Alex Salmond, Catholicism, Christianity, Edinburgh, Faith, Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, Immigration, Leith, Nationalism, Poland, Polish Immigration, Politics, Radio Maryja, Royal Mile, Satire, Scottish Independence, Scottish Nationalism
Pablo had dated several Polish women before but never had he lived with one. Finally, he was so in love with his current flame, Magda, and the daily inconvenience of travelling back and forth, to and fro, from his flat in Marchmont to her flat in Leith became so great, that he moved in with her for good.
Leith constitutes a sort of clot of Poles and the streets are thick with Polish cafes and delicatessens, which are usually exactly the same as their British equivalents aside from in that they are Polish. It was as if somebody had pressed a button and translated entire convenience stores, with every tin and packet on their premises, into Polish. Pablo saw nothing remotely treasonous in this, and indeed, like a majority of Edinburgh’s citizens, he regarded nationality as being a somewhat arcane detail. If the Poles were all still tangled up in each other’s hair in a few neighbourhoods, this might have represented a cultural immaturity, or a stage of development, but it was bound to pass. Anything further would go against the grain of history.
Magda was like a normal girlfriend in every respect, other than for a strange ritual which she would observe at certain predetermined hours of the day. She would barricade herself inside the living room and Pablo, pausing at the door, would hear a continuous baying noise from within.
“I’m praying,” Magda would inform him tersely. “To the radio.”
So long as there were meals prepared when Pablo was hungry, and Magda was submissive when he needed to make love, then this business with the radio could be excused. You could hardly expect a woman to be a machine. If she was a bit soft-headed here and there, this only added a loveable element of comedy to her character.
One Saturday night, Pablo, Madga and a number of their Polish friends hired a van and drove out to the Pentlands. On the shore of a calmly slopping loch, they built a bonfire and some of them pounded listlessly on bongo drums and one of them rasped notes out of a flute and they passed around a reefer which would have knocked Pablo off his feet, were he standing up. The day paled and the coldness began to prowl around them, blowing slimy snorts down their necks. They held out a little longer and then decided that they were ready to go home.
Nobody was in a fit state to drive, but Pablo judged that he would be the safest at the wheel. They were all subdued once they were in the van, and the rolling journey seemed to be floating most of them to sleep, but then Magda had piped up. Her voice seemed to have emerged from a fog of fatigue, suddenly clean and shiny.
“Radio Maryja! Quick!”
A smartphone was produced and before too long the radio station in question was being streamed. A petulant, rather whining voice was haranguing relentlessly. Suddenly Pablo had jumped. The heads of everybody in the van were bowed in prayer.
The voice seemed to indicate that the prayers were complete and the heads came up again, like those of a Halloween party who were bobbing for apples. The haranguing voice continued without pause, as if the speaker was adamant that he could go on for thousands of years, his voice outliving forests and grinding down mountains with its untiring momentum.
But it seemed that the voice had uttered something unexpected. There were exclamations and Magda shook her head. “Oh Father Rydzyk,” she murmured. She and her friends conferred uncertainly and Pablo drove on without comment.
Perhaps Pablo had assumed that some unspecified failing of Radio Maryja’s had entered his life as an exciting new storyline, but for two weeks this plot or subplot was apparently suspended. Whatever forces were authoring Pablo’s life were not sleeping on the job, however, and once Pablo’s mind was running clear of any thought of the priest, this figure had materialised afresh in the most unsettling way. Magda asked her boyfriend to lend her a hundred pounds.
“No problem,” Pablo replied, fishing a bundle of banknotes from his wallet and pitching them in her general direction. “But you were only paid last week, no?”
Magda intercepted the flying money. “I gave nine hundred pounds to Radio Maryja,” she reported dolefully. “They’re fundraising and they asked every listener to contribute a month’s wages.”
Pablo blinked and shook his head and then the absurdity was gone. Yet it resumed later that afternoon when he visited the home of a Polish family in Corstorphine, in order to deliver a small bag of vitamins. The husband was a graphic designer, the wife promoted nightclubs, and they had two wee children, a boy and a girl aged five and three. They were one of these couples who pretend not to see any reason why continuing to party just as they had done when they were students might be incompatible with raising children. They doggedly dragged along their protesting or drooping offspring to gallery previews and nightclub openings, to the mild concern of all their friends. Pablo always found the children to be disappointingly solemn.
Pablo had arrived early today and he was met by an incredible sight. He had knocked on the front door but the house had remained unresponsive. Traipsing around the back, he shot a look through a kitchen window and assumed immediately that the family had somehow suffered four synchronised heart attacks. They were all lying spread-eagled on the kitchen floor. The back door was unlocked and once he had crashed inside, Pablo confronted a laptop which was streaming the now-familiar sounds of Radio Maryja and a television which was broadcasting footage of a testy-looking priest lecturing stridently. Both of the children were clasping icons of the Virgin Mary in their little paws; there was some sort of radio implanted inside each painting which added fuzzily and with an appreciable delay to the accumulating layers of the monk’s lecturing. The dementedly echoing voice became even more strident and the prostrate family writhed in response, like tadpoles on a saucer.
“How much you give this priest, eh?” Pablo inquired once the sermon was over and the family were rising to their feet.
“Good afternoon Pablo,” the wife greeted him. “We didn’t see you come in.” She clapped at the children, “Go and wash your hands!”
“He’s a monk?” Pablo persisted.
“Father Rydzyk? Yes, he is a kind of monk.”
The television was still showing images of Father Rydzyk descending from a podium and trying to engage affably with a crowd of well-wishers. The camera closed in upon a peevish, pompous-looking little man with a round sour face. The well-wishers congratulated him and he cringed.
“The money for your drugs is on the table. We’re rather stretched at the moment – Jarek gave the whole of his yearly bonus to Radio Maryja, and last month’s wages as well.”
The next morning James, the editor of Tychy, phoned Pablo.
“Pablo! We must get hold of Biggy! I have to convene a meeting!”
“James! You want to go to the pub?”
“I need Biggy. We need somebody Polish. There’s been a major blow to the Scottish independence campaign. Have you heard of somebody named Tadeusz Rydzyk?”
“You’ve given him your PIN number?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“This guy is a fucking fraudster. I know it as soon as I hear the voice.”
“He owns a Catholic radio station in Poland and he’s come out against Scottish independence.”
“They should give him money,” Pablo recommended. “He’s like the bottomless hole that everybody has to throw into their salary.”
“He remarked two weeks ago on Radio Maryja – and I’m quoting – that “nations must be humble.” This has been widely interpreted as a rejection of Scottish independence. The latest polls have registered a three per cent drop in support for the YES campaign, and the SNP haven’t fathomed the reason until now.”
“They support it only three per cent less?”
“No, practically a hundred per cent of Scottish Poles support independence less. This monk is an influential guy. Alex Salmond has clocked this and he’s flying to Poland today to lobby Rydzyk personally.”
“And so we go to the pub?”
“You live in Leith. Find out how Rydzyk’s intervention is going down there. Talk to people, Pablo.”
Pablo put down the phone. “Magda?” he called, turning to face his apartment.
There was silence. Pablo ventured into the corridor and then the bedroom. It was empty. The bed was made and only the drowsiest sighs of passing traffic rose from outside. Pausing at the window, Pablo surveyed the street and noticed that it was unusually still.
“Magda?” Neither the kitchen nor the bathroom gave her up. Pablo turned with irritation to the phone and he shivered as it began to ring immediately.
He picked it up. “Pablo.”
“Good morning Pablo. It’s Zbigniew here. James asked me to brief you about Radio Maryja.”
“Radio Maryja, yes. Do you give them money?” Pablo was walking around his flat. He idly switched on the television and set it to mute.
“He’s a decent man Tadeusz Rydzyk. You must know that I’m an atheist and it’s hard to reconcile that with his politics, but I’ve occasionally found myself donating in the past. He gives people certainty about their lives and hope for the future. I don’t know if there’s a Spanish equivalent…”
“Franco,” Pablo answered promptly.
“But in UK terms, he combines Nick Griffin’s shifty pseudo-fascist politics with the popularity of the Queen. Rydzyk remains massively popular throughout Poland, aside from within a handful of demographics. The elderly and the rural poor have never taken to him.”
“And you listen to him on the Scottish independence?”
“As usual, he has a point. The uncertainty over the currency remains a big issue for me. Capital flight from banks and arms manufacturers isn’t going to spoil many people’s sleep, but Salmond doesn’t seem to grasp that quitting the pound, or introducing devolved pounds, is an anti-immigration policy. There are thousands of migrants to this country, often working in crucial and highly-skilled sectors of the economy, and believe me, they want to be paid in pounds! You could witness a brain drain from Scotland – a skills flight – if we lose the pound sterling. Indeed, although you can hardly measure these things, certain skilled professionals who are making long-term plans might be already scoring Scotland off the employment map…”
“Mate, are you watching the TV? What’s happening on the Royal Mile? On BBC News?”
“Yes, hang on – I’ve just received a message about it.”
“There looks like thousands of people, all with red and white flags.”
“That’s my flag Pablo. Rydzyk is here in Edinburgh.”
“Magda is there. She’s just texted me.”
“Listen, I’ve got to go. I have to see this.”
Pablo was left to his thoughts and then the television had caught his attention again and he was inspecting it dolefully. Countless people were swarming all over the Royal Mile, as if it was an ants’ nest which had cracked open. There were banners and bunting, chanting and singing. The unearthly roar of democracy on the roll.
Pablo suddenly realised that the television was still mute and so he restored the volume. The BBC were dangling over the Mile in a helicopter, giving a stunned, rather witless commentary on the events unfolding below. It seemed that James had characteristically got the facts upside down. Far from Alex Salmond travelling to Poland, Father Rydzyk had been invited to Edinburgh to take part in what was virtually a state visit. He and Salmond were now in an open-topped car, proceeding from the Edinburgh Parliament to the Castle, where Rydzyk would be saluted by the military with cannons, and then back down the Mile to Holyrood Palace, where he would take tea with the Queen.
Rydzyk and Salmond were both on their feet in the open-topped car, two dumpy little figures blinking profusely and waving without energy at the ecstatic crowds. They looked like a funereal Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
The BBC were now on the ground, interviewing a series of people who had been trying without success to go about their everyday business. Traffic had been diverted; bus services had been rerouted. A school had been forced to close and several shops on the Mile had pulled down the shutters as well.
They had erected a sort of platform with a podium beside the Mercat Cross, and Rydzyk here disembarked from the cavalcade to deliver a short address. The BBC were taken by surprise and, with no interpreter, they had to speculate for several minutes on what the monk was likely to be saying. News eventually reached the BBC that Rydzyk had uttered a single, extremely significant remark. “Nations must be bold.”
The next morning’s opinion polls all concurred that support for Scottish independence had climbed back a clear three per cent.
[Previously on Tychy: “The First Days of an Independent Scotland.”]