Posted by: Hackney Tours | December 8, 2008

Prescient Pole

Training ship for the explorers of tomorrow

A bitter breeze blew off the Baltic and the towering masts of a ‘tall ship’ swayed gently in the night sky to the sound of waves. This lonely outpost on the end of a pier in Gdynia seemed an appropriate location for the squat grey head of Joseph Conrad to sit in contemplation. Though, given his penchant for travel and mystery it would have been more appropriate for him to be looking out to sea, and not towards the most westerly of the Tri-City group.

From west to east they are Gdynia, Sopot and Gdansk. The middle one is known as a fashionable resort, the other two for building ships. A rose between two thorns if you were being uncharitable, were it not that Gdansk is actually quite pretty and on this desolate winter’s night Gdynia appeared only plain, not ugly.

Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, to give him his full and un-anglicised name, was born in what is now Ukraine, but used to be Poland (Yalta rears its head again, the 1945 carving-up of newly-liberated Europe between the Allies). We heard this is the only statue of him in Poland, though there is a plaque in Krakow at one of the places he used to live. He became a British subject in 1886, and with titles like “The Secret Agent” lived and wrote a life of adventure and travel.

Respected novels like “Nostromo” were lost on Bookpacking as a sixth-former, we weren’t really interested in the “taciturn capitaz de cargadores”. It always seemed that our teacher hated school even more than us, so perhaps that had an influence. Our French teacher was committed and not a little ruthless; today we speak almost fluent French, so read into that what you will.

Despite this, whenever we are near London’s East End, we think of the 1800s, and a ship on the Thames – gateway to a relatively unknown world for a maritime nation built on Empire – and the starting point for Conrad’s most famous book. Presciently, given the horrors that swept Europe in the following century it was this Pole who gave us the “Heart of Darkness”.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised; in broad terms it’s a backwater of the psyche he’s talking about, and not a particular geographical location. But if you’d asked around in the cafes and parlours of Western Europe, we bet his contemporaries would have said of the savagery: “It couldn’t happen here”.

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