lift up three flights to the all-weather observation deck (taras widokowy). Equipped with reverse-sloping windows to cut glare and reflection, this is an improvement over the old, open-air one (closed seven years ago). Not only is entry completely free of charge, there's also a cafe and an aviation gift-shop, and it's open from 6am to 10pm. And there's a gallery of truly stunning photographs of planes at or around Okęcie.

The airport gets better and better. Long gone are the days of Etiuda terminal (2004-2009), cattle-shed for those travelling with low-cost carriers. Being shut in there with two small children for seven hours because our Christmas flight to London was delayed must rank among my most dismal air travel experiences of all time ever. Worse than my ten-hour delay at "London" Gatwick where at least we got 45-quid's worth of food and drink vouchers (which I spend very wisely!)

Okęcie is on target to carry 11 million passengers this year, breaking all records, while to the north of Warsaw, Modlin continues to prosper as Ryanair's principle airport after a shaky start.

I fly to London in two weeks' time, so I'll be able to report on how the extended airport looks like from airside.

This time two years ago:
Arrogance vs. humility

This time three years ago:
Warsaw looking good ahead of the football-fan influx

This time six years ago:
Heron over Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Present rising, future loading

Friday, 22 May 2015

Three days - three Polish cities

Back to Lublin - second visit within one month. Great! And two hours between the end of the event and my train, so lots of time to wander through an Athens of the er... north. Below: this is a reverse view of this photo taken a month ago.

Back to the Old Town. Here's the entrance to ul. Rybna, below. this time taken from back in the square. Compare to pic taken last month.

Below: I had a burger and a Spitfire ale (from Kent's Shepherds Neame brewery) at U szewca ('at the cobbler's')' and here is the view from outside the pub, looking across at Pl. Po Farze.

Below: time to make my way down the hill to the station, to catch the night train to Wrocław. On one side of the street, the splendour of the Old Town, on the other, early industry and workers' tenements.

All aboard the night train! I love Poland's night trains - I get into my berth in Lublin at quarter past eight in the evening and wake up nine hours later in Wrocław's beautifully restored station. Interestingly, looking at a map of Poland, I notice that Wrocław's only a teeny bit further south than Lublin. The two cities are 385 km apart as the crow flies, but the train does it 660 km in a giant serpentine route going as far north as Warsaw and as far south as Katowice. Still, nine hours from station to station means there's plenty of time for a good night's sleep.

Are you ready for the Night Train?

Puławy Miasto... Warszawa Wschodnia... Opoczno Południe... Dąbrowa Górnicza... Sosnowiec Główny... Kędzierzyn Koźle... Opole Główne... Night Train, Night Train, NIGHT... TRAIN!

Below: quarter past five in the morning, looking up from the passage linking the platforms.

Below: looking at the original platforms, now the booking hall (the tracks are to the left). I'm picked up by car and driven to Oleśnica for an excellent manufacturing event at GKN Driveline's factory.

Below: heading back to Wrocław along the S8 expressway, over the Odra river. A vast amount of new infrastructure has emerged in an around the city.

Below: back at Wrocław station to catch the evening Pendolino service to Warsaw. Third time I've caught this train since the Warsaw-Wrocław service was launched. And each journey was on time.

Back in Warsaw, meetings, preparing more meetings. E-mails by the score. An intensive week's work. Nighttime skyline below shows Poland's progress. Just before the cisza wyborcza, let me make an appeal to vote to secure stability and predictability on Sunday.

Morning, Jeziorki. Below: On my way to the station, dandelions in seed. Less than eight miles from the scene above, Warsaw is a compact capital compared to London. I much prefer living in Warsaw to London!

Half an hour by train from W-wa Jeziorki to W-wa Śródmieście and I'm walking past the Palace of Culture again on my way to the office. A long week made all the more interesting by the change of scenery.

This time three years ago:
Part two of short story The Devil Is In Doubt

This time four years ago:
"A helpful, friendly people"

This time five years ago:
A familiar shape in the skies

This time six years ago:
Feel like going home

This time seven years ago:
Mr Hare comes to call

Sunday, 17 May 2015

A book that explains so much - Poles in post-war Britain

Every now and then a book comes along that changes the way I look at the world. But here, rather, is a book that moved me for another reason. It consolidates many of my thoughts and memories. I feel has been written for me, and for every Andrzej and Rysiek and Basia and Ewa born in Britain in the 1950s and '60s.

Nothing written - in English or Polish - to date has come so close to capturing our generation's unique experience, the children born to Poles washed up on Albion's shores, having survived the horrors of WWII - be it deportation to Siberia by Stalin or living through the Nazi occupation of Poland.

With Blood and Scars, by B.E. Andre, is a story is told in two intermeshing plots. One, is narrated by a ten-year old girl growing up in 'Polskaland' in 1960s Manchester, the other, by the same person, now a middle-aged woman in contemporary Manchester, watching her father, a wartime survivor, dying of cancer.

Before going into the novel's Polishness, there's the 50-year timeshift, from Opportunity Knocks and wrestling on black-and-white TV to SMSs and Facebook, from typewriters to laptops. The way 1960s Britain - all Green Shield stamps, Pick of the Pops, thruppenny bits, ten-bob notes, Kensitas and Woodbines, Morris Minors and Ford Corsairs - is portrayed by the author with attention to detail worthy of a Dutch Master. No item of everyday life goes unnoticed.

Like West London, 1960s Manchester was already experiencing mass migration - the ten year-old narrator's best friends were the children of migrants from Ireland, Jamaica, Italy and Cyprus. And of course Polish. 'Polskaland' in Manchester in those days was quite specific, with social life centred around 'Kombo's' (Dom Kombatantów or kombatanci) and the Polish church. Poles worked in handbag factories, sent their children on kolonia to Penrhos and lived in the near-past, of a Poland overrun first by Nazis, then the Soviets, betrayed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.

Reading With Blood and Scars, I feel that my generation - Poles born in the UK in the post-war decades - finally have a voice. To date the nearest approximation has been A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, touching on many of the inter-generational issues that UK-born post-war Poles face in common with others from the same part of the world. With Blood and Scars has the bonus of a being wonderful journey down memory lane of childhood in a country beginning to emerge from post-war austerity, as colour came into the drabness in the form of the impending 1970s. But compared to post-war Poland, Britain was paradise.

With Blood and Scars treads with commendable sensitivity in the area of wartime Polish-Jewish relations.

This is clearly a book that deserves to be translated into Polish. It is a testament to the 200,000 Poles - and their children - who lived in Britain while Poland was enduring 45 years of communism. It explains why we UK-born Poles are as we are - shaped by an upbringing in the shadow of Yalta, Saturdays at Polish school in the mornings, Polish scouts in the afternoon, Sunday mornings at Polish church - while our British contemporaries had the weekend off.

What was the point of being brought up Polish? asks the ten year-old protagonist of her father, who bellows at her: "You will go to Polish school! And you will be proud of your legacy!"

It is also a book to any Brit who grew up alongside Polish children - at school, at university. With Blood and Scars explains why we were - why we still are - the way we are. And it is a book for the next generation - the grandchildren of those political refugees who sought shelter and a new life in Britain after the war. It deserves a massive readership of anyone touched by Polishness in the UK.

Youthful memories inspire great art. I am minded of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, dwelling on their Jewish-American upbringing in Minnesota, the action set around the same time. First alcohol, first smoke, first snog - rights of passage are just as critical in the process of winkling out the essence of our existence as is facing the death of loved ones. Delving into memories, funny, sad, from one's formative years is a great source of truth about our human lives.

Above all this is the story of what war does to people. And to their children.

You can buy it from Amazon (click here).

This time last year:
We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can't we?

This time two years ago:
Ethereal and transient

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

This time four years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

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

This time eight years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki

Saturday, 16 May 2015

More classic cars from London's streets

An old car is more than a means of getting about - it is a moving, working piece of industrial and artistic heritage that should be preserved, fussed over and passed on for The Ages. It is good to see so many lovely classic cars still in use on London's streets. Cars made in Britain, on the Continent, in the USA. Here are a few I captured on recent trips to London.

Below: A late-production Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. These are still relatively available and affordable (there's a shop in Hanwell that sells nothing but second-hand Rollers).

Below: another Silver Shadow of similar vintage though the personalised number plate obscures the date of manufacture. This stately classic was in production from 1965 to 1976; the Silver Shadow II with cheaper bumpers was built from 1977 to 1980.

Below: rarer, sportier and far more exclusive than the Silver Shadow, more the vehicle of the cognoscenti - the Bristol 410. Dating back to 1969, so concurrent with the Shadow, the Bristol 410 is the gentleman's sporting carriage par excellence. One of just 82 built; I'd hazard a guess that the vast majority have survived to this day.

Below: also from 1969, an early Porsche 911 parked outside the British Museum shows a different approach to sporting cars. The emphasis is on performance rather than prestige.

Below: utilitarian and built for the masses, a 1978 Renault 4 captured on the leafy streets of Ealing. One of eight million (!) built between 1961 and 1992. The Renault 4 has a shorter wheelbase on the left side than on the right because of the staggered torsion bars used in the rear suspension.

Below: a Scandinavian classic, also spotted in Ealing. A Volvo 144 dating  back to 1971, this side view shows the purity of the design, which was in production from 1966 to 1974.

Below: although American car manufacturers didn't bother selling their oversized behemoths to Britain with its quaint mediaeval streets, many enthusiasts of Detroit steel imported them privately. Here in Soho we see a 1967 Dodge Dart. "I got my AM radio on".

Below: Hanwell W7 is the setting for this late-70s muscle car - a Pontiac Firebird. Note that all three American cars have British registration numbers (from which you can date the vehicle), but they have been stamped in the US style for authenticity.

Below: "You traded the microphone for a Caddy?" Jake would not have approved. This 1978 Cadillac Coupe de Ville parked on Russell Square was not in the best of health, with rust bubbling through all over its flanks. But from the front, the massive grille still looks impressive.

I hope in years to come, the streets of Warsaw will be also be full of beautiful old cars, well cared for by their owners. If you want to impress, a stand-out classic does the job so much better than a brand new black SUV.

This time three years ago:
Photography and the Law of Diminishing Returns

This time four years ago:
A night at the Filters (Museum Night 2011)

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's Museum Night

This time six years ago:
Exploring my anomalous memory events

Friday, 15 May 2015

London celebrates VE Day

No vainglorious victory parades staged to boost the popularity of the Leader; rather a celebration by the people. Last weekend I was in London and had the chance to see how the city commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe (the war dragged on in the Pacific for another three months). What struck me as I wandered through St James's Park was the fact that much of what was on show was the property of private enthusiasts; collectors and reenactors who volunteered their hardware in a common commemorative show.

London was as packed as ever it is with tourists, but The Mall was drawing them in, walking up towards Buckingham Palace, with smaller numbers filtering through the park to look at the military vehicles on display. Let's take a look at them...

Below: A Bedford QLR four-wheel drive radio truck from 1944. Note the white star on the side, the insignia of all Western Allied forces after April 1944; prior to that, from 1942, used by the US Army alone (sometimes with a circle around the star).

Below: Bren Gun Carrier, the most widely produced armoured vehicle in history, with 113,000 built.

My mother has a photograph of herself (below, left) in a Bren Gun Carrier along with her sister Irena (second left) and colleagues from the Polish Army. Egypt, 1945.

Below: A Canadian Military Pattern truck by Chevrolet. Canada's biggest single contribution to the war effort was producing well over half a million of these trucks that kept Commonwealth, US and Soviet (thanks to Lend-Lease) forces on the move against the fascist foe. Note the characteristic reverse-sloped windscreens; these reflected the sun's glare downwards so that enemy pilots would not see the reflections.

Below: another CMP truck, this time by Ford. Now, before the war, Ford and Chevrolet (General Motors) were deadly rivals in the automotive sector in the Americas and Europe; once the war kicked off the two worked together on maximising production of military vehicles.

Below: a Daimler Dingo armoured scout car. A successful design, in production from before the outbreak of WWII and in service into the late 1960s.

Below: the original SUV? The Humber 'Box' Heavy Utility Car featured four-wheel drive and accommodation for six people. A staff car with excellent cross-country abilities.

Below: a Jeep as used by the Long Range Desert Group, the forerunners of the Special Air Service. Carrying vast amounts of fuel and ammunition, the LRDG would penetrate deep behind Axis lines and attack enemy installations such as fuel and ammunition dumps and airfields.

Another Jeep, below, this time in the markings of a Royal Navy beach master's vehicle at D-Day, a perilous task to undertake, marshalling the invasion forces as they disembark from the landing craft.

Below: there were plenty of reenactors in period uniform around St James's Park. This chap was explaining to a small crowd of tourists about his weapon, the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle.

Below: a Supermarine Spitfire, the legendary aircraft which served as the RAF's main fighter from the beginning of the war right through to Japan's surrender. This is a Mk I, with a 1,030 hp Merlin engine. By the end of the war, Griffon-engined Spitfires had 2,340 hp available.

Below: a Hawker Hurricane, the mainstay of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Not as fast or glamorous as the Spitfire, the Hurricane was sturdy and manoeuvrable, and in the hands of the Polish pilots of 303 Squadron, could shred German bombers with close-range blasts from a battery of eight machine guns.

And a propos of the Battle of Britain, let us not forget that 119 Polish pilots, whose names (below) are to be found on the Battle of Britain Monument on the Embankment by Westminster Pier, took part in the fight to save Britain from Hitler's Luftwaffe. The memorial has the names of the Polish pilots on an engraved representation of a Hawker Hurricane tailfin. Click to enlarge.

On the other side of the monument is a near-life size sculpture of fighter pilots scrambling to their aircraft. Sculpted by Paul Day (who is also responsible for The Meeting Place at St Pancras Station), the figures emerge with dramatic dynamism from the monument.

As we're at the Embankment, let us now take to the river. Below: museum ship HMS Belfast has been moored by Tower Bridge since 1971 (!). This light cruiser, armed with 12 six-inch guns, served in WWII in the Arctic Convoys to Russia and during the Normandy Landings. The Belfast also saw action during the Korean War.

Below: HMS Ocean, the flagship of the Royal Navy's fleet, (now down to 19 ships and 33 admirals). I wonder whether this ship was named after popular singer Billy Ocean or painter and Royal Academy professor, Humphrey Ocean. Now, HMS Ocean, launched 20 years ago, may look like an aircraft carrier, but it is naught but a helicopter carrier and amphibious assault ship.The Sea King helicopter on the aft deck is a design that first flew in 1959.

Below: searchlights form a 'V' for Victory over St Paul's Cathedral, as viewed from the river.

I was impressed at the way this anniversary was commemorated in London; the right scale, a human focus on remembrance - not on triumphalism.

This time two years ago:
Malodorous passengers on Warsaw's public transport

This time four years ago:
Inside Filtry - Warsaw's waterworks (Museum Night 2011)

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

This time six years ago:
On Transcendence

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Trafalgar Square then and now

"Icon -n.  a person or thing that epitomises a certain set of qualities or values." Two icons here - Trafalgar Square, one of the must-see destinations for any tourist visiting London; and - at the personal level - a pair of photographs taken by my father before my birth. These photographs, elegantly framed, have always been in my parents' house. One notices them, and one doesn't - the English phrase 'part of the furniture' is apt. But they intrigue me - and so, at the end of a five-day visit to London, I set out to replicate them with a contemporary update of my father's vision. At the time, in the early years of Queen Elizabeth II's reign, he would have been here as a Polish political refugee in his early 30s, washed up on Albion's welcoming shores, armed with a camera, and in awe of the Capital of Empire.

His camera was a wedding anniversary gift from my mother, a Finetta-Werk Finetta IVD with interchangeable 43mm f4 Finetar lens. So then - here we are. North side of the square, the facade of the National Gallery... Note the cars - from the left, a pre-war Ford Model Y, a Ford Consul Mk I, and to the right, a Humber Hawk VI, in production from 1954 (which gives the photo a 'no-earlier-than' date). Click on the image to enlarge.

...And today. The roadway outside the National Gallery is now pedestrianised; the trees lining the road have been removed. As have the pigeons, once a familiar feature of the square, chased away by previous Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Trying to copy my father's composition precisely, I move this way and that (with my Nikkor 18-55mm zoom set to emulate a 43mm lens on 35mm film) until I'm (nearly) there.

Below: a view of St Martin-in-the-Field, on the north-eastern side of the square, with South Africa House to the right, and a puissant fountain in the foreground. This picture won my father first prize in the annual photographic competition at his company.

Below: the same scene today? The composition isn't right. Only when comparing the two did I realise why. The plinth bearing an equestrian statue of George IV on the left side of the photo. Was it moved? Were I to replicate my father's composition, I've have had to move round to the left, and the plinth would have blocked the view of the church's facade. And the water pressure in the fountain is a shadow of its former self, while the overhanging tree in the foreground (close to Nelson's column itself), is gone.

We now live in an age of selfie-sticks and iPads, Boris bikes, hi-vi vests, roller blading, trainer-liners, hipster beards and smoothies. But behind the superficial ephemera of our lives is something profound and enduring. It's worth scraping away the contemporaneous flim-flam with the scalpel of consciousness, and learn to appreciate that which abides.

This time two years ago:
Reflection upon the City Car

This time three years ago:
Biblical sky

This time five years ago:
Travel broadens the spirit

This time eight years ago:
On the farm next door