RADIO / And there's another country

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HENRY BADOWSKI looked meditatively into the hole in our hall floor. Then he stood up, pushed back his cap and pronounced his verdict. 'All you need is a bloody wossname. Then Bob's your Charlie. I'll do it tomorrow.' Henry was not a famous Pole, but he should have been. Spiritual, musical, intellectual, affectionate, melancholy and endlessly adaptable, he was, as a builder, into his fourth or fifth career but he would often declare that the best time of his life had been in a Siberian prison camp. Of course it was said partly to shock, but the reason he gave was that it was the only time in his life that more work was simply rewarded by more bread.

Radio 3 has been celebrating Polishness this week and those intense, resilient, darkly humorous qualities have dominated the channel. Polska] is an ambitious attempt to broadcast a detailed portrait of Poland today, with all the scars, wrinkles and crow's feet of her yesterdays. It is also an attempt to drown listeners in tidal waves of powerful emotion. Gasping and exhilarated, we surface after each session with a strong cathartic feeling of pity for those who have been through such suffering, and immense respect for the artists and writers who can make some sense of it all.

One of them was Andrzej Panufnik, Composer of the Week. Every morning, his music was introduced by his daughter Roxanna, sounding impossibly young, but already an established composer herself. She provided touching glimpses of her father's life. She remembered skipping along the towpath beside him at Twickenham and being suddenly, horribly embarrassed as an idea struck him for a percussion piece and he voiced it aloud. Other memories were sadder: his 1942 Concertino, written, he told her, as the Russians bombed Warsaw and the Nazis defended it and all he could do was to pour ineffectual buckets of sand on incendiary fires; losing two symphonies in the Uprising; his violin concerto, played by the BBC on his death.

She spoke about the time in the early 1960s when, exiled, broke and shivering in a rented Surrey cottage, he managed to write what became his best-known work. The Sinfonia Sacra is a magnificent hymn of love for Poland, introduced by one of those long, furious fanfares that stop you in your tracks. The symphony won a prestigious prize, said Roxanna, most of which he blew on a romantic holiday with her mother, but the BBC considered it unsuitable for broadcasting. Thursday's performance proved how wrong they had been.

Another exile for whom England became, almost, home was Conrad: A Polish Writer. On Friday, Christopher Hope told the familiar story of a Polish orphan who became a splendid officer in the British mercantile marine and then a grand old man of English letters, a passionate Anglophile from the start and a transparently autobiographical novelist. Then we heard the truth. Conrad preferred French and would have gone to France if he had been able to get in. More relaxed immigration laws brought him here, where he created a fictional world full of foreigners. His wife's memoirs showed him to be neurotically unstable. Once, he chased a burglar down his garden, cornered him in the privy, kicked the door open and charged in waving his rifle, only to find his alarmed mother-in-law within. Well, it could happen to anyone, probably.

Most fascinating of all in this absorbing season was a daily series of Snapshots of modern Poland. Bogdan Frymorgen took us down into the salt mines of Wieliczka, 320 kilometres (200 miles) of passages, linking vast chambers of salt, deep below ground level. Big enough to stage operas and to house a huge sanatorium, they are haunted by the ghosts of Jewish miners who were worn down by 12-hour shifts there before being despatched to Auschwitz.

Ghosts may haunt the Powazki cemetery, but they frighten nobody. This ancient graveyard is a kind of Westminster Abbey for Warsaw, containing the mortal remains of all their heroes. On All Saints' Day, absolutely everybody brings flowers and candles to honour their dead in a dignified celebration which seems, paradoxically, like living proof of the indomitability of the people. As this broadcast ended, the midnight silence was faintly interrupted by distant bells and a sense of the tangible warmth of millions of candles burning among the chrysanthemums.

Above ground, the mayor of Cracow was indulging in Table Talk. His subject was bigos, a stew cooked for five days, containing sauerkraut, mixed meat, plums and anything else you could find and served during hunting parties in the old Poland. A charmingly urbane man, he described the whole experience as frightfully pleasant, though rather a rare treat these days. He seemed a fitting heir to Cracos, the founder of the city, whose story was told in Traditional Music of Poland. It seems that this benevolent chap freed the country of a marauding dragon by feeding it a sheep filled with gunpowder, and they've been dancing about it ever since, to music whose wild exuberance makes the Gay Gordons seem gloomy.

On the streets of Warsaw, everyone is an entrepreneur. The new stock exchange flourishes in the old Communist party HQ, McDonald's, Burger King and even - good gracious - a London Steak House offer their horrible wares and in the bustle a new Pole plies his trade. King of the doner kebabs, a man called Andalati featured volubly, unstoppably, in a last Snapshot. 'I am from Turkish,' he said. 'I am love for one years. I love this girl too much. I work 20 hours every day. I am very happy. If I don't using my years now, I don't can using after?' Go for it, Andalati.

Comments