Hilarious misfortune from the heart of Poland
Poland has developed a new export industry. It's gone into the comic self-mutilation market. I can only applaud such a bold move and I hope business booms. Poland is overdue for a bit of success. It's been an unlucky country.
Poland's lack of luck stems from its flatness. It's just too tempting to invade. Throughout history, whenever a marauder has started across the northern European plain he's never seen any reason to stop at Poland's border.
In consequence, Poland's been trying to be Poland for about 1000 years, but has rarely managed it. A series of hungry empires have over-run it. It had an especially tough second world war.
The Nazis swept in and were brutal. It wasn't till five years later that the Russians drove them back.
But then, perhaps because of the harsh winters, the abundant spuds and the even more abundant vodka, the Russians felt very much at home in Poland, so they stayed for the next 40 years, installing their usual amusing array of secret police and puppet governments.
The last of these was headed by a General Jaruzelski. You could tell he was rotten because he wore dark glasses in Poland in winter. Wearing dark glasses in winter is one of the two surest signs of of rottenness. (The other is bemoaning the decline of moral standards. And it's a universal rule that anyone who wears dark glasses in winter, and bemoans the decline of moral standards, founds a church. Before, that is, he is sent to prison for molestation of under-age girls.)
Poland hasn't always helped itself. Its spelling, for example, has won it few friends. The average Polish surname looks like an eye chart. I went to university with a lad of Polish extraction called Paul Hryczyzyn. And if you're wondering, Hryczyzyn is pronounced as spelt.
Poland has now joined the European Union but to the casual observer not much seems to have changed. The winters remain brutal, the land flat, the cuisine heavily sausage-dependent, the vodka ubiquitous, and the country's principal export commodity seems to have been its young people.
But now there are signs of a new and enterprising spirit.
The first hint was the Pole who went to hospital a year or two back complaining of headaches. Doctors discovered a six-inch knife blade buried in his skull. The Pole concluded that he must have slipped over in the kitchen when drunk.
It sounded improbable, but the story, along with a graphic X-ray, appeared in newspapers and on television around the globe. I was so taken with it myself that I wrote a column about it, but then thought no more of it.
Since then, however, there have been several similar incidents emanating from Poland in the international section of the paper. They culminated this week in the man who answered his iron.
You may have seen the story. After his wife left for work, the Pole, whose name I forget but let's call him North, settled down to breakfast. This consisted of turning on the boxing channel, opening a beer and doing the ironing.
You can see the genius of this. It plays on Polish branding - the boozy macho man whose wife wears the trousers. It is richly comic. But that is only the start.
The phone rings. Engrossed in the boxing, North picks up the iron and clamps it to the side of his head. By the time his beer-befuddled central nervous system has registered the error he's got the rosiest cheek in Warsaw. And next day his bandaged mug shot is plastered over every newspaper in the world.
The tale works in various ways. First, it evokes a chuckle of recognition. We have all done similarly dumb things, though rarely with such drastic consequences.
Secondly, it involves suffering, which we all enjoy.
But, thirdly and crucially, this suffering is both comparatively minor and self-induced. So we can enjoy it without guilt. Which makes it the ideal news story.
The misfortune of others is fundamental to all news. We can never get enough of it, hence the proliferation of 24-hour news channels. They gratify a prurient instinct.
But a news channel needs a chuckle story so that it can deliver its audience to the advertisers every 15 minutes or so in a cheerful state of mind. And Poland, bless it, appears to have spotted this niche in the schadenfreude market and is doing what it can to satisfy it.
The potential is huge and I hope it booms. Poland deserves it.
The Dominion Post