Tuesday, 27 September 2016

A guide to naming streets - in Poland and the UK

Street names in Poland appear exotic to Brits, who are used to a rather dull conventions, such as naming streets after towns. I have lived on Cleveland Road and Ribchester Avenue. For 16 years I worked on New Oxford Street. All these streets named after towns. But note - one's a Road, one's an Avenue and one's a Street. But in the UK you can also live on a Gardens, a Fields, a Meadows, a Common, a Grove, a Square, a Place, a Crescent, a Drive, a Way, a Vale, a Terrace, a Close, a Mews, a Lane, a Court, a Row, a Gate, a Rise, a Hill, a Walk, a Park, a Circus, a Boulevard, a Chase and a Croft. [Indeed, I spent my childhood on Croft Gardens.] Or no suffix at all - prefixed with 'The' followed by a plural noun - The Ridings, The Little Boltons. Or 'The' plus any one of the above-mentioned toponyms - The Avenue, The Mews, The Grove etc. I doubt if this list is exhaustive; no doubt there'll be some Scottish ones too (Bells Brae in Edinburgh, for example)

In Poland, there's an ulica, an aleja (Aleje - plural) - an aleja has to be broad, straight, multi-laned and reprezentacyjna [translation challenge for you there], a plac - which is a Square or a Place - and that's pretty much your lot. The latter two are relatively rare; 95% of  streets in Poland are ulice and that's that.

But then in Poland you get naming conventions that are alien to Britain. Alien, for instance, is the practice of naming streets after dates of historical significance. To a Brit, this smacks of banana republics where streets are named after the date of The Revolution. Poland has fewer of these than it used to in communist days (gone are all the Aleje 22 lipca), but there's still many Ulice 3 maja - 1 maja even. As well as oddball ones - ul. 29 listopada (29th of November Street). And Warsaw still has an ul. 17 stycznia ( 17 January Street - the date the city was 'liberated' by the Red Army).

Far more Polish streets are named after famous people than in Britain. It tends to grate on the British sensibility to come across a 'Councillor Reg Sprott Avenue' (it smacks of lefty-ism rather than a commemoration of a life of service). Poles are happier to accept streets named after people, including - I would argue - far more foreigners than the insular British would deign to name their streets after. Warsaw has four streets named after Indians, for example - two Gandhis, Nehru and Tagore.  Categories of people that British streets are named after tend to be great poets, writers, artists, long-dead generals and admirals, generic royalty (King Street, Queen Street, Princes Street).

Genitives and Adjectival forms

Another thing about Polish street names is that they take the genitive (possessive) form of the noun, or they are in the form of an adjective. So it's ul. Dembińskiego (literally, Dembinski's Street, or the street of Dembinski), not ul. Dembiński. Adjectival forms - ul. Słoneczna, sunny street, are the other form. As a result (genitive noun or adjective), very nearly all Polish street names end in the letters a, i, o, y or j. Rarer plural forms will end in -ych or -ów. Exceptions prove the rule - ul. Wylot, ul. Przeskok, ul. Widok, ul. Giewont, ul. Solec, ul. Foksal - these are older names, in their non-genitive, non-adjectival form, they are rare.

A Street Name From Old Desire
This makes Polish street names sound less distinguishable from one another than the foreign visitor would like. Once I turned up for a meeting on ul. Prosta when in fact it was on ul. Pańska; another time I went to ul. Chłodna instead of ul. Chmielna. Warsaw is home to ul. Dolna, ul. Polna, ul. Rolna and ul. Wolna, as well as ul. Smolna. [See this post] And, as in the photo above, Warsaw has too many streets named after Russian generals, including of course Targov, Dvortsov, and Tovarov.

Victorian Britain, when most of the nation's urbanisation occurred, liked to name its streets after Victoria and Albert, but also after 19th Century battles. So Waterloo, Trafalgar, Balaclava and Sevastopol. The Empire provided names for many British streets - Adelaide, Melbourne, Bloemfontein, Jamaica, Singapore.

There is a new practice in Poland of going full-on Polnische Romantizmus - ul. Spełnionych Marzeń (yes! - literally a 'Dreams Come True Street'); ul. Malinowy Gaj (Raspberry Grove), Pachnącej Wiśni (Fragrant Cherry), Kwitnących Kwiatów (Blossoming Flowers) etc etc. Check out Baszkówka, an exurb south of Warsaw. Dawidy Bankowe has a Tulipanowy Zakątek (Tulip Corner Street). Another one of my favourites is ul. Posag 7 Pań ('Dowry of Seven Maidens Street'). At last, the developers and estate agents have got their hands on the instruments of street-naming. Gone are those streets whose names put off prospective buyers; ul. Bagno (lit. 'Bog Street'), ul. Wysypiskowa (lit. 'Tip Street' or 'Dump Street'), or ul. Asfaltowa - the newer the street, the more poetic and less prosaic the name.

Common in both countries are streets named after trees - Dębowa, Bukowa, Topolowa (pronounced 'Topple Over'); Yew Tree Lane, Old Oak Common, Elm Street, The Firs. And just like Acacia Avenue is the stereotypical English suburban street name, so are Akacjowa, Bukszpanowa, or Polnych Kwiatów.

Roads that point to somewhere - or not

Here's a subtle one; the use of the definite article 'the' in front of the road name, as in 'the Uxbridge Road'. No Londoner would say "My office is on Uxbridge Road." They'd say "My office is on the Uxbridge Road". But then writing the address on an envelope, you'd write, for example, 255 Uxbridge Road, Hanwell, not 255 The Uxbridge Road, Hanwell. If a 'Road' is prefixed by a definite article, something only locals would know, it suggests that the road goes there. The Great West Road, the Old Kent Road, for example, go west and to Kent respectively.

We have this in Poland too; ul. Puławska heads south out of Warsaw, and go far enough in its general direction and you'll get to Puławy. Likewise ul. Raszyńska heads out towards Raszyn, and ul. Radzymińska towards Radzymin. But you need some local knowledge to know which streets behave this way - ul. Rzymska does not lead (or even point) towards Rome, nor Brzeska towards Brześć nad Bugiem.

Out Jeziorki way we have Musical Names given to streets that were developed after the war, named after dances, songs or instrument(alist)s (Puzonistów, Drumli, Baletowa); on the other side of ul. Puławska are Bird Names (Pelikanów, Tukanów, Kuropatwy).

My final note is about translating the word 'ulica' into English when used in an address. DON'T. Leave the address in Polish as it is. To translate ul. Chopina 39 as 39 Chopina Street is just WRONG. I know lots of people do it; they are all WRONG. You don't translate Rue St Michel as St Michel Road, nor do you translate Bahnhofstrasse as Bahnhof Street. So leave ul. Chopina just like that - or (and this is probably the cause of this mistake) - because ulica is always abbreviated in Polish to 'ul.', it can seem a little unfamiliar in English, so my advice if you're doing literary translation is to spell it out in full - ulica Chopina.

This time five years ago:
A glorious month

This time six years ago:
My grandfather

This time seven years ago:
My home-made fixie bike

This time eight years ago:
Well-shot pheasants

Monday, 26 September 2016

On conservatism - a personal view

Old Polish saying: Umiesz liczeć? Licz na siebie. - 'Can you count? Count on yourself'. Counting on others - counting on the state - to bail you out when times are tough is not a good idea. Self-reliance is, I believe, the cornerstone of conservatism. Not nationalism, not traditionalism, not allegiance to a leader, but the notion that you are the master of your fate, and that this ownership should not be delegated to any higher authority.

I was inspired by Margaret Thatcher the most when she spoke of conservatism in terms of a household's balanced budget, of taking responsibility for your own actions - or indeed inactions.

I've written several times about the differences between British and Polish conservatism, and how as a British conservative I cannot feel at home around Polish conservatism.

On the spectrum of individualist vs. collectivist, I veer towards individualism. Obviously no man is an island, we need roads, schools, hospitals, security, territorial integrity. We need the rule of law to defend the sanctity of private property. Courts to enforce it fairly. Yet these are the constructs of a society, of a collective. Good to have; a framework within which an individualist can thrive and prosper. I'm glad that such a framework was there for me as I was growing up in the UK, and I'm delighted to have been able to witness such a framework being created around me here in Poland.

But I expect nothing from anyone. No help, no cheery word of encouragement, no free lunch, no Christmas presents. Should these things happen - hey! I'm delighted. I am truly thankful. As I am for health.

But I can't - I don't - expect these blessings. As Jacek Koba commented on my blog a few months ago, happiness is when the ratio of your expectations to reality is 1:1.

Suddenly, a crashing change of gear as this post takes another direction.

I read that the output of the construction sector in Poland is down 20% compared to last year. I look out of my window and see this (below). Dear readers, this is the private sector at work. Individuals, privately owned companies, operating for profit. Hard at work. A skyline of cranes. Warsaw is full of them - in the centre, in the suburbs. A barn. A distribution centre. A car showroom.

So why's there a big fall in Polish construction?

Because the public sector is postponing its investments.

The money (from the EU, mostly) is there - but the local authorities, the government agencies, the national infrastructure operators - don't know how to spend it. They don't have the know-how in project management. They don't have the people. Those that are involved in having to spend public money to procure projects live in fear of being sacked for taking the wrong decision. For taking any decision. And so construction companies who were counting on the state to give them work are going hungry. Licz na siebie. Trakcja PRKiI, the company that's modernising the Warsaw-Radom railway line, has just announced that it will be laying off several hundred people come next July, as this and other rail modernisation contracts comes to an end. There's plenty of money for further projects - it's just that the tenders have not been issued, decisions are being postponed.

Conservatives want to see a small, efficient state, not a bloated bureaucracy that's employing people for the sake of giving them jobs - that add little or no value for the taxpayers' money.

At a conference I'm speaking at this week, I gaze down the delegate list and a certain local authority will be sending nine people, when most private-sector firms will send one or two.

The public sector should be a tight ship, everyone pulling their weight for the public good, getting paid a competitive salary with the private sector, but with the expectation that their employment will be for the common good.

The dobra zmiana promised by the current government is merely a replacement of one lot of party political placemen with another - though the new ones lack the expertise or experience to do their job properly.

This is not conservatism. This has nothing to do with small-state government, nor promotion of self-reliance.

My brand of conservative government focuses on education - giving a solid grounding in basic facts for the bright and the less-gifted up to high-school level, then universities that teach students to think for themselves, to question, to push the boundaries of human knowledge. My brand of conservatism focuses on delivering a world-class infrastructure, which would enable private business to thrive and create new jobs and wealth. Not just railways, roads, airports and waterways, but broadband internet connections. And a paperless state, where you don't have to visit your local urząd twice when you simply wish to register a vehicle. An environmentally friendly state that is awake to the danger of climate change and wants to step back from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and power vehicles.

It's easy to hold a view about abortion, in vitro fertilisation or gay rights. Anyone can launch into a heated discussion on these subject. You don't need to be an expert. However, you do need to be an expert to plan urban drainage systems, balance the nation's energy needs with carbon emissions, negotiate trade deals with emerging nations or set the optimal monetary-policy course for forthcoming years. Wise regulation, balancing the interests of different groups, is crucial. This government is focusing its energy on those issues that merely raise heat and social division rather than on doing solidly those things that a modern state needs to do to provide a strong framework for a strong economy and happy (yes, happy) society.

A final point about British conservatism. Since the days of Mrs Thatcher, the dividing line within the Conservative party seemed to have been Europe. Now, after the EU referendum, it's now clear the split lies far deeper than arguments that have their roots in the shape of post-war Europe. No, we now go back to the 1840s, to the repeal of the Corn Laws, where the real argument is Free Trade vs. Protectionism. The supporters of Hard Brexit (i.e. the UK leaves the single European market and imposes visa restrictions on visitors from the EU) have roots going back to the landowning classes who wanted the British market in wheat protected from imports. Those militating for a more open trading relation with the EU are heirs to the free-traders who wanted the Corn Laws repealed, so that traders could trade freely and consumers would benefit from lower prices. In this configuration, who are the 'Wets' and who are the 'Dries'? It looks like the free-traders are being branded 'wets' by the protectionist, nativist wing of the Conservative party. How times change.

I am for free trade - I am an economic liberal (and for the record a social liberal and environmental illiberal).

This time two years ago:
Between equinox and equilux

This time four years ago:
Heritage or high-rise?

This time five years ago:
Shopping notes

This time six years ago:
My grandfather

This time eight years ago:
Surreal twilight, ul.Karczunkowska

This time nine years ago:
From Warsaw to Seville, via Munich and Madrid

Friday, 23 September 2016

Kriegslok passes through Jeziorki

Acting upon reliable information that a Ty42 Kriegslok from the railway museum at Chabówka heading to Warsaw would be passing through Jeziorki, I took up position with my camera. I turned up some ten minutes before the allotted time - good. Just as I got myself ready, I heard a train whistle in the distance. Here it comes! A rake of vintage carriage, hauled by an ET22 electric loco more used to pulling coal - and at the end, Ty42-107, a Polish-built version of the once-ubiquitous Ty2 Kriegslok, my favourite steam engine.

Such a thing, such a thing. What a marvel to behold! Without doubt, the most amazing sight on my local railway line I've ever seen. Below: the inter-war carriages up close. Once upon a time, such a sight (minus the overhead power lines) would have been commonplace around here.

This train was moving slowly, around 50 km/h (30mph), heading northward towards W-wa Dawidy and onto the junction at W-wa Zachodnia. What makes this pictures all the rarer from the archival point of view is the lack of the 'up' line; the trackbed currently awaits the lower layers of ballast. I was delighted to have caught it; twice in the past I've been waiting to snap steam engines passing through, both times I missed them. Third time lucky.

This train will be under steam tomorrow, travelling from the Warsaw railway museum (long due for closure) to Sochaczew and back. All tickets sold except for a pool of 20 tickets that will come on sale at the museum from 8am tomorrow.

The fact that the tickets - selling for 50 złotys (a tenner a pop) have sold out is a good sign - it shows a growing interest in railway heritage. Now - all that's needed is a world-class Polish railway museum to go with the Warsaw Uprising museum and Jewish history museum.

Below: bonus photo - from yesterday, a few kilometers west of Konin. Another PKP Cargo ET22, this one hauling a more normal load - oil cisterns.

This time four years ago:
A little way west of Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
The Old Sailor's Tale - part II

This time six years ago:

This time seven years ago:
The passing of Lt. Cmdr. Tadeusz Lesisz

This time nine years ago:
Summer ends, autumn begins

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Konin - town of aluminium, electricity and coal

Little did I realise as I left home this morning that I'd spend the day in Konin - a town some 200 west of Warsaw, on the way to Poznań. By 11:30 I was on a TLK train, freshly-printed ticket in hand (51 złotys, about ten quid), ready to go to Konin to give a presentation to local entrepreneurs about exporting to and investing in the UK.

Before continuing, a few more words about Polish railways. TLK trains are the low-cost arm of PKP InterCity, giving you InterCity style speed with prices that are significantly cheaper - at the expense of comfort. Instead of a modern Pendolino or Dart train as in the full-price IC services, or at worst fully pimped-out old carriages refurbished with all mod-cons, the TLK trains offer no buffet car, no Wifi, no electric sockets, eight seats rather than six to the compartment and doors that need the heft of a sumo wrestler to open. My TLK train - in both directions - was a long-distance service from Białystok to Szczecin and back. No buffet car for all that distance. Still, the train was fast and punctual, and in less than two hours I was in Konin.

I've been to Konin before - in 1977, on one of our Montserrat holidays for the youth of our Ealing Polish parish. Konin is round the corner from Licheń, which we visited before it became the liturgical Disneyland it's become today. In Konin, however, we came to visit the aluminium smelter. From 1960 to 1975, the town's population tripled as the aluminium plant, the opencast lignite mine and the ZE PAK group of brown-coal burning power stations (three of the four are in Konin) were built.

I didn't have time to see the Old Town, but I had a look round the new town centre, to the south of the railway station, mostly built in the 1960s and '70s, and using lots of aluminum for facades, windows and doors, as one would expect.

Below: very period, ostentatiously modernist department store in the town centre. Kinda reminds of Marineville out of Stingray. Across the road, the Hotel Konin obviously once had lovely neons advertising its restaurant; the tubes have gone, the signs remain, sadly unlit, but a beautiful typeface. The smiling face on the cube with the clock is saying: "The happy don't count time. Smile."

Below: aluminum everywhere. Lots of shops clad in the stuff, and those PRL-era aluminum doors that rattle when you open them.

Below: "By their street names, thou shalt know them" Konin has a 1st May Street too.

Below: the 1970s housing was well laid out, campus style, and is close to the town centre and its amenities, which include Klub Hutnika ('Smelters' Club') which advertises dancing on Friday and Saturday nights. Socialist planning on a human scale. The aluminium smelter - Poland's only one - closed in 2009, when the price of electricity became too high to profitably produce aluminium from ore. Unemployment in Konin today is 10.1% (end July 2016).

Konin lies on the main east-west railway line running from Berlin through Poznań and Warsaw, via Minsk in Belarus, and on to Moscow. It's a busy line.

Below: before reaching Konin, I walked from the hotel where the conference at which I was speaking was held. I walked some 5km to the station, through lovely fields, parallel to the railway line, until I reached the industrial outskirts of the town. Massive flashbacks, those anomalous memories to... what?

Today was equinox day; from now until 21 March next year, the nights will be longer than the days. It was also car-free day - free public transport in Warsaw all day. Today, I walked over 23,000 paces (18 km).

This time three years ago:
Car-free day falls on a Sunday

This time four years ago:
Vistula at record low level

This time seven years ago:
Car-free day? Warsaw's roads busier than ever

This time eight years ago:
The shape of equinox

This time nine years ago:
Potato harvest time in Jeziorki

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Evolution of Consciousness

Here's what intrigues me most about this life that we are living. That continual stream of consciousness, passing through the mind, forever observing, reflecting, discerning, pondering... We are more than just meat-covered skeletons moving about a rock that's hurtling through space, as someone recently stated on Facebook. There is something in us - and indeed in many higher-order animals - that rises above the mere mechanical-biological actions of merely surviving through feeding and breeding and the birth-life-death cycle.

Observe for a while a dog or a cat, look at its face, its eyes; you can make out a train of thought going through its consciousness. It looks slowly around, sizing up the situation, before returning to rest, or yap, or yawn, or wag its tail.

The human mind is a versatile tool, it can plan complex deeds, in coordination with many other human minds. Building cities and vehicles and phones and computers is extremely clever, but this is the product of human intelligence, based on an ever-expanding knowledge of empirical fact.

Our consciousness is harder to define and to display to others. How can others tell what I'm thinking? What thoughts are passing through my mind, how they are being processed? Certain humans - artists - the great poets, the great musicians in particular, have the gift to render the most subtle emotions in such a way as to resonate with the consciousnesses of their audience. Certain sequences of notes can conjure up moods; sometimes a memory response, sometimes an association - but the greatest music will transport you to places you have never been.

I do believe that great musicians - from Chopin to David Bowie - demonstrate a higher level of consciousness than most of us. Some musicianship is little more a mechanical craft skill - a competence to recreate sounds; but what distinguishes great musicians is their ability to shape listeners' emotions. And the same goes for great poets, whose chosen art form confines them to mere words. For me personally, Sir John Betjeman's poetry resonated most strongly, though I can appreciate why others might choose a different favourite poet.

Consciousness is about sensitivity. The more evolved the consciousness, the more sensitive. This does not mean weeping at every piece of sad news; rather, this sensitivity, the sensitivity of consciousness is about the observation of fine details, discernment of nuance - and the ability to communicate those feelings and thoughts to other humans; in words, in music, in pictures. It's not a mere intelligence or practice-makes-perfect thing. A sensitive, observant consciousness, picking up the subtlest signals, can express the way they impinge upon the awareness, play back the precise mood they create.

I mention music - the sensation of sound, how well we are adapted to responding to tones and musical interval. Just two notes, played one after another, can create a mood - of tension, of playfulness, sombre or joyful. Yet smell is not something with which we can create the equivalent of, say a 40-minute long olfactory concerto. Smell is, however, an incredibly powerful agent acting upon the consciousness, powerful in the way it can bring memories into being.

I recently had a strong memory of my family's room on a French seaside holiday nearly 50 years ago; the smell of beach towel, seawater-damp; the smell of suntan oil (in the days when the oil was meant to promote tanning rather than protect the skin from ultraviolet rays); the smell of the pine trees outside our window, the smell of French cooking from the kitchens below. And then - by a wonderful coincidence - I stumble upon this excellent article in Atlas Obscura about a scientist who is recording smells for posterity (centuries-old books, for example). As she says, science can break down smells into their constituent parts, but cannot - for now, at least, recreate them. Fascinating.

These experiences, or qualia, run through our conscious minds; in some minds, this is happening almost continually, in others, the reflections occur less frequently - dare I say in others - hardly at all?

I was watching an interview on the BBC with billionaire My Cashly, the owner of Sports Direct - not a sympatyczny człowiek. A man seemingly driven entirely by an insatiable desire for money - I could not see in those eyes any spark of spiritual curiosity or indeed any sense of humanity. [Click on that link, read the Wikipedia article, let it sink in for a while before continuing...]

How can one prove one's consciousness to others? Only, I would posit, through creative output; using original thought, analogies, concepts that have not been learnt and repeated, but are entirely fresh. This is not dependent on education (as evinced by the Gypsy poet Bronisława Weis, aka Papusza). Not all musicians, not all film makers, not all novelists can do this.

I wrote the other day about the physical evolution of humans and the effects of cooking and cutlery on the size of jawbone and the cranium. Lactose tolerance and blue eyes have been evolutionarily useful for northern Europeans. But what of the evolution of consciousness?

Here we move from science to belief. I strongly believe that as the universe unfolds, matter within it on a journey towards fulfilment, from zero to one, to total consciousness, the awareness of all. As higher-order life evolves, so with it evolves its consciousness - not at a constant or steady pace, but the tendency is there. More about this subject from my 2016 Lenten thoughts here.

This time last year:
Farewell to Ciocia Jadzia

This time two years ago:
By train from to Konstancin and Siekierki

This time three years ago:
Summer's end, Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Ząbowska, Praga's newly-hip thoroughfare

This time eight years ago:
Catching the klimat

This time nine years ago:
Road to Łuków - a road trip into the sublime

Monday, 19 September 2016

Evolution, the future and us: any evidence?

Walking through Cleveland Park and Pitshanger Park to get my 10,000 paces in today, I see many other walkers, joggers and cyclists out and about, as well as people using the exercise machines and playing tennis. Great stuff! No doubt most of these good people eat a healthy, balanced diet and take care of themselves.

But what of the rest? The ones driving themselves a few hundred yards to the fast-food takeaway, fag in hand? The ones who are nowhere near their five portions of five fruit-and-veg a day, or walking 5 miles/8km a day? What will happen to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren?

Is there any chance that homo sapiens as a species will branch into two distinct sub-species?

Before I start to ponder the future, I shall ponder the evolutionary recent past. I chanced upon an interesting article the other day, about wisdom teeth and human evolution. In 2004, scientists discovered the MYH16 gene, which regulates the strength of our jaw muscles. You need strong jaw muscles to bite through the hide and rip the raw flesh off a freshly-killed beast, then grind it down between your molars thoroughly enough to swallow.

But once homo sapiens learnt to harness the power of fire to bring about the chemical transformation of meat, and to use flint implements to remove animals' muscle fibre from bone, so the need to tear away at a carcass and chew meat became less of a survival imperative. The jaw muscles became weaker, through a mutation in the MYH16, allowing the skull to expand in size and accommodate a larger brain; finer control of the jaw facilitated speech . This from evolutionary scientist Matan Shelomi:
"Our mouths are getting smaller and more bullet-shaped. Our teeth aren’t quite changing as fast, which is why orthodontics and wisdom teeth removal still exist … for now. More and more people are being born without wisdom teeth, or have their wisdom teeth erupt later if at all. Wisdom teeth were useful before knives and cooking, when humans would probably lose molars to chewing hard food and needed the wisdom teeth as replacements. Today, 35% of people lack wisdom teeth, although the genes involved in this are unknown so we aren’t quite sure why this is happening yet."
Now I understand why I only have one wisdom tooth (lower right), while the remaining three have failed to emerge. It is not that I lack wisdom or maturity, no - it is because I'm evolutionarily more advanced than the rest of you primates (I jest of course).

In other evolutionary indicators, however, I'm less advanced. The gene allowing humans to metabolise milk once they are no longer infants proved really useful. Most common in north-west Europe, it led to the development of dairy farming; it is one reason why the Dutch are the tallest men in the world. Now, as child I had a mild revulsion to raw milk, but could still drink it in tea or coffee until I was in my late 30s, after which intolerance set it. [I can still eat cheese, butter and yogurt]. Milky tea? Bleuugh! Lactose tolerance is found in 90% of northern Europeans, but only 10% of east Asians.

Blue eyes are another human evolutionary novelty, appearing as recently as 6,000 years ago in the Black Sea region. Conferring a 5% advantage in reproduction, blue eyes have now spread to around one-fourteenth of humanity. (Not me, setting me back a few thousand years evolutionarily speaking)

If Darwin had anything to shout about, tall, blue-eyed, lactose-tolerant, small-jawed people without wisdom teeth would be biologically fitter, meaning they'd have more offspring, driving out the short, brown-eyed, lactose-intolerant, large-jawed people equipped with a full set of 32 chompers.

Hang around for a few million years to see if this is indeed the case...

Meanwhile, back to Pitshanger Park, I'm reminded of a Sunday morning in Liverpool about ten years ago. I was on the bus from the airport to the city centre. The bus was full of boys and young men in football kit, clutching footballs, heading to the parks to play footie. The pavements were full of runners, the roads full of cyclists, cars were driving kids to karate classes - it seemed like the entire city consisted of fit, active people enjoying sport. But I knew what I didn't see that morning - the unfit part of the population lying in bed, too lazy to get up and move.

There is a clear correlation between fitness and intelligence, between having the will to live a healthy life and eating sensibly and exercising.

Now the crucial question for evolutionary biologists is - so what?

Ten years ago, a movie came out that failed to take the box office by storm, but nevertheless became a cult classic - especially in the year that Donald Trump strives to become US president. The movie is called Idiocracy - see it, do - it's wretchedly funny. The premise is as follows:
"As the 21st century began, human evolution was at a turning point. Natural selection, the process by which the strongest, the smartest, the fastest, reproduced in greater numbers than the rest, a process which had once favored the noblest traits of man, now began to favor different traits. Most science fiction of the day predicted a future that was more civilized and more intelligent. But as time went on, things seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. A dumbing down. How did this happen? Evolution does not necessarily reward intelligence. With no natural predators to thin the herd, it began to simply reward those who reproduced the most, and left the intelligent to become an endangered species."
This science-fiction satirical comedy, set 500 years in the future, presents a dystopian vision of a nation run by the dumb pandering to the dumb. Could this come to pass? Intelligent people failing to breed?

Or will intelligent, fit - and wealthy - people will seek one another out, reproduce to bring into the world children that are advantaged from birth, while a genetic underclass, unfit, unhealthy and of low intelligence, lacking the will or nous to self-improve, evolve into a separate subspecies?

Or will the children of the wealthy settle comfortably into a complacent life that brings them a reasonable existence without needing to strive - while the children of the have-nots struggle against the odds to get the better jobs in a competitive labour market shaped by globalisation, robots and algorithms?

And another question: does longevity confer any evolutionary advantage, or is the product of evolutionary selection for its own sake?

Coming to the end of this post, I'm forced to ask once again - is there a gene that determines will? That determines determination? Is it why some people seek more and more, while others are content with just enough to get by on?

Strive to understand your biology, and strive to overcome it.

I happen to believe in spiritual - as well as physical - evolution. But that's for another post.

This time two years ago:
Relief as Scots vote to remain in UK

This time three years ago:
The S2 opens all the way to Puławska

This time four years ago:

This time five years ago:
Push-pull for Mazowsze

This time six years ago:
Okęcie runway repairs are complete

This time eight years ago:
I know that painting from somewhere...

This time nine years ago:
The March of Progress, ul. Postępu

Saturday, 17 September 2016

The aesthetics and guilt of climate change

The past week in Warsaw has been glorious, with temperatures in the mid- to high 20Cs. But I'm wrestling with my conscience about the balance of enjoying the sun and worrying about climate change. Consider this: every month since October 2015 has set a new record for high temperatures. This past July and August were the two hottest months on this planet of ours since mankind started keeping data.There is little doubt that the planet is warming up; the key question is whether there's anything we can do about it.

Above: the base of Warsaw Spire, glinting in the morning sunlight yesterday. I'm minded of the fact that I've twice visited Los Angeles, both times in mid-September, and both times under those famous blue skies, blue skies that have inspired artists, writers, musicians and film-makers. Warsaw seems to be getting a climate that's seeing an extended summer. Ten cloudless days (well almost - on Tuesday afternoon, I could see some clouds on the horizon from my 9th floor office, but they'd gone by the early evening); quite marvellous and eminently enjoyable - but should I be feeling guilt - anxiety even - at the way the climate is changing?

Yet this long spell of beautiful hot sunny days is something I want to keep on keeping on. Hotter Septembers in Warsaw? Why, yes - they lift my soul and bring the Sublime Aesthetic to my home town; to quote J.M.W. Turner's famous last words - "The Sun is God", I must say, aesthetically speaking, I concur, for on days of such stunning brilliance I am brought nearer to the essence of my existence, of consciousness, as the sun streams in through the ocular orbits and stimulates one's being.

This morning, landing at Luton Airport through a thick layer of cloud, I emerged in a grey drizzly world far removed from the dazzling skies at 30,000ft, I felt this moral/aesthetic dichotomy acutely.

Yes, our planet needs these damp, cool, cloudy days, just like we need green vegetables in our diet. Except I don't like damp, cool, cloudy days. I want an endless summer.

But I should be careful what I wish for.

As I mentioned in May [here], Poland's hotter, drier summers are likely to be matched by winters that are largely snow- and ice-free. While this means less transport inconvenience, lower heating bills, less bulky clothing etc, there's also the aesthetic loss - those days of fresh crisp snow on the ground, a hard frost - and those piercing blue skies. The phenomenon of hoar-frost - the frozen fog on the twigs and branches of trees, lit up by a low winter sun, white against the azure heavens - is something I'm lucky to catch once every two or three years now.

Some of us are lucky enough or motivated enough to be able to choose where we live. I have made a choice, some 20 years ago, and am happy with it - climate plays an important part in that choice. Real summers, real winters - not a climate where it can be 12C in July and 12C in January and where months can go by without a sunny day. The summers are getting more like the idealised summers that I yearn for - and I don't have to travel to the Med to experience them. I have them at home. But the winters... Recent Warsaw winters - real winter, where the ponds freeze over so solid you can drive a car over them - have been getting shorter and shorter. This blog will stand as testimony to how Warsaw's climate has been changing since 2007.

This time three years ago:
Rich man, poor man, entrepreneur, banker

This time five years ago:
At the hipsters' ball

This time six years ago:
Cycling through the spirit of place

This time seven years ago:
Invaders or liberators?

This time eight years ago:
Adlestrop, en route to Kraków

This time nine years ago:
Return to Zamienie

Saturday, 10 September 2016

A long day in wonderful Wrocław

Yesterday I was in Wrocław for the third time in as many weeks, and what a wonderful city it is.

I arrive on the night train from Warsaw at 05:50. Dawn is breaking. The Scottish restaurant at the station beckons with a McMuffin Deluxe, cherry tomatoes, orange juice and lashings of black coffee. The neons at either end of the station canopy are awesome; for some reason my camera's sensor does not give a true colour reading of the neon light. It's not orange - it's red, like the reflections caught on the reflections on the train side and platform floor.

I have a 3.1km walk to my first meeting, no rush, so I take the route along the foss, Podwale (below). Plenty of cyclists using this form of transport to get to work, and the perfect day for it. In the background some elegant Art Nouveau facades.

Below: I pass the National Forum of Music , opened a year ago to be an all-purpose music centre for the city and home to its philharmonic orchestra.

What is a 2-10-0 steam engine doing sticking out of the earth on Plac Strzegomski? This installation, erected in 2010, consists of a Ty2 Kriegslok. It is called Pociąg do nieba, which translates as 'train to heaven' - missing the point. The noun pociąg also means 'predilection for' or 'fondness for something', literally a 'pulling towards' something; to be attracted by something; niebo is both 'heaven' and the 'sky'. So Pociąg do nieba is both 'train to heaven' and 'attracted to the sky'. In the background, a former Nazi air-raid bunker that now serves as a museum of modern art.

After my meeting, I walked back to the city centre, ahead of my next meeting, which was to be held just off the Market square. Time to deal with some work emails at the hotel, then I set off for a walk around the Old Town (below). It's September, the crowds are thinner, which makes it more pleasant on a perfect day like today to stroll around here. A large choice of restaurants - I go for a savory strudel filled with pork and vegetables.

Below: Sukiennice, as in Kraków's Old Market, served as a cloth fair in Renaissance times.

Below: looking towards the 14th Century Town Hall (tower in the background). Perfectly European, perfectly civilised Wrocław.

After the meeting, next up would be the 12th International Oktoberfest, held in Wrocłąw each year since 2004 in September. Not quite a beer festival (plenty of different beers to try, but nowhere near as many as, say, in one of Warsaw's better multitap bars) but complete with a Bavarian brass band and held in the splendid setting of the courtyard of the City Arsenal.

Time, after numerous ales (and indeed white wines of Polish production), to set off on foot to catch the night train back to Warsaw.

Below: the Renoma department store, a modernist structure built in 1930 and renovated in 2009. Before that, it was the Powszechny Dom Towarowy - PeDeT. Which I remember from 1989 as being devoid of any kind of goods for sale.

Below: Plac Kościuski. Strolling around Wrocław at this hour, the city feels friendly, unthreatening, a city at ease with itself.

Below: a fragment of Pomnik Anonimowego Przechodnia ['Monument to the Anonymous Passer-by'] on the corner of Świdnicka and Piłsudskiego. Unveiled on 13 December 2005, the 24th anniversary of the imposition of Martial Law, the monument consisting of 14 figures submerging into the pavement then re-emerging from the pavement on the other side of the street symbolises how in those dark days Poles went underground, to emerge victorious after the fall of communism.

Below: nighttime on ul. Piłsudskiego. Note the window hanging over the pavement.

Below: Wrocław Główny station looks imposing at night, magnificently illuminated. Hard to imagine what at malodorous dump it was before the refurbishment of 2011-12.

Below: it's gone 23:20 and the station is still very much buzzing. The night train arrives early, from Jelenia Góra, and splits in two in Wrocław, with part going to Szczecin, the other part to Warsaw. Get your sleeper compartment early and own it - get changed, wash teeth etc before any other passengers do.

Below: I leave Wrocław as I entered it 18 hours earlier - by the glow of neons. After the jiggery-pokery with the carriages and platforms, my train sets off for Warsaw at 23:50. Ah - quick night train update. No longer do you get a bottle of water, a croissant, a face-flannel and piece of soap. And it seems fewer passengers. We must use or lose our night trains - they are a gem. For less than the price of a night at three-star hotel you get a bed plus you wake up at your destination.

A long day, successful meetings and a great beery booze-up at the Oktoberfest. And over 20,000 paces (16km) walked.

This time two years ago:
Putin will not heal Russia's tortured soul

This time three years ago:
Opole, little-known town

This time four years ago:
Raise a glass to Powiśle  (Mrs G-W gets a thumbs down)

This time six years ago:
Mud, rain and local elections (Mrs G-W gets another thumbs down)

This time eight years ago:
There must be a better way (commuting woes, again)

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Endless summer in Jeziorki

Calendar summer has greater meaning in Britain than in Poland; the seasons start and end earlier. But astronomical summer, which begins with the summer solstice and ends with the autumnal equinox better encompasses what we all consider 'summer' to be - hot, cloudless days. Today started fine, continued fine, and fineness is forecast to continue to the end of the week. Top temperature today in Warsaw exceeded 25C, and daytime highs are expected to hit 27C by Saturday.

The perfect day to work from home and take a long lunchtime walk. Glorious - high summer. The days are getting noticeably shorter though, today being four minutes shorter than yesterday. Indeed, a week ago, sunset in Warsaw was at 19:25. Today it set at 19:09; next week it will set at 18:50. The evenings are drawing in.

No matter - time to get out and enjoy the rest of the summer.

Below: the swan family seems to have dwindled from six cygnets to five (and from the original seven hatchlings). Still, the surviving quintet has grown to their parents' size.

Below: this is seems eager to learn to fly - the wings are getting bigger too. A few weeks ago, trying out this pose, the cygnet still looked slightly comical. They must learn to fly before the ponds freeze over. Last winter, this happened on the night of 31 December-1 January.

Left: two grey herons (I spotted four in total today, plus one egret) lifting off from the pond. Note how the neck of the one in the foreground has bent into an 'S' shape immediately after take-off. Despite Friday's intensive rain, the water level is sinking again, more dry earth is emerging as the ponds' banks stretch out ever further.

Below: I venture towards the tracks, work is going flat out, with several teams of workers visible down the line from W-wa Jeziorki up to W-wa Dawidy. Sadly, my favourite spot, the six metre-high mountain of ballast looks like it will be removed as the track bed of the 'up' line awaits.

Below: I return home via ul. Klarnecistów. Apart from the occasional aircraft coming into land and a few dogs barking, it is silent and still, no one around.

Here on the edge of Warsaw, everything is good. But summer has made me a bit lazy; I've not written much other than documented my surroundings. Still, that's what summer's for - to recharge the batteries. Creativity - writing - when the nights get long - I promise, I'll get cracking.

[Postscript - 11.09.2016: the ballast hill may not be disappearing just yet. I checked it out, and it seems the sides of it nearest the pedestrian level crossing have been cut away as a ditch carrying telephone cables is being dug around the base of the hill.]

[Postscript - 14.09.2016: the weather remains hot and sunny, though today was the first day in a week during which the maximum temperatures did not exceed 25C.]

This time last year:
In search of proper corn on the cob

This time two years ago:
Classic machinery

This time two years ago:
S2/S79 opens partially (not yet reaching Puławska)

This time seven years ago:
Recycling time rolls round again

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Interstices: between the tracks and Kłobucka

To the east of the Warsaw-Radom railway line between W-wa Dawidy and W-wa Okęcie stations lies and interesting no-man's land along ul. Zatorze. Literally 'behind the tracks street' this is a 1 km stretch of unasphalted road that today leads, well, nowhere. Now that the S2 and S79 have been completed, ul. Zatorze is used only by contractors working on the modernisation of the railway line.

At the south end of ul. Zatorze, there's a no entry sign. Nothing like it at the northern end, suggesting one-way traffic. In summer it's a dusty, sandy track. When the rains start, it turns into a muddy morass from end to end.

Left: once, behind these birches, there were numerous działki with neat gardens, summer houses, all fenced in; few are left today. Some have been abandoned and left to the local żul community who come here to drink and sleep.

Below: the strip of działki/former działki is bordered to the west by ul. Zatorze, and to the east by the line linking Warsaw's Metro to the outside world. Not a busy line, but every train on the Metro system has at one time travelled along these tracks.

I walk northwards towards W-wa Okęcie station, passing on from ul. Zatorze to ul. Kłobucka (famous for its prison). Between Kłobucka and the tracks is a new office development under construction, Nowy Służewiec - Mordor South in other words. On the east side of Kłobucka, a new development of flats. So we can see, the nearer we get to the centre of Warsaw, the more valuable the land, and the less likely that these interstices will remain. But there are still around...

Left: ul. Kłobucka, a new building by the footpath to the station. Though it's only some 400m from here to the station, there's no signs. The new building is home to the IPN (Institute of National Remembrance) digital archive. As the illustration shows, files are now accessible via a computer. Dates on the monitor (click to enlarge) are significant: 1939, 1956, 1970, 1980, 1990. There's room for one more file... what year will it be? 2016? 2017? When our government starts locking up judges for daring to say that an independent judiciary is key to the constitutional running of the Polish state? That the judiciary should be separate from the legislature and executive, in a normal system of democratic checks and balances?

Walking towards the station, I catch some more of that interstitial Warsaw, no-man's land abandoned by history; behind the gate (below), through which trains used to run (tracks now lifted) is a derelict 1960s warehouse building; behind it a 1990s office, and behind that, a 2010s office. I wonder when this piece of land will be developed. Maybe this are should be turned into parkland, for the residents of the new apartments on the other side of ul. Kłobucka?

On to the station. W-wa Okęcie is still not ready, a year after work started here. The footbridge has been re-closed. Yes, it was open, as I reported back in July, but now it's closed. So once again, passengers have to risk life and limb clambering over the tracks to get to the platform.

Below: parked up by W-wa Okęcie, a wagon socjalny - a hostel on wheels for the railway workers (who I must say were hard at it today, Sunday, all along the line from here down to W-wa Jeziorki). This made me think. Some people live in trailer homes, others in houseboats. Why not put Poland's large network of railway sidings and stock of wagony socjalne to good use? I for one would love to spend a few weeks travelling around Poland in a camper train, moving from place to place...

Below: looking south from W-wa Okęcie platform. A variety of rolling stock on the sidings - but what's new is that passenger trains are being stabled here. I've never seen this before.

Back to W-wa Jeziorki on the 14:14, which arrives at W-wa Okęcie three minutes early, and dutifully waits until the appointed hour before heading south towards Radom. Below: ul. Karczunkowska without cars. Paradise! People out walking, jogging, cycling. This is how it should be.

A good day's walking myself - 14,000 paces.

This time two years ago:
In which I ride my Brompton to work

This time five years ago:
Bike ride to Powsin as summer fades gloriously

This time six years ago:
Compositions in yellow, blue and white

This time seven years ago:
When the Z-9 used to run, temporarily, to Jeziorki

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Kępno's intriguing, historic station(s)

Passing through Kępno station, which lies on the Wrocław to Poznań railway line, I had been struck by the inappropriate size and number of platforms here given the modest town that it serves. This rail junction stood on the Polish side of the pre-war border with Germany, with four railway lines running through it. Today, only two are still active, with one crossing over the other at the station, which has high-level and low-level platforms.

Below: Kępno station, general view. To the left, you can see the bridge that takes the east-west line over the north-south line. A lovely brick-built station dating back to 1872, nicely refurbished. Sadly, the station building was closed, so I could not get interior snaps.

Below: looking down from the high-level platform at the low-level platform.

Below: looking across from the high-level platform at the station building.

Below: looking down from the high-level platform at the station building.

Below: under the viaduct that carries the east-west line over the north-south line.

Below: view of the high level platform from outside the station building. A freight train was branching off the line from the west to the north (click to enlarge - it's just visible to the left of the pic, on the spur joining the two lines).

This overgrown Tkt48 tank engine (below) is in a sad state and needs urgent restoration work. It stands in contrast with the station building, which is well-looked after.

A fascinating station, a distant walk from Kępno's recently restored market square (below), but worth the effort. At eight o'clock, the lights come on... autumn draws nearer.

I have just read that already by half past midnight on 1 September 1939, reconnaissance units of the German army were in Kępno's market square. The darkness had begun.

This time two years ago:
Thoughts occasioned by the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of WW2

This time three years ago:
A green light for consumer spending

This time fiyr years ago:
Procrastination - is it the same as laziness?

This time seven years ago:
Remembering the outbreak of WW2