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.


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.

Home Thoughts from Augustów

The most unlikely things can remind you of home and sometimes the reminder is strangely appropriate. We had been in Augustów in North East Poland, a land of lakes and forests. It is a small town with a small railway station situated in a forest a couple of miles outside the town. It was hot and humid. A handful of people waited for the afternoon train to Warsaw. It was quiet. Then the train appeared, you could see it coming when it was nearly a mile away coming down the straight section of track, almost like a mirage as it shimmered in the intense light of an August afternoon.

We clambered on, with the platforms at track level and the steep steps up it is a clamber and found a compartment on the half empty train. We had companions, a Dutch couple who, evidently relieved that they finally had people they could talk to, quickly engaged us in conversation. This was just as well for them as they had begun their journey in Lithuania not realising that the train had no restaurant car. We shared our sandwiches and water with them.

After a while the conversation die away and I started working on some of my poems.

“Could i have a look at your poem?” asked the Dutch gentleman who introduced himself as Henk.

“Sure” I said handing him a copy of a poem describing a visit to Köthen in Germany, a town where Johann Sebastian Bach spent six years and where he composed most of his secular music. He read with interest for some minutes saying nothing.

“I’ve been to Köthen” said Henk finally “ and, you know, you could turn this poem into a song. It reminds me of a singer songwriter.”

He furrowed his brow as he tried to remember the name. Then he said

‘Clifford T Ward.’

In that moment, as the train rattled through the countryside of North Eastern Poland, I was taken back to Bromsgrove where I grew up and to the summer of 1973. The big news in the town that summer was that an English teacher at North Bromsgrove High School was about to became a pop star. Clifford T Ward, originally from Stourport on Severn, appeared on Top of the Pops while still working as a teacher. His autograph was much soght after, even for those who, like me, were too young to go to the High School. If you didn’t you needed an elder sibling or a friend with one.

Actually I had already been reminded of him this year. A few weeks ago I spent a morning in Wolverhampton City Archives reading the Express and Star from the summer of 1973 whilst researching a feature. There I found an interview with Ward. After his appearance in Top of the Pops he had put in his notice at the school and said that he was turning his back on teaching without regret. The rigidity of the education system, he said, was stifling children’s creativity. I wondered what he would think these days of national curriculum, league tables, SATS and so on. To me the school system of 1973 suddenly appeared as a land of lost content. But still…….

Ward never became a big star but built up a loyal following. He was a shy man who did not enjoy live performance and this many argue held back his career. Sadly he died of MS in 2001, aged just 57. But he is remembered, and his music enjoyed, around the world, among others by a Dutch economist from near Groningen who talked about it with evident enjoyment on the train from Lithuania to Warsaw. Clifford would surely have smiled at the thought that his Home Thoughts from Abroad had inspired just that.

Here he is.

Clifford T Ward, son of North Worcestershire, RIP.