Thursday, August 25, 2005

Polish presidential election: Cimo in the doo-doo

latest poll: Tusk 31%...Kaczynski 21%...Cimoszewicz 21%...Lepper 12%...Borowski 5%...Religa 5%...Giertych 5%
The one time front-runner in the race for the Presidential Palace has plummeted in the polls due to either corruption, or a rightwing witch hunt (delete according to political preference).

When he declared that he was running for president in elections on October 7, Wlodzimirz Cimoszewicz, the candidate for the ex-communist SLD, leapt to the top of the opinion polls.

And then the corruption scandals began. Cimo has been accused of lying in a parliamentary statement of assets in 2001. The scandal may be settled by the end of this month, although the state prosecutor is looking into the matter.

Cimoszewicz was trying to present himself as the only member of the SLD government not to have been embroiled in political corruption scandals recently. His hands were clean.

And then details emerged which have called into question his record. Cimo says that document’s ‘proving’ his guilt are forged – and this is certainly very possibly true.

But whatever the result of the enquiry, it seems that his candidature is now doomed. His ratings have nose-dived in the polls, going from a clear first to a dismal joint second, or third, depending on which newspaper you read.

The new front-runner is Donald Tusk, from the thatcherite Civic Platform. But even he doesn’t seem particularly impressed with his, or the other candidates’, platforms and personalities.

In an interview with the Polityka weekly, Tusk said the race, "is not a campaign between two giants. Rather it is a struggle between five or six medium-weight candidates, none of whom crushes opponents with their personality or charisma".

And I presume he is including himself as one of the pigmies.

And they complain about low turnouts in Poland. If even the political class are not impressed by themselves, then how are the rest of expected to get interested?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Poland and Belarus – still Poles apart

The Belarusian president continues his harassment of Poles and journalists

The former head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Tadeusz Gawin, has received a second, consecutive two-week jail sentence.

The current President of the Union of Poles, Agelica Borys, says she has now been called in to be interrogated by Lukashenko’s goons 41 times now.

Last week, another activist from the Polish minority in that very odd country, Weslaw Kewliak, received a similar sentence for meeting a leading Polish politician in Grodno, western Belarus, close to the Polish border.

What’s their crimes? Gawin is charged with beating up a cellmate, a charge he denies. Kewliak has been charged with trying to destabilize the Belarusian state.

Poland as a nation is being accused of trying to whip up revolution, in an attempt to topple Europe’s weirdest head of state – who Condaleeza Rice has called ‘Europe’s last dictator’ - Alexander Lukashenko.

Both countries have been expelling each other’s diplomats for a few weeks now in a row that will only get worse, before it gets any better.

In another development, the Belarusian government has closed down another independent newspaper, the Dan. In a statement, the authorities said the paper, “interrupted its commercial activities for six months and failed to explain the fact to tax officials.” The director of Danpress, Nikolai Markevich, said that this was complete bull: it was Lekashenko’s toady judges who forced the company to stop trading by stripping it of a legal address, which meant that it had to publish from Russia. Dan regularly publishes articles critical of Lukashenko.

Over the last two years the Belarusian authorities have closed over 20 independent newspapers.

Lukashenko – strangely for man who would not look out of place in a Keystone Cops movie - obviously has little sense of humour. Last week, Paval Marozau, one of the founders of a cartoon series which lampoons Lukashenko for his Stalinist style censorship and megalomania, said that security agents had questioned him and two others, accusing them of insulting the honor of the Belarusian president. Consequently, the Belarusian state is charging the artists with libel.

Give him the peace prize!
But Lukashenko is a fighter for human rights! No, really.

He was traveling through Minsk, the capital of his small little empire, last year when he noticed that there were too many models staring out of billboards that did not look like Belarussians. So he had the wizard wheeze of creating a law that compels advertisers to only use Belarusian models in their ads. This on the grounds that the law will create more work for them at home and stop them going abroad for work, where they could be used as sex slaves and be trafficked.

And the OSCE, EU, US - and, who knows, even Robert Mugabe - all agree that the president of Belarus has no respect for human rights!

The beatroot thinks that this man is not the last dictator of Europe. He’s more like Europe’s next Nelson Mandela!

Saturday, August 20, 2005 and the beatroot

Cindy Sheehan, the bereaved, anti-war mother who is camped outside George Bush’s holiday ranch in Texas at the moment, is being harangued by counter protesters from the rightwing, The beatroot has had encounters with this lot, too. is an American newsgroup which uploads articles from sites from around the world and then members – there are at least 50,000, known as freepies – discuss, debate, or abuse. And they regularly take my stuff from the radio station web site I work for.

For instance, an article I wrote about the Polish role in the French and Dutch EU referenda this summer, Polish plumber puts a spanner in the works, drew these comments from the freepies.

“The Poles have saved Europe... again. Who would have thought it, 25 years ago?” Or, “Well a Polish electrician brought down the Soviet Empire.”

Harmless stuff. But one comment nearly made the beatroot choke on his beetroot soup.

“Wow, I thought I was reading Mark Steyn for a moment. Nice article!”

Hang on there, freepies! Mark Steyn is the author of occasionally entertaining rightwing rants in the UK Daily Telegraph, and all over the place in the US. But he has the usual base prejudices of the conservative which make the beatroot barf – homophobia, etc.

So being compared to him is a dubious compliment. And there isn’t anything rightwing about that article, either.

(For the record, the beatroot is not right or left wing. That old duality has bitten the dust. These days the real duality is between authoritarianism and libertarianism. And both the Bush and Blair governments show the same liking for creeping authoritarianism.)

The freepies: who are these guys? members are a mixed bunch, representing all the nuances of the US rightwing. Freepies are mainly made up of:

Neocons: people who think like Rumsfelt, et al, (and Christopher Hitchins). They favour taking the American dream to the world, and liberating nations from tyranny by bombing and invading them.

Paleo-conservatives: Pat Buchanan types. Protectionist, isolationist, religious, with just a whiff of anti-Semitism.

Liberationist conservatives: Charlton Heston types. Small state conservatives, anti-gun control (even for British cops in London!).

Meanwhile, back at the ranch – Bush’s ranch – Cindy Sheehan sits and waits for George to come and talk to her about why her son died in Iraq (something about a war going on down there, Cindy).

And the freepies hate her guts.’s habit of uploading whole articles from other web sites has got them into trouble on the grounds that this is not ‘fair use’ of copyrighted material. Last year they were successfully sued by both the New York Times and Washington Post.

Maybe the beatroot should get a good lawyer?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Religious hate is alive and well and living in Poland

Father Henryk Jankowski - better known to people with longer memories as the “solidarity priest’ and one of the heroes of the Solidarity revolution – is, in reality, just an unreconstructed bigot. Period.

As Poland celebrates 25 years since the birth of Solidarnosc – the first free trade union in the communist bloc – all eyes are on Gdansk, the city where the union was conceived.

One of the key concessions that Lech Welesa and others won from the communist authorities in August 1980 was the construction at the Lenin Shipyard of a monument to workers who were killed there in 1970, as they protested against price rises. The monument was blessed by Father Jankowski, who became known as the 'Solidarity priest'. What a hero!

Little did we know that this guy is quite a nasty piece of work. He was then, and he still is now.

At a rally marking the Solidarity Revolution this August, Jankowski went into a tirade against ‘Jewish bankers’, and other foreigners who are a danger to present day Poland.

Foaming at the mouth, our cuddly Polish priest said: "The recommendations of Brussels commissars and Washington economic gurus are threatening Poland's identity and sovereignty. We are filled with horror when laws are imposed upon us that are thought up by anti-Catholic Masons, Jewish bankers and hell-born atheistic socialists."

He's made these sorts of remarks before: many times. In 1997, the Church banned him from preaching for a year after he stated that Jews had no place in the Polish government. In 2004, he reacted to allegations of involvement in the sexual abuse of children by alleging a "Judeo-communist plot".

The thing is: what should we do with idiots like Jankowski? Should we ban them? Should we boil them in oil? Or should we let them spout off their odious rubbish and then expose them for what they are – complete fools?

I’m for the latter. Banning hate will not make it go away. But getting it out in the open is the way to belittle it, and defeat it.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Solidarity, 25 years after

Lots of celebrations in Poland going on at the moment remembering the birth of the Solidarity trade union.

Standing by the gates of what was then called the Lenin Shipyard, Lech Welasa - the electrician who was sacked from the yard years before - triumphantly announced on that day, 1980: “We now have free and independent trade unions.”

Walesa had just signed the Gdansk Agreement with a massive pen with the face of John Paul II depicted on it. The agreement meant that, for the first time anywhere in the eastern bloc, communist authorities had formally agreed to free trade unions and freedom of speech. Alongside these concessions, Prime Minister, Mieczysław Jagielski, also guaranteed the release of all political prisoners.

Polish Euro-deputy for Civic Platform, Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, remembers the day well. He told the beatroot: “I was a Solidarity activist in Lodz at the time, setting up an inter-departmental, regional chapter of the union there. I remember feeling great joy at the news. It was simply unbelievable.”

August 31 will now be a national holiday in Poland – although this year there will be no day off work as it falls on a Sunday. Historian Wojciech Roszkowski says, “As a symbol it’s a good idea to promote the idea of solidarity in Polish society and abroad.”

Speaker of the House and presidential candidate of the ex-communist SLD, Wlodzimirz Cimoszewicz told Radio Polonia that the lessons of 25 years ago should not be forgotten. “It is in the interest of Poland and historical truth to remind the world what happened then. It was the first element in a chain of events in central Europe that had geo-political consequences which affected a whole continent.”

American historian, David Morgan thinks that what happened in Gdansk in 1980 will not be easily forgotten by anyone. “The more I study the Solidarity movement the more in awe of it I become. When you look at its discipline and its liberal goals, it’s an inspiration.”

Dancing cranes
Twenty-five years later, a whole host of events are scheduled to mark the occasion. Jean Michel Jarre will be the star of a sell-out concert at the Gdansk shipyard on August 26. He will be playing his old hits like Oxygen, of course, but has also composed a piece especially for the occasion. Lasers will blast across the night sky and the industrial cranes that are so characteristic of the yard will ‘dance’ in front of assorted heads of state, other VIPs, and 125.000 people in the audience. The show, which will cost around 1.5 million Euros to put on, will be shown live on TV and streamed on the Internet.

And in Warsaw on August 29, at Plac Teatralna in front of the National Theatre, there will be a concert featuring the songs of the period. Artists from Poland and abroad will sing the songs of the ‘Bard of Solidarity’, Jacek Kaczmarek, and many others. Huge screens in the square will show events commemorating the birth of Solidarity in Poland and around the world,

Apart from concerts, some have found other ways to mark the day. Many teenagers in Poland are not aware that Solidarity helped changed, not only Polish society, but also had an influence far beyond the nation’s borders. To fill the vacuum in these kids’ heads, Gdansk artist, Maciej Jaszynski has come up with the idea of presenting the historical events of 1980 in the form of a comic strip. Maciej says the idea was inspired by something a teacher said to him: “Teachers say that students absorb facts if they are presented in a simple and direct way. I think the Solidarity comic book does this.”

Read on: describes, in six languages, the coarse of events that led to Lech Welesa signing the agreements.

This article originally appeared in the New Warsaw Express

Woman sees face of Jesus in a Polish dumpling

Donna Lee, from Ohio, US, says the image appeared in a pierogi — a Polish dumpling — as she was cooking it for Easter dinner at her home near Toledo. She says she's kept it in her freezer ever since.

She and her husband have now posted the item on E-bay, with a starting price of 500 dollars. So far, there are no bidders.

This comes in the wake of a Virgin Mary shaped cheese sandwich was sold on E-bay for 20,000 dollars.

Couple tries to sell Jesus pierogi on eBay

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Two farmers, a mayor, a millionaire, and a heart surgeon

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New Labour’s solution to just about everything: ban it!

Tony Blair appears to think that terrorism is a bit like smoking fags, fox hunting, or growing magic mushrooms in your garden.

At a press conference today, alone behind his lectern with only a rapidly receding hairline for company, Tony Blair outlined his plan to beat the terrorists.

He’s going to ban them!


He’s going to draw up a list of web sites that say bad and nasty things. And ban ‘em! He’s going to deport (ban!) any mad mullah preaching hate for people who use Gillette razors, and take holidays in Tuscany.

Fatwas? Ban the bastards!

Ban married couples having arguments in public.

Ban pot noodle!

Ban hate! (all you need is love)

But the beatroot wants to know how any of this would have prevented 7/7. How does banning things make them go away? Does banning ‘happy hour’ eliminate drunks and drunken behaviour? Is the plan to ban Macdonald’s adverts when children are watching television any better than the Atkins diet? Will it make fat people go away?

People are still taking magic mushrooms - even though, in the present climate of fear, they must now be vigilant and alert for fungal threats to ‘our way of life’ lurking under the garden gnome.

Ban rucksacks!

In the meantime, the British police are resurrecting another draconian relic, Stop and Search (i.e. cops randomly stopping minorities and asking them to turn out pockets and have police officers run hands up the inside of trouser legs!).

Remember Brixton 1981, anyone? How to create alienation among minorities and start riots? Stop and Search!

Banning religious hate speech will not ban hate.

Blair says that the terrorists are not going to change the British way of life (like getting drunk in public). But New Labour’s new knee-jerk, authoritarian legislation is changing our way of life more than a few horrid bombs, and a few psychotic suicide bombers, will ever do.

Terrorism and 7/7 will not go away because you ban them, Tony. And it won’t make your hair come back.

Panicky, balding politicians who think that the cause of everything bad can be blamed on ‘them over there’ and not ‘us over here’?

Ban ‘em!

Friday, August 05, 2005

Stroking toads

Feng Shui – which could be described as a kind of metaphysical interior decorating – is becoming big business in Poland. But why, one hundred years after Albert Einstein’s e=mc2 are these anti-scientific remedies, for problems we didn’t even know we had, taking over not just the way we arrange our bathrooms, but the way we arrange our lives?

I turned on the television on Monday to watch A Question for Breakfast, a programme I have mentioned before on this spot. Studio presenters introduce ‘experts’ on anything and everything, and viewers call in with their questions. This day, the subject was Feng Shui. Loads of people rang in with questions.

Feng Shui, like lots of other ‘New Ageisms’ took off here after the fall of communism. Now there is no escaping the weird and wacky in Poland. Turn on the ITV cable station and get your tarot card reading done live on air. Walk down any high street and pop into the esoteric shop and buy your self some rhino horn. But feng Shui is the new ageism of choice for the Polish middle classes.

So, I have been boning up on the principles of Feng Shui. Maybe it could help me too.

As with everything that comes from the East, it’s all about energy, karma, ying and yang, or whatever.

If you want a successful life, then you must optimize the flow of energy in your home. Chi, the Feng Shui energy thingy, comes in through your front door - although it never rings the bell.

Once in your front door, energy likes to flow freely. If you have potted plants in a place where red flowers should be, then your life is going to be absolute hell. Apparently.

Clean up all clutter and mess. Feng Shui does not like mess. Dirty windows cloud your judgment! Burnt out light bulbs contribute to a lack of vision!

Certain ‘hot spots’ in your home have to be activated. If you have a problem with money, then the problem could just lie in the way you have arranged your kitchen. If you have a problem with you relationship, then the problem could be found – maybe not surprisingly - in the bedroom. Is you sex life not swinging as it should? Then throw away that bottle of Viagra and rearrange the bedroom furniture, stupid!

Put lots of crystals, chimes and fish tanks everywhere, except in the bathroom. In the bathroom keep the toilet seat down, because if you don’t then the energy of chi will immediately spot this and dive head first down the pan.

And above all, make sure you have lots of models of frogs and toads. Before leaving for work in the morning, make sure you give the little toad a little stroke on his little head. Go on, you know it makes sense.

The obvious question, I suppose, is why do so many intelligent people in Poland, and elsewhere, fall hook line and sinker for this gibberish?

Maybe it’s because people have lost faith in the West; with science, with progress. And if the West is bad, then the East must be good.

So here are a few more drops of wisdom from the East that you might like to try.

For example: feeling depressed, lonely, spiritually unfulfilled? Then why not try what is known as coning, or ear candling. This involves a hollow candle inserted into your ear and lit. The resulting vacuum does not just suck out your earwax, but also vacuums up bad energies and karma. If this goes wrong, however, then it could suck out half your brain cells, as well.

Radio Polonia does not advise you to try this at home, listeners.

So maybe it would be wiser to do what the Xinhua news agency says that 3 million Chinese do everyday before breakfast: drink your own urine! Some prefer it straight; apparently, others say that a few drop in your orange juice works best. This, say devotees, cures anything from flu, to toothache, fatigue, lumbago, depression, Parkinson’s disease, athlete’s foot, diabetes and much, much more. I bet it’s even a good cure for bulimia! Or maybe not. It does make sense, of course. It is a completely portable cure; it is free and could be marketed as the ultimate home brew.

To my knowledge, however, the only home brew Poles are interested in is cooking up their own vodka. But naturopathy, homeopathy, and a whole host of so-called ‘alternative medicines’ certainly are big news here. Worldwide, alternative medicine – meaning medicines that have failed to pass any sort of scientific test and basically don’t work– are worth 15 billion dollars in sales every year.

Another obvious question, in a country where 95% claim to be Catholic is: why are so many Poles dabbling in what could be termed ‘New Ageism’?

Well, you won’t be surprised to know that in a country like Poland, the sociology of religion is one of the most researched topics in social science departments. Leading sociologists in the field, such as Irena Borowik, Tadeusz Doktor and Darota Hall, say that the Polish are “belongers but not believers’. Poles customize their beliefs to fit their lives. In a mono-religious culture, Poles are surprisingly pluralistic.

So New Age quackery fits in well.

And New Ageism fits in well with the West as well. The West really has lost faith in itself. It is suspicious of the very science that has made it so successful. And into this vacuum comes quackery, irrationality and fundamentalism of all sorts.

And we all know where that particular road can lead. Stroking toads, sometimes, can be bad for our health.

Read on:
Peculiarity of the new age movement Poland by Dorota Hall, Warsaw University

The battle for Belarus

The president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has accused Poland of being the West’s poodle and is trying to bring him down, just like they did in Ukraine and Georgia. So he is harassing the Polish ethnic minority in Belarus.

The Polish tabloid, Super Ekspres says of the dispute: “There was a time, not long ago, when we suffered from tyranny in Poland. Nobody, from taxi driver to university professor, had any doubts about what the free world should be doing to help our dreams of freedom. Why, then, do we suddenly not know whether to help the Belarussian opposition or how to defend the Polish diaspora in Belarus? ... Let's support the opposition openly.”

And the best selling daily in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza says: “Outrage in Poland at the situation in Belarus. The Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rotfeld, has announced the recall of his ambassador for indefinite consultations. This is just a step away from breaking off diplomatic ties... Meanwhile the Belarussian ambassador to Warsaw says that the decision 'is clear confirmation of Poland's plan to inflame Polish-Belarussian ties.”

Andrzej Pisalnik, a spokesman for the 400,000 strong ethnic Poles in Belarus has been sentenced to ten years in jail for taking part in an illegal demonstration.

Earlier this week, Veslaw Kewlyak, received a 15 days jail term on charges of "illegally" meeting a visiting Polish politician. And Wieslaw Kiewliak, vice president of the Union of Poles in Belarus has also been arrested and sentenced to a couple of weeks in the clink.

A row between the two countries has been going on since March, when the Union of Poles in Belarus changed its, pro-Belarussian government, leaders and replaced them with what they considered to be more open minded and independent ones.

Both sides have since been indulging in tit-for-tat diplomatic handbags.

What really lies behind the dispute is that the president of Belarus, the Charlie Chaplinesque Alexander Lukashenko, has convinced himself that Poland is leading a campaign to get rid of him and his government, in the same way as what happened in Ukraine and Georgia.

Lukashenko believes that the ethnic Poles in his country are acting as some kind of vanguard in this process.

The beatroot agrees with the clownish Belarussian leader. Lukashenko might not be paranoid, but the CIA really is out to get him!

The Poles did play a major part in the so-called Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Condaleeza Rice, the American Secretary of State, has oft repeated the view that Lukashenko is, “Europe’s last dictator.’

The Belarussian government, on the other hand, thinks that the nation’s sovereignty is being tampered with. “The attempts of manipulation with the Union of Poles in Belarus for the purpose of its artificial opposition to the present authority is nothing else but rude and unconcealed interference in interior affairs of the sovereign state,” says a foreign ministry statement.

The statement also mocks the entry of the EU into the dispute. “The European Union, supporting unjustified claims of one of its members towards Belarus, takes the slippery path of kindling of the international dissention on its borders, that radically contradict to the principles of the "good-neighborhood policy" being declared by the EU.”

Lukashenko is not strictly speaking a dictator at all. He has one elections for president, although he has also tampered with the constitution to make sure that he is eligible to stand for a third, forth, fifth, sixth time. The Belarrussian opposition, on the other hand, seems unable to organize an affective plan to win over support and get rid of him.

Lukashenko is more a dictator than was Polish national super-hero, General Pilsudski, who dispended parliament in 1926 he led an army-backed coup, and led the country uncontested to his death in 1938.

So does Lukashenko have a point? Is Poland messing around with another nation’s sovereignty? Is the US and EU behind the actions?

Is the Pope a Catholic?

read on:
Belarus Jails Ethnic Poles as Dispute with Poland Escalates

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Jihadist ‘loose canons’ responsible for 7/7, says jihadist

According to an interview in Prospect magazine with a young British Islamic radical, the four bombers who blew up three tube trains on a bus in July, are not from ‘the network’.

In the aftermath of the attacks that killed over 50 people from all over the world on 7/7 (including three Poles) New Labour has tried to blame everyone and everything for the bombings.

Blair has said that British Muslims should fight the ‘evil ideology’ that underpins such violence. Pakistan should do more to control its Islamic religious schools which are, thinks Blair, corrupting young minds.

New Labour are desperate to find the answers outside of Britain and British culture.

Others – mostly left wing – have said that the Iraq war is to blame for alienating British Muslim youth. And when it isn’t the war, then it must be something to do with the socio-economic conditions of many Muslims in Britain that is turning them on to the Jihad.

Well, the interview with Hussan Butt, a 25 year from Manchester, northern England, in Prospect ( see A British Jihadist) seems to contradict each of these points.

The newspapers have been full of speculation that the 7/7 bombings are part of a masterplan by Al-Quaeda, who now has tentacles spread all over the world. But Butt - who has had his British passport taken away from him due to various comments he has made about the necessity of the Jihad and his support of Martyrdom (suicide bombings) – disagrees.

He told Prospect, in an interview conducted three months before the July bombings: "If someone were to attack Britain, they would be a completely and utterly loose cannon. It would be someone who wasn't involved in ‘the network’. Britain is a very liberal country in comparison to America, where Muslims don't have many rights. This is the type of country where you do have a lot more rights. Now with Afghanistan gone, the Muslims don't really have a place where they can come back to and regroup, have time to think and relax, without the authorities breathing down your neck."

So if there are Al-Quaeda types in London, then they are not at all pleased with the results of 7/7, and the subsequent bungling wannabe bombers antics two weeks later.

But what about the argument that it is the mosques that are radicalizing British youth? Butt says that he picked up his radical, violent version of Islam elsewhere.

“I was 17 when I really started practicing. It was through individuals whom I met, who started speaking a language that I understood, who went beyond just the prayer. I understand the huge importance of that.”

Nowhere in the interview does Butt mention the Iraq war. Not once. These sorts of people hated Sadam Hussein, and were quite glad to see the back of him. The war also opened up another front to fight in.

Butt is not impressed either with the argument that it is racism and poor economic conditions of many Muslims in Britain that made them go out and plant bombs in crowded tube trains.

“Many are from quite wealthy families, as I am. I think that's a myth, pushed forward by so-called moderate Muslims. If you look at the 19 hijackers on 9/11, which one of them didn't have a degree? Muhammad Atta was an engineer at the highest level. These people are not deprived or uneducated; they are the peak of society.”

Blair said directly after learning of the bombings of 7/7 that we are going to remain resolute in the face of terrorism, and that they would not defeat the ‘British way of life.’ I waited with baited breath to learn what this ‘British way of life’ actually is, but was disappointed.

And that’s the problem, perhaps. British culture lacks any kind of hold on many young Muslims. British people have little idea as to what being British actually means anymore. The old deferential Britain is gone. The nation's institutions, like the family, marriage, the church, political parties, and communities of all sorts have gone, or are on the way out. And good riddance to most of them. But what’s going to take their place? Where is the new community going to come from?

Why does a kid from Leeds think that British life is so crap that he would rather blow himself, and others up on the 8.50 a.m. tube to nowhere?

The gift you just can't refuse

A few Poles will tell you they love it. Many Poles will tell you they hate it. But most Poles will tell you that they love to hate it. The Palace of Culture and Science, which dominates the center of Warsaw, celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.

It is over 250 meters high, has 44 floors, three theaters, a cinema, a swimming pool, and was the present to the people of Poland from none other than Joe Stalin - a kind of ‘thank you’ for the Polish war effort against the Nazis.

And, of course, when Stalin gave you a present, it was rather unwise to say, ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It was the gift you really couldn’t refuse.

But the unlovable Palace of Culture does have its fans, especially among foreign visitors to the capital. It is the one distinct building in the center of Warsaw that distinguishes the place from other ex-communist, central European capitals.

Strange then that the architecture of the building is so distinctly un-central European.

Central European architecture is characterized by baroque churches and narrow, tall shouldered buildings squashed into squares surrounded by cobbled streets. And you can see many such Renaissance features right across Poland. But the Palace of Culture – which sticks out like a flaming red sore thumb by the central train station in Warsaw - comes from the Soviet socialist realism school of architecture, much like you can see in the center of Moscow.

Socialist realism was the official doctrine in the Soviet block from 1949 to 1956. It was meant to glorify the work and character of the great communist proletariat.

Girl meets tractor
Polish socialist realist poetry, for instance, sung the praises of the rush to industrialization that was so characteristic of communist regimes. A typical poem would be of the ‘Girl Meets Tractor’ variety. Boy sees beautiful girl in the fields, but she has eyes only for the new tractor that the Party Central Committee has recently delivered. The boy tries to woo the girl, but the girl is much too busy trying to woo the tractor. In the end they all live happily ever after in a paradise of diesel oil.

But architecture was the most important art form for the commies. After all, you can avoid most art works by not going to the museum, but you can’t avoid buildings.

And you certainly can’t avoid the Palace of Culture. The old joke goes: the best place to stand in Warsaw is at the very top of the Palace of Culture, because it is the only place in Warsaw that you can’t see the Palace of Culture.

Socialist realism in architecture seemed to have various principles. Firstly, all buildings must be ugly. Secondly, all buildings must be huge, with massive, almost ancient Greek style columns hold up imposing, monumental doorways.

And one thing that all these monuments to Stalinism seem to have on the outside of the buildings are statues of the proletariat themselves. You can see these figures not just on the palace, but also on the side of buildings on Marshalkowska street. See the big, butch miner cradling his drill in his massive forearms. See the equally big and butch female worker with a dreamy look in her eye, holding what appears to be a tractor repair manual.

The figures remind me of the, almost homoerotic, description of miners having a shower after a hard day at the coal face in George Orwell’s, The Road to Wigan Pier.

But love it or hate it, the Palace of Culture has become, almost be default, the most recognizable symbol of Warsaw. Poles, though, have complicated feelings about the place.

Celebrations for the palace’s birthday party have been muted. Small collection of personal affects from the nineteen fifties when it was built are currently on show. The most interesting of these are the visitor’s books from the time. In massive letters one visitor scrawled: ‘This thing is absolutely horrible!’ Another entry from 1955 complains that, though the authorities had boasted of twelve lifts in the building, only one was working, and massive queues had formed to get to the top.

Queues, ugliness; all part, sadly, of the Polish communist experience.

Poles have never really known what to do with the Palace of Culture. There is now a massive clock at the top, and occasionally they use the place to advertise a film. When the King Kong remake hit the cinemas a few years ago you could see a blow up model of the great big ape climbing up the building.

But today, the only sign, from outside, of the building’s birthday is a smallish sign half way up proclaiming modestly, ‘I’m fifty years old’. But the sounds of champagne corks going off in Warsaw are noticeable in their absence.