The other night I found myself at an embassy residence being greeted by the ambassador. I had not met him before though I knew his predecessor well, a man of some culture. I was a little taken aback. The new man is unremarkable, almost forgettable save for one thing. His tie. Attached to his collar was a huge, grey, ready made bow, more resembling a propeller blade than a tie. It augured ill for the evening, a music and art event which I shall not attempt to describe now, save to say that afterwards we were served sandwiches made of the thickest type of French bread with an indeterminate filling. Plate loads of this awkward and indigestible stuff remained half-eaten or untouched at the end.
As I watched the untouched mounds of bread being returned to the kitchen, no doubt to be recycled for a future cultural event, I could not help recalling the words of a distinguished British journalist I know quite well and with whom I discussed the subject quite recently in London. He explained that the problem with diplomacy today is that the people who have risen to ambassador level were recruited in the 1970s and 80s, when the best and brightest graduates were more attracted to the glitter of the media or the certain wealth on offer in the City. Public service offered few prizes. As a result, the people who are now ambassadors do not match up to the calibre even of those of ten years ago.
When I first came to Warsaw, the British ambassador was an organ scholar and rode his daughter`s bicycle to church. He would not have been seen dead in a ready made bow tie. And why not? Because gentlemen tie their own ties. Therein lies the difference.
I went to Sokolov`s recital at the National Philharmonic on Saturday. Sold out, and rightly so. The first half of the programme was Rameau and Mozart which I could have done without. I can`t listen to early music on the piano. Neither do I find a romantic approach to Mozart particularly fulfilling. However, the second half, devoted to Brahms, was probably the most monumental performance of anything I have heard in my time in Poland. Applause seemed a futile response to such magisterial playing. Oh, that we could have left in silence.
Talking of silence, would that we could have had more of it from the audience during the concert. Loud coughing seems to have become a competitive activity. In London, concertgoers are instructed to cover their mouths when coughing. The decibel level can be reduced hugely. Not in Warsaw. Perhaps Mr. Wit enjoys the distraction when he is on the podium? Actually, Poles rarely cover their mouths when coughing where ever they are, which is probably why I developed a cold yesterday morning.
Andrzej Sulek, dismissed director of the Chopin Institute, showed up for Sokolov. We were sitting a row apart. Standing together at the end of the rows, we found ourselves shaking hands almost without realising it. Yes, there should be a public enquiry into his dismissal and the misuse of the one-off bonanza of state funds that hit classical music during the “Chopin Year”, something I have called for and which Minister Smolen doesn`t seem to know what to do about. (She is in-charge of music at the Ministry of Culture). Two years on I dont suppose anything will happen about the half started projects, the scandal of NIFC management or anything else that requires public servants to stand up and be accountable.
Sulek didn`t seem very pleased to be shaking hands with me. I shouldn`t have been very pleased to be shaking hands with him either, and for better reason. But, I am a generous soul and can appreciate how the sysytem can ruin the good intentions of even the best intentioned, least self-serving.
Can this be true? It is?
But from whom do students learn such terrible behaviour? From their elders? Inherent in the system? Surely not?
You know from personal experience?
Stop! I don`t want to know…
So, in the year that the great and good of Warsaw are puffing themselves up over their latest achievement, a football stadium built to please the masses (and develop tourism:), they are also presiding over the gradual demise of one of the oldest arts institutions in the country, I refer to the Warsaw Chamber Opera. If you don`t know, hear it from me, there will be no Mozart Festival this year! Years ago I was sitting on a BA flight to London. Next to me was the sort of Englishman you`d be glad to run into anywhere, especially on a plane in the seat next to you. A gent. A delight. He was bubbling with joy. He was returning to London after a spell at the Mozart Festival. “My wife and I never miss it. What an achievement that little theatre is. A hidden jewel”. Yes, its true, it is hidden and hugely undervalued. The reasons need to be debated but the fact that there will not be a Mozart Festival and there is a Beethoven Festival really makes you want to put your head in a gas oven and take a few of the idiots who make decisions about public money with you. Thankfully for him, the Englishman died a couple of years ago of natural causes otherwise yet one more insane act of the people in power might have caused a death, not through the dark arts they no doubt meddle in, but genuinely and touchingly, through a broken heart.
So, last week I had a series of presentations with private and state university students in Poland. The general topics were presentation skills and communication. Again I was struck by the passivity of the students. Ask a question, no reply. Ask for volunteers for demonstrations and nothing. Nobody stirs.
The problem is this. Poland has a 19th century education system. Possibly the people at the top know it is not fitted for the 21st century, possibly the few intelligent people who have opted out of higher education know it’s a dinosaur. However, the poor students in the middle are too brainwashed, intimidated or dumb to realise that they are simply wasting their time or, rather, being allowed to throw away the golden opportunities of youth by impotent and self-interested political and educational systems.
Let’s not even begin to think about all the fraudulent MBAs on offer that simply examine the outworn mass market multinational model and cant see then end is nigh both for the model and their high incomes!
Sure, we live in a time of dramatic transitions but if a student in a top university can’t even be motivated to answer a question what is the future? Pretty grim, in my book.
Last Saturday week I had the honour of addressing the Polish Business Club at the London School of Economics. This is a group of young Poles who are engaged in higher education in Britain, mainly at Oxbridge or the LSE itself.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what I was going to talk about. I struggled to find the WIIFM…the WIFFM? Yes, the motivation to listen that every speaker must give to his or her audience. What could I possibly tell these young people about business in Poland that they did not already know?
I thought I had hit on a solution until I began my talk. Only then did I realise that whatever they had gained from a British aspect to their education it was not enough to change a fundamental problem, a problem to which I had to open their eyes however painful. When I asked a question no one answered.