Starting to rescue the books at Edinburgh’s ‘Polski Dom’

The Polish Ex-Combatants’ Club at 11 Drummond Place in Edinburgh is to be renovated; works have started and the building will reopen as a revitalised cultural centre in 2020. The building was first purchased by Polish soldiers in 1948 and after 70 years the collections of books, pictures, documents, photographs, etc provide a snapshot over that time. The first sorting has commenced and discoveries being made of publications which excite interest. During 2019 the selected material will be assessed, catalogued and conserved before being returned to the new centre or dispersed to relevant libraries. Jenny and Stuart Robertson, Tom Bacciarelli and I made a start on November 26 but we have three rooms of books to sort through so it will take some time, especially when a special find starts a conversation and we then have to remember to return to our task! 

Krystyna Szumelukowa 


Zbigniew Herbert – sessions in Edinburgh secondary schools

In September I ran sessions on the poems of Zbigniew Herbert in four Edinburgh secondary schools (Broughton, James Gillespies, Drummond and Firrhill), working with older pupils.

Each session involved reading and discussing a Herbert poem, and a creative writing exercise which used the poem as a starting point. The poems we looked at were ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘Journey to Krakow’, ‘Prayer of the Traveller Mr Cogito’ and ‘The Russian Emigrés’. I used various activities to help them engage with the poems, including reading aloud in groups, and piecing together a poem like a jigsaw.


Pupils in two of the sessions gave written answers to evaluation questions, about what they felt they had learned about Poland, Zbigniew Herbert, and poetry, as well as what they’d liked, and what they’d change, about the session.

Their comments included:

  • Poland – invasion by Germany, and domination by Russia, as well as its shifting borders
  • Herbert – his time in the Home Army, and his travels to Scotland and Los Angeles
  • Poetry – poems can function without punctuation, rhyme and marked rhythm; their emotional content; a poem ‘doesn’t have to be complex and intimidating’
  • What they’d liked –interactive activities; writing using a line or lines from another text; reflections on immigration; ‘learning about a poem written by someone who is not Scottish’
  • What they’d change –include more poems; spend more – or less – time writing; less history, more biography
    One comment read – gratifyingly – ‘Polish people, more creative writing please’. We’ll do our best!

My own reflections on the sessions follow.

I had struggled to choose poems for in the sessions, in terms of finding a ‘representative’ Herbert poem; each shows as it were only one aspect of his interests. I enjoy his poems with classical references, but felt they might require too much explanation. Of the four poems I focussed on (‘Elegy of Fortinbras’, ‘Journey to Krakow’, ‘Prayer of the Traveller Mr Cogito’ and ‘The Russian Emigrés’) some background notes were needed for all of them, perhaps most of all for the first (some pupils had read Hamlet, but none recalled who Fortinbras was). It became clear in the first session that Herbert’s language was simple enough, and his ideas complex enough, to engage the pupils, even if they didn’t understand all the references and lost some nuance.

I was able to evolve new activities for engaging with poems in the classrooms: reading aloud as a group, piecing the stanzas together like a jigsaw, using 2 or 3 lines from a poem to begin writing a new text. I thought these activities helped pupils engage with the poems: to read them carefully and think about how they were structured, where the emphases lay, who these characters were and why they did what they did, and how these poems might relate to their own interests and experiences.

When I was at school it was a rarity to read any Scottish authors; perhaps the pendulum has swung so far the other way that pupils now have an appetite for non-Scottish authors, and a curiosity about authors writing not in English.

My own interest in Herbert’s work was refreshed, thanks to the pupils’ curiosity.

I’ve also written a teaching resource on Herbert’s poems, which is available to download as a pdf.

Ken Cockburn


Joseph Conrad on St Andrew’s Day in Edinburgh November 30th 2017

From left to right: Nick Barley, Sylwia Spooner, Duncan Milne, Linda Dryden, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Kate Simpson, Laurence Davies, Tom Bacciarelli, Iain McIntosh

The complexity of Joseph Conrad was revealed by experts Laurence Davies and Linda Dryden in two presentations highlighting his connections with people and places in Scotland and his transnationalism engendered by his personal family history of displacement and the twenty years of traversing the oceans. It was fascinating to see images of the young Konradek on his horse in the territory of the Russian Empire in 1865 and then the elderly Joseph Conrad relaxing in his garden in Canterbury, Kent with a cousin in 1924. In between his life resulted in writings which have been recognized not only for the quality of his use of the English language but also for his commentary on issues at the time which resonate today, such as racism and slavery, inequality and globalization. These multiple aspects were drawn together by Nick Barley in a Q and A session. 160 years after his birth there is no doubt that the works of Joseph Conrad are reaching out to a new generation and to a wider audience.

On the night we welcomed 65 people to this free event at Augustine United Church. Starting at 6pm the main event concluded at 7.30pm but we then welcomed 20 guests for a reception, which closed at 8.45pm. We distributed leaflets advertising the new publication Conradology and we are now looking forward to Nick Barley successfully inviting Maya Jasanoff to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2018 to promote her book “ The Dawn Watch”.

From left to right: Nick Barley, Sylwia Spooner, Duncan Milne, Linda Dryden, Krystyna Szumelukowa, Kate Simpson, Laurence Davies, Tom Bacciarelli, Iain McIntosh

Photo: Tom Duda/


Celebrating Polish art, design and theatre for children

The creative minds of Edinburgh and Łódź have joined their forces and concocted a brand new festival to be hosted by the Scottish capital. On Thursday 12th October, I had the pleasure to attend the opening event of the Kite and Trumpet Festival celebrating Polish art, design and theatre dedicated to younger viewers.

The festival lasts for 11 days and offers a whole range of events held mostly at the Summerhall, but also the Scottish Storytelling Centre and North Edinburgh Arts. Every day of the festival offers tons of fun in a wide range of creative workshops for children, as well as various theatre productions from two Polish theatres. If that weren’t enough, the Summerhall opens its doors daily offering you “Bawialnia”, or the Playroom, featuring educational games and eco-friendly toys by Polish artists, designers and creative companies.

While your kids are immersed in play, you can enjoy the exhibition of works by illustrators and artists and browse a whole array of beautiful and wise books for children, both in Polish and in English translation, including Clementine Loves Red by Krystyna Boglar, which we have read recently at the Zielony Balonik book club.

I would like to congratulate and thank the organisers for bringing such a fantastic event to Edinburgh and express a hope that it becomes a regular feature in the cultural calendar of our city.