Boyd Tonkin: A Polish path from past to future

The Week In Books

One misty morning last November, I took a walk south from the centre of Krakow. In the main square of Poland's showpiece city, near the Renaissance cloth hall, stands a church tower from which an interrupted bugle call recalls the Tatar invaders from the east. Their arrows felled a warning sentinel in 1259. Down the street, the Peter and Paul church, fronted by theatrically sculpted saints, heralds the Jesuit-led fightback that thwarted a Protestant triumph in Poland. That looked likely as nobles embraced the Reformation.

Then comes the Wawel on its mound, symbolic citadel of an embattled nationhood. Outside the walls, the streets of Kazimierz bear witness to the royal tolerance that allowed Jews to thrive while pogroms flared elsewhere. Further on, the wartime ghetto of Podgorze reminds you how that era came to a vile, Nazi-directed end – as does the barren ground where Plaszow camp once stood. Make a detour to ulica Lipowa 4 for a Hollywood ending: the Emalia enamel factory, now an electronics plant, where Oskar Schindler's list saved so many – but so few.

This brief stroll takes you through the heart not of local, nor national, but European history. Like much else about Poland's past and present, it deserves to be far better known in a country that not only hired a horde of Polish workers after EU membership in 2004, but has proved more than happy to let Poles fight and die for it. Adam Zamoyski's invaluable and eye-opening Poland: a history (HarperPress, £14.99) – an update of his 1987 survey The Polish Way – points out that Polish pilots accounted for 7.5 per cent of German aircraft downed in the Battle of Britain. Before Americans arrived, the Allied bomber force was 25 per cent Polish. It puts those plumbing bills in perspective.

Today, 8 May, marks the end in 1945 of a European war that began as Britain and France agreed to honour treaty obligations to Poland. In 1989, the same day saw the first edition of Gazeta Wyborcza –"Election Gazette": the liberal newspaper that stood in the vanguard of Poland's transition from the Solidarity era of mass protest to democratic "normality", with all its many flaws. Zamoyski startled me when he described the fall of Communism in Poland as "the first authentic workers' revolution in European history" – ie, not steered or hi-jacked by a Leninist party elite. But he may well be right.

This year, the Polish Cultural Institute in London (polishculture.org.uk) is staging a season of events to commemorate – and interrogate, since Poles don't do smug self-congratulation – the world-shifting events of two decades ago. Polish writers and thinkers, so near and yet so far for British readers, will loom large. This evening at the South Bank Centre, Gazeta Wyborcza writer Anna Bikont will be joining Geoff Dyer, Jonathan Miller and Michela Wrong to assesss the legacy of Ryszard Kapuscinski, whose brilliantly angled foreign reportage turned journalism into art. Next Wednesday, the British Library will host a "European Literature Night", which will include the wry, wise and offbeat Gdansk writer Pawel Huelle. Antonia Lloyd-Jones has just won the award for Polish-English translation for her version of Huelle's The Last Supper: a novel which looks askance at life after the splintering of political and religious convictions.

Then, at the Hay Festival on 25 May, Tim Garton Ash will be discussing 1989 and its aftermath with Slawomir Sierakowski, charismatic editor of the post-Communist, post-liberal, post-everything journal-cum-movement, Political Critique. I visited their Warsaw offices last year, and had a mind-bending night striving to reconcile the almost parodic Old Europe intellectual ambience – smoke-filled rooms, the Stalinist Palace of Culture glinting nearby – with the achingly trendy cultural theory that the PC crowd proclaims. Postmodern Poland is recapturing a heady pluralism masked by the age of faiths. Try to discover it this year.

P.S.After 31 years, Melvyn Bragg is to retire from the South Bank Show. ITV will axe the programme when he departs. If you seek a monument to what he has done for books on mainstream television, watch SBS this Sunday and on 17 May. A two-part series on Nigerian writers profiles the work of pioneering novelist Chinua Achebe and one of his younger heirs, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Without Bragg's fierce tenacity and commitment, which so many sneery pundits have taken entirely for granted for so long, how would modern African literature feature twice in successive weeks on a populist commercial channel? His achievement has been heroic. And his exit leaves the shameful and scandalous neglect by terrestrial TV of books and reading – a mass national pastime which commands wider active support than any sport – more cruelly exposed than ever before.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own