A Tragic Anniversary

It was on this day in 1987 that Poland’s worst ever air disaster occurred. Shortly after take off from Warsaw for New York one of the engines of the Ilyushin IL62 caught fire which led to a further fire in the hold. The pilot attempted to return to Warsaw to make an emergency landing but lost control and the plane crashed into the Kabaty Forest on the outskirts of Warsaw with the loss of all 183 passengers and crew. Some of the pictures taken at the scene were shown again on :Polish television today and they are deeply upsetting.

I had the chance to visit the site of the crash a few years ago. A cousin of my wife lives in a new housing development half an hour’s walk from the Forest which has always been a popular place for Warsaw people to go walking and cycling at weekends. In a clearing there is a large cross and a stone with the names of all the victims. Twenty years on the height of the trees still marked the path the plane took as it dropped shaving the tops off as it came down. It was a quiet and peaceful place, and the violence of the landing, the terror of the doomed passengers seemed oddly distant. I wrote this:


When they humped their cases onto the belt,

weighed up the duty free,

they did not know how a fuselage could burn

and cables melt like the wings of Icarus.


They could not imagine plunging to Earth

through seas of sunlight, the fierce speed of the forest

rising up to meet them,


the gentle fall of rain on leaves,

which, once spread out to catch them,

now lift them up in shafts of stolen light.

Kabaty Forest is on the outskirts of Warsaw. Flight LOT5055fell to Earth there on 9th May 1987with the loss of all 183 passengers and crew.


Language At The Edge of Wales

There are many European languages classified as in danger. Some, like Lower Sorbian, have dropped below the number of 50,000 speakers at which UNESCO regards them as effectively dead. The Celtic languages present a mixed picture. Manx and Cornish are effectively dead despite the efforts of revivalists while both Gaelic and Irish are endangered, the latter despite 90 years of official promotion by the Government of the Irish Free State and later the Irish Republic. Irish language policy after partition was based on the assumption that the language would inevitably flourish with the revival of national consciousness following independence. It failed, therefore, to provide economic support for the Gaeltacht regions where the language was spoken and thus to prevent economic emigration from those areas. In consequence Irish is now only spoken by about 60,000 people in scattered pockets around the west coast.

The position of Welsh seems much healthier, not least because there are large contiguous Welsh speaking areas. With Welsh now enjoying near official status anyone living in those areas can, if they choose, live their life almost entirely in Welsh. One of these regions is the Llyn Peninsula in North West Wales where I have been a regular visitor in recent years after first going there with my parents at the age of 7. Back then Welsh speakers were disadvantaged in a number of ways. Official business could only be conducted in English and decades of inadequate schooling had left many native speakers lacking the vocabulary to talk about much other than day to day and domestic matters. Consequently Welsh, in 1969, was largely a language of the home, one viewed by many (including some Welsh speakers) as a quaint relic of a bygone age.

Things were about to change and even as a seven year old I noticed the beginnings of militant Welsh language activism. Road signs, for example, were altered to remove Anglicised versions of place names, and official notices in English were defaced. From these small beginnings the campaign gathered pace and was to achieve notable successes, such as the decision of the Government in 1982 to accede to Welsh demands for a Welsh language TV channel (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) and bilingualism in signage and public services. Many people are opting to learn Welsh as adults ( including English incomers) and ,on the surface the picture looks rosy.

Yet in the heartlands the outlook is a little more ambiguous. We have just returned from a break in Aberdaron. In this part of the Llyn retirees and second home owners have helped to push house prices up to levels way beyond the reach of young locals. Employment here is either in agricultural and not well paid or in hotel and catering which is both poorly paid and seasonal. With many houses now costing well over £200,000 the economic foundations of this community and its ability to reproduce itself are now being undermined in ways which must have long term consequences for the language.

As always we drove two miles along the coast from Aberdaron to Braich y Pwll, the windswept head land that is the very end of Wales, with its view over Bardsey Island. This is a magical place, particularly on a summer’s day when the sea glitters in the sun. When we drove up there a few years ago language activists had chalked on the road


HOUSES WORK LANGUAGE which is a succinct summary of my argument. Welsh has a good claim to be the oldest living European language but there are reasons to be concerned about its future.

Despite this one summer visit inspired this poem ( which was first published in Dreamcatcher in 2007).


 The air is stitched with gorse.

High on its incense I rise above

the grassy headland to watch

the sea exporting stars,


watch Bardsey ride the waves

below, buoyant as the seals on

its flanks, the seals who bask on

the razor rocks but do not bleed,


as the soft hump of the island

seeps the waters that give life to

the abbey, farms and cottages,

the ground where mossy headstones


imply the histories buried below,

pilgrims, farmers  ten thousand saints

whom the heavens will honour for

as long as seals can hymn the moon.

The Demon

It’s Ashes summer again and another opportunity for the Barmy Army to wind up Mitchell Johnson who is the latest in a long line of Australian fast bowlers who have become pantomime villains. In years past the likes of Merv Hughes and Dennis Lillee have fulfilled this role. The original villain was Frederick Robert (F.R.) Spofforth (1853-1926) who played in the very early Tests. In fact it was Spofforth who bowled Australia to victory at The Oval in 1882 a result that prompted the mock obituary in The Times and burning of a bail that gave rise to the Ashes. This was actually a publicity stunt for the campaign to legalise cremation  (evidently a successful one as cremation was finally permitted from 1883) but ever since England and Australia have competed for the Ashes. Chasing 85 to win, admittedly on one of the dodgy pitches that were common at the time, England had reached 53 for 2 when Spofforth was handed the ball. He allegedly said to his captain ‘We can do this thing’ and promptly did. England were bowled out for 77 and lost by 7 runs, prompting the national wailing and breast beating that has been part of most English summers since.

Spofforth bowled fast off cutters, which was a popular way of bowling at the time but was particularly adept at mind games, fixing each incoming batsman with an intimidating glare.  He was a fiery character generally. In that 1882 Test there was bad blood between the teams, largely the result of the gamesmanship of W G Grace. At one point Spofforth burst into the England dressing room and squared up to WG.

Spofforth later settled in Surrey and became a wealthy and successful businessman, importing tea. He is buried in Thames Ditton.


The demon.
Neither magician
nor Mephisto, though you fancy
he could have played
both with his parted hair,
waxed moustache, malevolent glare.

With that fierce gaze he
withered the batsman’s will
and when the cutting, quick ball
had done its work, wrote the epitaph
“bowled Spofforth”

You can see it still, a sepia plate
in a musty book, that chilling stare
which, even from beyond the grave,
always makes children behave.

Copyright Peter Bateman 2006