Showing posts with label Poland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Poland. Show all posts

The Last Lancer at Tidelines


My dad, his father and mother, in Dziedzilow c1928

I'll be at the lovely Tidelines book festival this coming Saturday, 23rd September, chatting about my new book, The Last Lancer, with Eleanor Thom and David Manderson. There are still some tickets available, so do come along if you can. 

If I'm honest, this book hasn't had nearly as much publicity as I expected - because although I researched it over a number of years, and mostly wrote it during Covid, it became all too horribly relevant, when Russia invaded Ukraine. 

I suspect some of this may be down to the sheer lack of perception of just how complicated borders are in that part of the world. Although my late dad was Polish, he was actually born and spent much of his childhood in what is now Western Ukraine, before successive occupations changed everything. That fact - and what happens under occupation - seems to be beyond the comprehension of most people in the UK where borders haven't changed for many years! 

I thought - and still think - that some understanding of what those shifting borders and allegiances might mean for a family caught up in the middle of it all would make interesting reading.

So if you can, why not come along and ask me some questions about it yourself! You can browse the Tidelines site here.

And if you would like a copy of The Last Lancer, you can buy it in paperback or as an eBook. 

The Last Lancer, Now Published in the USA


On 11th July The Last Lancer will be published in the USA and I'm really hoping that the Polish diaspora, many of whom are US based, will get behind it. This is mainly because so many of my Polish friends, here in Scotland, have told me that reading it reminded them of their own fathers and grandfathers, the pre-war childhood and tragic wartime experiences they seldom spoke about. People would tell me how they wished that they had asked their parents about the past, but so often hesitated, and now regretted all those stories left untold. 

These good friends were in my mind as I researched and wrote this book. I did ask my father, thank heavens, although he died much too young, back in 1995. I still miss him. Still wish I could chat to him. Walk with him. Hug him. Nevertheless, he wrote all kinds of vivid and fascinating details down for me. Later, I visited Poland myself, worked there for a year, and managed to piece together even more of the story. 

With my dad in 1950s Yorkshire.

My father, Julian Czerkawski was born in 1926 near Lwow, in Polish Galicia, on his father's large and fairly prosperous estate. He was the son of a Polish lancer - one of the celebrated cavalrymen who inherited the legacy of the famous 'winged hussars'. For hundreds of years, they had made their home in these heavily disputed borderlands. It seemed to me, hearing and reading about it later, as though these were people who were living on the slopes of a volcano. Dormant but rumbling away. 

The Czerkawski family in 1926 -
my grandfather in the centre.

 War devastated the family in ways which are seldom fully understood, here in the UK. Fortunate to   escape with his life, Dad eventually made his way to England as a refugee, an 'alien' as they were   called. Poland might as well have been outer space. His identity papers reveal that under 'next of kin' he had entered a Polish phrase that means 'closest family to nobody.' He was fortunate to meet and marry my Leeds Irish mother. (You can read about her family story in my book called A Proper Person to be Detained.) But an ache remained for the people and places of his childhood, even if he spoke of them only rarely.

In 2022, Putin's war in Ukraine and the sight of refugees passing through Lviv, formerly Lwow, added urgency to my desire to uncover something of what had been lost a generation before.

This book is the result, a book that Neal Ascherson, expert on the history of Poland and Ukraine, has called 'very moving and intensely interesting.'

Sadly, there is a sense in which Poland is still, for most people here in the UK, a 'faraway place with strange sounding names'. But perhaps for that wider Polish diaspora  (20 million people worldwide) especially in the USA, it will fill some achingly large gaps in people's family history. 

I do hope so. 

Meanwhile, I would dearly love to find a US and/or Polish publisher who would be interested in translating and publishing this book in Polish. Enquiries here in the UK have so far failed to elicit any interest. There seems to be an inability to understand the nature of the shifting borders in this part of the world, which results in an equally fixed inability to understand that this is a book about Ukraine too. It is also a book that goes some way towards explaining why Ukrainians fleeing Putin's war received such a warm welcome from Poles. We knew. We understood. We felt for and with them.

Please feel free to contact me for further information about the book.
If you're interested in translation rights, do please contact my publisher Saraband.  

The Winger Hussars by Alan Lees

Boswell Book Festival 2023 - A Ukrainian Experience


Last Friday I spoke at the Boswell Book Festival alongside Ukrainian refugee Liudmila Proniakina and her sister Olga, at beautiful Dumfries House, here in Ayrshire. The event was sensitively chaired by Georgina Adams in the centre of the picture above.

Liudmila and her five-year-old daughter fled Ukraine in 2022. Helped by Lara, who translated for her, and Mila's sister, Olga, who was already living in Scotland, she told story of that perilous journey. Among much else that was horrifying, it involved seven days in a freezing cold basement with bombs falling around them. The most moving and chilling moment was when Mila pointed out that her worst fear was that the adults would be killed, leaving her infant daughter to the Russian soldiers. At that moment, the hideous reality of the situation Mila and her family found themselves in struck the whole audience. 

For me, who has spent some years researching my grandfather and my father's WW2 experiences in Lwow (now Lviv), reconstructing lives that were torn apart and, in my grandfather's case, cut short by war, Mila's account had an added resonance. Dad was in the Warsaw Uprising, was liberated from a Nazi labour camp and finally settled in the UK. My book The Last Lancer shares his story. But hearing intriguing stories from much loved family members is one thing. Hearing similar stories in the present day has an immediacy that no historical account can ever quite equal. 

The thing that struck me in speaking to my father about this - and still strikes me listening to Mila - is the incredible suddenness of invasion. I don't think we, who live on an island that has seldom known invasion, can ever understand how instantly everything can change. The normal, the precious mundanity of everyday life, changes overnight. 

Even while I was writing my book, I was seeing TV pictures of a little Ukrainian boy, trudging alone towards the Polish border, clutching his passport, and weeping. I wept with him and for him, but I think I was also weeping for the brave boy that my father had once been, heading for another border that turned out to be closed, and then heading back to the city, all by himself, clutching his little brown suitcase. 

I was so grateful to Liudmila and her sister for sharing something of these experiences with us. I've found myself thinking about them and everyone else caught up in this situation every single day. 

Also, profound thanks must go to all involved with The Boswell Festival for organising and facilitating this most relevant of sessions.

At Dumfries House

Here Be Dragons? - Writing About Poland


First things first. My Polish historical saga The Amber Heart is free on Amazon Kindle for three days only, from Wednesday 29th - Friday 31st March. If you haven't read it, now's the time! It's available to buy in paperback too, if you prefer to read in that format. 

Given that my new non-fiction book The Last Lancer was published a month ago, the response to it has been quite low key here in the UK. So far, I've done a detailed interview for Emma Cox for her excellent Journeys into Genealogy podcast. You can read my short guest blog about the process, with links to the podcast here. You can listen to the whole podcast from the links at the bottom of that piece  - especially useful if you plan to research your own family history in Central and Eastern Europe. I'll also be doing a session at the Boswell Book Festival in May, alongside a Ukrainian refugee, of which more later.

Perhaps predictably, the most enthusiastic responses have been from my fellow Poles. Two friends brought flowers and chocolates. A lovely Polish writer friend spread the word - and copies of the book. I sent copies to Poland and elsewhere, to the friends and relatives who had helped with my research. Not the easiest process in the world since Brexit. 

Early days, of course. But I suppose it's inevitable that my Polish friends will 'get it' in the way that many of my UK friends perhaps never will, even when they enjoy the book. Or as Polish Leftists more robustly wrote, on Facebook, at the time of the Russian invasion of Ukraine - 'you will never understand us and how the experiences of multiple occupations shaped our societies and how that historical experience is present in our every day conversations and in our system of values.'

I fear that many of my UK friends might find the time and place I've tried to evoke in the Last Lancer just too foreign. Hic sunt dracones. Here be dragons. I had the same problem many years ago, when I first wrote the Amber Heart. 'Loved it, couldn't stop reading it, wept buckets' said potential publishers, among much else that was positive. 'But ... Poland?'

I thought times might have changed and maybe they have. We'll just have to wait and see. Meanwhile, if you've read The Last Lancer or The Amber Heart and enjoyed it - do please leave a review on Amazon or elsewhere, even a short one. Once we've done the hard work, good reviews are our lifeblood. 

A Salutary Experience.


My latest non-fiction book, The Last Lancer, was published by Saraband, here in the UK, a couple of weeks ago. It's something of a companion volume to my previous book A Proper Person to be Detained, (the paperback is on special offer on Amazon right now) about the Leeds Irish side of my family, and the mystery of a murder in the family on Christmas Day, 1881. 

The other side of the family, the Polish side, was much more exotic, but even more tragic. I'd planned to write about it for many years, collecting material along the way. Fortunately I'd asked my father (that's him on the cover, with the goat) to write down what he remembered of his childhood on the family estate in rural Eastern Poland, a part of the world that is now Ukraine, all the borders having shifted. I'd done a lot more research since his early death in 1995. His anniversary is on 20th March, so he's very much on my mind as I write this. I researched and wrote in earnest during Lockdown. Then, last February, with the book almost completed and about to be submitted to my publisher, Russia invaded Ukraine. And the book suddenly became much more relevant in the saddest possible way. 

Our local branch of Waterstones in Ayr had very kindly hosted launches of my previous Saraband titles over many years. They had been joyful experiences, well attended, (local author and all that) and the shop had sold a lot of books.  Some of those attending had bought two or three copies as gifts for family members. However, since this year I've been invited to speak at the Boswell Book Festival, at Dumfries House in May, we thought that we might 'launch' Lancer at that event - for which Waterstones supplies books. All the same, because people have been asking me about copies, I'd assumed, in my innocence, that my local store would at least have a few in stock. 

Yesterday, finding myself on the High Street and doing my bit for bricks and mortar, I went into the shop, and had a brief look around. No sign of the Last Lancer. So I approached the young man absorbed in his computer behind the counter and asked - very politely - if they were going to be stocking my book. I had a handy copy in my bag. I may have waved it at him in friendly fashion. 

He glanced up at me and said 'Is this Boswell?' 

It seemed an odd response and I was a little taken aback, but I soldiered on. 'Well yes. I'm doing Boswell in May this year. But I wondered if you were going to be stocking any copies before then.' 

He shook his head.  'No. Just for the festival.' He glanced down at his screen. 'I could order you a copy if you like,' he said helpfully. 

I declined his kind offer. I have plenty of copies, ordered from my publisher's distributor. I've been sending them out to those who inspired the book or helped with the research and to a few close friends. That very morning, I'd received a beautiful postcard of thanks from one of my literary heroes, Neal Ascherson, whose novel The Death of the Fronsac had been an invaluable source of information. 

In fact I've been clinging to that postcard like Jack clinging to Rose's floating door, as evidence that I'm not some elderly imposter. 

Still processing the young man's 'just short of rude' response to me, I asked for a copy of HAGS by Victoria Smith - a book that has been widely praised and publicised across social media. This morning, Victoria was on BBC R4, speaking about it. I'd had a look for it while I was hunting for The Last Lancer, and hadn't seen it. 

'We should have it,' he said. 

As far as I could see, they had a single copy. We found it tucked into a corner, spine rather than striking front cover facing out, low down on the New Non-Fiction shelves. I bought it. 

Reflecting on this experience in the sleepless early hours of the morning, it struck me that there could be no better illustration of the thesis of this excellent book. I wasn't looking for recognition. Just a certain amount of interest and engagement. I hadn't become invisible. I had been all too visible, but as an older woman, I was utterly negligible. Or to quote from the introduction to HAGS 'You're still an object. You've just changed in status from painting or sculpture to, say, a hat stand.' 

Reader, I was that hat stand. 

By the way. You can find The Last Lancer, eBook and Paperback here. And if you'd like to read my novel on a very similar theme, you could try The Amber Heart also as an eBook or Paperback.

You could also buy HAGS while you're at it. I can recommend it. 

A Tragic Anniversary


I'm reblogging this on my own blog, from my publisher's website. You can read more about my new book  here. 

As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, I find myself thinking about a remote family member, one I rediscovered when I was researching The Last Lancer. Jerzy, living in Lviv with his wife, was no longer young. He was the son of my grandfather’s stepfather Jan, by his second marriage, After my great grandmother Anna died, her second husband remarried. Complicated relationships.

When I began to write The Last Lancer in earnest, and dug out the mass of research I had done over many years, I found an old letter from Jerzy, hand written in Polish. It had arrived during a time of family illness and bereavement, when I had temporarily shelved my research. I had never had it translated but had filed it away and – unforgivably – forgotten about it. In any case, there was no return address, no internet searches back then, no way of finding out where he lived.

Then, early in Covid lockdown, a Polish friend translated it for me and pointed out that this lovely man had once known my grandfather, when he himself was a child. My grandfather, Wladyslaw, the Last Lancer of my book, a kindly young father at that time, had given him lifts in his fancy Chrysler Open Top Tourer, to the village where his family lived, something that he still remembered all those years later. Jerzy had been so fond of Wladyslaw that he had named his own son after him.

A few years later, my grandfather had found himself in a Russian prison, followed by a Gulag and then, in 1942, trekking east after Stalin changed sides, had died, probably of amoebic dysentry, at the age of 38. He is buried near Bukhara on the Silk Road. Jerzy and his family had spent many years in a Gulag too, which explained why he had married and had his own children rather late. His had been a life interrupted. LinkedIn miraculously allowed me to get in touch with his daughter, and she said that her father, in his nineties and rather frail, was nevertheless excited at the thought of writing to me about that side of our family history and seeing if he still had any photographs and documents.

Very soon after that, Putin made his move.

With two young children herself, Jerzy’s daughter fled to Poland, where she had already spent time working, but her parents refused to move. Russian invasion, occupation and extreme brutality had disrupted Jerzy’s life once before and he wasn’t going to allow it to happen again. We seize whatever agency we can in such situations. Soon after Christmas 2022, his daughter messaged me to say that he had died. Peacefully in the end. He should have been able to get palliative care, except that the hospitals, even in Lviv, are full of wounded soldiers, so he had to make do without.

I find myself occasionally having to fend off over-confident pronouncements from friends here in the west who think they understand the realities of occupation. They don’t. Frankly, I don’t either. But I know more than they do. And when anyone tries to tell me what Ukraine should and shouldn’t do in these circumstances, I find myself thinking of this man, with his fine, ordinary, precious, cheerful life interrupted yet again by the deluded dreams of a dictator. There is no excuse, no possible justification for a foreign regime to inflict such horrors on the innocent and there never will be.

Why Are So Many British Christian Churches So Embarrassed by the Reality of the Crucifixion?

The Execution by Alan Lees
My husband, artist Alan Lees, painted the above picture several years ago. Not because he is especially religious, and not because anyone had commissioned it. But just because he wanted to do it. He titled it The Execution. It is a striking and disturbing image of Christ on the Cross, a sacrificial victim amid a sea of less-than-kindly human faces. It is painted in acrylics on canvas board, it has a hand-made driftwood frame, and it is a very large and dramatic piece of work. It is also, in the opinion of many people who have seen it, strikingly beautiful as well as disturbing. 

We can't even give it away. 

For a while, we tried to sell it online from our Etsy store or from Alan's studio. He doesn't make a fortune (few artists do) but the images trickle out - sometimes wonderful originals and sometimes good quality giclee prints.

Lots of people admired it and one or two very much wanted to own it, but decided regretfully that it was just too large for their small houses. We had always thought that it would be more suitable for a church or some kind of religious foundation. I listed and promoted it online, here, there and everywhere, but nothing happened. 

Years passed. Alan has quite a large studio, but nevertheless, this picture dominates it and we knew that sooner or later, it was going to have to go. 

Eventually he decided that, given the subject matter, he would give it away, preferably to a church or religious foundation. Free to a good home. All they would need to do would be to arrange transport or some kind of courier. It's large and heavy, but it would fit into the back of a big hatchback or small van. 

I publicised this offer. Nothing happened. From time to time, I would try yet another church or religious foundation, including one for which Alan had carved a couple of beautiful statues to commission. Thanks, but no thanks, they said. 

Every year, I donate one or two of my signed books to the big Christian Aid sale in Edinburgh. I asked the organiser if she might know of anyone who might like to have it. She kindly said that she would consult 'the bishop'. The bishop seems to have been noncommital. How would they transport it the 70 odd miles between here and Edinburgh? Far too difficult. 

We tried churches, monasteries, salerooms. Nobody showed even the faintest interest. Rather, they seemed embarrassed by the suggestion that they might want to own this image. We even offered it as a fundraiser, but that was met with blank incomprehension.


A disturbing image with a beautiful frame.

Given this utter indifference, Alan's first thought was that he would make a bonfire of it, but it seems a shame and besides, the frame is lovely.

With the bonfire idea abandoned, Alan eventually decided that he couldn't waste the canvas and frame, and so he decided that he was going to have to paint over it. The picture would still be there. But there would be something else on top of it.

He hasn't done it yet, but the deadline is getting closer - two or three weeks away. He's already working on sketches for the new picture.

Two things have happened in the meantime. 

Somebody has confirmed our original thought that the picture would perhaps find a better home somewhere like Spain or Italy or Poland - in fact any country, worldwide, with a strong Roman Catholic or other Christian tradition. But there is a huge gap between acknowledging this truth and placing the image before anyone who might wish to acquire it for their church or monastery. Anyone with the authority to make the arrangements. And the problem of transport becomes a bit more difficult (and expensive) than a journey of 70 miles in the back of a car. That would be the responsibility of anyone who wants the gift of the picture, but it seems to be an expense too far.

The second thing that happened was that a friend who had admired the picture pointed out a truth that had occurred to both of us, without being fully acknowledged, because it is uncomfortable. The response to this image from so many allegedly Christian organisations has involved a weird mixture of revulsion and embarrassment at this depiction of the grim reality of crucifixion. And yet, without that sacrifice, what's the point? What is the point of positive images of redemption without some perception of the events, the sacrifice, the dreadful reality of the execution leading up to it? 

Why have so many wishy washy British churches - not to put too fine a point on it - so comprehensively lost the plot? 

If you are genuinely interested in finding a home for this picture somewhere in Europe or elsewhere, don't hesitate to contact us via this blog or through Alan's website.  But the window of time available is small now. And we've had time wasters before. It's still free to a good home, but you will have to arrange packaging, uplift and transport from south west Scotland at a definite time - and have a setting worthy of it. That's all we ask. 

Can you help? 

In the Salt Mines.

Wanda and Karol Kossak in Ciechocinek

Back in the very early 1970s, as a young woman, I took a trip to Poland, to stay with my father's relatives in Warsaw, and in a place called Ciechocinek, where my great aunt Wanda and great uncle Karol Kossak (the last of the celebrated family of Polish artists) lived. The picture of them above is so vividly reminiscent of my time there that every time I see it, I'm back with them, sitting at that table. I loved them dearly. 

When I came to work on my new book, The Last Lancer, about the Polish grandfather I never met, his turbulent milieu, his family and his life, I found myself remembering them all over again. They were a link to a past that for many years was inaccessible to me. The book is currently with my publisher, and I'm working on all the other elements surrounding it. Meanwhile, it has suddenly become current in the worst possible way, since my family came from that part of Poland called Galicia, much of which is now in Ukraine. That instant 'relevance' is very hard to come to terms with, even though it has cast  a blinding light on the tragic past of my forebears.

One thing I keep remembering though. And I tell the tale here because it too is relevant, in the worst possible way. 

As part of my trip, my family had arranged a visit to Krakow. Among other things, they organised a trip to the salt mine at Wieliczka.  You can get some idea of what a beautiful and intriguing place this is from their website, but even back then, with the communist party still firmly in control in Poland, it was a wonderful place.

I went on a conducted tour with a guide who spoke in Polish and English. At some point during that tour, I became aware of what can only be described as a general sense of unease among the rest of the group. To this day, I can remember the feeling,  although at first, I didn't know what it was. It was just short of tangible. A current. A vibration in the air. The kind of feeling that makes you shiver. If I was a cat my fur would have been standing on end!

Then, I noticed that we had, as we moved forward, split into two parties. My group was a mixed bunch of mostly Polish tourists with a couple of English speakers. The other consisted of one grim faced and silent older man, flanked by two other men who occasionally muttered to him. If they had been wearing notices that they were plague carriers, the way in which everyone avoided them could not have been more obvious. We went on with our enjoyable tour, but at some point, an older man from our group bent down and whispered in my ear 'KGB'. 

I've never forgotten it. It flashes into my mind occasionally  - much more so over the past few weeks. That palpable sense of unease had another element to it, and it was only later that I realised what it was. It was hatred. Something I hadn't encountered at all in my life to that time: raw, primitive hatred. Because some of those Polish tourists had vivid memories of exactly what Russian soldiers had done to them and their families during the war. 

Nothing happened. We enjoyed our tour, the unwelcome guests got into a fancy car and drove off - and I resumed my holiday. But once you've encountered the reality of justified hate, you never forget it and the force of it. Like my father you can choose not to allow it to ruin your life, but there will be times when it surfaces, just as it surfaced on that long ago day, even though we were deep underground. 

Mice Under a Broom

For the past three years, I've been researching the history of my Polish family and its relationship with Ukraine. My forebears, including my father, were Eastern Poles, living in and around the city of Lviv, then called Lwow, that had been under Polish rule for many hundreds of years. But it was complicated. I number Ashkenazi Jews who had fled East to the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, and people of Ukrainian Orthodox persuasion among my ancestors. Most of us from that part of the world do. Although our history has been chequered and sometimes hideously violent, the one thing we share is our seemingly intractable problem with our near neighbours. Poles and Ukrainians never confuse state and nation. We are so intertwined as to seem like the same people, but both of us know what and who we are and hope to live in peace, accepting that knowledge. 

It is the small things that are on my mind as I write this. The ten year old girl, her life just beginning, killed at the behest of a psychotic old man with dreams of empire. The uncannily round, expressionless face of that same old man, glimpsed in passing on TV, as though even the broadcasters are reluctant to show it too often, like a bogeyman of folklore. The doctor in the Kyiv hospital, staying to look after his young patients, many of them cancer sufferers, as he closes his eyes, briefly, to gather himself together to try to answer another question. How do you feel? The young president Zelenskyy with his family, his face a map of exhaustion and defiance. The women, thousands of them, trekking towards the border, with babes in arms or hand in hand with toddlers, as women have done for centuries, victims of other narcissistic men with dreams of empire. The bewildered young Russian soldiers who thought that they would be welcomed with open arms. The brave people of all ages in Moscow and St Petersburg, risking heaven knows what fate, to protest against a war of aggression they didn't want and couldn't vote for. The footage of bombs raining down on the parked cars of a block of flats where only a week ago people were leading ordinary lives, mundane and precious, coming out of a pandemic and looking forward to spring.

I've been trying to analyse the feeling that keeps me awake at night. It sits like a hard knot at the centre of my chest. I can't rid myself of it. But I think I know what it is. Anger is too mild a word to describe it. It's rage. Pure, white hot, unadulterated rage and I don't know what to do with it. I think about the few members of my family who survived the last war when so many did not. I think about the young, vibrant aunt who died in Bergen Belsen, and my grandfather who, with thousands of others, was stricken by amoebic dysentery, after imprisonment in Russia by another psychopath. He's buried with other Polish soldiers near Bukhara, on the Silk Road. He was thirty eight years old. I think of his brothers, one shot in front of his wife, the other dying of old injuries from a previous battle. The much loved friends and relatives who disappeared, nameless numbers on lists that were lost. 

I went looking for a quote for this post, but everything I found seemed inadequate, hackneyed, lame. The only thing that resonated with me was from a book by my cousin Teresa Kossak, who found herself as a child, fleeing Russians and Nazis and trying to find sanctuary somewhere. 

'We were' she wrote, 'Mice under a broom.' 

Kyrie Eleison sings the Kyiv Chamber Choir. Lord have mercy. The ancient words and sounds of sorrow and supplication combine in this 15th Century Monody. It is also a small thing, but for me, right now, it seems to be the only thing keeping the hard knot of rage in place, manageable. The frailty of the best laid schemes of mice and men. The grief and pain. As our Scottish poet, Robert Burns knew all too well, even mice under a broom have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their home. 

The Amber Heart - The Story of a Story - and a Valentine Freebie.


I've blogged before about my new book, The Last Lancer, the story of my grandfather's life and milieu.  It's currently with my publisher, awaiting edits, while I sit here watching developments in Ukraine with a sick sense of deja vu. 

Meanwhile, here's one I wrote earlier. The Amber Heart is set in the middle years of the 19th century, in what was then rural Eastern Poland  It's the story of Marianna and Danilo. She is a wealthy Polish landowner's daughter, born and brought up in the beautiful manor house of Lisko, while he is a poor Ukrainian estate worker. The lives of these two young people from vastly different backgrounds are destined to become hopelessly and tragically entwined from the moment of their first meeting. 

Back when I wrote the first draft of this novel, I had a good London based agent. I'd just had a novel published, and she was confident that she would be able to sell this one as well. I thought so too. Our confidence couldn't have been more misplaced. 

There were a lot more publishers in the 80s, although the Great Amalgamation had already begun, in which so many good small publishers were swallowed up by big corporations, gradually reducing the options for publication and the options for writers too. At the same time, and probably no coincidence, the so called 'mid-list' was disappearing - those well written, readable books that were never going to be mega sellers, but still sold steadily over many years, if they were kept in print. Which wasn't what the big corporations wanted at all. 

Desperate times, until Amazon, the Great Disrupter, saw not just a gap but a yawning chasm in the market and went for it like the proverbial rat up a drainpipe. Good for them. Now, smaller independent publishers are springing up, but they have a hard row to hoe, and so do writers. A  whole publishing infrastructure was destroyed in the rush to consolidate traditional publishing houses into ever bigger entities.

My agent couldn't sell the novel,  no matter how hard she tried, but it had - as she herself said - the most fulsomely complimentary set of rejections she had ever seen. One editor said she had 'stayed up all night reading it, couldn't put it down, wept buckets.' 

The stumbling block seemed to be its Polish setting. Nobody wanted to read a novel set in Poland, they said. 

Dear reader, I filed that original manuscript away in a box, where it sat mouldering for years. I still have that copy somewhere, out of pure sentimentality. It's on old flimsy paper,  typed - as far as I remember - on an early IBM Word Processor. 

I pressed on with my radio drama career and my theatre career, and even when I went back to novels and had some success - originally with a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet that is still in print with its gorgeous Saraband cover and many glowing reviews - I occasionally thought about chucking the Amber Heart in the bin. But I would start to read it, and realise that there was something about it ... something about Poland too. I wrote a stage play about the rise of Solidarity and three radio plays with Polish settings: Gnats, Amber and Noon Ghosts. 

Many years later, the novel was still nagging away at me. In between projects, I got down that faded manuscript and typed it up again. It's a long book and it was a big task, since I was editing as I went. In between times, I had acquired another agent. He read this new version and liked it, but suggested deleting the last third. Later, a different agent suggested deleting the first third. It was certainly much too long. Over several years, in between other projects, I reworked it completely in the light of all that I had learned since that first draft, and did, in fact, delete quite a lot of it, but not the beginning or the end! It's still quite a big book. 

Now, I can say with a certain amount of confidence that this is the definitive final draft and I don't intend to edit it ever again. It has to get out there and take its chance. It's on Amazon as an eBook and also as a paperback, designed by the talented Lumphanan Press, so you can take your pick. 

The criticisms I have had of it over the years have mostly been from mostly male Polish historians, who thought there was 'insufficient historical detail' and wanted it to be a factual account of those times. But that wasn't what I was writing, although I think such detail as there is, is accurate. 

Let's hope they like The Last Lancer better, although it's still a saga of conflict, love and loss, albeit a true one, so extraordinary that I could never have made it up. 

Anyway, if you fancy reading the Amber Heart, you can download the eBook free on 14th February (and for the two following days as well), Valentine's day, which seems a pretty good day to offer my readers the gift of a big bold tragic love story. 

Lwow Pierogi for Christmas Eve

Every year, at this time, we spend at least half a day making the Lwow pierogi that my father loved. I can't believe that we used to make them on Christmas Eve itself, and then invite friends and neighbours in at 5 o'clock for mulled wine and pierogi. It was a fairly huge undertaking, and I don't know why we weren't more frazzled, especially when we went out to the midnight service in the local kirk afterwards. But perhaps we were just younger and more energetic. 

Now, even in a normal year, we make them in advance and freeze them. In yet another wretched Covid year, we're still making them and freezing them so that we and a few friends can eat them in stages. Not as difficult as last year though, when we sat in the garden in the freezing cold, wrapped up in coats and blankets, to drink wine with our next door neighbours, with whom we were in a 'bubble'. 

My mum and dad used to make these pierogi, and I've eaten them in Poland too. The traditional Polish Christmas Eve meal is meatless but consists of many courses, and generally includes carp. We always had pierogi. There are many variations on this recipe, and pierogi associated with different regions. But this is how to make Lwow Pierogi - with a few additions of our own. 

You begin by preparing the filling. It seems to be obligatory to make twice as much filling as you need, but that's OK, because you can bake or fry any leftovers as an accompaniment to other meals. 

We use any large all purpose potatoes - Maris Piper  - five or six depending on size. Peel and boil till tender. Meanwhile, finely chop 2 medium or 1 large onion and fry gently in a little oil till translucent, not brown. Grate about 200 grams of any good strong cheddar. NB, the genuine Polish cheese to use is Twarog, and Quark is a good substitute, but we like a stronger flavour. It would be worthwhile experimenting with Wensleydale or Lancashire, which have more of a curd texture, but are also quite sharp. Mash the potatoes while they're still hot, with the grated or crumbled cheese and stir in the onion. Set aside to cool while you make your dough. 

Sieve 500 grams of plain flour with a teaspoon of salt. Mix in two beaten eggs and enough cold water to make a soft but not sticky dough. It will be very elastic. Set aside to rest for half an hour or so. 

You'll need a cup of cold water, and a pastry brush. Divide the dough into two halves, and roll out on a very well floured board until thin, but not so thin that it disintegrates! Now for the fiddly bit. Use a fairly large biscuit or scone cutter to cut out your dough into circles. A cup or glass will work just as well. Holding the circle in your left hand, put a good teaspoonful of filling onto it, brush the edges with water, and fold into half circles, like a small pasty. Gently but firmly nip the two edges together all the way along the join. If you don't get this bit right, the filling will all boil out at the next stage. But luckily, the dough is very 'self adhesive' and should form a very good bond. It's a knack and once you've done a few, it becomes easier. Curve them slightly into an ear shape. Lay them out on a floured tray. Do NOT let them overlap, or they will form a horrible mass and you will have to start again. (The voice of experience!) 

You need a large pan of boiling salted water. Using a slotted spoon, carefully put the pierogi into the boiling water, five or six at a time, although a huge pot will take seven. Bring back to the boil, very gently keeping the pierogi moving so that they don't stick to the bottom, and once they are floating in boiling water, simmer each batch for five minutes, or a little longer depending on size. Take them out carefully with your slotted spoon, and lay them (still separately) on lightly greased oven trays. You'll find that you need to top up the water if you're making a large batch, and turn up the heat from time to time to keep it at a rolling boil. 

After that, there are options. These would traditionally be slightly dried out and kept warm in the oven on a very low setting, and then served as one of the courses on Christmas eve, liberally covered with melted butter. 

You can freeze them as soon as they have cooled -  freeze them on a tray before putting them into bags or packets once they are solid, otherwise they will stick together. Thaw them before you intend to use them. We fry lots of chopped smoked streaky bacon in a little oil, and then gently fry the pierogi until they are heated all the way through, the outsides are just becoming golden and the bacon is crisp. This wouldn't be done on a Polish Christmas eve - which must be meatless - but my dad was very fond of them cooked in this way and this is usually the way we make them. 

You can experiment with other fillings. Some regions use a combination of cabbage or meat and mushrooms. Lwow pierogi are made with traditional Polish curd cheeses.My dad used to make them in summer, filled with wild blueberries from the Galloway hills, served with powdered sugar and single cream. 

It is, let's face it, such a faff, that you're better to make a lot at the same time - the above recipe makes about forty. They keep well in the freezer. They are much easier to make if there are two or three cooks - one to do the fiddly bit with the dough and filling, and one to man the pan and kettle, so that you can keep the batches coming. We did it this year while Carousel was on the TV, so I put together forty  pierogi while weeping over poor Billy Bigelow. 

Good luck! And here's hoping for the return of proper Christmas Eve parties, as soon as possible We're heartily sick of restrictions. We're physical, social beings. Isolating is, for most of us, bad for our mental health. 

But Wesołych Świąt anyway!

If you want to read a bit more about a traditional Polish Christmas Eve, you'll find a country Christmas described in my novel The Amber Heart available as an eBook or paperback. And if you can wait until Christmas Eve, the eBook will be on a special deal for Christmas week.


The End. Well, no, not quite.

At Dziedzilow

 Yesterday, after a few months of intensive work, I typed The End. Cause for celebration, but it isn't really the end. Maybe it's the end of the beginning. I'm writing a book called The Last Lancer about my grandfather, his milieu, his family and what became of them. It's a real family saga, a labour of love and it has been extraordinarily difficult and painful to write. 

The research has taken years. I did some of it decades ago, stopped, started again, stopped again. Then, during lockdown I organised my previous research: documents, pictures, photocopies, books, emails, translations, letters. Found out where the gaps in my knowledge were. Did more research. Was helped along the way by a few wonderful Polish people whose generosity with their time and expertise is beyond price. 

Two factors were also important. All of the main protagonists in this story are dead. Some of it is so very personal that I doubt if I could have done full justice to it while, for example, my father was still alive. His voice is in the book because he wrote down so much for me before he died. I have wished time and again that he was still here, so that I could ask him about all kinds of things, but still, it would have been difficult to write about times that must have been painful for him, events he had tried hard to forget. 

About six months ago, I started writing the book in earnest. I've finished the first draft. Now, the long  revision process begins. 

I almost wrote 'real work' instead of 'revision process' there. But I've done the real slog. Revising is hard, intensive work, but I love it. Once I have the first draft on screen, everything becomes a lot less difficult for me. Now, I can 'see' the whole thing, I know where where the problems are and where I'm going. I write to find out and that's why the first draft is so often like pulling teeth, especially in a piece of complicated reflective historical non fiction like this, and perhaps especially so when the historical aspects are very personal. 

I thought writing my previous book of this kind, A Proper Person to be Detained, was difficult, and it was. But The Last Lancer is a whole other order of difficulty. And real, heartrending sadness. 

Spooks Week: The Creature in the Field


My dad, as a little boy, in Poland.

This story really belongs to my lovely late dad. With a different setting and date I've used it in a novel called The Amber Heart, which is available in eBook form, and is about to be published as a paperback. It formed a very useful background to a major turning point in the book. 

But it happened to my father and my grandfather, Wladyslaw, when dad was just about the age in the picture above, so here it is. 

Dad came from what was then Eastern Poland and is now Ukraine. He was born and spent his childhood on the family estate in a place called Dziedzilow, now Didyliv. You can look at the village on Google's street view and find that it isn't much changed. It's rural, rolling agricultural countryside. Winters were hard with plenty of snow, and the family used sleighs to get about. But this story happened in late autumn, when the hard frosts had started, but the snow hadn't yet fallen in any quantity.

The two of them were coming back from a visit to a neighbouring house, in a pony trap, a 'droshky' to use the English spelling of a Polish word.  It was a very cold night, darkness had fallen, but there was a full moon. It must have been about 1933 or 34. Dad would have been seven or eight, and my grandfather, twenty nine or thirty. I never knew him, but I know that he was funny, warm, slightly autocratic, and definitely had a wild streak. I'm currently writing a new book about him called The Last Lancer.

They were passing a lonely field in which there were big heaps of manure, left there for the frosts of winter to break them up, when in the moonlight, they spotted what can only be described as a creature, on the other side of the field. It was child sized, dad said, but somehow it didn't have the look of a child. 

Not at all. 

Wladyslaw drew the trap to a halt and they watched, fascinated. The creature was leaping up onto each heap of manure and - as my dad described it - bending backwards and forwards like a coiled spring. He said it looked like an impossible contortion. Worse, as it bent backwards, it cried out 'hehee!' and as it bent forwards, it called 'hahaa!'. The sound, comical and sinister at the same time, echoed through the night. 

Wladyslaw - and this seems like exactly the kind of thing the man I have come to know and love would have done - stood up in his seat, cupped his hands, and shouted 'hehee, hahaa' in the general direction of the creature. 

It heard. It paused and turned its head in their direction. It looked, said my dad later, horribly grotesque and uncanny. Especially when it began to head rapidly towards them, leaping on manure heaps, coiling and uncoiling itself as it came.

'What happened?' I asked.

'My father sat down, whipped up the horse and we never stopped or looked back till we were safe and sound at home,' he said, with a grin. 

Nothing followed them. My dad was a scientist who didn't really believe in the supernatural. But he remembered exactly what they had seen, and could never find a wholly satisfactory explanation. Can you? 

An Unforgettable Novel

Often, when I'm working on a new book, I actively avoid reading fiction set in the same period, although I always read plenty of non-fiction books around the subject, especially if I'm writing historical fiction and non fiction. Sometimes the 'voice' of a particular piece of fiction is too strong and gets in the way of the made-up voices in my head - and this is even true of non-fiction in which I tend to write narrative rather than academic non-fiction.

But this wonderful novel, Neal Ascherson's, the Death of the Fronsac, is the exception. 

I don't know why I didn't know about it earlier. I should have, given the subject matter and the narration, and also given that I admire the writer both as a journalist and a historian. Set in 1940, it is mainly, but not wholly, told through the experiences of a Polish soldier who has found himself in Scotland when his own country has been divided between Hitler and Stalin. It is, as one reviewer describes, an extended and 'marvellous meditation on what it means to have lost a country and a past.' It is a book about the meaning of the word 'home' in Polish more than in English. What it means to lose it, where it resides and whether, once lost, you can ever find it again. 

I finished it at 3 o'clock one morning, found myself dreaming about it for the rest of the night, wept over it, and wrote an online review which I knew wouldn't do it justice. My late father could have been the main narrator of this book - he too lost everything in the war and had, if anything, an even more traumatic time. He too arrived in Britain and elected to stay here, in the face of suggestions that the Poles 'go back home' to a home that no longer existed. I think nobody in his new country, even his much loved wife, my mother, really understood how it no longer existed and what his experiences had been. Not back then, anyway, although my mum certainly came to an understanding later. They simply didn't understand the trauma of it. 

During the course of my life, so many people here in Scotland have rushed to tell me how much they loved the Poles who stayed at the end of the war. 'Oh, they fitted in,' they'll say. 'Fine people.' I always suspected that it wasn't quite the whole truth at the time. It certainly wasn't my mother's experience in post-war Leeds. This book serves to confirm that it wasn't the whole experience of Poles in post-war Scotland either. 

I'm in the middle of researching the history of the Polish side of my family for a new book called The Last Lancer, and I've found more than one Scottish person asking me 'why didn't your dad go back to Poland'? Among much else, this fine book also explains some of those reasons why, in sensitive, detailed and horrifying terms. 

The novel also clarifies for me the reasons why my father's attitude to Churchill was equivocal at best. It was an attitude he shared with many Poles. But above all, it explains something central to the Polish perception of 'home', an inadequate word in English, and of the way in which Poles never confuse the piece of land labelled state - and nation. 

But what is that nation? What does it mean to be Polish? What, and where, is home, when home has been all but obliterated.

I think about it a lot these days, having recovered my own precious Polish citizenship a year ago. I think about it when, as happened to me recently, a new social media 'friend' posts something astoundingly insensitive, inaccurate and angry about 'illegal immigrants' (And is promptly unfriended - something I very rarely do!) 

There are no easy answers, and this is by no means an easy book - but it is still the finest and most illuminating piece of writing on these subjects - and on my own heritage - that I have ever come across.

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My Husband's Extraordinary Hand Carved Chess Set - and the insect bite that nearly cost him his life.


My husband, artist Alan Lees, used to be one of Scotland's foremost woodcarvers, making everything from huge outdoor carvings to gorgeous sculptural rocking horses. Then along came serious arthritis, and even more serious mobility problems. He turned his hand to painting in acrylics, which he could do while he was sitting down, and he has had some success with his work in his unique 'outsider art' style. In fact his work has been described as a cross between Lowry and Bruegel.

But that wasn't the only problem. 

Somewhere in the middle of his arthritis treatment, he was in the garden, when he was bitten on the finger by a horsefly, or cleg as they are called in Scotland. At first we thought it was just an insect bite, but within an hour or two, his finger had swollen and he was in excruciating pain. Not only that, but by bed-time he was running a temperature, shivering and shaking. An on-call doctor came out, looked scathingly at his finger and said 'I don't think you're going to die from an insect bite.'

He almost did. 

By the following morning, it was clear that he was very ill indeed. Another doctor arrived and - fortunately - called for an ambulance immediately. That small bite had turned into full blown sepsis. The speed with which all this happened was horrific. 

There followed a nightmare few months. First of all the wound was drained and he was pumped full of antibiotics. By Friday of that week, though, a consultant breezed into the ward and told him he could go home, before breezing out again. I glanced at the finger and thought that it certainly didn't look too good to me. Alan was still in a lot of pain. The junior doctor who came along to do the discharge paperwork also looked at the finger, pursed his lips, looked embarrassed but was clearly much too scared of summoning the consultant from whatever he was doing on a Friday evening. With hindsight, of course, I should have insisted. 

There followed another horrible night of pain and fever. In the morning, I contacted a friend along the road who had trained as a midwife. She came in, took one look at finger and patient and said 'A & E, right now.' You could actually see the infection tracking through his system from the finger. 

Back at the hospital, he was triaged by a hugely competent and sympathetic senior nurse, whisked through almost immediately and again attached to mega antibiotics. 

Mid chess project 

There followed six operations on the offending finger. A very fine surgeon, a specialist in hand surgery, was determined to save it, although even she almost gave up and suggested amputation. The problem was that the cleg had injected something particularly nasty into him. The hospital had to do some kind of culture to find out which antibiotics might work. Eventually, there had to be skin grafts to try to restore the finger that had been practically eaten away by the bug and really didn't want to heal. For a time, there were daily visits to the surgeon's clinic so that the special dressing could be changed and eventually, weeks and weeks later, it began to heal.

The finger is intact, and still works, albeit it's thinner than it was, and less capable. And it responds painfully to anything but the hottest temperatures, so he has to wear a modified glove, covering it most of the time. For a while, he thought he would never carve again. 

But over lockdown, he set up a small workbench at a slight angle, so that he could sit down to carve and work for a few hours each day at smaller, and less stressful items. He mostly worked indoors, until with the warmer weather he could take it outside for a little while. First of all he completed a spectacular high relief carving of the Last Supper. It took many months, but he finished it.

Last Supper, in lime.

Then he designed and made this chess set: the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, focusing on the battle at the gates of Vienna, in which the Polish Winged Hussars played a key role in the defeat of the Ottoman army. 

Six months later, you can see the finished item. 

It is stunningly beautiful, intricate, detailed - amazing. The Ottoman side is carved in American black walnut - a lovely hardwood. Alan  found a piece in his workshop that he had been hoarding for almost 30 years! The Hapsburg side is in lime. 

The board is hand painted, and the reverse of the board is also decorated. 

It's a wonderful piece (or many pieces) of highly original work and although we're a bit reluctant to let it go, if you have a passion for chess and deep pockets, do contact us. One or two people have questioned whether you could play with such intricate pieces - but because it's made of wood, it is actually pretty robust. Nevertheless - I reckon it's as much a precious, one off artwork as an everyday set. 

Inspired by this chess set, and how much he loved making it, I think Alan is going to carve more chess sets in the future but realistically, he can only make one or two in a year, these will be very rare items, and will be priced accordingly. 

If you'd like to see more pictures, and discover more of Alan's work for sale, including the Last Supper carving, you can go to our Etsy store, the 200 Year Old House. 

Flowers and Books

Flowers and books

 It has been a wretchedly cold spring, here in the west of Scotland, so that everything is happening in the garden a few weeks later than it should. The elderly and very cautious Golden Noble apple tree at the bottom of the garden, that is on a two year cycle anyway, now has lots of blossom on it. So perhaps we'll have apples in the autumn - lovely, big, golden cooking apples that are so sweet that they need no sugar. 

We've struggled on through Covid - and we're not out of the woods yet. We're both fully vaccinated now. Three cheers for the NHS and an efficient Scottish government. Brexit is still the misery that it ever was, but our government remains defiant, and I believe we really are moving towards independence and either rejoining the EU or an alliance with the Nordic nations, with whom we seem to have so much more in common than we do with our immediate neighbours to the south. But perhaps in time the whole upheaval will make us better neighbours than we are at present. 

I'm working intensively on a new book now. It's called The Last Lancer, all about my Polish grandfather and his extraordinary family. I'm hoping to have a good first draft finished by the summer. Meanwhile, as ever, there are other ideas hovering, and nudging at me. I say 'as ever' but that's not strictly true. For somebody who spends a lot of time inside my own head, with characters of my own creating, I've found lockdown a trial. I've missed meetings with friends and I've missed hugging them more than I can say. And that in turn seemed to make my brain sluggish and unimaginative. A worrying lockdown lethargy. 

Most of all, though, I've missed my son, whom I haven't seen since the Christmas before last. I go to sleep missing him and wake up missing him. We chat online, of course, but it's not the same. And it's certainly not the same as a hug. A couple of weeks ago, he moved to Stockholm from Barcelona where he had been working. 'Getting a bit closer,' said a friend. I think he already likes the city very much but more than anything else right now, we want him to be able to come home for a visit, later on in the summer. There are thousands, perhaps millions of us in this situation, missing children, parents, grandparents, and new grandchildren in other countries. And it hurts. Every time I hear somebody going on about needing a holiday, I think - well, you want a holiday, and so do I. Very much. But there are so many of us who need to see our much loved relatives, and time is marching on.

Meanwhile, flowers and books keep me sane. Many years ago, my dad painted some furniture for his and my mum's bedroom. After they died, I took the big wooden chest, with its bright Polish flowers. You can see it in the picture above. It sits in the room where I work. It's very useful - and I treasure it. It's good to have a link with the past, especially when, as I am now, you're trying to write about a family history that sometimes seems so exotic and bizarre as to be the stuff of fiction rather than fact. Working on The Last Lancer - coupled perhaps with the advent of spring, however late and chilly - seems to have triggered other ideas too. Let's hope it continues!

A Traditional Polish Easter

I have a vivid memory of my father - when I was very young - sowing a little tray of grass-seed, a few weeks before Easter. When it grew long and green, he trimmed it back with scissors, and sat a white sugar lamb on the grass. He told me it was what people did in Poland when he was a little boy. 

Every Easter, even though he died in 1995, I miss my dad with a great pang of sadness, because here in the West of Scotland - apart from the consumption of industrial quantities of chocolate - nobody takes much notice of Easter as a festival.

I was born and brought up in Leeds, although we moved to Scotland when I was twelve. My best friend at primary school, Olenka Jankowska, was Polish too, and her parents celebrated Easter with as much enthusiasm as Christmas. We always marked the day in our house and followed a number of Polish customs, but I would also join in with Olenka's family over the holiday. The scent of yeast cookery takes me back to that particular time and place, with another little pang of sadness, because Olenka, or Sandra as she was called at school, died when she was in her early 30s. 

In the weeks before Easter, dad would also paint eggs, sometimes decorating them with pieces of coloured cloth. I have some of them still as you can see from the picture above. You can, of course, hard boil eggs, paint them and then eat them, but if you want to keep them from year to year, you have to prick a hole in both ends and 'blow' the contents out (to be used for your Easter cookery). It works, honestly!

In Poland, little baskets of produce, eggs, ham, bread, would be taken to church to be blessed by the priest. On Easter morning, people say 'Chrystus zmartwychwstał!' meaning 'Christ is risen!' to which the traditional response is 'Zaiste zmartwychstał!' - 'He is truly risen!'

Olenka's mum baked the best cakes I've ever tasted, especially at Easter: big trays of apple and plum yeast cakes, 'sernik' or baked cheesecake on a pastry base, dense and luscious .The Easter meal always involved heaps of hard boiled eggs, fat frankfurter sausages, rye bread with caraway seeds, big dill pickles, sauerkraut, soft cheese and salads of all kinds. It was probably my favourite meal of the whole year. Later, even when I was grown up, dad would make delicious pastries, called 'chrust' and 'favorki' (favours) like a cross between a doughnut and a biscuit.

On Easter Monday, known as 'Wet Monday' in Poland, dad would usually manage to get up early so that he could drench us in water. We would always forget what day it was. Back in the late 1970s, when I was teaching English conversation at Wroclaw University, it wasn't just water that you had to avoid. If you weren't careful, you would be drenched in cheap perfume, which would stay with you for days.

I try to replicate some of these celebrations each year and to some extent, I'm successful. I bring in greenery and put out my painted eggs. I do some yeast cookery. I've even invited some friends to an  Easter tea in the past  - but it's never quite the same and I just finish up by being faintly sad.

I've decided that the missing ingredient which I can't supply is belief. I myself can embrace the season and celebrate it. I can go along with the magic of it all. It still gives me a little thrill of excitement.
But nobody around me can. So I'm fighting a bit of a losing battle.