Ignite Warsaw 3

  What I should have been doing while I was in Cancun was to prepare the slides for a talk I was to give shortly after my return to Warsaw. It was part of Ignite Warsaw, the brain child of Ralph Talmont who had also introduced TEDx to Poland. I took part in the first TEDx and enjoyed something of a success mainly because most of the other speakers had little experience of talking engagingly to an audience. I was both engaging and, as the last speaker, welcomed with relief by the exhausted audience. A whole day of speeches, especially if some are not up to much, is a long day for anyone. The audience responded magnificently to my burst of enthusiasm and the fact that I attacked a few Polish untouchables. For TED I prepared a load of slides which in the event I forgot to use. I don’t really like slides. For the shorter five minute Ignite talk each of the fifteen speakers had to have 20 slides as part of the course. And they had to be set up in the computer well before hand.


With Dolores` incessant chatter, which needs total attention, my lazy procrastination (don’t I deserve at least one period of the year when Warsaw is out of sight and mind?)  and my weakness due to the suspected salmonella (well, get the blood test then but I know salmonella when I see it) I couldn’t bring myself to search the internet for suitable photographs. Emails from the organisers arrived at regular intervals. “Where are your photographs? We have to prepare the slides”.


I did not ignore these perfectly justifiable but intrusive demands, I simply made up stories of how I was travelling and the internet connections were  few and far between and unreliable at best. The intrepid explorer, back-packed and armed, mosquito ravaged, ever wary of the ill-intentioned lurking crocodile in the mangroves, the murderous drug runners or the no quarter banditos, alone in a lawless country, risking life and limb for a chance to marvel at the Maya and Aztec remains. Not a lot of fun. As I lay by the pool making use of the excellent Y fi connections, I imagined the impression I was giving in Warsaw.


Mexico is a dangerous place but Cancun beach is not Mexico. As for sight-seeing, despite Dolores` determination to get me to help her to write a Mayan Orpheus musical, I remain unmoved by the culture and the monuments. I simply cannot muster much enthusiasm for a civilisation that managed without the wheel or the arch and which was in so many ways barbarous and unattractive. I just like to flop when I get to Cancun especially with the tedious and tiring travel arrangements required to get me there and back.


There is no direct flight from Warsaw to Cancun. You have to change either in London or Frankfurt. The cheapest alternative is via Frankfurt. Frankfurt airport is horrible, nor does it have better lavatories than Heathrow. Both airports are excuses for shopping malls where, out of sheer boredom, the captive traveller is compelled to wander the alleys of commerce, nose rubbed in consumerism, until exhausted. Then, beaten by the unrelenting onslaught, he indulges in a wave of self gratification, spending money on goods which he has never dreamt of wanting or needing but justifies the indulgence by the conviction that no where else will they be cheaper. What else is there to do with a seven hour stop over?

Actually, as I discovered, quite a lot. The Thai massage parlour was quite a find.



Ignite Warsaw 2


Each year as I unwedge myself from my seat in the low cost cattle wagon that transports me at heights, distances and  speeds that I still find unnatural, knees sore, thighs aching from repeated cramp attacks, neck cricked, most of the benefit of three weeks in the sun obliterated in 11 hours of flight and nothing to look forward to but the resumption of winter, I promise myself that I will never subject myself to this indignity again.

I keep this promise until my account fills with dollars and an email comes asking whether I have bought my ticket. I am unable to say no.


Part of this year’s entertainment was to watch her having a brain scan. Cancun has all the equipment you’ll find in top New York clinics but at half the cost. Whilst I was watching the scan through the window (not the most exciting experience, I have to say, since the patient has to remain motionless for an hour while the scanner makes its ponderous progress along the prone body) the young technician,  who was supposed to be monitoring the scan, started to feel himself up through his thin polyester track suit trousers. I can quite understand the boredom he must feel but this was no private matter. He had a purpose. It was clearly intended for my entertainment. Getting the point, I got up from my seat and went to the hospital’s café where I joined Dolores` driver who was waiting for us. I ordered water.


Within minutes the technician came out to say that I was needed to look after Dolores` handbag. Please would I follow him?  The driver showed no surprise. He led me to a room where D`s huge bag was sitting forlorn, vulnerable and open on the chair. He closed the door and looked at me expectantly. I took the bag and fled. All I had done was smile at him.


At the end of her one hour ordeal, emerging with her hair let down and looking stunning, Dolores asked the young man how her brain looked. “To me it looks fine, but you should ring the doctor tomorrow”.  Given his attentiveness to the job I hoped he was not simply telling her what she wanted to hear.  Anyway, it was what she wanted to hear.  A load off her mind Dolores’s mood lightened immediately. “We need a treat. Lets go to Wal-Mart”.


Ignite Warsaw?

  I returned from Mexico with salmonella poisoning. Well, there was some debate about this. The Mexican doctor pronounced salmonella, charged $50 for an antibiotic injection in the but for which she made me lie on a rickety examination table made for the local Mayan community whose average height is 4 foot 8ish (I am six feet), prescribed another drug and charged a further $100 for the privilege. 


Dolores picked up the bill, as she always does except when we go to the cinema and I buy the tickets and pop corn with money she has put into my pocket, (shall we have a giant box? No, say I, thinking of the sugar and calories. “Aw, there’s nothing wrong with a little sugar” We compromise with the middle size).


When we got home Dolores pronounced the drug superseded but once the standard protection in case of an anthrax attack. This seemed to make it ok but left me worried.  Then she questioned the diagnosis.


“When I had salmonella my bones didn’t ache. What does that quack know? She wasn’t much good last year, was she?” referring to the flu symptoms everyone in the resort seemed to be suffering and which the stack of pills prescribed did nothing to alleviate, not that these doubts prevent Dolores visiting the doctor on almost a daily basis.


D`s remedy for most tropical illnesses is margaritas with  double doses of Don Julio, tons of fresh lemon juice and chunks of limes (Squeeze mine for me will you? I cant get lime on my skin. I`m allergic). For my present symptoms she added rice pudding fortified with all sorts of sugary liquids from squeezy bottles that seem de rigor in American kitchens. This she topped off with home made fudge, delicious chocolate fudge made from pink and white marshmallows which, apart from the calories, (Oh you and your calories), would have been a pleasure at any other time. Somehow, after a long night of violent puking during which I was sure something that shouldn’t come up was going to come up , I was more inclined to favour the doctor’s recommended diet, which included rice but without the additives. However, fearful of offending my benefactress and friend, whose personal experience of quackery on three continents must be second to none, I pecked.


Dolores, my glorious, ever generous hostess lures me away from Poland annually in January, the grimmest time of the year, with the promise of turquoise seas, cool golden sands and a benign sun.  These are the bonuses, because the real attractions are her ever perceptive, witty Levantine intelligence and her refusal to conform to the ever drearier and anonymous demands of international dress codes. Though no longer young, she still has the power to turn heads.  Unsurprisingly, the motivation is not always kindly. 

The resort that she has chosen to make her home for three months of the year is Cancun. Once fabled for its exclusivity and huge stretches of unspoilt beaches, (long swept away by vengeful hurricanes) it has now become a sort of Hilton on sea, a victim of developer’s greed, of excess capacity, an almost exclusively American upper working class ghetto. A place that excludes imagination. A cosmopolitan bird of paradise such as Dolores seems painfully out of place.  But, she is indifferent. She is perfectly able to isolated herself  from her human surroundings, from their jealous, judgemental stares,  and luxuriate in the pleasures nature provides, swathed in brightly coloured silks, three sets of sunglasses perched somewhere on her head, book in hand. “Feel like a margarita?” 


School Experiment 4

Fourteen years ago I met my Polish father for the first time. It was an emotional earthquake and my NHS doctor in London took the unusual step of offering to pay for me to see a psychiatrist. If this surprises you, in England the standard of public services depends very much upon where you live. Despite the talk of cuts even then, the mid-Kensington NHS practise was in a much better position than most others to afford specialist services.

I refused his offer, perhaps mistakenly with hindsight. My experience was by no means unique and the sum of human experience often resides in a priest or a doctor. I might well have found some benefit. However, fired with the euphoric thrill of discovery I settled for a few sleeping pills to get me through the initial shock and the disturbed sleep. Because, although a joyful experience, the answering of a profound question that had run the course of my life, meeting my father in my middle age was a deeply traumatic episode. It was not the questions of desertion, rejection, guilt, lost time. No. What troubled me most was coming to terms with what I saw when I looked in the mirror.  Under my own face I saw another, the face of my father. It was as if my face had been superimposed on his and his, perhaps, on his father’s. I suppose this ought to have been a comfort for someone as desperate as I was to know who my father was and to understand where I came from, but it was not. It shook my identity to its foundations.


If you grow up with both your parents you accept the way you look, and you take for granted the characteristics you have inherited from both. Growing up into maturity with only one parent and then being confronted with the other suddenly in mid life is a different matter. I found it very hard to cope with. For about a year I could not look at myself in a mirror. Even when shaving I averted my eyes from my reflection though, happily, with surprisingly little blood letting. It was as if I had to overcome my internal turmoil before I could consider the external truths. Now, when I look in the mirror I see my own face again. I have reclaimed what is mine. My father is back in his place.


Maybe because of this experience, maybe because I am half Polish, I find many physical similarities between the Poles and the British. Though I spent twelve years in Italy, Italians are clearly a different breed and I never developed any great physical affinity for them. The French, Spanish, Czech, Bulgarians, Russians, Danes, Swedes, even the Germans have their own characteristics for which I have no empathy. But, apart from the clay faced Slavs of whom there are quite a few, the rest of the Polish nation could pass for English. I would even include the often considerable number of fellow Warsaw tram passengers who show marked Semitic characteristics. I regard this as a compliment to both nations. It helps to explain how so many Poles were absorbed by British society after the war and how even I myself have never been thought to be anything but English, though I have more Polish blood in me than anything.  


I think there is also a shared humour, a shared awareness and enjoyment of the ironic: the absurdity of people, circumstances and life. Many young Poles adore “Fawlty Towers” and often cite it.  “The Office” and “Little Britain” are extremely popular. I wish they knew”The Goons” and Michael Bentine`s brilliant “It’s a Square World”. I think they would see parallels with their own masters of the absurd such as Slawomir Mrozek and Tadeusz Konwicki.

A regular diet of BBC Radio 4 humour might even be appreciated.  One evening a young Polish houseguest, a musician who was staying with me, tuned into BBC Radio 4`s “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”. He was in hoots of laughter, not because he understood very much but, as he said, because the audience and presenters were having such a good time together. He was absolutely right. Their laughter and enjoyment crossed frontiers.


 In many ways, though not all, I feel very close to Poles and with the young in particular. Language plays a great part in this. Most of the under 35 year olds I work with speak good if not excellent English, often despite having never been to an English speaking country. They have acquired their skills at school and through constant exposure to the tidal wave of Anglo-Saxon culture that has swept through Poland in the last ten years.  Since my Polish is rotten, partly because I rarely seem to need to use it, most of my communication is in English. Polish is a very deferential language. Meanings are easily obscured. Direct talk is difficult. Social distance is easy to maintain. English is much more direct and the subtle innuendos of deference and distance are difficult to detect and hard to master, today even for the native speaker. Also, when you speak in a foreign language your rules of behaviour subtly change.

Thus, I find it is very easy to communicate with young Poles who, perhaps with relief or perhaps through ignorance of the rules, can disregard barriers of age and status to say what they think. They treat me as an equal or, at least, seem to. 


To illustrate the problem of communication a Polish friend, a high financier, told me this story yesterday. He is building a house in Zoliborz. A problem has come up which requires discussion. The plumbers and carpenters and builders are each blaming the other. But, they do not do it face to face. The plumber rings my friend to complain about the builder. The builder rings to complain about the plumber. The carpenter rings to complain about everyone. My friend has to mediate by phone even though the complainants are all standing on the same site within ten feet of each other and could easily resolve the problem between themselves. Is this a uniquely Polish? my friend asked me. Why cant they simply talk through the problem together? Is it, he suggested, because the language will not allow direct speech?  A direct instruction from an equal is likely to be misinterpreted as rudeness.

All I could say was to repeat what a young Pole said to me when he returned from three years at Oxford. “Poles don’t discuss. They make statements”.  My friend agreed. Maybe English should be adopted by the building trades.


Back that morning in the gym at the Poniatowski School I explained to the kids what I wanted to do. I asked them if they agreed. They did. They were ready and willing. I took them through the exercises, many involving close physical contact and requiring a great degree of maturity. Everything ran remarkably smoothly and the 90 minutes flew by. “What have we learnt?”, I asked. A girl said,” Shared problems are more easily resolved”. A boy said, “Our imagination is our greatest tool and it needs to be exercised like a muscle or we lose it”. My heart gave a little leap for joy.

Egyptian Interlude: a lesson for Poland

The young and not only the young of Egypt have taken to the streets and overthrown a dictatorship which had failed to live up to its promises of reform and empowerment. It failed to address the problem of a high-aspiring, well-educated youth who faced only the prospect of unemployment. It failed to reform an intransigent, obstructive bureaucracy. It failed to curb the small, self serving oligarchy that surrounded the government honey pot. Remind you of anywhere? It should, if you know Poland.


Over the last week I have met an art gallery owner, a film director and a group of musicians. Their stories and laments are similar.


“I won’t get anyone to buy a picture from me unless the artist has been exhibited in one of the state controlled contemporary art galleries”, lamented the gallery owner. The state appointed gallery directors have their own group of artists whom they promote. No one else can get a look in. If the buying public knew more about art, this would not matter. But in a young society like this, buyers lack confidence. They look to the top for guidance. They look to their high priest for answers. The state sponsored high priests control the market and its fine by everyone at the top table.


Film making is in the same boat. A very small group of elderly distinguished directors, whose surnames are formed by the omega letters of the alphabet, are seen to control the reins of patronage. Without the endorsement of one of them you don’t have a chance of funding a film from the core state budget. State money then attracts other investors. Without the state money, no film.


Musicians. Well, there is almost no work outside the state institutions. The funding is controlled by the same people who have been running the state organisations for years. The ministry relies on advice from these state appointed high priests of music management. Projects sent to the ministry are assessed in the order of friends first and then the others (if there is any money left over). Otherwise the bin without being read.

People don’t care about classical music. Why should they? Most young musicians are giving up. They are desperate and no one is listening to them.


In the case of musicians Poland is in a privileged position compared to, say, Britain. The explosion of music academies after the war has meant that far too many post graduate students enter the market. Whilst there is a world dominating music industry in Britain, even that has its limits for absorbing young and aspiring musicians. However, the standard of training is, without doubt, considerably higher in Britain than in Poland, thanks to reactionary teaching methods in Poland. This means that British musicians find it far easier to adapt their skills to other ways of earning a living.

In Poland, the prospects for musicians are narrow and depressing. They will remain that way until the bosses wake up to the fact that they are public servants. They do not sit on their chairs by divine right. They do not have any right to dispense public funds without accountability to the public. However, they do have an obligation to educate and create employment. Given the relatively small number of musicians who graduate in Poland and, who after the mind cramping music schools still have an interest in music, this task should not be beyond the limits of their imagination.


Questions need to be asked and answers given. The Chopin and Beethoven Festivals employ a pitiful number of Polish musicians. Whilst the decent semi-independent Sinfonia Varsovia made a number of appearances in both festivals last season, the appointment of the French Marc Minkowski as chief conductor has raised eyebrows in international music circles. Furthermore, the ever present self-interested hand of the Pendereckis does nothing to build confidence. At this point in Poland’s development, shouldn’t international, money exporting festivals be set aside for infrastructural development?


The confirmation of Antoni Wit yet again as chief conductor of the National Philharmonic is as depressing for public and players as it was predictable. And the Opera continues to have no education programme of substance.


Time passes and the old men (and the odd woman) will die. But, as in the case of Egypt, if there are no heirs, if the opposition has been silenced, who will run the country?  Stefan Sutkowski`s heir at the Opera Kameralna is only half the man his master is. Hardly surprising. Appoint a better man and the old and still entrenched boss would be seen in a true light. Wit has been reappointed to keep others out. At the Opera, well, Waldemar Dabrowski is probably as good as you’ll get but even he has his limitations.


The problem is the public. Until the public is educated enough to understand what is happening, it will continue its bovine response to the mediocrity that this tired, unimaginative oligarchy dishes up. As it is, this conspiracy of dunces ensures that the public will not be educated for quite some time.  With no arts education in schools, with no outreach programme in any of the state institutions (uniquely so in Europe and America┬ůsee what the Royal Opera, London or Sofia National Opera manage to do for society) what chance has the public of understanding the value of the arts? What chance has the struggling gallery owner of selling a picture of an unrecognised artist, the un-friended filmmaker of making a film or the unemployed cello player of finding a job?

Isn’t it time for the people of Poland to look to Egypt for more than a cheap holiday in the sun? The writing is on the wall. The balance is waiting to be used.

A School Experiment 3

  The Poniatowski Lyceum is a squat post-War two storey rectangular building standing in the old Jewish Ghetto area of Warsaw. It is part of a large and imposing Communist housing estate of low rise blocks and generous open spaces which replaced the desolation and rubble the German and Russian wreckers combined to bequeath the city’s long suffering survivors of the war. If maintained it would make attractive and pleasant city-centre middle-class accommodation. As it is, shabbiness and dog shit give the district a rundown, defiled atmosphere.


Yet, everything about the layout is right for civilised and easy urban living. The amenities which include interdenominational churches, shops, cinemas, the metro, sex shops which have propagated with surprising vigour, a vegan restaurant and even the jewel of a chamber opera are all within a few minutes walk of every resident. Clearly, there was vision behind its planning. Clearly, there was a determined effort to make something good of this ravaged, blood soaked, hallowed ground. Yet, like so many places in Poland, the good intentions of the planners have been carelessly squandered.

There is an inescapable feeling of anonymity, that the inhabitants live their lives on the inside, privately, discreetly and meanly. Mean because with a little effort on their part, with a little civic spirit and generosity towards their neighbours, they could transform the outward aspects into something attractive, welcoming and shared, something that would uplift resident and passerby alike.


The school itself could do with a coat of paint and some vegetation to celebrate its place in the community. But once inside, the dismal exterior impression is replaced with a sense of awe. Firstly, the school is remarkably quiet. Secondly, the central hall is huge, imposing, airy and bright. This is entirely unexpected and inspiring.  There is something of the tardis about it. The central rectangular hall dominates the interior. An imposing double staircase leads to a four sided gallery. The classrooms are on the circumference of both floors. The hall is lit by rows of windows immediately under the roof. All that is missing from this extraordinary building is any sign or celebration of the pupils. No art work, no photographs!  No lists of achievements. Anonymity. The emptiness creates a slightly eerie and disquieting sensation as if all is not well.


Rather than subject the children to Victorian expressions of high church faith and dogma, however profound, I decided to use my 90 minutes for a course in team building. This involved theatre skills designed to break down physical and mental barriers between actors and singers preparing to work together. Without doubt this would be new to them, challenging, even shocking, but hopefully enjoyable and fun. I was greeted warmly by the teacher from the book launch, shown to the well worn gym, which fortunately was free and ideal for my purpose and prepared to meet my charges. Roughly on time, thirty adolescents trooped in.