Today would have been my father’s 99th birthday.
It’s been a particularly momentous time for us both; it took ninety-eight-and-a-half years for his Scottish son to arrive in his home town, to visit the street where he was born, to look at the school and the church he went to, to stand at his parents’ graveside, to get a sense of what family means.
And for his Scottish son to finally get a measure of what he was like as a man.
Big year. Big, big year.
This is probably the most evocative photograph I have of myself and my father: the memories of that trip to London are still somehow pin sharp to me. So I thought I’d reproduce here a very short piece I contributed to a British Council anthology, “Identity Papers”, published in 2001 to celebrate the cultural diversity of “Britishness”. I hope you like it.
“If you see a German soldier…”
On my mantleshelf, a black-and-white photograph shows a jerkin-clad boy, squatting down, hands cupped, outstretched, feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I am beaming: I have never been so close to wildlife before. My little sister stands behind me spearing the ground with her umbrella – was it pink? – and stares at the camera like some stern-faced little goddess. My father is on his knees beside her, her hand in his. He shines at her, a fifty-year old man already, proud of something so tiny and perfect. Huge in the background looms a great black lion: we are obviously oblivious to it.
It was 1964. I remember the sweaty journey from Glasgow to Euston: the dusty fabric of the cramped first class carriage with its tiny ledge by the window; the old couple who sucked humbugs and tutted at noisy children; the joy of moving to second class where my mother found a huge table on which we could spread our crayons and colouring books. We visited my father in his lodgings, and my mother scolded him because all he’d organised to eat was Polish bread and liver sausage and cabanos (my sister and I thought it a feast), and I fell asleep watching Gregory Peck win a sea battle in a Hornblower movie and felt at the centre of his Empire because the next day we were going to see Buckingham Palace. And I never thought my father wasn’t part of that.
My childhood brought “Dad’s Army” and “Hogan’s Heroes”, or “Colditz” and “Manhunt”, in which resourceful heroes outwitted crop-haired villains who wore handsome black uniforms. I went to the cinema every Saturday with my friends and watched “The Longest Day”, “The Great Escape”, “The Battle of the Bulge”, and when we emerged from the gloom we were true British heroes, dancing and singing down the street:
“Holy Mary I am dying
Just one word before I go
If you see a German soldier
Shove a bayonet up his
Hoooo-lll-y Mary I am dying…”
My dad won the Iron Cross. I was fourteen when two suited detectives – perhaps Special Branch, how would I know? – came to the house to interview him and left smiling, shaking his hand. He spoke of his unit, pinned down by two Russian tanks, his comrades killed one by one each night they came marauding, and of how his flame-thrower stopped them. And he spoke of the frostbite and the wounds he received, and hinted at the terrible things he’d seen and done which made him whimper when he fell asleep in his fireside chair. I loved him for telling me.
Being British sloughed off me like snakeskin after that, and I knew why my dreams took place in sleety landscapes of sleek black cobbles and high tenements where there lurked an atmosphere of War having started or having ended, either being much the same. All the Churchillianisms I had grown up with signified nothing, made not one bit of difference.
We are what our fathers make us.
from “Identitiy Papers”, The British Council, 2001, isbn 086355489X
My cousins have been honest and considerate. I’ve heard a great deal about the war, about poverty, about hardship. It’s etched on some of their faces, which is probably why they are more inclined to smile; every opportunity, as it were. It’s not that simple, of course; Stefania, for one, is ambivalent about the fall of Communism. To her, people were looked after then, in a sufficient though minimalist way. Now, the disadvantaged and the poor and the elderly seem to be left to fend for themselves. As ever, the price of freedom is miserable inequality.
They are also honest about my father. He was a much more complex man than I realised. I suppose all fathers – and mothers – are.
There’s no mileage to be gained in going over old transgressions, not least because there are some still alive who have suffered because of them. And how he behaved would hardly merit a minor storyline in a soap opera nowadays (“PolskaSoap”?). Enough to say that he was as capable as any young man of being ruled by his heart and his hormones rather than his head. Been there myself. Too often. As a result, three families were directly affected, hurt.
In the normal scheme of things, it would all have blown over. It would have been handled, as ever, by the women. Perhaps the whole messy business between my father and his family might have resurrected itself only occasionally, merely as hot-tempered, drunken recriminations at weddings and funerals.
But the War wouldn’t have that. It picked people up and dumped them thousands of miles away, on the other side of national and ideological divides, lost them from sight only to regurgitate them to find their personal landscapes had changed beyond recognition. It separated families, and when those families were going through dysfunctional times anyway, the process of healing never had a chance.
In Wroclaw, there is an unremarkable, iron bridge that connects the cathedral island of Ostrów Tumski to the rest of the city. A tradition has developed recently of lovers coming to the bridge, their names painted or engraved on padlocks which are locked around the bridge’s structure. Then, I presume, they cast the key into the River Odra, and their love affair is permanently commemorated. Padlocks are locked to padlocks, thousands of them: enterprising show-offs have taken to climbing to a higher and higher proof. It’s a lovely thought. I imagine the bridge groaning under the excess weight, eventually giving in and tumbling into the water, the first ever demolished by Love not War.
In the middle of my trip, I get an e-mail from a recent ex-girlfriend. I’d had a nice enough time with an accomplished, pretty, charismatic young woman, the experience marred only by an inability to find time for those shared experiences that build real intimacy and, perhaps, a little thoughtlessness about feelings as we came to the mutual decision it wasn’t going anywhere. So, something positive, but something I need to put in the past if I’m going to get things done.
We’re all guilty of it. We sit in a life with a door open, waiting for that someone who might have been something to walk back through it. They never do, of course, and all that happens is we get a draught on the back of the neck. Or, worse yet, someone else sneaks in and burgles our hearts.
It was just an e-mail passing on some professional information, with a “hope you don’t mind” message because I’d said that I didn’t think it was appropriate to keep in touch. No problem. I thank her for the details, hope all is going well for her. But it feels as if someone has rattled the letterbox of that door I’ve locked up so carefully, and it’s difficult to resist scurrying up to the spy hole to see what’s going on on the other side.
My father closed a lot of doors back in Poland, apparently. Trouble was, as he got older, they had a tendency to fly open of their own accord. In the late 90s, as his mental incapacity began to take grip and glaucoma was robbing him of his eyesight, my partner and I had a family get together at our home. She stepped out to top up teas and cakes; in his wonky way, he followed her out. She told me he’d grabbed her amorously in the kitchen, said it was so good to see her again after all these years. And then he started telephoning, he’d be round soon he said, don’t tell Raymond. God knows who she reminded him of, or what he was reliving, or how he managed to conflate it with a current timeline that included me. Cardiovascular dementia is a bastard, it seems.
I went to see him about it, hating myself for feeling a twinge of righteous indignation. Upstairs, early evening, he was in bed, like a wee Buddha dressed in Paisley pattern pyjamas. Yes, he said, my partner did remind him of someone. No, he understood now, he said, as I patiently explained that he was confused, and it was okay to be confused, but he should talk it over with me if he felt like this again. As I went out, he called me back. “I’m sorry,” he said.
A few years later, that relationship was gone, sabotaged largely by my own head versus heart versus hormones conflict. Our beautiful house was sold, I was living alone. In the November after it had all been reduced to rubble, I visited my father in the nursing home. He lay on his side, nothing left but a pair of old bellows sucking in air and a pacemaker that kept his heart going. I held his hand, those frost-bitten knuckles like walnuts that scared me as a child now shrivelled and tiny. I spoke about nothing. After half an hour, I told him I had to go to the shops, get some stuff in for tea. I guess he died around the time I was in the pasta aisle. As I left the supermarket, I was aware of a fundamental change in the air, and wasn’t surprised by the phone call an hour later.
My ex-partner was probably the only woman who loved me strongly enough to have been any use to me on this trip; perhaps one other, if things had been different. But they are both out of my life now. So I’m proudly self-sufficient, a happily independent traveller. I gave up looking for “my other half” ages ago; I am no less 100% a person for being single, thank you very much, and have no need of someone to “complete me”, no matter how joyous it can be to be in a relationship.
But on my last night in Wroclaw, I stand in the Rynek in the perfect light; the colours of the façades soften in the warm air. It’s peaceful and beautiful, but thoughts are thundering through my head like the bedlam of a coal mine. This trip has given me so much to do – revision to my novel, short stories that are throwing themselves at me – and only this laptop and the whole world wide web to work it out with, and there’s a nagging feeling which is no longer quite all the way at the back of my head that is uncomfortably like loneliness.
I hope all those couples on the Tumski bridge are still together. If my dad and I are anything to go by, I doubt it, unfortunately.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Creative Scotland. This trip was funded in part by their 2010 bursary award in order to undertake research for my novel.
Most of my family have connections with mining, sometimes spanning many generations; as I mentioned, my cousin Stefan, the son of a miner, has seen his son and his grandson go down the pits too. It’s a closed shop, a tight-knit band of fellow workers who relied on each other for their lives. My immediate family worked more in the metals business – my grandfather was a blacksmith who found more remunerative work in the iron foundries and zinc smelting plants. The photograph on the left gives some impression of the mutual dependence workers felt; they look like a Wild West gang, the James brothers in Silesia.
I do the tourist version of course, at the Guido mine in Zabze, with Milsoz, Przemek and Boezanna. The boys have never been down a pit before, and they are excited by the prospect; me too. There are glimpses of the hell that it must have been, in particular full size models of the horses which were kept in total darkness and trussed up to be lowered blindfolded down 800 feet deep shafts; that’ll appear in a story, believe me, and, knowing me, it won’t have a happy ending. Funny that we often feel most for the dumb animals.
The guide – who speaks Silesian, a linguistic complication of the region I didn’t know about – gives demonstrations of some of the latest machines working in the lower seams. Even the air extractor is cacophonous. With the drills and scourers and chewers that look like monsters from a steam punk comic, and with the rattle of coal trucks relentlessly ferrying the black stuff around, and with the heat and dust and the exhaustion of exertion… how do you capture that with words on paper?
The workers were organised on a military basis, with well-defined ranks and promotion structures. Privates, the face workers, wore black feathers in their caps; red indicated those experienced enough to handle explosives, for example. Medals were awarded for bravery, for long service, for promotion. No wonder these men slipped so easily into the role of disciplined cannon fodder during the many wars that have been fought here.
My father worked away from home most of his life; he officially retired at 65, but worked on at whatever he could find, from highly skilled welder early on until, in his mid-seventies, he was a building yard minder. Anything, basically, that kept him in the company of working men. I think, now, I understand why.
My father was born in Lipiny, a typical Silesian industrial town. Eugen and Danuta take me there; sooty red brick tenements sit cheek-by-jowl with steel works and chemical plants, and over there, Eugen tells me, just at the top of the street, there was a pit head.
Now, it’s dying. The factories are closing one by one, the mines have gone and the area is riven by generational unemployment, alcohol dependency and abject poverty. They are ashamed to bring me here, says Iwona; they needn’t be, it’s a story that could have come straight from the east end of Glasgow, only with heroin as the drug of choice. No-one – least of all the EU which is building roads and rail tracks and infrastructure all over the area – has bothered to invest in this place and its people for so, so long.
Danuta is Lipiny born and bred; in fact, she was born in the same house as my father, the building itself now demolished but marked by that green tree you see on the left of the picture. I look down the empty space, into the remaining three sides of a rectangle that was the backyard where my father played, and where he tended the hens or pigs which were kept in little outhouses.
We wander for a while; she shows me number 91, where she lived in a one-room and kitchen with her family, then the two-room they went up in the world to. In those days, I can imagine a vibrant community of people in the street, including my uncle Alfons, who apparently went from door to door singing operatic arias for a few coins when the unemployment bit hard in the 1930s; he was so accomplished, the local radio station had him and Hubert on to do a show. The residents would have cared, would have had something to care about; now, everywhere is decay and stink. Yet, still, fresh-faced children play in the streets, just like my father would have done with his brothers. The German school he attended – built in 1906, it must have been state-of-the-art when he went there – is now used for some other mysterious commercial purpose, though, as is Danuta’s.
Not enough children to go round, it seems, not enough to make a difference. It reminds me of my time at Linwood High School, a community built to service and then torn apart by the closure of the local Rootes car plant. When it was built, the school held over 1200 kids; when I was there, the roll was under 500.
Churches, though, seem to do well enough in times of hardship. We visit the family Church, the one my father scrubbed up on Sundays for – and who knows how many other days Augustyna made him go. Perhaps he carried his good shoes there and back, so as not to wear them out, ready to pass them on to his next brother when he outgrew them.
And there was always another brother. Between 1905 and 1924, Augustyna had 13 pregnancies. Ten of them survived; Georg, Marta, Alfons, Helena, Reinhold (my father), Wilhelm, Elfryda, Viktor, Karol, Hubert. Almost constantly pregnant from the age of 16 to 35, she must have been exhausted. But she had a family to look after.
I lay a little posy on my grandparents’ grave (they were joined by Alfons in 1982) and Danuta and I light candles. Neither of us are religious, and I am not known for my sentimentality, but standing there is undeniably significant. Without all the religious guff, I really can’t say why, other than it’s a type of coming home.
I think one of the perhaps too rare moments in my life when I rose to the occasion was the eulogy for my brother-in-law, Donald Cringean, my sister Jennifer’s husband. A handsome, physical lad who had boxed and was a black belt in karate, he was cut down by Multiple Sclerosis in his twenties, and it fucked him up for the best part of the next twenty years until he died obscenely young. I was asked to say a few words at what was a humanist ceremony in all but name. I spoke very personally about him, about my trips with him, about fishing and pool playing and all sorts of nonsense. I like to think I did him proud.
Being Catholic, a priest was press-ganged into service for my father’s funeral years later. Dressed up like a Spanish galleon, he never knew my father, never even met him. ”I think he was a man who worked hard for his family,” he coos soothingly in his stereotypical Irish brogue and turns to my mother for a nod of agreement; suitably validated, he continues with platitudes that I don’t hear and certainly can’t remember. I could have said more; bloody hell, our cat could have.
I remember my father talking about his death only once, when he said, “just don’t burn me”. He changed his mind in the nursing home, apparently, and he was cremated. His ashes were scattered in the Garden of Remembrance at Paisley Crematorium, a place he had never been to, I imagine. My mother and others in the family still go there, lay some flowers on the spot where the jar was tipped empty.
I went once, one Christmas I think. I am shown the spot. A patch of dirt, and next to it another patch of dirt where the ashes of a young person must have been strewn, because plastic toys and other junk intrude on my father’s space. It means nothing to me, and not because I am an atheist and a rationalist who knows that when you die, nothing is left to watch from “up there”; it means nothing to me, I think, because it would have meant nothing to my father.
And I am here in Lipiny, where he was born, at his parents’ graveside. Of course it would have been just an empty gesture to bring a little bit of the dust that was him home, but it’s a gesture I would happily have made if I’d known ten years ago I would make this trip.
The cast list (so far!).
Danuta, my lovely cousin. She reminds me of my wee sister, Christine; similar hair, similar dimples. She has put her all into my visit, organised the trips here and there, the cousins round for tea, the meals and stories and jokes. She is a wonderful cook; a fantastic beetroot soup, a piquant goulash, stuffed peppers and beef, and cakes. Oh goodness, the cakes. I think I am in heaven when I taste her cherry cake (cherries from her own garden; she has green fingers), and then her walnut and apple cake (walnuts from her own garden…) takes me to an even higher plane. These would make her a wealthy woman in a Glasgow tea room. There’s just one problem. They tell me that Silesian food is unhealthy. I disagree – there’s absolutely nothing on the plate that has ever seen the inside of a factory – but it is certainly rich. Over the last few months, I’ve been working hard at the gym, feeling and looking better for it; I now think the process has gone into reverse, and I’ll have to redouble my efforts back home…
Eugeniusz, her husband, a gentle, cultured, cuddly bear. He is a man of action, building not only his own house but half the street too, multi-layered, ingenious buildings that are light and spacious. He’s a former climbing instructor, a mountaineer who, even in the Communist days, was such an ambassador for his country that he was granted visas to the highest places in Peru and Nepal. He has lived with death and danger, always accompanied by Danuta; he was once offered a considerable sum of money for her by a warlord. Wisely, he refused. Utterly generous, he gives me a print on rice paper he brought all the way back from Nepal decades ago; I will frame it, display it, treasure it.
Milosz, their son, is a handsome, gentle, wise young man who gets affectionate when he’s had a few. He is charming and interesting and, in his excitement at the thought of going down a coal mine for the first time, still a wee boy. He’s married to Iwona – the perfect princess Iwona – who is pert and pretty and completely charming too. Even as she teases me mercilessly (she can’t help repeating every dzien dobry or dobranoc I attempt, giggling because “it just sounds so strange”), she is infinitely patient in her translations for me. She has all the zizz of a lightning bolt. For most of my visit, she is my rock. They are both fantastic company. I invite them to Scotland; next weekend would not be too soon.
They have another son, Przemek, a passionate intellectual who lectures in IT at the local university. He is a born teacher, his gestures and tone and expressions filled with a zest for life that must have his students walking across hot coals to get to his lectures. His girlfriend, the elegant, shy and lovely Borzana, shares his love of climbing and dogs (they are experienced, expert trainers); I have a notion that I’ll take them to some sheep dog trials when they visit. When I tell Eugen that I think his sons are excellent young men, he almost bursts with pride of them, and grins and thumps his heart.
Stefania, Danuta’s mother, is a little bird of a woman, 84 years old with a razor-sharp memory. It is a huge honour to meet her as she is the last of my father’s generation, and knew all the characters in his complicated family. She is lovely, full of smiles and hugs when she accepts you; there is a deep strength in her, though. She was my uncle Hubert’s first wife, and brought up three children under difficult circumstances; she’s the type of woman you want on your side. She has a naughtiness about her, too; she laughs delightedly when we discover that the Polish word for “fart” sounds like “bonk”, and I explain what it means in English and why I think it is appropriately onomatopoeic.
My cousins Teresa, Irena, Ingrid and Stefan are all in the mix too. Teresa is a kind and jolly woman; she invites us to her house and presents us with a cake topped with fruit and jelly that looks as if it belongs in a jeweller’s shop window. Irena and Ingrid tell me about their families, and show me photographs of their weddings in which they look like film stars. Ingrid, especially, deserves thanks, since her side of the family is most closely linked to my father’s story; it must have been difficult for her to meet me. Teresa’s brother Stefan in a spry 76-year old who looks about 60. He traces his branch of the tree for me. A miner, with a miner for a son and a grandson, he gives me a little plaque made from coal that commemorates his service in the mine. It is a treasured possession, and I’m honoured once more.
I met Halina, Eugen’s sister, her husband Dariusz and their very cool son Artur in 2006 when I visited Siegen. Halina, an interior designer, shares her brother’s grin and wicked sense of humour, and she gives me a beautiful little landscape painted by a local artist; I have just the spot for it in my house. Daruisz is a mechanic; his yard is packed with lovely old Wartburgs that look like Volvo Amazons, and Polski Fiat rally cars that Jeremy Clarkson would scoff at but look fantastic. He shows me the pride of his collection, his father’s 1966 Mercedes 230 sedan, with less than 50,000 kilometres on the clock and in absolutely pristine original condition. It is gorgeous, an unusual cobalt blue decorated with acres of chrome. He lets me sit in it: I almost pee myself with boyish excitement, but I am too afraid of ruining the seats. The family shares that open-spirit and warmth that comes from having enquiring minds and a lust for travel; Dariusz has just worked on several cars taking part in an annual classic rally to raise money for charity in which his elder son is participating; he’s just been to Loch Ness on the tour.
When I go back to my hotel at night, my dreams are busy busy busy. I am surrounded by hundreds of people, and I have lots of things to do. I wake up tired by the effort of my unconscious mind filtering and sorting all the information I am swimming in. Not surprising, I suppose. But these are lovely people, with a lot to say to me, and I’m having a great deal of fun listening to them.
Wroclaw may be the one of the most beautiful European cities I’ve ever visited. Yes, Paris has more to see, Istanbul is more exotic, Venice is fascinating enough to have to exist in an alternate universe where people are born with gills. I’ll go back to any of them any time. But I really like this place. It is lovely and peaceful and architecturally amazing.
But it is all about facades. Big Baroque and Rococo facades. The buildings look so old, so distinguished, like aging gentlemen who take to wearing pastel shades of trouser, perhaps daring the occasional salmon pink blazer, perhaps adopting a penchant for collar length grey hair clipped beneath an expensive panama hat. All facades.
Sixty years go, little of this existed, bombed level as it was by Soviet artillery. It has been rebuilt, “sympathetically” restored, as if a plastic surgeon’s job is to make a face look exactly as old as it should be.
I’ve come here not in search of my father, but perhaps to catch a tiny glimpse of him. It’s impossible, of course. He would not recognise it at all, this vibrant, indolent city. Even the people have changed: Germans out, Poles in. It was somewhere different then, eighty years ago. It has been rebuilt with a different heart. Then, crowds perhaps gathered for political rallies, to hear the Nazi faithful, I imagine; now, the central square – as breathtaking as any I have seen – fills to watch a T-mobile festival of US cinema, the crowds watching Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (a Brit-film, of course), on a screen that Goebbels would have killed for. It is a heart of bars and restaurants – Greek! Spanish! Sushi! – and music clubs and impossibly pretty brunettes. What is it about head-turning Polish brunettes? Is it the broad cheekbones that suit those perfect blue eyes, those fantastic teeth?
My father would be too old for this city; I am too old for this city.
It is all so unfathomable too. I cannot get my Scottish tongue around the twisting words; “Hi” is pronounced “cheshch”, and I can’t for the life of me figure out how to pronounce a word that consists of 86% consonants. It’s a Countdown nightmare. So I smile apologetically and settle for an English “Hi” that is in turn stolen from the Yanks, so why shouldn’t they have our films? It elicits a long-suffering smile.
I’m sorry. I’d say sorry in Polish, if I could pronounce “pshe pra-shem”. But I can’t.
I have a trip planned to Poland to meet relatives I have never met, and I confess to being more than a little terrified. It will be wonderful, I know – my last visit to Siegen in 2006, when I met several of my cousins, was a totally unexpected emotional whirl fuelled by Chinese food and 90 proof vodka – but intimidating too. I have never had an extended family, never knew any uncles or aunts other than an occasional meeting with some of my mother’s relatives from London, never played with cousins, never had a generational narrative that gave me a context for who I am. Now, in my fifties, I’m going to be immersed in it, even if only for a little while.
My cousin Danuta, who has promised to look after me with traditional Silesian cooking, sent me photographs of my grandfather Christian and my grandmother Augustyna. I look at them and they seem so distant – as of course they are, separated from me by 150 years, two world wars and a whole continent. I don’t know what I see in their faces, other than the sternness of an existence that was unbelievably harder than the cosy feather bed I’ve known. They will be key characters in the early part of the novel I am writing, but I can’t connect, can only invent and manipulate and imagine them. I only know my grandfather was a worker, a strict man who nevertheless never beat his children, despite it being fashionable; of Augustyna, I know even less. I look at their faces and see almost nothing of me in them.
They are my blood, but I actually have no idea what that means. Even though I have four siblings, we’ve never been particularly close, largely because of age differences; my father always worked away from home, and my mother had a full-time job keeping house on her own for we five. I suppose we were a pretty atomised and rootless group of individuals, so I was always unable to relate to the big families my friends had, their running jokes and feuds and sentimentalities. I have no idea if I envied them – I don’t think I was emotionally aware enough at the time – but I certainly do now. Removed from all that, I might as well have spent my childhood years locked in a sensory deprivation tank.
I am so looking forward to making some sort of connection with what I never had, but I can’t help wondering if I’ll find I’m emotionally ill-equipped for it all. Of course, it’ll be lovely; I’ll hear so much about them, and they will give me so much. I hope I’ll be able to give something back in return.
I’ll take a deep breath, put on my kilt, I think, and just join in the party.
Sad news from my cousin, Eugen, that my uncle and my father’s last remaining brother died on Sunday.
I met Hubert a few times, most memorably in 2006 when I visited him in Siegen. What was so obvious about him was his generosity. His table was laden with goodies to eat and drink, and he piled gifts on me that he wouldn’t let me refuse: I came back with a video camera for the family, and my friend Marisa, who came with me to act as interpreter, left with a DVD player under her arm. That was what he was like, said Eugen, there’s no point saying no.
He was also a bit of a rogue. We spoke to him about his early life, and he told fascinating stories of the bizarre shortages that hit the Polish economy during the periods of hyperinflation in the 1920s. He risked being thrown in prison or worse just to smuggle cutlery across the border, his pockets lined with rags to prevent the knives and forks jingling together. He spoke about my grandfather, and, just like my dad, could find little to say about him that didn’t centre around his work ethic, his ability to provide for his family. As for the war, he was as reluctant as any old solider to talk about the worst of it, but he gave us enough sense of the cold that froze men to their rifles and the battles in which brother found himself shooting at brother.
There were uncomfortable moments too; talking about horrifying times is so difficult for those who witnessed them – took part in them – first hand. Of course, he had some views about politics and race that belonged to another, less forgiving age; but he was a survivor and a provider, and I suspect that was good enough for him. And I learned more from him about my father than anyone in my family has ever told me.
I hope to visit my remaining cousins in Poland soon. Hubert’s death will be a huge loss to Eugen and Christine – two lovely cousins I met wholly unexpectedly for the first time on that 2006 visit – as well as their sister, Danuta, who lives in Katowice.
For me, it’s another part of my father slipping into oblivion.
Very Nice too. Some pals and I go away for a long weekend every year around this time. Last year was Venice (possibly my favourite ever city), the year before Aix-en-Provence (utterly magical). Nice is a different kettle of fish; built up, it’s a place where the eddies of wealth and power and consumption all come together; it’s obviously a place where the rich come to recycle their wealth through the casinos, marinas and yacht merchants, fabulously expensive designer stores, eye-wateringly plush hotels and fancy restaurants. As such, it’s not really my kind of place, but time with my friends is always welcome.
And it’s a great place for dotting about. Lunch over the border in Italy at Ventimiglia was lovely, though the town is awash with North African migrant workers fleeing the troubles in Libya; at the station, Red Cross workers handed out food parcels to dozens of desperate young men while their numbers were matched by threatening looking police. A long walk along the coast to Villfranche was great too. Trips to Monaco (lots of high-rise hotels and big fuck-off yachts) and Cannes (setting up tat for the film festival amongst the genteel hotels) kept us busy too.
The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice is well worth a visit. I’m a bit ambivalent about modern art, largely because I think the language used to discuss it is deliberately designed to exclude ordinary people, and to create an artistic class that is self-referential in the extreme: a recent visit to the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh had me spitting feathers at the utter pretentiousness of much of the rubbish there.
However, as with all art, there is stuff that has the capacity to move deeply, and the Nice museum – a striking modern building that closes in on itself while at the same time looking out across the panorama of the city – contains some terrific work. I particularly liked Assan Smati in the temporary collections: his big pink centaur was stunning. I also like Sara Sze’s installations, one (“The Uncountables”) a dazzling collection of tiny bric a brac that invites you to mull and browse and speculate.
The permanent collection is great too. Best of all for me was Yves Klein’s “Portrait Relief de Claude Pascal, Arman et Martial Raysse“. A photo doesn’t do the depth of blue and the gorgeous topography of the sculpture justice. It really is a wonderful piece of art. So too is Niki de St Phalle’s “La mariée sous l’arbre”, a sculpture of tiny things, again drawing the audience in to little secret places where little secret things lurk.
Nice has its charms too, including a lovely Russian Orthodox Cathedral. And if you do go and need a place to eat, Pelican’s Station in Rue de la Prefecture is great; classic French food, reasonable prices and a very charming host, Laurent, who is obviously hugely proud of his restaurant.
Two of my favourite videos on the web at the moment – and both from pals!
First of all, this is a short animation by my friend Cinders McLeod, the brilliant Canadian activist and cartoonist behind “Broomie Law”. Cinders works for the Globe and Mail in Toronto, and this is one in her series of child-friendly introductions to economics. It’s charming, and is beautifully voiced by Cinders and her daughter Anya.
The second clip isn’t actually a talented, beautiful friend: it’s actually the talented, handsome son of a talented, beautiful friend! This is Theo, the son of Clara Glynn, the film maker who directed “The Practicality of Magnolia”. Here he is with Brian Cox, who also starred in the film. Isn’t Theo just fantastic!
Just lovely clips!