2010 Vol. 2 No. 2 — Summer / Commentary

Chivalry Remembered in the UK: The Old Poles and the New

EnglishBoothIn 2006 I was in Elblag as part of a promotional tour for my novel “The Black Madonna of Derby.” Speaking at a high school, the conversation turned to the relationship between Poland and the UK. I asked the students how many planned to come to Britain to work after they had finished their studies. Around 90 per cent put up their hands.

Two years earlier, Poland, along with seven other Eastern European countries, had joined the EU. However, only three other states, the UK, Ireland and Sweden, had allowed the unrestrained movement of labour from Eastern Europe. As a result, and contrary to expectations, hundreds of thousands of Poles arrived in Britain (no one knows the exact number). I couldn’t get on a bus, tube train or enter a shop in London without hearing the Polish language. The cleaners at work spoke Polish, as did the men working on construction sites round the city. It was a strange experience for me – suddenly once again hearing the language of my childhood on a daily basis.

This huge influx of workers had a big impact on British life. The Guardian ran a supplement with the heading Everything’s Suddenly Gone Polish describing Polish history and customs. Free Polish language newspapers and magazines popped up all over the place. Shops selling Polish food appeared, Tyskie beer and Zubrowka vodka became a common sight in pubs, while libraries and bookshops stocked Polish language books.

Everyone noticed. My parents-in-law who live in the remote English countryside commented on the Polish workers picking strawberries and asparagus. My niece moved house and told me all the removal men were Polish, ‘and they worked so hard’. At my mother’s care home, many of the nurses were Polish while my husband took on Polish programmers at his computer company. I myself employed a Polish cleaner, a Polish gardener came to weed the garden and when our water pipe sprang a leak – a Polish plumber came to mend it and a Polish decorator repaired the damage. Leaflets come through my door all the time proclaiming prominently that Polish workers were available. It was not something to hide.

A popular comedy sketch show on the BBC, Armstrong And Miller, had a skit where a woman comes into her bathroom as two men are doing repairs. They speak in heavy accents to her and converse between themselves in a strange language. When she leaves the room, they revert to ordinary English and express dismay as to how long they can pretend to be Polish.

Of course, plenty of tabloid newspapers ran articles stoking up fears as they are wont to do.Headlines of the ‘They come over here, taking our jobs, overcrowding our schools, stealing our womenfolk…’ type were not uncommon. One secret email was leaked to The Guardian from a freelance tabloid journalist asking people to report to her any cases of Polish workers found to be stealing from their employers. I sent her an email telling her she should be ashamed of herself.

Then we had the credit crunch in 2008 and everyone panicked. Some of the same tabloids actually ran headlines saying ‘All the Polish workers are going home. Who will do the cleaning and pick the asparagus now?’ There’s no pleasing some people! The truth is, we don’t know how many came, how many have gone home and how many oscillate between the two countries. The point is they can and do come and go as they please.

This was certainly not the case with the ‘Old’ Poles – those, like my father, who came during and immediately after the Second World War. These refugees came to fight for their country, to escape persecution – not for economic benefit. They arrived by accident of history not design. And unlike their young successors, they had no choice but to stay given that back in Poland Stalin was sending anyone who had experienced life in the West to the labour camps.

When I give talks to libraries and book groups in the UK about my novel, I often get a reaction from the older generation who remember the role of the Polish pilots during the war.

They generally tell me how brave and chivalrous the Poles were and how grateful they were for their assistance in defeating the Germans. My English grandfather actually set up a Welcome Club in 1944 where the young Poles, lonely and far from home, could socialise and meet young women at parties and dances – which is where my parents met.

Of course there are always dissenters. My mother remembers ‘No Poles’ signs on rooms to rent not long after she was married. Some of the press reports were also hostile even back then. Amusingly the far right wing British National Party, who complain vociferously about the influx of Poles to the UK and who always hark back to Churchill and the War, inadvertently used a picture of a Spitfire plane flown by an ace Polish pilot in their recent election campaign literature.

The ‘New’ Poles have certainly made use of the Polish clubs and societies set up all over the country by their forebears. They must have felt as if they were entering a time warp when they saw the old Polish Eagle complete with crown on display, the dusty pictures of Polish Battle of Britain pilots on the walls and the sound of the old pre-war style of spoken Polish.

When I asked them about this, most had never heard about the Polish ace pilots or the wave of traumatized and persecuted Poles who had fled for sanctuary to Britain just after the war. The Communist education system had never informed them about these people.

And the reaction of the ‘Old’ Poles to these interlopers? It was not always too happy. ‘They are all drunks and layabouts’ one elderly Polish woman told me. ‘They think they can just turn up here when we had to struggle for years to establish ourselves’ said another. There were complaints from church-goers to the Polish mass in my hometown that the new Poles were favoured by the priest, that they were overcrowding the church and were taking THE BEST SEATS.

This is all minor and petty, of course. In actual fact, there has been a remarkably tolerant and measured response to this immigration. It has brought benefits and of course some problems such as the overcrowding of some schools and doctors’ surgeries. In the main, though, both sides have used the situation to their advantage.



Phone booth in London by Jillian

Joanna Czechowska
Joanna Czechowska, the author of The Black Madonna of Derby, was born in England to a Polish airman father and an English mother, and in her early childhood she was not only raised by her Polish grandmother but spent the first ten years of her life in a community with postwar Polish refugees in the UK.
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