Sunday, 27 July 2008

On being Polish in West London

Both my parents are from Poland, they ended up in England after the War, unable to return. They bought the house on Croft Gardens, Hanwell, London W7, in 1955. When I was born, two years later, they'd speak Polish to me, and carried on speaking Polish between themselves to this day.

When I started going to nursery school on The Avenue in West Ealing, at the age of three and half, I spoke no English at all. My mother tells me that before going there for the first time, she taught me the words "please", "thank you" and "toilet". Because there were several other Polish children in my class, I never had any sense of being unusual.

It was only at Oaklands Primary School, after I'd been there for a few months, that I had the following conversation with my friend Gary Clark. I don't remember the exact words, but the gist was something like this: "Gary - you speak Polish at home to your parents, don't you?" Gary was puzzled - he didn't have a clue what I was on about. I explained. "At school, in shops, on the street, one speaks English. At home, with one's parents, one uses a different language...?" Gary replied "Er... no..."

Only at this precise moment (I must have been five and a bit), did I realise that I was different in this respect to other children. Until this moment, I thought everyone spoke Polish at home, only for some reason they didn't talk about it in school.

Polishness was for the weekends. Saturday mornings were Polish school, which I attended right up to 'A'-Level. Sunday morning was Polish cub scouts, followed by Polish mass at the Polish church. And so it went throughout my entire childhood and adolescence (scouts on Saturday afternoons).

Unlike many of our Polish friends' houses, my parents' house was not a temple to Polishness, full of folk art, pre-war maps, Black Madonnas, engravings of Lwów or Wilno, cavalry swords, bookcases solid with Polish titles. There were some signs of Polskość around our house, but it was neither deliberately being hidden nor made a show of. Which I think, in retrospect, is the healthiest balance. Not forgetting one's roots, yet not going full-on for assimilation in the host community - and then not cutting oneself off to the ghetto either.

This approach worked well. Throughout my childhood, I never felt picked on, discriminated against or victimised because of my Polish surname. This also says a lot for the basic decency and tolerance of the English host community. Not once, in all those years, can I recall a single snide comment aimed at me on account of my supposed national "otherness".

1 comment:

Black Sheep said...

I was born in England although French and Polish parents in the '70's. I went to a Catholic school and never suffered any discrimination. My Father, who was older than my Mother had fought in the war and felt welcomed everywhere in the U.K. He only changed his name because nobody could say it or spell it!

I live in France but I believe the U.K. is a very different place now.

Lovely memories of Warsaw came flooding back. Czesc!