Thursday, 30 June 2016

First Half of 2016 - health and fitness

I write these posts for posterity. My numerical approach to health and fitness has been criticised by close friends and family members as being 'obsessive', 'too structured' or 'too numbers-oriented'. However, having recorded various aspects of health and fitness over exactly two and half years, I believe that this 'if you can't measure it, you can't manage it' approach works.

My father's longevity is a signal that investment in one's health for old age now is worthwhile. If my father, 93, can live a full, independent life, mentally and physically on astonishingly good form, so can I. Incidentally, the habit of logging daily data in a spreadsheet is something that I have genetically inherited from my father!

Genes are a part of the answer to an active, healthy old age, but so is diet and exercise. I'm sure my mother could have lived a lot longer had she ate less cake and did at least some exercise - both her older sisters are still alive, aged 91 and 94.

So then - my half-year in numbers.

H1 2014
H1 2015
H1 2016
Paces walked (total)
Distance walked
1,525 km
1,580 km
1,560 km
Paces walked (daily average)
Sit-ups (daily average)
Alcohol (units/week average)
Portions fruit & veg (daily average)

The walking total for the first half of this year was brought down by a poor performance this month, where I ended up doing a total of 24 TV and radio appearances, and was driven across town by taxi from studio to studio. But still, the magic figure of 10,000 paces a day, every day, has been exceeded for two and half years.

A big big thanks to Michał Borzyskowski from Australia, a regular reader of this blog, who has been extremely inspirational on the fitness front. His e-mails to me on various aspects of fitness have convinced me to return to press-ups (or push-ups); I'm now back to being able to comfortably do 25 in one go; my target is to be able to do 30 - and to do that twice a day every day, along with my regime of 100 sit-ups twice a day. Michał has also convinced me to buy a bar for pull-ups/chin-ups.

I've installed the bar across the frame of my bedroom door; at first, I was totally unable to pull my body mass up using the strength of my arms. Now I can do four chin-ups; this exercise is very useful for building up muscle mass, which will decline into old age. The more you have now, the longer it will take for it to waste away.

Healthwise, other than a few sniffles in April I have been totally well. Long may it continue.

This time last year:
Venus, Jupiter - auspices

This time two years ago:
Down the line from York

This time three years ago:
Cider - at last available in Poland

This time four years ago:
Despondency on Puławska

This time five years ago:
Stalking the stork

This time seven years ago:
Late June lightning

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Brexit: direct consequence of new-EU migration

The causal chain of events leading up to last Thursday's vote was as follows:

May 2004 - the UK labour market is opened to citizens of the eight new EU countries, of which Poland was the largest, on the very day of EU enlargement.

January 2013 - Premier David Cameron promises an in/out referendum on EU membership. By doing so, he paves the way for Conservative electoral victory in May 2015.

March 2013 - the UK government agrees to hold an in/out referendum on Scotland's independence. Mr Cameron ensured there was no third option, namely 'devo max', giving Scots the chance to vote for maximum devolution from London, but falling short of full independence.

September 2014 - Scots vote by 55% to 45% to remain in the United Kingdom.

May 2015 - David Cameron wins a second term as premier, buoyed by the result of the referendum that held the Union together, and by the promise of an EU referendum.

February 2016 - David Cameron announces the date of the referendum. He'd just returned from Brussels having negotiated reforms with the rest of the EU, reforms that the British media decried as being virtually meaningless.

June 2016 - Britain votes by 52% to 48% to leave the EU.

Let's look at how this came to pass.

Back in 2004, Tony Blair's government had the option of a seven-year transition period to shield the UK's labour market from the effects of unrestricted free movement of labour, which is one of the EU's four freedoms - movement, goods, services and capital. Germany, sensing that opening its labour market could mean a flood of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians coming there to work, chose to deploy the transitional arrangements. But with UK job vacancies running at around 600,000 and many employers calling out for workers - not cheap workers - but any workers - the Blair government chose economic growth over social cohesion. In any case, the number of migrants that would come from the eight new accession countries to work in the UK had been estimated at 13,500 a year.

This estimate, upon which the government decided to open the door to migrant workers from the so-called Accession Eight (A8) countries, was wrong by a factor of twenty. It is, I would argue, the main cause of the last Thursday's result.

Hundreds of thousands came each year, and - unlike previous waves of migration to the UK which tended to remain in the cities, the new migrants fanned out across the country to find work in warehouses, hotels, slaughterhouses, farms, distribution centres and factories in small rural communities that had rarely seen a foreign face before.

Previous waves of migrants, in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s were predominantly coloured. Strong anti-racist legislation made criticism of migration akin to incitement to racial hatred. But then the newest wave began to arrive in larger numbers in a shorter time than ever before in the history of migration to Britain. And this time, they were white. So suddenly it was OK to say "I don't like migration" because that statement no longer equated with "I don't like coloured people".

While the educated classes that had their gripes with the EU, the way it was run, its centralising and federalising tendencies, democratic accountability, loss of national sovereignty etc, the less well-off in smaller towns across the UK - the losers in the process of globalisation - saw the promised referendum as being about migration and "taking control of our borders".

The leaders of the Brexit campaign could see the bind that they were in. They knew full well that to ensure full 'control of the borders' could only be achieved by total disengagement from the EU and the European Economic Area. Which would mean re-negotiating trade agreements with the EU as a complete outsider, and having to accept tariffs on trade. Which would mean economic hardship for many years. Business needs to be part of the single European market if its economy is not to suffer. The Brexiteers were less than straight with the migrant-fearing electorate, suggesting that somehow EU migration could be controlled (read 'stopped') while market access would remain.

It was the publication on 27 May of the official net migration figures for 2015 that tipped the polls in favour of Brexit. Before that time, Remain tended to show a narrow lead. After the publication of the data, which showed 330,000 more people migrating to the UK than leaving it, support for Leave took the lead in the polls, and remained there until the killing of Jo Cox. That resulted in the polls showing a narrow 'Remain' lead. In the end migration worries trumped the wave of sympathy for the dead MP.

Many of England's larger cities did not want to leave the EU.
London voted 60% in favour of remaining.
Manchester voted 60% in favour of remaining.
Bristol voted 60% in favour of remaining.
Liverpool voted 58% in favour of remaining.
York voted 58% in favour of remaining.
Leicester voted 51% in favour of remaining.
Leeds voted 50% in favour of remaining.
[Just under 50% of Birmingham voted to remain.]
These cities have known mass migration for decades and have long adopted a tolerance for diversity. When I was in primary school in West London in the mid-1960s, one-third of my class were either immigrants or children of immigrants. So new waves of migrants coming to London or Manchester or Liverpool have not unduly worried the population in those cities.

Correlating Electoral Commission results with census data from 2001 and 2011, the areas of England that voted most heavily for Brexit were not those with the largest proportions of migrants, but those that had seen the fastest rise in immigration since EU enlargement.

Scotland voted 62% in favour of remaining in the EU (compared to 55% in favour of remaining in the UK in the September 2014 referendum). Northern Ireland voted 56% in favour of remaining in the EU. Scotland and Northern Ireland also experienced rapid rises in new-EU migration post-2004, but Scotland has a population density five times lower than England, while Northern Ireland has a different set of issues altogether.

Voting to leave the EU was predominantly small-town England. The most votes for 'leave' were from Boston, Lincolnshire (80%). According to the 2011 census, 11% of Boston's population was born in Poland, Lithuania or other new EU member states. The new influx came to work in agriculture and logistics; the jobs were evidently there, employers were welcoming them.

[And from Wikipedia, about Boston, this: "In the mid-2000s Boston was shown to have the highest obesity rate of any town in the United Kingdom, with one-third of its adults (31%) considered clinically obese. Obesity has been linked to social deprivation." I'll let you, dear readers, draw your own conclusion.]

Worried about the seemingly unstoppable rise in migration from Central and Eastern Europe, the less advantaged citizens of English and Welsh towns and villages voted to leave the EU.

Some - like Boston - have felt the impact of CEE migration to their towns, and from first hand experience, voted 'Leave' to try to stop it. Other small towns and villages have experienced little migration of any kind (such as Amber Valley in Derbyshire, where my brother lives), and yet voted strongly 'Leave'.

It would be interesting to tally the referendum results with data from the 2011 Census, to see whether large numbers of people born in the A8 countries resulted in a boost for 'Leave' - Ealing (60% 'Remain') also has a large Polish-born population, but then Ealing has had many immigrants living there for over half a century.

Economic arguments did not deter the English for voting 'Leave'. The case of Sunderland, home to the Nissan factory than employs 6,500 people, which voted 61% to leave, ignoring the fact that Nissan will not invest in new production lines in the factory should the UK leave the EU, is written up in the Financial Times today. The story shows how poorly thought through the decision was for many voters, who did not consider the consequences of their actions before polling day.

What happens next is a combination of so many known and unknown unknowns as to defy any serious attempt at prediction.

I recommend, in similar tone, this piece by British-Polish novelist B.E. Andre

This time last year:
Still flying after all these years

This time two years ago
Yorkshire's smallest city

This time three years ago:
Cramp in the night

This time four years ago:
Football goes home

This time five years ago:
Birds of Omen

This time six years ago:
Yes, it does matter who you vote for

This time seven years ago:
Poland could do with some more mountains

This time eight years ago:
Warmth of the Sun
- the Beach Boys and Noctilucence

This time nine years ago:
Polish roads that look like America

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Zamość - beautiful must-visit town of Poland's east

Time to de-stress, get away from the trauma of last week and seek solace in the beauty of Poland.

I've long promised myself a return visit to Zamość, which I passed through 11 years ago on business, though the visit had to coincide with a period of Mediterranean weather.

For those of you who've not been, Zamość is a UNESCO world heritage site. This is what UNESCO says about the town: "Zamość is a unique example of a Renaissance town in Central Europe, consistently designed and built in accordance with the Italian theories of the 'ideal town', on the basis of a plan which was the result of perfect cooperation between the open-minded founder, Jan Zamoyski, and the outstanding architect, Bernardo Morando. Zamość is an outstanding example of an innovative approach to town planning, combining the functions of an urban ensemble, a residence, and a fortress in accordance with a consistently implemented Renaissance concept. The result of this is a stylistically homogeneous urban composition with a high level of architectural and landscape values. A real asset of this great construction was its creative enhancement with local artistic architectural achievements."

I stayed at the three-star Hotel Senator, on Plac Solny (like Wrocław, Zamość has its main square and a 'salt square' set off it, for salt trading). My apartment had splendid views and cost a mere 240 zł (about £45 even after Friday's devaluation of the pound) for the night.

Below: the Town Hall, and the main square. By coincidence, a festival of Italian song was taking place that very evening. The stage and seating are visible to the right of the frame.

A hot day. I arrived around 5pm, it was still over 30C. And that Italianate architecture... like a real Portmeirion, set out on a grand scale, made me feel I was a thousand kilometres to the south-west.

Colonnaded walkways line the square, which is full of bars, cafes, patisseries and restaurants. The entire town is evidently well-policed aesthetically; no garish signage is allowed to advertise premises.

Left: Many people watched the concert from the steps of the Town Hall. Ticket holders sat in an enclosed area in front of the stage, but the amplification was loud enough (not too loud) to ensure that everyone in the square and the side streets could hear the songs. Italian songs attract listeners of all ages, the audience included the very old and the very young.
A magical atmosphere descended on the town. Once you leave the main square and the concert, the other streets are almost empty, I feel I have Zamość to myself.

Left: as day turned to night, the town hall was lit up. The music, provided by various tribute bands backed by a proper orchestra, was to be heard right across town, adding to the Mediterranean feeling. As did the fact that it stayed hot, around 23C at 11pm. Note the pristine walls - a zero-tolerance to graffiti on the part of the local authority.

Below: view from my hotel window at dusk...

...and shortly after dawn. I was woken at 06:35 by the chiming of bells from that church tower visible on the skyline (below).

One small gripe about Zamość was the total lack of interesting beers. All I could see was Perła and the usual Lech, Warka Żywiec and Tyskie. Not one pub or bar with craft ales, no IPA to be had. At all. Yet the Perła cost but 5zł (92p) for a half-litre; when I told the proprietor that beers can cost 20-26zł in Warsaw, he could not believe me.

Everything else being fine, if Zamość could go up-market and move with the times in terms of its culinary offerings, I'm sure it could extract more earnings from the tourists' wallets. I ordered a pizza in a restaurant on the main square called Bohema. The most bohemian beer I could order was a Żywiec wheat beer on tap, and the pizza diavolo contained ham (rather than chorizo) under the chilli peppers, cheese, and tomato sauce. Would happily pay more for something more autentico!

Below: view of Plac Solny with my hotel in the distance. My windows are in visible in the roof. Room 301, worth asking for it. Breakfast at the Hotel Senator was commendable; sausage and scrambled eggs, various salads and lots of fresh fruit.

Zamość is definitely worth visiting!

This time last year:
Voting closes in citizens' participatory budget

This time two years ago:
Beginning of the end of PO [Civic Platform]

This time three years ago:
Where's the beef? Fillet steak in Warsaw

This time four years ago:
W-wa Zachodnia spruced up for the football, W-wa Stadion reopened

This time six years ago:
Literature and biology

This time eight years ago:
Old Nysa van spotted in Grabów

This time nine years ago:
The oats in the neighbouring field rise high

Wednesday, 22 June 2016


The Brexit debate has absorbed all my emotional energy this week. Apologies for not blogging more frequently, but I have been spending my social media time on Twitter promoting the arguments for #Remain.

Tomorrow either the fabric that hold the civilised world will hold together or a small tear will appear, a tear that might well grow and grow until everything we know and hold precious will be lost for generations. If Britain leaves, I think the EU will risk falling apart, leading to a far worse life for Europe's citizens than the one we have enjoyed these past 25 years since communism fell.

This is what it must have felt like in the 1930s, emerging from a global economic crisis, watching the waves of international and intercommunal hatred rise ever higher up towards your front door, the front door that you felt to be safe.

My parents and their generation endured the resultant hell, survived and went on to rebuild a world along better lines, a Europe that for 70 years has been at peace. But the forces of intolerance and fear are on the rise, globally.

I fear too for the planet.

People with a propensity to vote for Brexit (or indeed for Trump or PiS) tend to poo-poo the notion of climate change and the idea that we should do anything about it.

If you are reading this in the UK and if you can vote tomorrow, I would implore you to vote Remain, to keep the UK as a strong part of a united Europe, united against the darkness from the East, united against climate change, united against intolerance and brutality.

The EU is no means perfect. It falls short in many departments. But it is, taken as a whole, does represent a step in the right direction along the long road from barbarism towards civilisation. Withdrawal from the EU by the UK would be the removal of a keystone that could bring the edice toppling down. Civilisation, progress, security - these are fragile things.

Talking to Poles of my age with vivid memories of how it was when the country was ruled for Moscow will tell you that the USSR and the EU are two diametrically opposite structures. I get extremely angry when people with no idea of life under communism talk about an 'EUSSR'. Where are Brussels' Gulags? The deportation of entire peoples? The use of mass starvation as a policy tool? Where's the EU's Katyń?

The killing of Jo Cox MP by a deranged nationalist, the hatred being poured out online targeting those arguing for an inclusive and tolerant future, the death threat aimed at Yvette Cooper's children and grandchildren - a sick insanity has been let loose.

If the outcome is Remain, the EU and all its institutions will need to take what happened as the strongest warning yet that it is time to reform. Time to kick out the jams. Time to communicate with 500 million citizens of its member states. Time to complete the single market - in services and in digital services. Time to get the world's wealthiest trading bloc globally competitive. And there will not be much time. If there's no evidence of reform, the citizens of other member states will express their strong desire to leave.

But the prospect of no EU in a few years time frightens me immensely. In these economically challenging times, the natural tendencies of national governments to erect trade barriers to protect their farmers, their heavy industries, their power generators, their financial sectors - is immense.

And as barriers to trade go up, so growth falls back. The spectre of autarky leads to all sorts of chaos.

Mankind has been here before. The dangers are clear.

The point of studying history is to train the mind to think beyond there here-and-now. There's a 500 year, a 100 year, a 50 year perspective behind us to help us consider the next 50, 100, 500 years.

This time last year:
Baszta - local legend round these parts

This time five years ago:
Downhill all the way to December

This time six years ago:
What do I want for Poland

This time seven years ago:
Summer holiday starts drizzly

This time eight years ago:
Israeli Air Force Boeing 707 visits Okęcie

Saturday, 18 June 2016

More Bricktorian Liverpool.

Back in Warsaw after an intensive week in England. Two days' training in London, then a visit to Liverpool with overnight stay, then two more days back in London.

I arrive in Liverpool and walk to my hotel - a converted prison. I'm spending the night in what used to be a prison cell in Bridewell Prison, now converted into a two-star hotel. It offers a level of experience that your average Holiday Inn or Ibis just cannot.

Welcome to Brictorian Britain. These four walls that surround me would have once enclosed various felons, villains and ne'er-do-wells from the city.

"Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court and it is my duty to pass sentence... You will go to prison for five years" [SFX prison door slamming]. The echoing corridors, the heavy doors, the brickwork, add an undeniable frisson to what would otherwise have been an unremarkable overnight business stay.

This used to be the Main Bridewell, built in 1857-59 to replace ten lock-ups (all called 'bridewells') located in police stations across Liverpool's city centre. A Grade II listed building, it was sold for redevelopment in May 2013 and re-opened to the (honest) public in May 2015. It's a great place to stay for the atmosphere, in walking distance of the Mersey waterfront.

As I got ready to sleep, the door locked from the inside, I pondered on the generations of ne'er-do-wells who did their porridge in this very cell, arrested by the 'busies' as Scousers call their police force. Incidentally, the Liverpudlians (or Scousers - named after the local dish of scouse - a lamb and vegetable stew) have an amazing sense of humour and natural warmth about them - probably a result of the city's geographic and genetic proximity to Ireland.

So - Liverpool, mid-June, what's the weather going to be like? Setting back from the exhibition centre towards Lime Street Station, I observed the most monstrous bank of storm cloud tipping a deluge down onto Birkenhead across the Mersey. The wind was gusting in, the downdraft from the deluge across the river. Would it catch me before I made it to the station?

 As I wrote (here and here) there's so much great architecture to see in Liverpool. Bricktorian Britain plus some stunning Art Deco.

This is, I would argue, Britain's third-best city after London and Edinburgh in terms of Things To See And Do and in terms of making a strong impression. Beating Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester and Leeds.

The strong maritime history, the location and the culture, and the way the city turned itself round after years of decline and neglect and the cheerful humour of the locals make it a must-see for visitors to Britain.

Below: a slightly larger-than-life set of statues depicting the Beatles (from left: Paul, George, Ringo and John) as they would have been in the mid-1960s. The Fab Four put Liverpool on the global map, but other monuments around the waterfront remind visitors that the music scene was vibrant and varied - from Billy Fury* to Echo and the Bunnymen and A Flock Of Seagulls. The one thing I'm waiting for from Liverpool is a monument to the city's greatest comedian - Alexei Sayle.

Below: another icon of Liverpool, the Royal Liver Building, Britain's first proper skyscraper. That threatening cloud has made it across the Mersey and I'm still waiting for the deluge to come...

Below: Albert Docks, an excellent post-industrial redevelopment - shops, restaurants and apartments within a refurbished Victorian port complex.

Left: crammed into the ever-narrowing space where Whitechapel St (to the left)  runs into Victoria St (to the right) are Imperial Buildings, erected in 1879. Visible below the dome are two female figures representing Industry and Commerce. Liverpool reminds you at every turn that this is a city based on global trade.

Below: corner of Vernon St and Dale St, looking up at the ornately decorated Victorian windows and roofs.

I managed to get within a few hundred yards of it when the heavens opened. I took refuge in the Excelsior pub, and two pints of India Pale Ale later, it's dry enough to get to Lime Street to catch my train back to London. Below: looking down Dale St, the tower of Liverpool City Council's municipal offices in the skyline.

A propos of trains: the fare offered by Virgin Trains, three weeks in advance, for a single, one-way ticket for a morning train from London to Liverpool changing at Crewe, was £85. To put this into perspective, my return flight from Warsaw to London and back was £75. A cheaper alternative proved to be an evening train up from London and a two-star hotel in Liverpool. Always worth checking before booking!

* Not, of course, his real name. He was born William Furious.

This time last year:
Łódź - city of tenements

This time two years ago:
Liverpool reborn

This time three years ago:
What goes round comes around: retro is cool - again.

This time four years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?
[No, it was September 2013]

This time five years ago:
Stand Easy! - a short story

This time eight years ago:
God Save The Queen - I mean it, Ma'am

Friday, 10 June 2016

Baletowa reopens as rail works move slowly on

The crossing by W-wa Dawidy station was meant to have reopened on Friday 3 June. In the end, it opened four days later, on Tuesday 7 June. By chance, I happened to be there when the barriers were taken down and cars could safely and legally cross. Below: seconds after the last barrier was removed, looking east along ul. Baletowa.

Below: this photo was taken some 90 seconds earlier. You can see the last barrier still straddling one lane. Drivers managed somehow. Note the neat, modern concrete panels on the tracks; so much better than the old level crossing. I hope that barriers and warning lights/bells will be installed. This is a very busy road and there are no warning signals, let alone barriers.

Below: What's this? An asphalt surface for ul. Hołubcowa, one of the most notorious dirt tracks that has a street name, a road that can bog down four-wheel drive vehicles? Or just a short stretch by the junction near the level crossing? We shall see.

Below: Saturday 4 June. The deadline for reopening Baletowa has come and gone, and there's still a lot of work to do. I can report that the track team was there on Sunday too, working until 4pm.

Below: while the modernisation is going ahead, the train schedules are different. The 17:05 RE8 service from W-wa Śródmieście to Skarzysko-Kamienna does not stop (for some reason) at either W-wa Aleje Jerozolimskie or W-wa Okęcie, but does stop at W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Jeziorki. This push-pull double decker is packed solid with passengers, despite having five carriages.

Below: the new double deckers don't have the opening windows that the elderly EN57 stock does. On Tuesday I was on one of these and could pop the camera out of the window to snap the situation between W-wa Okęcie and W-wa Dawidy. There are still several stretches where the new 'down' track is not yet laid - a long way from ready. Here's one such stretch, by the railway bridge over the S2 expressway. The new tracks have to be connected with the tracks on the bridge, which was opened in as recently as 2013.

And this is the southern end (as of today) of the new 'down' line that passes W-wa Dawidy (below); still a long way to go to get to W-wa Jeziorki, let alone Piaseczno or Czachówek. And when all that's done - there's the 'up' line to build.

Below: section by section, the new 'down' line extends down towards W-wa Jeziorki.

Below: risk management? Staff training? Health and safety at work? Accidents will happen, but only if you let them. Eight-wheeler dumper truck that toppled over south of W-wa Okęcie station.

And at Okęcie station, two months have passed since the completion of the passenger footbridge - it's still closed, presumably awaiting the signature of a piece of paper saying its safe. Meanwhile passengers wishing to use the station have to negotiate an obstacle course across working railway tracks.

This time three years ago:
Polish doctors in UK offer new healthcare model

This time six years ago:
The closure of the Góra Kalwaria - Pilawa railway link

This time eight years ago:
My blazing bus pic gets on front page of Gazeta Stołeczna

This time nine years ago:
Storm clouds rising

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

He was only five foot three, girls could not resist his stare...*

Wednesday morning, eight am. I arrive in Piotrków Trybunalski, on my way to speak at conference about exporting. I get ofp the train and head towards the venue. On my way, I encounter four pieces of street art that make me suddenly take notice.

Here they are: from top left to bottom right (in the order I saw them:) Pablo Picasso, James Brown, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali.The slogan - Art makes differences.

An interesting slogan. For the native speaker of English would phrase it - Art makes a difference.

But no - Art makes differences. No indefinite article. Differences - plural.

Let's put this into context - what does Piotrków Trybunalski look like? It's a not a thrilling town, nor a dump neither. Just that regular town, the sort that dots Poland from north to south, from east to west. (I'd put in several photographs to prove the point but they'd dilute my message, which revolves around the four images above).

However, here is a town in which lives someone who wants to make a point - art makes differences. What differences? What's Einstein doing there? Making differences. In a town like Piotrków Tryb. making differences is very important.

* Can you be googled?

This time three years ago:
Quality engineering from half a century ago

This time four years ago:
Fans fly in to Warsaw for Euro 2012

This time five years ago:
Cara al Sol - part II

This time six years ago:
Still struggling with the floodwaters

This time seven years ago:
European elections - and I buy used D40

The time eight years ago:
To the Vistula, by bike

This time nine years ago:
Poppy profusion

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Preening stork

I caught this stork preening itself on its nest in the village of Pieczyska. The nest, close to the church, was low enough to get a good view standing on the pavement. I saw four other large stork's nests this weekend, but they only afforded a glimpse of the stork's head and neck.

I observed this stork for several minutes; it looks like an elderly individual by the chips on its beak and a generally scruffy mien. It looked like it was itching all over, scratching its head and neck

This did not look like a happy or comfortable stork.

As usual, Wikipedia proves invaluable. I discover at home that the European white stork "has few natural predators, but may harbour several types of parasite; the plumage is home to chewing lice and feather mites, while the large nests maintain a diverse range of mesostigmatic mites."

In the Middle Ages, people thought that storks were conceited as they seemed to be forever preening. Yet this is now known to be a reaction to parasitical infestation.

All the stork's nests I saw this weekend were on man-made platforms, built in villages to keep the storks from building their own nests on electricity pylons or other bits of critical infrastructure - a stork's nest can weigh up to two tonnes.

Poland has the world's largest stork population; around a quarter of all white European storks live here.

UPDATE: MONDAY 6 JUNE 2016 Returning home from W-wa Dawidy station via the ponds on ul. Dumki, I caught sight of a black stork. First time I'd ever seen one. Not related to the heron - it flies with an outstretched neck, nor to the crane. Black, with some white under the wings.

This time three years ago:
Preserving meadowland - UK and Poland 

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:
Cara al Sol - a short story

This time six years ago:
Pumping out the floodwater

This time seven years ago:
To Góra Kalwaria and beyond

This time eight years ago:
Developments in Warsaw's exurbs

Saturday, 4 June 2016

4 June - a date remembered for...?

I woke up this morning, aware that it was 4 June, the anniversary of Poland's first (semi) free elections in 1989 that would result in the fall of communism. Momentous as that event was, it did not make the top news story in the BBC that day 27 years ago. The top news story was the massacre by the Chinese communist authorities of the protesters at Tiananmen Square, in which several hundred people died. The second story that day covered the Ufa rail disaster in Russia, in which at least 575 people - many of them children - died.

The Ufa disaster was chilling because of the huge number of fatalities, children travelling to or from holidays on the Black Sea, and the crass negligence that caused it. A pipeline carrying gas from Siberia, running close to the railway line, split open earlier the previous day (poor welding? rust?). The split was 1.7m long. As long as many people are tall. The pipeline operators, seeing a significant drop in pressure, rather than stopping the gas and investigating the cause, merely increased the flow. More and more gas was pumped out, which made its way into the cutting through which the Trans-Siberian railway ran. It formed a huge invisible lake into which plunged two passing trains at 01:15 on 4 June. As the trains approached one another on opposite tracks, both drivers applied the brakes; sparks from the brake blocks ignited the gas causing an explosion that had the force of several hundred tonnes of TNT. The flames were visible from 100km away, windows were blown out of houses in a 10km radius. All because of a lack of proper procedures and risk management.

So - rightly - the Tiananmen Square massacre and Ufa rail disaster took precedence over the historic Polish election.

Now, reading this morning about the Ufa disaster, I noticed that another massive rail disaster* took place in Russia exactly a year earlier, on 4 June 1988, at Arzamas. A train carrying 108 tonnes of hexogene, a military explosive more powerful than TNT, exploded near Arzamas-1 station, killing 91 people and destroying 150 buildings. The resultant crater was reportedly 26 metres deep. Given the secret military nature of the industry in the town, Soviet authorities initially suspected sabotage by foreign secret agents. [*The Russian Wikipedia page is so much more informative than the English one. So let your browser translate it for you.]

Today I went for a motorbike ride out to Augustówka and Pilawa. On my way back, just before Osieck, I noticed this monument to one of Poland's worst post-war rail accidents. A passenger train ran headlong into a freight train on this stretch of the Skierniewice to Łukow line. With one track closed for repair, and both trains found themselves on the same track. The driver of the passenger train, heading for Łuków, left Osieck station without the necessary authority. Twenty five people - including the driver - died as a result.

I looked at the date - and froze. It was also 4 June. The year - 1981. So exactly 35 years ago today. Looking at the names and ages of the dead - aged between 16 and 77, including a mother and her daughter, two twin brothers, both 17, and the intriguingly named Narcyz Kieliszek - I ponder on the fact that all of them could have lived normal lives had one man not made one careless mistake.

Out on the quiet DW 805, the cross stands to the left of the road on the way from Osieck pod Grabinką and Osieck itself. Just behind the memorial is the railway line where the accident took place. You can make out the line in the photo (above) through the trees to the right of the plaque.

Time to reflect about coincidence and complacency, being at the wrong place at the wrong time - that we are perpetually teetering on the edge of chaos, and only a stream of tiny miracles keep us alive. Contemplating that fact helps.

This time last year:
Corpus Christi, rural Mazovia

This time two years ago:
25th anniversary of Poland's transition

This time three years ago:
Poland's infrastructure progress

This time five years ago:
Wetlands in late-spring

This time six years ago:
Jeziorki's flood of floods: Puławska and Pozytywki

Jeziorki's flood of floods: Sarabandy and Karczunkowska

Jeziorki's flood of floods: Trombity and Kórnicka

This time seven years ago:
Another time, another place