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Postcard from Poznan

This article appeared in The Herald Magazine

It is Poland’s age-old quandary: what to do about the past. Only pragmatism, Poles say, prevented Poznan’s Zamek Cesarski, the Prussian imperial castle built by Kaiser Wilhelm II at the beginning of the last century, from being demolished after 1945. When Poland, having regained its independence in 1918, was invaded by the Nazis and the area around Poznan became a part of the Third Reich – most of the rest of the country was simply German-administered – Hitler had the castle’s western wing and tower redesigned to mirror, exactly, his headquarters just a short trip down the road in Berlin.

Most buildings of its kind in Germany itself having been blitzed by the British, the place has lent its mise-en-scene to the odd film-maker down the years. The communists didn’t do very much with it – that it stood as a symbol of authoritarian rule was perhaps enough for them – but while it is now a cultural centre, housing a dance school, galleries and a cinema space, it still feels somehow empty, more strange fairytale palace than museum.

We are used to Germans treading on eggshells when talk turns to the years 1933-45, but the ethical equation is different in Poland. The Nazis killed around five million Poles. Anyone wondering whether it would be right or proper of a geared-up Polish tourist industry to hitch its wagon to some sort of Adolf Trail, will, therefore, find no easy answers. You’re not meant to feel prurient about Hitler. Pace his chambers and you just might.

All its sad, bloody, violent history has given Poland something few European countries enjoy: perhaps not so much a single idea of what it is but a definite sense of what it is not. Partitioned by the Prussians, Russians and Austro-Hungarians, invaded by the Swedes and the Ottomans, subjugated by the Nazis then by the Soviets, its sense of nationhood is inseparable from its struggle for survival. The Prussians were Protestant, the Russians Orthodox Christians. Of the five million killed by the Nazis, three million were Jewish; only a few thousand Jews survived. Catholicism – not exactly the default religion in northern Europe – makes sense. For centuries the church bolstered Polish national identity; in turn Poles have remained faithful. Religion and patriotism – an endearingly uncomplicated patriotism – go hand in hand, or at least that’s the impression. Religious attendance remains sky-high; in Poznan there’s a church everywhere you look.

The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul has particular significance, having been founded in the year 968 by Mieszko I, the first ruler of Poland. In the shade of its Gothic silhouette – the original Romanesque cathedral was sacked centuries ago – a statue of Pope John Paul II welcomes parishioners to prayer. Old Karol Jozef declared the site to have been the birthplace of the Polish nation, and besides being a pontiff he wasn’t from Poznan but a place near Krakow, so he probably wasn’t lying.

The Prussians tried, and failed, to suppress Polish culture and language. The communists tried, and failed, to reduce the influence of the church. In Poznan the commies even “moved” the River Warta off its natural meandering course around the cathedral, for no other apparent reason than to let the Catholics know who was in charge.

Now that the Poles are self-determining, all that suppressed culture and heritage has come into its own, while the revolts and uprisings of 1918, 1956, 1970, 1980 and too many other years to mention are everywhere commemorated. Not that everyone is dancing the polka, debating folk art or pining for the days of Solidarity. Western-style consumerism caught on a while back and Poznan is proud to have the “best medium-sized shopping mall” in the world, a fairly impressive piece of modern architecture that brings everyone from Zara to Barbour, Van Graaf and Mothercare under one roof. Let it slip that you’re from Scotland and as well as telling you about friends and family who live and work there, Poles – in common with everyone else in the world who watches Hollywood films – will mention Braveheart. Having grasped their own freedom, they can’t understand why we’re so phlegmatic about ours.

It may be the ultimate endorsement of their patriotism that many of the thousands of young Poles to have sought work abroad since the country joined the EU in 2004, are now going home. In Poland low levels of home ownership should ensure a degree of protection against the credit crunch. The Polish economy is actually growing right now, fuelled partly by a construction boom, while the zloty has been getting stronger and salaries higher for some time. Paradoxically, meanwhile, for a nation that puts such store in its independence, the EU remains almost universally popular, the Common Agricultural Policy notwithstanding.

Poznan, at least, exhibits many of the signs of a city in which business is thriving. It is said that people here are even more prudent than the Scots. National stereotypes aside, the region was historically more economically progressive than other parts of Poland and in the 21st Century has become something of a financial, industrial and scientific hub. The Poznan International Fair attracts some 350,000 visitors a year to the city and in December the great and the good clocked up the air miles to fly in and discuss how to get more investment from their respective exchequers for biofuels, and other topics, at the UN Climate Change Conference.

Polish farmers might well have taken an interest. Food shortages are no distant memory, while the national diet is still very much based on staples, not least in Poznan, whose citizens are referred to in other regions as “pyry” (potatoes) – rather like Liverpudlians are named for their consumption of lobscouse, and not always affectionately. In Poznan you will discover any number of delicacies involving potato: pyry z gzikiem, potatoes cooked in their skins and served with cottage cheese; szagowki, potato dumplings cooked with flour and, um, cottage cheese; and koptyka, potato mixed with egg, wheat, and (why not?) potato flour. Everything is served with red cabbage, but if you want fleshing out a bit other traditional dishes involve lamb, wild boar and herring. It’s prosaic cuisine, but rather healthy, and no-one under 30 seems to be fat. The women are stylish and beautiful, all lustrous eyes and Slavonic cheekbones. Moreover, the absence of joggers from the city’s streets is surely a sign of rude health, not to mention the absence of corporeal guilt.

The men, you might reasonably conclude, prefer drinking and smoking to anything remotely as tiresome, but while Poznan boasts a breath-taking concentration of bars and nightclubs around its market square – the city’s universities house 130,000 students – it doesn’t feel either debauched or decadent. Apart from Polish barbers having a precipitous knack for reproducing the very worst footballers’ haircuts, modesty reigns. People are hospitable if not demonstrative, cheerful if not exuberant, and strikingly well-informed.

The market square itself, Stary Rynek, has a typically northern European toy-town quality to it, with the sort of gabled, ornamental skylines you find everywhere from the Baltic to the east of Scotland; although its centre-piece is an elegant town hall designed by the Italian Renaissance architect Giovanni Battista di Quadro. A short walk from there throws up the Baroque of St Stanislav’s Parish Church – gaudy, vulgar, exhilarating. Head west and you’ll find the German-built opera house and Teutonic, faux-medieval castle vying for prominence with Polish libraries, theatres and an excellent National Museum. All of which points to the obvious contradiction that while Poznanians just love being Polish, it’s the juxtaposition of the foreign, colonial and native that makes their city so physically appealing.

People here can be punctilious, which is possibly a German influence. They’re also fairly hidebound about rules such as forbid photography inside communist-era civic buildings and will happily stand for aeons at empty crossroads waiting for the lights to change. If this is to their detriment, at least they’re organised enough to have their new football stadium for the 2012 European Championships well underway, while those in other parts of Poland are in danger of not being ready in time. A city of spuds? One thinks not.


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A View from Dundee

This article appeared in the Sunday Herald

I’ve just stepped off the train into Dundee’s lunchtime smirr, and the first guy I’ve asked for directions to the Doghouse, the bar where I’m due to meet The View, the city’s most successful recording artists since the Average White Band, is telling me a story about someone he knows who had to stop on the M90 and phone for an ambulance after the stitches from a recent vasectomy burst open. I thank him for his help and head on, reflecting that his bizarre, scabrous tale would not be out of place in one of The View’s songs.

Dundee, so we’re told, is all abuzz with new-found vibrancy and confidence. Its booming creative, cultural and biotech sectors ensure that it is one of the first cities mentioned in dispatches on regeneration; and like other regenerated cities – Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow – it now boasts a music scene that is the envy of other more boring places. Of course, the irony is that much of the best music in these towns tends to come from their unregenerated underbellies, and so it is with Dundee. For Oasis and Burnage, read The View and Lochee, for it’s this particular neighbourhood we have to thank for producing one of the UK’s most interesting guitar bands of recent years.

I’ve met The View before, in early 2007, just after their debut, Hats Off To The Buskers, had gone straight to No 1 in the album charts. They were on that year’s NME Tour, shockingly young, even shorter than I’d imagined and clearly determined to enjoy as much free booze as they could snaffle, lest perhaps someone came and took it away.

Two years on and with their second album about to come out, what has changed? The new record is more reflective and more rounded than its predecessor, and departs from the punky, anthemic indie script with string arrangements, bluesy strains and even a hint of Two Tone colouring the mix. In other words, it doesn’t sound like a band who can’t get into the US because frontman Kyle Falconer was caught with cocaine in 2007, are banned from every Travelodge in the land and had to abandon a gig last year because they were too drunk to perform.

And neither is there much rousing of rabbles going on at the Doghouse. Kyle, the only member of the band who no longer lives in Dundee – he has moved in with his girlfriend in London – is asleep on a sofa when I arrive, wakes up for Vimto, some loud burping and the interview, then resumes the foetal position as I’m leaving. In his upright phase he shrugs when I put it to him that album number two has the whiff of a new maturity. “Done a lot of growing up this last year,” he sings on one track, Glass Smash. And then there’s the line on One Off Pretender: “To be 10 different people, that’s easy / It’s easier than being yourself.”

“That’s about getting wrecked, and stuff,” he reveals. “How you play at being somebody else.” Doesn’t that come with the territory of being in a band and being successful and being schmoozed by a lot of people you don’t know? “Aye,” he says. “But that’s alright. Success hasn’t changed us. I don’t feel different to what I was. It’s more that people treat you differently. People might say you’ve changed or whatever, but it’s people that never knew you in the first place. I like it, being in a band. You see a lot of bands that don’t look as if they’re having a good time, and you think What’s the point?’ A lot of the stuff in the press about us is true, so you can’t really complain about it; but they deliberately make us out to be off the wall. We’re just getting up to the same things as any other band.”

Glass Smash, a slick blast of new wave, and Covers – more of which later – might both be construed as love songs. Both contain lines of understated beauty and tenderness, rendered, as ever, with a locution that is entirely the singer’s own. Yet there seems, at times, to be a mismatch between Falconer’s almost honeyed Celtic intonation and the kind of tabloid coverage of the band that might have put, if not The Stooges, then certainly Oasis in the shade.

Like the Gallagher brothers, The View share a penchant for the greyer areas of political correctness. The album, after all, is called Which Bitch? and Falconer’s explanation of Gem Of A Bird, its skiffly closing track, suggests a certain antagonism at work as regards womankind. “It’s about a bird I was going out with who was a wee bit older than me and was dead intelligent,” he says. “She knew a lot of words that I could never remember; but there’s a bit of irony in it, because it’s about how I knew better than her.” Not for me the role of feminist inquisitor to a bunch of 21-year-olds from Lochee revelling in their rock’n’roll inheritance, but you wonder if there’s just a hint of an attempt to wind people up.

The parallels with Oasis are instructive. Rumours that The View are now banned from the remote Welsh studio where they recorded Which Bitch? are enthusiastically scotched, and, if needed, producer Owen Morris could come to their defence. Morris worked with Oasis from 1994 until 1997, and it’s arguable that the two albums he has now made with The View gesture at the sort of music the Gallaghers could and should be making were it not for the fact they disappeared up their own backsides after Britpop. Which Bitch? has new layers of instrumentation and a broader musical canvas than Hats Off To The Buskers, but its melodies still soar and delve with working-class vim and vinegar. “We’ve still got the big tunes with choruses and tracks that go down well at gigs. We didn’t make a conscious decision to make a new sound or anything like that,” says Kieren Webster, the band’s bass player and co-songwriter.

Guitarist Pete Reilly fills me in on the Doghouse and its importance to the band’s story. “We practically lived here when we left school,” he says. “We’d rehearse for hours then nip across the road to buy 12p noodles from Lidl. One minute we were on the dole, and the next we were top of the album charts.”

I wonder what ructions they might have experienced, four lads from a scheme stepping out into the limelight armed with nothing but catchy songs about their native city. “If you’re born and bred working class, it’s always going to come across. It’s ingrained in you,” says Webster, who has just bought a new flat in Dundee. “But it’s not like we have chips on our shoulders.” Falconer adds: “Where you’re from is where you’re from, and that’s what you write about. It’s just that the majority of bands aren’t from where we’re from, but bands from London write about the same things we write about.”

There is, nonetheless, a ring of authenticity to the rebel yell of One Off Pretender. “It’s about being flung in the jail in Aberdeen,” explains Webster. “Me and Kyle were DJing in a club, and things kicked off on the dancefloor and we went to jump in for our mates.”
“Actually,” Falconer butts in, “we split the f***ing fight up. We f***ed off from the gig and jumped on the bus to go back to Dundee, but the police caught up with the bus and arrested us.”

On Thursday, the band are set to play a special one-off gig at London’s Hard Rock Cafe. It’ll be the first time they’ve performed two gorgeous new tracks, Distant Doubloon and Covers, with live strings and brass. The former twines snatched references to “Robbie Stevenson” and Treasure Island with street-wise Dundonian vignettes; it’s surreal, funny and possibly the best thing the band have ever done. Covers, meanwhile, is a charming duet they recorded with Paisley crooner Paolo Nutini, who just happened to be making his own album in a studio along the road from his fellow Scots in Wales.

Given Nutini’s heartthrob status, this collaboration might help his new mates get back on-side with the ladies. Because, men’s men or otherwise, and for all their swagger and front, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that there’s more to The View than they want us to see.