An earlier column, on the Baltic Sea, looked at the British tendency for stereotyping when considering other parts of Europe but that it seemed harder to get a handle on some countries than others. The same could apply to cities . Rome, Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen: everyone thinks they know them, everyone knows songs about them. Berlin is familiar through numerous films – often either ones full of shadows, raincoats and furtive conversations or of gigolos, brothels and night clubs in the Weimar era-- and artists from Bowie to Japan have covered the city. But other capitals stay a bit hazy at the back of the mind. What could you say about Tallin? Ljubljana? Podgorica? Lutenblag? (The last named doesn’t actually exist, it is the capital of the spoof fictional country of Molvania)
There are other places that sort of fall between these two camps: there are a set of widely held images, and a handful of songs, but they tend to be fairly monochrome, a very partial view. Poland and its capital Warsaw perhaps fall into this category. Western songs about Warsaw are generally pretty bleak: if given visual form they would be some graffiti on a grey rain -flecked wall of an apartment tower block. It seems hard, too, for song writers to escape the shadow of World War 2. Take Warsaw by Joy Division (whose original band name was actually Warsaw and whose change of nomenclature was inspired by the prostitution area of a concentration camp): it is a bleakly dark and gloomy sound that supposedly references Rudolph Hess. The 1977 David Bowie/Brian Eno collaboration, Warszawa, is an equally stark and desolate largely instrumental evocation of the city. In Warsaw Girl, Olenka and the Autumn Lovers painted another depressing picture: ’Standing in the line waiting for her daily bread...bedroom in a concrete slum, a narrow alleyway, a shadow in a smoke-filled bar”. It comes as quite a relief to find Mike Batt’s Warsaw is just about a tragic romance: “In Warsaw a heart is breaking and now there’s nothing we can do. In Warsaw she will be waiting but I can’t go back again” (It is not clear why not: hasn’t he heard of Wizz Air?)
It is true that it is not difficult to find the grey and gloomy in Warsaw to match the songs above. Away from the cobbled streets, alleyways and outdoor cafes of the Old Town area there you can soon find the housing blocks and graffiti, concrete expanses, the anonymous shopping arcades where you can still espy 'Man at C&A'. (Rather like the Hatfield of the Oxford Street column). But you can also find the parks, theatres and concert halls. And you can also see the mixture of past and present and the echoes of the Second World War that many songs still reference. You can see it not just in the large areas totally rebuilt since 1945 and in the museums and memorials to the Warsaw Ghetto but sometimes re-enacted in a real living sense. On a visit there last week there was a late night altercation between a Pole and German visitor at the hotel. The German was later seen in the early hours wailing by the war memorial outside; ’Nobody likes the Germans’ came the lament.
In some ways the song here, Kommander's Car by Katy Carr, is in the same genre as those mentioned that see today’s Warsaw or Poland through the prism of the recent past. It is also, however, an unusual sort of song, an example of an artist of today building a song round the reminiscences and memories of someone else: a kind of oral history returned in musical form. Katy Carr, a singer of English/Polish heritage, wrote the song around the story of an escape from Auschwitz of four inmates in the camp commander’s car: it was subsequently performed in Poland to the surviving escapee and to audiences in Warsaw and London. (The song only makes sense with the accompanying video. The first link below shows the trailer and shortened song version. The second link gives the full song) By such an exchange does the past and present become interlinked.
Impressions of places are, I suppose, a mixture of personal experiences and preconceptions gleaned from song and film and photos. The expectation of Warsaw might, therefore, be bleak and – like Budapest –gloomy. My own experiences are based on a few days – but ,then, Bowie wrote Warszawa after a brief train stop-over there. What struck me most was the blend of past and present into one, where sometimes what seemed old was a recent reconstruction. And what I take away as images are perhaps trivial things- a shop window in a cobbled street full of different kinds of breads and pastries or eating beetroot soup whilst the sun sets over the clock tower opposite – but they give colour to the black and white tones put up by many songs. The Shangri-Las once did a song called Past, Present and Future: it wasn’t about Warsaw but the title maybe fits.