released this week on Amazon.
The book is a travelogue based on my 2008 journey around Poland for Lonely Planet, paying particular attention to relics of the communist era.
For various reasons it took many years to write and edit, so what emerges is a snapshot of the country in that year, in the process of transformation.
Here's an extract, from the chapter in which I visit the Social Realist Art Gallery near Lublin:
Seen bundled together, the collection was almost overwhelming. There was a deliberately raw look to the statues, as if they’d been hewn out of stone and never quite finished – presumably this was intended as a show of strength and power.
However there was also a dull sameness about most of them, as if a single artist in a garret in Moscow had done the lot – which was the idea behind a uniform artistic style.
The crammed nature of the space was a necessity, but it was extremely effective in magnifying the power of the works, each juxtaposed with others in strange combinations.
In one corner, a large statue of Lenin cut off at the knees stood with the usual constipated expression next to a much smaller (and thus seemingly vulnerable) statue of a child dressed in shorts, with a large old-fashioned post horn in his hands. Behind them was a large painting of some kind of youth rally, in which the young people wore red ties and raised their hands in salute among a sea of red banners.
Further along, a white seated statue of Stalin in pensive mood (“Who shall I purge today?”) was placed in front of a huge hanging banner of a man heroically handling a ship’s wheel beneath the slogan “PARTIA”. Nearby was the most disturbing of all these lumpy statues, a reddish-brown kneeling naked woman clutching a baby, one arm raised in a fist.
The museum’s curators had cleverly added an audio enhancement to their exhibits. Stirring communist anthems played as I walked past images of Stalin, Lenin and the local cut-price communist strongman, Boleslaw Bierut.
This was a great idea, evoking the emotional themes locked within these dull lumps of stone. Involuntarily, I found myself smiling as The Internationale (a cracking tune) swelled through the space, singing under my breath “The Internationale unites the human race!”
It was time to face my dark secret: I was emotionally attracted to the iconography of communism. Not intellectually – its dark excesses horrified me and I was glad to see it gone from Europe – but emotionally, there was something compelling in those bold images of Olympian men and women striding forward for the cause. The banners, the slogans, all that red.
In the attached garden, however, were statues that made me laugh. There was only so far you could take the heroic male form before it became distinctly homoerotic, and the pair of over-muscular miners carrying lanterns while wearing only trousers and hard hats had well and truly crossed that line. It wasn’t so much The Internationale, more I Will Survive.
Lenin wasn’t helping either. His garden statue was thrusting his hips forward in a louche, self-satisfied way as he stood with hands on hips. It was the kind of pose that was once disparaged by Blackadder as “Here are my genitals, please kick them.”
As I walked across the aristocratic lawns that all good socialists should have sneered at, I reflected on the original appeal of communism. The ideology wasn’t formulated as an evil plan to enslave people and torment them.
Those who thought it up and then put it into place – Marx, Engels, Lenin – were reacting to the excesses of capitalism, excesses which were real and blighted many working people’s lives, making them little more than economic slaves.
No wonder the then-untried ideology had so much appeal. Though perhaps few philosophies had as much potential to be twisted into arbitrary totalitarian rule as this one had. I wonder what Marx would say if he could peer beyond his grave and see how it all turned out?
Buy The Kick of Stalin's Cow as a Kindle ebook or a paperback by visiting this Amazon.com link.