The banality of public transport

After the end of the world
after death
I found myself in the midst of life

Every day, I would get the bus to the university. It rattled along stopping frequently, busy at almost every stop. There was just one request stop on the route, understandably so, because there was not much there. Occasionally somebody would ring the bell to stop the bus, but not often. On one side of the road there was a scruffy yard with the maintenance depot for municipal buses. On the other, a path going up a low scrub-covered hill, with some kind of sculpture just visible at the top.

It took me a while to realise that that hill had been a concentration camp and the sculpture a monument to those who had died there. The camp itself had been completely erased by the retreating Germans and almost no trace remains. It was the site of Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, later to become famous as the setting for the film Schindler’s List, but though the book on which it was based had been published a year or two before, the film was still several years in the future. Nobody much seemed to go there.

Trolleybus to MajdanekAnother time, another bus. I was staying with a friend in a small town just outside Lublin. We got the bus into the city. An open green area stretched away to the left. We passed a trolleybus going in the opposite direction with “Majdanek” on the destination blind. It’s just a place, a small suburb on the edge of a small city, a place where buses go. And it’s another concentration camp, another place where unbuilt green is the colour of memory. I’d heard of Majdanek, of course, it’s a name heavy in notoriety. But it had been an abstract place, I couldn’t have begun to find it on a map, I wouldn’t have known how to set about going there. Majdanek was a place of industrialised murder. But before it was that, it was just a place, and now it is just a place again.

Krakow departure boardStand on the platform of the railway station in Kraków and you will hear the same almost but not quite incomprehensible announcements of every station everywhere. Trains to Wieliczka, to Gdynia, to Poznań, to Katowice (fast or slow). Trains to Oświęcim. Trains to Auschwitz. Nobody turns a hair. Why should they? Catch the Auschwitz train if you want to go to Rudawa or Trzebinia. Catch the Auschwitz train if, these days, you want to go to the new station with the hard to pronounce foreign name, Kraków Business Park. Catch the Auschwitz train if you want to go to the end of the line.

The lines at the top of the post are taken from ‘In the midst of life’ by Tadeusz Różewicz, translated by Adam Czerniawski

On not going to Auschwitz

It is thirty years since I didn’t go to Auschwitz. The memory of not going has never left me.

In 1985, I was living in Kraków, just 40 miles on the slow stopping train from Oświęcim. I could have gone there at any time, but I didn’t. And then I could have gone on a very particular day, but in the end, I didn’t go then either.

It started with a conversation with my cousin. I had been staying with him in Wrocław, where he then lived, but before the war he and his – my – family had lived in Tarnów, a small town almost 50 miles due east of Kraków. It is from Tarnów that the first transport of prisoners set out for Auschwitz on 14 June 1940.

Prisoners of the first transport to Auschwitz at Tarnów railway station, 14 June 1940

My cousin’s brother was one of the 728 men on that transport. He was Zbyszek Matys. He was prisoner number 71. He was 17 years old. He died at Auschwitz on 15 January 1941.

Zbyszek Matys

Auschwitz was liberated by the advancing Soviet army on 27 January 1945, seventy years ago today. On 2 July 1947, the site became a museum. And sometime that year or in 1948, my cousin went to visit. It is not within my power to describe that experience, and nor did my cousin have the words. Sometimes only poetry can carry truth.


When all the women in the transport
had their heads shaved
four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
swept up
and gathered up the hair

Behind clean glass
the stiff hair lies
of those suffocated in gas chambers
there are pins and side combs
in this hair

The hair is not shot through with light
is not parted by the breeze
is not touched by any hand
or rain or lips

In huge chests
clouds of dry hair
of those suffocated
and a faded plait
a pigtail with a ribbon
pulled at school
by naughty boys.

The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948

Tadeusz Różewicz
Translated by Adam Czerniawski

My cousin had not been back since that first visit almost forty years earlier. Now he had decided that he should go again. I think he felt it as a compulsion, as an obligation, rather than a wish. He did not want to go alone, and asked me to accompany him. I am not sure why he chose me. I was both close and alien. We were family, connected by blood and history. But we were strangers, communicating in my stumbling Polish, interspersed with occasional words of German. And perhaps it was because I was both those things that he felt able to ask me.

We made arrangements. He would travel from Wrocław to Kraków, stay the night in my flat and then the next day we would go together to Auschwitz.

The day came. I prepared dinner, to his great astonishment, as he found the idea that a man might cook almost impossibly bizarre. And he told me that we were not after all going to Auschwitz. Four decades on, when the moment came, he could not bear to go. And so the next day, we didn’t go to Auschwitz.

Instead, we went the other way, to Tarnów. First we went to a small bakery, where my cousin insisted that we buy napoleonki – cream cakes providing a faint echo across the centuries that there are still places where Napoleon is remembered as a hero. Then we walked to the cemetery. At the gates, we paused to buy candles and matches, then went to find our family graves. There the ashes of my grandfather who died in exile, unable in life to return to his homeland, are interred with my cousin who died in Auschwitz, never leaving his country, but torn from it into a time and place of nightmare.

We tidied the graves a little, brushing away leaves and soil. Then we lit our candles, paused, turned, and walked away, leaving their small lights flickering behind us.

Tarnów Old Cemetery

We went back to the station from which that first transport had left, our train following the first part of the route it had travelled. At Kraków we parted.

That was the day I did not go to Auschwitz.

Minor editing changes and a photograph added, 27 January 2016 


The advantage of mobile devices has always been that they are mobile. The price of mobility was tiny screens, fiddly interfaces, reduced functionality and bizarre auto-corrected spelling. All of that was a pain, but that price was worth paying, because mobility trumps a lot.

Quietly in the background, something strange has happened. Now there are things mobile devices are just better at that aren’t (directly at least) about being small and mobile. The big one for me is sharing. Android apps can share data with other apps which broadcast their readiness to receive them.  Keep an article linked on twitter to read later? Share it to instapaper. Capture a paragraph from a web page on its way to becoming interesting elsewhere? Share it to pinboard. Send something amusing to a friend? Share it to email. Spot a prompt for a future blog post? Share it to wordpress. And so on and on.

Some of that can be done reasonably gracefully on a windows pc, but some of it can only be done much more laboriously. Beyond the crude cut and paste of the clipboard, none of it is baked into the operating system, so it all works inconsistently when it works at all.

So now sometimes sitting in front of the large screen at the full size keyboard with the powerful computer behind it, I find myself frustrated that it is so inconvenient to do what my little android device can do so easily.

But that’s only the beginning. Richard Pope has just written a great post on designing for the web in 2015, with a long list of ways in which a phone-based browser is sensitive to context and environment:

The web browser on your phone has access to sensors, outputs and offline storage to make proper contextual design a reality. It can:

  • capture a screen
  • check if a tab has been backgrounded
  • check the battery
  • check orientation of the device in 3 dimensions
  • check and lock the orientation of the screen
  • detect the pitch of a sound
  • listen to you
  • record video and audio
  • respond to ambient light
  • share all or part of your screen
  • show notifications
  • talk to you
  • talk, type or video conference someone
  • use your camera
  • vibrate
  • work offline

There are still plenty of things it is easier to do with a full size computer. Writing blog posts is one of them. But the balance is shifting and the power to do things differently is happening somewhere else.

Pictures, words and smells

A380 over Cranford
I am very slowly walking my way around the LOOP – the London Outer Orbital Path. By the end of last year, I had made it from Erith to Hatton Cross. A few days ago I set off to tackle the next stretch. It didn’t start well, as the path beside the River Crane was impassably flooded. I invented a diversion which took me along streets with houses almost as close as it is possible to get to the end of the runway at Heathrow, with planes seemingly scraping their wheels on the television aerials every couple of minutes.

We’ve all seen pictures of what that looks like, they are a feature of every story about new runways and new airports, and there’s been no shortage of those recently. Somehow the planes look bigger in their pictures than they seemed at the time (though somehow planes always look smaller in my pictures than they seemed at the time). But what the pictures can’t show is the smell. Across the width of the flight path, there is a constant low level tang of lightly roasted hyrdrocarbons. Most of the time, even there, there is not a plane to be seen. Some of the time, not a plane can be heard. But the smell is constant, refreshed every couple of minutes, just as it might otherwise start to fade.

Smell is in many ways the most evocative of senses, but is the one our multi-megapixel surround sound hi-res 3D media world doesn’t even attempt to transmit (technological dead ends such as Smell-O-Vision notwithstanding). Pictures of planes against clear blue skies tell you some of the story, but can’t tell you what’s missing from it. For that, there’s still no substitute for walking and breathing.

Public Strategist, Private Tactician

I have been blogging at the Public Strategist for almost exactly ten years now. That’s where I write about things which are more or less to do with public policy (and strategy), sometimes briefly, but often in posts of a couple of thousand words, adding up to almost a quarter of a million words altogether.  Over the last five years or so, I have also written over ten thousand tweets as Pubstrat, a compressed public strategist. That ought to be enough for anyone, but every now and then there are things which it occurs to me to write which don’t feel weighty enough for Public Strategist, but can’t easily be squeezed into 140 characters.

So today the public strategist acquires an alter ego, the private tactician. This new blog will be tactical not just as a way of not being strategic, but because it has no strategy. I am not quite sure what I will find myself writing in it, or if I will find myself writing here much at all. In a year, or two, or ten perhaps that will become clear. Or perhaps strategy will never be an emergent property of tactics.