Category Archives: News

World War 1 – Battlefield Tour

I’ve just returned from something I have always wanted to do: a tour of WW1 battlefields and related heritage sites. My guide – an old friend who will soon qualify as an official battlefield guide.

The inscription you see above – Their Name Liveth For Evermore – is found in every large British and Commonwealth cemetery. The sheer number of cemeteries and graves you see as you pass through Flanders is at once incredible and depressing: most of the soldiers were very young – teens, twenties. This one is Tyne Cot, one of the largest, just outside Ypres.

Ypres in West Flanders (Belgium) sat at the top of the 450 mile Western Front – the line of German and allied trenches that faced each other (as little as 50 metres apart) from the Channel to Switzerland. Holding Ypres meant preventing Germany taking over the Channel ports, and better supplying itself as it cut off supply to the British army. Holding Ypres was everything.

In every cemetery a sword points downwards – the larger the sword (as here in Tyne Cot) the larger the number of soldiers commemorated there. Vast as Tyne Cot is, most of the soldiers are named on a large wall, rather than buried in graves of their own. Battlefield tourists milled around when we were there, huddled somewhat in the cold and damp. Most are Brits: Flanders (and the Somme, further south) are where the British and Comonwealth troops did much of their fighting in WW1. We encountered a coach party of British school children – many visit – including a very knowledgeable young boy who knew all about British flying ace and national hero Albert Ball, eventually shot down by the Red Baron’s squadron. It turned out the lad was a descendant of Albert Ball’s younger sister.

This sad looking soldier atop a column – bowed head – represents the large loss of life suffered by Canadian soldiers when the Germans affected the first ever gas attack. The impact of the chlorine gas was devastating – but it was a dangerous thing to unleash, subject to the vagaries of the wind. The Germans couldn’t capitalise, but for the remainder of the war the possibility of gas terrorised both sets of troops.

There is a major German cemetery in the vicinity. It looks very different to the allied ones – spare and particularly bleak, among the trees. The gravestones lie flat, and there is a mass grave. There are photographs of Hitler visiting this cemetery during WW2, entering through the same stone arch we did. He fought in this area during WW1, at the same time as Churchill did. A thought that has intrigued many is whether or not the two of them looked out at each other across a field.

Essex Farm – troops named the locales after places back home – was a field-station for wounded troops. The Canadian military surgeon John Macrae operated in hellish conditions out of the (eventually) strengthened bunkers you see here, situated alongside a canal that separated the two sides. There he wrote In Flanders Fields, later published in Punch, that became one of the most famous war poems, and instigated the poppy as a symbol of the war. It is the most haunting and moving of poems. Have a read:

There’s a 15 year old buried in the Essex Farm cemetery – unusual even for WW1, but by no means unique…

The ceremony at the Menin Gate, Ypres, is very moving. It’s been held every night since the monument opened in 1927 (apart from during WW2). The last post is played, and school children lay wreaths, followed by a minute’s silence.

This genuine WW1 Vickers machine gun has, apparently, been in the window of a shop just off the Menin Gate a long time. A sign hanging off it reads: Not for Sale.

You can see below what a beautiful central square the totally rebuilt Ypres possesses; the large building is the cloth-hall, with cathedral protruding from behind.  A plaque on the side of the cloth-hall say Polish troops were the first to liberate the town at the end of WW2.

St George’s church is a remarkable and lesser known site of commemoration. It was built after the war as a Protestant place of worship for Brits visiting to remember their kin who had fallen. Almost every inch of wall space is taken up by plaques on which schools, in particular, remembered their War dead.

The memorial you see below is to the brave New Zealanders who fought and took the Messine Ridge. In this remarkable action, the British took one year to tunnel and plant more than 20 massive mines under German gun emplacements on this ridge of vital strategic importance. When the bombs went off, it famously rattled the windows of No. 10 Downing Street. Ten thousand German troops were instantly incinerated. The ridge was taken – considered a great success in an otherwise static trench war of attrition.

The bomb craters exist to this day:

My ever inquisitive guide beckoned me to a ploughed field on the walk back up the hill from the New Zealand memorial. A quick scoop of the hand revealed what you see here: barbed wire, shell casing (endless examples of these) and what we think was a shell timing cap (determining when the shell exploded: in the air to scythe down troops, or on impact to shatter a target such as a bunker). This constant raking up of WW1 metal is known as the ‘iron harvest”.

In the field shown below took place the famous Xmas truce, when German and allied troops played football together. It was frowned upon by the hierarchy, and didn’t repeat. But a strange “live and let live” culture did prevail up and down the lines of trenches; put simply, if you don’t bomb us, we won’t bomb you. Again, this was enforced from the lower ranks up, and was a surprise to the hierarchy when they found out.

Also below is a rare reconstruction of a trench – in this case German trenches. These were much better constructed than the allied equivalent (as indeed, were German bunkers and German barbed wire). Walking along the trench begins to give you an idea of what life there might have been like – minus of course the bombing and shooting, the hunger, disease, rats…

A place to visit off the beaten track is the house run by The Reverend “tubby” Clayton, in Poperinge (near to Ypres), known as Toc H (signal terminology for the name of the building – Talbot House). He set up a place of refuge for off duty troops to unwind – read books, pray, and just have a cup of tea on a comfy armchair or in the garden. Rank was left at the door, meaning Generals could (and did) talk to Privates. Clayton was honoured for his efforts.

One man received even higher honours. Noel Chavasse received the highest bravery award – the Victoria Cross – for rescuing and treating wounded soldiers under heavy fire. He did so on two separate occasions, receiving the VC twice. He is one of only three men to achieve this in the entire War.

Do take a trip to Ypres, or the Somme. You don’t need to be an expert in WW1 – and as you can hopefully see, the experience is unique and rewarding, at the same time as it is dark and saddening.

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Filed under History, News, World War 1

Brexit: The Phoney War

If ever we were in the midst of a phoney war – it is now and that war is Brexit.

Mrs May and her ghouls claim the path of Brexit runs smoothly. They achieved a divorce settlement, and next will achieve a transition period followed by a spiffing trade deal. Then they’ll achieve further advantageous trade deals with international partners all around the world. In the meantime we will have “taken back control”, and won’t have to show obeisance to those nasty EU judges, or let in any more Jonny Foreigners.

Here’s an alternative narrative, as of now:
– the divorce settlement was an inevitable capitulation, a foreshadowing of what will come in the much more meaningful trade talks to follow
– sterling is weak – an assessment of how others view our economy
– UK GDP is down (having been high just before Brexit); Eurozone GDP is healthy and growing
– business is jittery and crying out for the certainty it always craves; meantime investment into the UK is dramatically down
– immigration is down, and we can’t fill vital posts in the NHS, catering, farming etc
– UK-based EU agencies are relocating to lucky bidders in the rest of the EU
– and there’s plenty more…

But we haven’t seen anything, yet. When the phoney war ends – which is imminent, a matter of only weeks/months – the self-delusional Tory establishment, still somehow holding this pitifully weak PM to ransom, will be woken from their stupor. We will discover that:
– the EU – tough negotiators – will not proffer us a bespoke trade deal: it will be accept the four freedoms, or crash out of the Union onto a rock hard WTO landing
– trade deals with those outside the EU will prove impossible during transition (btw, d’you think Trump cares about a deal with the UK, or anything beyond his own reflection?)
– the Irish border problem will prove intractable
– business will evacuate the UK
– sterling will fall even further
– UK politics will be in turmoil
– and there’ll be plenty more…

Brexiters will blame anyone or anything they can think of.

But the truth will be that Brexit was always folly of the most extraordinary, self-harming (and peculiarly British) kind – and the unpatriotic were the Brexiters themselves for taking such a risk with our country. Since when do you take a risk with something you cherish?

There is a chance the great British public will realise all this too late. In such case we will leave the EU – but will be back within 10 years, cap in hand – many of our privileges lost…

But let’s not wait for that. As AC Grayling says only today – as I’ve been saying even to Remainers who seem to have given up the fight – we can still stop Brexit! The real war is only just beginning, so the opportunity is now.

The referendum was a foolhardy exercising of an imperfect democratic instrument called under false pretences for all the wrong reasons – and needs reversing.

Those who can’t change their minds can’t change anything.

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Krakow Changes

There’s a Hard Rock Cafe right on Rynek, the main square in Krakow, which includes David Bowie memorabilia (a signed album cover). The late, great (and ever reinventing himself) superstar would have been proud of the changes that have come Krakow’s way.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago when I first visited the city, there was of course no such cafe on Rynek. Indeed there were many fewer cafes. And fewer bank machines. And fewer (decent) toilets. Fewer of everything. Life wasn’t the easiest for cosseted Western tourists.

Now, things are different. They used to say every other building in Krakow is a church. Now, I’d say it’s an eatery. The number of restaurants in the city is just incredible – many freshly, tastefully renovated – a modern flourish here, a retro look there.

The service in such places – and other facets of life – has improved almost beyond recognition. In Polska Dotty, I railed against the poor customer service I commonly encountered in restaurants, as well as shops, banks and elsewhere. Now, the approach is generally a friendly one. An example is in restaurants, where invariably our family needs to order dishes with a twist. Could we have carbonara without the Parmesan (for our youngest)? Pierogi without the onion (for our eldest)? I usually end the conversation with an apology, in my pidgin Polish, for the complexity. “That’s not a problem at all”, the waitress usually responds, with a winsome smile. Maybe they like my Polish.

Modern tourist information offices abound seemingly on every street corner, peopled by willing young folk with excellent English.

Bank machines line up like soldiers. Back in the day, if the one machine on Rynek was out of service (which it frequently was) and the banks were closed, you really were in a predicament to get to your money. Few establishments accepted cards.

Even more museums have taken root – Krakow was always in the lead in this regard in Poland – including the impressive and unique exploration of history under the market square, and the equally avant-garde Galicia Jewish Museum in the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, which studies the history of the Jews in Poland in a new way (see my blog “Jewish Krakow – Part II”, 31 August 2016).

And on and on. I see two types of change in Krakow. The new museums and arts festivals, the constant (and tasteful) renovation of the city – stunning new squares, modern statues – Krakow has been doing well for at least as long as I’ve been visiting. The Poles have this spirit and creativity within them. But the added comforts and conveniences – these seem to me to have been parachuted in, no doubt on the wing of commercialism.

That’s good and bad of course. Around the main squares in Rynek and Kazimierz, you can hardly pass by for being accosted by those wanting to whisk you on a prosaic golf buggy tour of the city. And the incorrigible stag party made its way to Krakow, though seems recently to have departed, in search of other victim cities.

For the most part, though, the combination of new and old is a winning one. As for the old, it’s good to see some things never change. Hawelka restaurant continues to offer lovely, reasonably priced food – classically presented. Chopin concerts are offered daily, in handsome old concert rooms. The three graces in Rynek – Mariacki church, the Sukiennice cloth-hall, and the town hall tower – all look resplendent this year, apparently newly-renovated.

And don’t forget our favourites, the Old Metropolitan Jazz Band, who can be heard many an evening playing gratis at Ratuszowa – the town hall cafe. Here only three days, we’ve already taken them in twice, including the inimitable banjo player whose instrument appears to play him, and the trombonist who stares balefully at the audience in between solos. We overheard an audience member joke they’ve been playing together for half a century. I’m not sure about that, but long may they continue. After all, change is constant…

Polska Dotty and Polska Dotty 2 are available on Amazon

Polska Dotty 2 e-book edition is available half price – this week only

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Filed under Cracow, Holiday, Krakow, News, Poland, Travel blog

Brexit Syndrome

So:

Inflation is up (and becoming concerningly high).

Consumer confidence and spending is down.

Most businesses are pessimistic about the future.

The pound remains very low.

The vultures are circling for our multi-billion pound Euro-clearing business – said to support 83,000 jobs. 83,000!

And on, and on.

If anyone had any doubt whether we were in a phoney war – we were, and the serious stuff starts now. An unmitigated Brexit disaster is on track.

How did we get here?

A man called Nigel Farage – intelligent, and vitally a very effective communicator – never underestimate the power of communication – led us here.

But as a schoolmaster of Farage once prognosticated – google it – he is a serious menace. And this menace is one of many who suffers from a disease known as Brexit Syndrome.

Those with Brexit Syndrome don’t understand the consequences of an increasingly globalised world – or even accept it.

They consider Britain still rules the world; doesn’t need its European brethren; can make its own way; will be welcomed with open arms by international partners.

They live in La La Land.

And for many of them, the Brexit disaster will be of no personal consequence.

The barrow-boy tabloid barons will be all right.

The Eton alumni will be all right.

David Cameron will be comfortable in his £25,000 chillax garden shed. Did you know you can sleep in it?

But the bulk of Brexiters – the engine-room – the disenfranchised of the midlands and north who voted in such large numbers to leave – I fear the consequences for many of them will be severe.

The penny is slowly dropping. There is talk now of a soft Brexit.

But we must not rest on our laurels!

Astonishingly – does this excuse for a PM ever learn? – Therese May has just appointed my hapless local MP Steve Baker as Minister for Zealotry in the Brexit Department.

He’s said already to have struck up a good relationship with those delightful people from the DUP. Takes one to know one.

We are at a pivotal point, and must capitalise.

Let there be a clamour for a second referendum (aim high), and if not, the softest of Brexits.

Let’s look back at May’s general election call and say that, whilst it was folly for her, it was serendipity of the highest order – and saved this country.

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Filed under Brexit, General Election, General Election 2017, News, Politics

Tory Folly, Deceit… and Defeat

Let us be in no doubt: the current rudderless state of the country – a declining economy, a nation divided in many ways, an impending Brexit disaster – are all down to the Tories.

It was the Tories who decided on an EU referendum, to see off UKIP and thereby maintain the integrity of the Tory party. And it’s no good saying the country wanted out of the EU: the country voted on false premises and arguments, and to give a good kicking to the establishment. As they’ve just done again. The country (other than hapless die-hard Little Englanders) will have second thoughts when Brexit follows its inevitable course toward unmitigated disaster.

And despite all this – and the effective vote of no confidence they’ve just been given – the Tories continue in (feigned) denial. Or, at least, the repellent Theresa May does (she now seems cut loose from her own party). The Tories won the most votes and seats. Only they can provide “certainty”, she says (she dare not say “strong and stable” any longer).

This deceit is pitiful, and I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with John McDonnell that the public is fed up with this approach, repeated day in day out by Theresa May flunkies like Michael Fallon. It’s an insult to the electorate (about whom it was clear during the campaign this wayward, wheat-destroying vicar’s daughter cares not a jot) to treat them like this, force feeding them meaningless mantras, and lies.

The people do wish for something new – repeated anti-establishment votes demonstrate this. And they will get it. For what we are seeing is the decline of the Tories. On the surface, they may look strong: yes, the most votes, the most seats. But only just! Cameron did ok in 2015, then the Tory Government lost the referendum vote, and now May has no majority at all.

It’s Europe that will do for the Tories (as it always does). May’s position on Brexit is now – simply – untenable. She is weakened in negotiations abroad and at home. The latter will see her off. The soft Brexit the people have now declared they want (by the way, supported in a regular poll taken ever since the Brexit vote which now shows more people want to remain than leave) will split her fissile party down the middle; an attempt to continue with hard Brexit will not make it though Parliament.

Out of this Tory carnage will arise a second general election – before you know it – and will arrive like a knight in shining armour the unlikely figure of Jeremy Corbyn (Labour won’t be able to ditch him now). We’ll have to see how that goes, of course. Maybe he’ll adapt his very left-wing but broadly sympathetic policies to a degree, and thereby broaden his appeal. After all, he may have to fight off a “British” Macron by then. But if nothing more occurs than that Tory patronage and arrogance are replaced by a more caring, meritocratic, and… human approach to government and politics more broadly – for that, alone, I will be grateful.

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Filed under GE2017, General Election 2017, News, Politics

Appearance in Za Kanalem

I’m really pleased to be the subject of the latest “Portraits” interview in Za Kanalem.

Za Kanalem – or “Across the Channel” – is a new Polish language magazine for Poles local to Slough and High Wycombe.

An exciting mix of articles – informative, educational, entertaining – has seen it grow in popularity. I hope and expect it to carve a niche in the competitive market for Polish language publications in the UK…

(Read Polska Dotty 2 for more on how Poles over here have brought out an impressive range of publications).

Thank you to interviewer Dominika Kuspit, and photographer Joanna Madziarska of PhotoHarmony – and all at Za Kanalem.

Powodzenia!

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Filed under High Wycombe, Immigration, News, Poles in UK, Polish culture, Slough

Have Yourself… A Polska Dotty Xmas

Polska Dotty 1 – the paperback – is proving a popular stocking-filler this year.

And for the next 7 days, you can purchase the kindle edition HALF PRICE on amazon countdown.

Here’s the link: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B005YAEHK0

Polska Dotty 1 explores Poland – and what it is to be Polish – in a series of themed chapters, underpinned by a hilarious storyline.

Don’t forget Polska Dotty 2, your unique guide to Poles in the UK, laced with the same great humour:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01ECH9WZA

Have yourself a very Merry “Polska Dotty” Xmas!

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Filed under Books, News, Poland, Poles in UK, Travel