I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.
Proud to Be a Mammal, by Czesław Miłosz, Penguin, 296 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0141193199 I met the old soldier in the crowded lobby of the Hotel Mercure in Gdańsk. He was sitting by himself at a low table, nursing a glass of beer, but the chairs opposite him were free. “Can I join you, or …?” He made a small welcoming gesture with his hand. Though dressed in full uniform and festooned with military decorations, his bearing was far from severe. Some people have a twinkling smile, others a twinkle in their eye; the old soldier was just all twinkle. He was there with others of his kind, returning exiles mostly, back to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, which began with Germany’s devastating attack on Poland in the early hours of September 1st, 1939. For men in their late eighties, they were a remarkably well-looking bunch; perhaps the infirm had been asked to stay away. “Do you speak English?” I asked. “A little,” he offered. I asked him had he fought just on Polish territory or was he one of those who managed to get out to continue the war elsewhere. “Italy,” he said. “Ah, Monte Cassino?” “The whole lot,” he replied. “From tip to bloody top.” I told him why I was there, invited with other foreign journalists to observe the official commemorations (Putin and Merkel had been in town that morning). But he didn’t want to talk about Putin. The accent, it was now clear, was straight London and the English easy and fluent, with just the most minute trace of something else in the far background, a barely detectable remnant of seventy years ago. Since he left Poland in 1939, the old soldier had been back just once, in the early 1990s. “So what do you think of the beer?” he asked, glancing at my bottle of Żywiec. “I like it a lot,” I answered truthfully. “Mmm,” he shook his head, a martyr perhaps to old man’s stomach. “Too much gas. I’m a bitter man myself.” On August 23rd, 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, a treaty of non-aggression with a secret protocol attached agreeing the division of Poland between its two neighbours. The Germans attacked on September 1st; the Russians waited just another sixteen days to take control of “their” sector….
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