Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Heathrow now and then

The more I fly from Heathrow, the more I like it. Luton feels provincial, difficult to get to. Heathrow's on the doorstep for me. And the sights! Waiting for my departure to Warsaw, armed with FlightRadar24 on my phone, I could see what planes are taxiing to take off - and look at this monster! An Etihad Airways Airbus A380. Magnificent sight!


On board my flight, taxiing to Runway 27 Left, I catch sight of Concorde, symbol of a bygone age of supersonic travel that started nearly fifty years ago - on 2 March 1969. Less than a month after the first flight of the Boeing 747 - which still remains very much in service today. Concorde G-BOAB was retired in 2000, the last Concorde flight was in November 2003. A short era - but I can recall watching (and hearing!) Concorde flying over my school in my last year, having entered regular service in 1976.


Going back to the 1960s, my father would often take me to Heathrow to see the planes - the photo below was snapped in June 1965 and reveal an interesting mix of aircraft - Hawker Siddeley Trident, Vickers Viscount, Boeing 707, Airspeed Ambassador, De Havilland Comet...


...and a two Vickers Vanguards and a Viscount, taken in  summer 1962. Photos: Bohdan Dembinski


We lived just over eight miles from Heathrow Airport. A place of real glamour - international air travel; the Britannic, Europa and Oceanic terminals (to prosaically become Terminals 1, 2 and 3), and the ongoing sense of change (during the 1960s the airport was systematically being extended and developed). The best place of all at Heathrow for me was the Queen's Building - below the control tower, on the viewing gallery. Here, the roar of the engines, the smell of kerosene, the romance of flight was at its most tangible.

This time three years ago:
Radom line modernisation will change the face of Jeziorki

This time four years ago:
How do we perceive good and evil?

This time five years ago:
Civilisation and a civil society

This time seven years ago:
Strong, late-winter sunshine

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over

This time nine years ago
Kensington, a London village

This time ten years ago:
Lenten recipies

This time 11 years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

Monday, 25 February 2019

Smithfield Market

Today, Monday 25 February 2019, a new record was set; the daytime high in London was 20.6C, the highest temperature ever recorded in a winter month. Although when I set ofp for a meeting near Liverpool Street Station at around 9am there was still a light frost on the back lawn and roof tiles, by lunchtime it was t-shirt weather. London, as ever, beckons my footsteps, after my meeting, I made my way from Liverpool Street to Chancery Lane via the Barbican and Smithfield Market. This is familiar ground; while studying at The City University in the early 1980s, I'd often walk around the area between Farringdon and St Pauls; in those days Smithfields was far busier; in the mornings it would be a rare place in the UK where pubs would be open (slaking the thirst of butchers who'd worked all night).

One of the London's great wholesale markets, Smithfields is still in business selling meat - the other big markets (Covent Garden - fruit, vegetables, flowers - and Billingsgate - fish) having moved to new locations in 1974 and 1982 respectively. Meat has been sold in Smithfields for over a thousand years (the name comes from 'smooth fields'). Drovers would herd their livestock here for slaughter and butchery; as the population of London exploded in Victorian times, so the process of providing meat for its inhabitants became more regulated and sanitary. The buildings below date from 1868; by then meat processing had become properly industrialised. Live animals no longer entered the market; carcasses arrived by train at an underground station and taken to cold stores before being brought up by lifts to be butchered for retail at the many stalls on either side of the Grand Avenue (below). This is the Central Market, divided by the Grand Avenue into the East and West Markets.


Below: the west end of the General Market. Below this now abandoned building is the Snow Hill Tunnel; work is now underway here on the CrossRail project (which seems to be dragging on without end - Liverpool Street, Tottenham Court Road, Paddington, Ealing - along the line the hi-visibility community are getting on with it, at the same leisurely pace that befits all public-sector infrastructure projects from building a simple viaduct over the railway line at W-wa Jeziorki to burrowing under the centre of London. [Incidentally it's worth comparing London's great markets with Warsaw's Hala Gwardii and Hala Mirowska.]


Below: a derelict covered crossing at the General Market; I wonder whether it will be restored, maintaining at least the decorative elements of the facade.


Below: in the Great Days of Victorian Smithfields, this cobbled ramp led from street level to the platforms of the underground railway station and the massive cold-stores under the markets. Today, much of the space beneath the market buildings is given over to car parking, to which the ramp gives access. Smithfield Rotunda Garden lies on top of the brick retaining wall, today full of office workers enjoying the heat of a winter's lunchtime.


Traditional fare (such as a sausage-and-bacon bap) is available to market workers and employees of financial corporations alike. I remember these establishments in the early 1980s, popping in for breakfast on my way to lectures - they would be full of butchers in bloodied overalls having a snack before going home to sleep off the night shift.


Below: between Liverpool Street and the Barbican Centre - Finsbury Circus. This building stands on the corner of the eastern approach to the circus and Blomfield Street.


My regular walks between the City of London and the West End offer an almost endless permutation of routes, taking in so many splendid sights, such great architecture. I am very cross at the Germans who voted for Hitler in the 1930s, leading to the massive damage visited upon London by the Luftwaffe - and at the property developers of the 1960s who razed many fine buildings to make way for nondescript architecture. Today, London cherishes its heritage far more - facades tend to be left with new buildings adapted to retain the look of the old.

I love exploring the passages the run between London streets - this is Ely Court (left), between Ely Place and Hatton Garden (London's street for jewellery and diamonds). On Ely Court I stumble upon the Ye Olde Mitre pub, which English Heritage lists as having been built in 1773 (not 1546 as claimed by the pub). Anyway, it has great character - I popped in for a swift half of Fuller's Oliver's Island golden ale. Now brewed by Asahi (which bought Fuller's brewing business for £250m earlier this year). As I sat down to sup my ale, I noted a small group of (I presume) bankers having a farewell drink with a Dutch colleague who was leaving London due to Brexit - a subject of bitter mockery and regret.


This time last year:
Mid-winter in late February
(from -15C in Warsaw last year to 21C in London this!)

This time two years ago:
Ten years of digital photography

This time three years ago:
Between atheism and creationism

This time four years ago:
A peek into the Afterlife
[the best piece I've written about my spiritual quest]

This time five years ago:
The new dupes of Moscow

This time six years ago:
Late-winter commuting, Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
My Nikon D80 five years on

This time eight years ago:
My Nikon D80 four years on

This time ten years ago:
Nikon D80 two years on

This time 11 years ago:
Nikon D80 one year on

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Along the Ho Chi Minh trail in West Ealing

The Drayton Court Hotel, The Avenue, West Ealing (below), built in 1894, a nice example of Brictorian Britain.


And a story I heard many years ago that was worth checking out online. So I did. Apparently, the founder of modern Vietnam, communist leader Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969), worked in the kitchens of the Drayton Court Hotel. He wrote a ten-volume autobiography in which he claims to have worked at the 'Hotel Drayton Coc' on 'Di Avenue' in 'Oet Ilinh' in 1913-14, according to American Vietnam expert Lady Borton.

 Not a 'lady' in the sense of British aristocracy, rather an American given name, Lady Borton is a Quaker, and worked charitatively in Vietnam during the war - and stayed on. She tracked down the location of this popular West Ealing watering hole as being a part of Nguyen Sinh Cung (his birth name)'s early years. Full story here.

Today, the communist party he founded (ruthlessly having any opponents to his hierarchical, top-down leadership murdered) still rules Vietnam; the fallen South Vietnamese capital of Saigon bears the name of Ho Chi Minh City. In Poland, the word saigon means 'a confused mess (think fall of Saigon, 1975), while 'saigonki' are spring rolls, a staple of Viet-Pol cooking in Vietnamese restaurants across the land.

Below: according to the autobiography, Ho Chi Minh lived in a small room at the top of the hotel overlooking the beer garden, so either the one to the right of the fire escape or somewhere along that corridor. Echoes of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel.


Sunday lunchtime and the pub (and its garden) were full, many families (including Polish ones) here with small children - a good thing, pub-going integrates immigrants into British society. And, as the story of Ho Chi Minh suggests, immigration is not a new phenomenon in West Ealing.

This time two years:
25 days between deliveries of mail - Warsaw's labour shortage

This time last year:
What purpose does the Universe serve?

This time four years ago:
Will your Soul last for eternity?

This time eight years ago:
On the road to Węgrów

This time nine years ago
A week into Lent

This time ten years ago:
In the stillness of a winter forest

This time 11 years ago:
Over the fence

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Warm West Ealing

In Warsaw today, the daytime high was 0.4C. Here in West Ealing, it was 17.5C. A massive difference in temperature, reflected in the state of nature. Although not as fast as 2016 when on 30 January there were crocuses, snowdrops, daffodils and crab-apple trees in bloom, London is still several weeks ahead of Warsaw when it comes to those early intimations of spring. In Warsaw, other than tightly-furled proto-buds of leaves at the end of dry twigs, there's little hint that winter is ebbing.

Below: crocuses and snowdrops have erupted on my father's lawn. Bees are out, flying from flower to flower collecting pollen from the stamens.


Below: an even greater sprinkling in Cleveland Park; note the yellow ones, absent from the photo above - my father's theory is that the squirrels eat the bulbs of the yellow crocuses.


Below: to date, the only daffodil to have come into bloom in my father's back garden. A mass explosion due any day now.


Below: the front garden is better provided in daffs... At dawn, I am awakened by beautiful birdsong.


Below: a floral hedge along Cleveland Road, just after sunset.


Below: St Mary's Church, Perivale, in the early evening sunshine


Below: how many hours of sun have warmed the bricks on Stowell's Corner? The former wine merchants has become a cafe on the corner of Argyle Road and The Avenue.


The south-east wind means Heathrow air traffic is taking off over Ealing; below Boeing 747-400 G-CIVN on its way to Las Vegas. Worth noting that the first flight of the Boeing 747 was fifty years ago this month - half a century in the air for this model! The oldest 747-400 (long-top) in current BA service started flying passengers over 28 years ago in July 1990, so well over half of the Jumbo Jet era.


Four-engined planes are rare visitors to Warsaw Okęcie airport. Here's Airbus A380 G-XLEE shortly after take off, beginning its ten-hours 38-minute flight to Los Angeles. A shame that these magnificent structures will no longer be built beyond 2021, but then they will be replaced by more fuel-efficient aircraft.



This time two years ago:
Fat Thursday: a blast against sugar

This time three years ago:
The Devil is in doubt

This time four years ago
Are you aware of your consciousness?

This time six years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time seven years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This time eight years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time ten years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time 11 years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Friday, 22 February 2019

Warsaw growing in the sun

Last night, yesterday, was foul - nine hours of rain, +6C; puddles, mud - awful. Then overnight, something wonderful happened - the wind changed from a warm westerly to an icy northerly. The temperature fell ten degrees overnight, by dawn it was -4C, I opened the curtains this morning to a clear blue sky and snow on the lawn. But no time to lose - I headed into town for 8am to chair our Construction and Real Estate Breakfast at the Westin. On the way from W-wa Śródmieście WKD station, I passed the viewing platform (below) from which work on Warsaw's latest and greatest skyscraper, Varso tower, can be observed.


What a day! The clarity of the sky offset somewhat by the biting wind, but my quilt-lined M-65 jacket stands me in good stead. "No such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing." Below: view from the top of the viewing gallery. Varso (designed by Norman Foster & Partners, developed by H. B. Reavis) will be the highest building in the EU, and is due to be completed next year.


Below: from Varso Place's website, an impression of the restaurant and bar on the 53rd floor. I can't wait to have a drink here and look down onto the Palace of Culture below!


Warsaw's bright new face shining in the sun. Below: the junction of Al. Jana Pawła II and ul. Grzybowska, the Q22 building in the centre.


Below: the strong wind blows away any smog, the chimney at the Kawęczyn district heating plant 9km to the east of our office is as clear as it's ever been on a winter's day, the horizon razor-sharp.


Below: cranes over the Widok Towers (also known as J44, Al. Jerozolimskie 44), on the site of the old Universal building. And, just in front of it, the new PKO Rotunda takes shape, replacing the old Rotunda (rebuilt after the gas explosion 40 years ago that killed 49 people). Worth comparing with the post, from March 2017.


There's much construction going on in Warsaw with many new towers that will be complete over the next two years, the urban skyline will change, no longer dominated by Stalin's gift to the Polish nation, which from the south-west at least, will disappear from view.

Below: looking towards a setting sun, from the end of platform 6 at W-wa Zachodnia station. In the distance the Radomiak heads off towards Radom, via Drzewica and Przysucha (in other words down the CMK avoiding the modernisation work between Czachówek and Warka).


This time last year:
Of Consciousness and Will across the universe

This time three years ago:
The Devil is indeed Doubt

This time four years ago:
Are you aware of your consciousness?

This time five years ago:
"Why are all the good historians British?"

This time seven years ago:
Central Warsaw, evening rush-hour

This time eight years ago:
Cold and getting colder

This time ten years ago:
Uwaga! Sople!

This time 11 years ago:
Ul. Poloneza at its worst

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Skierkiewice-Łuków line modernisation announced

Last week, Poland's rail infrastructure operator PKP PLK announced the signing of a contract to prepare a project for the modernisation of the Skierniewice-Łuków line. Running east-west for 160km (100 miles) between these two towns, this line is an important part of Poland's rail network. Initially built so that the Red Army could be quickly moved west, bypassing that nest of potential saboteurs, Warsaw, to the south, the line was an important part of Soviet military strategy. Today the line also has geopolitical significance; it forms part of China's Belt and Road Initiative (the Eurasian Land Bridge), carrying containerised freight from China to Western Europe.

The 32m-złoty project is intended to result in documentation for works that will be carried out between 2022 and 2025, resulting in a line capable of carrying trains that are 750m long travelling at speeds of up to 120km/h (up from current 56-60km/h). Total cost of the works is expected to be around two billion złotys. Another feature of the line's modernisation will be the restoration of passenger services from Skierniewice to Pilawa, taking in long-closed stations such as the ones as Mszczonów (below, photo taken May 2016), Tarczyn and Prażmów.


Existing passenger stations at Czachówek Wschodni and Góra Kalwaria will be brought up to modern standards, while Warszówka and Osieck will once again see passenger services after a brief reintroduction (between June 2009 and June 2010). This is good news - any new cross-country rail service is to be welcomed. In total, 13 passenger stations will be reopened or upgraded.

Below: timetable from the penultimate year of passenger operations along the entire Skierniewice-Łuków line, 1999-2000. By 2002 passenger services were cut back to Pilawa-Luków. Click to enlarge - a wealth of detail here!



However, sadly Czachówek Śródkowy isn't one of them; a station with low-level and high-level (Czachówek Górny) platforms allowing passengers to change from the Warsaw-Radom line to the Skierniewice-Łuków line is not to be. It's a 2km walk from Czachówek Górny to Czachówek Wschodni (from Czachówek Górny to the old, now demolished Czachówek Śródkowy station was a mere 160m). Below: Czachówek Środkowy ('middle') station, photo taken in July 2008 from Warsaw-Radom line viaduct. Note poor condition of left-hand track.

The line bisects Mazowsze and links Skierniewice's population of 50,000, located in north-east Łodzkie province with Łuków, a town of 30,000 in north-west Lubelskie. It crosses the Vistula at Góra Kalwaria - the project envisages the bridge there (below) being double-tracked. Photo taken in July 2015.


From a strictly passenger point of view, there's little sense of investing 2 billion złotys in this line. However, I suspect that its importance is more to do with China. By rail, freight takes 12 to 14 days to get from Chongqing Logistics City to Duisberg in Germany, compared to 35 days by sea from Shenzhen to Hamburg. (Prices are dramatically different though; transporting a 40-ft container by sea to Hamburg costs $1,050; by train to Duisberg it costs $3,000. Interestingly, the fact that the trade is so one-way the cost of taking a container back to China from Duisberg is a mere $1,500). Last year, around 6,000 Chinese freight trains made the 10,000km journey to Europe, an increase of over 70% compared to 2017. Of those, around a quarter (30 a week) went to Duisberg, over the Skierniewice-Łuków line. Below: one such train, photographed last month heading west under the Warsaw-Radom line viaduct at Czachówek Górny.



If the demand for transcontinental rail freight continues to grow at this pace, the line will need an urgent upgrade - good to see that this will happen. Within six years?

This time last year:
Entropy and anti-entropy in a constant-ruled universe

This time two years ago:
Truth, spin, bullshit and lies

This time three year:
How much spirituality do we need?

This time six years ago:
The Chosen Ones

This time seven years ago:
Fixies in the snow

This time ten years ago:
Just the ticket

Friday, 15 February 2019

Birds return to the ponds

Mid February, the ponds are still partially covered with a thin veneer of ice, but the birds are back. Not all of them - no coots nor grebes or pochards (the diving birds that can disappear underwater), but the ducks, gulls and our loyal pair of swans (below). A zoom-in on the cob's leg-ring shows the identification number 2KC1 - he's back again.


It will be a while until nest building gets under way; the early arrivals are marking their territory for the season. Below: a mallard walks across the ice. Ducks' feet are adapted to the cold, blood circulation to the feet being slowed right down.


Below: a pair of mallards (krzyżówki) on (just about) open water. Top temperature today was 9C.


Below: the gulls are back in force, although the ones I saw today were mainly juveniles, probably born here and back to mature and mate.


Sunset, at 16:48, a whole hour and 25 minutes later than the year's earliest sunsets. The snow has gone, unlikely to return for anything but the briefest of visits now. Spring still feels a long way off.


Looking back at February 2009, there was much more snow cover than so far this month.

This time last year:
Bending the forces of physics with your will

This time three years ago:
Giving it up for Lent

This time five years ago:
North-east of Warsaw West revisited

This time six years ago:
Looking for answers

This time seven years ago:
Fresh powder in Warsaw's parks

This time nine years ago:
Another Lent starts

This time 11 years ago:
Okęcie dusk

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Morskie Oko in winter in black & white

Following on from last week's morning exploration of the Vistula Escarpment between Smolna and Tamka, today's morning walk to work (a seminar at the Regent hotel) took me down the escarpment by Morskie Oko. More black & white snaps with the 10-20mm Nikkor wide-angle zoom...


Snow began to fall just as the morning rush hour got under way; I travelled by bus to Stokłosy, by Metro to Racławicka, and walked from there to the Regent - I didn't see a single snow plough. Surely they were not caught out? The weather forecast predicted this fall... Whatever; there was no untoward traffic chaos either on Puławska nor on any of the side streets. Warsaw coped without skipping a beat.

It is entirely possible that in six weeks' time, we'll be enjoying 20C warmth... or still shivering under a light dusting of late snow.


This time last year:
Preparations for Lent

This time three years ago:
Religion and Spiritual Growth

This time five years ago:
When trams break down

This time seven years ago: 
Who are the thickies of Europe?

This time eight years ago:
Oldschool Photochallenge: Response No. 2

This time nine years ago:
Oligocene water from Jeziorki 

Monday, 11 February 2019

The Filth and the Fury

I AM UTTERLY FED UP OF HAVING TO TRAIPSE THROUGH LAKES OF SLUDGE TO GET TO THE STATION EACH MORNING BECAUSE THE USELESS BUILDERS WHO'VE SPENT THE LAST TWO AND HALF YEARS PUTTING UP A VIADUCT TO CARRY A LOCAL ROAD OVER THE RAILWAY ARE TOO BLOODY INCONSIDERATE TO SECURE DECENT FOOTPATHS FOR LOCAL RESIDENTS.

I AM UTTERLY FED UP WITH CONSTANTLY CLEANING SHOES. WITH BRINGING FILTH ONTO THE OFFICE CARPETS. WITH HAVING TO APOLOGISE FOR THE TOTAL INADEQUACY OF THESE HOPELESS BUILDERS WHO ARE A YEAR-AND-HALF BEHIND SCHEDULE.

LOOK AT THIS. LOOK AT IT AND ASK YOURSELVES HOW ANYONE CAN WADE THROUGH THIS SHIT AND KEEP SOME KIND OF CLEANLINESS OF FOOTWEAR OR TROUSERS.

I WANT THE NAME OF THE PERSON RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS SHIT.




No, I'm not alone in complaining. Mieszkańcy Osiedla Etap have had a TVN news crew round; Halo Ursynów has written about this, the situation persists.

I HAVE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS!!!




This time three years ago:
Defining the human experience

This time five years ago:
The City of Warsaw wants you to complain

This time six years ago:
Czachówek's wild woods in winter

This time seven years ago:
Vistula freezes over downstream of Warsaw 

This time eight years ago:
Twilight of the Ikars

This time nine year ago:
Polish TV adverts for parapharmaceuticals

This time tn years ago:
Jeziorki wetlands in winter

This time 11 years ago:
A week into Lent

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Getting over this year's flu (and some bygone Poland)

Not as bad as last year's one, which whacked me out for the best part of two weeks, but still bad enough to lay me out in bed for three and half days (Weds through to Sat lunchtime). Fever got nowhere near last year's record of 39.1C, max this time was only 37.3, alternating on Thursday morning with 35.8C. Three bad nights of sleep, nightmares, shivering or sweating, sleepless hours, but today, on Day Five, I'm on the mend. Medicines taken - exactly zero. Lots of hot drink (tea with honey, lemon, ginger, cloves). Time to get back into the exercises, planks, press-ups, weights and pull-ups; five days of foregone walking needs to be caught up on too. But take it easy. And lesson for next year - flu vaccine! My father has been getting his free on the NHS every year and I can't remember him being laid out with the virus for literally decades.

Being ill in bed is made much better in these web-enabled days by the ability to watch some good films on YouTube. Here's one I must share with you; this is a BBC documentary made in 1982 (filmed August/September that year); ostensibly about narrow-gauge steam trains, but really about the search for Poland's soul. An amazing film for so many reasons - we see how far Poland has progressed, but also wonder a bit about what's been lost. On balance, however, I feel that few Poles will get nostalgic about the lives they left behind in 1982. Life was hard; people retreated within themselves, into the fastness of the family, the countryside.



The quality isn't brilliant - the video has been uploaded from a VHS tape that mashes up a bit towards the middle, but this should not prevent you from enjoying this extremely incisive view into Poland's recent history. I dare say, this is not the same emotional effect one gets from watching a film about a quaint English branch line in the 1950s. There are many of these on YouTube. And highly enjoyable too. They generate many comments from nostalgic viewers, bewailing the Lost England in which they were born, but no longer recognise today. Few Poles would care to return to the Poland shown in this film, despite the lyrical beauty of a pastoral Poland that "seems to exist outside time, on the borders between somewhere and nowhere, where something is about to happen, but never actually does."

This time last year:
War and the absence of war

This time three years ago:
Sensitivity to spiritual evolution

This time four years ago:
75th anniversary of Stalin's deportations of Poles

This time five years ago:
Peak Car (in western Europe at least)

This time six years ago:
Pavement for Karczunkowska NOW!
[I still walk through mud or dice with speeding cars.]

This time seven years ago:
Until the Vistula freezes over 

This time eight years ago:
Of sunshine, birdsong and wet socks

This time 11 years ago:
Dziadzio Tadeusz at 90

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Fairness, simplicity, taxation and a sustainable society

Walter Scheidel's The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century traces the rise and fall of inequality over the millennia. The Austrian economic historian has concluded that inequality has a natural tendency to increase over time, and that falls in inequality are always dramatic and sudden, and caused by war, pandemic, state collapse or revolution. And that like Kondratieff's Long Wave cycle in economics, they are inevitable.

What's worrying is that Scheidel is suggesting that we're overdue for one of these shake-ups, as the rich are now holding a similar percentage of the world's income as they did before WW2. In the years after WW2, inequality hit a low in the late 1970s; since then it has been rising inexorably. Prof Scheidel shows that events such as smaller wars not involving mass mobilisation, pandemics, civil wars or economic crises do not lead to a reset of the balance between rich and poor. It takes a whopper such as the Black Death, the Great Plague, WWI followed by the Spanish Flu, or the French Revolution to wrest the wealth out of the coffers of society's wealthiest 1% and put it into the pockets of the working man. There was a huge fall in inequality between the late 19th or early 20th century and the late 20th century. For the UK, the share of wealth of the top 1% was around 70%-75% from 1895 to 1906, but bottomed out at 15.2% in 1984.

There's not much we can do about a global pandemic breaking out, but if we don't want wars, state collapse or revolution, we ought to strive to ensure that inequality does not rise again to unsustainable levels. This is nothing to do with an ideological uravnilovka, a levelling-down of society for its own sake; all to do with avoiding social disturbances and bloodshed. Taxation, as Dutch historian Rutger Bregman said at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, is the answer. Addressing the audience of billionaires, he said: 'It feels like I’m at a firefighters' conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water.' It is, all about paying tax. "The rest," he says, "is bullshit."

It's time to take a structural look at our tax systems. They stand on the cusp of major technological change, as the process of digitising financial transactions continue apace. I can envisage a situation in which all transactions are taxed at point of sale, and reported in real time. This is easier to implement in VAT (split-payment and real-time reporting fiscal cash registers) and PAYE than for corporation tax (CIT); companies have a duty to their shareholders not to over-pay tax - but shareholders should be mindful that tax revenues foregone to state exchequers through base erosion and profit shifting cannot be made up by charitable giving. Wheezes such as the 'double Irish with a Dutch sandwich', a tax avoidance technique employed by some corporates using a combination of Irish and Dutch subsidiary companies to shift profits to low- or no-tax jurisdictions, do not play well with consumers.

As consumers - and voters - gain a better understanding of how their societies function and are funded, egregious tax avoidance from household-name brands becomes less sustainable. But then governments have a duty to spend tax revenues wisely and not on their cronies or pumping public money into party-political propaganda.

On 19 February, we'll be holding a conference at the British Embassy in Warsaw bringing experts from Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to talk about two aspects of taxation - communicating with taxpayers, and digitisation of tax systems. The audience will consist of Polish tax officials and foreign investors - the discussion should be interesting; I'm hoping for some fruitful exchange of best practice.

One key topic is the balance between fairness and simplicity. As Richard Hawthorne, deputy director of customer communications at HMRC says, if you strive to simplify a tax system, it becomes less fair; if your want to make it fairer, it becomes less simple. In Poland, one can see that a desire for fairness beats simplicity hands down. Every citizen, rich or poor, has the same onerous duties to fulfil regarding the tax authorities, including the annual completion of the PIT 11D tax form. In the UK, if you are an employee on a permanent contract (pay-as-you-earn), you may live your entire life without ever seeing a tax return form.

Another is language. The UK tax system has for decades been focused on improving the ease with which the taxpayer understands what is being requested of them. The Plain English Campaign, launched in 1979, has fought a successful battle with banks, lawyers, insurers, and yes, the taxman, to cement the notion that the writer's responsibility to be understood takes precedence over the reader's responsibility to understand.

The process of rewriting Britain's tax law began in 1997. The rewritten legislation incorporated easier-to-understand language, a more logical structure and shorter sentences, and the Plain English Campaign worked alongside Inland Revenue (as it was then) to make the necessary changes that would be incorporated across all official communications with taxpayers. The UK tax return form has earned its Crystal Mark for clarity. I can attest to this, having filled out my father's tax returns online twice in a row, and on paper the year before that. Unlike the Polish form, one can grasp exactly what the purpose of each question is and what answer is expected.

Simplifying the language used to communicate with taxpayers has clear advantages. In an experiment conducted by the Polish tax authorities (supported by experts from the World Bank) in western Poland in 2015, a letter chasing overdue tax payments, written in straightforward Polish, proved to be 30% more effective than one worded in the traditional way. Yet this experiment remained an experiment. Last year, the Polish tax authorities promoted the notion of '3xP' - proste, przejrzyste, przyjazne - 'straightforward, transparent, friendly' as part of an overall shake-up of the tax system, intended to bring it up to date with EU standards and technological changes. Will that happen? Will missives from the Polish tax authorities cease to be written in the agentless passive? (example: 'zabrania się'). I have long been banging on about the need for a Plain Polish Campaign.

UK experience over the past 20 years shows that implementing a customer-centric approach, driven by clear communication, is not expensive to do and is a good investment in terms of improved collection. It does, however, require a massive change in thinking among all tax-office employees.

The technology issue is also of huge interest. On the one hand, we have seen the full implementation in Poland of the Single Audit File (Tax) ('Jednolity Plik Kontrolny'), and the elimination of most VAT carousels based on the automatic cross-interrogation of invoices. Real-time reporting is raising revenues from sectors where cash-in-hand transactions are the norm (from car washes to hairdressers). But on the other hand, there's the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, being used to move money across border under the noses of the tax inspectors. How will this look in the future?

Tax is going to get a whole lot more interesting in coming years - the future stability of society rests upon it.

More about taxation in Poland from me here:

Modern governance for a complex world (Dec 2015)

I'm Payin' Taxes, But What Am I Buyin'? (Oct 2015)

More about Polish officialese from me here:

Translation and cultural difficulties (Apr 2015)

Orwell's Politics and Language and Poland (Mar 2012)

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This time last year:
Polish beer cans in the UK: new shit has come to light

This time three years ago:
Lent, a time to cleanse and reflect

This time five years ago:
It was 50 years ago today... Beatles arrive in New York

This time seven years ago:
Adventures in the Screen Trade - the truth about Hollywood

This time eight years ago:
The sad end of Andrzej J.

This time ten years ago:
Today's dose of wintery gorgeousness

This time 11 years ago:
First intimations of spring

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Smolna, Tamka. Skarpa in black and white

Photos from Tuesday morning, before I fell ill with the dreaded flu. Grim feel of a February day when spring seems distant. A walk along the brow of the Vistula escarpment, from ul. Smolna to ul. Tamka.


Below: looking down the steps descending towards Park Karola Beyera, PKP W-wa Powiśle station to the right.


Below: the Szarytki convent in winter (more about this curious institution here)


Below: the footbridge over ul. Tamka, looking down towards Most Świętokrzyski. Two murals - to the right, the permanent one facing the Chopin museum, to the left, one used to advertise forthcoming televisual/cinematic attractions.


Below: the footbridge over ul. Tamka, looking up towards ul. Kopernika. To the left, the new Motel 1 is nearing completion (work started last March - the pace of construction is impressive - unlike anything the public sector touches!). Motel 1 will have 180 rooms priced between 200zł and 300zł a night with the accent on good design. I hope the name 'motel' does not suggest 'parking for 180 cars!'



Below: round-cornered buildings a Warsaw thing. Corner of ul. Karasia and Obożna, Hotel Harenda to the left.


Got home Tuesday evening - went straight to bed feeling awful.

This time two years ago:
15 years under one roof

This time four years ago:
Białystok: Ipswich of the East 

This time five years ago:
Sadness at the death of Tadeusz Mosz 

This time six years ago:
Interpreting vs. translating vs. explaining

This time seven years ago:
More than just an Iluzjon 

This time eight years ago:
Oldschool photochallenge

This time nine years ago:
Warsaw's wonderful nooks and crannies

This time 11 years ago:
Viaduct to the airport at ul. Poleczki almost ready