All 11 entries tagged Poland

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October 18, 2011

Auschwitz – and the Polish crosses

Auschwitz IA long week-end in Krakow – a place where, as I wrote last year, I’m always happy to go back – allowed me also the time to go revisit, after a long time, Oświęcim, the mid-size town better known under its German name of Auschwitz, hosting what is, bitterly, the most visited ‘sight’ in the whole country.

I had been here for the first time in 1989 – when the guides were still often survivors, and completed the tour warning that in West Germany Nazism was still alive. And I was there again, more at length, in 1998. I was doing my PhD fieldwork at the Fiat factory of Tychy, only 10km from here, and suddenly Auschwitz was in the news worldwide because of the conflict over the so-called ‘pope’s cross’. I reported the events for the Italian daily il manifesto. The dispute was caused by a gang of Catholic fanatics occupying a gravel pit adjacent to the concentration camp of Auschwitz I, in defence of a cross that had been raised temporarily for the pope’s Mass five years earlier, but then kept there against the protests of Jewish organisations – who do not accept any religious symbol on a cemetery, and least of all a cross. For more details on a very delicate and multi-faceted dispute, I can direct to my longest analysis piece I wrote back then(oswiecim98.doc), but if you do not read Italian, I will try to summarise the issue shortly, hopefully not too roughly.

Auschwitz I is the concentration camp where tens of thousands of people, mostly Poles, were interned, exploited, tortured and killed. It has therefore an important place in Polish history: let’s remember that Poland had the largest anti-Nazi resistance movement in Europe, and that Auschwitz is, together with Warsaw's old town (for the uprising), its most important place of remembrance. But Auschwitz I is also the place where the first gas chamber was experimented for the annihilation of Jews – which would then take place in the most scientific, efficient large-scale way (at its peak, 10,000 a day) in the nearby camp of Auschwitz II – Birkenau: the largest Jewish cemetery in the world with over one million victims.

The co-existence of the memory of these two places has been difficult – especially at the beginning. The Polish majority was too scarred by its own suffering (over three million victims, total destruction of the capital city and near total economic devastation) to be concerned with the suffering of others, and to assimilate the meaning of the Shoah. Primo Levi, having described Auschwitz in Se questo è un uomo, in La tregua mentions how after the liberation Poles did not want to hear of Jewish prisoners. Jews, understandably, often complain about Polish ‘indifference’ during the war towards the Jewish suffering, although it must be remembered that in extreme situations indifference for neighbours’ fates is a psychological survival instinct – it was often the same among Poles, and indeed among Jews themselves. But Poles during the war did not need the Jews, but the Jews needed the Poles - desperately. As Władisław Bartoszewski (former Auschwitz inmate and resistance fighter, then first post-communist Minister of Foreign Affairs, and still an important moral and political authority in Poland) put it, to save a Jew ten Poles were needed, but to betray ten Jews, one Pole was enough. This was a desperate situation: in Plac Grzybowski, the centre of the former Warsaw Ghetto, a huge monument is planned to remember, by name, the thousands of Poles who saved Jews during the war - but they were never going to be enough (and the number is like everything disputed: for Bartoszewski, only the 6 thousands officially recognised by Israel should be named, for the Right, many thousands more).

What is more complex is why the indifference went on after the war. The communist regime was not conducive for open dialogue and trust. For long, many Poles ignored the major difference between their own suffering, and the Jewish one, not just in terms of ‘numbers’, but of principle: Poles had a choice, while Jews were all annihilated regardless of any individual merit. Even worse, in 1946 there were pogroms in Kielce, and the most conservative part of the population resented the Jews for welcoming the Russians. In 1968, it was the turn of the Polish communist regime to engage in anti-Jewish cleansing and expel tens of thousands of Jews.

The historical explanations of the difficult relations during the war, after it and during communism do not constitute any justification for the hostility after 1989 – when a part of the Church and the Right, including the broadcaster Radio Maryja, fell into open anti-Semitism, and the provocative defence of the pope’s cross in Auschwitz caused indignation worldwide. It took many months for Polish authority to remove the occupants and relocate the cross.

In 2011, Oswiecim is exceptional in an economically dynamic region for still not attracting any investment and keeping losing population: Made in Auschwitz is definitely not a good brand. But the situation is much calmer than in that hot summer of 1998. The guide does not blame current Western Germany anymore, but does point at the way Roma are treated in many European countries today, including the self-declared democratic, civilised West: deportation is how the Shoah started. The unique Jewish suffering is well underlined in Birkenau, while not detracting any attention from the Polish and Russian suffering in Auschwitz I. Similarly, Warsaw, which a few years ago built a spectacular, but very nationalist Museum of the Warsaw Insurrection of 1944, is refurbishing the few remains of the Jewish Ghetto (out of my window while I am writing this blog) and building a Museum to the Ghetto Uprising of 1943.

However, Poland keeps having problems with the cross. Last year, it was the one raised in front the presidential palace to commemorate Lech Kaczyński – and implicitly to deny legitimacy to the new president Komorowski. Now, it is the cross in the Parliament. It was hung to the wall at night by a group of rightwing MPs in 1997. Now, the new anticlerical party of Janusz Palikot asks to remove it, or at least to discuss and decide why one religious symbol should be there. Unsurprisingly, the Right and most of the Church reacts indignantly, re-enacting the dangerous myth that Poles-equal-Catholics. And in the XVII Century this was the most tolerant part of the Europe, and the most welcoming to persecuted Jews...

Auschwitz II - Birkenau

October 10, 2011

Polish elections: decline of anti–Germanism, rise of anti–clericalism

Tusk or KaczynskiWarsaw wakes up this morning and nothing has changed. Just like every 10th day of each month, there is a religious commemoration of the Smolensk disaster of the 10th April 2010, and Jarosław Kaczyński lays a crown of flowers in front of the presidential palace, in memory of his brother Lech. He would have liked to wake up this morning as winner of the elections, but it does not matter: for him, his brother is still the moral president (because he would have been re-elected, had he not been killed by some sort of liberal conspiracy with Russian involvement), and himself will eventually win the elections in four years: yesterday night, he promised that he will ‘do Budapest in Warsaw’, a reference to the landslide victory of the Hungarian nationalist Right last year, after two terms of socialist government.

The parliamentary elections have confirmed the ruling coalition between liberals (PO) and peasants (PSL), which, according to still unofficial results, should keep a narrow majority. This is undoubtedly a major achievement for Prime Minister Tusk. It is the first time since the fall of communism that a ruling coalition is confirmed after the first term – until now, Poles had constantly expressed their disappointment with governments of whatever colour by voting them out of office at the first opportunity. In the 1990sk, it was the same in all post-communist countries, but Hungarians and Czechs already in the 2000s started to confirm their governments, in an indication of democratic consolidation. Tusk’s victory is all the more remarkable that it comes in the middle of a global crisis, when all governments find it extremely difficult to maintain their support. It may not be all Tusk’s merit, but Poland has been the only European country not to have interrupted its economic growth during the last three years, and it is starting to be referred to as a ‘second Germany’.

Tusk himself has changed and, also because of the need to ally with PSL, has moderated its radical neoliberal orientations of the 1990s. Over the last four years, it has avoided the radical anti-social reforms that he had advocated when he was in opposition. He now he declares that ‘to rule you need a heart’ and even admits that in 1990, in his dispute with Mazowiecki on the pace of economic reforms, it was Mazowiecki who (‘as always’) was right, when saying that the social consequences should be taken into consideration.

However, Tusk’s is not a triumph. His party has lost little ground since 2007 (down from 41% to 39%), but turn-out has gone down from 53% to 48%: the Polish majority did not care to go to vote. The next four years will be difficult, with the preparation to EMU (if such a thing survives!) and increasing internal tensions between radical neoliberals and more moderate sides. Until now, the strongest force for PO was its adversary, Kaczyński’s PiS, whose paranoid government of 2006-07 is remembered with fear by a large majority of the Polish population. But this fear may water down over time, while other, more convincing opposition parties may emerge.

Kaczyński will probably remain leader of PiS despite this sixth consecutive defeat: the party is of a charismatic kind, with all power in the hands of the leader. As usual, during the campaign he showed a more moderate face, but he had a major slip in his book, when insinuating that Angela Merkel’s election may have been the product of ‘dark forces’ – and refusing to clarify what he meant.. ‘Dark forces’ in Poland may mean only two things: Jews – but Merkel is not Jewish and just about the only obsession Kaczyński does not have is anti-semitism; or secret services. Anybody can read that he meant that Merkel is a product of the Stasi – not bad as an international relations start for a candidate Prime Minister.

But PiS is fragmenting: its best representative, Joanna Kluzik-Rutkowska who helped Kaczyński reach a honourable result in the presidential elections last year, defected to PO, and others have split creating another conservative party, PJN (only 2% yesterday). The PiS electorate is largely old demographically, so that time plays against them. Kaczyński’s book, ‘The Poland of Our Dreams’, despite some clumsy Obama/Luther King resonance, betrays how unrealistic his plans are: it even contains a chapter ‘The Polish History of Our Dreams’ – an involuntary confession of how unfounded the romantic vision of Polish history is. It is surprising that the Solidarity union, despite, electing a less political leader last year, decided again to support PiS despite the foreseeable defeat – in four years, it is unlikely that they will repeat the mistake.

Palac Kultury i NaukThe other opposition with a strong negative electorate is also disappearing: the post-communist Left (SLD), which has obtained the worst result since 1989 (8%). Its young leader Napieralski has not managed to give the party a new image, and even less, something like a distinctive leftwing program. He has resigned today, and the depressing thing is that nobody wants the job.

Poland has been waiting for a new left since 1989, with only one temporarily effective experiment (the Labour Union of the mid-1990s). The surprise of this election is the success of a new fringe party, Palikot’s Movement, which obtained 10% and a stunning 23% among young voters. Palikot is an entrepreneur and a former MP of PO, who made its name through anticlericalism. His party stands for the liberalisation of abortion, same-sex civic unions, end of Catholic education in state schools. In a European perspective, this is hardly radical stuff: most Tories would subscribe to them. What is new is the provocative form of communication, which makes it similar to the Italian radicals, and possibly to the German Pirates who just won in Berlin. But Palikot’s movement is made largely of entrepreneurs and socio-economically it actually sounds individualistic and possibly even more neoliberal than PO (it supports flat income tax and a minimal state). It is likely that as with any maverick party, this one will split and collapse soon – some of it will end back with PO, but some New Left seeds may go into a social terrain which is now fertile for leftwing ideas, on both civil and social rights. For the moment, Poland is a bit more pink, but no more red.

May 26, 2011

24 hours in Orbanistan

A very short trip to Budapest and Warsaw. In Budapest, not enough time for the best things, music and the Turkish baths - but the whole city was a sort of Turkish bath of humid heat. Just the time to check that the food and wine are as good as they used to be in 2004, when I spent two months in the city – but not enough time, fortunately, to suffer from what was arguably also the unhealthiest of world cuisines until McDonald’s was founded. I am not sure how many other countries have recipes including fat cuts of meat, oil, butter and lard – and then accompany the dish with generous helpings of cream.

Unhealthy and spicy are also Hungarian politics, with prime minister Viktor Orbán, who in 2002 had modelled his electoral campaign on Berlusconi’s, outdoing his model and achieving unprecedented peaks of authoritarian populism. Thanks to a 2/3 majority in Parliament he could steamroll a new Constitution and new laws allowing the government to control the media and the other state’s institutions, and awarding citizenship to millions Hungarians abroad – at risk of destabilising Romania and Slovakia. Now, he abandoned his social populism (in the past he conceded 50% wage increases and contested healthcare privatisation) to start with tough austerity measures (the country is nearly bankrupt after years of right- and leftwing populism). There are some protests, in particular by police and firefighters against the removal of their early retirement, but the political orientation of them is at least ambiguous (a Israeli flag was burnt in the last demo). Interestingly, among Orbán's targets there are multinational companies. The Hungarian love story with foreign investors may be reaching the end: the 1990s’ nickname of ‘GE-Country’ has been replaced by ‘Orbanistan’.Danube

After Budapest, a short stop in Warsaw was a relief not just because the heat was milder and drier. Poland has avoided the worst of financiarisation and skipped the recession and already moved on from the worst of national populism (the Kaczynski brothers’ rule of 2005-07). Politics is bland but getting ‘normal’: on Wednesday Solidarity organised a national protest against the anti-social policy of the liberal government. Tens of thousands took parts. Not so many in comparison with the West, but at least no Israeli flag was burnt.

Now I am back to Madrid. The #spanishrevolution, which after the end of the ban has no immediate goal left, is nearly over, and it is now the Right to make its voice heard, after a clear victory in the local elections (it reminds of De Gaulle's electoral victory after May 1968, and Fanfani's after the Italian autunno caldo). But the #spanishrevolution has spread a lot of seeds over the internet – even in Budapest and Warsaw they were talking about it, with a bit of envy.

March 08, 2011

“Under German beds”: the surprising adventures of a Polish cleaner in Offenbach

Review of: Justyna Polanska, “Unter deutschen Betten. Eine polnische Putzfrau packt aus”, Knaur 2011.

41ykqjxlkl._ss500_.jpgThe autobiography of a Polish cleaner in Germany, under the title “Under German beds: A Polish cleaning lady unpacks”, has been an instant success and is currently in third place in the list of German bestsellers.

The book by Justyna Polanska, 32 year-old who emigrated at the age of 19 from Poznań to Offenbach near Frankfurt, has all is needed for an immediately-likeable bestseller. First, an accessible contemporary style of short sections and short sentences (I read the 210pp over a couple of evenings, and I am usually slow with German literature), possibly the product of heavy editing (I couldn't detect any underlying Polonism). Second, stories that relate to the lives of millions people. Third, a mix of cheap psychology and practical information – the two most sold items of self-help literature (Polanska also offers cleaning advice on the internet: And, decisively, a soft tabu topic.

The two main reasons why Germans are reading this book with such Drang are probably two. First the ‘dirty’ stories on the sexual harassment Polanska has had to endure in her 12 years of cleaning in Germany. These are all very depressing and in my view not the best part of the book, but undoubtedly they are a selling point, flagged up already in the title (“under German kitchen sinks” wouldn’t sell that much). Secondly, and intriguingly, the perspective of a cleaner is a formidable “mirror” on the real lives of Germans – private lives but also, metaphorically, public life. I can imagine Germans buying the book to discover “how we (and our neighbours) really look like”. As Polanska puts it: “this is the privilege of the cleaning lady: we look behind the curtains.”

These curtains are particularly thick in Germany, and this is why the topic is “tabu”. Not just because Polanska tells us that Germans (unsurprisingly) are not as clean and orderly as they claim. Domestic cleaning is particularly widespread, and increasing, in Germany, and it is also particularly informal. Western Germans have traditionally paid more attention to looking after their homes than many Central and Northern European neighbours: men, under industrial vocational training influence, are into DIY, and women were largely house-bound (the tax system discourages the dual-earner family, childcare provisions were minimal, schools end at midday). Only recently female full-time employment has boomed – hence the demand for domestic cleaners. Other countries have had it for longer (Southern Europe) or have already developed partial alternatives (public services in Scandinavia, ready meals and just not caring in the UK).

But also, other European countries have tried to ‘regularise’ domestic cleaning, usually through major social security incentives (Italy) or ‘vouchers’ for families so that they employ regular workers (Austria, Scandinavia). As a result, paradoxically, the domestic cleaning profession is much more ‘regular’ in a notoriously informal economy such as the Italian one, than in the supposedly ‘coordinated’ one of Germany. In her comparison between Germany and Italy, Finitelli (‘Migration Policy between Restrictive Purposes and Structural Demand: The Case of the Domestic Worker Sector in Germany and Italy.’ In Metz-Göckel, S., Morokvasic, M. and Münst, S. (eds) Migration and Mobility in an Enlarged Europe: A Gender Perspective, 2008) stresses the major role of ‘regularisations’ of domestic migrant workers in Italy, in contrast to the ‘undocumented’ German reality; officially, in Germany there are only 148 thousand domestic workers (90% of them German!), but surveys indicate that 4 million German families use domestic labour: assuming that it is just for one day a week, there must be 800,000 domestic cleaners, without even counting the large, not much more formal sector of business cleaning. So domestic cleaning is a private and public tabu, something which Germans pretend it doesn’t exist. In other countries it is a more public topic: in 1990 for a while the most debated issue in the Italian Left was not the fall of the Berlin Wall, but, following an article by Valentino Parlato, whether it's acceptable for communists to have domestic cleaners. By the way, research is discovering the issue: in Italy much has been written by Asher Colombo and by Bianca Beccalli (who already forty years ago had written a paper on cleaning and socialist division of labour...), in the UK interesting work is being carried out by Nick Clark at London Metropolitan University.

Indeed, Polanska herself works illegally. She deals with her guilt for not paying tax by doing some volunteer cleaning for poor old people, but it is not clear how she deals with insurance and pension - now she is happily married to a German Italian, so I presume that was the solution. But she points to the fact that the real beneficiaries of informal domestic labour are, of course, the employers. She cleans for both families and some businesses (medical practices, restaurants, brothels etc), and nobody would employ her if she issued a receipt. Among her employers there are lawyers, police officers, journalists, politicians: all require maximal secrecy (indeed, every now and then a politician is found using undocumented migrant labour – usually it is those who in public oppose immigration...).

For me, the attraction of the book is somewhere else, at the intersection between sociology of work and sociology of migration. Domestic cleaning is a complex ‘labour process’, and the strategies of employer control and employee survival are particularly varied. Exploitation through late- and underpaying is frequent, given the vulnerability of female undocumented workers. It is also a profession at the lowest end of social prestige, and Polanska has something to say about the German expression “meine Putzfrau” (“my cleaning lady” - it could be worse: in Italy “la mia Filippina” is commonly used, even when the worker is not even from the Philippines). And she tells about lack of humanity, for instance about never being offered a drink, even on hot days, when the employing family can ostentatiously sip their cold drinks while looking at her sweating.

In terms of migration, the book is ambiguous. Polanska decided to leave Poland at 19, suddenly, knowing only one word of German (the ominous “Fenster”, window), answering a newspaper ad for au pairs in Germany (the au pair job will turn out to be extreme exploitation: a year of starving with little or no pay), and rationalises it retrospectively by writing: “About my country I can simply say: there is no perspective. A young person can’t do anything in Poland. Many of my friends have qualifications and earn €350 monthly – when they are lucky”. Which is quite an absurd statement about a so-called “economic tiger” where average pay is nearly €1,000/month (gross), especially given that Poznan is better than average. But it is understandable: in Poland there are actually lots of chances, but very unevenly distributed. Otherwise Polanska’s mother and sister would not have followed her to Germany, a few years later, to take up the same profession.

The author also tells about German prejudice against Poles: “do you have Coca Cola?” is the lightest, abuse for alleged inclination to stealing and prostitution the heaviest. Even her apparently well-educated German neighbours, when they find any rubbish in the communal areas of the apartment bloc, deliver it to her door, because logically only foreigners could leave rubbish around. But on Polish-German stereotypes, rather than this book I’d recommend the recent comedy film “Hochzeitspolka” (by Lars Jessen, 2010), on a Polish-German wedding where a century of “misunderstandings” explode. Polanska comes from a quite typical Polish conservative family. Among other things, in Germany she discovers that “homosexuals are normal people – really normal people”. Her background explains some of her criticism of Germans: dressing up and make-up is for her normal, traditional Polish femininity, but Germans despise it as a sign of being ‘easy’ (on this topic see Women Migrants from East to West, by Passerini, Lyon, Capussotti and Laliotou, 2007). And her repeated anger for not being offered drinks is normal coming for a country where the first sentence you hear when you enter a house or an office is always “coffee or tea?”.

Despite the stories of sexual harassment and exploitation, this book might offer a rather ‘rosy’ picture of immigration and cleaning: Polanska earns her €10/hour, is married to a German Italian, conducts a rather normal life. It is difficult to predict if the book legitimates, or criticises the current state. In any case, it ‘humanises’ an unspoken category of people, and opens a tabu. It is a positive compensation to other recent German bestsellers which are openly xenophobic: Sarrazin’s Deutschland schafft sich ab and, most horribly, Kein Schwarz. Kein Rot. Kein Gold: Armut für alle im “Lustigen Migrantenstadl” by Udo Ulfkotte, while it is in line with literary fashion: the last German Book Prize shortlisting was dominated by authors with immigration background. And as cleaning still is a 99% feminised profession, it is a good book to comment on today, International Women's Day.

December 29, 2010

The Christmas agreement at Fiat: A Very Big Trojan Horse

Follow-up to Polacchizzati? On Fiat & globalisation from Around Europe 2010-12

Christmas should be holiday time, and possibly inspire some peace. Not so at Fiat Mirafiori in Turin (a factory built by Mussolini and Agnelli to be the largest in the world), where the separate 'Christmas agreement' signed by Fim-Cisl and Uilm-Uil is the biggest disruption yet to post-war Italian industrial relations.

As I had written in my blog "Polacchizzati", and more extensively in academic papers, Fiat is using with an unprecedented consistency the threat of "coercive comparisons" amongst all its locations to achieve not just some wage concessions (we are used to that), but a strategic advantage through a radical change of the rules of the game. Specifically, Fiat's comparisons tend to be with Poland, and Polish factories are used as something I had called myself Trojan Horse for the Americanization of Europe (in the small industrial relations circles I am occasionally referred to as somebody who invented the Trojan Horse, but I must say somebody else had - a long time ago).

This is particularly true for Fiat as its CEO Marchionne, an Italo-American manager, is using the threats to implement an American style of industrial relations. The core of the dispute, to put it simply, is the exit of Fiat from all national and sector-level agreements, and the implementation of its own representation rules whereby only unions that sign company agreements have representation rights. The largest union, Fiom-Cgil, having not signed, would suddenly disappear from the company. Even in the bleakest cold-war times of anti-unionism and Cgil marginalisation, in the 1950s, the Fiom had its representation within the Commissione Interna (works council). Now it would not.

Important lawyers such as Pietro Ichino repeat that this is perfectly legal in Italy, consistent with the Italian constitution, and the Statute of Worker Rights of 1970 (the Italian equivalent of the German Betriebsverfassung, workplace constitution) as modified by a referendum in 1995. Unlike in France, multi-employer collective agreements in Italy have no erga-omnes validity, except for minimum wages, so Fiat is free to opt out from the 1993 national agreement that reformed employee representation through the creation of works councils called RSU. And after the law was modified by a referendum in 1995, workplace union rights are only for the unions that signed agreements - regardless of their representativity.

While this interpretation may be technically correct, it appears to me that excluding the largest union from recognition is against the spirit, if not the letter, of the Italian constitution of 1948, strongly rooted in the principle of democracy: at the time it was self-evident that unions signing any collective agreements would include the largest and most representative unions - otherwise, even fascist-era agreements, in Ichino's thought, should be considered as 'constitutional'... Moreover, the exclusion also goes against the often-forgotten European Directive on the Information and Consultation of Employees of 2001: something Italy initially even neglected to transpose, believing that Italian rules were already sufficient.... but we now see that it was enough for an outsider to arrive to disrupt all the Italian rules. The Trojan Horse has entred the constitutional walls of Italian industrial relations.

In theory a reformist solution is possible: new legal regulations to face the changed situation. France, against the odds, recently changed its regulations and introduced a principle of representativeness. In Germany, a country whose industrial relations in the 1990s and 2000s were seen as unstoppably eroding, I have recently witnessed a number of 'fixes', from the joint attempt of the employer association and the largest union confederation DGB to defend Tarifeinheit (bargaining unity) through a criterion of representativeness, to the introduction of legal minimum wages and the limitation of Ohne-Tarif, i.e. company opt-out from national agreements. American-style disruption does not suit well European societies, as even French and German employers have admitted. Will also Italy find a fix, defending representativeness as a core democratic principle? Or will industrial relations erosion symbolyse a broader erosion of Italian democracy? Interesting times ahead.

(PS: I have returned safely from Berlin, but not before being stuck overnight in Paris by the after-effects of the snow disruptions. Air France put me in a hotel in Disneyland, a place I had sworn never to put my feet in. Merde, why not on the Champs Elisées?)

November 01, 2010

Warsaw's Brave New World

Nowy Świat (New World) is the most representative shopping street of Warsaw’s (rebuilt) city centre. The most famous outlet is still probably the Blika patisserie, one of the very few private family shops under communism, famous for its doughnuts. At the corner with Świętokrzyska there used to be a historic café with the same name Nowy Świat. Opened in 1883, it was for over a century a favourite meeting place for artists, intellectuals and, increasingly, dignitaries and agents. I was there often in the early-mid 1990s. As a western student I could easily afford its inflated prices, and wait for the hyper-slow state-sector service. Even without liking its decadent stuccoes & decor, nor the occasional fraudsters trying to lure foreigners into the most improbable ventures, at a stone's throw from the University it was then one of the very few quiet places one could use for meetings and interviews, as well as to catch up with the western press. But like many other state-owned addresses, it shut down. For a decade or so, the landlord, i.e. the city council, did not know what to do with it.

Nowy Wspanialy SwiatFinally, last year, the council called a contest for opening a non-profit cultural centre in it. Out of 15 competitors, this was won by the leftwing group Krytyka Polityczna, for its proposal of a multi-function bar + cultural centre focusing on photography, cinema, literature, music and politics. The café-cum-cultural centre is called “Nowy Wspaniały Świat” (Brave New World), in a double-edged irony of the previous place and of Huxley’s dystopia, and it has been a successful bet. Its varied program is very attractive and the place has become very popular and crowded. To the point of annoying part of the establishment. No less than Jarosław Kaczyński, the former prime minister and narrowly-defeated presidential candidate, complained recently that Warsaw’s mayor could offer such a prestigious address to a leftist group who can use it to corrupt the Polish youth attending the nearby university. Warsaw’s mayor is the liberal-conservative Hanna Gronkiewitz-Waltz, herself very traditional, but not as much as her predecessor, Jarosław’s twin Lech, who must be turning in his grave. A good share of Nowy Wspaniały Świat’s program is taken by LGBT initiatives – Lech used to ban gay events, and now these are not just tolerated but even indirectly sponsored by the city (to complicate things, according to the twins’ former friend and now enemy Lech Wałesa, the ever-bachelor Jarosław used to hang around with a ‘husband’).

Palac Kultury i Nauk: chains' postocommunist takeoverOn the 21st of November Poles will vote in the local elections and Warsaw’s citizens will probably confirm Hanna Gronkiewitz-Waltz. Nowy Wspaniały Świat will then survive as a brilliant exception in the otherwise hyper-consumerist Warsaw’s City Centre flooded with bars’ and restaurants’ chains, and the populist right will endure a severe fourth consecutive electoral defeat. Kaczyński may not be helped by his candid admission that during the presidential campaign he was under the effect of strong painkillers to cope with his brother’s loss, and did not really know what he was saying – the reason why he had actually seemed quite human to my blog, but imagine a US presidential candidate admitting that he was on drugs during the campaign.

September 16, 2010

The Eastern European migrant as a fiction hero

This is a sociologist’s eye critique of two successful award-winning British novels, and a couple of films, on Eastern European migrant workers:

- Rosemary Tremain, The Road Home (2007)

- Marina Lewycka, Two Caravans (2007) (US title: Strawberry Fields)

These two novels’ merits are twofold: humanising the Eastern European workers who have “flooded” the British labour market since 2004, and to give us, in the reflection of their eyes, a different perspective on British society. Yet as a sociologist, even respecting the licence fiction writers have, it is impossible not to notice the number of mistakes and distortions. When noticing them, I initially thought I was being pedantic, but then started to wonder where this specific form of migrant idealisation comes from.

Tremain’s book has met the best critics’ reception, and it is the most inaccurate. The author, it has to be said, has cleverly avoided the problem of historical accuracy by explicitly de-contextualising the hero, Lev, by not saying from which country he comes from. He is just from an imaginary Eastern European country, which seems to combine the worst bits of Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria in one, quite depressing, place. It may be unfair to criticise a fantasy for inaccuracy, but the problem is that from this dystopia follows an idealisation of the migrant’s path.

The best side of the book is the representation of Lev’s lonely, because not understood by any British person around, nostalgia for his village and in particular his daughter. Only his drunk Irish lodger, who is being himself alienated from society and from his own daughter, shows some understanding. The book has indeed poetic appeal and portrays some of the ‘hidden suffering’ of migrant workers well analysed by French-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. Nostalgia is a rich theme, but its portrayal in the book is not convincing - it is much better accounted in a different recent novel, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill (2008), who manages to combine historical accuracy (post-9/11 New York) with existential depth. By contrast, Lev’s situation in Tremain’s book is so absurd that it evoked anger rather than sympathy. For instance, Lev is able only very rarely to communicate with his daughter and mother, because they don’t have a landline at home, and because Lev can’t afford calling their neighbour friend from his British mobile phone. Now, it is plausible (if unlikely) that a family may still not have a landline in Eastern Europe in 2005. But which migrant worker in London calls home directly from his mobile phone? Tremain probably has never put foot in Eastern Europe, but has she at least been out in London? How could she not notice the number of phone shops or cheap call cards with which you can call Easter Europe from about 1p a minute? This is not a pedantic detail: broken communication lines are a fundamental theme in the book, and their absurdity makes the rest fall apart.

Yet from a sociologist’s of work perspective, it is Lev’s career that is laughable [attention: spoiler follows]. A 42-year old male with only previous work in state-owned wood industry, followed by long employment, starts cleaning dishes in a top restaurant in London, and by simply occasionally turning his head from the sink to look at what the chef does, within a few months he has learnt all his techniques and when an unexpected opportunity arises, he establishes himself as a successful chef, and then, in another few months, accumulates enough money to go back home and open his own restaurant. Now, other people may be faster than me at learning new cooking techniques. But this trajectory is so ridiculous that it can only be accepted as a subtle irony of London celebrity chefs: as Lenin famously said that under communism the government can be run by a kitchen aid, is Tremain arguing that in capitalist London a celebrity restaurant can be run by a dishwasher? Not so sure. This is the American Dream inflated and revisited in a soppy English sauce, and the opening quote to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, rather than putting this book in the same tradition, just manifests what Tremain has failed to do: observing economic migrant lives.

One of the few credible pages in The Road Home are the interlude in which Lev works as an asparagus picker in a farm: indeed, from the book’s acknowledgments, migrants’ farm work seems to be the only reality the author has observed and researched. But if you are into migrant labour in agriculture than look at the second novel, Two Caravans. This is a comic novel, following the success of Lewycka’s debut ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’. Humour writers enjoy even more licence, but Lewycka actually knows her topic much better than Tremain does. Herself the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, she has a particular sensitivity for Ukrainians, but also for all other foreigners. And indeed all characters in this Babel Tower of a novel are well described and extremely well placed in their backgrounds: the Poles, the Kosovar, the Moldovian, the Malawi, the Chinese and even the Malaysian Chinese.

Stylistically, the most remarkable, and ambitious, feature of the novel is that it is written in multiple voices: each scene told by a different character, in a different style. Lewycka attempts at portraying the way the speak, and each makes characteristic mistakes in English – often very funny, nearly like those I make in my lectures, only to keep students awake of course. And she goes even further, in trying to give a specific sound to the heroes when they speak to each other in their own native language (e.g. Polish): in that case, of course, the vocabulary becomes suddenly rich, but the style is still peculiar, for instance with the missing articles that characterise Slavic languages. I think this is as far as you can get in portraying multilinguism in a text written in one language. Not all is successful, though. First, the style is not always consistent. Second, I felt the author went one step too far when adding, among the first-person narrators, the dog, who writes not only in bad English, but also in Comic fonts. Finally, and most importantly, she got the language of the main hero wrong. The ambiguous tension between Andriy, miner from Donbas in Eastern Ukraine, and Irina, student from Kiev in the West, is a main theme in the book and has interesting political tones, Irina being a supporter of the Orange Revolution and Andriy an opponent. But while the narration reminds frequently that they dislike each other’s accent, it is most strange that they speak the same language at all, for in Donbas the large majority are Russophone. Sorry if I sound pedantic, but language is actually a crucial political, cultural and social divide in the Ukraine – maybe my Canadian and Belgian friends know what I mean. Currently, the Ukraine has both president and prime minister Russophone, and the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, even struggles in Ukrainian (I don’t know of any other prime minister who is not fluent in the official language of his country). The current government proposal to de facto equalise the use of Russian and Ukrainian is threatening to break the country apart. Yet, in the novel, Andriy speaks Ukrainian happily.

I would still strongly recommend Two Tractors as both funny and instructive. There are limits, naturally as I think that it is impossible to write an entirely funny comic novel: you physically can’t keep laughing for 300 pages. It may be criticised that Lewycka used humour on terrible topics such as human trafficking: but the book has a very strong moral dimension. Some scenes are more shocking and convincing than press reports, for instance when some characters end up working in graphically described horrific chicken processing factory. I liked how the Pole Tomasz, who speaks little English but plays the guitar and loves the Beatles and Bob Dylan, eventually leads a worker revolts, jumps up and shouts ‘How many years must these persons exist before they learns to be free?’. And after they all lose their chicken-processing jobs, the Pole Yola says to her niece Marta and their Ukrainian and Malawi colleagues: ‘Now we are in Europe marketing we can earn good money here. I will be teacher. Tomek will be government bureaucrat. Marta... what will you be?’. ‘I will be a vegetarian’. ‘One day Ukraina will be also in Europe marketing. And Africa too.’

Put together, these two novels also tell us something about Britain. This is a new form of Orientalism, a fascination with the ‘other’, but also its undermining as ‘naive’. Tremain’s Lev and Lewycka’s Andriy are quite similar in their difference from the dominant models of modern Britain: honest, hard-working, uninterested in celebrities, and – typical stereotype on ethnic minorities – very heterosexual. Their Eastern European additional specificity is a leaning towards melancholy. At the same time, they bring a very sad look at the state of the West, and a little hope for the future.

Eastern Europeans are slowly making success as heroes in literature and cinema throughout Europe: it is an interesting development as it may affect the popular perception of a macroscopic demographic change that is taking place. In Italy, for instance, Gianfranco Bettin (better famous as Venetian environmentalist politician) wrote ‘Nebulosa del Boomerang’ (2004), where the heroin is a Polish prostitute. Now, the poor prostitute saved from a nasty pimp by a good man was a trite plot already at the time of Titus Maccius Plautus, but Bettin’s novel is very original, not least for the female taxi driver character. The same cannot be said about some movies on the same topic, e.g. the soppy ‘Vesna va veloce’ (1996) by Carlo Mazzaccurati, on a Czech prostitute. More ad hoc in terms of topic, but equally soppy, is 'Mar Nero' by Bondi (2009), on a Romanian domestic worker. Even in the otherwise excellent Austrian ‘Revanche’ (2008) by Spielmann whe weakest character is the Ukrainian prostitute-heroin. In the case of films, I would say that it is better if they stay away from that topic. Most smartly, this is done in another Austrian movie, ‘Import – Export’ by Seidl (2007), which follows the parallel paths of Paul, an Austrian young unemployed with a criminal stepfather going East, and Olga, an Ukrainian nurse going West and ending up in a geriatric hospital. The scenes of the geriatric hospital and those of the Roma ghettoes in Slovakia are extremely realistic (Seidl’s background’s is in documentary movies), and Olga’s trajectory challenges all stereotypes: she moves West to escape, not to embrace sex work. In the UK, Ken Loach too avoids prostitution in ‘It’s a Free World’ (2007), but like in all other Loach’s movies, the perspicacity on British characters and British society is not matched by a comparable understanding of non-British characters. The same had happened for the Spanish, Nicaraguan, Mexican or Irish heroes of his previous works: the Poles are idealised, and if the intention may be good, the effect is not convincing, at least for someone like me already devoting a lot of time to ‘real’ Polish migrant workers. Interestingly, the Polish own representation of their emigrants is more critical, as in the popular TV series ‘Londonczycy’ ('the Londoners'). And already well before EU integration, Polish director Skolimowski (who has just won the Venice jury special prize for the intriguing ‘Essential Killing’, on a Al-Qaida prisoner fleeing a secret CIA prison) had produced the outstanding ‘Moonlighting’ (1982), on Polish builders working illegally in London at the times of Solidarnosc. But then, Skolimowski is an emigrant himself. He knows better.

September 13, 2010

Kraków & Zakopane 21 years later

I had spent some important time in Kraków and in Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains, between 1989 and 1994, but I hadn’t gone back to the former Polish capital since 2001. I am more familiar with, and partial to, the new but (Krakovians would add) ugly, rude and corrupt capital, than with the picturesque but (Warsavians would add) conservative and stingy old one. Now, Kraków is considered as a serious rival to Prague on the good and ugly sides of tourism. The Prague – Kraków comparison is actually meaningless whichever way you look at it: in the Renaissance Kraków was a capital of a major European power, while Prague had to wait until the XX century to be capital of a serious state; but then, in the XX century Krakow was no capital of anything. As a result Krakow wins hands down on Gothic and Renaissance (not just Leonardo’s Lady with an Ermine), but Prague is head and shoulders above it from the XIX Century onwards; the physical setting is also hard to compare: Prague’s is more picturesque, but Kraków has better surroundings. The competition makes some sense only on Baroque & Rococo, and I’d say it’s a draw.

Twenty years ago, exiting the pre-war Kraków Główny station I would be met with the messy state of the station square, including the ugly coach station and a variety of jumbled kiosks. In the evening, I was also struck by darkness, given the very feeble public lighting: a warning to keep my eyes well open; and in winter, by the sharp coal burning smell, from household heating and from the nearby Nowa Huta steelworks (on Nowa Huta I recommend Vera Trappman’s and Alison Stenning's research). Today, I leave the platform of the new station and directly enter a huge shopping mall, with the disappointing feeling that it’s just like in Birmingham New Street Station: what’s the point of travelling? Once out, the square is smart clean and the bus station has been moved to the other side of the railways. And on the other side of a large communist-time subway, one is immediately in the Old Town.

Here is the good surprise. Despite the stag and hen parties and the coach tours, not much has changed, and the city has kept a very clear focus on cultural tourism. Renovations have gone on, but rather than simply repainting every single inch in pastel colours as in Prague, they have focussed on the important bits as the Central Market’s Sukiennice (Cloths Market), whose first floor will be open soon. Streets and pavements still have their share of potholes, but they are not entirely covered with tables for tourists. The historical artist café Jama Michalika, whose predilection for hard currencies was visible already in 1989, hosts folk shows for tourists in the evenings, but it looks exactly as it did and remains a café-museum, with its unbelievably slow service.

Kosciol MariackiChange is more visible in the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. In 1989 it was just derelict, Poles having little interest in Jewish heritage. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) put it on the tourist map, and cafés, restaurants and museums have multiplied since. During Schindler’s List’s production, Spielberg recruited hundreds of locals for walk-on parts for the concentration camp scenes, and offered a very attractive pay for anybody ‘Jewish looking’. Transition crisis-struck Krakovians queued for the posts but, reportedly, most of them started by saying ‘I’d like the job, but I’m not Jewish’ (by the way, I don’t think they were well selected, given how many of them looked overweight). Similarly, I doubt that any of today’s Kazimierz ‘traditional Jewish’ cafes and restaurants is actually Jewish. On the other side, if any tourist is so ignorant not to know that Kraków’s Jewish traditions were violently and radically interrupted, they deserve to be conned.

Like in Prague, food is not much value for money in tourist areas such as the Old Town and Kazimierz, but interesting places are only a couple of tram stops away, including, unthinkable 21 years ago, vegetarian or nouvelle Pologne ones. Some very good (Vega, ul. Krupnicza), some with mixed results. At the very Polish-sounding, recently opened Restauracja Kowalska, after an un-Polish sounding amuse-bouche I was recommended quail, only for the waitress, twenty minutes later, to tell me that there was no quail. Had it flown away? No, she admitted, there was ‘something wrong with it’ – which suggested the chef was incompetent either with supplies, or preparation. Worse, she went on to claim that the dish could be prepared in the same way with veal – a replacement that reminded me of shortage economy era recipes calling for ‘prawns, or in their absence frankfurter sausages’. But then at least, she asked how I wanted the veal done: in the past, nobody asked in Poland, because meat would invariably come in one way, i.e. overdone. And this time, the veal was as rare – and delicious – as I had ordered, something that happens rarely in England (I will comment another time about the ethics of veal farming and eating).

Krakow’s investment in culture is visible in a range of new museums (including Schindler’s Factory) and the New Opera, and is accompanied by more popular investment in the form of two new football stadia (Euro 2012 is approaching, although they won't play in Kraków). All this investment, combined with an efficient management of the city defence during this summer’s floods (floods make and unmake elections: ask Cimoszewicz why he lost in 1997, and Schröder why he won in 2002) gives mayor Majchrowski a near-certain re-election this Autumn. Majchrowski (last time elected for the Left) is an apparent anomaly for traditionally right-wing Kraków, but actually represents a trend in popular, independent mayors who successfully distance themselves from national politics. Majchrowski has left the party and rules with opportunistic coalitions. In April, he organised Lech Kaczyński’s state funeral and disputed burial in the Wawel castle alongside Polish kings and heroes, but since then he has carefully avoided the war of religion over the Presidential Palace’s cross that is consuming the national parties.Zakopane

From Kraków, it’s 110 km to Zakopane, up in the Tatra mountains. In the 1930s, the Torpeda Podhalańska locomotive, pride of Polish engineering, covered the distance in 132 minutes. Today, the train takes four hours (progress is not linear), so I took the coach. Thanks to road works and a couple of horse-powered vehicles, I arrived at the same time as the train. In the XIX-early XX Century Zakopane was considered as the cultural capital of (then inexistent as a state) Poland, being a meeting point of poets and artists. The extravagant Witkacy’s theatre is the best surviving memory of it. But now Zakopane is more and more overcrowded, and house pricesKasprowy Wierch are no cheaper than in the Alps: the High Tatra do look like the Alps, but cover a very small area and are the only high mountains for a country of 40 millions (plus 5 million Slovaks: their side is a bit less crowded, and better for skiing). It’s only because of low labour costs that tourist services are still cheap: at least in September, you can get a decent room for 20 Euros, and eat well for 10. The national park fights an impossible war against path erosion. In these conditions, the enduring dream of hosting the Olympics (despite defeat for the 2006 ones) is madness: Zakopane has not enough water, enough space, and a sufficiently long downhill slope for the Olympics. But Poles are romantic dreamers, and speculators exploit this. On this occasion, heavy snowfalls prevented me to reach the summit of Świnica (2301m), but the views from walking along the ridge separating Poland from Slovakia were a sufficient compensation, only disturbed by my mobile phone continually receiving the texts "welcome to Poland", "welcome to Slovakia", "welcome to Poland", and so on.

The gastronomic pride of Zakopane is the smoked sheep cheese Oscypek, for good reason. For the rest, the little town is now full of ‘Karczmy’, fake mountain inns where waiters in traditional mountain dresses serve rather dull food, at the sound of folk music. I am left wondering what Wyspiański, the neo-romantic poet who in Wesele (The Wedding) metaphorically described the impossibility of consummating the marriage between Polish peasantry and intellectual revolutionaries, would make of the marriage of convenience that is now consummated everyday between peasantry and tourists, in Kraków and Zakopane.

July 28, 2010

Polacchizzati? On Fiat & globalisation

m8185050c.jpgToday's Gazeta Wyborcza (left) opens with a new Italian word, which I did not know yet myself: Polacchizzati, or Polonized, or zpolonizowani. It's an article about the ongoing protests in Italy against Fiat's threats to transfer production to Poland [background: Fiat made investment in the Italian plant, and apparently its survival, conditional on accepting a much worse working time regime, plus a sort of "no-strike" agreement; in a referendum, 63% of employees accepted this "deal", labelled as blackmail by the FIOM-CGIL union - but FIAT expected and wanted near-unanimity]. The Polish journalist, after describing with some amusement Italians' attachment to siesta, collects the voices of Italian workers in the Southern Italian plant of Pomigliano condemning Polonization as imposition of not just ever worsening working conditions, but also a mentality of self-exploitation: "why you Poles want to work that hard? what's wrong with you?". Which may remind of English voices such as "those fucking Poles, all coming over here, with their fucking work ethic", but has a point - as many Polish commentators on Wyborcza's website admit.

20100723primapagina.gifMedia love turning issues of global work restructuring into national jokes - last year's strike at Lindsley refinery "against the Italians" was a spectacular case I described in a union magazine( iur.pdf). Maybe this is a good thing: at least issues are raised and noticed, even if in a distorted way. Mainstream media are unlikely to put collective bargaining, restructuring plans, working time systems or supply chains in the main news - or they would condemn themselves to audiences as narrows as this blog's. But things are always much more complicated. I can't resist the temptation of moaning 'I had said it...'. My thesis comparing Italian and Polish Fiat factories in 1999 (and later book) and pointing that Poland was not the cheap crap place Italians imagined, but a laboratory for the future, and that Italian and Polish unions should start speak to each other, was read by about five people and - also because in the meanwhile I was sent to Coventry - I did not manage to disseminate much to it to the people concerned.

I stopped following Fiat time ago - I tried, with some colleagues and friends such as Valeria Pulignano, to suggest a book on Fiat and globalisation in 2004, but all Italian publishers I contacted were sure that nobody, ever, would be interested in reading about Fiat's foreign factories - how foreward-looking from them. So I can't say much about the recent developments, but I have two impressions. First, what's happening at Fiat is a massive speed change in the aggressive use of relocation threats that multinational companies have been making for about two decades (Hoover swapping France for Scotland in 1993 is usually mentioned as the first case). This is the first case where 'coercive comparisons' have become 'total': everybody against everybody, at all times, in all directions. Southern Italy against Poland, Poland against Turkey, Northern Italy against Serbia... Only last year the Polish workers of Bielsko-Biala were still being threatened with relocations to Italy, unless they accepted different working time arrangements - no interest from Italy then. A permanent 'liquidity' of employment relations is imposed, whereby there are no guarantees and offers are made and withdrawn "a capriccio". Second, in no major car company is international union response as weak as in Fiat, which is therefore free to direct the dances at its own will: Fiat's European Works Council is said to be made inoperational by internal conflicts amongst Italian trade unions, and to an extent amongst Polish trade unions. Marchionne (FIAT's CEO) must have fun, sitting and watching the unions fight each other to exhaustion.

And Marchionne himself is often in the front pages, with his famous sweaters even in the middle of the Italian summer. In last Friday's Il Manifesto, in relation to relocations from Turin to Kragujevac, he is turned into another national stereotype, il cecchino Sergio (the Sergio sniper, playing on words with il cecchino serbo, the Serbian sniper).

So if this is the only game in town I'll add my contribution: isn't Sergio Marchionne (who spent most of his life in Northern America) just a typical yankee, as demonstrated by the fact that he didn't even let workers watch the football (soccer) World Cup?

PS: In its own way, the "Polacchizzati" article was still an enjoyable piece of journalism. Two days later Gazeta Wyborcza (the former Solidarity daily paper, still the best East of Berlin, and amongst the best in the world, for both journalism and commentary) reached much lower standards with a reportage on the Polish Fiat workers in Tychy. This was mostly based on the story of a happy family where both mum and dad work for Fiat and are ever so grateful to their magnanimous employer, who has made all their dreams true. Its style would have fit well in 1970s' Trybuna Ludu (the official organ of the United Polish Worker Party), when Tychy workers were reported to be equally grateful for their opportunity to contribute to the radiant communist dream.

July 19, 2010


Follow-up to Pyrrhus victory for a colourless president in Poland (and Germany) from Around Europe 2010-12

The 'decency' stemming from the Smolensk tragedy had a clear expire date: the elections themselves. Once over, the knives have come out, with both sides addressing each other with delicate words such as "killers" and "criminals". Kaczynski says his brother died because of the government's refusal to buy new planes, and the liberals say it was because of his own's pressure on the pilote to land despite the fog. The issue won't disappear, even physically: at the gate of the presidential palace there's still a big cross remembering Kaczynski, there since that tragic 10th of April, and now a pilgrmage point for the fundamentalist Right: should Komorowski remove it (and cause a religious war) or accept to live under its shadow? This cross may prove as troublesome as the pope's one in Auschwitz/Oswiecim I reported in 1998 for il Manifesto.

But I'd stand by my qualified defence of Kaczynskis. Even on gender. After all, with Joanna Kuzik-Rostkowska in charge of them, the Law and Justice's government of 2005-07 started more equal opportunities programs than the previous "socialdemocratic", or the subsequent liberal governments. And if it is true that Lech Kaczynski had banned the gay pride in 2005, the liberals have only just tolerated the Europride that took place in Warsaw last Saturday: the differences in this regard are, again, more visible in caricatures than in reality.

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