Sunday, 30 May 2021

Stupendous sunset, Sułkowice

The day's disappointing weather ended on a spectacular note; my planned bike ride down to Radom was cut short by a heavy downburst of rain just before Warka. I sat out the rain in the Orlen gas station before riding back to Jakubowizna - I could see that the weather would be far worse than forecast.

However, an evening walk made up for the showery day. I walked from Jakubowizna to Grobice, crossing the DK50 to snap an extraordinary sunset with a sun slipping behind the horizon through a narrow slot under the clouds.

Below: I'm standing north of the DK50 and west of the Warsaw-Radom railway line, looking towards Sułkowice, famous for its police-dog training centre (and where most of Poland's movie dogs were trained). Somewhere north of there, a plume of rain cascades down as the sun sinks behind the forests.

Below: thermonuclear sun, come back tomorrow to give us light and warmth. The last few minutes of daylight as planet earth spins away.

Below: under the DK50 bridge to look at progress on the trackside drainage. To the right (east side) of the tracks, the cutting has been lined with ballast to prevent slippage and erosion; to the left side, the ballast has yet to be laid - the drainage ditch is still no more than a muddy trench. The downpour is approaching from the north - will I make it back to the działka in time before it reaches me?

Below: further south, all that's left of the day's sun is that which is reflected upon the under-surfaces of the low cloud, pressing down claustrophobically. 

I turned the corner into my street just as the first heavy droplets started to fall. Made it - just.

Music for sunsets - Sunset - by Roxy Music, the final track off their third album, Stranded. Many's the time I'd listen to this on cassette while perched on the windowsill of our family home in West Ealing, watching the summer sun set over Northolt - something impossible today because of development.

Keeping the line dry and running fast

Next month will see the reopening of the rail link between Warsaw and Radom, work that began in September 2015. Nearly six years to modernise a 100km-long line that took just 20 months to build in the mid 1930s. There will be a separate post soon to celebrate the reopening, but today I'd like to focus on just one aspect of this investment - the drainage.

The modernised line offers significant improvements in journey time. Looking at an old timetable from before the work started, the fastest time between W-wa Śródmieście and Chynów was 1 hour and 1 minute; from next month it will be down to 41 minutes to cover the 43km. This means trains will be averaging 60 km/h including station stops, hitting maximum speeds of 100km/h. There is potential to improve that much further in future. However, this can only happen if the tracks remain as smooth as when they were laid; the biggest threat to that is erosion by rainwater.

Climate change brings with it a new meteorological certainty: uncertainty. Severe weather events - in particular droughts or floods - will become more common and less predictable. The railway engineers and designers who planned the modernisation did so taking into account the likelihood of flash floods and droughts. Intense downpours can suddenly dump vast torrents of water into trackside ditches, which, if not properly managed, will over time carve away the underpinnings of embankments and wash away cuttings. If these come interspersed with dry periods, hard-baked topsoil that doesn't soak up rainwater leaves the land more vulnerable to sudden surges of water. 

Erosion will result in the track becoming bumpy and uneven, leading, as has been the case, to ever greater speed restrictions. In the years before the modernisation, it took longer to get from Warsaw to Radom than it did before the war by steam train, with speed restricted on much of the line to 60km/h (38mph).

Any upgrade to the Radom line had to be done in tandem with drainage work. And this had to be done in the context of the lands on either side of the line. Beyond W-wa Okęcie and excepting Piaseczno, it's mainly rural land or forest all the way until the line reaches the northern outskirts of Radom. Here in Chynów, its mainly orchards. The railway could not keep itself dry by merely diverting floodwaters into neighbouring agricultural lands. Joined-up planning was needed; the results are expensive. Culverts and ditches cross orchards that empty into trackside ditches, water pumped along to prevent lakes from forming locally; retention ponds built where necessary. None of this flood-prevention infrastructure was present on this line before its modernisation. [Worth taking a look at the Corpus Christi flood of 2010 to see how much damage heavy rain can cause if there's no proper drainage in place.]

Around one-third of all the work on the line has been to do with keeping rainwater from eroding the foundations of the embankments and from washing away the cuttings. New culverts have been dug under the line, pumping stations built at suitable intervals, and drainage ditches cut alongside the line, some buried in pipes, others covered with concrete slabs. Getting the balance right between leaving grassy earth (needs plentiful and expensive maintenance!) and huge concrete gullies (expensive, bad for the local ecosystem!) is difficult.

Below: looking along the line towards Chynów station (just over the brow of the hill). Note the pumping station on the horizon, and the underground channel running alongside the track at the foot of the embankment. It exits by the concrete culvert which allows water on either side of the embankment to find its level.

Below: on the other side of the road running parallel to the tracks, another drainage ditch for collecting water from the orchards and feeding into the same culvert. Note the pumping station, top right. These orchards have been very prone to flooding; after heavy rain the sound of diesel pumping engines syphoning water away could be heard from my działka at the top of the road (to the left). Now, hopefully, the orchards have become self-draining.

Similar pictures can be taken up and down the line all the way from Warsaw to Radom. The work is not over yet. In Jeziorki the east side of the track is now having its drainage ditch fitted with 'U'-shaped concrete inserts to prevent erosion, topped off with concrete slabs to prevent debris blocking the flow of water (below).

It was 91 years between the line's construction and its first major modernisation (excepting of course the post-war reconstruction). I hope that the current works just approaching their end will be good for at least half that time, and that trains will be able to run along the new tracks ever faster, cutting journey time and encouraging more people to abandon their cars in favour of trains.

This time five years ago:
Politics - the importance of fact.

This time six years ago:
Rural Mazovian toponyms

This time seven years ago:
Carrying the weight on both shoulders

This time eight years ago:
Railway history - the big picture

This time ten years ago:
A new lick of paint form W-wa Powiśle

This time 11 years ago:
The ingredients of success

Saturday, 29 May 2021

In play and in earnest

The Coen brothers' A Serious Man is a film to which I return time and time again for its deep resources of wisdom and insight. The very title - A Serious Man - should be a question for all of us; are we serious - or are we just playing? Are we mucking around, having a good time - or getting on with it? 

Play is a useful teaching aid for children as they develop. We played, we learnt. But childhood comes to an end, and the things we played at now have to be put to practical use, in earnest. Effectually. Some of us - many of us - continue long into our adult lives still that playing at those things we should be doing in earnest. Life, outside of the safe confines of parental care, takes no prisoners; it can be harsh. Playing at life, rather than taking it seriously - shows an infantile approach to this gift that we are all living.

Play tends to taper out in adolescence - toys are put aside for tools. Parents should accelerate this process. Rites of passage are key. Bar Mitzvah comes at the right age - first Holy Communion is too early - Confirmation, too late. By the age of 12-13, toys should be put away - and playtime should be over. 

In my adolescence, this moment came when sticking together Airfix kits ceased to be play and became a craft; the process of making model planes and tanks had a different end - realism; an aesthetic goal. Many adults continue their hobbies that began in childhood and adolescence, but turn serious. Especially when money becomes involved, a hobby turning into a livelihood.

Am I effectual in what I'm doing? How can one judge?

I often ask myself whether I'm taking life seriously enough, or just coasting; hours of a day wasted, accomplishing little. For many, life's like that - wake up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to sleep, repeat until retirement. With a bit of child-rearing in between to ensure the cycle continues into the next generation.

The moment in A Serious Man when protagonist Larry Gopnik is finally gone to see Rabbi Marshak, and is desperately appealing to his stern gatekeeper to have a word with the spiritual authority is crucial: "This is not a frivolous request. This is a serious - I'm a serious - I'm a - I've tried to be a serious man, you know?"

Do I take life seriously enough? Am I a serious man? Or am I still messing about - merely playing with life - after all these decades?

Setting life goals, prioritising them, seeing them through to the end, a good work rate - this would be how I define living life in earnest rather than in play.

This time last year:
Sunset's trip

This time seven years ago
The importance of the rucksack for the body

This time ten years ago:
How I almost saved Barrack Obama

This time 12 years ago:
Some anniversaries missed

This time 14 years ago:
Hissing of the summer lawns


Thursday, 27 May 2021

Are Aliens intrinsically good or bad?

Let's start with the basic, undeniable, fact that our Universe consists of around 200 billion galaxies, each with between hundreds of millions and a hundred trillion stars. The famous Drake equation attempts to work out how many of those stars might host advanced civilisations. The current best-guess is that within our galaxy alone, there are 15,600,000 such civilisations. This number could be out by a factor of a hundred, so it could be as few as 156,000 or as many as 1,560,000,000. 

The Universe should be teeming with life, assuming that the Laws of Nature are indeed Universal. Many species of sentient life could have evolved within our own galactic neighbourhood. If so - why have they not contacted us?

I'd argue that they know us very well, but are wise enough not to trouble us. As a species, we couldn't cope with contact with advanced alien civilisations.

Their wisdom comes from having removed hatred, anger, and propensity to do evil, from their gene pool - either by natural selection, or (more probably) by genetic engineering. They will have got over their species' adolescence - wars and diseases have been eliminated. Yet along the eternal way from Zero to One, many alien civilisations have disappeared, having unleashed upon themselves nuclear wars, runaway climate change or other - as yet unknown to us - catastrophes.

The ones that have endured have done so by being good - the ultimate purpose of the Universe - all-good, all-aware. Focused on advancing their knowledge, it is highly likely that they know about us down here on Planet Earth, but have striven to ensure that we do not know about them - not until the time is right, not until we have improved significantly. We are as unruly children, smashing windows in our own house, micturating on our rugs; they are as wise - and possibly immortal - elders. And peaceful.

Wars require anger and hatred to get started and to keep going. People have to hate or fear their perceived enemy enough to accept the risks that war brings. Wars thin out the population - in particular males of mating age - but they also spur on technological advance. Consider these two bomber aircraft below - their first flights were just 17 years apart (1930 and 1947), less than the time that's passed between Concorde's last ever flight and now. Consider too, that very little has changed in the aerodynamic look of the Boeing Stratojet and the shape of airliners in production today, 73 years on.

Handley Page Heyford                                Boeing B-47 Stratojet

Spin-offs from war included improvements in mass production, new technologies and processes which quickly found their way into consumers' lives. And space flight - now routine, the basis for technologies such as GPS and weather mapping - is a spin-off from Nazi Germany's V2 ballistic missile programme.

Advancements in science and technology do not occur predictably or at an even pace. Ask anyone around in 1955 what the future will look like, and they would have said nuclear-powered spaceliners that can fly from London to Sydney in two hours. Or giant hovercraft crossing land and sea. Or people commuting to work in small helijets. Hardly anyone would have said a computer in every house linked into a gigantic network providing communication, information and entertainment.

Today, we'd all say that IT will continue to develop, in the direction of artificial intelligence, while healthcare, driven by new discoveries and techniques will made enormous progress in fighting diseases - and indeed ageing.

But let's go forward a thousand years, as distant as Europe's Dark Ages are to today. Let's go forward a million years, a period more than three times longer than Homo sapiens has been around. A tiny fraction of the time since multicellular life forms began to appear on Earth. The leaps in knowledge, in technology, cannot be imagined. But the scope is there - a galaxy to be explored; the secrets of the Universe, the purpose of life. It is our destiny.

If I agree with the Catholic Church on the doctrine of Original Sin, it is in that we are all born with the capacity to anger, to do contemptible things; violence is a natural tendency. Until this has been worked out of the human gene pool, we shall not be able to reach to the stars. In general, over the centuries we are getting better, less cruel, understanding that win-win is preferable to adversarial relations in which one side emerges victorious, the other side the loser. But that Original Sin is still there within us. We do not know how to respond to the presence of evil dictators and murderous despots, other than all-out war. If they do not threaten us directly, it becomes convenient to let them continue. Misjudged attempts at toppling them (Iraq, Libya) show how difficult this problem is.

Advanced alien civilisations will have overcome this problem. 

We think they will come in space ships? Did we reach the moon in dugout canoes? Distance may have been overcome by the use of quantum entanglement, or some other process of physics of which we have currently no idea.

They will come in peace - but only when we are at peace.

"One-eyed men aren't really reigning
They just march in place until
Two-eyed men with mystery training
Finally feel the power fill

Three-eyed men are not complaining.
They can yo-yo where they will
They slip inside this house as they pass by.

Don't pass it by."

- Slip Inside This House by the 13th Floor Elevators

This time last year:
Thoughts - trains set in motion

This time three years ago:
Great crested grebes and swans hatch

This time five years ago:
Jeziorki birds in the late May sunshine

This time six years ago:
Making sense of Andrzej Duda's win

This time seven years ago:
Call it what it is: Okęcie

This time eight years ago:
Three stations in need of repair

This time nine years ago
Late evening, Śródmieście

This time ten years ago:
Ranking a better life

This time 12 years ago:
Paysages de Varsovie

This time 13 years ago:
Spring walk, twilight time

Monday, 24 May 2021

Joys of spring

This morning I wake up, and open the front door to this - and a splendid choral performance by the birds in the garden, in full throat. Life is good.

Below: my front garden, from the street, an explosion of flower. Completely unretouched in Photoshop, sliders set to neutral, this is how the photo came out of the camera. A polarising filter accentuated the sky, but that's how my eyes see it while wearing sunglasses.

Below: kilometre 42 on the Warsaw-Radom railway line. This may be 42km (26 miles) from Warsaw, but its skyline can clearly be seen from Chynów. 

Below: sunset over Sułkowice, across the DK50, Warsaw's southern ring-road for transit traffic, mercifully light at this time of day.

Left: ulica Sezamkowa (lit. 'Sesame Street'), Nowe Grobice. A tree in fresh leaf, despite being blasted and burned by lightning and hacked at by man. The power of nature to heal, for life to keep on living, despite the odds.

Below: agriculture likes straight lines - apple orchard next to forest, looking south towards Grobice. Last week's blossom is past its peak, I'm glad I caught it. Now, a long wait until October and the apple harvests, when the trees will be groaning beneath the weight of fruit. Between now and then - much spraying with chemicals.

Below: between ul. Słoneczna ('Sunny Street') and ul. Wspólna, both in Chynów, a field of strawberries that lies in Jakubowizna.

Below: Chynów cemetery before the deluge. A short, sharp downpour coincided with me entering J&B Snack Bar to order my double spicy burger. Which I finished just as it ceased raining.

This time last year:
Jeziorki in May

This time two years ago:

This time four years ago

Saturday, 22 May 2021

Town & Country

In town yesterday for my first face-to-face business meeting of the year, lunch at the courtyard patio of the Bristol Hotel. This time, I afforded myself the luxury of a stroll around Śródmieście. My third visit to central Warsaw since last autumn - the first two being for my jabs. A mere three visits to town, compared to regular visits and stays on the działka, maybe 20 times so far this year. I suddenly realise that my perspective has become more rural than urban. I'm far more used to walking along footpaths between fields and orchards than along the main streets of a capital city.

The greatest shock was the people. A girl with pink hair, pink leather jacket and rainbow badge. A girl with long hair in a plait hanging down her back hunched over the handlebars of her racing bicycle. A guy dressed like a late-1970s punk, complete with nose piercing, Crass tee-shirt and spiky hair. Young folk on electric scooters rule the pavements. Man-buns. Black wet-look yoga pants. A bleached-blond guy driving a classic open-top sports car. Loud motorbikes costing as much as as a large second-hand SUV. These are people that one simply does not see in Chynów! 

Back to Chynów then, I'm on my way to Top Market for provisions and then onto the hardware store to buy a wheelbarrow. An instant visible contrast between town and countryside (the Polish wieś) is obesity. The queue at the smoked-meat counter was some 20 people long; most of them were overweight or indeed obese; a sign of a well-to-do farmer who can provide for the family. Food is about quantity rather than exotic provenance. Clothing is more homogenous; no one stands out from the crowd in terms of what they're wearing. Mass still draws crowds to the church. Dads in suits, mums tottering around on high heels - it's big social gathering, a chance to don one's finery. 

The city is a refuge for individualists; the countryside is for conformists. Individualists stand out less in a city in which individualists are nothing unusual, each in their own individual way.

This difference between town and country is visible in Poland's political make-up, the countryside being more conservative (zachowawczy) than its cities. The young people in the countryside - late-teens to early 20s, are making some attempt to look different by taking on the fashion of young urbanites, but in doing so, they all seem to be going about it in a similar way. Peering into a smart phone is the common factor that unites the young in town and country.

Am I an individualist or conformist? I've spent nearly all my life living ten miles from the centre of a capital city. Externally, I'm as conformist as possible, trying to be inconspicuous. As a consciousness moving about the face of the planet, I seek to be no more than a platform from which to observe - rather than wishing to be observed; as invisible as possible.

Krakowskie Przedmieście, and the Hotel Bristol

Ulica Nowogrodzka, centre right my old offices (2011-13)

This time last year:
Covid and economy recovery

This time two years ago:
Electric cars for hire by the minute

This time five years ago:
Mszczonów - another railway junction

This time nine years ago:
The Devil is in Doubt - short story, part I

This time ten years ago:
Stormclouds are raging all around my door

This time 11 years ago:
Floods endanger Warsaw

This time 12 years ago:
Coal line rarity

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Does it All Come Right in the End?

A short but profoundly philosophical post. 

Ah, vanitas vanitatum
Which of us is happy in this life? 
Which of us has our desire, 
Or having it, is gratified? 

This quote looks familiar - indeed - it's the spoken section in Ian Dury & The Blockheads' This is What We Find (from their 1979 album Do It Yourself). It also happens to be the last-but one sentence of William Makepeace Thackeray's 1848 novel, Vanity Fair. Also name-checked by Ian Dury in another song from Do It Yourself, Inbetweenies. ("Oh Vanity Fair, with a capital V").

Back in January - with Covid raging all around my door, with winter's early sunsets, the cold, the darkness and the damp - spring and hope seemed a long way off. I longed for the warmth of spring, long days - and for an end to the fear that has kept us all house-bound for so long.

Now, having had both my jabs (Pfizer - the most effective one) and with cases of Covid in full retreat in Poland (down 88% on the first week of April), things should be should be looking up. 

There were a few days last week culminating in last Thursday when the sun shone all day, just after my second jab; I felt absolutely ecstatic. A readjustment to a new, and longed-for reality - and having had my desire - I was indeed gratified - temporarily. The ecstasy waned, short-lived, this week has proved rainy and overcast.

Things always change, but never resolve. Our destinies - fate or will, our individual narratives - is everything working out the way it should be - or is it all random? 

I think back about my father's final days - was everything resolved for him, or did he die, aware that there were still issues awaiting resolution?

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
Heavenly Jeziorki

This time seven years ago:
Why are all the shops shut today? 

This time eight years ago:
Jeziorki at its most beautiful

This time ten years ago:
Useful and useless in my wallet

This time 11 years ago:
In search of the dream klimat - remote viewing made real

This time 12 years ago:
Zakopane to Kraków in 3hrs 45min

This time 13 years ago:
The year's most beautiful day?

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Blossom time in Jakubowizna: Part II - the apples

It all came together today - the apple orchards filled with blossom, the sky remained crystalline blue. Perfect conditions to which one had to rush. The beauty of the wi-fi equipped działka is that I can still do some work and take part in a Zoom call as well as going for two walks to catch the very best of the year. Yesterday, the blossom would not quite have been perfect; tomorrow - heavy rain is expected. So - this is the day, this is the day! I shall take it!

Photographic note: most of these photos were taken with a polarising filter, which takes out the polarised component of light from the sky, increasing contrast. In other words, what you see through proper sunglasses. Not once have I even touched the saturation or vibrance sliders - this is how it was today.

Below: like rows of curtsying maidens at a formal ball stand the apple trees, decorated in their finery.

Below: most cherry trees are already losing their bloom, but this little orchard in the shade of a stand of tall oak trees (to the left) still looks magnificent.

dandelions before going to seed. Brightest yellow under a blue sky - and the trees in fresh leaf.

the road to Grobice, orchards on either side.

Below: a study in purity and perfection - blossoms and the blue.

Back on my działka, below. A little corner of heaven. Back to the working day before an evening stroll. Four apple trees less this year (removed to make way for the drive).

A different quality of light in the evening. Sunset today was almost six hours later than the earliest sunset of the year (one hour of which is because of the end-March change to daylight-saving time).

Below: the orchard that overlooks the railway line; Chynów station in the distance.

Below: this spot frequently pops up in posts from Jakubowizna - this is the apple orchard on the corner of my street, recently replanted.

A little taste of 1950s rural America and everything's good with me!

This time two years ago:

This time six years ago:
Then and now: Trafalgar Square (recreating my father's photos)

This time eight years ago:
Reflection upon the City Car

This time ten years ago:
Biblical sky

This time 11 years ago:
Travel broadens the spirit

This time 12 years ago:
Welcome the Ice Saints

This time 14 years ago:
On the farm next door

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Pfizered for the second time

All good, I hope - today I got my second jab of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, 36 days after my first one. I'm lucky to get it, given that it's the best performing of the Covid-19 vaccines currently in use.

Source: The Economist

As with my first appointment, everything went smoothly. I turned up 45 minutes early, waited no more than five minutes before being ushered into a room to fill in a form to state that I didn't have any of a long adverse reactions to my first jab. With that done, I found myself in a queue of one outside the door of the room where the vaccinations were taking place. 

Shirt off, needle in - over in a second, got my Comirnaty (the brand name of the Pfizer vaccine) card stamped and dated - proof that I've had both doses. The doctor who vaccinated me told me that I would gain full immunity within between 21 and 28 days. And that's that! I thanked everyone involved, waited a few minutes to ensure no sudden funny turns - and off I went. A lovely sunny evening, I got off the train from town a station earlier and walked home from W-wa Dawidy via the lakes.

I still need to take care during the next four weeks. Mask and alcoholic disinfectant I shall still take with me on leaving the house, and I shall avoid crowded trains and buses and continue to work from home, although by the end of the month some work-related travel will see me in Wrocław and Poznań.

Looking at my exercise log for the two days after my first jab, I see that I did no exercises involving my arms (no press-ups, pull-ups, planks or weights), only sit-ups, squats and back extensions. Walking was curtailed for two days - I didn't venture out. Then I got back into it with a vengeance. This serves as a benchmark for my recovery this time round.

The vaccination programme is picking up speed - more and more people I know have had at least one jab, many more have appointments for the coming weeks. Numbers of new cases are generally falling, though a post-Majówka spike is likely (as people got together over the May holiday long weekend and because the weather was crap, spent time indoors rather than outside over a grill as planned).

Mindful of last year, when Poland saw a huge and deadly first real wave striking in autumn, I can only hope that by early October enough people will have been vaccinated and/or had Covid to ensure genuine herd immunity. It will be interesting to see how many of the vaccinated will go on to develop Covid, and how many people who've recovered from it will go on to get it a second time.

Because the clinic where I had my jabs is very close to my office, I popped by to take a look, and to retrieve two bottles of wine which were Christmas presents! I've not been in since 1 October, since when we moved from the modern 9th floor (built in the 1990s behind the structure visibile in the foreground of the wartime photo, below, to the less prestigious but more historic 4th floor. My window is above the one with the grey plume of smoke emerging from it.

PASTa - A building that will always be associated with the Warsaw Uprising.

Update: side effects of second jab more mild than first - ache in arm has almost past after a day and half. Nothing else to report.

This time two years ago:
Another railway bridge over Puławska is replaced

This time seven years ago:
Thoughts about life occasioned by the birth of kittens

This time nine years ago:
Waiting for the footbridge on Puławska

This time ten years ago:
Lost in the wonder of it all

This time 11 years ago:
Bicycle review

This time 12 years ago:
A Celebration of the Garden

Monday, 10 May 2021

Blossom time in Jakubowizna, Pt 1 - the cherries

Cherries (both the sweet and the sour varieties) blossom before apple trees. A perfectly blue sky and a strong sun lighting up the flowers is a must to experience the perfect blossom time. Today - the cherries.

Below: on my działka, the wooden ladder there to get in and pick the fruit before the starlings do.


Below: a row of cherry trees west of the railway line between Sułkowice and Chynów, south of the DK50.

Below: in a few days' time these rows of apple trees will explode into blossom, but not yet this evening. 

Below: look at the purity of the sky! A cherry orchard between Jakubowizna and Grobice.

Below: the moment will be soon be gone... it must be experienced.

This time last year:

This time two years ago:
Busy doing nothin'

This time seven years ago:
Springtime pictorial

This time eight years ago:
Kitten time!

This time nine years ago:
Warsaw-Centrum to Jeziorki by train with super-wide lens

This time ten years ago:
Loose Lips Sink Ships - part II

This time 11 years ago:
Jeziorki in the infra red 

This time 11 years ago:
Some rain, at last!

Friday, 7 May 2021

Flashback to a dream: subconsciousness and memory

I went to bed at midnight - no alcohol or cheese consumed, but a 500mg magnesium tablet taken, washed down with a large glass of mineral water. I woke up at quarter to three having had a intriguing dream, which offered a stunning new insight. 

The dream had exactly the same atmosphere (ambience or klimat) as one I had several weeks ago - I was walking down the same street I dreamt of then - there were bars and cafes, yellow, pre-industrial brick, tall trees in leaf. Some roadworks were going on. This was neither Britain, nor was it Poland, but closer in atmosphere to Poland than to Britain. Nothing much happened - no narrative, no people I could recognise. Yet it was instantly familiar. In my dream I realised what was going on: this is a flashback to a dream, a dream qualia memory. And I knew that as I'd had this dream not long ago, I was bound to find it in my diary.

Back to bed, back to sleep - another dream about a NATO conference at a modern four-star hotel in Poland, filling my plate at the breakfast buffet and sharing a table with three RAF Harrier pilots. An entirely normal dream, then. But the earlier one intrigued me, even as I slept.

So when I finally woke, I consulted my dream diary. Before long, I found exactly the dream I dreamt I dreamt. It occurred on Sunday 7 March; a dream of Yugoslavia (a country which I've never visited in my life). I dreamt then that I there was on holiday, got into a fist fight with an old communist, lost my rucksack and had a meal in a café on that same street that I'd go on to dream of again two months later.

Wow! As I read those words, the flashback sensation was instant and powerful. 

What I had felt in my dream last night was analogous to - but not quite the same - as my regular anomalous qualia memory events (exomnesia) in waking life. The sense of feeling something entirely familiar and yet unplaceable. A déjà vu that I can now pick off with precision as being not from this life. Here, the feeling was the same. I'm walking down a street in my dream, aware of the fact that I've walked down this very street before - but in a previous dream.

The benefit of keeping a dream diary becomes clear - you can go back and track down dreams (I've yet to digitise or index them all).

When I read what I'd written on 7 March, it snapped back with a joyous precision and clarity. YES! That was it - that's just how it felt - the qualia of the two dreams matched!

I think there's an inkling of how reincarnation feels. It isn't that you will be feeling like you all the time in a next life. You won't be feeling or thinking like you for 99.9% of the time. As a new biological entity, the new ego will be in charge, with its own demands. But from time to time - and, I believe, increasingly as your consciousness passes from life to life, you will occasion to remember such subjective experiences felt in past existences, the ego stripped away. Pure consciousness. 

Sensitivity to such phenomena is a must - a sensitivity blunted by materialism and scientism. 

"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."

This time ten years ago:
'Old school' = pre-war

This time 11 years ago:
Britain chooses a coalition government

This time 12 years ago:
Landing over Ursynów

This time 13 years ago:
On being assertive in Poland

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Decimalisation and Determination

I believe that the fate of nations - their rise or their fall - is firmly bound to how determined their people are. Britons most certainly were back in Victorian times - running a global empire - a manufacturing superpower - they were victorious in battle on land and sea. But by the middle of the 20th century, America had taken over; today a tussle is taking place with China likely to wrest that crown for itself.

The strength of a nation is the sum, the product of the determination of its people. How easily they give up, how far they push themselves that extra bit, in their day-to-day lives, at work, at home, in their hobbies and interests - to get what is required of them - rather than just say "sod it, there's easier stuff I could be doing".

Over the decades, life has generally been becoming easier. Fewer things to worry about. No more queuing in the bank to pay your gas and electricity bills. Train tickets available from your phone. Calculators to do the counting. Goods of ever-higher quality available at ever-lower prices. 

In essence, an easy, comfortable life is a good thing. It should be something we aim for - ridding ourselves of things that are unpleasant, uncomfortable or difficult in our lives.

I fear, however, that too much ease, and we get soft; complacent - flabby as a nation (metaphorically and literally). Which would be OK if every country, every person on our planet were moving in the same direction at the pace. But they're not.

A little over half a century ago, on 15 February 1971, Britain went decimal. One hundred new pee to the pound. How easy it suddenly was! Before that, we had to juggle with pennies (12 to the shilling) and shillings (20 to the pound). As well as half-crowns (two shillings and six pence) and guineas (21 shillings). Before 1961 there were also four farthings to the penny, and up to July 1969, there were two halfpennies to the penny.

In everyday life, this complex system meant having to use a higher order of arithmetic to work things out. A shirt costs 17/6d (17 shillings and six pence). How much change will you get from a pound? A shopkeeper sells 43 items for 11/7d. What was his total revenue from those items? You want to buy a pound of tomatoes at 2/4d, a pound-and-half of potatoes at 11d a pound. How much would you pay the greengrocer?

My mother, who hailed from a land where 100 grosze = 1 złoty, made a career as a comptometer operator, working in pre-decimal times for the accounts departments of various companies, totting up sales receipts with the aid of a comptometer. Like everyone in accounts departments across the UK, she had a book of tables called a 'ready reckoner' to help with calculations, and knew by heart the more common computations. So 24 gross of eggs at 8d a dozen would cost how much?

The result of this clumsy system was that primary schools taught the times tables to 12 (rather than to 10 as on the continent), and even the slowest child knew they needed to grasp this because otherwise they'd get short-changed by unscrupulous confectioners totting up four Black Jacks at a farthing each, a Cadbury's Dairy Milk bar at 3d and a Sherbert Dip-Dab at 5d.

Anyone working in retail had to have good mental arithmetic skills. The rich, who operated in pounds and guineas rather than pennies and shillings, didn't have to worry as much as the poor. If education gave anything to the working classes, it was the ability to juggle in twelves and twenties, quarters and halves.

Then came Decimal Day, and after a few years during which Britons were converting from the old system to the new (six old pence = two and half new pence, eight shillings = 40p, 19/6d = 97½p. The decimal halfpenny disappeared with the end of 1984, simplifying things further. Unlike decimalisation, metrication of weights and measures didn't happen overnight, but the gradual switch from ounces, pounds, stones, hundredweight and tons to grams, kilos and tonnes, made life easier still. There were 16 ounces to the pound, 14 pounds to the stone, eight stone to the hundredweight and 20 hundredweight to the ton.

All gone. Once, you'd have to be able to work out mentally what three and half ounces of ham at 10/6d a pound would cost. Today, it's easy to tell how much 100g of the stuff selling at £10 a kilo. 

One daily challenge facing our brains has gone for good - as a result, a nation that had to be good at mental arithmetic has lost that edge. And with it, I fear, some of the nation's drive and determination to do things that appear difficult.

I'd suggest introducing a currency with 17 dzherzgols to the rolspaarg, and 13 rolspaargs to the krazbount.

This time three years ago:
God, an Englishman, orders his Eden thus:

This time six years ago:
I buy a Nikon Coolpix A

This time seven years ago:
More about the Ladder of Authority

This time eight years ago:
By bike, south of Warsaw

This time ten years ago:
Functionalist architecture in Warsaw

This time 11 years ago:
What's the Polish for 'to bully'?

This time 12 years ago:
Making plans

This time 13 years ago:
The setting sun stirs my soul

This time 11 years ago:
Rain ends the drought

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Intimations of immortality, revisited

I have recollected this moment many times since childhood, though exactly when it was - I can't remember. It is most likely that I might have been four, maybe five years old at the time. In any case my brother had not yet been born - this could have been September, October or early November 1962.

My mother and I are on our way to the shops on the Uxbridge Road in West Ealing, the two of us - no brother in pram or pushchair. We are walking along Grosvenor Road, I'd say some 50 yards further back from where I took this picture. [I took it in 2015, and used a bit of Photoshop to get a 1962 vibe]. This is the corner of Grosvenor Road and Hatfield Road, home until recently, of legendary motorbike shop, Reg. Allen, that sold only British bikes - Triumphs, BSAs, Nortons, Ariels, Royal Enfields.

Suddenly I ask my mother (this dialogue is taking place in Polish, you will understand): 

"Do you know what I want to be?" 

My mother replies: "Happily married, living in a nice house, with a good job?" 

"No," I say. "I want to be dead."

She is shocked by my answer. I can hear her thinking - "My son wants to die! Where did we go wrong?" 

But it certainly wasn't my intention to shock or hurt her. I was merely remembering the state of being dead. I remember lying face down, entirely still; a state of bliss - peaceful rest; fulfilment

My mother's strongly negative reaction stopped me from ever discussing or probing further this anomalous memory with her ever again. But until that moment, the memory had been strong enough to prompt me to want to initiate a discussion about it with my mother.

What had provoked it? I recall seeing earlier a photo in my parents' copy of the Daily Telegraph of man lying dead, in front of a Greyhound bus in America. The image arrested me - I asked my mother what was had happened, and she said that in America - a 'wild country' (dziki kraj), people have guns and often shoot each other. This was the first time I'd seen an image of a dead person - was it my first contact with the concept of death?

And did the motorcycle shop trigger a memory? America, 1950s; riding my motorbike home after a few beers, late October, early frost, ice on the road, a misjudged corner, going too fast, bike slides away from under me, head slams on the asphalt, no helmet - a hospital building, four am, a nurse standing over me, a clipboard - she's thinking: "Mr Martin - you'll not make it through to the morning" and I'm thinking "how insensitive of her to be thinking this" as I hover over my body... I have written about this dream before, here.

A lifetime of anomalous qualia-flashbacks, exomnesia, dreams - authentic dreaming (which is rare in any case, but here where the unities of time, place and action all fit - such as this one) all suggest to me life before life... and life after death. 

This time last year:
Things will never be the same Pt II

This time two years ago:
Up to my waist

This time three years ago:
Luton Airport's never-ending modernisation works

This time six years ago:
Another office move

This time seven years ago:
Workhorse of the Free World's Air Forces over Jeziorki

This time eight years ago:
Looking for The Zone, in and around Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
I awake to snow, on 4 May

This time 14 years ago:
This is not America. No?

Monday, 3 May 2021

Another public holiday, another glimpse of the S7

With the builders off site, it's a good opportunity to see how work's progressing on the S7 extension. I climb the (now shrinking - see below) man-made mountain to get the best views. Below: this will be Węzeł (junction) Zamienie; I'm looking north towards Warsaw with a wide-angled lens. In the foreground, the access road, behind it what will be the slip road for traffic joining the S7 northbound.

Below: from the same spot, but zooming in to Warsaw's skyline, now dominated by Varso Tower, the EU's highest building, and higher than London's Shard. The S7 climbs and then bends to the left, crossing ulica Baletowa on its way to join the S2 east-west expressway, and the S79 which heads into town, at Węzeł Lotnisko, its lamp-posts visible in the middle distance (click to enlarge).

It's coming down now, my vantage point. Built just over a year ago, this stockpile of soil is to be used for building up ramps and other structures adjacent to the Węzeł Zamienie junction. About seven metres high, it offers superb views over the pancake-flat landscape of southern Warsaw. Where it now stands - on the very border of the city (just to the left of the heap) - there will soon be a roundabout for traffic coming off or joining the S7.

From the peak, looking south. The S7 is visible behind the piles of ballast in the middle distance. On the horizon, the radio mast at Łazy (officially called the Raszyn mast, it was the second-tallest structure on earth - and tallest in Europe - from 1949 when it was built until 1962).

Moving on south, past the village of Zgorzała, which lies just south of Warsaw's borders. It looks like rural Ohio! In the bottom right, visual identification to help builders see where a geodetic marker is located.

At the southern end of Zgorzała, there's another mountain of soil - though not as high - offering a good view. Looking north towards Zamienie and the Action warehouse. Two bridges can be seen crossing the S7 - the nearer one will carry a footpath and cyclepath; the far one will carry motorised traffic from Jeziorki to Dawidy Bankowe, replacing ul. Dawidowska which will be closed.

Zooming out, below. Behind the trees, Zamienie. My vantage points will soon disappear, and with them the chance to snap some extraordinary views otherwise impossible on these flat plains.

This is Section A of the S7 extension, from Węzeł Lotnisko to Węzeł Lesznowola. Work on Section C is nearly complete and open between Grójec and Tarczyn. Section B, between Lesznowola and Tarczyn, is problematic. Work here stopped in 2019 when it became clear that the contractor was unable to complete it on schedule. A new firm, Intercor, has just won the contract to build Section B, for 510 million złotys, with a deadline of November 2022 to do it by. Without Section B, the S7 extension cannot function. Will Section A be open next June just as a 7km-long stump, from the airport to Węzeł Lesznowola, or will it linger unopened, until Section B is completed - if indeed the new contractor can complete the whole of Section B in just 16 months? 

This time last year:

This time two years ago:

This time three years ago:
New roads and rails

This time four years ago:
The Gold Train shoot - lessons learned

This time five years ago:
The Network vs The Hierarchy in politics

This time six years ago:
45 years under one roof

This time seven years ago:
Digbeth, Birmingham 5

This time eight years ago:
Still months away from the opening of the S2/S79 

This time nine years ago: 
Looking at progress along the S79  

This time ten years ago:
Snow on 3 May

This time 11 years ago:
Two Polands

This time 12 years ago:
A delightful weekend in the country

This time 13 years ago:
The dismantling of the Rampa

This time 14 years ago:
Flag day