Friday, 30 June 2017

Ballast Mountain coming down

From the train to town these past few days I've noticed increased activity around the ballast mountain. It looks like it's coming down - a great shame, as that six metres of height afforded great views when all around as far as the eye can see is a flat plain. Demand for ballast and other materials used for road and rail construction is high, as EU funded infrastructure projects are in full swing across Poland now.

After work today I came to take a look. From the trackside path, coming down from ul. Baletowa, little change, the familiar profile is still there.

But from the south side, the scale of the demolition is evident, below. To the left of the ballast mountain in the far distance, a house along ul. Baletowa. Before too long, construction of the the S7 extension will get under way in the fields between where I'm standing and Dawidy in the background.

The sky is visibly pregnant with rain; the wind is howling and within minutes the storm began. It only lasted a few minutes, skirting Jeziorki from south-west to north-east, but it was intense while it lasted. Having crossed the track, I made my way along ul. Kórnicka and onto Trombity; I had the impression that the air was full of twigs and small branches torn off trees. Fortunately nothing much larger. Below: this branch came down just ahead of me; five seconds earlier it was still an integral part of a tree.

Soon the storm was over, by the time I was home, the sun was out again. Such is the nature of summer storms in Poland.

UPDATE: 2 July - I returned to climb the ballast mountain, maybe for the last time, maybe not - here's the reverse angle from the top.

Three and half years of health and fitness data

Here we go - end of the first half of the year, and here is the raw data - my walking, drinking and fruit-eating. Note - I've swapped doing sit-ups (they are failing to shift belly fat) for press-ups and weights (to strengthen my shoulder muscles). Thanks again to Michał Borzyskowski from Australia for the tips and regular support.

I'm walking more than ever before, with over 11,000 daily average walked every day since 1 January this year; second quarter in a row with a million paces walked. Alcohol consumption continues to drop in line with ever-more restrictive UK health guidelines (down from 28 units a week for men to 21 units, then down to 14 units for both men and women). Nearly there. And intake of fresh fruit and vegetables up slightly to 5.4 units a day (won't be long till UK health guidelines are pushed up above the current five-a-day to seven or more).

Bear in mind that this is the 'dry' half of the year, 46 days of total Lenten abstinence observed every year since 1992, and that the run-up to Christmas is always boozy. The key is to keep on keeping on with the press-ups, weights and chin-ups for as long into the summer and autumn as possible. But whatever happens, I've a good track-record to returning to a fitness kick every New Year.

This time last year:
First half of 2016 health & fitness in numbers

This time two years ago:
Venus, Jupiter - auspices

This time three years ago:
Down the line from York

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

This time five years ago:
Despondency on Puławska

This time six years ago:
Stalking the stork

This time eight years ago:
Late June lightning

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Unusual sights on the tracks

Been a while since I posted some train pics, yesterday I see two unusual sights, so here they are.

Below: at the level crossing on the Skierniewice-Łuków line near the village of Koryta (literally, 'Troughs'), I see an ET22 advancing westward in standard PKP Cargo livery. Nothing unusual there - the most commonly seen loco on this line, but what's it hauling? Looks like a really strange skład...

Indeed! The electric engine is hauling a works carriage and an idling M62 'Gagar' in the livery of PPM-T (which the company helpfully translates as the Pomeranian Mechanical Track Company Ltd). In the middle looks like an ex-postal carriage, click to enlarge and you'll see smoke coming out of it, suggesting the occupants are cooking something inside.

Another old carriage pressed into service as living quarters for railway workers, below, parked up behind W-wa Zachodnia station, with a ballast wagon in front. In the distance two more barrack carriages, one sporting a satellite dish.

Below: a rare sight during the week - a draisine on the narrow-gauge line between Gołków and Głosków, west of Piaseczno. Busy season for the little tourist train, the workers on the draisine were cleaning up around the track - discarded beer cans and cigarette packets.

Below: another level crossing, this one south of Czachówek Południowy. Officially - it's open. Unofficially, the driver of the Panda will be waiting here a long time, while the trakcja guys do their bit and the train moves on to the next pantograph. This is part of the work to modernise the tracks between Czachówek and Warka, which gets properly under way when the W-wa Okęcie - Czachówek section is complete.

Now, the poor driver of the Panda may have already taken one detour to get east across the tracks. You see, the next crossing of the line, under the viaduct at Czachówek Górny, is officially closed, and has been for a few months, as the new bridge is laid there. Below: another fragment is lifted into place. Still a while before it's all ready. In the meantime, it's a nightmare for local drivers. For me, it's a 1.5km off-road detour along a muddy, bumpy contractor's track to the next level crossing, near Sułkowice. Four wheels bad, two (off-road) wheels good.

Below: bonus shot, from my trip to Kraków earlier this month, a 1958 MAN T4 tram, no. 220. In the early 1990s, the city of Kraków acquired 30 of these from Nuremberg, all of them were taken out of service in 2002 with the exception of one (no. 127), which was left as a historical tram serving tourist routes.

Very mitteleuropäische It soon became clear that one was not enough, so another one - this example - was bought from Nuremberg in 2005. Once scrapped, it's difficult to reverse the decision...

This time last year:
Brexit - it was new-EU immigration that swung it

This time two years ago:
Still flying after all these years

This time three years ago
Yorkshire's smallest city

This time four years ago:
Cramp in the night

This time five years ago:
Football goes home

This time six years ago:
Birds of Omen

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

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

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

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

Monday, 26 June 2017

How much you you pay for home-grown strawberries?

Strawberries in season are to be eaten and enjoyed in vast quantities. Prices are now probably rock-bottom, the market is flooded with locally grown strawberries at their very best. Below: I paid 6.99 złotys (£1.50) for a kilo of beautiful strawberries at Biedronka yesterday (box half-empty by time I took photo!). They were reduced from 8.99 złotys (£1.90), and flying off the display stand at the front of the shop. All over Warsaw now, stalls are appearing on street corners, by Metro stations, selling strawberries by the bucket.

And they taste as good as they look. Last month, in London, I bought a punnet of just six large  Kentish strawberries at the fruit & veg shop on Pitshanger Lane, paying £1.99 (10 złotys at the exchange rate of that day, the pound having slipped 20 grosze since then). My father and I ate them, acclaiming these the best strawberries we'd eaten in a long while. Just three each. Worth it. Six shillings and sixpence per strawberry in old money, but delicious, sweet, perfect.

Local strawberries in season are just so much better than the commodity shipped in from Mediterranean greenhouses in February. But why are the British ones so pricy today?

It is down to labour.

On Saturday, riding through southern Mazowsze, I came across busloads of Ukrainians being driven from field to field to pick the fruit. Some came in minibuses on Ukrainian number plates, others in buses registered in eastern Polish towns close to the borders. And, on bus stops across the regions, job ads in Ukrainian. Why is the Garden of Poland so dependent on foreign labour?

Registered unemployment in the Grójec poviat (district) is currently 2.9%. That compares to 20.8% in the Radomski district to the south, and just 2.6% in Warsaw. (South of Radom it's even worse; in Szydłowiecki district it's 26.6%). And this is the claimant rate, which when compared to Eurostat's figures for economic inactivity show around one-third of those claiming are actually employed in the grey economy. So real unemployment around Grójec, Tarczyn and Warka is closer to 2% than 3%.

Fruit-picking is by definition seasonal work. You cannot feed yourself let alone a family from picking strawberries in late spring and everything else that's pickable until the final apples are picked in early autumn. So the only people who'll do it are those whose currency is sufficiently weak to motivate them to come over seasonally to pick fruit. Given the Ukrainian hryvnia is nearly seven to the złoty (five years ago there was around 2.5 = 1zł), coming to Poland makes as much sense as going to the UK once did for Poles who wanted to pick fruit for good earnings.

Will this last?

Two weeks ago, Ukrainian nationals were given the right to enter the EU (though not UK and Ireland) for 90 days without a visa. Poland and Ukraine had a bilateral accord giving Ukrainian nationals the right to stay and work temporarily in Poland; last year 1.2 million Ukrainians registered for work here. They have helped the Polish economy ticking along as unemployment fell to record low levels. Factories, supermarkets, farms, hotels and restaurants across the country have all benefited from access to legal Ukrainian labour. Now, these same Ukrainians who have helped shore up economic growth have the right to cross into wealthier EU member states and work (with varying degrees of legality) in the agricultural sector. What will happen in Poland? Will there be a sudden exodus of Ukrainian fruit pickers heading westwards?

Meanwhile, in the UK, there have been numerous articles in the press about the shortage of fruit-pickers. The weak pound, the nasty atmosphere towards central and eastern Europeans fomented by the tabloid press, and general uncertainty created by Brexit, have led to many fruit farmers being unable to find reliable workers to pick their crop. This feeds into the supply chain. To fulfil their contracts, often signed before the referendum, farmers have to up their pay (by 20% in some parts of East Anglia, I read in the FT) to get their fruit harvested. And ultimately, the consumer has to find the extra cash.

Assuming a hard Brexit with no transition period or negotiated trade agreements, WTO rules come into force, an 11.2% tariff will apply to strawberries. To British strawberries being sold to the EU, to EU strawberries being sold in the UK.

Hate to be the bearer of bad news to Britain's strawberry lovers, but Brexit could push the prices of strawberries up by around 15%-20%, even locally grown ones.

Below: inflation as measured by the Office of National Statistics. In May 2016 it was 0.7%, in May this year it's 2.7%. And this is before Britain leaves the single European market and the Customs Union, before (may it not happen!) WTO rules kick in.

This time last year:
Zamość - the beautiful, must-visit town of Poland's east

This time two years ago:
Voting closes in citizens' participatory budget

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

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

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

This time seven years ago:
Literature and biology

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

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

Friday, 23 June 2017

Nostalgia, aesthetics, ideology, emotions - Brexit one year on

I'll never forget the gut-wrenching shock of waking up at 4am on 24 June last year and seeing that Sunderland voted Leave, upturning the forecasts from the night before that Remain would narrowly win. It hit me like a punch in the face. What have these people done? WHY have they done it?


How would have my favourite poet, Sir John Betjeman (1906-84) voted had he still been alive? Would that part of him which yearned for the past have prompted him to vote Leave? One of the recurring themes in his poetry was the sense of loss that progress brings with it. The sprawling suburbs, industrial estates, shopping arcades and dual carriageways that encroached his Home County haunts made him mourn for the lost Edwardian era of his childhood.
Where are the wains with garlanded swathes a-swaying?
Where are the swains to wend through the lanes a-maying?
Where are the blythe and jocund to ted the hay?
Where are the free folk of England? Where are they? 
Ask of the Abingdon bus with full load creeping
Down into denser suburbs.
Ask of the cinema manager. Night airs die
Ask at the fish and chips at the Market Square.
[from The Old Liberals, 1954]

I suspect many older British voters would have voted to leave the EU on the basis of emotion. No longer recognising the land where they were born, not really understanding the economic and legal ramifications of exiting the EU, a cross on the ballot paper to leave was an act of defiance against the march of time. An almost aesthetic decision
Good-bye high hopes and over confidence -
In fact it's probably good-bye England
[from Metro-land, 1973]

I can understand this form of nostalgia-based emotion, but life moves on. In the 1930s, Betjeman railed against the architectural modernism that by the 1970s he was keen to see preserved. And the 'free folk of England' of Betjeman's childhood had no hot water, no free healthcare, poor sanitation and very little by way of consumer goods or leisure time.

The rich and the powerful who militated for Brexit - press barons who aren't tax-resident in the UK; wealthy scions of wealthy families; entrepreneurs with off-shore treasures - convinced the intellectually less-gifted that it is indeed the rich and the powerful that are doing them down - by keeping them in the EU.

Then there's the alt-right, a pernicious mental aberration that affects men in their 20s and 30s (the peak age for indoctrination by dangerous ideologies), who are kicking out against order, political correctness, regulation, health and safety, libtards, feminazis and other distractions. To them, Brussels and its 'unelected bureaucrats' and its Directives are merely a re-run of the Soviet Union. [I get very annoyed when I hear such people talk of 'EUSSR'. Where are the EU's Gulags? Where's the EU's Holodomor? Where's the EU's NKVD? Where's the EU's Great Terror? Where's the EU's Katyń? My mother experienced what 'USSR' meant. If you equate 'EU' and 'USSR' in my earshot, I will fucking slap you.]

And then there's the less-well educated English and Welsh person, the tabloid-headline skim-reader with poor spelling and punctuation skills, who sees uncontrolled migration from poorer EU countries to the UK as a threat. They see skilled, motivated, hard-working migrants coming over, speaking foreign in the streets, dropping their empty tins of Zywiec and Tyskie beer, mostly young males coming over at first - who then bring their girlfriends and children and in-laws over and start making demands on council housing, local schools and the NHS.

Whereas there is the Sports Direct argument - that unscrupulous employers know they can get low-skilled labour from Poland, Romania and Bulgaria for less than what the locals would work for. Yet in many cases, without such labour, the UK economy would not have bounced back so strongly from recession. If you are an employer in the agriculture, horticulture  or food-processing sectors out in East Anglia, where local unemployment can be less than 2%, you will simply not be able to recruit natives to do the work.

Migration could have been managed much better, within the framework of EU law, by Home Secretary Theresa May (five years, two months in the job). The UK could have made it harder for low-skilled, long-term migration from the EU.

The subsequent 12 months have left Britain - and the EU - none the wiser. On Twitter, the brave Brexiteers have all but skulked away. There's been no coherent, plausible vision presented of just how the UK can become this great, open (yet closed to EU migrants), free-trading (except with the EU) nation. All those seductive arguments have fizzled out when confronted with reality. Example: "The Commonwealth has 51 members!" Yes, but the smaller 25 members' combined population is around that of Greater London.

Do Brexiteers have a clue as to how bilateral trade deals have to be negotiated? How big a staff is required? How long it takes? The Canadians, with 500 trade negotiators, analysts, sector specialists and ancillary staff on the case, took seven years to hammer out their Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU. The UK will need one with the EU, the US, China, India, Japan, Brazil, as well as Nauru, Tonga, Samoa and Vanuatu. Who will do that work?

The kind of detail overlooked by Brexit proponents during the referendum debate - on leaving the EU, London will no longer host the European Medicines Agency. The EMA will have to leave its offices in Canary Wharf. The cost of getting out early from a 39-year lease is said to be £300m. The EMA will not pay - it's not its fault that it must leave to set up in another country that's still in the EU. So the British government will pay end up paying the landlord. Funded by the British taxpayer. That's £4.60 per every man, woman and child in the UK. For this one example.

If a transitional arrangement isn't reached, and Britain leaves the EU by 29 March 2019, by default, WTO tariffs will kick in. These range from tiny to huge. Beef, for example, is 59%. The UK imports half of its food, a half of that coming from the EU. Britain imports beef from Ireland in large quantities. As prices of imported beef go up - what will British farmers do? Keep their prices at current levels? Or see an opportunity to raise them?

If a transitional arrangement is reached, and Britain ends up (somehow) clinging on to some form of preferred access to the single European market, and remains in the customs union, still allowing in high-skilled and short-term EU migrant labour, but without any say in Brussels as to the rules - what was it all for?

The whole thing is as bloody a mess as it was on that God-awful morning of 24 June 2016. I can only hope that Brexit won't happen, that sense will dawn on a majority of Britons that it really isn't worth it. Especially the young. A hard Brexit has the potential to harm them economically, to curtail their freedom of movement, their ability to study and work across other EU nations. It will lead to an economic slowdown if not recession, inflation will rear up from next to zero, and the pain endured during the Great Recession will linger on for several years. Several crucial years for Britain's young.

Over a quarter of a million Leave voters have died since the referendum, it is estimated (based on the polling preference of the older age groups), while the number of Remain voters who've died in the past 12 months is around 60,000. Meanwhile, the number of young people who are likely to vote Leave who have reached voting age in the past year is around 90,000 - outnumbered by likely Remain voters who've had their 18th birthdays since then, which is over 260,000. So in the UK today, there are around 190,000 fewer Leave voters and 170,000 more Remain voters - and that's just the demographics. There are also far more Leave voters regretting their decision than Remain voters who now say they should have voted Leave. Should the government be forced to put the results of its negotiations to another referendum - who knows.

Give it a while, it may all blow over... Or it may not. Uncertainty. Not good for business, for investment decisions, for trade, for supply chains. I was right to feel sick on the morning of 24 June 2016. And then there's the personal hit - my UK pension (in pounds), is now worth in zloty terms (how I intend spending it) around 15% less than it was before the referendum.

This time two years ago:
Civilisation and barbarism - how the former deals with the latter

This time three years ago:
Ahead of the opening of Jeziorki's Biedronka

This time four years ago:
New views of Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Motorway finally links (the outskirts of) Łódź and (the outskirts of) Warsaw

This time eight years ago:
Kraków Air Museum

This time nine years ago:
Quintessential Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Little boxes, Mysiadło

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Cygnets up close

A month old, and the cygnets - all six of them - are thriving. I mentioned yesterday that I'd seen them - for the first time in three weeks - on the retention pond by ul. Trombity, but today the swan family was bolder and came right out to where the people are - by the new playground on ul. Kórnicka.

I've noticed that they only parade together with both parents present. Over the past three weeks, the male (distinguished by a larger knob over its beak) has been seen regularly on his own, but no sign of the rest of the family. On every occasion since the cygnets hatched, I've only seen them in the presence of mother and father. When father's off on his own, the cygnets and their mother hide out in the reedbeds.

Below: father and three cygnets

Below: both parents and all six cygnets, hatched one month ago (between 20 and 2 May). They've grown hugely since then.

Below: four cygnets in line astern following father.

Below: close-up of a cygnet. Swans' long necks have evolved so they can feed deeper into the water; grebes and coots have evolved the ability to dive to feed even deeper than swans.

Below: photo taken on Monday of the male swan, his identification rings clearly visible. '2KC1' on his right leg, a patriotic 'Poland' ring on his left. He's looking happier than the grey heron who appeared in the previous post! But then mute swans can live to over 25 years of age, the grey heron but five.

Meanwhile, the great crested grebe is still sitting on its egg(s); average incubation period for this species is 27-29 days; I first spotted an egg in the nest on 24 May, so today is Day 28 at the very least. Any time now...

Jeziorki's grey herons

One of the larger birds to be found in Jeziorki, along with the swan and the pheasant, the grey heron's habitat has been changed of late, what with the new park being built along the northern side of our ponds. This year, I've only seen the grey heron on the southern-most fringes of the southern-most pond, and here, on the pond by ul. Pozytywki. The grey heron is a predator and eats fish and small aquatic animals. Its face, in anthropomorphic, terms looks aggressive, annoyed, unhappy - unlike the placid, comical duck faces.

First shots of a heron taken with my Nikon CoolPix P900 - excellent for photographing birds.

Mr Heron - please raise your right leg... and now your left... thank you.

Most of the other birds on Jeziorki's ponds get on well together; the gulls, coots, ducks - and this year, grebes, pochards and scaups - but I've witnessed the herons getting chased away by mobs of gulls, or in the case below, by a large corvid.

Other bird news - as of yesterday, 20 June, the greater crested grebe is still incubating its egg(s) - it's over a month since the grebes constructed their nest; I photographed an egg on 24 May, so literally any day now... Plus - I saw the swans yesterday - all six cygnets, looking bigger, on the pond by ul. Trombity. I guess as a result of the new park and the greatly increased human activity here, the swans are bringing up their cygnets deep in the rushes, between the middle pond and Trombity, making an occasional foray into open waters. Yesterday there was much commotion on the street as a road-repair team was cutting into cracked asphalt and patching it up - noise and smell, so the swans would have moved away from it all.

Finally, to all my local readers in Jeziorki - you have until 30 June to vote for this year's projects in the Budżet partycypacyjny. Vote online (, just have your PESEL number with you. From our point of view, most important project here is a comprehensive system of traffic calming for 'Green Ursynów' (from Poleczki down to Warsaw's borders). Thirty km/h means exactly that. Drive slowly, respect the pedestrians, the old folk, the children, the mothers with prams, the cyclists, the walkers - we don't have pavements. You, sitting in your two-tonne SUV, are invulnerable. We, the pedestrians and cyclists, are vulnerable. You are driving too fast. You are chatting on your mobile. You are writing SMSs. You are a danger. You must be calmed.

This time two years ago:
Midsummer's Day in Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
Kittens at six weeks

This time six years ago:
And the Lord spake unto the tribe of Hipsters

This time seven years ago:
Exit polls can get it wrong

This time eight years ago:
In search of good Polish beer
[Situation's much improved, I'm delighted to say!]

This time nine years ago:
In the Solstice garden

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Building and the human living space

Every space we've inhabited is a man-made enclosure of space that was once a part of nature. Where you are sitting, right now, reading these words, was once a field, a meadow, a forest - then man came along, levelled the ground, laid foundations, and erected four walls with a roof over them. Building is but the first stage of that magic act of habitation.

As our house was being built, from 1999 to 2002, we'd come over from the house we were renting (it lay less than a kilometre in a straight line from the plot); we'd observing the progress phase by phase, walking into walled-off spaces that would soon become the rooms in which we would be living. An upstairs emerged, accessible at first only by a ladder. And then an attic, under a roof that took shape as the rafters were installed.

This is a process happening all over Poland, sometimes at a faster rate, sometimes pausing for a breather. Big developers, small developers, individual families. And not only houses - offices, shops, warehouses, factories, roads and bridges too. And when finished, when people move in, buildings literally encapsulate the human spirit. The drama that goes on inside, the joy, the pain, the day-to-day activities - as we go about our lives, we slough off dead skin, bacteria; we breathe in and we breathe out, - atoms of us, that were once in us, part of us, mingle with the wallpaper, the carpets, the floor. A shell of brick and wood absorbs us - who knows - our thoughts maybe, and becomes our abode. It's a bit far to go the whole supernatural thing with ghosts and that, but I believe that our houses absorb our personalities, the longer we live there, the stronger the effect gets.

Below: new houses in Jeziorki. It will be a while before they are finished, before families move in. Who will they be? How will the environment shape their lives? How will they shape Jeziorki?

Below: ten years ago - June 2007, across the tracks from the old rampa na kruszywa, new houses going up in Zgorzała. Now inhabited, a dormitory estate with one shop and little by way of character.

Below: ten years ago - June 2007, soon after take-off from Okęcie, the viaduct carrying ul. Poleczki is under construction; no sign of the S79 expressway nor of Poleczki Business Park. Ten years later, those who witnessed the construction have got so used to the way it is now that we've largely forgotten how it once was. Those who moved in, never seeing it being built, have no frame of reference.

Back to the rampa na kruszywa - you can see it in this shot from June 2007, below, at the end of ul. Nawłocka (then still unpaved). Today a large Biedronka sign in the car park is what you'd see if you stood here.

Below: more change in the built environment round these parts: ten years ago, ul. Puławska was being widened between Warsaw's boundary and Piaseczno. While this was happening, traffic was being diverted through the abandoned PGR Mysiadło. Today, Puławska's as busy as ever, these buildings remain abandoned.

Sitting here in my study, looking across at a mature garden, I can still remember when this 45 cubic metres of space that constitute the room I currently occupy, was the outdoors. A field. I can step out, walk around to the side of the house, over the fence - and I'm back in a field. But the bit of field that was once here has lost its field-like quality.

Where we live shapes our worldview.  It helps determine whether or not we're happy. Spirit of place is so important. Choosing exactly where you set down your roots should be determined by your soul, not by a pushy estate agent.

Now it belongs to the ages

What is art? What makes a great work of art - be it a painting, a film, a play, a piece of music? What is the journey that a work of art must make to achieve greatness?

Creating a great work of art (GWA) is a like launching a satellite; it requires a great deal of effort to escape the clutches of gravity and enter earth's orbit; but once up there, it can (though not always forever) stay in orbit. A work of art has to withstand the test of time and be critic-proof.

Getting into orbit is the tricky bit. Your work can achieve it by being ground-breaking; having something entirely new to say, or to proclaim a timeless truth in a new way. Great art can make it into orbit by being technically perfect, when no critic can point to any flaw. But 'ground-breaking' for the sake of being there first - probably not. Example: early video art. The Shock of the New. Take at look at the cover of that great album, Remain in Light by Talking Heads (1980).The music stands the test of time (The Library of Congress deemed it "culturally, historically, or artistically significant", selecting it for preservation in its National Recording Registry). The album cover merely reflects an early attempt at playing around with digital images.Ground-breaking at the time, but not one of rock's great album covers.

An essential of a GWA is that is has to speak to the truth of the human condition, to reach into the consciousness of the reader/listener/viewer who says - yes. "This is how it is". It could be a new realisation, it could be an eternal truth retold in a way that adds new insights, builds on what we've hitherto understood - a flash of light through a facet of the diamond.

Not all great artists are acknowledged in their lifetimes - Vincent Van Gogh being the prime example. Other works are discovered - but the discoverer is important. John Kennedy Toole created a literary masterpiece in the comic novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, before he committed suicide. It was only thanks to the determination of his mother to see her son's book published, eleven years after his death, that A Confederacy of Dunces saw the light of day.

Photographer Vivian Maier also went to her grave unrecognised. An obsessive-compulsive, she left boxes and boxes of negatives that only ensured her posthumous greatness because the right person, John Maloof, bought them at an auction and instinctively knew what to do, taking the time and trouble to have prints made, and exhibited and published.

To be up there in orbit, to belong to the ages, an artist must stand behind a body of work. A painter cannot reach the pantheon of greatness without numerous canvasses, a poet cannot do it on the strength of but one short poem; a film-maker can rarely achieve greatness with one. Artists that burn brightly but briefly tend to be remembered in footnotes rather than in book titles.

At the height of Beatlemania [note: word not underlined by Google's spellchecker], my parents and their generation were mainly of the opinion that this was a here-today-gone-tomorrow phenomenon. They were wrong. Though I never was a Beatles fan, by the time the band released Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was certain - as a nine year-old - that this wasn't something ephemeral.

The role of the critic, be it an academic who deems a piece of art worthy of study and deserving of study, or a media critic to bring it to popular awareness and acclaim is vitally important. The greater the number of academic papers, the greater the likelihood that their subject will still be considered a GWA in the distant future.

Better to be liked by a select group cognoscenti down the centuries than to be like by the crowds and then forgotten in the next generation. The right mix of popular and critical acclaim should veer towards the latter.

The emperor's new clothes effect sees some once highly-regarded works tumbling out of orbit. Fashions change. Political views change. But great art speaks to each successive generations, in different ways - ways in which the artists had not even contemplated. And THIS is the most important quality of a GWA - transcendence. It transcends its creator's intent, it conveys a depth and range of meanings that will continue to resonate.

[The title of this post is a line from one of the great Simpsons episodes Brush with Greatness (Series 2 Episode 18). Professor Lombardo, inspecting one of his student's paintings says "Not another stroke! - Now it belongs to the ages."]

This time last year:
More Brictorian Liverpool

This time two years ago:
Łódź - city of tenements

This time three years ago:
Liverpool reborn

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

This time five years ago:
Warsaw's southern bypass by this time next year?

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

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

Thursday, 15 June 2017

"Further progress? Hell yes!"

After dinner was over, we moved out side into the cool evening air  to continue our conversation over cocktails. Everyone was feeling happy after our huge barbecued steak dinner. We were in a self-congratulatory mood, with plenty of affable back-slapping; stocks were riding high and the middle of the 20th century was all ours.

As we made our way out, Clarence said that he wanted to carry on about with his main theme of the day's conference. "Let's go back, my friends, to the America of our childhoods, and just think about the progress that our generation has gifted to humanity." We sat ourselves down in the sunloungers around the pool and waved to the boy to wheel out the drinks trolley. Clarence continued: "Look at it this way. The atom will soon be giving us unlimited, free, energy. Mass production brings all sorts of devices, from the vacuum cleaner to the Frigidaire, into the financial reach of consumers in markets around the world. It will do more and more, until everyone has everything he needs. We can fly at the speed of sound. Passenger flights from coast to coast are now commonplace. Television will soon replace radio, like the jet plane will replace the steam train. The workforce at my plant are more prosperous than any employees of any employer ever. Why, most of my guys drive to work in their own autos! And just think back to the horseless buggies that our fathers drove! That is progress! Ignorance and disease will soon pass into history. If you think that progress of the past half-century has been fabulous - and it has - just wait to see what the future brings. Our grandchildren will be conquering space."

Self-satisfaction settled upon us all. Yup - we were sure this is how it would be. No dissenting voices. "Let's just make sure no commies get in our way!" said Earl, waving his beer glass.

I felt it was time to say a few words. "Fellows - I'm sure that like me, you can remember that day, nearly half a century ago, when you first heard about powered heavier-than-air flight. As a child, the exploits of the Wright Brothers gave me the sense that the world was ours to conquer. And the automobile. When I got back from France in 1918, first thing I did was to go out and buy a Model T.

"The Wright Brothers flew the length of a football field. Just 45 years later, Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier. Aircraft can fly faster, further, carrying ever-heavier loads; jets replace propellers. Imagine the same pace of change brought forward another half-century or so." I went on: "If we could build a time-machine, and could bring a man born just a century before us to today, he'd be unable to cope with the marvels that he could see, wherever he looked. Imagine packing such a man, born in the 1790s, onto the American Airlines flight from Roanoke to New York, then showing him the skyscrapers, the stock exchange, the Subway..."

As that thought sunk in amongst my listeners, I allowed myself a pause to take a sip of bourbon on the rocks. In the distance, I could hear the comforting muffled roar of trucks and autos on the newly-built state highway. I continued:

"Now, gentlemen, let us imagine stepping forward into 2051! How will our world look then? Nuclear-powered space liners taking us to our holidays on Mars? Cars that can travel at 250 miles per hour? Miniature televisions that we can wear on the wrist? We are at an age when progress becomes not linear, but exponential. As a species, we shall be improving faster and faster - there is no limit!" A small, still voice within me counselled caution - maybe it was the drink talking, maybe..."

Clarence took a puff on a Havana cigar, sitting forward, elbows on his knees. "Gentlemen - the pace of change is accelerating. Can we even begin to imagine life in fifty, a hundred years time? We're unable to catch that. Our minds are just... too dull, too tied down to the everyday to catch just a sliver of a sense of what it will be like."

I realised that sat by the pool was this Red Indian guy, around the same age as us, dressed in faded Hawaiian shirt and khaki slacks. Had he been there all along, except that I'd failed to notice him? Who was he? Had he been invited, or was he a worker here - or even a guest? Don't know.

Anyway, he stood up and said: "White man - you have created the jet plane and the V-8 motor - but you have lost within yourselves that which is of... the spirit. For what end are you devising these inventions? You think you are clever - you think they are bring progress - but you're spoiling our world - and the saddest thing is - you don't... even know it. Your existence bears no joy." Having said these words, he left.

The awkward silence that fell upon our company was replaced by laughter that felt in equal measure aggressive, and defensive.

And so ended a most insightful evening.

This time nine years ago:
The 1970s and the 2000s

Monday, 12 June 2017

Jeziorki update

Back after a few days in London, very busy with work (apologies for emails unanswered etc), but time for a quick pictorial catch-up.

Let's start with the grebes... The black-necked grebes had their young early, and the chicks no longer ride around on their parent's backs. Below: keeping up with mum,

Below: dad surfaces with a fish. If you click to enlarge, you'll see the scales. But what are those strands around the grebe's head and neck and back? I hope they're not anglers' fishing lines...

Below: the great crested grebe on the southern pond is still patiently sitting it out.

...But by the northern retention pond, the other pair of great crested grebes has come into the family way, with a quartet of chicks (if you look closely), one riding on mum's back.

Below: male common pochard.

Below: a  male scaup. But which - greater? (ogorzałka zwyczajna) lesser? (ogorzałka mała) Or indeed could it be ring-necked duck (czernica), given its black upper wings?

Below: young gulls go for it. Immature black-headed gulls; as chicks they've stayed hidden, remaining close to their nests in the reeds. Now fledged, they make forays onto the main ponds.

Below: photo taken on 28 May, cygnets six. Since then, I've not seen them, only the adult male. I hope all is well with them.

The path around the pond is taking shape, with little needed to complete the park. The children's playground is complete, and the fitness area with six bits of equipment. Tables, benches and barbeque pits have appeared, as has, sadly, rubbish - cigarette packets and energy drink tins in the water. Below: both walkways going across the pond await final decking.

And finally, I can note the timely completion of trackworks between W-wa Okęcie and Piaseczno station. Once again the 'down' line is being used for 'down' trains. For the record, here's one of the last Radom-bound trains heading down the 'up' line - photo taken Saturday evening. The next day, normal working was restored. Both platforms at W-wa Okęcie are now operational, even the footbridge has been officially opened (one year and two months after completion). And Nowa Iwiczna's new 'down' platform is now functioning. Photo taken from Ballast Mountain, which looks like it's being excavated from the south. How much longer will my favourite local vantage point survive?

As of Sunday, the new summer timetable is now operational. Now that both lines are ready, travel times between Jeziorki and W-wa Śródmieście have been cut by three minutes, from 31 to 28 minutes, a small but (from the property value point of view) psychologically significant difference.

Indeed, I was quite surprised on Sunday to see trains whizzing up and down the tracks faster than ever before, at speeds that I associate with the Poznań or Gdańsk lines.

This time two years ago:
Inside Okęcie airport's new old terminal

This time six years ago:
Thirty-One and Sixty-Three (short story about 19th century Polish uprisings)

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki to Jeziorki - the big rail loop

This time nine years ago:
Automotive miscellany

This time nine years ago:
South Warsaw sunsets

Saturday, 10 June 2017

"Further progress is unimaginable"

After dinner was over, we retired to the drawing room to continue our conversation over some brandy. An air of contentment spread across the company after a most splendid meal of pheasant followed by Armagnac sorbet; cigar smoke hung thick was in the air. All around, the oak panels, the portraits of our chairman's predecessors gazing down upon us.

As we made our way across, Sir Alfred made it clear that he wanted to continue to discourse upon the main topic of his after-dinner speech. "Let us return, gentlemen, to the England of our childhoods, and consider the progress that our generation has bestowed upon Mankind." We took our places and beckoned the waiter to bring some fine whiskies. Sir Alfred continued: "No more are we isolated in the villages of our birth - within two or three hours, we can be here, in Central London, from any point in the Home Counties, thanks to the magnificent network of railways that we have constructed. Furthermore - thanks to the telegraph, we can send telegrams to any point of the Empire! Gas lighting illuminates our homes and our factories! Printing presses bring us fresh news each day and the great works of literature are accessible in our bookshops! Our people are healthier, better educated and better housed, better clothed than at any time in history! Such, gentlemen, is the progress that we have bequeathed to the next generations! Will they be able to better us?" he bellowed.

A self-satisfied glow befell the retinue, there were some misplaced tipsy mumblings of "hear, hear" - but the answer to Sir Alfred's question was surely 'no".

But I took upon myself the onus of reply. "Chairman, gentlemen; may I cast back reminiscences to my own childhood; that balmy day in the summer of 1851 when my father, Lord _____, took me, nine years old at the time, along with him, at my insistence, to the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Half a century has elapsed since that day, and yet my memories of it are sharp and clear; I was overwhelmed with a strong sense of pride - of being English, of being a young Victorian gentleman, with this vast panoply of technological advance that would be accompanying me into my adulthood. Technologies that had just begun to make themselves felt on the everyday life of our countrymen, let alone the denizens of further parts would change the world into which I'd grow up.

"Since then - the steam engine has become ubiquitous; we think nothing of catching the eight-fifteen up to town each morning - I've been doing so for two-thirds of my life! The telegram allows me to make contact with my youngest son working in the Indian Civil Service, currently stationed in Cawnpore. Photographs of my family adorn my Bedford Park home, which is modern in every conceivable way - airy, spacious, uncluttered," I boasted. And then as if to deflect that thought, I went on: "If, with the aid of a time-machine, we were able to drag a man born a mere century earlier than ourselves to this day and age, I dare say he'd be unable to cope with the marvels that he would behold wherever he gazed. Imagine, packing such a man, born in the 1740s, onto the 8.16 from Rugby Central to London Marylebone, then alighting from the train to behold the marvels of our capital!

As that thought sunk in amongst my listeners, I allowed myself a pause to take a sip of whisky and soda. I continued:

"Now, gentlemen, let us imagine stepping forward into 2001! How will our dear old London town appear to us then? What wonders would we witness? Flying machines in the skies above? Horseless carriages in the streets? Cinemas on every corner?"

Sir Alfred stood up and intoned: "I cannot imagine anything more than incremental improvements over what we ourselves have wrought these past few decades. It would be folly to consider that progress could continue at the same pace that it had done over the past century; it was an epoch of great men - great inventors, engineers, manufacturers - mankind cannot hope to be blessed with such a munificence of talent in every century! The Renaissance was the last time that Providence had blessed us so generously with talented creators. Mankind will not see such progress as has befallen us in our lifetime for several hundred years! We have been unusually fortunate as a generation!"

A small fellow, short and thin of face - one I'd not met before - waved his hand impatiently, and Sir Alfred, looking irritated, grudgingly allowed him to speak. The man rose and "We speak of progress as though it goes but in one direction. Industry has brought mankind many benefits, but it can be used to bring harm to a great many in ways that we've not ever considered. Imagine, if we may, the flying machines that the Honourable _____ mentions being used to drop explosive devices, killing civilians by the tens of thousands. Progress is not necessarily desirable," he said as he sat down.

My sanguine hopes for the new century looked too bright - I had not considered the possibility of technological progress being harnessed for bringing harm. Sir Alfred pulled out his pocket watch, squinted at it, and announced: "Gentlemen, fascinating as this evening has been, I must now depart for St Pancras to catch the last train of the evening to my country seat. Tomorrow I will oversee the delivery of a steam tractor which will revolutionise work on my farm."

And so ended a most insightful evening.

This time last year:
Baletowa reopens as rail works move on

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

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

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

This time ten years ago:
Storm clouds rising

Friday, 2 June 2017

Sticks, Carrots and Nudge - a Proposal

The British government's so-called 'Nudge Unit' is well-known among policy makers. The idea that giving citizens a slight nudge in the right direction rather than using proscriptive laws or behaviour-changing taxes - has taken hold in many governments.

I'd like to propose an idea that came to me as I hurried through St Pancras station this morning on my way to a meeting. I walk a lot - since 1 January 2014, my daily average has been 10,491 paces. How do I know this? At first, a pedometer, now replaced with an accurate health app in my phone, logged on a spreadsheet.

Walking is good for us, says the NHS, the World Health Organisation and the Surgeon-General of the USA. All set a target 10,000 paces (around 8km) a day. Now, I'm doing this. Thus reducing the costs of my long-term healthcare costs. And yet, paying into a healthcare system remains a one-payment-fits-all model. Now, I'm all in favour of those with healthy genes to subsidise the healthcare of those not so favourably born. But surely governments should be able to differentiate those who actively take care of their health, and those that neglect it?

To what extent could a carrot be offered to those prudent with their health?

Long-term research clearly shows the benefits of regular exercise. So how about - on a voluntary basis - offering a discount on monthly payments (National Insurance in the UK, ZUS in Poland) for people who agree to have their activity monitored?

I'd happily share data from my phone with the state to prove that I indeed walk my 10,000 paces a day. Connect my smartphone to a government server, and let it see my daily walking.

Furthermore - how about an incentive not to drive your car into town? My health app verifies my walking, but the GPS in my phone also shows that I travel to work exclusively by public transport. If a city can calculate the true cost of a commuter driving to town each working day, in terms of congestion, pollution and the opportunity cost of the real estate on which the car rests for eight working hours, then it can share some of that cost with citizens who forego the car.

All of this can be worked out these days by GPS, by ANPR (automatic number-plate recognition), by your health app in your phone or watch, by public transport revenue-collection equipment such as Metro gates. The technology is easy.

As well as penalising those who insist on driving with a congestion charge, paying the rest of us a decongestion reward would be beneficial in the drive to unclog our cities.

More and more commentators and futurologists are talking about taxing the robots and artificial intelligence systems that will take over so many jobs in our economy over the next 20-30 years. From those taxes, a basic citizen's income (already under discussion in countries like Switzerland and Norway) can be paid. And this tax can be tweaked by the value that a citizen adds to their economy.

Behavioural value - leading a healthy lifestyle, polluting less, recycling more, activities that are useful to society and to the environment should not go unrewarded. Behaviour can be monitored, and - provided this is done with the citizen's consent - good behaviour should be turned into monetary reward.

How does that sound?

This time two years ago:
London vs. Warsaw pt 2: the demographic aspects

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Summer day at school, 50 years ago...

From my mother's school to my own primary school, on Oakland's Road in Hanwell, London W7. The dog-days of the summer term, June 1967. I was nine. Class 2P. Our class teacher, Miss Penn (originally from Waterlooville in Hampshire - gosh what a memory for trivia I have) was off sick for a while, so we had a supply teacher. A young man - but here, my memory fails me, as I can't remember his name or his face - he must have come in to teach us for a few days, may a week or two. before we broke up for the holidays. It was the first time I was ever taught by a male teacher.

And one day, he came into the classroom brandishing a copy of the Beatles' LP, released 50 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He played it, on the school record player, track by track, and he discussed the lyrics with us. It was an in-depth exposition of the songs' lyrics, explained so these nine year-olds from Hanwell could take something away from this didactic experience.

I had the distinct feeling back then that this was a revolutionary moment in my schooling. Newspaper taxis appeared on the shore waiting to take me awaaaay... The first time that we had been taken so far away from multiplication and Janet and John reading books and the nature table. I certainly felt a sense of excitement - listening to the entire album tonight (on YouTube) brings back rich memories of that summer day of 1967. Now, after the album was released, the BBC banned several of the tracks because of supposed drugs references - not something that Class 2P was aware of at the time, so this would have been my first and last exposure to this album for quite a while. (The trippy Strawberry Fields and the nostalgic Penny Lane, recorded at the same time as the album, were released as singles, and received much airplay on the BBC Light Programme.)

The idea of a teacher, like, trying to relate with the pupils through the medium of rock music, was, like, man, far out; something entirely novel, a tipping point, the decisive moment in which the British education was entering its liberal experimental phase that helped the Children but harmed the Kids.

The title track Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its the strong flavour of the Edwardian music hall act clicked me back some sixty years into the past from 1967. "You're such a lovely audience/We'd like to take you home with us/We'd love to take you home". Earwormed. With a Little Help from My Friends, did not work for me that day; the Joe Cocker cover became definitive. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds - though I didn't catch the 'tea', the 'weed' and the 'Henry the Horse' references in the other songs, but here, the psychedelia was evident to me back then; what was going on was quite clearly not the workings of a normal mind. Our teacher put it down to 'imagination'. Getting Better passed over me, Fixing a Hole made its way into a dream I still remember, of a line of men on hands and knees progressing in line abreast along a dusty attic, tapping the wooden floor with hammers. She's Leaving Home Yes. Marvellous. Especially those three notes after the words "...for so many years", three notes of optimism in an otherwise sad story, like rays of sunlight falling into a dark Victorian kitchen. Yes, I remember my emotions. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! "And Mr. H. will demonstrate/Ten somersets he'll undertake on solid ground" - hilarity in class because (Ian) Henderson gets a namecheck in this song.

Turning the LP over, there was George Harrison's Within You Without You, years before my first visit to an Indian restaurant, bringing sounds of the Raj, dust, monsoon, cantonments...   When I'm Sixty-Four, all clarinets and lower middle-class whimsy. Lovely Rita Paul McCartney's paean to a parking meter maid, nicely drawn;  Good Morning Good Morning weak and forgettable with a hook used as a Radio 1 breakfast show jingle - then after a short reprise of the title track the best track of them all,
A Day in the Life... that was strong, stayed with me; memorable for its lyrics, composition and ending.

Above: I get on the Tube at Green Park, and what do I see?

Well, that summer's day at school worked for me. I got a lot out of that day's musical lesson courtesy of John, Paul George and Ringo. But for the other children... don't know. Did we ever discuss it afterward? Maybe not.

I was never a Beatles fan. Their music was part of the soundtrack of my childhood, rather than of my adolescent years. From their earliest appearances on TV to their rooftop concert playing Get Back, I'd only seen the Beatles in black and white. Revolver album cover was black and white, the White Album just white. But the vivid colours on the iconic cover of Sgt. Pepper were a harbinger of the transformation of my life changing from black and white to colour as the 1960s, and my grey jumper'd childhood came to an end, and the 1970s got under way.

Re-listening today, I'm convinced that the great musicians are Old Souls; they have Been Here Before and have deeper insights carried across the insights to share with us in our spiritual evolution.

This time three years ago:
Warsaw wealthier than most of UK shock!

This time five years ago:
Opening of the railway line to Warsaw's Okęcie airport