Poland in the imagination: Postcards such as this infromed the British view of Poland for many years
Mention to a native British acquaintance that you were born in Poland or have Polish roots and you will likely as not be met with a question regarding where one can purchase good pirogi, when the best time of year to visit Krakow is, or why Poland produces so many goalkeepers. If the Brits in question fancies himselve as a low rent satirist, perhaps with a view to one day appearing on ‘Mock the Week’, he may ask you which building site you are working on, but this is as close to a negative reaction as you are likely to get. With the sheer number of Poles now living in the UK and the resulting abundance of shops selling Pudliszki ketchup and Tyskie lager, and with low-cost flights meaning many from this country have actually experienced Poland first-hand, most Britons have at least some awareness of Polish culture and those living in larger cities have at least one Polish friend with whom they can share jokes about Germans. In short, a Pole arriving in 21st century Britain can generally expect to find welcoming and accommodating natives.
Rewind some thirty years however and this was far from the case. Tell someone you were Polish and you would be met with plain bemusement. This was perhaps to be expected by any foreign national arriving from a country that Britain had neither been at war with nor colonised. It is very easy to forget how parochial a nation Britain still was at this time when trips abroad were limited to Spain or its islands and foreign cuisine meant chicken curry. Almost fifty years had passed since Neville Chamberlain declared Czechoslovakia to be ‘a far off country of which we know little’, yet remnants of this attitude lingered. What did the average Brit know about Poland? Well, they were invaded by Germany. Repeatedly. Asked to name a famous Pole, most Britons could name only two; Pope John Paul II, because he was, well, the Pope, and Jan Tomaszewski, who in single-handedly preventing England from qualifying for the 1974 World Cup had become a household name and instilled a belief, which largely persists to this day, that Poland knows something the rest of the world doesn’t about training goalkeepers.
Bemusement however was preferably to the astounding ignorance and misinformed opinions others would great you with. The problem was most Britons believed they knew exactly what Poland was like and had a very vivid image of the place. Unfortunately their opinions were based almost solely on Cold War propaganda. Back in the early 1980s, in order to justify the billions being spent on a nuclear deterrent – money that would perhaps have been better spent creating jobs for the three million unemployed – the British government found it necessary to scare the living hell out of its population at the prospect of life under communism. In this battle of ideologies, capitalism, we were told in the West, was the only system extant under which a society could prosper or even function. Such indoctrination was present in Margaret Thatcher’s speeches, in press horror stories of life in the East BlocBack in 1980. On the eve of Martial Law and a new heightened period of economic turmoil, anyone wishing to denigrate Communism would’ve looked no further than Poland, where food shortages and a population who, even when happy, refuse to smile to the camera provided perfect material. And if a story of hardship on the streets of communist Poland was deemed not frightening enough then it could easily be exaggerated and manipulated for political ends by the predominately right wing and pro-nuclear press. The British public lapped up these stories, whilst skillfully ignoring the rows of homeless men, women and children that lined high street pavements and shop doorways. Life in the Eastern Block, we were told, was something akin to serfdom, where rows of glum faced workers were marched to work day after day, where the shelves were forever bereft of food, and where the population had nothing to do other than toil and drink their miserable lives away with cheap home made vodka. In this vision ‘the East’ was presented as one homogenous whole; Warsaw, Moscow, Budapest, all lived through the same eternal winter where, like Narnia incarnate, it snowed all year round.
Whilst hardship was of course a reality for Poles, the British perceived Poland to be firmly in the Third World and not merely the Second. Economic bankruptcy was mistaken for – or manipulated to entail – cultural and intellectual bankruptcy also. Actual poverty combined with falsification and misconception meant that when my Mother arrived in London from Włocławek in 1980 she found herself on the wrong end of some particularly odd questions from the natives and patronised to within an inch of her life. “Is it nice to be able to wear coloured clothes?” she was asked by one Londoner under the impression that the Communists had banned the wearing of couloured garments. “You must like the weather here?” asked another whose belief in the eternal Communist winter was so engrained that they even came to see the weather in England as preferable. Shock was often expressed when she revealed that she had listened to the Beatles and Rolling Stones and watched Monty Python in her youth, as the impression in the West was that everything in the Eastern Bloc, including culture, had to be of Soviet origin. An English friend once gave my Mother a Bible as a gift, in the belief that the holy book of Christianity had been banned in Poland by Stalin or one of those chaps.
In isolation some of this ignorance could be excused, or even deemed charmingly quaint, remnants of a time when the world was not such a small place. When encountered on an almost daily basis they become utterly frustrating, and not to say a little insulting. No one likes to be made to feel as though they are from another planet, but then that was essentially how the Easter Bloc had come to be seen. The closest modern equivalent would be telling someone you’d just arrived in the country from a heroin farm in Helmand Province. As such you can understand why Brits would be amazed that they read Shakespear in Polish schools.
When misinformation was combined with sheer stupidity, the results could be dumfounding. It was once put to my mother that “it was nice of them to put that Live Aid concert on for you”, as news stories of food shortages in Poland had led this poor sap to believe that the large music event staged to raise funds for the starving of Ethiopia had in fact been put on for the benefit of the ever suffering Poles.
That was a measure of how low Poland’s stock was. No communist state was viewed with envy at this point, but when combined with her reputation for constantly being a battleground for large-scale wars and being permanently bullied by her neighbours, Poland was held in lower esteem than probably any other nation in Europe. The name of the country became a synonym for ‘impoverished’ and this view of the country was all pervasive, reaching all corners of everyday life, even the escapism of a football match. As a child I would travel religiously to Stamford Bridge to watch Chelsea, then a football club at the nadir of their fortunes. The Stamford Bridge of the eighties was a decrepit shell of a once glorious stadium. Crumbling stands housed lunatic hooligans who came to support a football club on the brink of bankruptcy and teetering on the edge of footballing oblivion. A visit to the toilets in the West Stand of the ground was a suitably demoralising experience. A particularly grim part of an already dilapidated stadium, the corrugated iron shed that housed the conveniences, with human effluence seeping from every crack, was nicknamed by the fans ‘Poland’.
As a child of Polish decent, this was all dispiriting to say the least. I did not recognise the Poland I had visited in these stereotypes. Coming from a particularly deprived part of London, I could not even see much difference in material wealth, yet I was allowed to feel little pride in my Polish roots and, sadly, ultimately resorted to keeping them a secret from my peers. Children are not known for their reticence in exploiting someone’s difference for the purpose of belittlement; having a parent from somewhere as alien as Poland was bad enough, but with ‘Poland’ being a byword for ‘rubbish’, derogatory comments were all I would receive whenever the subject of my nationality arose and it was regularly used as a stick with which to beat me. As a result, when I moved on to secondary school I took it as a blessing that surnames are patrilineal and hid behind my Irish fore- and surname, revealing myself to be a Slavo-Celt to only a select few.
Despite the fact that by the mid-1990s Poland had undergone great change, the British public’s view of the country had not. Between the imposition of Martial Law and the expansion of the EU in 2004, Poland barely featured in the news or in the press, it had slipped off the public radar and as such there was nothing to challenge what were by now gross misconceptions. When the Eastern Bloc crumbled the world’s eyes were fixed upon denim clad Berliners sporting mullets and hammers, indulging in the mass DIY dismantling of a big wall. Even the Białe Orły couldn’t help raise Poland’s profile, failing to qualify for a single major tournament between 1986 and 2002. Can Poles even remember what Aleksander Klak looks like?
Poland in reality: Fun in the snow (only in winter) and the beauty of Krakow
It took low-cost airlines and Poland’s accession to the EU to change matters once and for all. As the Cold War faded to a memory, Britons began to broaden their travelling habits and Poland became an affordable and fashionable tourist destination. A new generation began to reappraise life in the former Eastern Bloc and came to appreciate its art, culture and history and realised that life there was not quite as horrific as had previously been suggested. And then to England’s green and pleasant land came the Poles themselves. En masse. And they arrived wearing just as colourful clothes as the natives and let it be known in no uncertain terms what they thought of the weather here. Eventually questions about the nightlife in various Polish cities replaced questions such as ‘has your family ever seen a banana?’ Today British men lusting after beautiful young Polish girls who invariably reject them, feature as the butt of jokes in countless unfunny Harry Enfield sketches. In fact friends will now often try to impress me with a little Polish they have picked up from the barmaid in their local pub, where if one trumphets one’s Polish heritage loudly enough, a free drink may be the reward.
The old perceptions did not of course die overnight, and for some they still linger. In 2007, whilst expressing dismay at a UNICEF report that claimed Britain to be the second worst of the 22 OECD nations in which to raise a child, former Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher – always good for a quote – summed up his ire by exclaiming : “There’s people saying that kids are better off in Poland! That’s not right!” To some Poland still represents the epitome of hardship, but such instances are no longer the norm. The War on Terror has replaced the Cold War, and The Middle and Near East have subsumed Poland’s synonymous relationship with ‘poverty’ in the popular imagination. Poles now have a reputation for knowing how to drink, for working bloody hard and for loving the Pope; they are essentially Irish. Today most in this country can point to Poland on a map, many have tried pierogi and all have developed their own unique of pronouncing it. One aspect of the old Polish reputation remains however, and shows no signs of abating; Artur Boruc, Tomasz Kuszczak and Łukasz Fabiański have seen to that.
Patrick J. Barrett