Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Roll of honour

To cash-in on the run up to the General Election in September in Poland one firm of printers has decided to manufacture toilet rolls with the faces of leading members of the top political parties in Poland printed on them.

All the well-known faces are there on the toilet rolls. See ex-prime minister Leszek Miller, who took Poland into the EU last year and then promptly resigned the next day. See Jan Rokita, head of the centre/right Civic Platform and someone who is favourite to be the next Prime Minister after the election. See the orange, perma-tanned face of Andrzej Lepper. leader of the radical farmers union Samoobrona. And there too is the current Prime Minister, Marek Belka, who tried to stand down from his post this month but has had to stay on in the job after President Kwasniewski refused to accept his resignation.

In fact almost the entire Polish political elite are on these new toilet rolls made by McTommi Polska printers. You could say that these novelty bathroom accessories are political ‘Rolls of Honour’.

This is not the first time that someone has thought of putting politicians faces on toilet paper – it’s quite an obvious idea in its way. But in Poland the link between toilet paper and politics has a long and sorry history, and so will strike a particular chord with the toilet tissue buying public.

There are 5,000 manufacturers of toilet paper worldwide producing over 30 billion rolls every year (that’s 2.7 rolls a second!).

But toilet paper is not something that we think about very often, is it? The only time the subject leaps into our consciousness is when we are sitting on the can and suddenly discover, to our horror that we have run out of the stuff. Then the matter takes on the gravitas of a life and death struggle.

So imagine what it would be like to live in a country where toilet paper was quite often in short supply. Well, that’s what it was like in Poland during communist times.

The economy in those days was actually out of control. The communist authorities did not have command over their own command economy. Coming up with the essentials of life was often quite beyond them. So people were forced to come up with alternatives to things such as toilet paper. The favourite solution around that particular problem for many was using the official communist party newspaper, Trybuna Ludu as the medium of choice – which probably helps explain its wide circulation and readership.

In a recent autobiography by Jerzy Urban - the communist press officer during the marshal law period - and today the very controversial editor of the satirical NIE magazine - recounts how on a trip to West Germany in the early 1980’s he noticed that German toilet paper was narrower than Polish toilet paper. In fact it was 15% narrower. When he got back to Warsaw he found out that the shortage of toilet paper at that time was, coincidently, 15%. So the obvious solution to the problem, he mused, was to make Polish communist toilet paper 15% narrower.

An orange alternative
The shortage of bathroom tissue, as well as many other essential items, continued until the late 1980s. In 1988 on International Women’s day, a protest by the situationist political grouping, the Orange Alternative, involved walking down the street handing out toilet paper and sanitary towels to passers-by. A harmless act, you might think. But not in communist Poland where toilet paper had become a political issue (or should that be, a political tissue?). The police quickly swooped on the protestors and confiscated their toilet rolls and escorted them to the police station for an interrogation. (they were probably eager to know where they had got the stuff from? Was it black market toilet paper?)

Thankfully, those shortages are a thing of the past today. You can pop into the supermarket and by the top-end, luxury triple-ply for extra strength, scented stuff, or opt for the bottom of the range stuff made from recycled paper.

But the association between toilet tissue and politics remains. Last summer, Warsaw played host to an international economic forum. The authorities were terrified that this might attract the attention of the anti-capitalist, anti-globalists that so ravaged Seattle a few years ago. Security in the capital was tight. Whole areas were cordoned off to the public. Quite literally these days, the gap between the political elite and their public is total.

On the day of the conference I went along to the protest march to see what would happen. Only a couple of thousand anti-globalists turned up and we walked peacefully along the major roads of the city on a bright and sunny afternoon. The main police presence – which outnumbered the protestors by about 3 to 1 – centred on the MacDonald’s in the centre of town. The restaurant was boarded up with metal sheets. It looked like a hamburger fortress (with extra cheese). The atmosphere turned a little tense. But the only action by the anti-globalists was to throw toilet rolls ever-so-gently at the police.

Today toilet tissue has retained its political significance once again with the issue of the special toilet tissue with the faces of our much-loved politicians on it. And the product is sure to do well. Not least because the general public are absolutely convinced here that everything Polish politicians say is a tissue of lies.

See the toilet roll of honour here


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