A few months ago I met a group of foreign students who were about to complete their second year of BA courses at elite British universities. I asked them what clubs they had joined, what concerts and theatres they had attended and which museums and galleries they had visited. Much to my surprise, and their lack of of embarrassment, their unison reply was none. They attend lectures, they work in the libraries but they do nothing to develop their minds or their social skills beyond the parametres set by the regurgitative education system that nurtured them. Talk about pearls before swine.

The question that sprang to mind was why bother to go to a great British university if you are too scared or uninterested to break the boundaries created by ten years of swatting? As far as I can see, such students would be much better off enrolling at a good local university or on a much cheaper MOOC offered by an elite American or British university, if they are set on the Anglo-Saxon system. Of course, most MOOC certificates offered by elite universities do not equate to those awarded on the completion of attended courses. If they did, then there would be no point in paying the vast sums required to attend the real thing. Nor do such universities want to do to their awards what finance ministers seem willing to do to their currencies through quantitative easing. But many employers will be impressed by any piece of paper issued by Stanford, Harvard, Oxford or Cambridge. If a student is unwilling to eat from the trough of experience that a great university has to offer, I can see absolutely no point of leaving home. Correct me if I am wrong.

Great universities, like great schools, build character. Character has never been in greater demand than it is today when faced with the irresistible march of artificial intelligence and the pressure that this is putting on the job market. What still gives people the edge is their ability to adapt to new conditions and to relate to other people in a positive, intelligent and creative way, something that three or four years in a library in a foreign land is unlikely to achieve. I would much prefer a robot doctor which has access to the knowledge available in the world wide net, than a doctor who has studied a text book and has no bedside manner. I am sure I am not alone.

Of course, aspiring students should want to attend the great universities, but they should not go if their only objective is a piece of paper. Increasingly, that piece of paper is no longer a guarantee of a job for life. Ability, flexibility and character are far safer bets.


THEM AND US: Mr. Trump’s Polish speech and Beethoven

After the Polish visit, Donald Trump found himself in unfamiliar circumstances, in the new concert hall in Hamburg which is said to have the best acoustic of any hall in the world. Donald is not famed for his love of music. In an autobiography he is said to claim to have hit his music teacher in the face. Some measure of the man, no doubt.

Mrs. Merkel particularly requested a performance of the 9th Symphony of Beethoven. This is a monumental work on many levels, even if Nigel Farage will be glad to see the back of it as the EU anthem. Well, he won’t actually, he just won’t be obliged to identify with it if Brexit takes place, which, many think and hope is in doubt.

Schiller wrote the words at a time when western civilisation was going through the sort of tumult that it is now. Most people are familiar with the words but what actually do they mean? At first sight they seem to be a bugle call to universal brotherhood which is probably what attracted Beethoven. But in the arena of the concert hall to whom are they speaking? The audience? Who is in this universal brotherhood? Many undemocratic states have used the symphony to unite their faithful, to impose an identity of us and them. Isn’t this the essence of Mr. Trump’s Polish speech? Who is us?

The symphony itself is full of musical influences which give it a universality or, at least, a pan-European identity which allow it to be interpreted by musician and listener on many different levels. The crowning glory of the symphony is the choral explosion in the Finale, a hymn of joy to universal brotherhood. It would have been very interesting to know how Mr.Trump interpreted this universal hymn in the hall in Hamburg.

10th Congress of Polish Students in the UK

Two weeks ago, with some excitement,  I flew to Stanstead to attend the Congress at which I had been invited to speak. Naturally, there is an enormous amount to report, from the efficiency and charm of the student organisers to the boorishness of a few of the speakers. All this I will address later. What demands comment now is how I got to England.

I felt a certain apprehension as I headed to Modlin Airport to board my flight to London.  I had never flown from Modlin and I had heard it was nothing more than a shed in a field. This is unfair. Apart from a certain bovine-like treatment that passengers are subjected to at boarding, herded from an enclosed shed to a field and exposed to the bitter cold for some time before being allowed near the plane, nothing seemed any worse than my last treatment on BA, until I compared the cost. My return flight to Stanstead on Ryan Air was some 900 pln, a hundred more than my last BA flight. Then there was no exposure to the bitter east wind. Why so much for this discomfort?

Whilst not wishing to be disrespectful of my sponsor,the Polish Embassy in London, two days before my departure the Embassy had still not bought the ticket, even though I had been assured via email that the ticket could and would be bought. Why the delay? They had known for almost a month that a ticket was required. Had they bought it then, perhaps they would have saved the Polish taxpayer, of which I am one, some money. I should add that I gave my services for free and was glad of the chance. Hence, all the more reason to think I deserved the right to know that I would get to Cambridge the day before I was due to fly.

Then the ticket arrived from the Embassy. Hurray! It was quickly followed by a thoughtful reminder from the student organiser that I should check in on line. I tried. My email address was rejected. Panic. I wrote to Cambridge. I wrote to the Embassy. The Embassy assured me that the check in process was extremely straightforward. I tried again but failed. Am I an idiot? I`ve never had this trouble with LOT or BA. Then it occurred to me that Ryan Air was not searching for my email address but perhaps another. I wrote to the Embassy. Ah, yes. I should have been using the Embassy’s travel agent’s email. Once in my possession it worked like a dream.

So why didn’t they provide this information in the first place, you might ask.  Not wishing to be disrespectful, or to exclude myself from future events, I`ll leave you to make up your own mind.

Poles, beware British universities.

Last week, the British Council  sponsored a conference at the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw, led by the big wigs of de Montfort University, Leicester,  to discuss Brexit and to make its implications clear to would be Polish students.

I have to reflect that since nobody knows when or whether Brexit will happen, the claim that the scope of this meeting was to discuss its implications is nonsense. Clearly, this was a marketing ploy by a third rate university to attract unsuspecting Polish and other Eastern European students to fill its coffers. The Rector, in his opening speech, cited a Polish student who, after a four hour meeting at the university to discuss the Brexit implications,  asked him for a letter to show at British passport control in order to re-enter Britain, since he was going to Poland for the weekend. One wonders what they were discussing.  What did the Recter hope to gain by drawing our attention to this example? His own lack of discretion or, dare I say, honesty?

The de Monfort crew implied that their university can equal Oxbridge. It cannot.  De Montfort is 53rd in the British university rankings. It is to be regretted that the British Council should be promoting such deception. Furthermore, the mantra that de Montfort and Leicester itself are multi-cultural is true, though not perhaps in any way a young person from this part of the world would understand or appreciate.  The woman speaker’s declaration that whilst Britain might be racist, de Montfort isn’t,  was neither true, appropriate nor intelligent.

Whoever made the decision to support de Montfort’s visit should consider the ethical consequences of the BC’s role as the ‘British Educational Trade Mission’ more carefully. Even business requires some ethics.

Grudziadz and its trams(Travels with an English cousin)

We had two reasons for spending two nights in Olstzyn, which Arthur insisted in calling Allenstein, famous mainly because of its association with Copernicus. Firstly, because it was convenient for the canal. Secondly, because it has just renovated its tram system. Trams are Arthur’s great love and, as a result, we had to see the whole network. This, thankfully, is only two lines. The new trams are convenient to enter even if, according to the engineers we spoke to, the acres of plastic with which they are built conceal weak structure, dodgy technology and too much of it. Whilst delighted that any city council had decided to renew its tramways, Arthur was far happier when we were ensconced in the solid steel circa 1960 carriages of the tram system in Grudziadz which, apparently, any fool can fix with the right spanner. If anything goes wrong with the plastic trams they have to go back to the factory. This, I discovered later, is true of Warsaw’s new trams.

16 years in Poland  and I had never heard of Grudziadz. Arthur had ‘heard’ from his tram friends in England that this was an interesting town, hence the long detour from Olstzyn. The first impression was very positive. The river is wide and fast and exciting. There is a newly constructed marina, empty  at present and perhaps likely to remain so, becoming nothing more than an EU infrastructural project destined to rot, bu there nonetheless. Rising from the banks of the Vistula and flowing skywards is a well restored line of ancient fortified walls. Once inside, the town seems like a forgotten place. It was badly damaged in both wars and changed hands on numerous occasions. It was given to Poland as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles. The newly appointed Polish mayor found it “very modern but too German.” A huge influx of Poles displaced the German population and by 1939 the town was almost completely polonised. With the outbreak of the Second World War the Germans retook the city and, through a ruthless ethnic cleansing programme, quickly restored the status quo in their favour. When the Russians captured the city at the end of the war, it was deserted and ruined after heavy fighting. Such was the city in which displaced Poles from the east had to make their homes.

This unfortunate heritage has only been worsened by the neglect of the river which was once a great thoroughfare for trade but is now unnavigable even to Warsaw or Gdansk, which Arthur called Danzig. There were few signs of prosperity, no elegant shops, no inviting restaurants. I almost despaired of finding an hotel but, as luck would have it, we found one. Not only was it more than adequate, void of the net curtains, brown paint and nasty lavatories typical of hotels held in the thrall of Communism, but it was owned and managed by a two-stroke motorcycle enthusiast. This explained the presence of a finely restored Polish motorcycle from the 1960s which stands strategically in the entrance hall of the hotel. Arthur, who has held various high offices in the Two Stroke Club of Great Britain, was overwhelmed with excitment. Without delay he inspected the machine. He assured me that the bike’s restored state was far superior to the original. The work of a craftsman. Fortunately, the receptionist was not only charming but also able to speak some English. She called her boss. Much to Arthur’s delight, he told us how he had lived in Warsaw during the 1980s when bikes of this sort were no longer wanted. People even paid him to remove them for their front paths, gardens or sheds. He had accumulated more than 50, though few have been restored.  The amount of time required is prohibitive. Arthur commiserated. He has just as many bikes himself in similar condition for just the same reason. Here was a kindred spirit.

Although it was seven in the evening, Arthur was determined to have a tram ride before dusk and dinner. I was more inclined to dine first and delay the thrill of the tram ride until the morning. As always, Arthur had his way.

We made our way to the terminus of the first of the two lines. Suddenly a tram came into view. Camera at the ready, instantly Arthur hurled himself towards the line with surprising agility. Though not exactly on the line when he was snapping, he was close enough for two passing patrol men to slow down on their motorbikes partly in bewilderment, partly, no doubt, wondering whether they were about to witness a messy end.

By now, I had become used to Arthur’s reaction to passing trams and I had grown somewhat indifferent to his risk taking in the path of oncoming machines. Arthur has a remarkable capacity for self-preservation and despite his incapacities is able to cut it finely in order to get the photograph he wants. If misfortune should befall him I doubt he would wish for a better end.

The tram driver’s young and chubby granddaughter spends her Sundays accompanying her grandfather on his rounds. A friendly girl, she found Arthur’s interest in the tram a source of amusement, so much so that she offered us a boiled sweet and was delighted when we accepted. In contrast to the modern trams in Olstzyn, this tram was built of sturdy material, even though it was not quite as comfortable. It had the feeling of a miniature train set.The seats were rather cramped and the carriages were much smaller than modern trams with steep steps.  If trams are anything to go by, people have grown considerably over the last 50 years, probably due to better nutrition and not just boiled sweets.

Many of the technical details of the tram Arthur  told me about were fascinating, at the time. Now I cannot remember any of them, except it has a narrower gauge and fewer wheels than modern trams in order to turn more easily.

The following morning Arthur decided that we should try to get into the engine sheds. At the gate to the 19th century German built sheds was the new office block of the tram company’s administration and control centre. I went in to ask whether we could visit the sheds. The response was overwhelming. The director was delighted that we were interested. He sent one of his managers to accompany us.

The most fascinating piece of equipment was the 1905 German lathe for filing and smoothing the steel tyres which surround the wheels. The manager started it up using the 1912 engine. Both these pieces of equipment not only survived a major fire some twenty years ago but were too heavy to be removed when the Russians stripped the city at the end of the Second World War.

Even if trams are not high on your list of priorities, Grudziadz is well worth the time of day. Although poor, the people are friendly and noticeably more polite than most other Poles.

Polish travels with my English Cousin


My cousin Arthur is an extraordinary fellow. I was reminded of this when he visited me recently in Warsaw. It was the end of his annual month long trip to central Europe in search of historic forms of transport. Seeing Arthur in pursuit of a photograph of a passing tram, bus, or train which, to the untrained eye would not merit a second glance let alone a full hue and cry, fills me with an overwhelming sense of awe. Why? On first appearances Arthur seems reasonably normal. Yes, he is eccentric and this eccentricity exhibits itself both in his haphazard appearance and in his constant need to engage with whomever is in the vicinity and willing to stop to be addressed, and I mean “addressed,” an encounter from which the listener always leaves enriched and delighted if somewhat overwhelmed. The fact is that despite his infectious zest for life and knowledge, the huge energy he brings to life comes at a cost, a cost which I am certain would exhaust the resources of most of us.

Man and nature have conspired against Arthur. He was born with a weak leg. Then, in an accident at school, he broke his good leg. This, through a trail of incompetence and misfortune, led to its amputation and a life long series of operations designed to convince his brain that the leg into which it continues to grow nerves is no longer there. The stump on which he walks with the help of an artificial leg is an open wound of raw nerves partially placated by constant doses of morphine. 30 years of morphine dependency naturally has taken it toll. All the more remarkable therefore is his determination to live life and, hence, my willingness to be his chauffeur whenever he comes this way.

Last year, we paid a fleeting visit to Mazury, or East Prussia, as he prefers to call it, in order to see the Elblag canal and to try to find some windmills. The windmills were illusive but the canal was easy enough. We planned to arrive on the day it was set reopen after a long period of closure due to the total restoration of the system of pumps, pulleys and waterways. As luck would have it, on our arrival we discovered that the opening had been delayed. This misfortune soon turned to our advantage. Arthur’s presence and irresistible enthusiasm, even if expressed in a language most of the local Poles found entertaining if incomprehensible, enabled us to have free rein over the whole system of locks, an opportunity few visitors would enjoy. Arthur determined to return when the canal was open which meant that I would have to take him.

For those of you who don’t know, the canal was built in the early part of the 19th century as part of the industrial infrastructure of East Prussia. Due to the lie of the land, there are inclines and descents which normal locks would be unable to cope with efficiently. In a brilliant resolution, boats are hauled out of the water and taken up or down hills on carriages powered by water driven engines and gravity. The huge energy required is entirely green. Sadly for the builders and investors, the arrival of the railway soon made the canal obsolete. Trains could carry people and goods to Gdansk in a fraction of the time. It could never make money. However, the canal remains a popular tourist attraction and a record of the incredible ingenuity of German engineers in the early years of the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

The restoration has been thorough. All the locks and the buildings associated with the canal have been painstakingly restored, largely thanks to EU funding but, nonetheless, a great credit to the Poles.

At the start of the canal a museum has been assembled in a building that once housed workers. It has photographs of the canal and shows how it was constructed. However, there is very little reference to the people who built it, how they lived and worked or, most importantly, who they were. The people who built this amazing structure were German and the surrounding population was largely German. I don’t think it is good for anyone when names are Polonised. Unfortunately, this is a recurring theme in Mazury. To some extent, this is inevitable when a population is removed and another given possession of historic lands. However, I feel that it is dangerous to build a national narrative on the achievements of others. The quasi-expropriation of Copernicus is a case in point. It seems to me that instead of celebrating diversity and the success of the present population in preserving the achievement of others, something subversive is happening.

The canal trip takes about four hours. It is a time for reflection as the boat passes through fields of crops and wild flowers many of which can no longer be found in other parts of the continent. The journey is punctuated by the locks, though no time is lost as the boat sails deftly into the cradles on which it rides up hill or down to the next stretch of water.

Arthur, who hardly sat for a moment, by the end of the journey had made contact with most of our fellow passengers and all of the crew, gleaning information from them and in return enlightening them, and anyone else in range, not only on the wonders of the canal but on almost any other subject under the sun which dared to raise its head.

A quote from “The Power Paradox” by Dacher Keltner.

“The Lord of the Flies begins with an election. The boys are to choose between Ralph, who is respectful, calm, and physically imposing, and Jack, who is obsessed with weaponry, meat, tribal markings, and killing the island’s pigs. The boys caste their first votes for Ralph and start forming a society with democratic dialogues, rules, schedules and duties. It is only a matter of time, though, before Jack grabs power. He converts the young boys to his cause with face painting. He rules his recruits through coercive bouts of bullying and telling them chilling tales of supernatural monsters hovering in the forests nearby. By the end of the book, Jack and his tribe are hunting down Ralph as their cannibalistic calls pierce the air.”  Does it remind you of anywhere?