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OGNISKO – AND THEY SAID IT COULDN’T BE DONE
2013.10.10 / Mirek Malevski
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London’s famous, friendliest and oldest Anglo-Polish club worldwide, the seventy-three year old, Ognisko Polskie (The Polish Hearth), was officially opened on 16 July 1940 by HRH The Duke and Duchess of Kent. On Wednesday evening, 18 September, with refurbished premises, the club re-opened it’s doors with a warm welcome for members, guests, and media alike.

Phew! So here we are then. At the new, more chic, our famous and precious Ognisko – 55 Prince’s Gate, London SW7! Not exactly the Battle of Britain, but almost. The Battle of Polonia, if you please. That memorable Cri de Coeur evening, 11 May 2012, when the packed one-hundred-fighter-plus scramble at portraitist Basia Hamilton’s Stanhope Gardens studios set the fiery tone – action stations. Here, at last, the Ognisko old guard was firmly put on notice; NO SALE! – and things really took off. Then as the crow flies, from Stanhope Gardens onto Ognisko, in that now famous Alfa Romeo flight, with pilot Jolanta Pelczynska at the controls, and flight attendants Bozena Karol, Teresa Potocka, with soon to be ex-chairman, the moribund Andrzej Morawicz in the cockpit. Morawicz wakes up, and is suddenly ready, after years of resistance and prevarication, much to the dread of his sell-out pals, to accept new Ognisko members – the birth of the “Rejtan 27”.

There follows the crucial Sunday 27th May, 2012, Ognisko ‘emergency take-off’ EGM meeting. Much behind the scenes work, particularly by Małgosia Belhaven, Nowy Czas, Henryka, FCOB, the Rakowicz-Mochlinska axis, and Basia Hamilton of course, plus a host of others, ensures a thumping safe landing. The NO-TO-SALE- VOTE prevails. Die-hard noble Ognisko members win by a handsome eighty eight votes to three! All is well. Well no…

Ominously, escaping our radar, from over the horizon a new enemy appears. A splinter group – the Knights of Malta, or should that be Flights of Malta loom overhead. Incredulously under the demented wing of one, bully Captain Don Quixote Marek Sawicki, with (Prima) Donna Teresa Sawicka in the slip stream, plus other flighty headless chickens, an attempt, under the guise and pretence of a ‘Trust-Charity’ is made to sabotage, and take over Ognisko. Club members are having none of it. Quite a dog fight ensues. Trails of black smoke can be seen over 55 Prince’s Gate. But there was always, and only ever going to be one winner – The real Ognisko club members.

Come Sunday 24 February 2013, 2pm. It is DR-Day (Decision-Restaurant Day), Designer Tomasz Starzewski, and actress Rula Lenska spiritedly throw their weight behind a packed and vociferous floor. Out with the floundering tunes of Concerto, and in with the sublime dishes of Jan Woroniecki. The vote for Woroniecki is carried by an impressive 133 to 32.

But still Sawicki’s ‘Don Quixote Bomber Brigade’ come swooping, making hostile sorties on Ognisko. Lady Belhaven, Basia Hamilton, Maja Lewis, Piotr Michalik and committee, are intimidated and terrorized in the most appalling way. They all stand firm. Unyielding. Ognisko’s Judicial Committee – under the vigilant, prudent and intelligent stewardship of Stefan Rakowicz, and Julek Bogacki – ‘swing’ into action. But there is no halting Bomber Sawicki and Tigermoth Jan Sikora-Sikorski. How to stop them ?

At another operations desk, Teresa Bazarnik bravely sets in motion a petition signed by the elite Squadron 5. The fifty signatures are enough to trigger a special resolution SGM meeting for 14 April 2013. Again some agile behind the scenes (legal) work from Marta Kochanowska and of course Lady Belhaven, ensures a cracker of a result – the decision to suspend the scoundrels is an overwhelming ninety nine votes to three. Hurrah! But no…

Still the enemy onslaught continues. One afternoon, with a renegade support squadron, Bomber Sawicki’s crew, infiltrating Ognisko’s office defence systems, set about Ms Dzik-Jurasz and Ms Ela Wernik who bravely fend off their less than amorous advances, and protect the club’s files and records. Next thing, Bomber Sawicki and Sikora Sikorski are then allegedly throttling, and pinning our club secretary Andrzej Błoński to the wall. Gentlemen! Time, please! This is not the way we do things, or conduct business at Ognisko. The police are called in. That’s it. It’s the last straw. The gang of seven are thrown out of the club. Colonel Safe-Hands Nick Kelsey, Club Chairman, endorses the view of all Ognisko members, and issues a stern, clarifying letter published in Dziennik Polski, (and Nowy Czas). Good riddance we all say. Roger and out !

The next – at last friendly – battle, was one against time. The logistics were formidable. How to get the building, it’s basement, hallway, restaurant, and the famous Hemar Room – salon-ballroom all back into operational order after years of willful neglect. The deadline dates are 18th and 19th September. Its late July. Jan Woroniecki, new club restaurateur did his bit. Full marks! A gleaming new kitchen, Ognisko’s engine room, was installed as a priority. The loos, (Gents) a disgrace up until now, are totally refurbished; from brand new everything, new lavatories, smart tiling, basins, hand driers, pastel smoke charcoal doors (the author did not peep into the Ladies, but is assured all is well) – all looks terrific.

Through Ognisko’s famous portals, the reception area is transformed. Large old mirror retained, together with portraits of our Polish Military, reminding us why we are here. The warm neutral off-white sweeps elegantly through the bar area and around the restaurant, swirling elegantly up the stately staircase. Thanks to the generosity of Jan Zylinski, who has age old fond associations with the club, the Hemar Room is given a whole new lease of life – refurbished and re-painted (off-white), under Jan’s supervision, and thanks to his funds.

Email image monitoring shows that things are progressing nicely… but with much still to do. Midnight hours before the great day (Wednesday, 18th September), reveals that the toilets are still being kitted out, but the last minute hitches are overcome through the small wee hours… and WE get there… At the famous Ognisko entrance, the immovable 55 Prince’s Gate brass plate on the two columns are being polished by Klaudia Krzoska, adding the final, and first touches to the new Ognisko.

What a resplendent sight. Its evening, Wednesday 18th September 2013, (remember the date), and Ognisko is packed like sardine-sledzie-sardynki with members, guests, journalists, photographers, potential new members. At the door, inevitably, we are greeted by our beautifully as always turned out two heroines, Malgosia Belhaven and Barbara Hamilton – our hostesses for the grand two day/evening opening. Malgosia, keen as ever is clutching – as is Ela Wernik – clipboards, ready to entice new Ognisko club members.

The cocktails, and drinks flow, the canapés are deftly served up by elegant, smiling, unsurly waitresses and waiters. It is a happy ambience. Old faces greet each other as if for the first time. New faces are introduced. Laughter mingles with proud achievement. There is much unashamed back-slapping. (New) young and old are chatting, partying. Upstairs, in the Hemar Room on the initiative of Ognisko club secretary Andrzej Błoński is the splendid Polish Art exhibition, Young Polish Design displaying all that is best from Poland’s young arts talent (vide cover page).

Back downstairs, in amidst the squeeze.… hey… it can’t be… ex-club Chairman… no. Is it a ghost… is it the real thing? Yes it is – Andrzej Morawicz. What does he make of it all? In the immortal words of Sir Winston Churchill (Yes, Winston Churchill, his portrait at the club should be re-instated): In War: Resolution. In Defeat: Defiance. In Victory: Magnanimity. In Peace: Goodwill”.

And they said it could not be done. Well it can. Ognisko showed the way! Polonia enemies everywhere take warning, take heed !

Photos by: Cornelia Bauer, Marek Borzęcki, Barbara Hamilton, Gosia Skibińska, Henryka Woźniczka

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