Once Upon a Deadline – Back home from a wonderful weekend in Gdansk

Well, kind of. I’ve actually been back in London for a week but I’m only just getting round to writing up my experience of the marvellous writing event Once Upon a Deadline.

Like anything good the event stems from a relatively simple idea. A group of writers are challenged to write a short story of 1,000 – 2,000 words in a single day. To stimulate their imaginations they are guided around a city, passing through a succession of interesting spots where they have time to see, listen and write. At the end of the day all the writers are rounded up to read out their work at read-off. The chap responsible for the idea is Robert Mac, a writer and documentary maker, and there’s a website all about the event here.

A few months ago I was asked whether I’d like to take part. Only that this time there was going to be a little twist. We wouldn’t be writing on home turf, instead we’d be flown over to Gdansk in Poland where we’d write our stories in the usual manner and then they’d be translated into Polish overnight before they were read out at a public event the following day.

I knew very little about Gdansk, and what little I did know related to the period when it was known as Danzig during the Second World War. Add to this the fact that I write non-fiction and have never really attempted a short story – then you’ll understand that I was about as poorly prepared for the event as I could possibly be.

Still Once Upon a Deadline in translation was not an event I was going to pass off and as it turned out it was one of the best weekend’s I’ve had for a very long time. I was billeted in a floral ‘80s flat down by the river with Hamid Ismailov, the BBC World Service Writer in Residence. My Chatto friend Kerry Hudson was there too as were the brilliantly cerebral Christopher Shevlin and Phil Terry, novelist and poet who ended up writing a clever panorama of the city from various different perspectives.

So a week last Saturday we were taken around Gdansk to five different locations. These included the dockyards where the Solidarity Movement began, the Academy of Music (where a pianist played a mini concert as we wrote), a public library, a cavernous red-brick church and a children’s playground.

My story emerged out of a conversation with the librarian at one of the stops. I asked him if he could suggest a strange book and he returned with a photographic pamphlet that included a story about a composer called Henryk Jablonski.

Jablonski was a compelling character: a man caught between cultures and countries virtually all of his life. If you’d like to read my story about him then just keep on scrolling down below. And just for the sheer novelty of it, I’m going to put up the Polish translation of the story too. This was finished in the hours after I finished by Kaja Polachowska who had done a fine job during the day directing me around the city and answering my hundred thousand questions about Gdansk.

(And there’s a video of me reading it right down at the bottom.)

A Morning Walk

It was late October 1988. The temperature had dipped to a chill and everywhere there were queues, queues for bread, queues for milk, queues for cigarettes. I remember the queues for cigarettes most of all – that was a nervous, volatile queue that I dared not join. Everything was scarce but more than anything else, or so it seemed, there was a shortage of toilet roll. When the sun shone some women would drape lengths of it about their necks and stroll proudly along Dluga Street, stopping again and again to examine the shop windows with their heads held high.

I had been in the city for a month and my senses were beginning to sharpen. Although I no longer heard the church bells, tinkling from the tower like an enormous children’s toy, I had learnt to count the police vans – squat grey Soviet concoctions, ringed with a blue stripe and marked with the word Milicja – that snaked through the streets between the old town and the docks. I watched old ladies with swollen legs, wrapped in shawls and overcoats, hurry past my window with their heads bent to the wind. Later in the afternoon they would be joined on the streets by men who had drifted back from the docks and I would listen for their voices, not understanding a word but trying to guess the pitch of their mood, the depth of their frustrations or their proximity to anger. Occasionally there would be a confrontation. There would be a shout and echoes of a scuffle and then the guttural roar of a Milicja van accelerating away. But remember this was 1988, and this was the People’s Republic of Poland. These things happened. And then life went on.

It was a Thursday and I woke early. I walked north along the river breathing in the brisk Baltic air. At length I stopped and sat on an ornate iron bench, one of those that is so designed to give the littlest possible comfort to its occupant. But it overlooked a pretty bend in the river and by now the sun was rising on its upward arc and it cast long pleasing shadows along the waterfront. One. Two. Three. Four. There were just four people I could see around me. Two men, one short one tall, were heaving a bag along, each of them holding one of the straps, and the object swung cradle-like between them as if they were some kind of comic duo. In the other direction an elderly couple were approaching. I watched them closely. They moved slowly and deliberately. They were both of middling height. The man was lithe with cotton-white hair that blew in the breeze. His wife clung on to his right forearm. They drew near and stopped. I watched the man loosen his wife’s grip and then help her gently down on to the bench, almost as if was lowering a new born child into water for the very first time. All this was done smoothly and without a sound. And as he took his place beside his wife I felt a tremor of unease. The three of us were bundled here, close together in an otherwise empty scene. Later this path would fill with workers and residents but not quite yet. I tried to mask my anxiety by staring dead straight – out to the river, towards the docks in the distance where the enormous cranes were outlined against the hard blue sky. Then I heard a soft voice speaking to me in words I did not understand. I turned to find the man looking enquiringly at me. He had a thin face, deep set eyes and a sharp nose.

‘I’m sorry’ I said. ‘I don’t speak Polish.’

‘Oh,’ he replied after a pause. ‘I was saying we shall have the first snow very soon.’ He spoke these English words slowly but with an element of precision, perhaps a relic of a strict education long ago.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘Because the sky is blue,’ he replied. ‘When the sky is blue at the end of October what more could it mean than the snow is coming?’

We were quiet for some time as I attempted to absorb this logic. And then I imagined for a moment how the snow would transform the landscape, how it would cling to the spires of the cathedral and drift and slide from the tall roofs of the skinny buildings on Dluga Street. I wondered if it might soothe or further sour relations in the dock yard and I wondered whether ladies would want to expose their toilet roll when the snow came. I didn’t think they would.

‘I like the snow,’ I said. ‘With the snow the city must look like a completely different place.’

The man tilted his head gently to the right. ‘In Polish we have a saying’, he replied. ‘We say “what has gingerbread to do with a windmill?” I don’t think a little snow will not make any difference to the city.’

I grew uncomfortable. There seemed little thread to this conversation. A barrel-chested man hurried by and I let my eyes follow him. The man kicked a stone from the path and it collided with a steel bin and rebounded back into his shin. We both smiled.

‘I mean’, said the man, his English growing perceptibly more confident. ‘I mean this city had changed and changed. One generation vanishes into another, one country vanishes into another, one person vanishes into another. Of course this happens everywhere, but not quite like here. Look at me. If you had met me when I twenty years old I would have told you that my name is Helmut Degler and I was born in Danzig. If you ask me today I will tell you that my name is Henryk Jablonski, and I was born in Gdansk. This city has changed so much. A little snow is nothing to it.’

We sank again into a thoughtful quiet. Like everyone else in the city I had heard the name. Jablonski was a composer of some little renown. The image of him sat straight-backed, poised and silhouetted at his piano was among the city’s most familiar. I looked down at his hands. They were thin and blue veined and dotted with liver spots. I saw how his right hand rested gently on his wife’s leg. She sat in silence.

‘I remember a time,’ he said. ‘It was a few years after the end of the Second War. I was playing in a jazz band and we had been asked to play at a concert in a town away on the coast. I had gone for a walk and I heard the sound of men shouting and arguing. I went to see what it was and found that a whale was stranded on the beach. I walked right up to it. It was so powerful, so huge and so helpless.’

‘What happened to it?’ I asked, quickly.

‘There was a great debate. There were so many hungry people and one man wanted to carve it up into tiny portions to feed his family. He said that there was nothing more excellent on the tongue or in the belly than whale and cabbage, his eyes shone as he spoke. He pulled out a knife and he said he would plunge it into the head and with a twist it would be dead in a moment. But then another man came up. He put his arm across the first man’s body. He said that he had looked into the whale’s eyes and he said once you look into the eyes of a creature it is impossible for you to do any harm to it afterwards. People started to agree with him and we saw the tide was already rushing in. We filled buckets with sea water and tipped them over the whale’s head. More and more came and soon there were fifty people on this beach, passing buckets of water along like a crew of old firemen.’

‘And did it live’ I said.

‘It did’, he said. ‘The tide swept over it and with a great heave it slid away. We saw it for a moment, the rounded top of its body shining above the water, and then it was gone. And all the time, in the villages everywhere people searched for food.’

There were more people around us now. Groups of workers were walking by on their way to work at the shipyards. There was a swagger in their step. There was the low mutter of conversation.

Jablonski pulled a photograph from inside his jacket and passed it to me. It showed him and his wife on their wedding day. They both looked sternly in the camera. Him in a black evening suit and her in a flowing white gown, her hair a bramble of dark curls.

‘This was 15 February 1945, the day after St Valentine’s. It is, perhaps,’ he added with a smile, ‘the last ever photograph of Helmut Degler.’

I held up the photograph and looked past Jablonski to the grey and silent lady who sat beside him on the bench. He anticipated me.

‘We must hold on to what we have’, he said. ‘For almost two years my wife has not said a thing. Not to me, not to our children and not to our friends. Nobody knows why. We live a normal life but it has become a silent life. We walk here every day. We sit and watch the river and the workers and then we walk home. I think it makes her happy. I hope it does. Maybe we’ve had enough change.’

‘Maybe,’ I said.

Henryk Jablonski – Musician (1915 – 1989)

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