from Kronika

by Tom Pickard


a selection from the complete Warsaw Journal, published in Chicago Review 59:3, and available in print here.




From the mid-1970s through the early 1980s, I was living in a London squat—a one-room attic overlooking the northeastern end of Regent’ s Park Zoo—sharing a kitchen and bathroom with several others. Work in London was low-paid and irregular, and the dole was giving me hassle. The social security money paid no bills. Basil Bunting used to tell me, when I was being hassled by the dole in Newcastle, that to survive as a writer I should try to find a cheap country to live in. My then-wife, the artist Joanna Voit, was a Polish citizen. The black market in dollars made Poland a cheap country for Westerners, and the company was congenial. It made sense to live in Joanna’ s small flat in Warsaw and change dollars on the black market, which enabled my slim savings to buy us time without the hassle of a grub-hunt for survival or a weekly visit to the dole queues.

For the year 1979–1980 I held a fellowship at Warwick University in Coventry, largely due to recommendations from Bunting and Allen Ginsberg, and spent term time there. Between terms I returned to Poland. During this period in Warsaw, I was researching and putting together a book on the Jarrow March, testing information and belief about the 1936 historic hunger march from the small shipbuilding Tyneside town to London.  It was one of the iconic stories of solidarity and radical working-class action, in response to massive unemployment and the brutal poverty that accompanied it, that gave the North East its identity—at least to young Geordie leftists like me. The region’ s unbroken tradition of balladry, especially from the mining community, also celebrates those values.

Each Polish visa was for the duration of three months and could only be applied for from outside the country, which meant taking a long train ride back to the UK where I would try to find enough work to cover travel costs and subsistence and buy another three months in Warsaw.

A small travel agency in London’ s Oxford Street used to specialize in trips to Poland—mostly for migrants visiting relatives. It felt like a well-used trail. The journey took about thirty-five hours by train and travelled through Holland, West Germany, East Berlin, West Berlin, and East Germany before hitting Poland. As we approached and crossed each border, soldiers and uniformed officials checked documents, which made sleep impossible. The journey across the wall from West Berlin into East Berlin and vice versa was affecting.

The British Embassy in Warsaw usually gave my wife a visa within a week, until Margret Thatcher came to power in 1979. Immediately the attitude toward foreign visitors changed, and the acquisition of a visa became protracted and uncertain.

Kronika covers mainly the period of a single three-month visa. Prefaced by a series of letters to Bunting and Ginsberg and a couple of entries from the previous winter, the bulk of the journal extends from August to October 1981. Whatever happened at the end of that time meant that either or both Joanna and I must leave the country—or if no visa could be got for the other we’ d be separated either side of a border.


[undated, March–April 1980]       Warsaw

Dear Basil,

This letter will probably reach you long after I get back (8th of April), but what the hell. It’ s still pretty wintry over here and the “elections ” just over. Not sure what the new government looks like, but I’m sure we’ ll find out before long.  I’ ve had another bloody run-in with the Brit shits.

Apparently Thatcher’ s new immigration laws fuck us up somewhat. The last time I applied for a visa for my wife, from the British consul here, he supplied it the same day and said he would do so in future whenever we reapply. But now a snotty young tyke promised us a delay of at least three weeks… . There were circumstances in which he could exercise discretion such as a relative dying or dead. Surely a desire to be with a spouse is reason enough for compassion? Not for the new Thatcherites. So, as my Polish visa has run out I will have to return alone and try to fix Joanna’ s visa back in London—which takes countless hours waiting and endless expensive phone calls… .

Joanna is feeling disorientated and lost, not knowing where we are based but we are going to make a strong effort to get a council flat in London and to find Joanna a job. If that fails will probably move here for a year or two—unless we can get something in the US sorted out.

[· · ·]

5 September 1980

Dear Basil,

How are you? We arrived last Saturday. Weather is really fine. The proles and Poles seem to be solving their problems amicably, so far. All the attention doesn’ t seem to have stopped the tourists visiting—unless they are all disguised Russian tourists.

It feels much safer here than I had anticipated from reading the Western press before we left. However I gather that the official East Bloc reaction is that the workers have been misled by the dissidents. In fact the entire working class may be said to have joined the dissident movement. The ungrateful buggers. Our Russian comrades have seen, in their wisdom, no need to interfere in the course of Polish events. However, a recent Russian World Service broadcast said a lot of Westerners, press and others, had come to Poland to cause trouble. According to them it is all counter revolutionary activity. […]

I’ ve just heard about someone here who is translating The Spoils [Morden Tower, 1965] into Polish and someone else who is publishing a post 1935 anthology of British poets—featuring Ian Hamilton and his gang of boring farts plus one or two decent Northern Irish.

It’ s quite lively here at the moment with a poetry festival and an international modern music festival. There appears to be great openness in the media, thanks to the strikers of Gdansk and their supporters. How was America? We hope to get there February, reading for Creeley at Buffalo and also trying to arrange other readings to pay for the trip. I suppose I might manage St. Marks in NYC. I’ m being a lazy slob with my Linguaphone Polish lessons and keep expecting to understand everything in a flash—the Zen art of language learning.  The post seems to be getting through quicker than normal, so bon voyage my little letter… .

· · ·

[undated, fall–winter 1980]

Dear Allen,

How are you and Peter? We have just arrived in Warsaw and I suppose will be here until spring unless anything exciting and well-paid is happening elsewhere. I got a message from Alfred Rollington to contact your agent re: readings. That sounds mighty kind of you and I’ m duly grateful. We’ re out of work and money now and would welcome the chance to visit USA. If any readings are happening that would help with the expense of getting there, then excellent. 

We spend about half a year in England half in Poland as we both have to get visas from each other’ s governments first. The visas don’ t last long, so we’ re really never sure of where we are… . But who is? So far the Polish have been much more observant of my human rights than the English have of Joanna’ s in terms of getting visas. Though my wife has permission to settle in England the last twat that we approached at the British Embassy here refused a visa and what’ s worse refused to give me a reason. It’ s awful being at the mercy of bureaucrats; you need the brain of an Einstein, the tenacity of a rabid dog, and the diplomacy of a greased rat to deal with the fuckers. […]

[. . .]

20 January 1981     Warsaw

Went to the Warsaw US Embassy to collect a visa for Joanna, and overheard the following conversation between two American officials processing the enquiries.

“This one is a taxi driver and he answers 4b by saying that the only organisation he belongs to is Solidarity. ”

“Gawd help us when the taxi drivers start forming unions. ”

30 January 1981

We spent this evening packing and having supper with my parents- in-law, Mieczyslaw (Slawek) Voit and Barbara Horawianka, both actors. During the conversation I learned that my friend Zbigniew Herbert had returned to live in Warsaw, so I decided to call him. His work has been banned for a few decades, and he is clearly persona non grata here. He’ s lived for many years in West Berlin but has managed to retain his flat in Poland and obviously his passport, too. The authorities prefer him to remain out of the country and have made it difficult for him to stay. That he should have chosen to return at this moment, when the conflict of repression and promise of resistance is greatest, says a lot about him.

Herbert is a quiet, introspective man, not a rabble-rouser, but his poetry is icily ironic and clear enough for the metaphor police. He answered the telephone at ten in the evening and said he’ d like to see me before we went to New York. Our plane was leaving in seven hours, at five in the morning, so I struggled in a bitter wind and over icy footpaths to join a taxi queue in Plac Zamkowy. A young guy standing in front of me said something I didn’ t quite catch.

He opened a map of the city and I pointed to the district where Herbert lives and we got into his tiny Fiat. Either he was one of many pirate taxis and didn’ t really know how to get around the city, or he was a police informer. We had an interesting conversation while he rode around in circles taking half a dozen wrong turnings. When we eventually arrived close to Promenada, I asked him to drop me a few streets further on, paid him eighty zloty for the tour, and then walked back until the car was out of sight. Herbert’ s flat is on the first floor, and he has a reinforced door with at least two locks, which he opened cautiously. His boyish face broke into a grin.

“I would kiss you, but I have this awful malady. Influenza, I think. ”

As his wife was already in bed and sleeping, he took me into his small study, which was piled high with cardboard boxes full of books. We sat looking at each other, talking, holding hands affectionately. He smoked one cigarette after another. Out of habit we kept our voices down to a murmur. He opened a box and showed me his latest book. Then our conversation turned to family and friends. I left him, happy to know he was back in Warsaw but also worried because dissidents are being jailed all the time. On the main street I was fortunate in grabbing a cab. Black icy night, cold slashing wind. When I got home Joanna was still at her parents ’ flat, and I was delegated at 1:30 AM to take the wee dog for a walk. Shah is a dachshund and is very affectionate, but when threatened or being protective, he can show his teeth. Slawek named him after the Shah of Iran—as a joke, I think, or to irritate.

(We did not sleep at all that night but packed and sat making last-minute arrangements for the flat with Barbara, who then drove us to the airport for our flight to New York, where we stayed until summer. Allen Ginsberg gave us a bed for a couple of nights in his Lower East Side apartment on East 12th Street before we all flew on to Boulder, Colorado for a few months, where, at Allen’ s invitation, I “taught ” poetry at Naropa University.)

[. . .]

11 September 1981     Baligrod

On the evening of the ninth we took a thirteen-and-a-half-hour train journey to Baligrod in a very comfortable sleeping compartment. When the train left Warsaw there was a girl on the bottom bunk, but she’ d vanished by dawn, having slipped away soundlessly before we woke. Once we were out into the depth of the country, they changed engines and attached an old steam warhorse, which panted up into the hills and stopped at every small station. We sat with the window wound right down for most of the journey, except when large bits of soot blew in and covered us. I have enjoyed fantasies of such a train ride for years, travelling so slow that we are able to discern the different types of grass, rather than viewing a green blur. Most of the fields are cultivated in strips by individual families and look as though they grow only enough for their own needs. Women were working the fields, and the men were driving what few tractors there are. As the train climbed higher the houses looked older than those in Warsaw, and were mostly wooden. The new ones under construction are being built to a standard pattern. We passed a few large factories that were standing idle, in rural settings. One looked like a refinery—perhaps the result of the last government’ s ill-judged investments.

We arrived exactly on time, which surprised everyone. There was no platform, and it was quite a step down onto the track. With our three bags we picked our way over the oil- and coal-spattered rails. Slawek and Barbara were waiting in their car. They took us along the road to a small village, where we stopped at a café and ate raw herrings in cream with onions and a beer. They began to tell me about the awful killings that went on during the war between the Ukrainians and Poles in this area. Border raids back and forth when sometimes whole villages were razed. Very bestial, Barbara told me. Whilst driving further along the quiet road, we saw a peasant who was riding an ancient motorbike and pulling a trailer go over into a ditch. We stopped the car and Slawek and I helped him right his vehicle. He was quite drunk and in his gratitude offered me a bottle of beer, which I accepted. The road runs along the River San, and we were within pissing distance of the Ukrainian border. The hotel is pleasantly situated on the side of a steep valley and is surrounded by a thick woodland of ancient trees. We were offered a choice of accommodation—in the hotel with a bath and television, or in one of a number of small wooden huts standing further up the hillside. We took the hut, of course. It smells of wood and is small and warm. I’ m very happy in it. The other huts are far enough away and staggered up the hill. My in-laws have a hut nearby and are in good spirits. It’ s all very cheerful and relaxed. Slawek is not drinking much and is eating well. Two of their friends from the theatre are here also, but they prefer to stay in the hotel.

The food is very good and there is plenty of it. We spent the afternoon of the tenth lying around outside their hut. Slawek gave us some tasty mackerel pâté, and the dog ran ecstatic, sticking his nose into holes and digging new ones. The weather was warm but slightly misty towards dusk, and we walked some way along the road by the river, where we came across an old overgrown cemetery in the woods. Later, there were parties outside all night with people singing until three in the morning. Slawek and Barbara have been feeding a fox that comes at six, but not today.

It has been raining since early morning, and clouds frequently change the nature of the landscape. Sometimes I can see a hairline of trees up behind the hut and then another appears behind that for a few moments before vanishing again. There are a few birch trees growing nearby, and last night on our way down to dinner, I discovered a perfect, tall, red and white Amanita muscaria. Slawek stopped by the mushroom to tell us a silly story. “In a beautiful forest, a fine late summer evening, everything was still and peaceful. A man came along and kicked over a mohamar (Amanita muscaria), and a little Tom Thumb figure appeared and said, ‘Bloodyhell, homeless again. ’ ” He said it angered him when people kicked over the mushroom, but this was the custom in Poland. Whenever anyone comes across this startling fungus they destroy it, which is very odd because every toy shop window has a plastic model of it, and it is used most commonly in graphic designs for children, featured as illustrations in their books. It is also one of the commonest Christmas tree decorations, and toy manufacturers make a plastic rattle for babies the shape and colour of the mushroom. Nobody I have met in Poland is aware of its hallucinogenic properties, but, without exception, everybody reiterates that it is poisonous and deadly.

I am very happy here and, with the scent of wood in my nostrils, have an appetite for work in these still conditions. This place is a recreation centre for employees from Zelmer, a factory that manufactures electrical goods. The majority of holidaymakers have left because the kids have gone back to school. There is a small table in the small kitchen where I can sit and work with the door open, enjoying an uninterrupted view down the valley of a steep wall of trees, visible only when the clouds lift partially, momentarily, or totally. I have just seen a jay and last night heard a tawny owl. There are wild cats and deer in the neighbourhood. Found another bunch of Amanita muscaria beside a clump of silver birch trees. One in particular gleamed bright red and white and had a distinctly phallic shape. We collected a bunch, and they are drying outside. I was aware of the mushroom as a child growing up on the fringes of Newcastle, which bordered onto old lanes and rights-of-way that were trodden by pitmen and, winding through small woods, skirted meadows with all their wonders. But my attention was drawn to this particular fungus in the late 60s when I visited Charles Olson in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He was enthusiastic about an expensive and lavishly illustrated book of dedicated scholarship which proposed that the Amanita muscaria was the soma of old. Even if the central theory is wrong, what is to be learned on route of the cultural history of the mushroom is fascinating. The book was written and researched by an ex-banker named R. Gordon Wasson and was called Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality.

14 September 1981

Dreamt Joanna and I were in Newcastle, in the city centre, and the atmosphere was oppressive with the police behaving with savage brutality. Then I was holding a lamb in my lap and teaching it to speak, to form the word “Thatcher ” accompanied by some abuse.

An even, thin, cold mist.

Joanna has gone off to the nearest village in search of pots and pans to purchase. Just now a number of workers walked past the hut with axes and saws, collecting tall branches to prepare for a bonfire with which to roast the sheep at tonight’ s special supper. I took a nap and woke at 5:30 PM to hear Solidarity being attacked on Radio Prague: “The people’ s reply to the so-called Message to the Peoples of Eastern Europe. ”   The commentator had a snotty, conceited voice. The melody of the day, which followed, was a Czech version of Abba’ s “The Winner Takes It All. ”

There was heavy rainfall this afternoon, although people still gathered wood and persisted with the bonfire that was smoking sadly while they barbecued a lamb. Walesa said, on the radio, that if they can’ t get their weekly programme on TV and radio they’ d build their own transmitter. Moscow World Service quoted extensively the adverse Hungarian reaction to Solidarity’ s offer to help other free trade unionists in the Eastern Bloc.

9:15 PM. I have been deep in the forest to gather a couple of logs for the bonfire, dragging them out along the wet grass. Everyone has been doing something towards this evening’ s celebrations. Although there’ ve been vicious storms all afternoon, they were determined to keep the fire going and have managed to roast the lamb.

Joanna, having discovered a few maggots in her mushroom rings, is continually hanging them above the stove to drive the little buggers out. I asked her what happens when they come out, and she replied, “They get fried on the heater, poor things. ” I told her that I had seen her father in the woods but he wasn’ t carrying anything. She said he was probably telling everyone else what to do, but we discovered later that he’ d got the largest tree and had chopped it up.

The maggots squirm out quickly and flop onto the heater, where they are instantly fried. I kicked my foot against a log and bled my big toe under the nail and hobbled off to the party an hour late. The company was sitting in circles in a large room. An enormous fire burned the wood which had been gathered in the afternoon. We were immediately taken care of and delivered to the lamb on the spit, given large slices of it on bread, and then we sat on a front bench where people made room for us. They had used a couple of juniper bushes while roasting the lamb. Someone else gave us a bottle of beer each. They turned off the light and began singing, mostly old partisan songs with a spread of cheeky sexual ones. Half an hour later the lights came on again, and a well-built, handsome girl holding a bunch of flowers made a short speech thanking the staff for their good services and attention. Everyone got onto their feet and sang, “May they live a hundred years, and anyone who won’ t wish them well can go to hell. ” They sang with gusto, even passion, and the recipients of the flowers seemed genuinely grateful. A shy pleasure was taken in the gift by a bonny mountain girl who served in the restaurant. Then the manager, a youngish man, was presented with a bunch of red carnations and thanked for, amongst other things, keeping the water in the pool too cold. The lights were turned off again, and there was more singing by firelight—songs of the cities over the borders in Ukraine and Lithuania and lost to Poland, including Lwow and Wilno. There were some very powerful voices, and the whole was harmonious. At nine everyone was invited upstairs to the café, where there was a large dance floor. The young manager sat at the disc machine with huge speakers. People began dancing, but my foot put me out of action. Joanna, in a feverish mood, complained, “The first time in three years I ask you to dance! ”

1 October 1981

There are certain queues I have decided not to join—those longer than an hour. I’ m a one-hour queue man and had joined one that size this morning, when an old woman squeezed in front of me—queue-jumped. I didn’ t have the heart to complain, nor the vocabulary, but found myself some moments later rehearsing what I’ d say to her if she bought the last bottle of milk. She didn’ t, but someone else in front of us did. So no milk today, although I did get a packet of white cheese, three cartons of kefir, and some yogurt. On my way home, three fat ladies from the office next door abandoned work and ran past me on their way to join a queue outside a kiosk selling toothpaste.

People join queues without knowing what’ s being sold. It may be possible to become addicted to the queue. I didn’ t buy bread today because we have no butter or margarine. Joanna is making chicken and vegetable soup, and it smells wonderful. The autumn is setting in quickly now, with a thick, grey October mist hanging over the city in the mornings when the old feel the damp in their bones. Joanna dreamt last night that she’ d bought baking powder, which is impossible to find in reality.

The news on the radio reports that Reagan and Secretary of State Haig are going ahead with the A1 bomber. They continually make noises about intervention in Poland, no doubt to cover their own dirty business in the Gulf, Africa, and South America.  There is no need here for “visitors ” (the euphemism for Russians, used by everyone), as hunger is a powerful weapon.

A queue is a microcosm of the status quo. When eyes in the queue look back, they measure smugly the chances of those further behind. If there are more people behind you in a queue than in front, it invokes a pathetic hope, or at least tempers your hopelessness. Their hope reinforces yours: a long queue behind is almost as satisfying as a short one in front, except that the longer it gets behind the more difficult it is to give up your place, even when you have bitten the dust of static despair at the lack of forward momentum. Deals are struck in queues: I’ ll join this queue for you if you join that queue for me. The queue is like an iceberg: never quite entirely visible. No matter how bad a queue looks, it is always worse than it seems. If you join more than one queue, it is important to remember the face of the person in front; it is only they who will keep your place, never the person behind.

[. . .]

[4 October 1981]

[. . .]

Back home Joanna needed a Scarlatti massage, as she was so wound up and frustrated. She’ s lost her prevailing optimism, and there does seem to be a mood of hysterical despair throughout Poland. Cigarette prices double tomorrow, and great anger is mounting over that. The last luxury being the freedom to supply an addiction.

Chicago Review 59:3 (Summer/Autumn 2015). Copyright Tom Pickard and Chicago Review.