Arrogance is the enemy of any writer, particularly of an aspiring travel scribe trying to be funny, for it never fails to turn a smile into a smirk. ‘I decided to move to Poland in the sauna,’ is the book’s opening sentence. So far, so good. But the reason for that decision is given in sentence number three: ‘I wanted to know why the Poles – a notoriously patriotic people – were leaving home in their millions...’
No need to travel to Poland to solve that ‘mystery’, for the answer is simple: work and earnings. What follows are some half-baked anti-Tory and anti-Brexit comments, a description of a stag do in Krakow, where one of Aitken’s friends ‘was able to consume things that were unpronounceable’, and revelations such as: ‘Poland was a communist country for 50 years... under the thumb of Russia’ (Aitken’s school history teacher must have failed to explain to him the difference between ‘Russia’ and the ‘Soviet Union’).
And, naturally (I had been waiting for it ever since his Polish language ‘pronounceability’ laments), a succession of heavy-handed jokes about Polish words which ‘look like wi-fi passwords, anagrams to be unscrambled, encryptions to be cracked’ and an attempt to draw a parallel between the pitfalls of Polish spelling and the ‘notorious sluggishness’ of Poland’s economy, ‘because everyone is staring at memos and instructions... wondering what on God’s Earth is meant by them.’
Amusingly, this grossly erroneous statement finishes with a footnote on the same page saying: ‘Poland’s economy is not notoriously sluggish. If anything it is the opposite...’ Conclusion: the writer knows that what he claimed was wrong, but is too lazy to correct himself, or else is ready to sacrifice the truth for what he thinks is a good joke.
Aitken was probably trying to imitate Bill Bryson, in whose footsteps he travelled the length and breadth of Britain for his previous book, Dear Bill Bryson: Footnotes from a Small Island. If so, he has spectacularly failed. Bryson is a great stylist (something one would expect from a former sub-editor of the Times), a thorough researcher and a master of irony. Unfortunately, the seeming lightness and effortlessness of his style gave rise to numerous ‘Brysonesque’ imitations, whereby the aspiring travel writers bumble along some mysterious foreign field, clumsily and obsessively taking the mickey out of everything and everyone.
So what became of Aitken’s ‘chip shop in Poznan’ during his thoroughly ‘unlikely’ year in Poland? To be honest, I do not care. But one thing is obvious: if his shop-running skills were on a par with those of a writer, it was bound to go bust very quickly.
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