Sites of interest – a desk-based view

This week’s archaeology lecture was led by Tom Dawson and Jo Hambly, of the SCAPE Trust who introduced their work on coastal sites of interest around Scotland other than on the western isles, including on Shetland, Orkney, St. Andrews, Wemyss Caves, on the Fife coal coast, and Eyemouth; and also their app identifying sites of interest around Scotland. SCAPE – standing for Scottish Coastal Erosion and the Problem of Erosion although, like a lot of organisations, the acronym probably means more in terms of branding than the words which make it up – is based at St. Andrews and works with Historic Environment Scotland on issues arising from Scotland’s coastal heritage. As a result it takes a keen interest in issues connected with erosion, rising sea levels and climate change; and many of these projects can be picked up via the SCAPE website.

All of which of course means it has a lot to discuss when it comes to the western isles, not least around Baile Sear, where we are doing some fieldwork, and when it comes to the issue of the sinking of the land. While mainland Scotland is rebounding following the compression of the land during Ice Age, when Scotland was covered by glaciers up to a kilometre thick, there is no such ‘trampoline’ effect out here since the glaciers were not as thick; in contrast, the land is sinking – and it’s not under the weight of all those scheduled monuments either:

I spotted this map, which is focused on Harris and Lewis, our neighbours to the north, and which cuts off the bottom of South Uist completely, on the Twitter feed of Mark Rowe. Each dot represents a scheduled monument and the map – which is of uncertain origin, although it seems to have been compiled by the County Archaeologist for the Western Isles Historic Environment Record – shows a quite remarkable amount of known history (even if it’s of the ‘known unknown’ type). Mark Rowe writes the Outer Hebrides guidebook for Bradt Guides, and he notes that between the first and second editions of the guide, between 2017 and 2020, the number of identified sites across the western isles increased by 3.8%, to 13,348 (an increase in terms of number of nearly 500).

Part of this increase is likely to reflect an increase in interest in archaeology (read on…) – but it’s also likely to reflect the fact of coastal erosion – from wind and wave alike – which is making sites apparent where they were not before and which is, of course, also jeopardising them, too. There are slips and slides in sites of interest not only because of the natural sinking of the islands as a result of the sheer density of the gneiss supporting it but also because of tides and sea surges and of the action of the wind in shifting vast quantities of sand from one place to another, resulting in structures buried for centuries under deposits of topsoil and grass starting to become exposed but in danger of slipping out of our grasp in terms of comprehension as there simply isn’t enough time – or enough resource – to get to grips with what is there. This is very evident at Baile Sear – the rocks to the centre-right of the picture on the face of the dune, which I took on my last visit the weekend before last, seem to be structural and to have slipped down the fall line from further up: they’re not there by chance.

A phenomenal amount of work went into the development of SCAPE’s sites-at-risk app, both from the experts from SCAPE and from local expert archaeologists but, as importantly, from local communities who have knowledge – and sometimes folk memories – stemming from the practices and customs handed down from generation to generation in what was a largely static population (around, for instance, the sites of C19 and C20 middens no longer in use). But there are (at least) two problems: one is that coverage is likely to be patchy; and the second is that, where sites of interest and which are at risk have been recorded, that information quickly dates if it is not maintained while sites may be lost where a need for maintenance has not been spotted as a result of the site not being visited on a regular basis.

Which is where the community comes back in. Building on the interest which sees people turn up to archaeological events and digs out of curiosity, as well as out of a desire to contribute their own knowledge and awareness, information can be gleaned which means that apps stay relevant and useful – as long as the people using them know, at least in general, what they’re doing (and as long as the information submitted is moderated – which it is when it comes to SCAPE’s app).

There are, on the SCAPE map, around a dozen sites of interest within a half-hour walk of the front door of my bit of the north-west corner of South Uist (and including one right on my doorstep, which is likely to account for the large quantity of shells I dug up when digging the garden back when the days were a bit longer than they are now). There are likely to be more than these – including the remnants, on this side of what is now the bay, of the submerged forest on the southern shore of Benbecula that I noted in last week’s post. Some of these are mounds, some are middens, some are wheelhouse sites, some are where human remains have been discovered and some are where bodies have been buried in some rather interesting ways. None seem to be of a particularly high priority – or, at least, they were not when the app was first compiled. But now – who knows?

I had hoped to get out today to check out a few of these, test my own developing skillbase and make a contribution; but a morning spent getting boosted (yes: please do it, folks!) and an afternoon looking out at darkening skies and falling rain has meant a focus on some desk-based work instead making sure I kow what to do out there in the field. Maybe tomorrow is the time for action (to fuse my 1970s/1980s mod bands) – although #SaturdaysForThePast does have a bit less of a ring to it 😉

Book review: Downsizing

The title here is not so much comment on his career subsequent to his resignation as an MP just prior to the 2019 general election (and when his seat went to the Tories) as a reference to the conscious battle against weight gain which Tom ‘Two Dinners’ Watson engaged in subsequent to a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes in 2015. It’s an engaging and easy-read account of a typically resolute and determined (though not without a recent setback) fight to cut down on the intake of sugars and processed foods which contributed in a major way to his obesity and to real fears for his health.

His chosen vehicle for this – despite the pull quote on the cover from Michael Mosley, who is more associated with a (very) low calorie intake and a balanced, Mediterranean-style diet – was the ‘keto’ diet, a controversial way to weight loss via replacing all carbohydrates with fats and proteins, allied to ‘bulletproof coffee’ (whose origins Watson is careful to attribute correctly) and an exercise regime. Watson correctly asserts that everyone is different and that he can only report on what worked for him – and it clearly did: losing eight out of nearly 23 stones does indeed leave him a shadow of his former self and on this Watson should be congratulated, alongside his account of the resulting improvements which he has experienced in terms of his concentration, fatigue and responsiveness.

For all the easy-to-consume nature of the writing style, the tone is evangelical, proselytising even, in connection with the benefits of the keto diet (and, let’s not forget, the associated exercise regime which has him doing workouts in a park, attending a gym and, eventually, cycling, hill walking, kayaking and running) which can, at times, read a little like the script of a committed, and now enthusiastically clean, convert. Well, he is one such, of course. But a keto diet clearly works for others, too; and Watson is no doubt right that doctors need better guidance (and training) in recommending weight loss programmes which focus on individual needs and which puts ‘one size fits all’ programmes completely to one side. Personally I’m not convinced that a ‘hit list’ of ‘banned’ foods is a healthy way of improving our relationship with food and, as a committed beer drinker (and bread maker), neither do I think that carbs are ‘the enemy’. I also worry that a diet high in fats – for all the admirable desire to save the NHS from vast amounts of spending on the health problems which are related to obesity – is building up future health problems (and therefore spending) of its own. But then, I’m not really the core audience for Downsizing; I’ve always been blessed with a fast-acting metabolism and I’ve never been a fan of sugary fizzy drinks, takeaways and convenience food. Neither, it seems, do I have a particularly addictive personality. But, it seems, diet is one of those areas which absolutely commends itself to subjectivism and there is, therefore, little point in me substituting my views for those of others. If it works, it works (and we need to take the long-term into account in judging that) – and fair play, too.

This is not a political memoir – Watson provides little comment on any of the developments in UK politics since 2015 other than in how they form the general background to his desire to lose weight and in his achievements in doing so; and he throws few bones to those searching for political comment about his relationship with the Labour Party and specifically with Jeremy Corbyn. For the truly committed he does, however, contribute an amusing anecdote about a remark thrown his way by a member of the public who spies him engaged in early morning boxing sessions in a public park; while Len McCluskey, now retired as leader of Unison, is on the end of a laugh-out-loud line which references his negotiating style.

For all that the book focuses on Watson’s weight loss, this is not a diet book and it does, for the whole of its final one-third, address some of the core related policy issues to obesity and public health spending. As you might imagine, Watson – and his (uncredited, though not unacknowledged) co-writer – is very good on the policy stuff around the food lobbying industry and in his attempts to get particularly the manufacturers of high-sugar foods (‘Big Sugar’) – Kellogg’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsico and Unilever come in for special mentions here – to pay a share via a ‘sugar tax’ of the costs of the addictions that their foods and beverages have created in people; and to prevent high-budget branding and marketing programmes from such companies not least when they are targeted at children. There are some powerful vested interests here and Watson deserves credit for taking them on, not least in a ‘naming and shaming’ style in a book of this type. He is also very good at seeking to ally trade union principles to the cause of giving the millions of people in the UK with Type 2 diabetes a voice in his desire to achieve his earnest goal of ‘remission for all’.

And yet, for all the desire for a policy-related outcome to the problems of diet and sugar addiction in particular, and for all the desire to give leadership to people who do absolutely need a voice when faced with the necessarily isolating circumstances to which shame (of weakness, of body image and of fault) is a major contributor, Watson’s decision to step down from parliament in 2019 necessarily reduced his influence over policy and his potential to provide people with that voice. Downsizing, indeed.

There are few clues here as to what led Watson – still not yet 55 – to resign his seat and, apparently, his political career. It’s not as though as he has given up interest in policy development: he currently chairs UK Music which is engaged with the righteous battle to #FixStreaming; and, while his website might currently suggest he is short of a role or two other than in podcasting, a lot of that might well be explained by the arrival of Covid-19 which has had a lot of us on hiatus for much of the intervening time since the back end of 2019. Scrutinising Downsizing for a few between-the-lines clues, I suspect the decision to retire from being an MP has much to do with a quite literal desire to ‘spend more time with his family’ – that curse of politicians – as well as the more evident fearful, personal recognition that a stressful role in frontline representative politics is likely to have played a major role in robbing him of his health as it did with his friend, Labour leader John Smith, before him; and, perhaps, of robbing him of his relationships.

Who knows what the future holds for Watson – and that no doubt includes Watson himself. But I ‘wouldn’t rule out a return’ to party politics once he has satisfied himself that his weight is fully under his own control and once his children, quite naturally, are happy to be spending a little less time with their Dad. ‘Big Sugar’ still needs controlling – and that may well need to be driven by someone whose considerable energies are no longer fuelled, as they once were, by its products.

Right there, under our feet

It’s been an interesting week for archaeology what with Milly, a 13-year-old, discovering a horde of Bronze Age axes in Royston (on her third metal-detecting trip, natch); and publicity arriving for a very well-kept secret find, in a farmer’s field in Rutland, of a Roman villa complex with a mosaic depicting Homer’s The Iliad. Both go to prove the old adage that you never know what’s under your feet – and that probably every grass-covered hillock in otherwise broadly flat ground is likely to be of potential archaeological interest.

We do have Bronze Age – up to c. 800BCE – finds out here on Uist although Iron Age ones, i.e. from the era immediately following the Bronze Age, are more common. The Romans, of course, never made it this far in their conquest of these isles – to them, the western isles were ‘here be dragons’ even if they weren’t quite ultima Thule – so there’ll be no villa complexes or mosaics out here and, probably, neither any evidence of underfloor heating (although certainly people of that time knew how to heat stones for a variety of purposes).

This week’s course featured a terrific lecture from Dr. Emily Gal, of UHI, reflecting on the relationship between archaeology and the paleoenvironment: how climate change influences what we now find on archaeological digs and how humans somewhere way back up the line responded to climate change; and how to interpret meaning into the evidence we find in the ground (via plant matter, insects and ‘remains’ of all types imaginable). It was quite mind-blowing to discover that the western isles are literally sinking, as a result of geological factors, whereas much of mainland Scotland is still rising: the ice sheet was much thinner here, but up to one kilometre deep on the mainland. The consequence is that, whereas there is still a kind of ‘trampoline effect’ on the mainland, with the earth’s crust rebounding upwards after the release following its suppression by the weight of all that ice, there is little or no effect here and, in fact, the key is movement in the other direction caused by the dense weight of the gneiss which forms the bedrock of these islands. This is not to say that sea levels are not rising on the coasts of the mainland too – they are, especially on the east coast, and at a rate of knots.

The outcome of the sinking of the western isles is nothing particular to worry about – the rate here is about one metre per millennium – but, on top of human-influenced climate change, it does raise the question about what evidence we can find for how people previously interacted with the changing climate: how they tried to respond to it and the mobility issues that inevitably arise when things get a bit too hot for survival, and human growth, right here.

The follow-on issue is one of how Uist would have looked in times gone by. Probably, it was about twice the width it now is, extending the latterday coast out into the Atlantic by as much as 14km. The Monach Islands (that’s the little tilde on the map to the right, lying out to sea between Benbecula and North Uist), and now uninhabited, was still connected to North Uist by a land bridge as recently as the 16th century. Furthermore, the ‘long island’ probably therefore was indeed one long island, stretching from what is now the Butt of Lewis (Rubha Robhanais) and reaching down probably to Barra and, perhaps, even further south. Certainly South Uist was joined to Benbecula with the bay between the north-west tip of South Uist – where we now live – and Benbecula being actually previously constituted of one freshwater, inland, lake before being swamped by the sea. There is evidence of a wood existing on the edge of that expanse of water, now constituting a submerged forest on the current southern shore of Benbecula and, apparently, there is some similar evidence here, too, as well as on the small island of Gualan slightly further east to us though that needs to await the next spring tide (and good weather!) for an exploration (and, perhaps, a photograph should I be able to find anything). That’s next weekend, by the way. (Weather not guaranteed.)

The lecture was succeeded the following day by some field work on Baile Sear – just about visible on the map above as the island between Benbecula and North Uist and close to the shore of the latter – where the class was engaged in some photography and some ‘cleaning’ (gentle scraping; no gouging) of sections of the exposed midden (tip site), largely to expose the different colours signifying how the midden was composed. Here’s a couple of small (unofficial) photos showing ‘my’ section: check the band of red (peat ash) against the lighter colours of the windblown sand above; and, lower down, a protruding bit from a darker section of soil which, after a bit of more cleaning, revealed itself as a shard of pottery, with a pleasingly curved shape and, at the top, a clear rim. Elsewhere in the midden there are animal bones and a few scattered shells although not as many of the latter as elsewhere in the locality.

I’ve tramped over these dunes above this site a few times and, while the exposure of the midden is not new – it dates back now a few years when a hurricane lead, amidst human tragedy, to a 50m section of dune being lost in one night – I’ve never known what was there, underneath. Or, to be fair, and to my shame, given it too much more than a passing thought. But that small shard, readily exposed to my fingertips, is at least 1600 years old and there may – just may – be a lot more of interest underneath the machair. People lived here, died here and are, perhaps, buried here – in what was not an isolated manner of existence but as part of a sizable, probably noisy, jostling community and, judging by the size of the midden, a successful one at that. Perhaps that piece of pottery was an ordinary household item broken in the course of every day living – or perhaps it was used to lug a load of shellfish to a celebration of some kind. Perhaps it might even have been broken as a part of that celebration. Now, that evidence of existence lies on the coast and is exposed not only to the mighty Atlantic and the winds – but back then? Quite some way inland, perhaps even sheltered from the wind in some way, with people making their existence not just from the sea but from the land all around them.

All is really speculation – we just don’t know, at least at this stage – but, after all, what is speculation other than the product of evidence, and an informed ability to interpret, set alongside a free running imagination?

Ancient monuments: protect and survive. Or not?

General warning: this post constitutes some unusually early thoughts and may be neither accurate, reasonable nor fair. But please read on. And let me know if I’m wrong!

This week’s archaeology course lecture – they’re on Fridays, hence #FridaysForThePast (sorry!) – was led by Dr. Rebecca Rennell and, around a series of interesting slides on understanding the erosion of heritage sites on Uist, there was a fascinating discussion within the group on the issue of the extent to which sites close to the coast and subject to erosion can, or should, be protected.

The discussion was with reference to Dun Mhulan (Dun Vulan), a broch site on South Uist of which more in a minute. Brochs were monumental structures erected on coastal locations on the west of Scotland and across the western and northern isles somewhere between 1BC (possibly earlier) and 3AD (possibly later). With a double skin wall, giving space for access to chambers and galleries and to the upper floor(s), they stood perhaps up to 20m tall and were used for – well, we don’t actually know. Smokehouses for preserving food, possibly; as stores, possibly; as defensive structures, unlikely; as symbols of the wealth and organisational ability of a community, quite probably; as waymarkers for those travelling on the highways of the sea – almost certainly although that’s equally very unlikely to have been their major purpose. Here’s a couple of snaps I took precisely ten years ago of probably the best remaining example of a broch, up on Mousa in Shetland, which has been preserved fairly intact. The one on the left shows the broad dimensions and the general setting – those smudged specks at the top are indeed people; the one on the right shows the double skin wall and stairway access (grilles and framing may not be original features):

Aside of a bit of care and maintenance over the centuries, this is not a reconstruction. The reasons why the broch here has survived in such good condition are likely to be several: Mousa is a small, now uninhabited, island located only a short way off the mainland of a small island archipelago (that is the Shetland mainland to the right centre); and, crucially, it’s sheltered by a small hill to the east (the left) and, though it is itself on the west side of Mousa, it is protected (at least from sea surges) by the mainland. Consequently, much of the force of erosion is not focused on the broch itself; and, equally importantly, there are not a lot of people around requiring its stones for their own structures. Both of these are, of course, mutually reinforcing factors.

Here, in comparison, is Dun Mhulan, in a photograph taken by Howard Fenton: and see also, for a bang up-to-date 3D model, that taken by Smilemaker (Simon Davies) just last weekend, following the lecture:

The site transparently doesn’t have Mousa’s advantages. That’s the Atlantic to the right (i.e. the west) and there’s no shelter from the winds, from whichever direction. Erosion hasn’t just knocked things down, it has also created a lot of infill – the stones on the ground at the entrance way (lying at just about twelve o’clock in the picture) actually form the lintel of the main doorway so a lot of the original action is below what is now ground level. The wall on the Atlantic side is a rebuild, buttressed by a concrete apron put in place in the mid-1990s at the same time to provide some support for the site but which, as can be seen from Simon’s 3D model, has already had to be supplemented by gabions not least since the concrete has been cracked – presented with an angled concrete barrier, the Atlantic has simply gone around the sides (illustrating the issue of measures taken with preservation in mind frequently leading to problems somewhere else). Furthermore, brochs were often built on islets – the left hand side of the picture shows what is actually a saltwater lagoon, but this was originally matched by one to the right which has now been lost to the Atlantic – while that is also the sea to the upper right, the site being on a small promontory (the broader location is well illustrated in this shot, which also highlights that the sea at the upper right in the above picture is held back from swamping the lagoon by a thin bar of shingle). Dun Mhulan is extremely open and thus it is extremely jeopardised.

It would thus be a mistake to say that the future for Dun Mhulan is uncertain because, actually, we can be fairly sure that, at some clearly unknowable point in the future, it will be inundated. And perhaps we’re only one major storm away from that eventuality: at Baile Sear, up the coast off North Uist (and the focal point for our field work), the significant hurricane of 2005 saw 50m of coastline lost in one night.

The dilemma facing archaeologists, and the local community, is therefore well encapsulated by Dun Mhulan: it’s one of striking a balance between preservation and excavation. Or, as the professionals say, ‘preservation by record’ since excavation, depending on its precise focus, is likely destroy a site completely but that, in the process, a clear picture will be drawn up of how the site was used and developed. In conjunction with modern technology, preservation by record becomes an issue of how sites can be presented, sometimes reimagined by informed guesswork but used to educate ourselves not only about the building techniques and the creeds of communities in the past, but also how they confronted climate change (much of what we don’t know about brochs centres on why they fell into disuse and were abandoned). Interestingly, key sites can indeed be relocated to places where they can be better preserved and presented – see the example in the previous link about the Meur Burnt Mound, on Sanday in Orkney (also referenced here) – and in support of community heritage (and, let’s be frank, tourism) initiatives.

So, if we cannot protect Dun Mhulan against coastal erosion, rising sea levels and all the rest of the impact that climate change is having, the question remains as to what can be done with it. Legally it is a scheduled monument, which complicates things a little – scheduled status, whose aim is to preserve sites as far as possible in the form in which they passed to us, is extremely important; but, equally, scheduling paradoxically means that action can’t be taken either so that we can learn from sites. Given the level of threat to Dun Mhulan and its general low-key nature (its level of exposure means that interpretation boards, which don’t currently exist, are likely to have extremely short lifespans anyway), as well as the availability of other broch sites, including in the western isles, offering a better representation of shape, form and structure, I do wonder whether our interests might be better served by re-excavating Dun Mhulan (some work was carried out in the 1990s, before the apron was installed), possibly in conjunction with a Meur-type relocation, so as to capture as much information as possible from it so we can learn. Perhaps the site’s major value could lie in telling us more about how these unique and enigmatic buildings were used, how and why they came into being and why they were abandoned. Or, with a nod to the tenets of academic research, at least about how this one particular site was used.

As ever, the availability of resources is likely to play a major role in determining whether this could happen (excavation is of course costly); or whether, by taking no action, we are playing instead a game of risk with our chances of learning. It seems to me that, in the face of coastal erosion our choice when it comes to such exposed sites is either to try and preserve by record; or else being faced with the reality that we haven’t preserved at all.

Archaeology and coastal erosion in Uist

Have just enrolled on this 10-week course starting in a week’s time; and I’m really looking forward to some pre-course field work taking place tomorrow up on Baile Sear – an island off the west coast of North Uist which experiences a pace of erosion which is almost visible. I haven’t been up there for around five years now and I’m interested (and rather full of foreboding) to see the amount of change that has taken place in that time. I’m hoping that the course will give me a greater understanding of climate change and its role in shaping the islands on which I live; and the lives and the opportunities of all of us who stay here.

The pre-course field work is based on a drone study of the archaeological remains eroding from the coast, which is being led by Ellie Graham, a PhD student from Aberdeen.

Just hoping that the rain, which is in the Met Office forecast for tomorrow morning, alongside some rather changeable weather, holds off – making judgments and recording observations through wet glass(es) can be a bit of a challenge…

The course is likely to be quite intensive while holding down the (freelance) day job, so blog activity might be a bit more rare over the next period. Will be trying to post some materials and some thoughts up here as the weeks go by, though. This is my first time in a learning environment for quite some time and, on this side of the learning room as opposed to the other, for quite a bit longer. There were archaeologists in my last employment and I really wish I’d come across a few more of them while I was there.

Anyway – wish me luck!

Book Review: Case Study

Published by Saraband only at the start of October – precisely on the anniversary of the birth of the Scottish countercultural psychiatrist, RD Laing, no less – Case Study jumped (for a number of reasons) straight to the left hand side of my to-read shelf. Remarkably therefore, I find myself in the position of delivering a review of a book not only in the month of its publication but while the author himself is still out and about in promotional activity for it. Probably I need to decide whether being this far ahead of my usual self – even if not quite ahead of the curve – is a comfortable place to be.

A word first of all, however, for the cover. Dan Gray has done a mesmerising job, hitting the spot with a design which summarises the core of the novel’s content: the 1960s and swinging London; psychiatry; and handwritten notes dividing the otherwise steady gaze of a woman who is, therefore, very much at the centre of the novel.

Rebecca Smyth is the name of this woman, from a well-to-do background and with a role as a ‘Girl Friday’ at a theatrical agency in Soho, who consults a radical, charismatic anti-psychiatrist, Collins Braithwaite. Or, rather this is the name she uses since she sets up her consultations with him having come to the belief – on finding a book of his case studies – that therapy sessions with him had driven her sister, Veronica, to death by suicide; we never actually find out her real name. Written in the belief that she may be putting herself in danger as a result of her interactions with Braithwaite, the notebooks are her own handwritten records of her series of consultations, alongside other notes she also makes about her life. These notebooks – five in all – form the bulk of the book and these are interspersed with chronologically-ordered biographical details of Collins Braithwaite’s immensely controversial and volatile life and work as drawn by the author – ‘GMB’ – whose initials will be familiar, being those of the writer researching his grandfather in His Bloody Project and who comes across the materials presented there about Roddy Macrae, as well as the translator of Burnet’s Inspector Gorski novels. The notebooks are sent to ‘GMB’ by Martin Grey, who found them when clearing out the house of his uncle (the father of Veronica and her sister) and who did so in response to a blog post ‘GMB’ had written about psychiatry.

Burnet’s interest in psychiatry, and the extent to which the material presented in case studies is objective or scientific, is genuine. Furthermore, that blog post (dating from 2019) does exist and is also given added impetus by a comment at the start of this year which draws a response from Burnet that his next book ‘very much inhabits this terrain’. And there we have the set up – or, of course, the question is whether it us that is being set up. Fans of Burnet can already see from this post what to expect – Alphonse Maeder is real; Braithwaite a work of Burnet’s own fiction – and Case Study absolutely doesn’t disappoint. Mixing fact and fiction, real people with walk-on parts (including RD Laing himself) and author-drawn characters, reality and fantasy, truths and alternative truths, the reader is thus invited to participate in the novel and in the world created by Burnet not least by cross-checking the existence of people and places; or, in my case, electronically wandering up and down the roads around Primrose Hill in London and Darlington and the North Yorkshire Moors in the steps of those who populate the novel. The blurred lines that are created between fiction and true life extend the form of the modern novel – did it happen or was it made up? – and openly encourage the reader, by joining the dots between the material in the notebooks and the results of ‘GMB’s own research about Braithwaite, into self-reflection about the nature of identity and sanity.

Burnet says that he doesn’t set out to manipulate readers and that his books don’t start with the intention of writing about a theme; both emerge as a consequence of the novel’s natural development and the life it comes to take on during the process of being written, giving space to the reader to come to a thus unchained, or unanchored, text in their own, equally valid way; and that themes emerge and characters develop in ways that sometimes surprise the writer. Nevertheless, being played is part of the experience the reader has in reading Burnet’s work, and this is true once more of Case Study whose narration features a range of story-telling devices with Burnet firmly locating his work in line with Barthes’s essay on the ‘death of the author’.

The core theme that emerges in the sessions between ‘Rebecca’ and Braithwaite is not so much that the reader is unsure of who is therapist and who is patient – though how much of ‘Rebecca’s testimonies are real and how much they are developed because that’s either what she wants Braithwaite to hear, or thinks he wants to hear, is a moot point. Either way, putting her at the centre of how the sessions are related to the reader serves a dual purpose: the book becomes about her but it also, at the same time, puts her in control of what the reader sees and of how the dynamics of the encounters with Braithwaite appear. This increases the power of Burnet’s text and is fully in line with ‘GMB’s realisation in his blog post that the presentation of the core material of key psychiatric studies – sometimes as fabricated by the therapist – is likely to say as much about the therapist as about the patient. Or, as Braithwaite himself puts it:

The crimes of psychiatry are legion, but they can mostly be attributed to a single cause: the idea that the therapist knows more than the patient.

Other themes will be familiar to Burnet’s readers: people struggling with themselves in some way and feeling that they don’t fit in may well be an established element of most literature, but the twist, repeated here from His Bloody Project, is of characters who narrate their own stories via written testimonies: a re-assertion of the power of the written word in contradiction of Braithwaite’s (humorous) condemnation of it late in the text. Also featuring here, as in other of his novels, is teenage sexual fumblings told unstintingly and in a fair amount of detail; while alcohol, and heavy drinking, again also play key parts in the novel and in the development of the plot.

In my review of The Accident on the A35, I wondered, somewhat implicitly, whether Burnet had the confidence in his own abilities to ‘write female characters that have as much depth as his male ones’; and that Case Study was likely to prove something of a landmark in this respect. Here indeed we have a woman at the centre of the text and, within the confines of the plot, she is reasonably well-drawn as a woman with 1950s attitudes and clearly unable to participate in the swinging London of the 1960s – which helpfully makes the point that not everyone was able – or wanted – to join in with that. She also has the lion’s share of the book’s many cracking lines and her account is written strongly and assertively, in spite of the domesticity that lies at her core, and with a droll sense of humour. Burnet also deserves credit for taking on the development of a character of a woman of some (family) means rather than the working class characters which have largely inhabited his work so far. On the other hand, she is rather repressed and the lack of her real name (other than ‘Rebecca’) is, not least in this context, problematic. Braithwaite fulfils the role of bluff northerner/angry young man, fitting in well with the iconoclastic breaking of the class divides of the time and the rejection of the old guard. Here we point directly to Colin Wilson (The Outsider) and John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), while I’d also throw Alan Sillitoe’s northern working class males into the mix there, too. While fulfilling a clearly secondary role to that of the main protagonist, his character is the better drawn, being more rounded. There are clear plot reasons for this but it is somewhat unfortunate. Nevertheless, Burnet brilliantly brings off the challenges of voice presented by the manner of his story-telling: in writing, as a woman, a set of notebooks detailing her character; and, at the same time, conveying the details of ‘GMB’s own incipient biography of the character of Braithwaite. These two aspects of the tale – plus ‘GMB’s own in the novel’s essential Preface and Postscript – never overlap in terms of their voice and the reader is never confused as to where they are in the text.

‘Rebecca’ and Collins Braithwaite present themselves as rather different individuals – ‘Rebecca’ naive, concealing and somewhat other-worldly, and Braithwaite lewd, direct and very worldly – but, ultimately, they share a number of things in common with regard to life experiences that, however unlikely it might seem, do interlink their lives. The outcome is an inventive, entertaining, tautly plotted (here, uniquely, loose ends are few in number) and wryly observed meditation of the gaps in identity, self and sanity and the nature of the lines between how people present to others in different contexts and the different personas they take on and inhabit as a result, and who therefore they truly are. Stripping out the controversy which otherwise surrounded its own author, the novel highlights that there is much to be said for RD Laing’s theories of the Divided Self, which Burnet has spoken of as a ‘stunning and electrifying piece of work’; with such a reference in view, Burnet has produced a rather fine homage to the value that lies in exploring, and accepting, our own contradictions and the varying authenticities of our reality.

Automated recognition software: your rights in the public space

This is the text of my summer 2021 column for BECTU’s Stage, Screen & Radio, slightly extended and with added links. Sometimes the column – especially when published several months later – gets overtaken by events; occasionally concurrent events give it added relevancy and that’s the case with this one, with news this week that the Information Commissioner is stepping in over the case of facial recognition technology in Ayrshire schools ‘to speed up the lunch queue’; and with Eurostar testing the same to give ‘seamless travel across borders’ and a ‘touch-free journey through border checks’ (under plans originally announced last summer). As always, the language is of course interesting focusing on the upsides with little consideration of the (considerable) downsides. Passport checks – which already incorporate biotechnology – are one thing; whether school children are in a place to give informed consent for something as quotidian as school lunches is another thing entirely.

Anyway, on with the column…

The European Data Protection Supervisor – an agency which reinforces data protection and privacy standards – has called for a ban on the use of ‘automated biometric identification in public space’. This means a number of things connected with the use of what, for simplicity, we’ll call here ABI to categorise a range of features including, most obviously, facial recognition but also gait, voice, keystrokes and our other biometric or behavioural signals.

The EDPS is not concerned with the use of AI to unlock your smartphone, but it is concerned about the public space: law enforcement and also the wider commercial and administrative environments in which it might be deployed – for example ‘smart’ advertising hoardings and billboards, attendance at sporting and other mass events, in airport screening or wherever users access public services.

The call for a ban is clearly serious – but so is the context in which it was made: the European Commission’s legislative proposal for an Artificial Intelligence Act. This, the EDPS noted, did not address its earlier calls for a moratorium on the use of ABI in public, however otherwise welcome the initiative.

The UK has of course left the EU, but the Information Commissioner’s Office – the UK’s own data protection and information authority – is also concerned about these issues. A reference to facial recognition technology appeared very early in the ICO’s 2019/20 Annual Report; while the Office issued an Opinion on the use of facial recognition technology in law enforcement in October 2019. It also intervened in a judicial review on the use of such technology by South Wales Police – a review which the police lost on human rights and data protection grounds.

We know – and have done for some time – of the problems of ABI in distinguishing between people: it has a much lower accuracy record in correctly matching people of colour, women and those aged 18-30. Partly, this speaks to the lack of diversity amongst those developing ABI software and amongst those on whom it is tested; in either case, were the base to be more representative, its accuracy record may well be better.

This, in turn, speaks to the need for software development standards also to be more representative and more inclusive, and to take serious account of tightly-drawn standards of ethics.

(Whatever the comical faults of the LinkedIn jobs algorithm, it is AI that is responsible for diverting job advertisements in a way which reproduces the extent of existing occupational job segregation, and which may contravene sex discrimination laws, by sending grocery delivery jobs to women and pizza delivery jobs to young men).

Furthermore the EDPS spoke specifically of its concerns that AI ‘presents extremely high risks of deep and non-democratic intrusion into individuals’ private lives’ while the ICO being similarly exercised – expressly, and in very similar language, about its potential for ‘unnecessary intrusion into individuals’ daily lives’ – indicates a worry among regulatory authorities that there are unsettling data privacy and state surveillance aspects surrounding the use of ABI in this way.

ABI works on the basis of matching scanned images against a ‘watchlist’, deleting those where there is no match and otherwise prompting human intervention. What the authorities are concerned about is whether an individual could anticipate, and understand, their image (or data) being processed in this way; and whether this is both a necessary and a proportionate response. What you and I might be concerned about is how someone could put us on a watchlist – was it because we went on strike, perhaps, or demonstrated against racism? – and how the authorities would then be allowed to track us wherever we go without us knowing.

Unquestioning faith

Additionally it’s true that we tend to place a large amount of unquestioning faith in the results that machines give us. If our trust is not to be abused, we need to be confident that the ABI which lies underneath has been developed, and is being used, in a socially just way.

The South Wales Police case highlights that ABI could identify large numbers of people and track their movements. Few trade unionists – or others organising protest actions – will need a refresher course on what that might mean. The decision in this case recognises the need for precise legal boundaries on the use of ABI, something which EDPS also openly acknowledges, although what these will be has yet to be defined.

Where we impose limits on the use of surveillance technology, in a law enforcement capacity and in terms of our knowledge of our data rights and our trust, is something in which we should all be taking a keen interest.

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Madeleine Thien’s sweeping inter-generational novel about the upheavals in the creation of modern China was the fourth book I picked up from the 2016 Man Booker Prize shortlist (the others being Paul Sellers’s The Sellout, which won that year; Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk; and Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project). Although I’ve read one or two shortlisted works in most years of the Prize, this is a total never reached before or, especially, since – the result, I suspect, from living in a place (Perth, at the time) with a bookshop offering the opportunities to browse; buying books off the ‘net is not the same when you can’t pick something up, feel its heft and read some of its prose (I’m a firm believer in the power if not always of the opening line then certainly of the opening paragraph or two).

Thien’s book – a family saga set against the background of actual historical events – certainly has heft: it weighs in at nearly 500 closely-typed pages; and its subject matter (China after the civil war which ended in 1949 with the triumph of Mao Zedong’s Communist-led army) has serious weight. Her title – and indeed her text – is well chosen: it’s drawn from the closing line of the first stanza of the Chinese version of The Internationale, identifying the need for people to rise up together in revolt. The Internationale became the anthem of the Chinese Soviet Republic established in 1931 and was also a rallying cry of the students at Tiananmen Square in 1989, whose events form the climax of this work. The forty years of history from 1949 to 1989 were tumultuous, with China experiencing famine, labour camps, repression and brutality, re-assignment of people to remote areas and unfamiliar work and a continuous state of struggle as the leaders sought to defend and entrench the revolution; although the 30 years since (25 at the time of the book’s publication) have seen much less of all five with leaders opting for a controlled bread and circuses approach, essentially subverting the words of the anthem. Neither, it must be said, did the experience of keeping people in a state of perpetual revolution contribute to the development of an improved society.

The changing nature of words and their subjective duality, forming a continuing quest for meaning in a context in which messages can be either apparent or buried in text, or can change given the different tones used in Chinese language, as well as be manipulated in the service of a powerful regime’s politics, forms much of Thien’s material. The early part of the work sees Li-ling, a young Chinese girl living in Vancouver who also goes by her English language name Marie and who is the novel’s narrator, striving to come to terms with the loss of her father, who died by suicide in Hong Kong in the months after the events at Tiananmen Square. She is simultaneously also dealing with the development of meaning in the Chinese characters of a letter sent to her mother and then in a series of notebook manuscripts. Later, this duality is given space in terms of music – the two families which form the core of the novel are connected by musicianship through study at the Shanghai Conservatory prior to the Cultural Revolution – and the extent to which artists performing another’s material are copying, or reproducing, that work or adding new meaning to it by nature of their own performance; or, for instance, by transcribing musical scores into jianpu, a numbered (mathematical) musical notation system. Given the artistic flair with which the characters forming Chinese language are drawn, the same can be said for writing words and slogans, or copying texts – one of the means by which one of the family branches communicates within and down the generations.

The development of the novel’s plot is triggered by Ai-ming, a girl in her late teenage years, coming as a refugee to stay with Li-ling and her mother subsequent to her involvement in the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Ai-ming is the daughter of Sparrow, a composer and teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory whose work and parts of whose family history made him, at the time, suspicious in counter-revolutionary terms; while Li-ling’s father, Jiang Kai, was a skilled pianist and accompanist, and one of Sparrow’s students. Thien captures well the repression which Sparrow, whose life is at the centre of the novel, first experiences and then consciously develops as a means of survival in the face of the fear, grief and guilt sparked by the Cultural Revolution; and both him and Kai, who develops a different approach to the very same needs, are drawn hugely sympathetically. Both live for, as well as by, music and the impact of being denied this is different for each, driven by their own familial history and personal motivations while silence is explored not only as a way of dealing with grief but also in the context of the music of which it also forms a whole. The coming together of the daughters is the spark of the plot, leading Li-ling to uncover the layers of mystery in the backgrounds of the two families, but it is the fathers who are at the core of its development; while the fear of the sins of the fathers again being visited on the daughters, in a repetition of family history, tragedy and memory, lies at the core of Thien’s theme.

This is a hugely resonant work of immense depth, perception and feeling. It’s not by any means an easy read: there is a large cast of characters; you need a broad awareness of Chinese history (Thien, born in Vancouver to Malaysian-Chinese immigrants to Canada, makes few concessions here); and the savagery of the post-War years, during the period of land reform in the 1950s as well as the Cultural Revolution and the ‘re-education’ programme of intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s, is described unstintingly as mobs are encouraged in acts of physical violence and humiliation during ‘struggle sessions’ against those pinned as class enemies. Lest we think this is the product of another time and another country, these days the violence is as likely to be mental as physical and we now call such sessions, when they occur on social media, ‘pile-ons’: Red Guards still exist and they are indeed cross-cultural, even if they don’t these days wear armbands. As the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina also shows, people can all too easily be whipped up into hatred and the oppression of others. And, as regards the Uighur Muslims, China itself continues to run re-education camps and to commit human rights abuses.

It must have been an emotionally harrowing novel to write and Thien, who had previously written about the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot, has, by the look of her own rather quaint website (tumblr??), produced nothing coherent in the five years since: a period in which she has, no doubt, been spending time listening, having spoken of the reconfigurative powers of music – in particular, Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which appears as a motif throughout ‘Do Not Say We Have Nothing’ – as a way of dealing with the overwhelming sadness of the events about which she writes. Her word choices and metaphors sometimes require thinking and don’t always appear to work at first sight – occasionally, the book takes on the appearance of a translated text which, interestingly, is a theme shared with the work of fellow nominee that year, Graeme Macrae Burnet) – which, for a person born in Canada, is surely deliberate by way of reminding the reader of the gaps which exist in culture and in interpretation of meaning as well as in the fluidity with which the latter can (be) change(d). Thien demonstrates great skill in contrasting the greys of the historical sections of her non-linear narrative with the colours of Li-ling’s childhood in Vancouver and in contemporary China on her visit towards the end of the novel; and in the use of colour to emphasise the different approach and thinking embodied by a student movement concerned not to follow the mistakes of their parents. The historical detail of the work seems not only accurate but also told without embellishment.

The level of input required of the reader in understanding Thien’s apparently abstract expressions does sometimes act as an inhibitor while the rhetorical dialogue between characters (or the author) and the reader, and the figurative language of the text, sometimes palls: this is a problem which authors engaged in historical fiction frequently encounter. If something was real and there is testimony to it, a novel’s value lies in encouraging the reader to step into the shoes of the characters and to debate their actions and their own responses. ‘Saying too much’ might be as much of a problem as saying too little since it can prevent the taking of those steps, but Thien mostly stays on the right side and, while we know of the clear and established links between mathematics and music – Li-ling in her later life is a mathematics professor, complementing the musical skills of her father – her skill as an author lies in emphasising, in contrast to cold mathematics, the poetry of language that music, and musicianship, possesses.

Nevertheless, concentration is required: I was afforded the space to give the novel the attention it both needs and deserves by virtue of a trip to the mainland involving long journeys by train. If you can give it that space, then it will repay you: this is indeed a ‘magisterial’, in the words of Isabel Hilton’s insightful, but rather rushed, review in The Guardian, as well as an interestingly-structured work; and, if the Booker Prize really is about pushing books on to family and friends, as beautifully described by Charlotte Higgins in this morning’s wonderful long read about the Booker in The Guardian, then consider this review as me doing precisely this. ‘A heady tangle of arguments, controversy and speculation’ the Booker may be – in other words, it’s all about opinions – but, from the four of the six choices on that year’s shortlist that I did get round to, this really ought to have been the victor.

On the beer trail in Poland

I mentioned at the start of the post just below this one that 2021 is the tenth anniversary of my first trip to Poland. I’ve drunk quite a lot of beer since then, both in and outside Poland, and, while Poland has always had a tradition of decent bottled beers (Baltic porters, chiefly), the beer scene is remarkably different now to then.

Back then beers whose attractiveness is best described as ‘cold and wet’ predominated (they still do, of course), but 2011 saw the arrival of the first hop forward beer – ‘Atak Chmielu’ (‘Hop Attack’), produced (under contract) by Silesia’s PINTA – thus getting the craft beer (piwo rzemieślnicze) revolution underway with a view to changing Polish beer drinkers’ tastebuds. Now, you can find interesting – and, indeed, experimental beers, if that’s your thing – right across the country and, while this might be naturally expected in the large towns and cities, even the smaller, more remote locations also have restaurants and outlets where you can find good, locally-produced, fresh beer – usually bottled, but also on draught in some places – which doesn’t taste like every. single. other. beer you tried before. Living in a small, more remote location where such a thing is difficult, I recognise that that’s no mean feat.

As this very recent article quite astutely points out, there are actually two revolutions underway in Poland – not only challenging people’s tastebuds, being the first and most obvious, but turning Poland from a vodka country to a beer country being the second, deeper, one which has major social as well as economic connotations. Both revolutions are, of course, connected.

Poland now produces more beer each year than the UK, despite having a population only 56 per cent of the size, and only Germany among European countries produces more. And, while 80 per cent of Polish beer consumption is from one of the ‘big three’ (owned respectively by Asahi, Heineken and Carlsberg), there are now more than 300 active breweries, many of them microbreweries and larger, but regionalised concerns. Naturally, this success has encouraged the big three to produce their own versions of craft beer in response, although (alongside other more sneaky big beer/business tactics, including the one of disguise) there are several issues here too. However, it seems that craft has been making some inroads: that 80 per cent figure (source: Wikipedia, dating from 2014) seems, on the basis of more recent market share figures, dating from 2017, to have fallen back a bit. Tastebuds are being changed – but progress is slow and likely to be beset by a range of issues of which the impact on social habits and customs of Covid-19 over the last eighteen months, and counting, is only one among many.

Wide availability of good product helps. In Wrocław I expected to find good beers aplenty, both as a result of the history (see post below) as well as a rich economy and a large, young population. Here, for instance, I had a pale ale brewed with New Zealand hops (actually, the first NZ beer I’ve tried) made by a local brewery but, crucially, available in an ordinary restaurant: I didn’t need to step into any of the brewery restaurants which are present even on the main square in the city, such as the rightly-renowned Golden Dog, or a taproom. But in lovely Świeradow-Zdrój – population 4,100 – craft beers were also easily available in bars and restaurants (albeit from another of the Wrocław craft breweries – a 150km distance is still pretty local); in Kudowa-Zdrój, where the local beers came from across the border in the Czech Republic; and in the Bieszczady Mountains, in the far south-east corner of the country and whose towns were largely deserted until the 1970s as a result of the aftermath of the establishment of modern-day Poland subsequent to the Second World War, where the bottled beers from one brewery, the nearest town to which has a population of 5,700, were ubiquitous in restaurants across the villages of the region.

Here’s an advert for that brewery in the market stalls clustered around the bus stop in Ustrzyki Górne – more a destination than a town, really – and, as you can see, not only an advert, too:

Ursa Maior ticks many of the right craft beer boxes – set up by a champion homebrewer in 2013, and a woman at that, it has a solid range of core beers, all of which are entirely vegan, cleverly branded and marketed, is firmly attached to and rooted within its community and proudly champions its environmental credentials. It is open to visitors for tours and for a taproom experience, is youthful, English-speaking, all over social media and with website design which has a modern, fresh appeal. Heck, to judge by the language on its 2021 recruitment advert, it could also have got to the stage, like many of its contemporaries internationally, where it could do with recognising a trade union. Hmm.

Socially therefore, we might well be getting to the point where Polish people might well be asking ‘Is a beer at the wedding a good idea?’, going by the title of this interview with Agnieszka Łopata, the founder of Ursa Maior (a title whose philosophical properties justify a deeper analysis than simply a piece on a wedding planner website, I think) – the point being that Poland is indeed moving away from spirits-based celebrations centred on vodka: still the national drink, but being caught up by beer. There are many factors in this, chief among them being the nation’s alcohol advertising laws (only beer among alcoholic drinks can be advertised and only then when health warnings covering 20 per cent of the surface area of the advert are in place). All this does, however, mean that the ‘alkohole’ shops of yore – grim places in which you’re more than likely to encounter a certain type of clientele shuffling apologetically around (hence the reason for the advertising laws – alcoholism has been a problem in Poland) and often featuring bars over small windows placed high up on walls – are being slowly replaced by modern bottle shops, like one where we stayed in Cisna (population, outside the tourist season, less than 500), well-stocked with an increasingly wide range of regional beers from many different breweries like Ursa Maior lined up on bare, or barely painted, wood shelves which are attractively lit. Sadly, I have no photographs of this one. Busy it was, too, the midweek night I was in.

Alongside a network of good bottle shops which increases people’s opportunities to buy – some 89 per cent of sales in Poland is off-trade, i.e. for the home, according to the factsheet produced by the industry association in Poland – changing people’s tastebuds is evidently the key. Or, alternatively, that there can be more to ‘lager’ than cold and wet, which also has its place in hot countries; or that, alternatively, ale doesn’t have to be ‘dank’; or that good beer doesn’t have to involve a lot of faff around choice, styles, tastes and food matching options; and worrying that you might have got the wrong one. Asking for ‘a beer’ should be simple and, moreover, good beer should always be what arrives.

It’s actually pretty easy to sell a craft product – including beer – to tourists who want to experience something authentic and local to where they are as a key part of their holiday; it’s another thing entirely to be able to do more than just engage in deep cleaning-oriented shutdowns in those parts of the year when tourists are thin on the ground and when the requirement for freshness means getting your product not only out, but sold, in a reasonable time after it emerges from fermentation. The Bieszczady has its off-season too, when winter snows lead to Cisna being covered by 3m of snow, as one hotelier reported to us, albeit that snow brings winter sports enthusiasts alongside walkers looking for a different sort of challenge than you find in the mountains in the summer (and including those presented by hungry, and capable, wild animals).

Being able to sell beer year-round in remote areas means either, or more probably both, of having a good website presence and a clear online sales facility (to which you can also respond in timely fashion) and of selling to locals. In the latter case, this often means overcoming people’s desire just to ‘be like everyone else’ and, completely conversely to the tourist experience, precisely to get away from where they are. In Poland, this might well mean preferring to buy a Tyskie, a Żywiec or an Okocim (or, in the Western Isles, a Tennent’s, a McEwan’s or, ahem, a Punk IPA, Aberdeen’s Brewdog already being the largest independent in the UK). The investment in alternative beer in the spa towns of the west and in the Bieszczady seems to indicate that this key problem of selling outside the main tourist season can be overcome, although a look at the street maps produced by one online giant or another indicates just how recent a lot of this investment is – and, therefore, how vulnerable, too – and an out-of-season re-visit would probably be a good idea, too. An emphasis on the local, the rooted and the community which goes hand-in-hand with being part of a remote area; while an emphasis on fewer food miles, not least in these times of both climate change as well as supply chain bottlenecks, has a lot to commend itself and it may be part of an appeal which is possible to replicate elsewhere. In our corner of Europe, in contrast, getting stock into the major retail outlets does seem to be a problem and that may, in turn, reflect a lack of discretion to local managers as regards purchases, perhaps combined with a large degree of central purchasing.

So, some signs of good progress in Poland these last ten years; but, like anywhere else, the road is both rocky and long, and full of potholes and other bumpy bits. Do support your local producers, wherever you find them: Covid-19 and extended shutdowns has meant that many are barely surviving as it is. In the meantime, it’s good to know that local brewers in the UK can learn the success factors in selling craft beer just as much from the Polish experience, and possibly more, as Polish brewers can from us. That’s also progress.

An escape to Poland’s borderlands

It’s been a little-more-than-usually quiet on the blog these last few weeks as we’ve been away and, well, a holiday deserves to be a holiday.

Covid-19 and foreign travel

Our plane tickets were booked some time ago but it was a bit of a late decision actually to use them, amidst rising CV-19 cases ahead of the UK’s ‘unlocking’ on 19 July and eventually secured not least as a result of Bulgaria’s decision to close its borders (again) to UK citizens from the same date, it surely not being long before the rest of the EU was likely to follow suit (well, I would, in their shoes). This didn’t happen, as it turned out, but it was a key factor prompting us to take the chance – if borders had been closed again, it might have been some time before we got back to Europe proper.

Getting into Poland was not onerous: a downloadable certificate demonstrating our double-jabbed status; and a passenger locator form in the shape of an A4 pro forma issued and filled in on the plane, and collected by flight staff; if they even passed it to the Polish border guards, I suspect it wasn’t long before it duly found its way into the big round A-Z file. After a steep rise in the spring, CV-19 cases in Poland have fallen dramatically now representing, according to this interactive chart on the Pink ‘Un (set up to show comparative cases/100,000 population in Poland and in the UK), a tiny fraction of those in the UK: given the bureaucracy (and the expense) associated with getting back into the UK from a visit to a country which remains, still, ‘amber list’, things really ought to be the other way around.

Face coverings remain formally mandatory in inside, unventilated places and, while this was usually respected at the start of the trip, the sheer absence of cases and a vaccination programme which has seen substantial progress among the over-18s saw non-observance noticeably rise during the course of our stay. As we’ve seen from the UK this week, however, large proportions of vaccinated people do not mean that cases cannot rise, or restrictions be again under contemplation – other factors are also at work and, in Poland. a fourth wave is indeed predicted for the autumn.

Introduction

2021 also sees the 10th anniversary of my first visit to Poland (a latecomer on my travels around central and eastern Europe).

Anyway, our trip took us initially to Wrocław and then anti-clockwise around the borders of modern-day Poland with the Czech Republic (via the spa towns of Świeradów-Zdrój; and Kudowa-Zdrój) to the very south-east corner in the Bieszczady Mountains, bordered on three sides by Ukraine and where Poland also borders Slovakia via the Carpathians, and then slightly north to the major city of Rzeszów. Thus, the more progressive, developed and investment-heavy west and the more socially conservative, less developed investment-poor east. The nature of the locations prompted quite a few thoughts about borders, migration and the importance of symbols and language, and I’ve attached these in an extended longform essay below, along with some of the on-theme photos filtered out from the 1,400+ I took during the three weeks, interleaving these observations with a few diary entries documenting where we visited.

We travelled by train and bus wherever possible; planning each stage (travel and accommodation) one in advance. This gave us some flexibility although we were able to retain a broad direction in mind.

Some relatively modern history about borders

I suspect like many others in the UK, I was ignorant until quite recently about the fact that Poland was shifted physically westwards as a result of World War II. Despite being on the winning side, as well as being the casus belli between the UK and Nazi Germany, Poland lost extensive amounts of territory to the east (along the so-called Curzon line which meant the loss of then Lwów, now Lviv and previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), to newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania as Stalin sought to push his ‘security zone’ as far west as he could (modern geopolitical history continues to see this frontier very much as contested territory); but gaining the ‘Recovered Territories’ from Germany in the north (Gdańsk and eastwards) and in the west (along the Oder-Neisse line and including Silesia (Wrocław) and up to Szczecin, the latter actually west of the Oder). Modern-day Poland was essentially re-established on the basis of the realm of the medieval Piast dynasty. From being pretty central, even slightly west, of the longitudinal centre of Poland, Warsaw found itself quite firmly in its east; and, while Poland certainly lost territory overall, in terms of hectares (it ended up at about 80 per cent of its pre-war size), this was, at least to some degree although this is inevitably controversial, compensated by the Recovered Territories being more highly developed than the areas conceded in the east. The Poland that emerged was more compact than before, and with two quite distinct halves, and the fault lines that resulted from this continue to affect Poland and Polish society today. Polish agreement to this reduction in its size and influence was only achieved by intense wartime diplomatic pressure as well as, rather belatedly, a recognition of the geopolitical realities.

As we might imagine, the cost in human terms of all this border-shifting was immense as people were forcibly moved, on the basis in some cases of an ‘exchange of populations’, as the Polish nation state sought to reconstitute itself as a homogeneous entity and find room in the Recovered Territories for people leaving lands lost to the east, while itself deporting non-Poles to the east. Ordinary German people lost their homes in lands in which many had been settled for some time to the new Polish nation, being forcibly moved to within the borders of how Germany was now constituted. It is hard to disagree with Norman Davies‘s simple conclusion that:

Inimitably, frontiers were to have priority over mere people.

‘God’s Playground’ p. 379, 2005 edition (re-printed in 2013)

Politicians debating over where lines should be drawn on a map can have no other outcome.

The sheer effort involved is hard to imagine: it consumed much of the next three years and, in terms of German expellees from Poland, totalled no fewer than five million people held and then transferred in conditions which may have been familiar to the Nazis but much less so to ordinary Germans caught up in the war but living lives outside of the Nazi machine. On top of the number of Poles moved internally, and into Poland from beyond its new borders, this was indeed one of the ‘greatest demographic upheavals in European history’ (Davies, p. 422, p. 423) – and it happened within the living memory of many of us. It’s a shame that, collectively, we don’t know, or appreciate, these key events better.

Świeradów-Zdrój

After a night in Wrocław (formerly Breslau), a two-hour bus trip took us back west and a bit south to Świeradów-Zdrój (Bad Flinsberg), for some acclimatisation, cake and a delightful, charming family reunion. Świeradów-Zdrój is a rather genteel spa town, notable otherwise for being high enough above sea level to sustain a winter sports industry in the harsh months of the Polish winter – the highest peak is Stog Izerski, served by a cable car, and, despite being 1107m above sea level (that’s 3,360 feet; for comparison, Mount Snowdon/Yr Wyddfa is 1085m above sea level), it’s still substantially below the tree line (largely spruce, and substantially regenerated since thousands of hectares were lost to pollution and insect infestation in the late 1980s). Finding a view from the top, other than of trees, rocks and blueberry bushes, is a bit difficult other than at the summit restaurant.

It’s also a short, tree-lined walk from the top into the Czech Republic, across a border marked simply by a boardwalk and a few signposts, to the neighbouring (and slightly higher) peak of Smrk (1124m) which has a newly-(re-)constructed viewing tower that does take you above the tree line to views over Poland and the Czech Republic. We repeated this bureaucracy-free border-crossing experience some days later.

Świeradów-Zdrój also has a quite astonishing church which, as you progress down the nave towards an apparently oddly offset centrepiece, the presence of a second, modern nave (added in the 1970s at an angle of around 45 degrees to the nave in the ‘old’ part of the church) slowly becomes evident. Poland is, now, overwhelmingly Roman Catholic (see also below, churches being one of the themes of this trip) but thoughts abounded as to how a dual nave church might be used in multi-denominational Christian countries.

Around the town, English language skills were rarer, though growing, and German was more common. Adjacent to our dinner table at a neighbouring 4* hotel (built in 1907) one evening was a party of elderly, and rather sombre, German men and women, clearly lead by a tour guide, likely to be representing one of a number of associations whose aim is to facilitate visits to the patrimony of German people expelled in the immediate post-War period – i.e. where they, or their parents, grew up. That this is these days relatively uncontroversial – that there are few, or no, evident claims to property restitution – is due no doubt to many things (and things were not always so comfortable in the post-War period) but including among them the peaceful integrationist aims of the EU, and the affirmation in 1990 by newly-unified Germany, within that perspective provided by the EU, of the post-war border between Poland and Germany. The flag display outside that same hotel is a symbolic, and incredibly powerful, representation of what that message of unity between European people actually means and the key role played by the EU in that process:

Additionally, Świeradów-Zdrój offers forest walks and the broad walkways and gently rising elevations of the new Sky Walk tower – a terrifically relaxing place to step into the holiday.

Kudowa-Zdrój

Heading south-east from Świeradów-Zdrój by taxi and then train, our next destination was the border town of Kudowa-Zdrój (Bad Kudowa). Today a youthful and quite lively resort, though replete with the panoply of the formal things that spa towns have to offer, but less influenced by the pull and the wealth of Wrocław, the predominant linguistic note in Kudowa-Zdrój is not German but Czech. This is no surprise since the town is surrounded on three sides by the Czech Republic while the E67, the European motorway stretching from the Czech Republic to Finland, goes more or less through the town, splitting the train station firstly from the lower and then the upper parts of the town. Adding to the Czech notes, there was also a ‘cross-border’ Czech-Polish cultural festival going on, funded by the EU’s Interreg programme.

The attraction here was not so much the spa water as two things: firstly, the opportunity to experience a border not influenced by the natural divides raised by mountain ranges; and secondly the Góry Stołowe (Table Mountains) whose highest peak, Szczeliniec Wielki (919m) is a short bus ride away.

Cieszyn, further to the south-east, might be better known – the border here is a small river brutally splitting the town into two parts in different countries, reflecting a sad history – but the divide in Kudowa-Zdrój splits Mała Czermna (Little Czermna, in the Polish) from the district of Czermna, lying on the north-west outskirts of the spa itself. It’s a short walk to the border point and, while there was formal crossing infrastructure in place in the past, Poland and the Czech Republic are now members of the EU’s Schengen Area and achieving the ‘crossing’ is a simple barrier-free stroll down the road. The Czech police apparently take a dim view of undocumented Poles traversing their territory so what they would have made of an undocumented Schengen-less Brit is anyone’s guess (under CV-19 rules, travel into the Czech Republic for UK citizens is barred other than for essential reasons), though the question didn’t actually arise at any point on our bike trip for a late lunch into the neighbouring, and comparatively rather sleepy, Czech town of Nachod. Essential travel, surely.

Here is the border point, familiar elsewhere on both these early legs of the trip from mountain crossing points; ‘P’ on the one side (for Poland); ‘C’ on the other. Note, however, that this is a re-purposed stone, clearly dating from before 1945:

On another occasion, I re-crossed the border (yes, a repeat offender) to spend some of my remaining Czech crowns in one of the not one, not two, but three pubs that lie immediately across the border, wherein I noted that it was still possible, in one corner of the EU in 2021, to buy a pint for a pound (500ml of beer for 30 crowns; the official exchange rate on the day being 29.9 crowns to the pound). It was the type of continental lager best described as cold and wet – much better (and more pricey) was had from a variety of the craft breweries that now inhabit even the remotest corners of Poland – but, nevertheless, this has its place in some contexts. The cost of food and drink was certainly lower in this part of the Czech Republic than in this part of Poland so, unless there is some sort of currency thing going on, Interreg has some work to do in terms of a number of its core aims.

The other attraction was another mountain to climb. In typically Polish hill-walking style, Szczeliniec Wielki offers steps which, in this case, go all the way to the top (actually dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, when the mountain was part of Prussia) and, frequently, a handrail which, in other than Covid-19 terms, might often have been quite a useful thing. Additionally, signs attached to the trees every hundred metres or so mean that you can rarely lose your way (unless you’re really not paying attention) – all very different from our climb this time last year of South Uist’s Beinn Mhor.

The precise number of steps up Szczeliniec Wielki varies according to what you count, but the common assumption is that there are ‘around 700’; the definitive answer, however, is that there are actually 722 taking you to a summit restaurant, of course, as well as breathtaking views of the countryside and the rest of the Sudetes mountains. The key feature of Szczeliniec Wielki, however, is its monolithics – huge lumps of sandstone carved by erosion and weathering into a variety of interesting shapes and also into rock labyrinths (additionally at the nearby site of Błędny Skały, which we also visited the same day in a monumental day of walking). You get to visit this bit of the mountain after paying the appropriate national park fee – taking you to a few more steps up (and then down). Some of the names of the formations leave a little to the imagination and some are best left undescribed for reasons of not spoiling the (frequently breathtaking) surprise, but here’s my version of probably the most photographed one – a rock formation that could barely better resemble a mountain gorilla had it been deliberately sculpted:

Quite soon, though, someone’s going to need to tackle that birch stubbornly clinging to the gorilla’s shoulder…

Sanok

On next to the Carpathians and a first, short-stay base in Sanok – a day’s journey from Kudowa of more than 500km involving a taxi, a train and finally a bus. Sanok is a large town through which flows the River San whose upper reaches form the modern boundary between Ukraine and Poland at the eastern edge of the Bieszczady Mountains and which also featured in the call of Ukraine nineteenth century nationalists for a Ukraine ‘from the San to the Don’ (Davies, p. 115). Sanok has a number of attractions but the biggest is the skansen – a large open air folk museum akin to St. Fagans in Cardiff but covering 38 hectares and featuring some 180 original wooden buildings from the 17th to the 20th century re-constructed faithfully on site (and labelled with basic information in Polish and English). The aim is to provide a sympathetic consideration of what life was like for the peoples of the Polish Carpathians, including both Boykos and Łemkos, long-established Rusyn minorities typically inhabiting the villages of the Bieszczady and the lands adjacent to the west, respectively, and both essentially ethnic Ukraines. The confession of both is Greek Catholic – accepting the authority of the Pope but adhering to an Eastern Christian rite – and the skansen features a number of astonishing wooden churches (cerkiew, in Polish; tserkvas in UNESCO language, as they are internationally recognised as having global heritage) in the different styles of both Boykos and Łemkos.

Both groups suffered hugely in the aftermath of World War II despite a tradition of living peaceably alongside their Polish ‘brothers’ and with some degree of intermarriage. Military activities in the Bieszczady in 1945-1947 by units of the fascist-led Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA) in support of an updated claim for a Greater Ukraine led to Boykos and Łemkos being regarded as sympathisers and to decisive military action (Akcja Wisła) being taken against them by the new Soviet-backed government. Whole villages in the Bieszczady were cleared, with a total of 140,000 inhabitants repatriated to the ‘Recovered Territories’, and buildings systematically razed to the ground. Many were left as ghost towns for decades and, in some still, orchards with no farmstead and overgrown foundations remain a symbol of the tragedy that arises when nationalism turns people against each other and when people are forced to pick sides.

Cisna

Cisna, our base for most of a six-night stay in the Bieszczady, was one such clearance village although Cisna has been repopulated from the 1970s onwards as the government sought to open up the tourism potential of the Mountains. The village, which occupies a key strategic position in the geography of the area, retains a Communist-era monument to the outcomes of Akcja Wisła on a small rise in the centre of the village but, although it was cleaned up in 2017 and a new memorial tablet inscribed, parts of it remain in a poor state. The new stone commemorates the ‘Defenders of Cisna and the surrounding area in 1944-47 against the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’ and at least this has stopped the graffiti which overlay the original tablet’s commemoration of the ‘Fallen in the fights to consolidate people’s power in Cisna’ although a little has been lost as a result. The frieze, showing soldiers in action in the battles of the time, appears to remain although the open air sections are blackened and indistinct. A new information board at the site tells the story of the actions in Cisna and provides some thoughtful contextual comments, while the main events are also usefully re-told, with photographs, in other places online (Polish language required; or at least access to a translator).

Rain and damp, muddy ground interfered somewhat with our trip here – it is the mountains, after all – but we did manage a couple of small local hills (Jeleni Skok, 777m above sea level; and Hon, 663m – both well below the tree line although the former at least has a viewing platform allowing a perspective on the Carpathians) as well as the main objective – walking the połoniny, Poland’s mountainous wild meadows free of grazing sheep (though neither bears not wolves). We chose the higher for our trip – Połonina Caryńska (1297m) – although most of the mountains hereabout top out at roughly the same level. After some uncertainty as to where to get off the bus, we managed to start the walk in the right place and, while full of gratitude for the stone steps, handrails and clear signs on display throughout, I do have a little beef with the officially-produced tourist leaflets and brochures which promise a walk up of 70 minutes and up to two hours down (to a different destination). These are not times achievable by 50-something occasional, albeit enthusiastic, walkers or indeed by people with babies and young families and there is of course a serious point that mountains need to be respected and, with that in mind, people need not to be encouraged to over-reach themselves in conditions where their own safety – and that of others – may be endangered. It took us, including stops for photos, water and rest, two hours to reach the top and two and three-quarter hours to get down, the last eighty minutes of which was a relentless and frequently steep slog downhill through the forest, often with some quite challenging underfoot conditions as a result of the rain. The walk up Caryńska from where we finished is advertised as two hours – it would have taken us considerably more, even had we started our day there, not least when this is the view after the forest, but uphill, as you eventually break through the tree line:

And that’s not the real top of Caryńska. Of course, we didn’t say that to people on their way up, some already apparently exhausted from that slog uphill.

Nevertheless, the views all around, across Poland and to the Carpathians border with Slovakia and down into Ukraine, were magnificent and the wild flowers, while clearly past their collective best in early August, were nevertheless still showing very well individually. And the top, while crowded (hiking is very popular in Poland) not least with a party of scouts, was not as crowded as some: either in the UK or, notably, at some famous spots further west in the Polish Carpathians.

Having seen some examples of cerkiew in the Boyko and Łemkov styles in the skansen at Sanok, we were keen to see some more examples located within the communities they serve and, aided by a day when we re-located a little out of Cisna, and with the aid of a hire of electric bikes from Robert at Agroturystyka Wojtasiówka and some information from the Icon Trail, now in the process of being renewed, we ventured out. Having travelled across the River Osława, formerly marking the traditional boundary between Boykos and Łemkos, what we found was in the Łemkov style; and we explored no fewer than six (well, it was a Sunday): one in Radoszyce, now re-purposed and re-dedicated as a Roman Catholic church (and only a couple of kilometres up the road from the Slovak border although there’s absolutely nothing there other than expanses of concrete and a picnic table and so we resisted the opportunity to step into Slovakia); two in Komancza; and then the jewels in the crown – one at Rzepedź; one at Szczawne; and then finally the one at Turzańsk which is one of the 16 tserkvas formally on the UNESCO list (the numbers of which are evenly divided between Poland and Ukraine) but which currently has the builders in until next month (the main building, though not the separate belfry, was surrounded by scaffolding when we visited). Most are still in use, all have been renovated (or even rebuilt, in one case) in some way and serving what are quite small, though clearly devout, Uniate communities most of which are likely to have returned to the area once people felt themselves more free to be themselves again following the tragedy (described as such in a commemorative sign in the cerkiew at Rzepedź) of the clearances.

Most of the cerkiew were closed (keys are often available) but the one at Szczawne was open, with a retired geography teacher acting as curator. She was certainly aware of where the Outer Hebrides were, but made it quite clear that she looked only east: apart from Polish she spoke Russian, Ukrainian and Łemko. Her children, nevertheless, had looked west, with three living in the UK (two in Hereford and one in Southampton) and the pain that migration frequently presents – the absence of children and, perhaps, grandchildren – to those left behind not least in the circumstances represented by their own history, was clearly heartfelt. For Europeans, at least, migration is a choice and, while recognising that economic and social circumstances also present something of a compelling force for some people, at least migration is no longer something that comes at the end of a gun. Progress, of sorts. Here, and offered with respect, is the belfry of her church, built in 1889 and renovated in 1973 (bullet holes, remnants of both world wars remain), with the core design broadly reflecting that of the church itself:

Rzeszów

An early start for our next move, north to the city of Rzeszów, and two two-hour bus trips with a connection time of eight minutes (successfully made) meant we were there in time for brunch. The day could scarcely have got any better when we picked on an upstairs cafe on the main square where one of the duties of the waiting staff was to flip the record over to play the other side; and when the staff’s choice of vinyl for the day was THIS.

Eventually tearing ourselves away for a tour of the city’s major sights, and after a brief, but comic, interlude one of us enjoyed with the local police (what goes on in Rzeszów stays in Rzeszów), we started off at the ‘Revolutionary Act Monument’ dedicated, it says here, to the ‘fights for freedom that took place in the Rzeszów area’. Built in 1974, and currently rather well-maintained, despite the attention of a glut of pigeons, its location opposite what was clearly CP HQ, which now houses the provincial administration for the Podkarpackie region of Poland (the more things change…), gives the game away that its correct name probably runs something like ‘Workers and soldiers joined in the ultimate and inevitable victory of Socialism’. While we’ve had our own debates in the UK in recent years about the messages that statues send and their continued relevance in different times, there is a clear argument for explaining and re-contextualising the history. Rzeszów city council deserves a bit of credit for not simply pulling the monument down, as has evidently happened in other places – though it has to be said it does also occupy a major space within the city. However, something a bit less mealy-mouthed on the tourism brochures would also help the impression of a confident city which is at ease with itself and with its recent history.

We used Rzeszów largely as a base for day trips out to places which give readers decent experience of the breadth of the Polish alphabet – to Łańcut; Przemyśl; and to Sandomierz – before ensuring that we had enough time to spare to get the UK Covid-19 bureaucracy in place before our return (tests, both taken and booked (and in both cases paid for); and online forms completed. All the trips – respectively by bus/train, train and then bus again – had their merits. Presenting here just a couple of highlights: Łańcut offered baronial splendour alongside a completely renovated synagogue (in its original building) now in use as a museum (as well as being the home of the best beer sampled this trip); Sandomierz a series of 18th century oil paintings depicting – in a cathedral – people meeting their deaths in a variety of bloodthirsty ways, and including, separately, one depicting the blood libel which frequently features in anti-Semitic discourse (well examined and contextualised here in a piece from 2014 looking expressly at Sandomierz).

The pick of these three trips for me, however, was the mystically-unpronounceable Przemyśl – a city of spires, southern Poland’s second oldest city and an important trading post in the Austro-Hungarian Empire – where the renovated station building, built 1859-1860, offers Baroque style and a station buffet with drapes, plush chairs and fine dining, damask table cloths and all. The city lies close to the border with Ukraine – Ukraine nationalists laid claim to it as part of Greater Ukraine – and the River San flows through it before its eventual confluence with the Wisła a short way north-west of Sandomierz.

The city is multi-confessional and, to some degree, this has been a little fluid: in 1991 the Roman Catholics moved out of one of their two centres of worship – a monumental building whose frontage towers over the street outside, built originally in the 17th century by the Jesuits – to make way for the Uniate community, who had been worshipping in the Carmelite cathedral until that Order wanted it back in the immediate post-Socialist period. The more interesting thing, however, at least in contemporary terms, was this window display in a private apartment immediately opposite the church’s main entrance:

Gusts of wind coming from the wrong direction made the red flag stubbornly refuse to stay the right way out for the camera, but – as might be clear from the logo – it reads ‘Strajk Kobiet‘ (women’s strike) and refers to the mass grassroots protests by women taking place on Polish streets in 2020-21, the largest protests in Poland’s modern history, whose sparking point was a new abortion law but which also, in some contexts, can be seen as mounting an effective opposition to Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS – Law and Justice), the right-wing national-conservative ruling party whose MEPs are now the largest group in the Eurosceptic ECR group (set up by David Cameron) in the European Parliament. The story is not over yet – the leader of Strajk Kobiet has been charged with offences in connection with the protests – but the encounter here this afternoon in Przemyśl was made even more interesting when the young woman who lived in the apartment came down the street behind us as we were taking our photographs and, with a broad smile, asked us if we liked her flags. After assuring her that we did (these things can be misinterpreted), we congratulated her on her placement not least given her location (churches being one of the flash points between Strajk Kobiet and the government, with protesters angry at the Church’s role in the new law -and its powerful role in society more generally – and with leading PiS representatives calling on party members and supporters to ‘take part in the defence of the church’. The language is familiar from our own debates about statues; and, it will not be a surprise to learn, the outcomes of the use of such language were also shared: populists learn very quickly from each other in a globalising world).

It was impossible not to share the woman’s joy in her celebration of her gesture – the rainbow flag was, she said, a replacement for one that had got a bit tatty and had been unfurled only that morning (hence the packaging lines) – nor to escape the massive symbolism of what was going on: here was a woman in the south-east corner of Poland making a dramatic gesture at the surrounding forces of conservatism, symbolised by a church serving the eastwards-facing Uniate community, and turning herself to face very deliberately west in doing so.

The rainbow flag is of course the international symbol of LGBT rights and units of local government in south-east Poland have been at the forefront of the adoption of statements of ‘LGBT-free zones’ or ‘pro family’ charters (including the province of Podkarpackie, whose seat is at Rzeszów, but not Przemyśl as a ‘city powiat‘ within Podkarpackie). Walking around Rzeszów it was impossible not to notice rainbow colours in use on logos and infrastructure and, as it seems, there is a unifying symbol of opposition to the government contained within it, too: it was present, alongside other symbols, in an opposition party protest (actually also sporting flags for a centre-right party which indicates how far right PiS has positioned itself) about media freedom taking place in Wrocław when we returned there before our flight home:

Note also the Covid-19 mask, being worn fashionably as a chin-strap. Other, less common, public usages spotted this trip were as an elbow pad and as a bracelet.

Conclusion

My theme in this post has been borders, language and symbols and the Polish locations we visited on this trip provided plenty of opportunity to consider what these things mean in a modern country located within the EU – and highly secure within its own borders, however much blood and suffering had been spent in the the fight to secure them – and able to participate in a border-free Europe which encompasses not just goods and services but citizens, too.

Below the surface, however, there are difficulties. Poland provides an external border for the EU and, currently, is open to criticism for its policy towards refugees on the border with Belarus – a border it would not have recognised before 1945. Many of these are Afghans – and there is a sizable community of Muslims around Białystok, further north than we went on this trip, hence why the Belarus route has proven attractive – and the position may well deteriorate substantially in the autumn as a result of the current situation in Afghanistan. Elsewhere, it was clearer than ever that freedom of movement is reserved for those who are already in the EU – those on the outside face, in sharp contrast to borderless Europe, fences that are being re-doubled both in their size and in their intent to keep people, however, desperate out.

Aside of its fresh attractiveness to asylum seekers, and evidently in sharp contrast to the will of PiS, Poland is also a country of immigration – there are, for example, 1.5m Ukrainians now living and working in Poland (many of the young men and women serving us in restaurants across the country were likely to have been Ukrainian); these may be the ‘brothers’, but that is rather old language these days and, in a conservative country, while their immediate labour market rights may well be fully protected, their long-term presence is likely to change the country in ways for which it may not be prepared. As will, of course, asylum seekers for whose ‘brotherhood’ people need to look a little deeper than perhaps a country homogeneous by choice for the last seventy five years has been used to.

PiS is able to dominate party politics in the face of a fractured opposition, but the new politics does not take place in the Sejm and there is plenty for people to be angry about, including women’s rights, LGBT rights and media laws as well as public sector pensions, among others, to say nothing of a rights-based clash with the EU (though cynics may be right to point out that, not least with the EU’s requirement for unanimity, little will come of that). Poland is a free country – but it is not yet a society in which all people can feel free to be themselves and the dividing lines, both socio-cultural and geographical, are beginning to show.

Furthermore, much more needs to be done also to deliver growth across Poland on a more even basis – the fissures and fault lines based on development are also clear – and while a ‘Polexit’ might well be extremely unlikely, regardless of the current points of confrontation with the EU, as with Brexit the wider debate about the EU will be won and lost among those that feel they have been left behind and those for whom party politics provides no opportunity to have their voices heard. As we’ve seen in the UK, continual sniping and playing up the confrontation is no solution.

My final photo in this essay comes from the wall of the rebuilt synagogue in Rzeszów, now serving as an archive. On the edge of a public park named in honour of the victims of the ghetto – and which lay within the area of the ghetto itself – the synagogue commemorates in Polish, Hebrew and English those murdered and the whole is a moving, and still, place.

And yet, in a country which has spent so much in trying to get the international community to get the language around the death camps right, and which is so sensitive when it comes to language around the Church, the language here is wrong. Ordinary Germans were also victims of the war, and of Hitler, both at home in Germany and beyond what are now modern Germany’s borders; and were as much liberated by the end of the war from Nazi tyranny as the rest of Europe which had been occupied by the Nazi machine. The language around ‘German occupiers’ and, far worse, ‘German genociders’ (reading the Polish, the problem is not one of translation) is entirely misplaced at this point in a unified Europe which encompasses both Poland and Germany as sovereign, independent and, crucially, equal states. Continuing to cite ‘the Germans’ not only does little for present-day relations between the two countries but will also play a role in perpetuating suspicions and indeed hatreds. ‘Nazi’ is surely the preferred term here, providing both contemporary contextualisation and explanation. A country which celebrates the Polish and the German flags alongside each other in its western borderlands – and which, in Rzeszów itself, is clearly aware of how language changes and the sensitives that are involved in how it is used – needs to make stronger efforts to get the language right in its south-eastern third, too.

[Edit 7 October: When writing this concluding section, I wasn’t aware that a debate already existed in Poland about the correct term for Nazi offences, as this article from today’s Notes from Poland testifies, highlighting a series of vandalisms of memorials in Warsaw carried out by right-wingers from clubs linked to Gazeta Polska. Regardless of whether ‘hitlerowcy’ has its own connotations, the point remains that something else is needed other than ‘niemcy’.]