Sunday, 17 May 2015

A book that explains so much - Poles in post-war Britain

Every now and then a book comes along that changes the way I look at the world. But here, rather, is a book that moved me for another reason. It consolidates many of my thoughts and memories. I feel has been written for me, and for every Andrzej and Rysiek and Basia and Ewa born in Britain in the 1950s and '60s.

Nothing written - in English or Polish - to date has come so close to capturing our generation's unique experience, the children born to Poles washed up on Albion's shores, having survived the horrors of WWII - be it deportation to Siberia by Stalin or living through the Nazi occupation of Poland.

With Blood and Scars, by B.E. Andre, is a story is told in two intermeshing plots. One, is narrated by a ten-year old girl growing up in 'Polskaland' in 1960s Manchester, the other, by the same person, now a middle-aged woman in contemporary Manchester, watching her father, a wartime survivor, dying of cancer.

Before going into the novel's Polishness, there's the 50-year timeshift, from Opportunity Knocks and wrestling on black-and-white TV to SMSs and Facebook, from typewriters to laptops. The way 1960s Britain - all Green Shield stamps, Pick of the Pops, thruppenny bits, ten-bob notes, Kensitas and Woodbines, Morris Minors and Ford Corsairs - is portrayed by the author with attention to detail worthy of a Dutch Master. No item of everyday life goes unnoticed.

Like West London, 1960s Manchester was already experiencing mass migration - the ten year-old narrator's best friends were the children of migrants from Ireland, Jamaica, Italy and Cyprus. And of course Polish. 'Polskaland' in Manchester in those days was quite specific, with social life centred around 'Kombo's' (Dom Kombatantów or kombatanci) and the Polish church. Poles worked in handbag factories, sent their children on kolonia to Penrhos and lived in the near-past, of a Poland overrun first by Nazis, then the Soviets, betrayed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta.

Reading With Blood and Scars, I feel that my generation - Poles born in the UK in the post-war decades - finally have a voice. To date the nearest approximation has been A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, touching on many of the inter-generational issues that UK-born post-war Poles face in common with others from the same part of the world. With Blood and Scars has the bonus of a being wonderful journey down memory lane of childhood in a country beginning to emerge from post-war austerity, as colour came into the drabness in the form of the impending 1970s. But compared to post-war Poland, Britain was paradise.

With Blood and Scars treads with commendable sensitivity in the area of wartime Polish-Jewish relations.

This is clearly a book that deserves to be translated into Polish. It is a testament to the 200,000 Poles - and their children - who lived in Britain while Poland was enduring 45 years of communism. It explains why we UK-born Poles are as we are - shaped by an upbringing in the shadow of Yalta, Saturdays at Polish school in the mornings, Polish scouts in the afternoon, Sunday mornings at Polish church - while our British contemporaries had the weekend off.

What was the point of being brought up Polish? asks the ten year-old protagonist of her father, who bellows at her: "You will go to Polish school! And you will be proud of your legacy!"

It is also a book to any Brit who grew up alongside Polish children - at school, at university. With Blood and Scars explains why we were - why we still are - the way we are. And it is a book for the next generation - the grandchildren of those political refugees who sought shelter and a new life in Britain after the war. It deserves a massive readership of anyone touched by Polishness in the UK.

Youthful memories inspire great art. I am minded of the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, dwelling on their Jewish-American upbringing in Minnesota, the action set around the same time. First alcohol, first smoke, first snog - rights of passage are just as critical in the process of winkling out the essence of our existence as is facing the death of loved ones. Delving into memories, funny, sad, from one's formative years is a great source of truth about our human lives.

Above all this is the story of what war does to people. And to their children.

You can buy it from Amazon (click here).

This time last year:
We can all take photos like Vivian Maier - can't we?

This time two years ago:
Ethereal and transient

This time three years ago:
Wrocław railway station before the Euro football championships

This time four years ago:
By tram to Boernerowo

This time six years ago:
Food-Industrial Shop, rural USA or Poland

This time eight years ago:
Twilight time, Jeziorki


AndrzejK said...

Clearly a must buy book.

Sigismundo said...

Very interesting indeed. I wonder how much is autobiographical. Sometimes things are better told in story form than as facts...

Anonymous said...

Sounds great - is it BE and RE, perhaps?

Couldn't find anywhere to buy it apart from where you link to. £9.99 with free postage from £10.

If you know of any tax-paying sites that sell it, I'd be grateful.

AndrzejK said...

A propos nothing in particular. The 60's and 70's were a more innocent age. HOWEVER we were all warned by parents and teachers not to talk to or accept sweets from strangers. Which must mean that peadophiles were recognised as lurking even then. So why the surprise now as far as people like Saville, Rolf Harris and that Liberal MP whose election to Parliament meant that the Liberals could no longer hold parliamentary group meetings in a telephone kiosk are concerned?

And why has the verification routine asked me to identify photos of steak?