Sunday, 29 November 2015

Catesby Tunnel in the early 1980s

A place that fascinated me, ever since I borrowed Main Line Lament - a classic first published in 1973, about the final years of the Great Central Railway - from the public library in Earlsdon, Coventry, in 1977. Here's the front cover:

It is essentially this shot, taken by me in June 1980. Looking at new imagery on Google Earth, it seems the first bridge north of the tunnel has been demolished.

The Great Central ran down to London (Marylebone) from Sheffield via Nottingham, Leicester and Rugby. The stretch between Rugby and Quainton Road - where it met the London Underground - fascinated me the most. I've written before about John Betjeman's Metro-Land, his televisual poem about the Metropolitan's (the world's oldest underground railway) further reaches. Catesby Tunnel is an extension of that mythology - a sparsely populated corner of rural England of profound beauty that once resounded to the steam whistle as trains hurtled down the track towards London. Thundering into the tunnel, the second-longest in England at 2.7km (2,997 yards), those Edwardian expresses would have represented the cutting edge of technology a hundred years ago.

Below: the north portal, bearing the tunnel's date of construction. The line was closed in 1966 as part of the Beeching Cuts.

Below: a longer view with telephoto lens. Not a photo that you could capture today. Back in the early 1980s, health and safety was not what it currently is; people could just wander into disused tunnels. 

It was wet; much of its floor was under water, there are deep manholes running along its length, along with other traps to the unwary. I made several passages into the tunnel, though only one all the way through, with two members of the Warwick University caving club, who joined me in June 1980 to pass through the entire length; all of us were equipped with wetsuit trousers, helmets and lamps. Stalactites, calcite deposits, late-Victorian workmanship. Most amazing were the permanent-way workers' cabins. One was huge - the height of the tunnel itself, large enough for to host a large dinner party!

There are several air-shafts poking up through the hill, all visible on Google Earth. Sadly, access to the North Portal has been all but cut off to casual walkers, as Eddie and I discovered last summer when we visited Catesby.

Below: view from the top of the North Portal, looking towards Rugby, many miles away. "And quite where Rugby Central is/Does only Rugby know/We watched the empty platform wait/And sadly saw it go," observed John Betjeman in Great Central, a poem written just before the evil Dr Beeching ripped up the tracks here in 1966.

Coincidence corner (we know full well that the universe is held together by a web of coincidence)... Among the condolence messages I got after my mother's death was one from Richard, who was at Warwick University with me. In his e-mail, he mentioned a trip we made to the Catesby Tunnel. The following day, while clearing out stuff in my mother's bedroom, I came across some colour slides I took in the early 1980s. Four rolls of film - lo and behold, one of them included snaps from this very trip to Catesby. Summer 1982, I guess, as I moved into my own house in November 1982.

All the photos, apart from the book cover, are scans from that roll of film. Using my PlusTek 35mm film scanner, I've had to do a fair amount of manual removal of dust and scratches using Photoshop. The graininess of the Kodak Ektachrome 200 becomes visible under high magnification. Camera? Leica M3 with 35mm f2 Summicron lens (which I still have. Will sell. Big bucks.)

Below: Richard explores the boundaries of Existentialist Silliness. Behind him the North Portal; though it is visible a tiny spot of light (click to enlarge) - that's the South Portal at Charwelton. The tunnel is as straight as a poker.

Below: Richard emerges from a manhole into a drainage culvert that ran between the tracks. In the tunnel, it was filled to the brim with water.

Below: The Infinite Shining Heavens. A post-punk quartet? My brother Marek (centre, background) and Richard's future wife Clare looking bored in the red jumper. A platelayers' bothy towards the Catesby Viaduct, to the north of the tunnel.

The Catesby Tunnel looks likely to be put to new use - as a wind tunnel for testing the aerodynamic resistance of racing cars. I'd rather it be turned back to use as a railway tunnel for a line from Rugby down to Quainton Road, or just as a footpath/cyclepath, like the Snoqualmie tunnel in Oregon. At least it will not be filled in.

FURTHER COINCIDENCE: It's now 2021. The tunnel is indeed being turned into a wind tunnel. And the concrete contractor chosen to carry out the screeding and concrete pumping on the project is Burton Concrete Pumping, the company belonging to Richard and Clare's two sons, Peter and Patrick.

These photos, courtesy of Burton Concrete Pumping, show the tunnel in the process of transformation into an all-weather test track, where cars (passenger cars as well as racing cars) can be aerodynamically tested at speed in a controlled environment, the tunnel being long enough for cars to reach 100mph. 

Below: a new asphalt surface for the tunnel floor.

Below: 123 years after its opening, 55 years after its closing, the tunnel is being put back into use.

If you are interested in the history - and the future - of the Catesby Tunnel, Rail Engineer shot a short video in September 2020 - worth a look!

Finally, links to my three short stories set around this magical part of England; read them here, here and here. Set in 1921, 1912 and 1960, respectively.

This time two years ago:
Crumbling King Coal, Katowice

This time three years ago:
Street cries of Old Poland

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

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

This time six years ago:
Candid photography

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

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

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Wojtek the Bear in the heart of Edinburgh

As soon as I'd broken fast at the Scottish Restaurant (they don't do Sausage McMuffin Deluxe in the UK, the one with tomato in place of the egg), I set off to Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens to see the newly-unveiled statue commemorating the legendary Wojtek the Bear. I first heard about the soldier-bear, who fought alongside the Polish II Corps in the Middle East and Italy, in Saturday Polish school (can't remember if it was Pani Wolańska's class or Pani Skąpska's). Did we read about Wojtek in Razem Młodzi Przyjaciele? The story is a lovely one - the orphaned bear cub who is taken along with General Anders' army out of Persia, where he was found, via Monte Cassino (during the battle, Wojtek carried crates of shells for the artillery) to Edinburgh zoo, where he died in 1963.

A symbol of Polish-Scottish relations, Wojtek the warrior bear has now been immortalised in one of the most prestigious parts of Edinburgh; in the shadow of the castle, in the park that separates the Royal Mile from the New Town.

Below: the statue - the bear and a Polish soldier, the castle looming over the Gardens. The orange netting protects newly planted grass (presumably after the official unveiling on 7 November, witnessed by crowds and media from Poland and Scotland, despite the rain).

Front view of the statue, behind it a frieze depicting Wojtek being found as a cub, his adventures with the soldiers, his role as artillery shell carrier at Monte Cassino, through to his post-war years as an attraction at Edinburgh Zoo.

Below: the plaque - short and simple, in both languages. Za Waszą Wolność i Naszą.

Princes Street Gardens has just become an obligatory point for all Poles (and friends of Poland) to come and visit when in the Scottish capital. I felt deep pride at seeing the long-awaited statue in such a highly visible place, and would like to express my profound gratitude to those who came up with the idea, funded it and realised it.

Friday, 27 November 2015

London to Edinburgh by night bus

The challenge was as follows: I had to be at the Polish Embassy in London for a real-estate event that ends at 9pm. The next morning, at 9am, I had to be in Edinburgh for the first Scottish congress for Polish entrepreneurs. How to get there? All the early-morning flights from London would mean a 3:30am wake-up call. No way. And all the late-evening flights from London would mean leaving the Embassy event early (impossible, since I was chairing it).

There is a canny answer: now run night buses between the two capitals, with full sleeper facilities. Being a fan of Polish night trains, which offer transport and accommodation in one ticket, I decided to go for it. Booking ahead, the ticket cost £20 - amazing value, since a hotel plus flight, even if booked ahead, would easily cost £150-plus.

I walked from Portland Place to Victoria Coach Station (nearly 4,000 paces), arriving at 22:30, in good time for the 23:00 departure of the S20 sleeper service to Falkirk via Edinburgh. At 22:40, the bus arrived, and boarding began. First impressions - positive. The bus itself, brand new, according to the conductor/steward, a £500,000 investment.

Inside - it's cramped. Three types of berth - lower/single, lower/double and upper/single. The lower berths have very limited headroom compared to night trains. You have to be a contortionist to get ready for sleep. Remove shoes, outer garments - I found myself sleeping in suit trousers (jeans are better) - and shirt. A light blanket is provided, as is a eye-mask, small bottle of water and muffin.

As I observed about night trains - this is like being on board the International Space Station with the added disadvantage of gravity. Stowage of stuff is the trickiest thing. Emptying pockets for sleep (reading glasses, mobile phones, pens, wallet, notebook, keys, etc) and putting things where they can be easily found is a high art, and must be mastered with extremely limited room to move.

The driver and conductor were both called Kevin and were unfailingly polite, helpful and cheery. Safety instructions (you sleep feet facing direction of travel, put on seat belt round your middle) were read out, and the route - bizarrely - rather than straight up the London-Edinburgh A1, took the bus northwestward along the M40, then through Birmingham, M69... what happened next I don't know as I'd dropped off mid-announcement. Something about roadworks. Lights dimmed. First half-hour or so I was vaguely aware of stopping and starting at numerous traffic lights.

By virtue of the means of transport, a sleeper bus is much bumpier than a sleeper train. I woke up a few times, but nodded off soon after. The berths themselves are not soft, after sleeping on my side for a while I found my bones telling me to change position. Having downed four glasses of wine and a glass of orange juice at the Embassy, I knew that a night visit to the loo would be inevitable. It was clean, pleasant-smelling - and the reason was that men are asked to micturate in a seated position!

But generally, the night journey passed smoothly. Before 7am, the conductor woke everyone up, switching on the cabin lighting gradually. The bus arrived on time. Before disembarking, passengers were invited to help themselves to a carton of orange juice and a croissant.

To sum up - for £20 if booked early, £45 if booked earlier the same week,'s sleeper service from London to Scotland is a great answer to expensive capital hotels and inconvenient flight times. Ideal for tourists and business travellers!

This time two years ago:
The Regent's Canal, London

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

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

This time six years ago:
To Poznań by train

This time eight years ago:
Late autumn drive-time

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Brentham Garden Suburb

Set south of the River Brent, the Brentham Garden Suburb is an architectural jewel of Ealing, one of 15 Conservation Areas, where modernity is resisted and the original buildings preserved. Built between 1903 and 1915, it was a pioneering development, following the precepts of garden cities, co-operative ownership and the Arts and Crafts movement. Some 600 homes make up the estate; to the west the Victorian housing around Pitshanger Lane, to the east the 1930s developments around Brunswick Road.

Brentham Garden Suburbs were designed and built before the motor-car degraded quality of life in cities. Hence - no garages. All cars are parked in the street, making it difficult to snap vistas that reflect the beauty of the area's layout. If you like this architecture, best to come on a weekday during working hours when at least some of the cars are driven away.

Because idealism was at the heart of the concept - there's no pub, just a sports club (in which the British tennis champion Fred Perry began his career). Fred Perry's father was the national secretary of the Co-operative Party, moving to Brentham estate after WW1.

But how were inhabitants expected to travel to work? The nearest station, on the Great Western Railway line from Northolt to Paddington via Old Oak Junction, opened in 1903 and closed in 1947. Brentham Halt (or Brentham Platform as it appears on some old maps) was over half a mile away, and not a convenient walk once the six-lane Western Avenue bisected the land north of the River Brent in the 1930s. And Ealing Broadway station is over a mile and half away.

So without a car, a good long walk was needed to get to the trains. Or even buses, such as they were in the 1920s. I'm sure cycling was popular here too - and the air, before the factories of the Western Avenue started springing up a decade later, was fresh.

The architecture is simple and pure; this was not mass-production like the later 1930s estate along Brunswick Road. A reaction to the cluttered styles of the mid-Victorian era, these Arts and Crafts homes, behind their well-kept hedges, alluded to traditional English village architecture.

Those hedges - quite magnificent, even in late November. Lower at the front of the house, higher at the rear, for privacy, a bastion of green surrounding every home. Neatly trimmed, the hedges add vastly to the visual appeal of the area.

Despite the distance to the main transport and retail hub that is Ealing Broadway, despite the absence of garages and off-street parking, even small two-bedroom terraced houses are being offered for sale at around £800,000.

This is one of my favourite parts of Ealing. The design purity and idealism of the architects and developers of a century ago makes this little enclave stand out from the rather more run-of-the-mill houses to either side of this estate. Designated a conservation area in the 1960s, Brentham Garden Suburb embodies values that make it exceptional.

This time last year:
Ahead of the opening of the second line of the Warsaw Metro
(it would be another four months until it actually did so)

This time two years ago:
Keep an eye on Ukraine...
(Portents of troubles to come)

This time three years ago:
Płock by day, Płock by night

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

This time eight years ago:
Some thoughts on recycling

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stuffocation, asceticism and economic growth

We privileged quarter of humanity live our lives surrounded by too many things. Way more things than we need to live a full, harmonious life, reaching our full potential. I'm minded of this as I work my way through my late mother's clothes and books and ornaments - so many objects accumulated... Most of the clothing that I'm giving to charities was bought in the early 1980s (shoulder pads being the height of fashion then). My mother had four wardrobes full of clothes; my father has just one (and a chest of drawers). And I daren't go into the attic...

Watching the Robert Peston's BBC2 documentary about British retail yesterday, the economic model of the UK became clear. Retailers (food, clothing, furniture) became smarter and smarter over the post-war decades, tempting consumers to buy, buy, buy - turning wants into needs, generating desires, which could be gratified immediately thanks to easy credit. It was extremely interesting hearing Stanley Kalms (now Baron Kalms of Edgware), life president of Dixons Retail saying that the retail boom of 1992-2008 was unsustainable. "I was amazed at the ease of obtaining high amounts of credit. You could see customers walking out of the shop with a thousand pounds' worth of equipment, no deposit, no interest for 12 months... but in my heart I knew it could not possibly last." The bankers in league with the retailers, the boom driven by soaring house prices.

"Spend, spend, spend - women were the worst at it, buying stuff you don't want, you open the cupboard, everything falls out, seven pairs of shoes you never wore" said Stuart Rose (now Lord Rose of Monewden), former executive chairman of Marks & Spencer. My mother was not into shoes; rather, she had a large number of skirts, dresses, blouses, twin-sets, jackets and coats. Maybe she was making up for the austerity years that followed the war and the scrimping and saving when her sons were growing up. It all must go; there's too much clutter.

We're surrounded by it. Books belong in bookcases. But everything else must follow William Morris's golden rule: "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful."

If we all lived life this way, our houses would be emptier by half than they are. Don't buy anything you won't find truly useful, or that does not add to the aesthetic pleasure of your life. Out will go the decorative figurines, the holiday souvenirs, the tasseled scatter cushions... Yet someone makes a living, making these things.

"Truly useful". The average household power drill in the US is used for less than eight minutes in its lifetime. Borrowing or sharing makes more sense here; the sharing economy, powered by the internet, will move society in this direction. And the internet, by making information accessible to an unprecedented degree, will reduce demand for reference books.

Cutting back on buying stuff will hit the economy. Yesterday I blogged about the automotive industry - if we all drove small cars and kept them (like my father) for well over 20 years - demand would wither and with it the jobs of the workers in factories that keep churning out ever-bigger cars. Car factories would make fewer cars, the economy of scale would go into reverse, prices would rise, as cars get pricier so they are treated better and end up carrying on for six or seven decades like the late-1940s cars on Cuba. The Far East's looms would stop spinning if everyone thought twice or more about buying that new shirt or blouse, or repairing old clothes. How much do we really need to attain true happiness, and maximise the potential that our life has offered us?

An ascetic life, pared down to the essentials (for me, an elegant, spacious zero-energy house on Warsaw's fringe, a well-equipped kitchen, tasteful simple furniture, cherished books, no more clothing than needed and two-wheel transport) multiplied by two billion inhabitants of the developed world - would crush economic growth.

Growth? One sector that's growing nicely is self-storage. Can't bear to part with things you no longer need, nor give you pleasure? Box them up and pay someone to store them! There's a self-storage warehouse in West Ealing by Jacob's Ladder footbridge, always busy whenever I pass.

In the old days, there'd be antique, bric-a-brac and junk shops (in descending order of poshness and price). Trouble is, there's a tidal wave of antiques, bric-a-brac and junk everywhere - all can be bought and sold on eBay (Allegro in Poland); in the 1960s, things were rarer and more valuable and could raise the tone of your dwelling. Today, it's all been downgraded to junk - unless you really know what you're looking for. My mother knew Chinese porcelain - I neither know anything about it nor want to know anything about it. I know old cameras - but then again, these have gone the way of everything else - what was once a highly prized classic bull's eye Zeiss Contarex is now an old camera that's not even digital. Surrounded by this stuff I hardly know where to turn.

But then... are we consumers moving in another direction - away from things - and towards services and experiences? Who'd impress you more at a dinner party - an immaculately-dressed person, or a scruff who's just returned from the wilds of Borneo?

The motto of the Millennials - YOLO (You Only Live Once) suggests that stuff will become less important than experience. Stuff's cheap. If not new stuff, 'pre-loved' stuff from charity shops. Not wearing it? Give it away. Make a charity happy. Make a charity shop customer happy. Feel good within yourself about how charitable you are. Win-win-win. Not great news for retailers and manufacturers, but then recycling is so much more virtuous than the slash-and-burn of the late 20th Century consumption model.

Let's apply our consciousness to our consumption process. Buy with awareness of what it is that we are buying - and why we're doing it.

This time three years ago:
Heroes on the wall (for my father)

This time five years ago:
Tax dodge or public service?

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

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

This time eight years ago:
Another point of view

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Cars must fade from our cities, and fade fast.

"What puzzles me is how the cult of the car remains such a popular one. Motorists - the kind who drive as a default rather than occasional or emergency mode of transport - adhere to a religion that hurts society and themselves. Some seem even brainwashed by Top Gear repeats and motoring festivals into thinking a honking lump of metal can be "sexy"."

This is not me ranting away, but an op-ed piece by Rosamund Urwin in London's Evening Standard newspaper. Varsovians - your love affair with the car is a throwback to the 1960s. You are catching up with lost time; but things change, and car use is slowly fading in world's largest cities.

Fading all too slowly. My fourth week in London, I can see how our planet's developed cities are being fouled by the motorcar just as the less developed cities are fouled by open drains. Walking around Ealing, this lovely suburb is blighted by cars. We humans want it all - house, car, clothes, etc - status, in a word. Cut the car out of the equation, and suddenly everything fits. The beautiful Brentham Garden Suburb, so carefully designed by Arts and Crafts architects between 1903 and 1915, is today visually ruined by cars parked in a solid line on both sides of the streets.

Below: Flog the black SUV with the darkened rear windows and buy a detached home, for God's sake. Apart from anything else, the cars are spoiling the view.

It's time to move on. The age of the oversized, fossil-fuel powered car has passed. Its demise will not be quick - people are lazy and selfish. But it will happen, in stages, as the new reality dawns...

Stage One. Realise that there is nothing big or clever about owning a large, powerful car. No, in the developed world, it no longer impresses; it is a symbol not of status but of your anti-social, egotistical personality (think fart in a crowded lift). What does impress, especially in London with its house prices, is property. (A nice detached house at the top end of Birkdale Road is a lot more impressive than a semi off the Brunswick Road. And motorists - you could afford it if you just ditched the mobile status symbol.) Averaged out across the week, you spend 12 plus hours a day in your house and (if you're unfortunate) two in your big vehicle, which costs you a small fortune to finance, insure and run. And contributes to your ill-health in later life.

Stage Two. If you really must have a car, have a small one, and use it as infrequently as you can. Save energy, emit less. Treat the car as a domestic appliance, not as a status symbol. It should be as energy efficient as possible. No low-profile tyres to scrape expensive alloy wheels on kerbs. No barrage of optional extras that pump up the list price to twice that of the base model. No 'performance pack' that potentially gives you vastly more speed than is legally permitted on public roads. Still, if you do need a car - hire one, or share one. Or call a taxi. The ownership model is in decline.

Stage Three. You live in a city. Use its amenities - public transportation. Walk. We all need to rack up 10,000 paces a day (8km/5 miles) of walking a day, according to the NHS, the World Health Organisation and the Surgeon-General of the US. That's really hard to do if you drive everywhere by default. Half and hour of brisk cycling is the equivalent in health terms of 5,000 paces. And on a bus or train you can benefit from Twitter, Google and the rest of the social media. Which you can't in a car. The Millennial Generation is more interested in the latest mobile devices than in owning cars. You'll not impress them with a Porsche Cayenne Turbo S. An Apple iPhone 6S draws more gasps.

Finally, a bit of good news...
Nearly 60% of Poles choose public transport over car
Poles are becoming conscious of the Earth's finite resources and are making changes in their own households, the Ministry of the Environment's research indicated. According to the survey, over 70% of Poles limit their water consumption, while 57% choose public transportation or cycling over cars whenever they can.  Half of respondents said they purchase energy-saving light bulbs, refrigerators and washing machines (40%), additionally, they switch off lights when leaving a room (67%).
Ministry of Environment
This time two years ago:
Leeds, by day

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

This time six years ago:
November weather notes

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

This time eight years ago:

Friday, 20 November 2015

My mother's funeral

My mother's funeral was held yesterday; the Mass was at the Polish church on Windsor Road, Ealing. Almost three weeks after her death, but as it turned out the timing allowed everyone to turn up.

After the Mass, the coffin leaves the church...

...for the journey to Mortlake Crematorium

Final words from Ks. Darek
The wake was held at my parents' house, which I feel is right and fitting; my mother spent 45 years - more than half of her life living here, and we are sure that this is how she'd liked to have had her final send-off with family and friends. She outlived most of her contemporaries - of all the people on her wedding photo, only two are still alive, her husband and her sister.

After the funeral, a man came up to me to offer his condolences. Much older than me, much younger than my parents, I immediately assumed he'd come to the UK in the 1980s. But he said "Your mother taught me, when I was a small boy in Nazareth, during the war". Wow. He must have survived the deportations to Siberia as an infant, and ended up in the Middle East, to have my mother - then a newly qualified primary school teacher, aged just 18 - give him an educational start in life. Wow.

This time last year:
Poland Works! revisited

This time three years ago:
Kraków-Warsaw by train

This time five years ago:
Warsaw Blogmeet

This time six years ago:
My fixie reconfigured

This time eight years ago:
Not In My Back Yard

Thursday, 19 November 2015

PiS, thinking wishfully about the Polish village

Having listened through to almost all of the maiden speech (exposé or policy statement) delivered by Poland's new premier Beata Szydło yesterday, I was left with two impressions. The first is that this massive wish list is going to be improbably expensive, the second is how clearly PiS believes that Big Government can solve Poland's problems.

I have not the time to go through the whole speech point by point here. But one fragment of the speech struck me. It is worthy of deeper analysis, because it reflects so well way the new government's instincts.

She said:
Nasz rząd jednoznacznie opowiada się przeciwko temu, co określane jest nie kiedy jako "zwijanie państwa" - szkół, bibliotek, placówek pocztowych, komisariatów policji, połączeń komunikacji. Proces ten musi być zatrzymany, a w wielu przypadkach odwrócony. Nie nastąpi to oczywiście z dnia na dzień, ale w pewnej perspektywie swego rodzaju powrót państwa na wieś i do mniejszych miejscowości zostanie przeprowadzony.
"Our government clearly opposes what is sometimes referred to as the "rolling back of the state" - schools, libraries, post offices, police stations, public transport. This process must be stopped and in many cases reversed. This of course will not happen overnight, but over a certain perspective [of time], a return of the state to the countryside and smaller towns will be carried out."
Musimy dążyć do powrotu do sytuacji, która miała już miejsce za naszych rządów, gdy na wsparcie wsi przeznaczone było prawie 3 proc. PKB. Chodzi, jeszcze raz to powtarzam, o sprawiedliwość, wyrównywanie szans, wyrównywanie poziomów życia. Chodzi także o przyzwoitość, bo reguły przyzwoitości były w ciągu ostatnich lat wielokrotnie łamane w całej sferze, która służy obsłudze wsi.
"We must strive to return to the situation that has already taken place under our [2005-07] government, when support for rural areas was almost 3% of GDP. It is, I repeat, about justice, equal opportunities, aligning the levels of living. It's also about decency, because the rules of decency have been in recent years repeatedly violated across the whole sphere, that serves the village."

Yes, the Polish countryside (wieś = 'countryside', lit. 'the village') has a problem. The narrative that Premier Szydło is promoting is that over the eight years, malignant forces have been violating the hitherto-decent Polish village.

No mention of the three real forces that have been busy depopulating Poland's countryside - demographics, labour mobility, alcohol abuse and consolidation of land holdings.

For the past ten years, the number of children starting school in Poland has been shrinking at an average rate of around 17,500 a year. Schools are closing not because of any 'violation of decency', but because there are simply not enough children being born to keep many village schools open.

Secondly, young people are leaving the Polish countryside in large numbers. The brighter ones head off to university, and tend not to return to the plough, but find employment in Poland's thriving cities - or seek their fortune abroad. And less academically talented young women are more likely than their male peers to move to nearby towns to seek employment in the service sector.

Thirdly, as you can see from the road, from the train or - best - from 30,000ft, Poland's farm holdings are being consolidated as successful farmers buy up land from their less-able neighbours. The average size of a Polish farm (gospodarstwo rolne) is 10.5 hectares, up from eight hectares before Poland joined the EU. However, there are massive differences between farm size in Poland's regained territories in the west and north-east of the country and in what was Poland prior to WW2. In Małopolska, average farm size is under four hectares (!!!). In Zachodnio-Pomorskie, it's 30 hectares.

Now, will the PiS government invest in schools, libraries, post offices, police stations and public transport across all Polish villages equally? How will all this be paid for? There's the 500+ programme and earlier retirement that need financing...

A few months ago, a local government official told me that towns in his province are depopulating so swiftly that the state has to be scaled back; there simply isn't the money in the provincial budget to maintain all the institutions that a miasto powiatowe (or 'county seat') is required to have.

Poland's tens of thousands of villages are all different. There are richer and poorer villages in richer and poorer parts of richer and poorer provinces. Will each be propped up with public money equally?

With a judicious amount of public money, local authorities can turn around failing cities. The money needs to pump-prime private investment into the area. At big-city level, Birmingham is a good example - EU funds were used to build the International Convention Centre, prompting the further redevelopment of the heart of the city with largely private money. But British villages are doing it for themselves. As I wrote the other day, villages are where the British want to retire to. They bring with them wealth, they invest in the community, crowd-funding local shops and pubs.

Ms Szydło's government has four years to make good this and many other costly promises. I shall be watching closely. If she succeeds, I will applaud. I'd love Poland's countryside to develop and flourish, to become more attractive, more tourism-friendly and indeed wealthy. We shall see.

This time two years ago:
An unseasonably warm autumn in Warsaw

This time three years ago:
Shedding light on an unused road

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

This time five years ago:
Fish and chips in Warsaw

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

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Cameron, Paris, ISIS, PiS and Brexit

Hasn't Europe changed since Friday's mass murders in Paris. Fault lines in the UK, in Poland - across the EU - have been redrawn. Complexities intertwine, opinions shift and reshape.

How many Europeans now favour Schengen? How many now favour greater state powers to intercept our e-mails and mobile phone calls? How many suddenly have qualms about letting large numbers of migrants from the Middle East into their countries?

And what does this all mean for the future of Europe, Britain's place in the EU, and Poland's new government? Five events stand out as significant.

1) The Kalashnikovs used in Friday's murders are said to have come from the Balkans. Criminal gangs there are making money selling automatic rifles and rocket grenades to Islamist murderers. Once inside the Schengen area, the weapons passed freely all the way to Paris via Brussels. Schengen's border with the Balkans runs through Slovenia and Hungary. Now, both countries have put up anti-migrant fences along their southern borders to cries of outrage from the well-meaning European left. But how many of them now feel a bit more secure now that a well-worn gun-smuggling route has been cut? The happy notion of open borders between Schengen members is beginning to look like becoming an anachronism.

2) One of the murderers, it is suggested, had entered the EU as a refugee from Syria, passing through Greece in September. How many more 'sleeper' ISIS terrorists have slipped into the EU posing as migrants? Alright, the vast majority of those refugees are fleeing the same murderous thuggery as Paris experienced last week. But if even 1% of those hundreds of thousands seeking asylum in the EU are ISIS sleepers, or simply have the potential to be radicalised, then yes - many more people today are thinking it's better to be safe than sorry than thought this last week.

3) Solidarity with the people of France - Wembley Stadium - scores of thousands of Englishmen singing the Marseillaise and shouting 'Vive la France!' is moving. How many of them were hitherto Little Englanders with a less-than-secret liking for Nigel Farage? The evacuation of central Hanover this evening shows that the threat hangs over the whole of Europe. So - shared insecurity and feelings of solidarity are bringing Europe closer together emotionally, while at the same time the same fears are closing European countries off from one another physically.

4) Russia draws world attention away from its crimes in Eastern Ukraine, as Putin talks about cooperating with France to punish the perpetrators of last month's terrorist bombing of a Russian passenger jet killing 221 civilians over Sinai. Russia's early intervention in Syria was mainly directed at anti-Assad rebels rather than ISIS. The attack on Metrojet Flight 9268 is another factor changing things. Putin changing his spots? Don't be taken in, West. Today, Ukraine reported 25 ceasefire violations in the Donbass.

5) Poland's new government. Amateurs, Dude. It will take PiS a while to settle in. The new ministers' top fonctionnaires will - I hope - give them some lessons in how not to put their feet into their mouths, especially in the international arena. (That's where the undersecretaries of state and department heads are not being summarily sacked.) PiS is Eurosceptic, though not daft enough to want to try to pull Poland out of the EU. As such, PiS has much in common with David Cameron. There can be some interesting talks ahead between the UK and Polish governments on issues that will affect Cameron's EU negotiations. PiS might want to fight unto the death for Poles' rights to in-work benefits in the UK, but then Cameron should remind them that President Duda campaigned on a platform of 'no sale of Polish fields and forests to foreigners'. 

The arguments and battle-lines are changing as swiftly as clouds scudding across a storm-blown sky. The outcome of the UK's Brexit referendum is totally in the air - it could go either way.

One thing the new Polish government needs to be VERY MUCH AWARE OF as it deals with Cameron: Poland NEEDS the UK in the EU. It needs a strong EU as a backstop against the Kremlin's neo-imperial ambitions. Poland needs the UK in NATO. It needs the UK as a strong ally. Winding up the Brits to the point of provoking a Brexit over the threat to remove access to tax credits for Poles working in the UK makes no sense. Poland was partitioned by Russia for 123 years, then occupied by the USSR for a further 45 years after five years of Nazi occupation. Membership of a strong, united EU is Poland's best guarantee that the Kremlin will not try to push Russia's borders westwards. Poland's PiS government must do all it can to ally with Cameron and make the necessary adjustments to the EU to keep the UK in. And keeping the UK in is more likely to keep Scotland in the UK.

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
Foggy days and Warsaw's airports
This time five years ago:
Local elections - the lure of ultra-localism

Monday, 16 November 2015

Teetering between rage and reason

How to come to terms with Friday's obscenity in Paris? The base human instinct is anger - to lash out at the perpetrators and their sympathisers. Smash barbarism with barbarism. I found myself overwhelmed by feelings of rage. This filth should be crushed with extreme vehemence. Then I quickly pull myself up - no, this is not the way - these are the very same emotions that drive the jihadists against our civilisation.

One must not stoop to their level.

So what is the way? The most important question in our daily lives (I write from West London, not from Warsaw where Islam is a somewhat more distant and abstract concept) is how to relate to the Muslims that form part and parcel of the towns and cities in which Britons live.

On the one hand, there are observations. My father , 92, says that Muslims will be first to offer their seats to him whenever he travels on a crowded bus. And I recall at Christmas one year waiting at Tesco, watching a man shake a tin for a local hospice. The only people I saw putting money in were Muslims. The Muslim girl from Marks and Spencers that helped me sort out the catering for my mother's funeral was helpful and polite. So where's the problem?

The problem is that 100% of the terrorist outrages that we are currently witnessing are caused by Muslims. Not Christians, nor Hindus nor Buddhists nor Jews nor Scientologists. Murderous attacks claiming innocent lives in Paris, Sinai, Tunisia, Mumbai, London, Madrid, New York, not to mention the almost-daily carnage witnessed in Baghdad or Kabul - all carried out in the name of Islam. Sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite is claiming the lives of thousands of ordinary people each year, people going about their day-to-day business as the people of Paris were doing last Friday.

What is it about Islam that makes it so easy to weaponise the religion? After all, there are Jewish, Christian and Hindu fundamentalists that are also out-and-out nutters and yet they do not slaughter innocent people or blow themselves to pieces. There must be something intrinsic in the way the teachings of the Koran can be interpreted that enable disaffected worshipers to perform such inhuman acts upon people with a different world view to their own.

The worrying thing for Britons and French people living cheek-by-jowl with Muslims - seeing them in their streets each day, sharing public transport with them, shopping with them - is not being able to see into their souls, to tell whether they are kind, generous-spirited people or potential suicide bombers.

Before 9/11, the sight of Arab women dressed head to toe in black with just a slit for the eyes as they walked from Marble Arch to Oxford Street was slightly comical. After 9/11 it became sinister.  Just as young men with long beards and long shirts overhanging baggy trousers today look sinister. Especially if carrying rucksacks.

They represent a different outlook to life, they represent something that native-born Europeans do not naturally feel comfortable with. And just as women can say that the way certain men behave make them feel uncomfortable, so British people should be allowed to say that they feel uncomfortable about Muslim women in burqas or Muslim men with long beards - without being labelled racist.

The French Republic's insistence on secularity, imposed at a time of revolutionary fervour on Catholics, touches Muslims' religious affinity greatly - headscarf bans in schools, for instance. Here, in Britain, tolerance of religious displays is far greater. Here on the streets of West London, one sees many Muslims looking as though they take their religious precepts very seriously. (North London's ultra-orthodox Jews are a parallel, although once more I'd stress that they do not commit acts of terrorists violence in Europe.)

The social media makes much play of the moderate Muslim hashtag #NotInMyName. It would be comforting to Europeans living in areas with large Muslim populations for those moderate Muslims to make their moderation more visible to others. Why aren't they doing more to display their loathing for the extremist murderous ideology that taints their religion? To show that they identify more closely with the values of their host population than with barbarous fundamentalism? To show that they are intolerant of intolerance?

By not doing so, the host population's feelings of discomfort rise.

But by wearing, say, a white badge saying #NotInMyName, would moderate Muslims mark themselves out as potential targets for those members of their community with more radical views? Should moderate Muslims respond to these terrorist outrages by choosing to wear more western garb, abandoning headscarves and shaving beards, so as to visibly distance themselves from the extremists?

And what about the Bangladeshi bloggers hacked to death in the streets because they were promoting secularism... These attacks worry me because they defy the narrative that 'only ISIS-radicalised Muslims take lives'. No, these are simply haters who flew off the handle, unable to contain their rage because someone had cast doubt on the authenticity of the word of God as handed down through the Koran.

Seeing Salafist preachers in Birmingham last year, who had set up a large platform in a busy shopping street from which to proselytise passers-by made me ponder what would be the fate of Christians trying to do likewise in Islamabad.

We read in the media about the 'preachers of hate'. These are certainly the extremists, and no doubt they are being very closely monitored by Britain's security services. Hearing Scotland Yard say that six terror attacks have been foiled in the past 12 months raises people's confidence. Increased security budgets will do doubt be spent on recruiting and training Muslims to keep watch on their communities.

As yet, the UK has not witnessed any backlash against Muslims here following the Paris terror attacks. Reason seems to be rising above rage, at least for the present.

For Poland, ISIS is a distant threat, whereas the Kremlin is the greater worry. Not having a Muslim community of any significance, and not ever having colonised any Muslim country, Poland's only ISIS-related worry is to do with having to accept tens of thousands of refugees from the Middle East, courtesy of the EU. The Paris attack will change the discourse on this issue in Poland dramatically.

These refugees are, of course, mostly fleeing ISIS. The scale of bloodshed being visited upon Iraq and Syria by ISIS is vastly greater than what we've seen in Paris. Ordinary people living in Raqqa and other towns overrun by ISIS, fearing for their lives, are seeking refuge - and a better life - in Europe.

Poland has had to accept its quota of these refugees. As we saw in Paris, among these refugees may be ISIS murderers. The least Poland can do is to very carefully profile those it takes in, on a points-based system, giving preference to non-Sunnis, families with children, women and the elderly - those less likely to participate in terrorism in other words. Psychological screening - understanding the refugees' motivations and worldview from in-depth interviews - should also be used.

Finally, to put Paris into perspective. A quarter of a million civilians were killed during the 63 days of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, with 40,000-50,000 civilians being slaughtered between 5-12 August in the district of Wola alone (see Wola massacre). Less than a year later, the evil ideology that had motivated this barbarism had been totally crushed, while today the German nation is alive and well. The Nanking Massacre, in which Japanese troops slaughtered up to 300,000 Chinese civilians in December 1937-January 1938 was a foretaste of the barbarism and inhumanity visited upon the Far East by Imperial Japan. It took two atomic bombs to restore Japan to the path of civilisation.

ISIS are not people with whom the civilised world can hold a meaningful dialogue. Peace talks - like the ones that resolved the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland - make no sense when the enemy holds such irrational views. Militarily, ISIS needs to be crushed in Syria and Iraq. But across Europe, moderate Muslims need to take a long, hard look at where their loyalty lies. As I wrote the other day, my mother took a solemn oath of allegiance to Her Majesty the Queen when she became a naturalised British Citizen nearly 60 years ago - and she kept that oath for the rest of her life. And the British State was good to her. Muslims should demonstrably swear their allegiance to the British State. Should they not wish to, they may migrate elsewhere.

This time last year:
Poland - it works!

This time two years ago:
Bricktorian Birmingham

This time four years ago:
Fog hits Modlin Airport

This time five years ago:
The local elections and what they mean

This time six years ago:
Synchronicity of shape - Powiśle, Hanger Lane, Mel's Drive-In

This time seven years ago:
The last of Jeziorki's noted landmark - the Rampa na kruszywa

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki spared high-density development thanks to airport zoning

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Face to face with the UK's retailing scene

Two weeks I've been in England now, all but two days of which have been spent in Ealing, and a lot of shopping has gone on. It's fascinating to compare the retail industry in the UK with that in Poland - it's not just the prices, but the approach, the business model.

Let's start with my favourite - Waitrose. The nearest big supermarket to my father's house (1.2km). This is a posh, up-market chain (think Piotr i Paweł or Alma Market), but there's many more of them. Legend has it that when a Waitrose opens in your neighbourhood, house prices shoot up. Craving squid linguini en su tinta? Waitrose will have it, and a wine to go with. Posh shop = posh prices. Don't come here looking for deals on Heinz Baked Beans (much cheaper at Lidl). Do come here for variety, novelty and customer service. So many first-class cheeses, from across Britain and Europe. Now, my father has a MyWaitrose card. So he gets discount coupons. This is great. Buy anything at Waitrose, and you are eligible for a free coffee from a posh coffee machine. Buy stuff for over a fiver (weekdays) and you can pick up a free newspaper. Spend a bit more at the weekends and get a free paper and coffee... Every month, my father gets coupons. Spend 40 quid and get eight quid off. And the offers combine - buy six bottles of wine, get 25% off. So we bought six bottles, came to £45, got the 25% off and the £8 off, so we paid just over £29 in total.

Next up - Lidl. Exactly the same business model as in Poland - surprise and delight the customer. It's now the run-up to Christmas, so there are all the Deluxe-branded goodies like that giant Parma ham, smoked reindeer meat, huge jars of anchovies - most competitively priced; half-price Roquefort... and more - I really recommend Hatherwood's Green Gecko IPA, brewed by Marston's at Wychwood for Lidl - better than any beer I've bought from Waitrose. (Can we hope to see Green Gecko in Jeziorki Lidl during British Week?) We have two Lidls - in Hanwell and in Greenford. Both very diverse and multicultural in terms of clientele. And all those Lidl brands, Lovilio, Milvona, Galereux, Baresa, Whacktoffo (OK, I made the last one up) that feature in Lidls across our great continent.

Marks and Spencer. Food. The saviour of Britain's great clothing retailer. Going head-to-head with Waitrose for the high-end consumer seeking premium food. M&S is where I've ordered food for my mother's wake on Friday; posh canapés, pétites patisseries, fruit kebabs, vegetarian sandwiches, pork pies - more than enough for 35 people - for less than £200. Shopping in the Ealing Broadway M&S food hall today, I was amazed how packed it was. How many people come here to buy... food. Far more than were shopping for shirts and socks upstairs. Must say though, the customer service is excellent. My father bought a black coat for the funeral, but the sleeves were too long. For £15, the sleeves were shortened by an inch, the bottom button repositioned above the top one, the entire job totally perfect, done on time.

Polski Skleps. This is a revolution. Parade Delicatessen, opposite Ealing Broadway station, has just closed its doors forever, after serving Ealing's Polish community since 1952. Its place has been taken by the likes of Kujawiak (West Ealing), Delight (Greenford), Mieszko (Hanwell) - much larger formats than the cramped Parade Deli. The new wave of Polski Skleps have an incredible variety of branded Polish products, imported from Poland or made in Britain by Polish entrepreneurs (bakers in particular). World-beating Polish soups, bread and smoked meats. Polish music is blaring from the speakers, most of it żałosne - Disco Polo played on the keyboard of a broken pocket calculator in a minor key. A vast range of Polish magazines. Many products which are immediately replaceable by UK products, but sporting a Polish brand and sold at premium prices. Lays Crisps are, after all, Walkers Crisps in the UK. But then a mega TV paka of Lejsy brings back the magic of a night back home watching Tańce z Gwiazdami na Lodzie like a grab-bag of Walkers just cannot do.  A sign says in both languages "minimum sale of beer - two cans". This is where the tins of Perła, Tyskie, Warka and Lech that line the gutters and grace the parkland of the London Borough of Ealing come from. At Kujawiak, I bought some chilled gołąbki and pierogi z mięsem as well as a large loaf of sourdough rye bread. Further up the road I came across more Polish shops - in one, a kilo of Polish apples was £1.49, in the next, £1.99. In Poland, a kilo of apples would be between 1.49 zł and 1.99 zł. So six times as much.

Co-op. There are two on Pitshanger Lane. I LOVE Pitshanger Lane. It is the essence of an English village high street, located in a London suburb. With its high-class butchers, its fish & chip shop, its cafés and the (Duke of) Kent pub that my mother used to call "my second address" when I still lived at home with my parents, Pitshanger Lane is a great place to meander down to. The two Co-ops are not the cheapest shops but the one at the western end of Pitshanger Lane is 0.9km (just over half a mile) away, and so the nearest food shop to home, a lovely walk down Cleveland Park. The Co-op sells the essentials - milk, butter, tomatoes, Lavazza Qualita Rossa - but little more. Ah. And, very important round these parts, you can get a fresh copy of Tydzień Polski every Friday morning. The Co-op is a grown-up convenience store, delightfully located compared to all of the above.

Tesco. The Tesco in the old Hoover Building (the world's second-greatest Art-Deco building after the Nebraska State Capitol) can almost compete with the smaller Polski Skleps when it comes to fullness of range of Polish products, but misses in one area - soups. Whether in jars (best), sachets of liquid (second best) or sachets of powder (acceptable at a pinch), Polish soups reign - żurek (sour wheat), ogórkowa (pickled cucumber), grochówka (pea), krupnik (barley), grzybowa (mushroom), barszcz (beetroot - best in its Ukrainian variation) or pomidorowa (tomato). Sadly, Tesco does not stock these. But in general, a pleasant enough shopping experience, even though the fabric of the magnificent building is starting to get shabby. I remember Tesco Hoover from its post-opening glory days in the 1990s.

Sainsbury's. I don't know, I didn't go in a Sainsbury's. I mean, why on earth should I go into a Sainsbury's? Like, nothing's on offer here that I can't buy elsewhere, it's not the cheapest shop, it's not the nearest shop...

Summing up then. Food in Britain can be cheap when you shop around. The UK food retail market is going in two directions - up market and budget. The middle is falling away rapidly. Retailers have to surprise and delight; Lidl is doing this well. I've never stepped foot in an Aldi, so can't comment on how it compares to Lidl as an up-and-coming challenger to the UK's Big Four. But my shopping preferences suggests which way UK food retailing is going.

And Poland? What about Poland? A completely different market. Poorer, though catching up really quickly. Different dynamics. More about that on my return, no doubt.

This time last year:
Bricktorian Birmingham

This time three years ago:
Welcome to Lemmingrad

This time five years ago:
Dream highway

This time six years ago:
The Days are Marching

This time eight years ago:
First snow, 2007

Friday, 13 November 2015

In which I have a try at automatic writing

My mother left several books about paranormal phenomena; I leafed through them and spotted a chapter in one about automatic writing - just completely letting go, switching off the conscious part of the brain, and letting the subconscious just write, write.

I've closed my eyes, and am typing whatever flows into my mind. You've got to focus and let go at the same time... focus... let go. Concentrate yet relax. Pay attention, yet don't. At the same time. You got to let the words come to you, be honest, stay open, stay aware... a wave of... a flood of feeling is washing over me... still waiting for a signal... still waiting for the conduit to open... here it is...

...It's the late 1940s in England; a pale-green Ford Prefect stands outside the wooden gate and privet hedge, cream coloured gate, sound of the latch opening; concrete pebble-dashed path leads to a cream coloured door, bobbled glass in the door, chromium-plated numbers screwed to the door, a large brass knocker, a buzzer... ringing, dull ringing... the garden looks pretty and yet neglected, hydrangeas, algae on the damp stone. To the left, a drive to the garage, It's Ealing, but sixty years ago, or more... late February, mid-morning, damp... A woman's voice, a woman's gaze, no longer young, but not yet middle aged.

Inside, an arm in a knitted cardigan reaches to reposition an ornament on cream-painted wooden shelving...a polished parquet floor, looking back at that front door with a circular, stained-glass window and two smaller windows each side; smell of floor polish, stale kitchen odour, Oxo and butter, manilla envelopes on the window sill; a cough, footsteps on the staircase, a resigned air of loss; coal scuttle, a smile as I look over familiar titles on the bookshelf. Maroon bound tomes. Wireless? R101. Telegram. Memory of a Mediterranean holiday, long ago.

Another smile. Bus to the Broadway. Farnham Common. Staying over with friends during the Blitz. Tape across the windows. Yes, I remember. Ten and six, hire purchase. Empty house today, just me. Sea shells, gathered in my happy childhood. Hmm... Sand Between The Toes – A.A. Milne. Damp pages. Memories, shared with others, common memories, ivy on the vicarage wall, fondness – did I? Another smile.

Another manilla envelope lands on the raffia-work door mat. Indian Civil Service – yes, I know, the old joke, people still out there. Strong people. Ha! Good friends of my parents. Yes, I remember them, playing with their children; sandcastles, Cornwall, Great Western from Paddington, packing cases, tea-chests, holidaying with the others. (Strong, pleasant, familiar feelings). Yes. Others - others who walk these same pavements as me. To the public library, borrow books; yes, and there's three and six pence. Let me see – how much is left? Hmm... more than I thought, but not enough to feel comfortable with. I remember that guest house in Oxford. Some people have telephones you know. Certainly, vernacular. “Can I 'phone Jeremy from here?” “Please – be my guest”. I won't ask how much you pay the Post Office. No, it's about the loss. A great loss. Too much time spent gazing out of windows, wondering, worrying...

Pot of tea. For one. Look out into the back garden. Crocuses already! How lovely, Mabel. Botanical Gardens – haven't been down to Kew for a while. Maybe I should. Maybe I'll meet – no, silly idea. It's just started to rain again. Will do the garden good; but I wanted a walk. Been in the house alone too long. Galoshes! Yes! And (wicked thought) grand-mama's umbrella! Then a more sober reflection; what good is it now but for what it is - to keep one dry!

But look – the sky's clearing, it is you know; from upstairs I can see shafts of sunlight playing on the steeple of St Stephen's church. Three and six in my purse. Not bad. Can have a fine day out on three and six. Take the 65A down to Kew? I feel better now; there's a plan, there's hope. I stroke my hand, look at my watch. Did I wind it up this morning? Is it time? Buttercups – another memory – staring intently at a single buttercup – the colour, the leathery texture of the shiny yellow petals. Three thirty; yes, it is, it's time. My purse... a florin, a shilling, a thrupenny bit, two pennies, two ha'pennies. House keys. It's difficult, coping with it all, you know...

Mr Parks has just driven off in his car. I've politely suggested to him time and time again that he doesn't leave it overnight outside my house. He has his own garage. He's just being lazy. Barley wine? Don't mind if I do! Should I eat first? Or go out now? And pop into Lyons? Or go to Kew tomorrow? Let's go to Kew tomorrow and spend the afternoon looking through the Illustrated London News. I'm still not feeling right. Still feel there's a lot missing. Not happy, like I was as a child. Yes, I was happy then. Did the sun always shine on my childhood? TEN AND SIX! Two half-crowns and another florin in the lining of my raincoat.

Mrs Cale suggests that I take up amateur dramatics at Questors. Tin of paint and do something about the gate at last? Tin of paint out in the garage? Don't go in there often these days. But the larder, mind - garden peas, two tins. Peaches, Ambrosia rice pudding, corned beef. Tins. Jars. Mustard. Pickled onions. Mind racing – clouds scudding across the sky, wind in the chimney, photographs on the mantelpiece. Time to do something. Pick up the Middlesex County Times. What's on at the pictures? Nothing of note this week, it must be said. Radio Times. A concert, Vaughan-Williams and Elgar. Uplifting, but too many, you know, memories.

Yell. I want to yell at everything! It's so lonely here. No. No must not be ... must not show signs of... hang on, hang on, it's Tuesday, Sunday's a long way away. O God our Help in Ages Past! What to do? The sun shines through the clouds again. I hear a motorcycle in the street outside. Go for a walk? Not raining any more. Is there a rainbow, I wonder. Galoshes, the ground's wet.

Ten and six. Buy some lamb chops - I've got the coupons - greens, potatoes; it's not so cold outdoors, see?...

...Michael – you're not reading me correctly. There's too much self-pity in your portrayal of me. I really can be quite bright, and witty, should I choose to be. You visited me on a bad day. Now, that's enough.

This time two years ago:
Free wi-fi in every room?

This time three years ago:
An advanced plan to escape the Hammer of Darkness

This time four years ago:
Poppies and pride

This time five years ago:
Setting sun in the mountains

This time six years ago:
That learning moment

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

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

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Out and about in rural Derbyshire with Dziadzio

My brother invited our father and me to his home in Duffield, in rural Derbyshire, a beautiful part of the Midlands. Making the most of my hire car, we drove up, and today we set off to see the sights, with my brother our local guide. Below: on Alport Height, looking out over Wirksworth.

The beauty of the English landscape, from 1,000ft (310m) above sea level. See how the earth dips and rises, how the woodlands, hedges, stone walls cling to its contours.

Below: the Alport Stone, 20ft (6m) high, a pillar of gritstone a little downhill from the summit, facing the west.

But wait - turn around through 180 degrees and look east, to the summit... seven radio towers... the sky criss-crossed with contrails of airliners as they cross the Midlands at cruising height.

On, on to Wirksworth, and its restored railway station, which once channelled 400,000 tons of locally quarried limestone each year into the British economy. From Duffield runs a railway, run by volunteers, with as service at this time of year that operates just two days a week. The Duffield to Wirksworth line is noted for its fine collection of 1950s diesel railcars, two of which are seen below.

To the north of Wirksworth is quarry country - some of Britain's finest building and sculptures were of limestone from these parts, stone of great purity and strength. The quarries - mostly abandoned now - are being turned into visitor attractions by volunteers, who give up their time to restore Britain's industrial heritage after decades of neglect. Below: here we are at the end of the Steeple Grange Light Railway. The whole area resembles scenes the Zone from Tarkovsky's Stalker.

Below: at the National Stone Centre a few miles from Steeple Grange. Dziadzio attempts to shift a Rolls-Royce-engined shunter that stands by the High Peak Trail. The National Stone Centre is full of geological wonders; 330 million years ago, this would have been a beach on the shores of a tropical coral sea.

The weather begins to turn; clouds scud rapidly across the sky; time for lunch. We retire to the bistro in Wirksworth for soup, chorizo and omelette. Wirksworth is a beautiful little town, very pleasing on the eye. Below: back to the car park by the church, we pass a milestone.

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

This time five years ago:
Setting sun in the mountains

This time six years ago:
That learning moment

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Cultural differences, Poland - UK

Sitting in the Stag and Huntsman in Hambleden, a lovely old pub in a lovely old Buckinghamshire village, one of the essential cultural difference between Poland and Great Britain became crystal clear to me.

It is the village. Examine the villages in both countries, and you will see the core of what makes Poles different to Brits.

In England, the village is the repository of essential English values. It is here in Hambleden that WH Smith, newspaper vendor and bookseller - who made his fortune placing kiosks by stations as Britain's railways boomed - retired to. The village - like many around it - Fingest, Turville, Skirmett, Frieth - is extremely picturesque (it often appears in films). Its topography bears some examination, for it is here that lies the heart of the difference between Poland and England.

Hambleden is a largish group of cottages and a manor house clustered around a village green, a village church, a village hall, a village store and a village pub. Fields are large, regular in shape, interspersed by woodland. Roads run off in all directions - down towards the river, up into the wooded heights, east and west to neighbouring villages. It is undulating terrain; villages nestle in the folds of hills. Below: the Village Hall, Hambleden.

It's a Sunday lunchtime, and the Stag and Huntsman is packed. Poles would look through the window, and remark that these people would be better off saving money by cooking their food and eating in in their own homes - it's cheaper. It occurred to me that what these local people are doing as they spend their money on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding is investing in their community. It's not just about creating local jobs for bar staff, kitchen staff, farmers and brewers. It's about building trust and friendships between people in the village.

Below: beyond the butcher's shop, Hambleden's village inn, the Stag and Huntsman.

The Polish village, in contrast, is typically strung out along a long, straight road, with no discernible centre. This makes sense as the landscape's table-top flat. Ideal for mobile warfare. Left: ribbon-thin strips of land run off at right angles from this road, each farmed by different farmers (click to enlarge), the sons of sons of sons who had too many sons. I've also mentioned the importance of primogeniture in defining the difference between Poland and England - and in particular the countryside. In England, custom and law had it that the eldest son inherited the entire landed estate - as a whole. Younger sons joined the army, the church, the civil service. Or went off to conquer an empire, invent steam engines or football. In Poland, a father would divide his estate between sons, with each son ending up with ever-smaller strips of land, just enough to subsist on.

Other than the church on Sunday, there's no social focus. Yes, there's the shop, and outside it Pan Heniek and Pan Ziutek will while the afternoon away supping tins of Warka Pstrąg And indeed, they bring with them to the UK the habit of outdoor drinking and depositing their empty tins of Lech, Tyskie and Żywiec around Britain's parkland.

Yet roaming around the Polish countryside, I yearn for those village hostelries where a pie and a pint can be consumed in agreeable surroundings while resting weary legs.

As a result, the British Aristocracy is numerically a minute percentage of the population. The Polish szlachta, or nobility, watered down by split inheritance, numbered some 8%-10% of the population at its peak. Better to be a somebody with a tiny parcel of land and a noble surname than a nobody forced to invent stuff like steam engines, telegraphs, mechanised looms, blast furnaces or football.

As I have written before, the English countryside is where one wants to retire to, the Polish countryside is where one wants to escape from. The Polish wieś seethes with zawiść - jealous hatred or hateful jealousy - neighbours cannot countenance the fact that others are doing better than they through harder work, more judicious crop rotation, earlier (or later) planting (or reaping) - or just better luck.

But back to Hambleden. I doubt if all but the smallest number of villagers living here actually makes a living from the land. The large landholdings are farmed efficiently and industrially; here and there some organic farming takes place, but generally this is arable and livestock country, well maintained and managed. The majority of its 1,500 villagers are recent arrivals who have bought properties with monies earned or inherited or both; I'd guess the village is 50% retired City folk and entrepreneurs who've exited their businesses, with the minority being people connected to the village through their kin.

In Poland, I get the sense that the majority of Varsovians are only one or two generations removed from the land. In 2001, I remember going for a walk with my children, aged eight and six, and seeing a slaughtered pig being drained of blood, its throat slit, lying on a large wooden table in the middle of a farmyard. At work the next day, I mentioned this to my colleagues Beata and Joasia. Both laughed and said they could still remember seeing the same scene as children on their grandfathers' farms. Most of urban Britain is five or even ten generations removed from the land. And with that comes learned dependence (on the mill-owner or the State), but that's another story.

Poland needs its villages to get more connected, to discover a sense of community, of win-win, of public-spiritedness, building trust between neighbours. Village teams - bowling, darts, cricket - compete with one another in English. Nothing like this happens in Poland.

But to get things kick started, there's no better way to do it than by opening small cafés, bars, restaurants, pubs. Maybe in a generation or two's time, the Polish village is where wealthier Poles will want to retire to.

This time last year:
Schadenfreude! The downfall of Hofman & Co.

This time two years ago:
From the Mersey to the Tyne

This time three years ago
Autumnal Gdańsk

This time four years ago:
What Independence Day means for Poles

This time five years ago:
Words fail me: what's the Polish for 'to fail'?

This time six years ago:
Autumn in Dobra

This time eight years ago:
Autumn ploughing

Monday, 9 November 2015

Death and bureaucracy

When my Ciocia Jadzia died in September, she was buried within four days. When my father's cousin died the following week, she was buried within five days. Both at the Bródno cemetery in Warsaw. So why is it my mother's funeral will not take place until nearly three weeks after her death?

My mother died in Ealing Hospital less than 24 hours after admission; this means that a coroner's report is needed before the death certificate can be issued. The coroner cannot issue the report without recourse to the doctor present at the scene. Now, my mother died at the weekend; the coroner works Mondays to Fridays. The doctor works a long weekend shift, returning to work the following Thursday night. So the earliest time the doctor could talk to the coroner was on Friday morning.

And indeed, on Friday morning, we duly received the information that all was in order; a post-mortem was not required, and we could arrange to collect the death certificate from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages at Ealing Town Hall on Monday. So we made an appointment, and then contacted the funeral director. Now, funeral directors can formally do nothing without a death certificate, but the one we are using (A. Galla of Pope's Lane, South Ealing) was sufficiently ahead of the game to make provisional bookings for the church and the crematorium.

We were lucky that church and the crematorium were both available on a Friday (a popular day for funerals) which was ideal from the point of view of family travel logistics. So Friday 20th November it is - Polish church, Ealing, cremation at Mortlake, then back to the Polish church for the wake. The earliest date we could have possibly arranged the funeral for was Tuesday 17th, which is still two and half weeks after my mother's death.

Today at Ealing Town Hall, it took an hour to sort everything out, because the system was down. But once working properly, I was amazed at the efficiency of the British State. The Registrar's office was busy, with seven other people in at the same time to register births, deaths or marriages. What documents were required by the Registrar? None. I brought along my mother's old passport, just to ensure correct spelling of her name, but it was not essential.

Once equipped with a handful of death certificates, my father and I popped into the Cooperative Bank to close my mother's current account. All sorted out in a few minutes. Across the road, the visit to Santander Bank was not a success - the queues were so long we were asked to come back later.

An online government service called Tell Us Once allows next-of-kin to enter all the details of a deceased person - just once - thenceforth informing every relevant public sector body. National Insurance, National Savings, National Health Service, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs, the Department of Work and Pensions, the local authority, the electoral register (and where relevant - though not in my mother's case - the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority and the Passport Office).

Just ONE form filled in ON LINE. This is thanks the the wonders of, which seamlessly links all government departments into one, joined-up, citizen-friendly, cost-effective, time-saving system. Here, all the additional information I needed was my mother's National Insurance number.

So while the wait for the funeral is longer in the UK, the amount of time sorting things out is much shorter. No visits with official documents to various offices, just spend literally four minutes online and that is that. At times like this, having a well-organised state supporting you (rather than being a time-consuming burden).

This time four years ago:
Bad news for Jeziorki rat-runners

This time eight years ago:
From Łady to Falenty