My hard-working life is a cumulation of bad choices and wrong decisions. But also
of the 10,000 star spangled paths that had been laid before me, 9,900 were taken from me at birth by the socialist state under the Soviet heel. On examination, what was left turned out to be generally unattractive, so I focused on
the discovery that I had been born a poet and that girls liked poets. This was quite lucky and if these two things had not gone hand in hand I would very likely have masturbated myself to death. Being a misfit, thoughts of suicide had haunted me from as far back as I could remember. What saved my life was the library on Koszykowa Street in Warsaw. This was where I went when skiving off school and it was there that I soaked up Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bergson, while the three fat volumes of “History of Philosophy” by Tatarkiewicz I wolfed down whole. I fell for the British empiricists with a youthful faithful love to the depths of my soul. David Hume was the first to answer my questions about life, the universe and everything. Enthusiastically, I threw myself into writing my own essays in an attempt to link sensory perception with my favoured approach, reasoning, only to find that Immanuel Kant had been there, done that and got the t-shirt 200 years before me. Well, whatever – when my peers despairingly asked what the meaning of life was I scoffed: “Dostoevskian navel-gazing…”
I’ve always written. I’ve always love the surprising effect of blue letters on white paper, I love the creative process born somewhere deep in the silent recesses of my being. My Polish literature teachers tried to steer me in the “right” direction but although I got the highest mark possible for ability I only managed to scrape a Z for the rest with the comment “doesn’t relate to subject”. Those words “doesn’t relate to subject” were my credo, my battle of Thermopolis, proof that I would never be like “them”: humanoids servile to Xenu. When I was put up against the wall (“you’re not going to pass!”) I would contemptuously copy bits from sources that were unknown to most under-educated teachers and pass (“see what you can do when you try?!”). I wrote essays “relating to the subject” during breaks for my colleagues, effortlessly adapting my language to each friend’s IQ.
I loathed school. Outside school I loathed the sea of official uniforms that surrounded me and even more the obsequious citizens that were only too eager to help them. I could see absolutely no future for myself that had any sense. Though thanks to Koszykowa Street, when I then embarked on a life of drinking, making love to pretty girls and listening to extremely loud music, my conscience was clear. It was better than the upbringing of the war hero generation – those hat-wearing men and their meek wives. 1973-1976
In January I wrote a few short poems and for the first time I didn’t tear them up – two years later they were published.
Ripping them up, throwing them away and burning them was a wound that was self- inflicted. Whole boxes of manuscripts, and letters from women in love, family members – no longer with us – and from well-known and not so well-known writers, priests, actors and actresses, composers, philosophers. All I can say in my defence is that, between running away from my father’s house and building my own, I had more than forty different addresses in two different countries. Still, what a waste.
My poems became ever more aware, I recited them at parties, in cafes surrounded by friends, and walking hand in hand in the park. In Poland in the early 70s girls were mad about poetry, they fell in love with me asking only that I talk and write, write and never stop talking.
Those beautiful years were possible because we, as a nation, had agreed, on Gierek’s advice, to help build a new People’s Poland and the Party had fooled themselves into thinking that they had won us over. They suddenly gave us room to breathe and I swear it was also due to Kazimierz Górski, creator of our football dream team. There is not a shadow of a doubt in my mind that the incredible success of this genius was part of the reason that the thumbscrews were loosened in the first half of the 70s.
In December 1975 my surprising blue marks appeared in print in the Nowy Wyraz monthly. Krzysztof Karasek and Jerzy Górzañski had created a literary magazine that we searched for in newsagents, that we pored over at parties and that girls took on picnics together with the picnic basket. Krzysztof, although he wasn’t a girl, squeezed my hand and said that he hadn’t read anything so original and clever for a long time and that I should keep on writing. But this was already 1976 and our freedom was about to be crushed.
There was only one explanation for the fury with which they started to punish us for the June 76 uprising: they were deeply offended. What? They had refrained from shooting at us for five whole years, they hadn’t used riot sticks on us, they hadn’t murdered us in our beds, and they’d even allowed us to build churches, and how did we repay them? By taking to the streets?!!! They’d given us dollar shops, Polish Fiats, American TV serials, and instead of kissing their hands, we were shaking our fists at them? They couldn’t take such ingratitude and they were not going to allow it.
I applied to read philosophy at university but of course I wasn’t accepted. I say of course, because of the old socialist scoring system. My score was pathetic, my father being a church organist and former “people’s” prisoner. My situation wasn’t improved by my Yossarian attitude. Feeling guilty, my father turned to one of his fellow propagators of Catholic patriotism, Sister Alicia, a nun whose brother, a redder than red party member, was rector of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow.
I was in. To this day I have no idea what pressure Sister Alicia brought to bear on the rector to force him to meet her demand. You should have heard the insults he hurled at me when giving me the one place at the university that was in his gift. But this was beside the point: the dark ages returned after the June uprising and nothing could be changed by our bickering. Or by the last lecture I had to listen to from my father on the superiority of Catholic patriotic morality over, well, everything else basically. I listened to this lecture as I usually did – standing at attention, but with my bag already packed and with one foot out of the door on my way to catch the train to Krakow. As I had already moved out of his house long ago, he could as well have been speaking to me in Chinese while all I was thinking of was a nice cold beer. 1976-1978
I went through a period when I liked to tell everyone that I hadn’t actually been studying at the Jagiellonian University but had been merely visiting it. And there was something in that. Some of the lecturers and the majority of the assistant lecturers really talked down to the students, to which I responded with arrogance, leaving them speechless with indignation. Their attempts to ridicule me also failed as I hit them back twice as hard with quotations from the classics against which they had no defence. I tried to set up the Independent Theatre of Formal Experimentation and demanded to be given an individual study course, something that could have been arranged for a fourth or fifth year student but for a first year student?! Unheard of! Although I had admittedly passed the university entrance exam with an incredibly high mark, this gave me no extra entitlement. Everyone thought I was crazy!
They then changed tack. The president of the Socialist Association of Polish Students was a beautiful girl from a small town with aspirations towards a political career. She tried to convince me to apply the judo philosophy: bend to win. As usual my hands moved fast, so she gave me a short lecture on the superiority of socialist morality over, well, everything else basically. I understood then that she was saving herself for her husband and met the challenge head on. With barely a tremor, I joined her socialist student organisation and the thought of my father cursing me for all eternity gave an added spice to the moment when I removed her very unsocialist stockings.
I met many of these “judo” types at this time but I had too strong a head for them and they didn’t like either my poetry or my sense of humour. So they brought out the big guns: convinced of her power, the power of love, the beautiful blond made me an appointment with the secretary of the University’s Party Office. Whatever I said, he agreed with me. He spread before me a vision of myself as the greatest artist of my generation, and not at some distant time in the future but here, now! He agreed that all my demands should have been met. At one point I quoted to him: “The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendour, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.” He understood what I was getting at and laughed heartily. We said goodbye, never to meet again. And in the spring the secret police murdered the student Stanislaw Pyjas. There was nothing for me to stay in Krakow for.
All those who loved me knew that I would not survive life in the army. And there was no appeal at that time: if you weren’t at university, it was a uniform for you! To do Jagiellonian University justice, they hadn’t wanted to let me go. They told me to take a few days off, sober up, and reconsider. They even offered me leave of absence, just to save me making an idiot of myself and blaming anyone. But ..... “the lady was not for turning”.
My sister had “chosen freedom” in England three years earlier. To me, the word “passport” had the same ring to it as James Bond, Ferrari, Monte Carlo. 1978
With over-awareness stretching from here to the moon, for the first time in my life I went abroad – it was like seeing myself in a mirror for the first time at the age of twenty two. As if this wasn’t enough, there was another shock in store for me – that I had only this one life, given to me like a treasure, a million dollars. And back in Poland there was some dim-wit brandishing a gun saying to me: “Yeah? And what about it? Pick up that shovel and get to work, you waste of space!” That I had been messing about with my poetry while standing over a treasure chest and that I could have gone to the end of my life without ever opening it. The thought was terrifying.
But now I knew about it, there was no way back. I had a million dollars to do with exactly what I liked. I was free.
I also discovered that, outside the confines of socialism, anyone who wanted to make a film could simply buy a camera and film and go to it. In Poland, this technological process had been monopolised by the state, so that even if someone got their hands on a camera, “organised” themselves some film, and wasn’t foolish enough to shoot it out in the open (they would have been picked up immediately and questions asked only later) without the appropriately stamped permits they would have no chance even of having the film developed, not to mention the later stages. Access to films was as heavily defended by the red goons as access to weapons.
Here I met people who got together in the morning to decide what they were going to film that day. They made documentaries, short feature films, carried out artistic experiments and hmm .... made erotic films, as well as films about killing whales or political intrigues. When I listened to them, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. It wasn’t long before they recognised my literary talent and we soon started making films together.
It then turned out, however, that the advantages of the West overshadowed the disadvantages. When a friend from Warsaw came to visit me, I realised that because some alcoholic prick in the secret service back home had decided that I was a defector, a political émigré, I couldn’t go back to Poland with my friend to have a beer in a pub, pick up girls in the old town, or shoot off to the lake district with them without having to surrender my passport, and that could mean never coming back. This was a very painful discovery. I had a completed volume of poems, an unfinished poetic novella, and I could have made a film without having to get anyone’s permission. On Christmas Eve, I got on a plane and landed in Warsaw at the same time as the first star appeared in the evening sky. 1979-1980
Baldy, the Polish KGB bastard to whom I handed over my passport barked “Well, you won’t be leaving again in a hurry!” I had already stopped worrying about national service; after my epiphany in Cambridge Street, London SW1, I had not the least intention of letting some square bashing sergeant major get his hands on my million dollars. The short speech I made to the military commission – put a gun in my hand and I’ll turn round and shoot anything that moves and I want that put in my file right now! – brought down on my head an avalanche of abuse and threats but they were left with little choice. They sent me off to the army psychiatrist. We had a long cosy chat, the outcome being category .... “E”! This mean that even in the event of war with NATO imperialists, I was not to be mobilised. In those days, fathers spent a fortune getting their sons declared category “D” and look: a bit of a chat and peace of mind for the rest of my days. Looking back, though, maybe I should have been more interested in what the psychiatrist had written about me...
The publisher was “sorry” to have to show me an internal review advising not only that they should not publish my volume of poetry but that they should do everything in their power to prevent my “literary leavings” being published anywhere else. The screenplay of Nie to, co siê komu œni… [It’s not what one dreams of...] was supposed to make up for this injury. The famous Boles³aw Micha³ek at the state film authority, laughing himself into stitches, explained to me that in our country there was no underground art, that anything even remotely “underground” was reserved for politics, and that no-one would be interested in a guy with no job sailing around the lake district in search of a felled tree. When I in turn explained to him that the age of punk rock had dawned and that rebellion would sell well, he almost patted me on the head. We both came to realise that in Poland there wasn’t even rock for the punk rockers to rebel against.
In town one day, I bumped into a mate from university whose sister’s boyfriend had a friend whose aunt’s cousin’s brother-in-law mended washing machines. Or whose washing machine had been mended. What this had to do with the Student Film Centre I really don’t remember but nevertheless, a few days later I was pressing flesh in Stodola, one of the student clubs, with someone who was a guru for young Varsovian film makers, Krzysztof Planeta, MSc. He produced my It’s not what… and thus I became the first underground film director in Poland. 1981
After Lech Walesa had brought the communists to their knees, the spring of 1981 in Warsaw couldn’t be compared to any other – in historical terms the spring of freedom had started a few months earlier but winter is after all winter and it was only once we had thrown off our sheepskins and jumpers that, in the blazing light of the sun, we could examine our freedom, cut it into slices and savour every mouthful. Stodola had not kept up with the changes, so Krzysztof took our crowd off to another student club, Remont, which he quickly turned into an independent centre of culture with international connections. A helping hand was given by the authorities, who suddenly started bestowing passports left, right and centre and allowing foreign stars, even alternative artists, into the country. What an incredible time this was! Both rock and punk rock bands rehearsed and played in Remont, springing up like mushrooms after the rain, video installations and performance art were created, a famous Warsaw club cinema, Kwant, showed films that we previously couldn’t even have dreamed of, meetings were held with artists who only yesterday had been persona non grata, and coffee and tea was replaced by cognac.
I travelled around Poland with a student cabaret, played with a band, Transit, and created an exhibition entitled the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil , a cross between photography and film; using the huge window in Remont as a screen I displayed a carrousel of slides of a naked girl having her body painted. This drew a crowd on the street and people tried to push their way in, asking: “What are they selling? Toilet paper?” I got a pantomime theatre to put on a show of my poem Gnosis of Nonsense. I finished my poetic novella Avakak. A spoof documentary I made about child athletes trained to break records was shown on TV and Polish Television even offered me a permanent job! Autumn came, many of us went off to visit the world, and on 13 December the good times came to an abrupt end: martial law. 1982-1984
Winter of 1981/1982 was a time of brewing up our own moonshine and sleeping on floors because of the curfew. Everything was closed down and nothing was allowed. We wondered how we were going to save the fragility of our art, how to shield the tiny embryo of our independent artistic endeavours so we could revive it when the darkness lifted. And this is how, from cup to lip, THE FIRST INDEPENDENT POLISH FEATURE FILM was created. It goes without saying, of course, that our film did not involve politics: that would have been too much, politics were a dodgy business carried out by those men in hats, our fathers.
I had previously experimented with moving pictures and existing music, which was certainly the basic and most important medium of communication for my generation. Now what we needed was a plot around which these pictures could be woven to integrate with the compositions that I was listening to at the time: Fripp, Bruford and Moraz. One of the most hated writers of the day, attacked on all sides for his book Uwodziciel [The Seducer] was Zbigniew Nienacki. To delve into this book and pick out a tiny web of new meanings of our own – it simply begged to be done. After an exchange of letters with the author, he gave us his blessing. Remont promised to support us by giving their stamps of approval whenever required to help us through the minefield of the state technological process. The other question was funding. I was sure I could get it in England, so I was sent on a “business trip” from which I returned with five thousand dollars. By changing the money on the black market, circumventing the official socialist exchange rate, we managed to get enough to fund a project entitled Animation.
Although Animation was a film about love, the censor was not fooled. She said that the dark glasses worn throughout the film by one of the heroes was an allusion to General Jaruzelski preventing young people from fulfilling their aspirations. My despairing explanation that I was just “creating my own reality” was pushed aside with a knowing look. Every single thing that they didn’t understand stoked the fire of their arguments against me: ceremonial mime dances, the burning of banknotes, the destruction of the house with a cross made of planks of wood, and finally the nakedness of the hero. This last shook the woman at the censorship office so badly that she said baldly: “This film will be shown over my dead body!”
They demanded that I hand over the negatives, to which I replied that I had thrown them away a long time ago as they hadn’t been needed anymore, and after a few closed showings the film was banned. The printer was ordered to shred all the posters, though they did let me “steal” a couple for souvenirs. It was then I heard the famous sentence that perfectly illustrated the megalomania of officialdom: “You will never make another film in this country!” This had earlier applied to my poetry, when it seemed that with my poem Self-indulgent Romanticism or a Nocturne of Youthful Realities what I was allegedly doing was trying to bring down, or at the very least insult, socialism. And I would hear it again 15 years later when trying to publish Angielka [The Englishwoman].
The bosses at Remont again helped me to get a business passport (one trip only) and thus it came to pass that Animation was screened in Germany, England and Spain, and I was invited to the San Sebastian Film Festival. Being a true émigré this time, I was unable to return to Poland for the next four years. 1985-1988
In London I wrote screenplays, made music videos and adverts, I drove around in an old Rolls Royce, brought up my daughter and, with terrified eyes, peered into my treasure chest: it was empty! It didn’t matter how many times they told me that I just couldn’t see how much good stuff was left in it through my tears, or that I would see as soon as I sobered up, I was not convinced. I started writing one novel after another without finishing any and regretted that I had ever been persuaded to leave Poland. I ended up in hospital with heart problems and it was then that I was informed by the Polish embassy that I could apply, no questions asked, for a consular passport; this was something very special for Polish people at that time while for the average reader it was just an ordinary passport.
As with any born and bred knight who had spent his whole life with a sword in his hand, I couldn’t find a niche for myself in peacetime. I was invited to a few places, articles were written about me here and there, I made a couple of public appearances, showed films and told youngsters a few anecdotes. I wandered around with new screenplays, made a couple of TV adverts, was cheated here and didn’t get paid there. Before I’d had time to consider a proposition, the young ones were already laughing, saying that it had already been done by someone else. My poetry and poetic novellas were sympathetically handed back with the words: “Jerzy, there will come a time for poetry, but not now! Look around you....” For the young Polish cinema, which had been given the green light by the Film Agency, I was too old and even renowned established directors couldn’t raise money for my screenplays. The sword rusted in my hand and this time my treasure chest really did look empty.
And it very nearly came to pass: I awoke one day in intensive care with the monitor hardly beeping. For the next two years every step and every movement cost me a fortune. Full recovery was really just wishful thinking but it gave me time to dust off my archives and look once again at the things I had wanted to tell the world. At that time, making a film would probably have been the death of me so I returned to my roots, to those surprising marks, this time in black on a white computer screen.
The first chapters of The Englishwoman had been written many many years earlier when I had begun to feel confined by poetry and needed a wider scope for my ability. It was then that I put down on paper as much as I could remember of a family legend that had been told to me in childhood by my Aunt Wac³awa, who, by the way, held the title of Righteous Among the Nations (a title given to non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust in order to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis). Although that first version of the story should have been entitled The Polish Man, as the protagonist was a rarely sober Varsovian history teacher.
It took me a long time to write The Englishwoman and I must have corrected it a hundred times. I finished it, together with the winter store of potatoes and onions, just as spring came. It was that “go west young man” time again and I took off to London once more.
After coming back to Poland, the first publisher I approached returned The Englishwoman to me with the words “There’s no way you’ll ever get this published here!” I examined the manuscript from all sides, I sniffed it; I had no idea what could have caused him to take such a strong stance (especially as he had praised my craftsmanship: written with bravura). Later on, a reader at one of my author’s evenings suggested that maybe the publisher had thought I was trying to propagate Masonic ideals and had taken it on himself to play the role of sole Christian bulwark. Well, I had already tried to “bring down socialism”, so this didn’t bother me at all, I merely went somewhere else. And anyway, I was busy preparing my next two novels. The Englishwoman appeared in print in time for Christmas.
2005-2007 Królewna [Princess] wrote itself, really, and I was surprised to find that the publisher wanted to market it as a thriller. I wouldn’t have believed it a few years previously, as I had always written strictly what had to be written. Looking back, however, I can see that The Englishwoman had skimmed the surface of the genre, while Princess was a full head-in-the-water crawl. Maybe the book I’m currently working on, Nó¿ ojca [Knife of the Father] will be the full Olympic butterfly! Which is, dear Reader, what I wish for myself and for you. THREE POPULAR MYTHS
1. PORNOGRAPHIC FILMS
Not true, unfortunately. I have never played in porn films though whenever this subject comes up, I can’t help feeling rather proud. Anyone who has watched a porn film will understand why.
2. I AM A MASON
No, I’m not, on the basis of the following simple principle: “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member”.
3. I AM AN ALIEN
This is the only one that’s true. However, I have to say that my father was a born and bred Varsovian but was kidnapped and taken to the planet Grhwkpp. From the day I was born, I was unable to live away from Warsaw and I bored them so much with my constant “I wanna go to Warsaw! I wanna go to Warsaw!” that they finally had enough of me and put me on the first spaceship going in the direction of our galaxy. The famous UFO sighting over Warsaw in the summer of 1962 was me. From there, I started going to school no. 114 on Remiszewska Street.
Don't go chasing the devil – you may find him inside you