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?

Some thought on the use of power in Poland

The contentious and confrontational form of government pursued by Mr.Kaczynski and his friends is as divisive and harmful to the fabric of Polish society as Brexit or the Chilcott Enquiry are to the British. The British have the saving grace that both Brexit and the Equiry were monumental exercises in democracy, even if the referendum was a catastrophic misjudgement, which it may well prove to have been. Such an exercise would be unthinkable in Poland for one reason: what is meant in Poland by the exercise of power.

I think it is worth reflecting on how Mr. Kaczynski seems to regard power. His use of it, not dissimilar from the way the Roman church exercises power in Poland or, indeed, the way many businesses are managed, is rooted in an arcane understanding of what power is and, thus, what it means to govern. His style seems to be more suited to the murderous conditions of a de Medici Florence than of a reasonably advanced democracy.

Clearly, he feels that he is working against the clock and that this justifies his use of coercive tactics in order to achieve his evangelical mission. However, leaders who resort to coercive force are invariably those who feel the most insecure in their hold on power. Of course, it is perfectly possible that he has no other concept of the use of power. Where would his example be found? However, this narrowness will, ultimately, lead to his downfall. Why so?

The way people in the developed world respond to power has dramatically altered. The strong man of Hollywood blockbusters is no longer valid. Society works best when it is bound together by a civil code of behaviour in which people feel empowered by the people in power. Empowerment and empathy are the real sources of power whether political, domestic or commercial. Mr. Kaczynski only has experience of the first.

A Glimpse of Sofia

Yesterday, whilst exploring the environs of Sofia, I found a rarely visited Russian nunnery which, despite the Party having built a now demolished club house by the gate to intimidate the nuns and disrupt the atmosphere, unlike most, narrowly survived eradication: a paradise  nestling hidden in a small streamed ravine on the fringes the city. The tiny, bright eyed, bearded, smok besmirched mother superior (they keep a cow and poultry) showed me around… she looked 80 but was probably 150 because she talked about the Revolution and the escape from Russia as if it were yesterday. There was much of the aristocrat about her.  She spoke in a beautiful unmannered English redolent of the governess.

The Patron of the nunnery is St.Seraphim, a Russian prince turned saint whose tomb is to be found in the crypt of the Russian church in the centre of Sofia where, earlier in the day, I had witnessed the baptism of a young woman who stood before the towering, bearded priest in solitary awe as her head, hands and feet were annointed. She was alone, unsupported by family or friends, though sure in the knowledge that the saint lay metres beneath her feet. If he is as good a friend to her as he has been to the nun, she will have cause to rejoice. For the nun told me a story. When she was a girl she had her identity card stolen by a pickpocket. Immediately, she went to church and prayed to her saint, St. Seraphim. She returned home fearful of telling her parents. The loss of a document during Communism was a serious matter. Two days later, her father, a judge, came to her room. He seemed extremely serious and she was afraid he knew something. He asked her if she had lost anything. Of course, she had, but before she had found the courage to answer he opened his hand revealing her identity card. “This is yours!” It had been lying on the pavement in front of the office where he worked. A coincidence? The nun attributed her good fortune to St. Seraphim.

The nunnery chapel is modest but there were huge votive candles on sale. I bought the longest and dedicated it to Shirley, a friend of mine who died in London last week. Her daughter in law in England was cheered to know that on a sunny hillside in a country Shirley possibly never even thought about, a light shone for her for a little while.