Thoughts on Bulgarians

In Poland, as in most European countries, there are different ways to address people depending on how well you know them. The formal way is “Pan” for a man and “Pani” for a lady, which is actually an indirect form of address, while people you are more intimate with are addressed as ‘ty’. Getting this right is a fundamental part of etiquette and great importance is attached to the transition from the formal to informal address when you have got to know someone well enough to regard them as a friend. In Poland you seal this by drinking vodka together in a ceremony known as bruderszaft. In nearly a quarter of a century of visiting the country I have actually only done this once and that was not with a Pole.

Pani Jonka is a Bulgarian and long standing friend of my wife’s family who has lived in Krakow for nearly half a century. Until retirement a few years ago she taught German at the Jagiellonian University. It was one summer’s evening in her flat some fifteen years ago that she suggested to my wife and me that  we should move to ‘ty’ and we sealed this in the time honoured way. So Pani Jonka  became Jonka, as a result of which I can say that I can count a Bulgarian among my friends. This, I suspect, is more than most people at the Daily Mail can say, or indeed the assorted xenophobic Conservative Constituency Association chairmen. who wrote to the Prime Minister last week. Reading the recent scare stories I had some difficultly reconciling the depictions of hordes of scroungers and benefit tourists alleged to be heading our way with the cultured and thoughtful Bulgarian lady I know.  Jonka has worked all her life and includes among her former students people who have become prominent in public life. There can be no doubt that she has contributed much more to Poland than she has taken out.

I can say the same about the Bulgarians I know in Birmingham, a young married couple who run a cleaning and ironing business whose services we sometimes use. They are honest, enterprising and hard-working. As they have a young child they must be considered as one of the “hardworking families” that the Conservatives claim to be wanting to help.

The Bulgarians (and Rumanians, about whom I will write in a future post)  who do come, will benefit our country and I can only welcome them.


Why Mr. Gove Should Have Listened To Mr. Heath

I sat History O Level a long time ago, in 1978 to be precise. The syllabus was European and World History from 1870 to 1945 with ‘World’ pretty much tacked on as an afterthought. Our teacher was a Mr. Heath who drummed one thing into us from the outset of the course.

‘In an exam boys’ he said, ‘never ever attempt a question about the causes of the First World War.’

This was sound advice. The causes of the conflict are simply too complex for any 16 year old to discuss adequately in a 45 minute essay. They defy simplification and generalisation and  are best left alone by those without detailed knowledge.

The problem with journalists and politicians is that they often think they know more than they do and when you are both a former journalist and an Education Secretary the temptation to sound off must be irresistible. So Michael Gove has given us his thoughts on the First World War and given a presumably long retired Mr. Heath the satisfaction of knowing how right he was all those years ago. The insights of Mr. Gove do not, apparently, extend to understanding that Blackadder Goes Fourth was a comedy. Presumably he also thinks that Dad’s Army has been influential in shaping public perceptions of the Second World War.

Gove’s thesis is simple. It was the fault of the Germans who were hell bent on world domination and had to be stopped in the name of freedom. He seems to forget which country had actually been successful in subjugating large parts of the world. The German colonial empire did not, in fact, amount to much, essentially a few bits of Africa that nobody else wanted  and a couple of coastal towns in China, the main legacy of which is Tsing Tao beer, which is still brewed to a German recipe in a brewery founded by German settlers in the late nineteenth century. But I digress.

The point is that Britain was every bit as ruthless as the Germans in promoting its interests and freedom did not extend to more than a handful of the inhabitants of the Empire. Other countries too had their agendas and the slaughter began in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, the capital of a Bosnia-Hercegovina which had been an Austro-Hungarian protectorate since its detachment from the Ottoman Empire 1878  but which had been illegally annexed in 1908 inflaming Serbian feelings. It takes two to tango or, in this case, seven, and none of the participants had pure motives.  None of them, either, intended the actual consequences of the war. Gove’s comments are as ludicrous as the post-war demands for punitive reparations and have as little foundation in fact..

I know that listening to what Mr. Heath had to say is not something that comes easy to modern Conservatives but occasionally it is well worth doing.

East Coast Madness

The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin recently announced that a new franchise for the East Coast Main Line, (that’s the classic route of the Flying Scotsman from London to Edinburgh) would be  awarded from 2016. The bidding race for this prestigious franchise has begun. What the Government is looking for is a franchisee that will invest in services, provide ‘innovative timetabling’ (whatever that means) and pay a load of dosh back to the Treasury (which most franschises to date haven’t).

The current franchisee has operated the route for four years. It has increased the frequency of services, introduced direct services between Lincoln and London, runs between Harrogate and London seven days a week, it has invested significantly and it expects to return a billion pounds to the Treasury over the first five years of the franchise. With such a track record (no pun intended) of success you might think that the franchisee would be a strong favourite to be awarded the new franchise. You would be wrong because it is not being allowed to bid. The reason for this is that  the franchisee is the publicly owned Directly Operated Railways who stepped in in 2009 after the withdrawal of both GNER and National Express. Where the private sector failed they have succeeded and not for the first time. They ran South East Trains  successfully after the abysmal failures of Connex.  They are, therefore, an embarrassment to politicians trapped in the dogma that the private sector is always better than the public. And private sector operators hate them. Stagecoach have issued a rather intemperate statement saying that a competitive bidding process will generate much better returns than simply handing a franchise to a public sector operator. Maybe but that is no reason why a successful incumbent should not be allowed to bid and, besides, previous competitions did not realise great benefits for the public purse as wildly optimistic private sector bids led to operators pulling out of contractual obligations when they found they couldn’t afford them. These episodes raise a significant question about the whole concept of franchising and certainly about the folly of not allowing BR to remain in existence as a train operator at privatisation. .

Coming from Stagecoach, a specialist in monopolistic and anti-competitive practices  and whose owners have amassed huge wealth from milking the taxpayer, talk of free markets and competition is frankly a bit rich (again no pun intended). They are but one example of the parasite capitalism that I will return to in a future post. It is the almost theological belief in the private sector that has helped this situation to come about. As we can see with the East Coast franchise ideology continues to hold sway over boring old facts.

Buzzing in the Hive

The first thing good  sign was that, silly UEFA regulations not withstanding, they were serving beer in the bar at The Hive, the sports complex in Edgware where Barnet FC now play their home games, and where Arsenal Ladies were staging their home Champions League tie against Glasgow City as their landlords Borehamwood had a home FA Cup tie against Carlisle. It was busy inside and a fair number had come down from Glasgow. A group of them acknowledged me as I passed them in my amber and black scarf. I went over to talk, explaining that I was really a Turbine Potsdam supporter and had acquired the scarf in a swap after the tie in Glasgow two years ago. One lady looked at the scarf closely, then announced.

‘It was me you swapped with!’

She beamed and gave me a hug. In that moment, I suppose, I became an honorary Glaswegian, at least for the day. I confirmed my impression of two years ago, that the Glasgow City supporters are a very friendly bunch,

Just before one o’clock we walked round to take our places in the ground. The Hive is yet another identikit modern football ground, tidy and modern but really without character. Without much atmosphere either except for the noisy support of the Scottish contingent.

The game was, from a Glasgow respective, a disappointment.  A 4-1-4-1 formation never really worked, City failed to press and played too narrow which allowed Rachel Yankey and ex City player Emma Mitchell  the space to cause lots of problems down Arsenal’s left. They were in front after 12 minutes with a header following a short corner and although City had a couple of half chances in the first half the pattern of the game was set.  After 34 minutes Ellen White turned and shot narrowly wide. Two people thought this was a goal. One was an elderly chap who quickly stifled a cheer. The other, to general amusement, was the stadium announcer;.who. as Glasgow moved the ball upfield informed us that it was now 2-0 to the Gunners. The Scottish mirth didn’t last long as within a couple of minutes it was 2-0 as poor defending allowed Danielle Carter to score following a high ball into the box.

In the half time tea bar queue, which was long enough for people to have to stand on the muddy bank and watch passing Jubilee Line trains, City fans were fearing the worst.

‘It’ll be 6-0’ one announced confidently. No-one contradicted him.

In the end it was 3-0. Ellen White finally did get a goal and as Arsenal  continued to dominate it could have been worse. The goalkeeper made a couple of good saves, the crossbar was hit twice and there were a couple of timely interceptions as Arsenal’s pace and movement always looked like opening Glasgow up.

The consolation for Glasgow, I suppose, is that Arsenal could have killed the tie off but didn’t. City will need to play much better than this on Wednesday though. They were too negative today. In the second half Glasgow’s midfield was playing just in front of the back four most of the time, allowing Arsenal too much tine on the ball as they built from deep positions and preventing them getting support to a very isolated Jess Fishlock when they were able to clear. Petershill is a cold uninviting place when the wind blows, there will be a sell-out partisan crowd, so who knows?

Back in the bar I caught up with former Lincoln Ladies Supporters Club chairman Tom Johnstone. He will, he says, not be following the club to Nottingham where they are playing as Notts County Ladies from next season. He’s going back to his roots and Glasgow City are now his team. He tried hard to hide his annoyance as an elderly Arsenal fan came over to tell us how rubbish City were.

‘It was tactics’ said Tom  ‘part of our game plan’ .

‘How can you be in the Champions’ League? You’re rubbish!’ persisted the charmless Arsenal fan..

‘Because we’re Champions’ I suggested, ‘in 2013 as well.’

He glared at me and shuffled off.

It was back at Marylebone, in the wonderful wood-panelled bar, that I began to think about the issue of Scottish independence. I have never actually asked a Scot how they will vote in next year’s referendum. I missed an opportunity today. I wondered whether I would vote for independence if I lived in Scotland? There was a film about Boris Johnson on BBC2 in which several participants expressed the view that the prospect of Boris becoming Prime Minister had to be taken very seriously. When I heard this I knew that I would.

Remembering Tadeusz Mazowiecki

I first visited Poland in September 1989 in what were interesting times. The place was in many ways bleak, the shops were empty and many people appeared worn down by the daily battle to put food on the table in an economy of endemic shortages and a currency that was practically worthless. The first signs of change, and hope, had however already appeared. The previous month Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whose funeral was held in Warsaw yesterday, had been sworn in as the country’s first non-Communist Prime Minister since 1948.  This followed what seemed at the time a bold experiment. Following round table discussions between the Communists and the Solidarity opposition in the spring of 1989, it had been agreed that partially free elections to the Parliament or Sejm would be held. A third of the seats would be contested with two thirds reserved for the Polish United Workers’ party (PZPR). The elections were held on Sunday 4th June 1989 and resulted in a Solidarity landslide. Two months of delicate negotiations later, Mazowiecki formed his Solidarity government.

He seemed an unlikely politician, with the air of a professor unwillingly dragged from his study, uninterested in power for its own sake but taking on this difficult and challenging job out of a sense of duty to his country. It was his government that set in train the reforms that have let Poland to where it is now, a country that is far from perfect but which is a stable parliamentary democracy, one with institutions strong enough to survive the decimation of the Polish elite in the Smolensk disaster.

What Mazowiecki had to do quickly made him unpopular. He appointed Leszek Balcerowicz as Finance Minister and, on January 1st 1990, the free market shock therapy that was intended to bring the country back from the brink of bankruptcy began.  Later that year, as more and more people felts the effects of the shock therapy, Mazowiecki stood against Lech Wałęsa for President. This proved a humiliation for him as he came third in the First round, behind a Polish-Canadian businessman of dubious background called Stan Tyminski. This marked the end of Mazowiecki’s career in Polish domestic politics and it was others who carried the reforms on.

A quarter of a century on then, Poland has institutions whose functioning was barely affected by Smolensk. Smolensk is in many ways a measure of the success of the last twenty for years yet it has become a rallying point for people who ultimately reject all that has happened in Poland since 1989. A section of the nationalist and integrist right is convinced that what happened in 10th April 2010 was no accident, but murder by the Russians, probably in a conspiracy with the current liberal right of centre Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Their views are unsupported by evidence and seemingly impervious to reasoned argument. In fact the groups that propagate these views have all the essential characteristics of cults. Not for nothing have Polish commentators coined the term ‘religia Smoleńska’. Many of these people also argue that the Third Polish Republic formally inaugurated in 1990 needs to be replaced by a Fourth Republic. They suggest that what happened in 1989 was at best a messy and unsatisfactory compromise, at worst a sell-out to the Communist and a betrayal of national interests. They argue that, in the wake of Solidarity’s overwhelming victory in the 1989 election, maximalist demands should have been pursued and the Communists swept from power.

This view is both unrealistic and anachronistic. In the summer of 1989 no-one foresaw the dramatic events of the Autumn when, in the space of two months, Communist regimes fell from Sofia to East Berlin. No-one knew how the Soviet Union would react and everyone was aware that there were several thousand Soviet troops stationed in the country. There were significant dangers in the Solidarity negotiators overplaying their hand. What they did was come up with a formula ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’ which kept the Communist Wojciech Jaruzelski as head of state while deftly removing from him the levers of power. The reforms could begin and the Soviet Union was reassured. A difficult hand had been played with great skill.

With the exception of the nationalist fanatics whose electoral base is, one must hope, in long term  decline, Poland is actually quite a normal country these days. Large crowds came to say farewell to Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Perhaps they had finally learned to love a man who governed them out of a sense of duty and not through personal ambition, a man they could contrast with today’s politicians who many Poles see as venal and corrupt. Their low opinion of career politicians is something they share with people in many other countries and another sign of Poland’s normality. Maybe that too is part of Mazowiecki’s achievement.

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.

An Outpost of Progress

A favourite board game of mine as a teenager was Diplomacy. This was a sort of highbrow Monopoly. The board was a map of Belle Epoque Europe and each of the seven players represented one of the Powers vying for continental supremacy. You had armies and fleets to move around, a bit like a conventional board game, but Diplomacy was ultimately a game of psychology. You negotiated with fellow players, formed alliances, double crossed them. This was the heart of the game. The throw of the dice, the randomness of other games, was absent.

Of course, smaller countries, Belgium say, or Serbia, could be occupied at will, and, the people of Europe don’t feature at all. This was a game of high strategy of a kind that Metternich or Kissinger would have loved. It inspired one of my friends to make his own version, based on the 1815 Congress of Vienna. It inspired me to design a game based on the Scramble for Africa of 1884-85. Real Africans and their right not to have their countries occupied by Europeans played no part in my game. In that respect I suppose I was nearer the truth of colonialism than I realised. I have to say that the game was not a success and Waddingtons and Spears failed to call. Designing the board did, however, give me a deep knowledge of the geography of Africa.

One part of Africa came to fascinate me and this was its dark heart, the Congo. I knew by heart the names of the towns along that mighty river. There was, for example, Kisangani formerly Stanleyville at the great bend in the river where it turns East for the Atlantic, there was Lubumbashi in the South, at the heart of the copper producing region of Katanga.

In those days both country and river were officially called Zaire at the behest of the ruling kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko. Zaire was in the sports pages too, with its football team becoming, in 1974,  the first sub-Saharan African country to reach the World Cup finals, while, a few months later, Ali met Foreman in Kinshasa in a brutal fight for the world heavyweight boxing championship, the so-called Rumble in the Jungle. Mobutu was flavour of the month in the West, he was one of ours unlike the regime in Brazzaville just across the river from Kinshasa which was backed by the Soviet Union.

Then, in 1978, there was a further uprising in Katanga which culminated in the brutal murder of Europeans, copper mining company employees and their families, in Kolwezi. There was a harrowing picture of this massacre on the front of Paris Match, to which I subscribed at the time, and press coverage in the UK essentially amounted to the view that Africans were brutes who needed the white man to keep them in check. In this case the French intervened to keep Mobutu’s brutal kleptocracy in place.

It was Joseph Conrad who first suggested to me a different picture. At school one day we read a short story with the savagely ironic title of An Outpost of Progress. In this story, a forerunner of the rather better known Heart of Darkness, Conrad asks the question, who exactly are the savages, who are the civilised people?

This was the spur to dig deeper into the Congo’s troubled history, from which Europeans do not come out well. There is the appalling story of the Congo Free State, the private colony of King Leopold of the Belgians, which was, in effect, a giant labour camp, followed by the Belgian colonial period when active racism mixed with brutal indifference to the welfare of the Congolese. Following independence in 1960, for which the Belgians had done nothing to prepare the country, the Congo collapsed into civil war. Collapsed is possibly not quite the right word. The Belgians incited the Katangan secessionist rebels and were themselves responsible  for the bestial murder of Patrice Lumumba whose only crime was to want to run the country for the benefit of its people and not do as the former colonial masters told him. There followed a brutal and rapacious 32 years of rule by Mobutu which has left a country with a vast wealth of natural resources with one of the lowest average per capita incomes in Africa. Such are the fruits of progress as Conrad noted so presciently over a century ago. .

The British were there too. Somewhere deep in the jungle are the remains of the villa of a rubber merchant who tried to plant a piece of the Home Counties in the heart of Africa. The rain forest’s tentacles have now all but reclaimed this most curious monument to European hubris. The Congo was never a British colony in the formal sense but the British played a full part in the ransacking of the wealth of somebody else’s land. Reflections on matters like these should be as much as part of Mr. Gove’s National Curriculum as the jingoistic drum beating he likes so much. I doubt it ever will be. Maybe a new board game would help people to understand?