Polish Londoner

These are the thoughts and moods of a born Londoner who is proud of his Polish roots.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Congrats Tom Levitt; Farewell Phil Woolas

Very enjoyable evening on Friday night (incidentally wettest bonfire night ever) at a theatre in Camden. I went to see my old friend Tom Levitt put on his one man show - "Expenses".
"Oh no, not THAT subject again," you may think.
Yet it was fascinating to see one of the supposedly despised victims ("Nobody was asking me to leave: but nobody was urging me to stay") caught in the headlights by the MPs' expenses scandal, bite back. Basically innocent, not only by "the rules" of yesteryear, but even by today's supposedly new improved ethical standards, Tom had been left to weave in and out of a welter of accusations over wreaths, replacement kitchens, John Lewis chairs and mortgage repayments, without having a proper forum in which to clear his name. All he would be facing would be inquiry after inquiry after inquiry. And if he had chosen to offer compensatory restitution for something that had been quite legal and proper, where would it end? It would never be enough for the hunters. The mud was being thrown and was sticking because the hunt was on and political blood was in the air. One immediately thought of Kafka facing his nightmare.
It was a bit like the French Revolution. The ancien regime itself had to be overthrown, so individual aristos went under the guillotne, whether individually blameless or not. Even scientists like Lavoisier or poets like Chenier could not be saved from the blood lust. Personally innocent, but guilty until proven otherwise, Tom could find nothing that could bounce him back. As I pointed out to a "Politics Today" broadcasting team that came to see the play, the only way he could have diverted attention away would have been with something drastic, like suddenly saving a child from drowning or becoming a cabinet minister.
So a year after his declaration that he would no longer stand for parliament again, Tom has been able to give his answer and take quiet and subtle revenge on the mixture of reactionary and plebian accusers who hounded him so mercilessly then. Will his voice be heard? It was an enjoyable spectacle in a small little theatre, with knowing laughter and sympathy from a sophisticated audience, but it could work as a radio play too. The underdog could have his day at last.
Two lovely touches in the play: First, when he told his wife Teresa (a childhood friend of mine incidentally - Polish of course) that he had decided to resign, her reply was a quiet "Thank you", even though she had not once counselled him to go; secondly, when his raison d'etre for being a politician, namely, to help constituents like "Mrs Benson" with their day to day problems, was reduced to mockery by the discovery that this mythical lady whom he had helped had been imprisoned for defrauding the benefit system.

And now one of the Labour attack dogs has been kicked out the kennel by a court of law.
Talking of Tom being "caught in the headlights" is exactly the impression that Phil Woolas, former Immigration Minister, made all the time, especially when he was minister. He seemed to be like a confused hatchet man trying to run around putting out fires that were the result of his own party's neglect. One remembers when he had been ambushed by Joanna Lumley over the rights of ex-Ghurka soldiers to settle in Britain. He was the one who had to interpret the extraordinary laid back Labour approach to the cultural impact of immigration and to take on the leather skin of an anti-immigration toughie. Too little; too late.
In particular I remember meeting him at an MP's office in the Commons a year ago. I asked him when he was going to abolish the Worker Registration Scheme for Poles and other Central Europeans. Or else reduce the cost, which had gone up to £90 recently. He shook his head and said that for the moment abolishing WRS was not a political option and the scheme gave the government vital staistical information and prevented benefit fraud. I gave examples of where the WRS statistics were totally misleading. "Well," he answered with a shrug, "we all know it's a load of bollocks anyway".
Now he has been caught out using inflammatory and false accusations against a Lib Dem candidate in the last election. In racially volatile Oldham, Phil had accused his opponent of working with Muslim extremists and had supposedly not condemned their threats to kill the minister. All the accusations were untrue of course. But Phil had survived the election with a majority of only 103 and was now seeking to make a comeback in Ed Miliband's new shadow cabinet. Oh dear!
Well the courts have struck down Phil Woolas to the shrill condemnation of others, Labour, Lib Dem and Tory alike. He has lost not only his seat, but his right to stand again for parliament or even to vote. The criminals will now get the vote, but not Phil Woolas!
Yet it is often the Lib Dems who have the worst record for dirty politics at elections. Unlike Tories and Labour who throw mud at each other composed of their ideological prejudices, the Lib Dems are famous for their vicious peronal insinuations. One remembers the horrendous anti-gay campaign against Peter Tatchell in Bermondsey which started the political career of closet gay Simon Hughes.
Now there will be a by election, but somehow I don't see the Lib Dems winning it.
But whither Phil Woolas? What of his future? Best advice. Wait a couple of months and write a play about it!

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Wake up, President Komorowski!

I have been waiting over the last month or so for President Bronislaw Komorowski to seize the initiative and occupy the neutral ground of public opinion left void between the warring factions from PO (Civic Platform) and PiS (Kaczynski's Law and Justice Party).
Initially, because of Kaczynski's personal animosity towards him and the high emotional tension around the temporary cross erected outside the presidential palace after his predecessor's death in Smolensk, I felt it right that the President avoided a high profile. He has appointed some admirable advisers, although almost exclusively from the liberal and social democratic wing of Solidarity (Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Henryk Wujec, Jan Litynski, the former finance minister Osiatynski, as well as the liberal ex-Marxist historian Tomasz Nalecz). They had obviously urged caution. True, as a former PO politician he could have been considered bi-partisan by PiS. But in the long term caution will not be enough.
Once the cross and then the barriers to the presidential palace had been removed I thought this to be a good moment for a calming presidential address to the people of Poland over and above the politicians' heads. He could have finally made his presence felt and offered himself as a concilatory figure to mediate between the two former Solidarity tribes. However to the public at large he remains a shadowy figure and in the background, partly obscured by Donald Tusk and his government. He even found himself acting as an apologist for the government's economic and education policy during a recent public meeting with Warsaw students. That is NOT his job.
We have just had the tragic shooting of office worker Marek Rosiak in the local PiS HQ in Lodz by a schizophrenic taxi driver. He had been anxious to kill a politician, any politician, but in particular Jaroslaw Kaczynski or ex-Communist Leszek Miller.
This tragedy could have given the President the best opportunity. Sure he made some good gestures. He called in the party leaders in parliament to urge a cooling down in political temperature (Kaczynski still boycotted this meeting), he made an unscheduled visit to the PiS office in Lodz to lay a wreath (but still accompanied by Tusk), he attended and spoke at the funeral ceremony 2 days ago in Lodz Cathedral. All this is good. (However his attempt to appease Kaczynski by apologising for earlier criticism of his dead brother was probably not the right action for a President to take).
However President Komorowski has not yet, as far as I am aware, made any speech direct to the nation as a whole about this tragic incident through television or any other media channel. At this moment a nervous public want to be assured that they are not entering a period of civil war. Comparisons have been made with the assassination of President Narutowicz by a right-wing fsnatic in 1922 and the near civil war that followed. Kaczynski has already made fiery speeches accusing the government's "social manipulation" - "socjotechnika" - as being responsible for tension and hatred against patriotic Poles and holds PO morally responsible for the death of Rosiak "who died so that I can still serve Poland". It is difficult for Tusk to respond to such language and such emotional accusations.
But President Komorowski should have taken the initiative in the last week and spoken out.
Come on Mr President, it is not too late yet. Speak. Poland needs to hear your voice of moral authority.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Cuts, cuts, cuts - reality and perception

So what do we know about the public spending review announced last week by a smirking George Osborne, as his Tory colleagues cheered him and waved their order papers?
They are part of a package of measures being introduced since June of this year and still being processed.
Some of the facts and early assessments:
- £81 billion savings to be cut from public spending in the next 4 years
- 450,000 public sector jobs to go
- 2 year pay freeze for remaining public sector staff
- 62% cuts from local government and the communities department
- international development spending now subjected almost exclusively to Britain's military and strategic needs
- £5 billion yanked out of current spending in 2010 alone
- student fees up to £7000 a year, repayable now by interest-loaded loans, giving all but the richest students a hefty average debt of £23,000 at the start of their working life.
- £18 billion hacked off the welfare budget - mainly by reducing working age benefits for poorer households
- removal of child benefit from working mother if she or her partner are earning more than £38,000 a year
- a rise in VAT from 17.5% to 20% in january
- 25% cut in policing
- 25% cut in prisons and courts
- 27% cut in grants to local authorities
- one third of Forestry Commission land to be sold off privately to developers
- 2 newly commissioned aircraft carriers to be deprived of Harrier Jump Jets
- 20-year Building Schools for the Future programme valued at £55 billion cancelled so 715 new school buildings and services will be scrapped.
- estimated cut in housing allowance will force eviction of 170,000 poorest Londoners from their own city
- employment support allowance to be suspended after one year,(Tories say all welfare benefits to be tilted so that it would be more economic to have a job rather than be on benefit, but the majority of jobless beneficiaries will fail to find a job anyway within that new one year limit.)
When George Osborne announced the cuts in Parliament the Tories cheered and waved their order papers. Alan Johnson glowered with real anger when he gave his response in the Commons. (In fact, the Tories were only cheering an end of speech quip from Osborne that his overall 19% budget cut was marginally less than the one proposed by Alistair Darling before Labour lost the election. It still made it appear that despite Cameron's best PR efforts that they were ready cheer the cuts as a whole. It was a rare PR error for the Tories and in the next few years the Tory image-makers may yet regret that quip and that cheering as it is liable to repeated in Labour party broadcasts during elections).
Most people were dismayed at these results. Or were they?
The public initially reacted with a resigned shrug. Why?
After all, the Conservatives are bringing in measures which the Institute of Fiscal Studies has condemned as proportionately unfair on the poor and lower income families; 4 Nobel prize winning economists have expressed seriously concern that the savage cuts could lead to a double-dip recession and that the argument that the private sector will provide the jobs lost in the public sector, is almost without foundation, and at best a gamble.
So is the opposition gearing up to read a national sense of public outrage leading to a comprehensive condemnation of these cuts? It is trying, but it is missing a/ proper leadership, b/ a properly worked out alternative strategy, and c/ any large scale national public outrage.
This is because whatever the coalition government may get right or otherwise in this immense political and economic gamble, the one area which they have secured is the right PR. Amazingly, bcause of this, they have a sort of reluctant churlish form of public support for what they are doing.
Whatever else he has been, David Cameron has been a past-master at presentation of himself and his policies. He had been the radical anti-European anti-state Tory to his Conservative followers, but represented the face of progressive eco-aware liberalism to the country at large. Initially the electorate did not trust him because of this uncertain Janus-like image, but in view of the unpopularity of Gordon Brown he was given a modest dollop of public support at the last election.
He has proved canny in his dealings with the Liberal Democrats and knew how to extract power in such a way that he is not subordinate any longer to his Tory backwoodsmen.
Now the language is the language of "fairness" where we all, rich and poor apparently share equally in the social costs of the cuts. However this is pitched on top of a mantra repeated by both coalition partners, day in and day out since the election, that the current deficit is "Labour's legacy". This is Cameron's huge PR victory because the Labour Party was so absorbed with its own very boring fight for the leadership that it had no national platform on which to respond to these taunts about the reasons for the deficit.
There was no mention in the popular press or media to remind electors about the role in the slump of the bankers, the world recession, the overblown US real estate market and the undervalued Chinese currency flooding the world with Chinese goods exported in containers arriving empty from the Western world. There was nobody around to say "It was the bankers, stupid!"
Labour was not totally blameless of course and Ed Miliband was right to apologise for this. It is true that in the last year before the recession Gordon Brown could have built up a certain reserve from the golden boom years. In that period he was too involved in seeking to oust Tony Blair to concentrate on his economic record and perhaps hubris had set in. It is true that the bankers and savings companies should have been better regulated. But Labour was still too timid at the time, despite 12 years of power, of tackling the myth of an unbridled financial market and feared being lynched by Cameron, backed by a Tory press for doing so.
It is telling that Cameron with his tiny coalition majority has shown 20 times more boldness in action over the last 6 months than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had shown over their first 6 years. He knows how to use the levers of power.
Cameron had prepared the "fairness" grounds so well that he and Osborne went out of their way to earn the ire of the Tory press and delegates at the Conservative conference over the removal of child benefit for those individuals paying the higher tax so as to be able to demonstrate 3 weeks later that the spending review was causing the rich to squeal with pain as well. The Insitute of Fiscal Studies has shown up the emptiness of this argument but many are still swallowing it.
The Government has shown that their number one priority is not economic growth, which remains a gamble, but the credit rating from Standard and Poor and from Moodys, as if they are to be the new arbiters of Britain's economic strategy.
The Tories retain their public support for their risky strategy because
a/ Labour has failed to challenge their argument that Labour is entirely to blame for the deficit,
b/ because they are still ready to show what they have NOT cut (including winter payout's for pensioners, capital schemes for London, the schools budget, pensioners' travel passes),
c/ they have promised action to cap immigration
d/ ensured that the most vital and delicate cuts will come through local councils, who will now reap the opprobrium for the Government's policies,
e/ they have concentrated their attackes on the welfare budget, described by them as an attack on "welfare cheats", a popular figure to denigrate around the housing estates, as well as among the middle classes.
The CBI big business giants have praised the Tory strategy but, interstingly enough, the Federation of Small Businesses has condemned it.
Labour has a minefield to cross here in order to regain public trust in their stewardship of the economy and seize the debate over the future of the economy.
So, here we go, Ed Miliband. Are you ready?
1/ With use of frequent reminders remind people about the bankers' role in the crisis and argue for taxation of banking profits.

2/ Play the emotional card. Use Alan Johnson as front man in showing the perversity and unfairness of the cuts, with lots of heart-breaking local examples, especially involving the elderly and children.
3/ Argue the case for protecting the small businesses which are vital for future growth but will suffer most in the economy. (Remind them of Sir Philip Green's principle official advice to the Government on saving in purchasing contracts - pay your suppliers late!)
4/ Don't simulate over which cuts are good or bad, but remember the general strategy that Tories cutting too much, too quickly and too unfairly.
5/ Cooperate with trade unions, charities and professional organisations seeking to challenge and protest against the cuts.
6/ Remind Lib Dem voters again and again what happened to their party leaders' election pledges.
7/ Be consistent with pre-election platform and support AV during the coming referendum. This will split the Lib Dems, show the electorate that Labour still favours "new politics", and if successful in referendum, the result will weaken Tories in next election.
8/ Show up the Tories' evasiveness over tax avoidance, especially citing the cases of Lord Ashcroft, Vodaphone and the banks.
9/ Suppport capital building programmes, especially in rail infrastructure, wind energy and social housing.
10/ Show those cheering Tories in the cuts debate again and again.

PS. Memo to Dr Liam Fox on possible defence cuts. Labour should guarantee its support.
1/ Do not renew Trident missile programme.
2/ Consolidate savings in Royal Navy. Share use of aircraft carriers with French fleet and French aircraft.

3/ Consolidate savings in Royal Air Force by combining with Polish Air Force in new Joint Striker Fighter programme. UK to replace Tornado, Poles to replace MiGs and SU-22s, and rely on British Typhoon Eurofighter and Polish F-16s squadrons working together on home front and in NATO operations. (Good historical precedent for Brit-Polish cooperation in the air - Battle of Britain vets would approve!)

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Conrad's "Heart of Darkness"

Just bought a copy of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" this morning and read its 110 pages voraciously in the course of the day. This is amazing because I have not read a novel (as opposed to a biography) from cover to cover for several years. Once I had been an avid reader of books in both Polish and English, but lately I have given this up.
The book relates to the darkness of the civilised world when it encounters a differently structured simpler society. Conrad was writing partly from his own experience as a river boat captain in the Congo as he had seen the rotten impact of wealth and power on the bahaviour of white colonialist administrators and traders.
He compares this partly to the rapacious behaviour of Roman conquerors seeking to civilize a savage Britain 2000 years ago and being in turn corrupted by the savagery and relative weakness of the people they conquered and exploited.
At the time Conrad serialized this novel in Blackwood's Magazine in 1897 the imperialist myth of the European civilzations taking up "the white man's burden" in Africa and Asia, was being widely challenged. Conrad with his Polish background (his real name was Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski) was aware of the riveting brutality of Russian and German rule in his beloved country and could see the behaviour of otherwise "civilized" fellow Europeans with a detached, and even a jaundiced, view.
His English narrator Marlow describes the prepostrous behaviour of French colonialists even before he had reached the mouth of "a snake shaped river" which we intantly recognise as the Congo, under the personal dominion of its brutal Belgian King. (Curiously the names Congo, Belgium, Brussels and even Africa do not appear once in the book and neither does the name of a single character, except for the narrator and the magical mystical hero "Mr Kurtz").
Kurtz is the ultimate, and almost mythologized, depiction of the reverse influence of the so-called "Dark Continent" on its erstwhile civilizers. But it is power stemming from superior European technology, not the Africans themselves, who corrupt the colonialists. Kurtz travels to the Congo as a visionary idealistic young painter and musician, desperate to earn a proper fortune in order to return to his "Intended" fiancee as a rich and respected husband. He becomes a highly successful up river ivory trader admired by his superiors and by others, both for his ideals and for his exraordinary success on behalf of his company. Marlow is fascinated by this reputed mixture of idealism and commercial success and is determined to travel up river to meet him and talk to him. However slowly the truth about Kurtz is revealed. His positive messianic vision and personal charisma are diverted into a fever pitch of plunder and massacre as he sets more African tribes againt each other and simply plunders their ivory from his remote trading station and sends it down river. His fence is decorated with the heads of his victims. Everything in his mind become his - he refers to "my" station, "my" people, "my" river. He sees himself as god-like master seeking to protect himself from the lies of civilization.

When Marlow eventually reached his destination, with the local administrator and other company officials in tow, with new instructions to bring Kurtz back to Europe, shut down his station and, conveniently, confiscate his ivory, the man is dying. Marlow befriends this monster and watched him die on the boat, with his last words being "the horror, the horror."

Later when Marlow pays a visit to his "Intended" in Europe she reminisces about the young idealistic and talented Kurtz she remembers. Desperate not to blow asunder her illusions he tells her that his last dying word was her name.
Curiously Conrad makes Africans largely passive and almost zombie-like victims of these colonial masters of their universe. He even refers to them quite artlessly sometimes as "niggers". In another of his books he actually picks the title "Nigger of the Narcissus" about a very positive and intrepid black crew member on a European boat.
That is a derogatory term now, but not necessarily in 1897, because most black people were held in contempt by Europeans, even by those who criticised the corruption of empire building and felt a patronising sympathy for the plight of the Africans.
Conrad probably knew little about ancient sub-Saharan civilisations, such as Mali, Ghana, Ashante and Zimbabwe, and this is partly because the Africans themselves were so divided tribally amongst themselves that they too seem to have cut themslves off from these traditions. Their civilizations had not the means to resist European guns, steam-power and greed. Even for liberals such as Conrad, where competence, literacy and technical know-how were measured by European standards, most Africans seemed imcompetent and possibly even cannibalistic. He even maintains that Africans have no sense of time, because they have no history and no time clocks. Everything for them is, apparently, "now". That is because they had no concept of "European" time when they had been torn away and from their own villages and treated with great brutality as virtual slaves.
It is easy now to be patronising about Conrad's supposed racism. But even the most benign figures in British and French colonialism were racist by modern standards. They talk of exploitation, revere the brave "noble savage" - a good imperialist myth as it only increased the glory of the victors who had conquered them. They wanted to "help" the Africans, to "civilize" the Africans, to offer them Christianity. But at this stage they still objectified them and did not see them as potential masters of their own fate; not unless they were as elevated as the Emperor of Ethiopia, for instance, because he defeated the Italian colonialists. But then curiously, the English saw Italians as little better than Africans as well, as they plundered their artistic heritage.
Strange perhaps now that Poles at the turn of the century could not see the Africans a little more differently. The Poles too were victims of conquest and had no independent country of their own while the Polish language was persecuted under Russian and German rule. Polish writers sympathised with the plight of the black African in creating characters such as the cheerful Kali in Sienkiewicz's "In Desert and Wilderness" or the bouncy Miou-Miou in Korczak's delightful "King Matty the First", but these sympathetic figures now appear grotesquely patronising, just like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom. Yet in their time Beecher Stowe and Conrad wrote what appeared to be dangerous revolutionary books and they challenged the perceived wisdom of their age with courage and integrity. Their books were both decried in their time as "immoral". The fact that the original American constitution still recognised the existence of slavery in the Southern states, that fact that the vibrancy of Western democracy in the XIXth century was still based on enfranchising men of property and denied women the vote, did not in any way disqualify these achievements of Western civilization.
It is patronising of us now to criticise the patronising ennoblement of Africans by Polish writers at the turn of the last century.
After all, when Coppola, borrowed the theme of this book for his daring condemnation of the American presence in Vietnam - "Apocalypse Now", it can be argued that he too treated the Vietnamese victims as sympathetic but artless and passive, whose savage traditions help to corrupt Colonel Kurtz. I would think the modern Vietnamese student would consider that film as highly patronising towards his own people.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Chilean miners emerge

I have just watched the fourth bleary-eyed miner emerge from 69 days of gloom into the bright sunlight of a Chilean morning, greeted by his pretty wife and also by El Presidente and HIS blonde trophy wife, both clutching a small paper Bolivian flag. (Miner no. 4 was Bolivian).
I hope the 33rd and last miner remembers to clean up and shut off the lights as he leaves the cavern.
It's a remarkable tale of grim survival and state of the art engineering as each body in turn cocoons itself in a narrow metal cage for 20 minutes and undergoes what so many thousands of claustrophobic patients undergo every month as they are launched into the tube of a scanner.
El Billonaire Presidente and his bubbly mining minister are happy too, if only because they have ensured their political future at the next election and the President is happily thankful he can assist at this "final stage" as he described it.

But this is not really "final" and there is a sequel for the 33. It will involve redundancy packages, shutdown of the bankrupt mine, the brutality of adjusting the emotionally damaged miners to their deprived poverty stricken families, the offer of fame and arc lights for those capable of surviving in a fish tank as the world's media watches them patronisingly, commenting on the unravelling of their lives for the next months before those camera disappear for ever. (Unless of course Andrew Lloyd Webber writes an Evita-style music show about it). Perhaps the luckier ones will manage the mine itself when it becomes a tourist attraction and tourists can pay USD1000 each to relive the experience of the cave and the capsule.
Each miner has been given a gold medallion by Polish coal miners. Keep it mate, use it for prayer, and retain it for a rainy day. The rain will come, even in the dry Atacama Desert.

Chimps, Gorillas and Lesbians

What a night for television!
First, on BBC4, a superb study of one of Louis Leakey's angels - Jane Goodall, with her work on chimps in Tanzania. Just by wandering around the jungle on her own in white shorts, blouse and notebook she befriended a chimpanzee family and was the first to discover that our hairy cousins use tools to hunt termites and also share our carnivorous tastes, tearing up colobus monkeys and even chimps from a wayward tribe.

She also showed their more civilized side as they treat their own children and older members of the tribe with compassion and kindness, while the adolescent son of a dead mother just pines next to her body and dies of a broken heart. It reminded of the scene in "War and Remembrance" when a sentimental Himmler visits a homely German family in the the office of the Auschwitz commandant and strokes the blonde head of a boy after giving him a flower taken from the gassed naked corpse of a little Jewish boy. Compassion and death all in one - we can do it; so can our cousins in the chimp world. We did not need civilization to make us territorial and tribal in our cruelty.

She also records their mating habits and the fact that unlike chimpanzees obeserved in zoos, all male chimpanzees in a group in the wild have the ability to screw all their female partners in turn. Truly Woodstock, man! Sir Solly Zuckerman, the establishment guru of the 1960s was having none of it. He was deeply shocked that such a young female observer should present such heretical views following her observations and put it down to her own sexual obsessions. Excuse me, but who was actually obsessed here?
Next a David Attenborough feature on the mountain gorillas struggling to survive in the volcanic mountains of Rwanda where they were championed by another of Leakey's angels - Dian Fossey. Seeing these mountains again was like revisiting old friends as one recalled "Gorillas in the Mist", the young bemused David Attenborough himself with the youthful Pablo lying on top of him and a picture 25 years later of Pablo, now a contented 200kg silverback, who would have easily crushed today's more mature David to death.
And in those 25 years, the destruction of the jungle for farming and for firewood for refugees, the beginnings of a national park, the savage murder of Fossey, the war with the poachers hunting for gorilla babies and adult hands and feet, the savage massacres in Rwanda where a million people were macheted or knifed to death by their own cousins and Hutu neighbours. Yet despite all these upheavals, the gorillas have survived and, aided by a well financed eco-tourist project, they flourish and multiply.
And then straight to "Lip Service" on BBC3 to watch the mores and cavortings of another near human tribe - the Lesbians, inhabiting the British Isles no less, rather than East Africa. No threat of extinction here either, though Dyke City has its tears as well its glamour. Male silverbacks decidedly take second place as the mating and funeral rites are observed in close quarter. We see predators and victims galore as they tear at each others' flesh and machete each other's soft emotional underbelly. A truly satisfying evening of television entertainment at its best.

Monday, 11 October 2010

So who killed the President?

The debate and rumours in Poland about the death of President Lech Kaczynski on April 10th this year goes on and on. We now learn from the Polish Military Prosecutor's Office that after the interrogation of 360 witnesses and completing 82 volumes of hard copy script, the investigation by both the Russian and Polish authorities is still only half complete. More evidence from the Russians is expected after the Russians have completed their enquiries on November 22nd and a final report is not expected in Poland before January.
None of the original options, whether freak accident, negligence by the pilot or by Smolensk airport authorities, or even sabotage, have been definetely ruled out, but absolutely no concrete evidence for the last option has been found.
Poles being Poles, with their prejudices and demons, many of them the result of the country's traumatic history over the last 200 years, cannot leave the matter alone. They blame each other, the pilot, the Russians and/or any other bogeyman they can think of. Actually "think of" is not the right word. This is not "thinking" - it is more "conjuring up". Their fears are voiced by those like Antoni Macierewicz, former member of KOR in the 1970's and former Minister of the Interior in the 1990's, who now heads the ramshackle Polish Parliamentary Commission in to the accident, and has described the Smolensk tragedy as "zamach" - "assassination attempt" - from the first day.
The Russians watch the debate with some concern. The rest of the world, and many younger Poles, have long since marched on to other things.
Keen to alarm the conspiracy theorists, Macierewicz and "Gazeta Polska" say there has been a Russian-Polish cover up from the word go. But a cover up of what exactly?
Well, on what I have heard and seen so far, I have my interim theories.

So who do I blame for Smolensk?

First and foremost, I blame the Russians. I do not accuse them of deliberately killing the President and his 95 fellow passengers. Whatever I may think of some the former activities of Prime Minister Putin and the FSB, I can see no earthly reason for them to kill the President. By April - President Kaczynski was already a dead duck, due to face political obliteration with the October presidential elections in Poland. However I blame the Russians for contributing to the mischief as they dangled the Katyn massacre carrot between a more moderate Donald Tusk and a more fundamentalist Kaczynski. Prime Minister Putin had deliberately invited Prime Minister Tusk to the Katyn commemoraive ceremony, not President Kaczynski. Let us remember that this was a historic rapprochement on a grand scale, where the Russian nation was for the first time inviting the Polish nation to share in the mourning of those 22,000 Polish officers and representatives of Poland's elite massacred by Stalin in 1940 in a crime then covered up by his Soviet successors for more than 50 years. I believe that it should have been President Medvedev as head of state inviting President Kaczynski as head of state. Tusk was invited because of Kaczynski's well known hostility to Russia's imperialist past and potential threat in the future. It had been Tusk who had invited Putin to the ceremonies in September last year commemorating the outbreak of WWII. Kaczynski had made no secret of his disapproval of the Russian's presence in Poland in such a sensitive month associated in Poland's mind as much with the Soviet invasion, as well as German Nazi, invasion of Poland. The Russians wanted to rub Kaczynski's nose in it before his predicted final humiliating electoral defeat 6 months later.
This was mischief a plenty - effectively interfering in Poland's internal politics over an issue which was still an open wound for some. As Lech Kaczynski himself described it - the Katyn massacre and the subsequent Katyn cover up were the buckle that shut tight the Communist belt around Poland's neck for 50 years.
Of course, once the unexpected tragedy had occurred, an embarassed Russian government stood on its head and bent over backwards (both metaphors are equally valid) to make up for their part in the unfolding tragedy, promising a joint role in the recovery and interpretation of all evidence leading to conclusions on the tragedy, sending their President to attend the President's funeral in Krakow, despite the genuine threat of volcanic ash, and even showing Wajda's film "Katyn" in some Russian cinemas. It was partly guilty conscience and partly part of a possible cover up in case it transpired that the accident may have resulted from Russian negligence at Smolensk airport.

Donald Tusk
Secondly, I blame Prime Minister Donald Tusk and his government colleagues, who allowed themselves to be drawn into this Russian intrigue. Their dislike and contempt for the Polish President blinded them to the need to transform Putin's political invitation into a proper state invitation. Of course Tusk, a patriot, but a pragmatic patriot, knew that Kaczynski, a romantic patriot, would not be satisfied with merely a joint act of mourning. Kaczynski would have wanted contrition from the Russians and even possibly compensation. Tusk was prepared to settle for less in the interests of improving Polish-Russian relations. He was aware that better relations with Russia would have been positively assessed by President Obama and the European Union, and his Economics Minister Pawlak was sure that better relations would open up some useful contracts for Polish companies in Russia and elsewhere and would ensure a steady flow of oil from the East. Angered by Kaczynski's persistent string of vetoes of their proposed economic and political reforms and contemptuous of the President's amateurish one dimensional vision of Poland's market economy and of its foreign relations, Tusk did not want his Russian deal undermined by a niggling Kaczynski offending his Russian hosts over the Katyn massacre when the Russians had already made vast strides towards Poland in this area.

Lech and Maria Kaczynski

Thirdly, I blame Lech Kaczynski and his brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who have persistenly failed to overcome their inferiority complex over Poland's place in the world and their lack of vision of a modern forward-looking Poland. Their understandable sense of outrage at the trashing of Poland's heroic and Catholic past by the pro-Soviet Communist authorities and their frustration at the willingness of a series of politically and socially liberal elites in the 1990s to avoid a proper confrontation with their Communist predecessors had led the Kaczynskis into a blind alley where liberalism and the modern Europeanisation of Poland was seen as an affront to Poland's true conservative and national values. They remained hostile to the new awareness of women's rights and gay rights, they hankered for a return to the death penalty and though they themselves were not anti-Semitic, they allowed many of their followers and political allies to espouse anti-Semitic statements and hamper a coming to terms with the need to look again more critically at the far from harmonious Polish-Jewish relations in the last 150 years.
I cannot excuse a head of government or a head of state for surrounding themselves only with yes men (and women) who shared their limited view of the outside world and their lack of knowledge or interest in any foreign language. Lech Kaczynski's embarassed laughter at a press conference in Warsaw in reaction to Tusk's competent response in English to a visiting Condoleeza Rice was in turn an embarassment to all who attended. (It is not as if Lech Kaczynski had not had an opportunity to learn English. - See attached letter to me in Polish where the later president explains why he could not attend a BBC course in English which I had organised at his request!)

I am not saying that Kaczynski was not morally right to expect more evidence of contrition from the Russians and I agree with his conviction that it was the Polish President, not the Polish Prime Minister, who should have been invited. But is "morally right" always expedient for Poland's interests? What is more, to impose his presence as President on to the Russians, in the teeth of Putin's hostility and Tusk's diplomatic silence, was not the right way to do it. It made his rightful anger seem petty and personal. Far better to have left the argument over the visit to the internal Polish political stage. But the twin brothers' sense of political destiny made it psychologically impossible to back away from imposing the President onto reluctant and bemused Russian authorities. It was a sort of siege mentality of "us true Poles" against a supposedly decadent mealy-mouthed liberal Polish government who was failing to be a true guardian of Poland's political heritage that forced Lech Kaczynski to impose partly his, but mainly his brother's, will on Russian protocol and oblige the Russians to receive him.
Why do I say "his brother's". I have met many from Poland's political elites who have explained the delicate relationship between the two twins. Lech was the bright academic and sports enthusiast, the determined and popular former conservative justice minister, the Quixotic chaser of windmills, married to a charming, cultured and sensitive fellow student - Maria. Jaroslaw was the humourless strategic political planner, the heavyweight, the manipulator and puller of strings, who lived with his mother, and had little time for socialising with Poland's liberal political elites. Lech was the more liberal, ready to consider a compromise solution, until corrected by Jaroslaw. Many of the vetoes on the Tusk's hovernment legislation in parliament were initially left in abeyance while roads to compromise were sought until Jaroslaw came into the fray and imposed his authoritarian imprimatur on his brother.
Close friends of mine with whom I was staying, sympathisers of the Civic Platform (PO) party headed by Tusk, once invited Lech and Maria to an intimate dinner at their Warsaw apartment as they were once close family friends. They warned me to say nothing about this meeting to anyone in advance, because Jaroslaw was on a summer break in the country with his mother. It was known that if he got wind of the dinner party he would immediately veto it.
Jaroslaw was of course due to fly with the President's plane to Smolensk. That he did not was due mainly to their mother's illness. It is extraordinary to think what the impact would have been if BOTH brothers had been on that plane. As it is, it was an act of extraordinary folly for so many notables to fly in one plane. Some, like the President of the National Bank of Poland or the Chairman of the National Institute of Remembrance or the former legendary Solidarity leader - Anna Walentynowicz -, were the President's personal friends, but others like the former last President of the Polish Governmemt in Exile or the parliamentary leaders of the main opposition parties or the spokesman for human rights were attending out of a sense of duty, while the 5 chiefs of staff who commanded all sections of Poland's armed forces, were travelling on the President's order. No other country would allow so many VIPs to fly together. At least, thanks to the bad blood between president and Prime Minister, no members of the cabinet were on the plane, albeit there were deputy ministers of Defence, Foreign Affairs and Culture.
However the folly of the VIPs was augmented by the the mission as defined by Lech Kaczynski, and by default, by his brother. The mission was "Smolensk or bust - in time for the ceremony at the Katyn cemetry". Because the hapless President was such a figure of mockery among Poland's snobbish Europeanised chattering classes, there would be no room for error here. Having foisted their presence on the unwilling Russians, they must NOT make a laughing stock of themselves, by failing to turn up on time. So when the plane approached Smolensk and the airport advised them that it would not be possible to land because of a morning fog, Kaczynski's suspicious mind saw this as an attempt to divert him from his mission. We know from the black boxes recovered so far that the pilot, Captain Poltorak, and air force commander, General Andrzej Blasik, who was in the cockpit with him, refused to accept alternative landing facilities in Moscow, Minsk or Bryansk.
General Andrzej Blasik

How could they have made such a risky decision without the direct intervention of the President himself? To travel to any of the alternative airfields would have been a sign of failure to complete the mission in time. It HAD to be Smolensk. Perhaps Blasik and Protasiuk had not explained the difficulty sufficiently. Perhaps they thought they could make it anyway. They knew that if they tried to override the President's wishes then Protasiuk would have been sacked as was his predecessor who refused to risk the President's life during a dangerous flight to Tbilisi during the Russo-Georgian conflict. There is no doubt that President Kaczynski must bear a large part of the responsibility for endangering his life and that of his 95 co-passengers and crew by his insistence on landing in Smolensk.
To me, knowing the relationship between the twins, it would have been inconceivable that the decision to land in Smolensk, could have been made without Jaroslaw's consent and even insistence. There is no record of any conversation between them but the President's mobile phone was identified but completely destroyed. However Colonel Ireneusz Szelag, the chief military prosecutor, has announced that at least 19 mobile phones and laptops were recovered in relative working order and which indicated communication with the outside world. I repeat that, in view of their relationship, it is unimaginable that the Kaczynskis did not consider the options together, that Jaroslaw would have reinforced Lech in his position, as he usually did, and that the decision to land at Smolensk, must therefore have been Jaroslaw Kaczynski's as well.
He too must take his share of responsibility for this catastrophe.

A few wilder elements in Poland have hailed the Smolensk tragedy as an act of heroic martyrdom by which Lech Kaczynski chose death in order to reveal more clearly to the outside world that Katyn was a Soviet crime and needed contrition and closure. "Now the whole world knows about Katyn", they would say to me (on a number of occasions) with glee. If what they said was true then this would have been some kind of romantic suicide. It could be compared to the noble death in the Battle of Leipzig of one of President Kaczynski's neighbours in the crypt of Wawel castle - Marshal Joseph Poniatowski. However this is a dangerous and stupid theory. If Kaczynski had chosen to die then he had also chosen to kill his 95 fellow passengers, including the wife he adored. That would have been tantamount to murder. And for what? So that the world could comment on the Katyn massacre for a couple of days? At least Poniatowski only endangered himself and his horse during his death-leap into the Elster River. The President endangered 95 other lives.
I do not believe that either Lech or Jaroslaw wanted the plane to crash, just as the Russians did not. The brothers felt that it was their national destiny that Lech had to land at Smolensk come what may. It was a decision of gross folly and a horrendous waste of political talent, which caused more than 100 Polish children to lose their parent or grandparent and has left a new deep scar on Poland's psyche as the accusations of conspiracy, murder and negligence continue unabated and will continue even after the investigaion commission's fidings will be published in January. Possibly it is Jaroslaw Kaczynski's role in defining this mission to Smolensk that may have made him so bitter, particularly after his failed election bid.

Until the parties concerned acknowledge their own partial responsibilty for this tragedy this new wound will fester and corrupt Poland's democratic development for several decades to come.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Wlodek - a Prince of Polish London

I had no idea when I first thought of writing a blog that I would be spending so much time writing about the final departure of so many of my friends.
So much else should be happening in my life.
Presumably it's the privilege of my age and I had better get used to it.
And yet I cannot pass by a true Prince of Poland, Wlodek Lesiecki, teacher, choreographer, youth leader, administrator, amateur historian, dancer, musician, poet, and a father of a fantastic family. He died following a tragic accident during a wedding in Poland. He had been he at the height of his capacities and in the best of health. The suddenness of his departure left us all stunned. So full of life and yet with so much in his life fulfilled. In a sense one wondered what more he could have achieved. Yet everything he touched he succeeded in; so even "more of the same" would still have been a gift to the world. That energy of his could have gone on and on; each time we saw him or "Mazury" it give us more pleasure and more pride in having known him.
Many women loved him with his faultless manners, powerful frame and his handsome rugged features. Some have confessed to me that they would attend a Tatra dance event just to watch him get onto the stage and introduce each dance.
Wherever he went his gentlemanly but manly presence was instantly felt. The epitome of reserve and good taste and yet capable of immediately galvanising a room with his comments and his stories. Well versed in Poland's history, traditions and culture he impressed even Poles in Poland with his mastery of Polish folk lore even though he had lived his whole life in London and visited Poland only on holidays, or on tour or when researching.
His Krakowiak especially was a proud and masterly dance, elegant, skilful but without the frivolous hopping and skipping exercise, bereft of all meaning and dignity, which you would get from other lesser dance troups.
I saw him at his best on two recent occasions - when he chaired the 11th November Independence celebration in Trafalgar Square in 2008, and then in April this year, when he supervised the open air vigil in Trafalgar Square as 3000 Poles watched the funeral cortege of the late President Kaczynski and his wife on a telebeam screen. In both events, one upbeat, and other sombre, he performed with a masterly command that reflected the mood and wishes of the crowd. He was totally in tune with those attending and was as popular with the older generations and his UK-born Polish peers as he was with the newer arrivals from Poland.
Last year he joined the select body called Polonia Aid Foundation Trust which distributes funds to worthy Polish causes.
I last saw him at Aqualate, Ted Juhre's palace in Shropshire, where he had come with the Mazury dance troupe to entertain that great matriarch, Celina, on her 95th birthday. He laid on a resplendent dance performance including a extraordinary gypsy dance that I had never seen before and which, he told me with great pride, had been choreographed by one of his daughters.
I thought I knew him well, especially as he lived in Ealing, was a year younger than me, his father was friends with my father, he attended the same saturday school as me, the same university (Sussex) and later taught at Gunnersbury School which I had once attended and of which I was later a Governor. He was a bloke's bloke but also every inch a gentleman in his dealings with women. He was true Polish patriot and a true romantic, but did not make a meal of either trait. These qualities fitted perfectly into his natural reserve and politeness behind which there was an outgoing extrovert personality ready to emerge when the occasion required.
But when I attended the funeral mass this Friday at Ealing Abbey, amongst a 1000 strong throng of silent crying well-wishers, I was still amazed at how much I did not know about him. I listened to the long celebration of his eventful life by his son and two daughters. It was wonderful to see three children so proud of their father and yet so immersed in his life that they were able to convey to us the essence of their father in all its wealth and variety. None of us could really add more. I wish my son were able to understand what motivates me and what I have achieved as well as they were able to. Listening to them, I learned of his deep interest in history and capacity for research, his knowledge and collection of song sheets and costumes, his sudden announcement to his tutor of his engagement to Basia which saved him from expulsion from Sussex University, his love of sculling, his use of chess pieces to choregraph a new dance, his celebratory dance with Princess Diana (post Travolta, I believe).
Above all his poetic skills amazed me. The poem about the snowdrop was extraordinary in its simple beauty and in the depth of its emotion. It was a song celebrating life as well as death and a paean to his beloved Basia. I cannot remember a line from Keats or Wordsworth that affected me so much.
I feel his life's work is not wasted in any way. His friends and family are quite capable of carrying it on, if not with same originality and panache. But who knows?He needs no standing monument; his dance troupe, his musical arrangements and his poems will be his monument. And hopefully his children's loving memoir can be published as a book along with his poems and photographs of him at his various functions.
I have re-read my interview with him which was published in my book "Hello, I'm Your Polish Neighbour" and it reminded me of his participation at the Lord Mayor's Show in London as a Polish 13th century hobby horse. Again he had been able to explain the traditions with great gusto to the British TV camera crew.
My thoughts go back to April of this year. We had stood together for quite some time watching the funeral of the Polish President in Trafalgar Square telebeamed to Trafalgar Square on April 18th. He had just been interviewed for BBC television and had introduced Foreign Minister David Miliband and Deputy Mayor, Richard Barnes, to the crowd. We had watched with silent admiration as young Poles kneeled in the Square to participate in the mass, concurrently taking place in Krakow, which they were following intensely on the giant screen, and we had remembered the friends we had both lost in that senseless loss of life in the woods surrounding Smolensk airport. We remembered former President Ryszard Kaczorowski, a true gentleman from a past age, and the no nonsense parish priest at St Andrews, Bronek Gostomski, with his cheeky smile, and the former diplomats such as the prickly but able former Consul General Janusz Kochanowski and the polished and effective former Polish Ambassador Stanislaw Komorowski, with whom every Polish lady in London, whether married or single, had been in love. We swopped anecdotes about them.
One rather grotesque one that I remembered was when Wlodek described his meeting with Komorowski, then the Deputy Defence Minister, at the unveiling ceremony of the Polish Armed Forces Memorial at the Arboretum in Staffordshire the previous year. The two ran into each other at adjoining urinals prior to the reception. Though they knew and liked each other well and had not met for several years, unwritten protocol required that they should stand silently next to each without acknowledging each other's presence. Then they moved almost simultaneously to adjoining wash-basins as they washed and dried their hands. The ablutions over, they were finally able to turn to each other, shake hands and make a formal greeting. How very gentlemanly!

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

No more "Polish" Concentration Camps!

Like many people of Polish origin I get very irritated when lazy journalists describe the notorious death camps in Poland, such as Auschwitz or Treblinka, as simply "Polish". he lazy unfeeling bastards! These camps are no more "Polish" than Hadrian's Wall is British just because it is in Britain. Do British POWs who survived those horrific camps in Burma describe them as "Burmese"? No brainer. Of course not. They are righfully described as "Japanese". And exactly for that reason camps like Auschwitz should be descibed as "German" or "German Nazi". Certainly not "Polish".

It's funny how it is no longer PC to say something critical about the Germans these days. Here is a recent article in the Daily Star. It's a lovely touching story:

Mother and newborn baby were about to be sent to Auschwitz. There was surely no hope, no escape.
Once they arrived at the Polish death camp, tiny Agnes Grunwald would have been torn from her mother Leona's arms and thrown into the fires.

But the terrified young woman and her daughter were not herded onto trains waiting to transport yet more Hungarian Jews to their deaths. That day, the guard ordered all mothers accompanied by children back to their Budapest homes.

Why they survived the Holocaust when six million others didn't, Agnes, now 66 and a Sheffield JP, will never know. What motivated that soldier to leniency she can only guess.

"I have no means of knowing who he was, what his motives were, or his fate. It may have been an act of kindness; he may simply have been obeying an order from on high, set for an entirely logical, rather than sentimental, reason.

"But it is chilling to think that for his actions, I would have been murdered before I was aware of life," says Agnes.

A mother of three sons and a grandmother thanks to the actions of that unknown guard, she is now the author of a new book charting other amazing stories of survival against the odds.

The Other Schindlers: Why some People Chose To Save Jews In The Holocaust is not a harrowing account of the atrocities, however.

Conversely, it is an uplifting collection of memories from rescuers and rescued, which lift the soul and send a chill of emotion the length of your spine.

It tells of 30 brave and courageous non-Jews from around the globe who risked their own lives to save those of others from Nazi persecution during World War Two.

"The actions of the Holocaust rescuers are truly one of the lights in that great darkness," says Agnes, a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.

But a book wasn't her initial aim; it began as a personal quest for knowledge to pass down the family line which had so nearly been extinguished in the autumn of 1944.

"Most survivors of the Holocaust don't talk about it. People had horrible experiences; things they want to forget. But this leaves a gap of knowledge with the next generation. It had in mine," she says."

Aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau

We hear the word "Polish" in this article and references to "Budapest" but where is there any mention of Germans?

Or consider this article. From the Exmouth Journal:

STUDENTS at Exmouth Community College have been listening to harrowing stories associated to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Caitlin Wilson and Ellie Rivers, both post 16 students, visited the Polish camp recently as part of an educational project based on fighting prejudice and discrimination.
The girls delivered a presentation at the college about what they had learnt during the trip.
Auschwitz was the scene where more than a million men, women and children, were murdered during World War II. The site is now a museum.
The school has held a number of Auschwitz-themed events this academic year.
Earlier this term, year 10 art students got the chance to talk to an artist, Vincent Ryszka, whose family owned the land that Auschwitz was built on.
Terri Cooke, the college's head of art, said: "He told students about the death camp and how conditions were so awful prisoners committed suicide by throwing themselves on the electric perimeter wire at night.
"Vincent's father and a friend tried this, and the guards threw a grenade at them. It ripped a limb off the friend as well as blowing a hole in the fence. They escaped through into the woods and joined the resistance.
"These tales have influenced Vincent's artwork and students were encouraged to work from their experiences and passions to create expressive images."

Again a good local story. The camp is described as "Polish". But who organised the camp and massacred the prisoners? Mum's the word! I have nothing against modern Germany - in many ways a model of civilisation and democracy. But historical truth is historical truth.
The Polish Media group run by Jan Niechwiadowicz have spent several harrowing obsessive years monitoring and seeking corrections on so-called "Polish" concentration camps in the British media. Some newspapers agree to print corrections and amend their websites, others treat these interventions with contempt. They either respond by mocking the earnest letter writer, but mainly they just ignore them.
Today the Labour Friends of Poland (in fact 4 MPs - Alan Whitehead, Steve Pound, Andrew Slaughter and Denis MacShane) have brought together some of the Polish Media Group's examples and sent an angry statement about this to the Press Complaints Commission.
It is about time the PCC pulled their finger out on this as these press aberrations are in breach of paragraph 1. i/ of the PCC's Editor's Code of Practice concerning inaccuracy in reporting. If the Ontario Press Council and the Australian Press Board can make statements criticising the misuse of the word "Polish" in relation to extermination camps, then why not the PCC?
Let us hope that Poland's friends in the Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties make similar appeals. It is about time the PCC advised the British press to reform their ways.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Choosing a Labour caretaker leader?

I'm still really sad about the Labour leadership. 4 people who have done nothing in life accept pass academic exams and then become professional politicians and then there's crazy lovable mixed up Diane.
I have met and personally liked David Miliband and he has the intellectual capacity, the warmth and the sense of humour that a potential Labour leader might need. But he is not a connecter in his conversation and appears not to do small talk. He is too intellectual, too inclined to cover a policy fudge with a turn of phrase that will delight him and his Westminster friends but confuse the public, and he lacks guts and courage - or so far I've seen no sign of it. I fear that a newly confident Cameron could knock the stuffing out of him in parliamentary confrontations.
Nor does the average British voter like or trust an intellectual as leader of the country. In the past John Major tried to curry favour with the British public by lying about the fact he had failed ALL his O levels. Soon it transpired that he had actually gained a couple.
Ed Miliband has the guts, at least to stand up to his brother, but not much more. Better at human contact then his brother but not realy a listener either. Seems a bit sneaky to me although he is good on green issues.
The pugnacious Ed Balls is his own worst enemy. At present he is the only one carrying the fight to the Tories, especially over Gove's mad school "reform" programme, but he has so much bluster, is so associated with the worst aspects of Brown's sad fight against his own party and has the effrontery to turn against Labour's earlier bold decision to open up the UK labour market to Poles, Hungarians and other Central Europeans. Nobody trusts him, except perhaps his loving crafty wife, Yvette. Now I could see HER as a future Labour leader. But then Ed Balls as PM's consort? Oh, no! Worse than Denis Thatcher, who at least kept out of active politics.
I cannot make much impression of earnest and hard-working Andy Burnham, as he is too young and too colourless at present. A bit of a swot. In 10 years time he may be a lion, but I have yet to believe that.
Diane Abbott has the fire and personality to be leader and she can certainly increase the black vote for Labour. At least she knows more about life outside politics and can share the concerns and suffering of ordinary voters.
But she is unstable and not very intelligent, inclined to bully to reinforce her prejudices and her leadership could endanger support from Labour's Asian voters. However any future leader who failed to put her in a Shadow Cabinet job, would be mad, even if he would have to put up with her occasional nonsense. She could be the next John Prescott.
I loved her stand on her son's education. No, really. After her bombastic attacks on Harriet Harman and Tony Blair over sending their children to more selective state schools, she goes the whole hog and sends her own son to a private school - the City of London School.
I couldn't believe it was her when I first ran into her at a parents' reception at the school. She wore a label showing her name as "Thompson" or something, but I could not take my eyes off her. As she walked past me, drink in hand, I bent over to her and whispered in her ear "Nice to see another Labour Party supporter here". She stopped in astonishement and then screwed up her face into a mischievous smile and put her finger over her lips. In view of her earlier public statements I was quite astounded by her presence there and mentioned it half jokingly to my MP, asking him if he was sending his kids to a private school as well. He thought I was bonkers and had imagined the whole thing.
Anyway the story broke in the press several months later and I admired her for her sheer brazen response that as a Labour politician there was no justification for what she had done, but as a mother she had made the right choice in order to counter the lure of Hackney street culture. I actually agreed with that answer. I just wish she had not made such a hypocritical song and dance about it over other MPs children beforehand. I even sent her an e-mail of support and got a sweet response from her in return.
Sadly, none of the 5 contenders has the necessary range of quality attributes to be the next Labour leader. You need a combination of political courage, intelligence, intellectual honesty, capacity for hard work and be attuned to the language and needs of the voter, especially as we all face this bewildering minefield of massive cuts which would undermine Bitain's economy for decades if implemented as announced by Osborne and Co.
Individually none of the candidates measure up. But between the 5 of them those qualities are there, provided that they can group around whoever is finally selected on September 25th and all five of them serve as leaders together in the new shadow cabinet. Because all 5 of them have some quality they can input. The electorate would react positively to a harmonious collective leadership. David could be the nominal leader, the Eisenhower, the "primus inter pares", and be able to delegate decision-making and policy leads to his colleagues, in a way that Blair and Brown were incapable of doing.
There lies the only hope for Labour. And for the country as a whole.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Ewa Brzeska has died

Ewa at the Giles Hart memorial in Ravenscourt Park with Sean Bamford (TUC), Janusz Sniadek (NSZZ Solidarnosc) and Olgierd Lalko, current POSK Chairman

It is such terrible news about Ewa Brzeska.She was the shining star of our post-war second generation UK Poles, destined, in my mind, to be the new leader of the Polish diaspora in the UK, whether as Chairman of the Federation of Poles in GB or as Chairman of POSK.
She showed great promise when she became assistant secretary of the Federation in 1991 and played a great role in bringing in her various contemporaries into the Federation through her UK wide network of former scouts and student activists. We worked very well together and we became very close friends. During the Polish Communities Abroad Congress in Krakow she played a key role and chaired the commission on "Polish Youth Abroad". In a speech I described how Ewa and I "were like two water taps flowing into the same bath, with her being the warm one."
However she had to resign after several years because of the long illness and eventual death of her husband Kazik, followed by her prolonged care in turn for her father and her mother before they too passed away.
However some 5 years ago she was elected as Secretary of POSK, the Polish Centre in Hammersmith, and in 2008, she was elected Chairman.

Everyone greeted her election with great joy. She was like a new broom with a clear self-imposed mandate to humanize the building and open it up to young mothers of the new generation of young Poles, whose arrival had not been universally welcome. She opened up a creche and a mothers and toddlers group and drew new organizations like the Polish Deconstruction Group to hold meeting in the Jazz Cafe and other POSK venues.
However within a year she had to refrain from standing again because of the onset of cancer. Last year to everybody's relief she was pronounced free of cancer but her body had weakened and succumbed to a new cancerous growth in the brain. She was in her 60s and my God I will miss her. So will the Polish community at large.
She was the heroine of two of my stories in my new book "Hello I'm Your Polish Neighbour" (see extract below).

As much as I will miss Aneta Naszynska the 54 year old film editor who had cooperated with Jagna Wright in the film "Hidden Odyssey" where elderly Poles were interviewed about their experiences as deportees to Siberia, and in "The Other Truth" with some superb interviews with Poles and Jews about the thorny issues of Polish-Jewish relations in the Twentieth Century, and especially during the Holocaust. After Jagna's untimely death in 2007, Aneta ploughed her own furrow and followed up a number of projects, including the life of XIXth century Polish patriot and entrepreneur Ignacy Domeyko, which took her this Christmas to Chile. There too she was afflicted by the same calamity as Ewa, cancer of the brain. After 2 months of suffering she died in a Chilean hospital in June.
Like Ewa, Aneta, was warm, affectionate, patriotic, dedicated and imbued with great feminine charm. I shall really miss them both.


From "Hello, I'm Your Polish Neighbour"

Lady in charge of POSK - 16th May 2008

The Polish Social and Cultural Centre in Hammersmith, which we all call “POSK”, has just undergone a sea change. The grim fortress-like building in King Street with its grey balconies but welcoming wide front entrance has allowed a wind of change to sweep through its many corridors. For the first time in its 40 year history it has elected a woman president. Hillary Clinton, don’t give up yet!

Like her avuncular predecessor Olgierd Lalko, the new President, Ewa Brzeska is a child of the old Polish veterans’ generation that had once dominated Polish London society. Certainly a charismatic figure with her magical smile and soft but authoritative voice which had enchanted the children she once taught at Villiers High School, she oozes femininity and warmth through every fibre of her generously proportioned being. She is well prepared for her task both by her upbringing and her experience as a voluntary worker and she had been General Secretary of POSK for three years.

The meeting at which she was elected last Saturday was an exceptionally well attended 7 hour marathon with a 15 minute break. More than 330 people stayed till the end participating in the AGM of this Polish bastion of democracy, alternatively roused by provocative speeches and dozing through the more boring reports. Attempts to skip the democratic formalities through voting “by poll” were firmly brushed aside as Ewa and her newly elected Council obtained a clear mandate to clear out the cobwebs of POSK’s 40 year constitution. The membership fee fixed back in 1967 had been a single lifetime payment of only £10. It needs to be upgraded and changed to an annual payment.

She has promised that more cobwebs would be cleared out. “Armed only with a pencil” she has promised to locate savings which will reduce POSK’s current running deficit, maintain the vital modernization programme of POSK’s facilities and assess whether POSK can afford a paid Chief Executive.

Ever mindful of the need to draw in new visitors and members from the recently arrived Polish diaspora she has promised to find the facilities around the POSK site for a crèche, and perhaps eventually a nursery. The pitter-patter of tiny feet around POSK’s nooks and crannies may fill some of the older sedate members with dread, but there is already a popular children’s theatre company, Syrena, which regularly uses the building and the crèche will bring young parents into more contact with the older institution. Those children could guarantee the social and the commercial future of POSK and, with all her respect for the older generation of POSK’s founding fathers, it is on this new generation, as well as on her own, that the new POSK President’s eyes are firmly fixed.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

5th Anniversary of the London July Bombings

Who are these 3 young women?

Anna Brandt

Karolina Gluck - - - - -Monika Suchocka
& boyfriend

All three of these fresh faced young women were on the fateful Piccadilly Line train between Kings Cross and Russell Square during the fateful 7th July bombing in 2005. All 3 died unknown to each other but united by a common fate.

It reminds me of what I wrote about them in my book "Hello I'm Your Polish Neighbour" 3 years ago on the Second Anniversary of this cataclysmic event.

This year the event seems to have had no official recognition, either by the Government or the Mayor of London. I cannot believe that Tessa Jowell or Ken Livingstone would have let it be forgotten like this.

I shall reproduce the text here:-

"July 6th 2007 – Towards A Bitter Second Anniversary

We are approaching the second anniversary of the London bombings on July 7th. It is a time for sad reflection for every Londoner, and unfortunately also for renewed vigilance.
Nothing underlines the close integration of young Poles into the daily fabric of the London scene more starkly than the fact the largest number of victims of foreign nationality who died on that dreadful day were Polish.
Three young Polish women, unknown to each other, all perished on the Piccadilly Line between Kings Cross and Russell Square.
Nearest to her destination at the time of the explosion was 29 year old Karolina Gluck who worked as a college receptionist. She was every inch a Londoner. She had a black fiancé, wore a metal St George Cross in her bully button and her friends called her “Sunshine” because of her sunny disposition.
Younger still was 23 year old pretty Monika Suchocka, an economics graduate and trainee accountant, who lived in a cramped flat with 2 friends in North London. She loved to sing and had found the time during her 2 month stay in London to join a choir.
Anna Brandt was 41 and she was on her way to Hammersmith where she worked as a cleaner. One of her two grown-up daughters had just arrived in London and she was looking forward to meeting her. Anna had ambitions too. She aimed to earn enough money to bring over her husband and start up a restaurant business in West London.
These were not the only losses that the Polish community suffered on July 7th. One of the victims on the bombed No. 30 bus in Tavistock Square was Giles Hart, a former Chairman of the Polish Solidarity Campaign. He was married to a Polish wife who was the head of a Polish Saturday school in East London. He was posthumously awarded a Knights Cross of Merit by the Polish President.
Giles had been no stranger to Hammersmith as many of the campaign meetings he chaired took place in POSK on King Street where he also founded the Polish Refugees Rights Group.
Aspiring young Poles continue to live, work (and die) unseen and unheard amongst us fellow Londoners. "

This text reminds me that my friend Naomi Hyamson, former Secretary of the Polish Solidarity Campaign, was able to lay flowers at the memorial stone we erected for Giles hart in Ravenscourt Park.
Here is a picture of the memorial stone. You can still pay your respects to the memory of Giles hart and other victims today or in the weekend. I shall certainly go.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Polish elections - The pragmatists win - only just

Jaroslaw Kaczynski has graciously conceded defeat in the presidential elections in Poland after the exit polls showed him winning between 47% and 49% of the votes.

While Kaczynski may have been gracious I am not so sure that some of his fanatical supporters will be so kind.

It has been a strange kind of election as the tectonic plates of public opinon rumbled dangerously beneath a seemingly calm surface. As a candidate Kaczynski was calm and presidential appealing for a clean unemotional electoral debate but the poisonous bile spilling from the patriotic and religious fervour and frustration of his many supporters spilled from every pore on the internet, in the right wing press and radio stations and in the private utterances of his voters whenever they felt that their auduence shared their prejudices.
This lava of hatred against Komorowski, Tusk and the whole liberal establishment has not yet dried up. Komorowski is often vilified as a liberal stooge of Russia and Communism, but it is not Communism these people hate so much as Liberalism. To them the economic liberalism of Finance Minister Rostowski and Balcerowicz is as vile and materialistic as the social liberalism that tolerates gays, womens' rights and the other symbols of the liberal European zeitgist.

This hatred is matched all too evenly by the contempt and scorn of the liberal and intellectual elements in Poland against Kaczynski and his troops. They have been compared to Tolkien-created auks and the atmosphere around Radio Maryja as the darkening skies emanating from Mordor. They had shown a similar contempt in the past to the late President Lech Kaczynski, often mocking him for his size and his ignorance of any foreign language, and it was this mockery that may have partly driven the stubborn President to his terrible and tragic death as well as the death of his 95 fellow passengers. We know that the pilot had his orders, and when we can guess from who and under what motivation.

Neither of these attitudes, hatred on the one hand and contempt on the other, is healthy and Komorowski will have to tread gingerly on egg shells in order to heal this national rift. I am not sure if he has the temperament for this as too often he too has shown a flippant contempt for Kaczynski's followers, as when he dismissed the model phallus presented to him at a public meeting in London as something he won't require.
Komorowski is a brave and patriotic man, a former competent defence minister, a former arrested internee in the days of KOR and Solidarity, but he too should be aware that the PO is far too trusting in its persistence to support the euro during the current crisis, far too trusting to the Russians over the Smolensk tragedy and far too glib over the impact of high unemployment in the countryside and provincial towns.
Kaczynski was appealing to his electorate not only because of his social conservatism but also his distrust of Europe, globalism and capitalism in general. In his economic policy Kaczynski's PiS party is far to the left of the Labour Party and for that reason alone, if for no other, an extraordinary ally for David Cameron to choose as a partner in the European Parliament.

However perhaps at last this election result will release the traumatic puss that gathered beneath the recent exalted national psyche following the Smolensk disaster. Not a moment too soon.

Inauguration - Hello folks

Today I have started a blog after months of hesitating.
As I am now the author of a new book - "Hello I'm Your Polish Neighbour" so I shall need to promote it. I hope to have this with your help. I am already grateful for the publicity I have had for this book from the Polish Embassy in London which generously played host to a book launch on June 29th attended by the Mayors of Ealing and Hammersmith & Fulham, as well as by Andy Slaughter MP and prominent members of the Polish community such as Mrs Karolina Kaczorowska, widow of the last president of the Polish government in exile.
It is a book intended for Poles in London to buy for their British friends. It is a sweet and sour introduction into the life of the Polish community in West London, both the well established older post-war community and their offspring and those newly arrived since 2004. It is written with a sense of irony and a wry British humour but I feel it evinces all my deep affection for Polish people, my excitement at their presence on he streets of London and my respect for their contribution to the British economy and to their own families in Poland.
The book is also a vocal contribution by the Polish community to the current debate in the UK on immigration, multiculturalism and social cohesion. Poles are often discussed in this context as a form of barren statistics manipulated to serve the agenda of whichever media group or institution wishes to make a point. However they have their own tale to tell. As EU citizens the newly arrived Poles in the UK have a right to their own voice and as much right to settle and work and raise a family in this country as have British citizens to live and work in Poland, or even in France or Spain.
The Polish community has long been an example to other ethnic minorities because of its ability to integrate with the British economy and social fabric, while remaining culturally distinct. Social integration - yes; cultural assimilation - no. That is how Poles view multiculturalism.
Let this be the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship with my potential readers and any comments from you will be most welcome.
In the meantime let us batten down the hatches and get ready for the resultstoday of the second and final stage of the watershed presidential elections in Poland - the culmination of the titanic struggle between romantic patriotism and pragmatic patriotism.