A Polish Notebook – on the eve of martial law

David Lodge

The LOT plane is late leaving Heathrow because of baggage-loading problems. ‘You will understand,’ says the ground hostess, apologising for the delay, ‘that we are carrying a great deal of baggage to Poland these days.’ The passengers waiting at Gate 11 smile wryly at each other. Their hand luggage is bursting with goods difficult or impossible to obtain in Poland these days. The British Council has thoughtfully supplied us (British scholars bound for a conference on English literature organised by the University of Warsaw) with a list: soap, shampoo, washing powder, chocolate, sweets, batteries, notepaper, toilet paper, coffee, sugar … Most of us will spend the next few days trying to find ways of slipping these goodies to our Polish hosts without giving offence.

At Warsaw airport we are met by members of the English Institute of the University, and the English Language Officer of the British Council. First impressions are of a country that seems surprisingly, almost disappointingly normal. Traffic on the road from the airport to the city is heavy. What looks like a line of parked cars at the kerbside, however, turns out to be a mile-long queue for petrol. Many of the cars are unoccupied: their owners leave them, sometimes overnight, to reserve a place in the queue. Queues and shortages are the main features of the current Polish scene to be reported in the West, and we stare out of the windows of the British Council minibus with almost ghoulish eagerness to have our expectations confirmed. There are indeed queues to be seen in downtown Warsaw, but one’s apocalyptic visions of an entire nation standing perpetually in line for the necessities of life prove to be exaggerated. This is not to underestimate the gravity of the crisis, but, so far at least, it seems to amount to acute inconvenience rather than real suffering. When you ask people to describe their present mood, the mood of the nation, the most common answer is ‘We are very tired.’

After registering at the University, we are taken by bus and car to Jablonna, a small palace built, in Neoclassical style, on the outskirts of Warsaw in the late 18th century. Like almost every building of consequence in the city, it was destroyed in World War Two, and carefully restored. It is now a conference centre belonging to the Polish Academy of Sciences, and is to be our home for the next three days. We are immediately apprised of the austerities of Polish life, though for reasons not directly related to the crisis: the previous day a freak storm brought down some power lines in the district, and although the palace is dimly lit from its own generators, there is no water since water is pumped electrically. We make up for the lack of hot baths at the end of our journey with nips of duty-free liquor and rueful jokes. ‘I have plenty of soap, but the British Council didn’t tell us to bring water,’ I remark to a lady from Poznan. ‘Ah, Poland will always surprise you,’ she replies with a smile. ‘By the way,’ I say, ‘would you like some soap?’ The moment seems opportune, though the offer, when I hear myself saying it, lacks finesse. She accepts with charming good humour. ‘I promise you it will be the last bar of soap I shall use.’

At dinner in the handsome banqueting room, with its murals, mirrors and dimly-glowing chandeliers, there are speeches of welcome. The Rector of the University congratulates the British visitors on their ‘courage’ in making the journey to Poland at the present time. I can’t honestly say I feel I deserve this accolade, nor, I think, do my colleagues: perhaps, it occurs to me, we should be more nervous than we are. Perhaps we are suffering from the blithe foolhardiness of those who have never experienced foreign occupation or seen unarmed demonstrators shot on the streets. The history of Poland over the past two centuries must be one of the most tragic among European nation states: a long succession of defeats, occupations, betrayals, and brave but futile or mistimed uprisings. This bitter historical heritage underlies everything the Poles say and do today. It explains the intensity of their patriotism, their courage and their exhilaration at the success of Solidarity: it also explains a degree of self-obsession, a streak of fatalism, which seems stranger and more disturbing ‘under Western eyes’ – to turn Conrad’s phrase upon his native country.

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