It is an invidious task trying to give a glimpse of a nation and its people over six days in a national newspaper, but that’s what The Guardian attempted to do with four countries over the last month in its commendable New Europe series. But, “New Europe”? I’m not sure what’s new about Germany, France, Spain, and Poland. Rather, the paper implies that two of these countries are not really on the maps of the majority of its readers, so it’s not a new Europe they’re talking about – what’s new is that readers are being given the chance to grow accustomed to the idea of their own involvement in project Europa. God knows that the UK’s current coalition-demolition government is not going to help out on that score. Neither are UK publishers; only 3% of books published in the UK at the moment are translations (as opposed to about 40% in Poland). How, then, are we supposed to discover a sense of our place in Europe? We are being denied the chance to read our way around the continent.
So how did The Guardian fare during its “Poland week”? (And, as my barber in Kraków said, with a rueful grin, “Why was Poland the last country in the series?”) Well, as you might imagine, there were plenty of ups and downs. The “Debunking Stereotypes” sequence, for example, seemed to reinforce rather than refute stereotypes and was written mainly by the paper’s Berlin correspondent who spent a few days in Poland the previous week.
Look at this skit she wrote about Polish workers: “Poles are hardworking” – pretty comprehensive, huh? Three paragraphs of inane speculation – “some say…”, “some even suggest” – plus the ratification of previous stereotypes: “hated Russians”, Poles work hard abroad, but are lazy at home. It’s left to the bloggers beneath the article to fume and fulminate, and bring some reality and experience to the piece. Indeed, for several of the articles, this seemed to be the newspaper’s approach: what the writer lacked in terms of a working knowledge and understanding of Poland was left for the bloggers to sort out among themselves. Or, as one editor suggested to me when I was offering my own ideas about Poland, “It would be nice to have something which is playful and a little bit teasing about the Polish character without being mocking.”
Needless to say, your humble hack refused; I wrote back stressing that an understanding of a country’s difference, and a respect for its history and culture are far more important to me than making jokes at its expense, jokes that, in the end, say more about the jester. So I wrote about Konwicki, I recorded a podcast about literary Krakow (which they rather annoyingly put together with a feature on Russian science fiction, thus perpetuating the age-old western dream of conflating the two countries) and I wrote an opinion piece about Poland moving on.
Anyway, enough of me marching behind my own trumpet.
Meanwhile, the Berlin correspondent was reaching for her stat-pack to give us another illuminating “stereotype” – more bunkum than debunking – “Polish women are all beautiful” accompanied by a picture of a suitably wet Miss Poland 2010, or an equally frothy piece about bad drivers in Poland with a photograph of a tiny pink “Polski Fiat”. The “Poland at a Glance” article fared little better, stating that “Premarital sex goes on but is not talked about much – outside the increasingly secular Warsaw” (!).
But the week also offered many pleasing successes, not least from the Polish writers who contributed: Masłowska, Sierakowski, Graff, among them. There were good pieces on “A Jewish Renaissance in Poland”, on youth unemployment in Limanowa, on workers returning from the UK, on ecological concerns regarding Poland’s forests, as well as Timothy Garton Ash’s respectful, “Poland gets to grips with being normal”. There was some decent coverage of the cultural scene: artists in Gdańsk, a short history of Polish film, a good books blog with readers recommending their favourite Polish authors, but very little on Polish theatre – why didn’t they send their top theatre critic over? He made it to Berlin, after all.
On balance, it was definitely a worthwhile venture, and, with the exception of the cartoonish “stereotypes”, more informative than offensive. Let’s hope, though, for a couple of things: that the paper will not put Poland back in the drawer and wait for its “week” to come around again, and that they will realise that an active understanding is far preferable to sending correspondents from elsewhere for a few days, or calling up writers who used to live there ten years ago, or, even worse, relying on bloggers to provide the level-headed and informed views if the article itself is lacking. That way, the UK media may avoid the charge put forward by Andrzej Stasiuk in his wonderful book, Fado, that it is “the West’s provincialism, which leads it to perceive the rest of the continent as a failed copy of itself.”
When that charge is no longer valid, then we can start talking about a new Europe.