© Maria Stadnicka, September 2021.
During a heatwave, visitors are forbidden beyond the reception desk. Breathing machines run on batteries after midnight nurses rush out on cigarette break. There is a sudden drop in humidity with the scream of a new-born dug out of the womb by hand. Outside the hospital, a man walks between candles like into a forest delivering flowers to the maternity. Alley cats rummage through garbage, wish him good luck. Staff change shifts back at depot for deep-cleaning. Summer rainwater washes away night traffic blood puddles.
© Maria Stadnicka, June 2021, published in International Times on 26 June 2021.
Father they signed me up for research
and as soon as the paperwork passed
the Ethics Committee, they asked for
samples of tissue from my left eye.
Sacrifice my vision in the name of science,
check my womb for blackness but say black
only if you really mean it. Father, we all eat
pasta with mud and no-one complains that
the earth lacks seasoning. Yes, please, I need
another portion of this, sleep-walk
into the garden, repeat instructions
from qualified staff: Take a deep breath!
Take a deep breath!
© Maria Stadnicka, October 2020
24th April 2020. Britain just passed the peak. A live broadcast from Downing Street shows an increase of over 5,500 cases of COVID-19 in 24 hours. It is lower than earlier in the week and there are more good news. The PM has made a full recovery from his encounter with the virus and he is now expected back in the swing of things.
Analysing newspapers’ front pages from 24th April 2020, I find headlines suggesting how a ‘grateful Britain’ (Daily Mirror) is slowly ‘taking back control’ (The Daily Telegraph), with the help of ‘mass testing to get Britain back on her feet’ (Daily Express). At the same time, hospitals are struggling with significant PPE shortages, with ‘failings in the privately run virus test centres’ (The Guardian) and are ‘running out of dialysis kits’ (The Independent).
A snapshot of the ‘new normal’ (The Scotsman) in April, when things are bad and better at the same time. The sigh of relief from governmental departments is so loud, I can almost hear it from the Midlands in the lockdown quietness.
Weather is good, but the angst caused by the ’emergency stop on economy’ is wearing many out. As my professional and social life move online, days and nights blend into each other, in a confusing melange of obsessive handwashing, sleeplessness, overeating and virus paranoia. I would believe anything as long as it brings hope.
The worst has passed and social media takes comfort in the heavily quoted words of Pastor Olawale Daniel who prophetically anticipates the arrival of ‘a time to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the next phase of our existence’.
I admit I have not heard of Pastor Olawale before the pandemic and, checking his website, I am still unable to trust the source but for a while his quote goes viral on social media. Maybe it speaks to a yearning for social change, in a moment when, having lockdown time for reflection, we realise that we have been going in the wrong direction.
25th May 2020. I’ve already been introduced to the science behind the R number. The press conference in Downing Street is chaired by the PM himself who announces an increase in number of COVID-19 cases with only 1,600 in 24 hours. Britain’s records show that 36,900 people died infected with COVID-19, but I’m re-assured that things are ‘being controlled’.
Unfortunately, trust in the government’s concerted narrative ‘together against the virus’ suffers a big blow following the Cummings-gate media revelations.
Newspapers’ front pages explain how the PM’s aide, ‘a cheat’ (Daily Mirror), offers ‘no apology, no explanation’ (The Guardian) for breaking the lockdown rules. While some newspapers report that ‘he acted responsibly, legally, and with integrity’ (The Daily Telegraph), others call for the ‘aide’s sacking’ (The Scotsman) and the public opinion begins to split, reigniting the arguments which fuel the narrative ‘them and us’. My professional and social life are still booming online, weather is good, and then something else happens.
George Floyd is killed in Minneapolis at 9.07pm. Britain is asleep (3.07am) and about to wake up to an updated version of the ‘new normal’; a social normality forced back to the ‘drawing board’ by the inequality and the injustice which stained our system before the COVID-19 pandemic, and our systems before that, and even earlier than that, as back as history can remember.
7th June 2020. The statue of Edward Colston is toppled and removed by protesters supporting the ‘George Floyd Movement’ in Bristol. The British Home Secretary points the finger at the destructive ‘mobsters’ and the House of Commons heats up with MPs recognising the urgent need to improve our education system. We have not learned enough from the past, nor thought enough about a future free from racism, discrimination and injustice. At this point, volume goes up in my headphones.
It is a mistake. A mistake, for I can hear Sam Terry (MP for Ilford South) saying how UK universities must be:
valued as part of the frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic, […] and recognised for the role they can play in their local economies in terms of retraining and reskilling their local workers during any recovery from the pandemic. (2020, p.1)
The hope for fresh beginning in the ‘new normal’ gets crushed. Shouldn’t universities be recognised for all their roles, for their contribution to developing critical thinking and creativity, science as well as arts and humanities? If not, then what is the point in having higher education in the first place?
With philosophy, literature and art courses being scrapped in many British universities, public libraries closing, an art sector barely surviving under the new rules of social distancing, our children’s chance to reflect on and to learn from past mistakes is significantly undermined. Not that economic recovery is irrelevant, far from it; but looking at the underlying societal disease caused by ‘outcomes’, it seems that we are moving backwards. Almost as back as 1935 when Bertrand Russell observed a similar symptomatic failure in the education system:
Educational commissions point out that fifteen hundred words are all that most people employ in business correspondence, and therefore suggest that all others should be avoided in the school curriculum. (1935, p.34)
Russell criticised the education system tasked to avoid ‘useless’ knowledge, without practical applicability and immediacy, pointing out the insurmountable value of philosophy and literature, for instance, in creating better visions for the future.
Surely in almost a century we moved beyond fifteen hundred words, surely our world-leading higher education system looks nothing like the system described by Russell in 1935:
Knowledge everywhere is coming to be regarded not as a good in itself, or a means of creating a broader and human outlook on life in general, but as merely an ingredient in technical skill. Educational establishments are not allowed to spend their money as they like, but must satisfy the State that they are serving a useful purpose by imparting skill and instilling loyalty. (In Praise of Idleness, 1935, p.38)
Writing In Praise of Idleness, Russell had the experience of the Great Depression. The Stock Market Crash followed in 1939. Despite his opposition to war, Russell witnessed how a social system, skilled by education, was unable to solve the crisis of the 20th century in any other way but war.
As for us, things are surely different.
© Maria Stadnicka, June 2020 / Published in International Times on 4th July 2020.
Russell, B. (1935) In Praise of Idleness. London: George Allen & Unwind Ltd. An e-version can be accessed here.
ask about someone lost
in an escape gone wrong /
they will point at a place
of returning where things
talk themselves out of paper
so loudly it is impossible
to miss them even if you can
barely hear at all / peculiar how
eternal-now locks everything
indoors / before too long
hair grows in old toys
in furniture without memory
© Maria Stadnicka, 2020
Published in Stride Magazine, February 2020.
Nietzsche insists that a person must
find at least one truth before a good
night sleep. A terrible prospect
considering how facts come about,
with their own sets of variables.
speed in metres per second,
momentum at impact with a surface,
and friction between molecules
Ninety-degree angles do not exist
in real life. Until now we have been tricked
by scientists into believing in verticality.
Meanwhile they build a simplified version
of the world, a dummy manual, if you like,
for funding purposes.
© Maria Stadnicka 2020
Published in ‘International Times’ on 29 Feb 2020.
after Kasparov vs Karpov, 1986
The playground is open, with white to move.
D4 F6. A few pawn boys make a safety zone
out by the swings, waiting for Father to fall for the ruse.
C4 G6. Everyone calls the queen Sis’ Loretta
when she jumps over the Treatment Room’s steps
to the battlefield. The fifth move: Q to B3.
By the eleventh round, the game enters
a phase of hand-to-hand combat. Father attacks,
we defend on each side. Sister gets hurt,
two pawn boys, sacrificed, but nobody castles.
Our fight, bishop to rook. Checked on the playground
as the last knight falls at the match point.
Most pieces are gone on both front lines. Thirty-one
moves. Checkmate. From the opposing team,
Father says we are playing a game bigger than us.
© Maria Stadnicka 2020
Published in ‘International Times’ on 8th February 2020.
During the 80s, grandfather had the habit of listening to Radio Free Europe on a crackling wireless which worked only if bashed about a few times. I understood very little of what was said in news bulletins and documentaries, but some words kept coming up in conversations he’d have with friends at the village pub. Over a couple of beers, it felt as if their banter about freedom, dictatorship, justice was a disguised form of perversity which made no sense to me at that time.
Even now, recollecting those Friday catch-ups, their invectives sound pointless, though I’ve tried numerous times to find out what they were actually upset about. It must have been in the mid 90s, after grandfather died, when searching through a pile of his old stuff I found this:
Modern dictatorships come about gradually through policies which limit the access to information, books, art, and support an education system reliant on overheads, statistical outcomes and hierarchical leagues. They emerge in communities that support equality and diversity while slowly reducing the means which offer disadvantaged people and their families the benefit of services with real impact to their lives.
Modern dictatorships embed themselves in services which monitor and limit freedom of speech, and flag out people who disagree (or have the potential to disagree) with official discourses; they also produce political directives to serve partisan interests, while dominating the public discourse with narratives designed to create fear and panic.
Modern dictatorships ask citizens to report friends, colleagues, neighbours, and scrutinise differences between people instead of promoting inclusion and common purpose; they also make people obsess over how bad things can be, when they should stimulate creativity and learning. If people are born equal, they should develop equally. This cannot happen when they are scared. There is no progress after punishment, just pain and bitterness.
© Maria Stadnicka 2020
Published in International Times on 1st February 2020.
When I feel lonely, I visit my local tip. Apart from Wednesdays, I’m guaranteed to find someone about, willing to help me get rid of a load of stuff which, up to that point, had prevented me from moving on in life. One time I discarded so much of my old junk that back home I noticed the front door sign was gone, and the post box which had my name on it. I got in, and a woman I’d never met before was moving about hoovering. She was wearing my shoes.
© Maria Stadnicka 2020
[From ‘Hermit Age’ sequence published in International Times on 25/01/2020.]
A dog believes people are dogs as well.
To people, this is of no consequence. Humans
are immune to associations, particularly to
associations with Evil; specially if the root of
their actions is Evil itself.
If a dog keeps running away from home, let
him free. He needs to find where the noise
In canine terms, silence is an instrument for
torturing dogs who are no longer useful to
their masters. If asked, people would deny
knowledge of this.
Despite clocks, dogs measure time in
intervals passed between the end of
punishment and the beginning of wound
healing. Once the skin seals up, people
rewind the clocks.
It takes a lifetime to a dog to become
human, and three weeks to a human to
© Maria Stadnicka, 2019. Published in International Times, 14/09/19.