“Dear Poles, I am so sorry to hear about what happened yesterday. We the Brits are grateful to you for fighting alongside us in the war and now for the enormous contribution you make to our society. We love you.”
Thus read one of the messages the Polish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith received last week after the dismal graffiti-attack on its premises almost immediately after the Brexit vote. As the son of a Polish immigrant – though a highly Anglicised one – my agreement with the sentiments expressed wasn’t unbiased. But it made me think too what my own life would have been like without the Poles in the UK.
Nationally, our debt to the Poles is massive: the Polish 303 Squadron was the most effective of all in the Battle of Britain (1 in 9 Nazi planes being downed by a Polish pilot), the Polish army the fourth largest force on the allied side after Britain, America and Russia, and it was a trio of Polish cryptographers who cracked early versions of the Enigma machine. Poles – or the descendants of Poles – are responsible for giving us Tesco’s and Marks & Spencer, while the actors Sir John Gielgud, Robert Donat (of Goodbye Mr.Chips fame) and Tracey Ullman are all of Polish stock. Our own history has always been entwined with Poland’s – and strengthened by it – even though our post-war national experiences couldn’t be more different: we celebrated the end of the Second World War six years after it began, never suffering a land-invasion, and look back on it, broadly, as the top notch on our national CV. The Poles meanwhile were invaded simultaneously by the Nazis and Soviets, and lost a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country. For us the war ended in 1945: for Poland it wore on for the next few decades, ruled, all the way, from Moscow: the occupying army that didn’t leave for another forty years.
Yet all this happened long before I was born: what does Poland mean to my generation? As a child I read and loved Ian Serrailier’s The Silver Sword, a children’s book about a trio of lost children crossing Poland during the war. I enjoyed too (mea culpa) Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel, a long saga about a displaced Polish nobleman’s climb up the entrepreneurial ladder in the States, with its early chapters full of the atmosphere of baronial manor-houses, and hideous wartime suffering. At the cinema, later, I watched the films of Krysztof Kieślowski – they showed a different, communist Poland, but in its seedy way just as romantic: about spiritual murderers, strange love affairs, flashes of desperate idealism and interesting, complex betrayals, all set in the gruff atmosphere of a Warsaw housing estate.
But it was the Polish London I began to sample in my late teens that stands out in the memory. Gatecrasher Balls (anyone remember them?) were held at the Polish Club South Kensington. This was long before its recent excellent refit, and the Polish Club was an acquired taste, with its patterned carpets, its boarding-house furniture, and the Polish Eagle everywhere on the wall. I loved the place: it felt like someone’s home, and there was a special atmosphere on late Saturday afternoons in its pink walled bar – it was always empty save for a few eccentrics, and in the restaurant you could get potato pancakes with sour cream (how exotic they seemed in 1986) and honey vodka, the most romantic-sounding drink in the world. Down the road was Cafe Daquise – again, before its recent (rather less successful) renovation – and nobody who went more than once just ‘liked’ Daquise: with its formica tables and 1970s panelling, its slightly grumpy waitresses and its courtly manager with the toothbrush moustache, you always felt at home there and could forget the world outside. The cafe had a fascinating history: call girl Christine Keeler ate there with Russian attache Eugene Ivanov just before the Profumo scandal engulfed them both. Roman Polanski had been a regular while filming Repulsion, and Edward Raczynski, President of the Polish-Government-in-Exile, had used it as his canteen-cum-cabinet room.
It was the place’s atmosphere rather than its pedigree though that made it special. There was a tapestry on the wall (as I remember) of a horse-drawn carriage, which looked like the spirit of Christmas, and after a couple of iced pepper vodkas (again, how other-worldly they felt back in the day), it was almost impossible to be in a bad mood. There were always interesting-looking people sitting around you: writers and artists and young couples who’d just been at the V & A and who you saw, as the novelist Angela Lambert put it, ‘visibly falling in love’. We were lucky to have it and when, in the mid-nineties, there was talk of the premises being sold and closed down, there was a public outcry. That’s the thing about the Poles: you can always trust them to mobilise when needed.
From these two establishments it was a natural step to discovering the Polish Cultural Institute in Hammersmith, which had a much more purposeful air about it. Again, a charming manager with a toothbrush moustache and a smile which seemed all the more sincere for its rarity. POSK had – and has – the atmosphere of a Soviet-era theatre: a marmite factor in its favour. On Sundays you see crowds of children bustling around the place enjoying a Polish theatre show; there are Poles reading newspapers over a doughnut and kawa z mlekiem in the cafe downstairs, and in the restaurant up above – humming on a Sunday lunchtime – you can have roast duck or stuffed cabbage within its reassuringly-retro brown-painted walls. Families are out after mass at the Polish church of St.Andrew Bobola down the road, and you occasionally see the odd Polish priest or diner in military uniform. There are Polish lectures, Polish theatre, Polish cinema and Polish jazz, and a visit there is like leaving the country and travelling back in time. Now we have the Polish university in London on the same premises: an institution where Poles in the UK can complete their studies while abroad.
That someone should have seen fit to desecrate this lovely place shames them and us – so does the thought of losing a large slice of our Polish community as Brexit rules kick in. Dear Poles, we love you, and let’s finish with a tweet that appeared on 26 June, from one Gregory Hands: ‘Further, let us all say it loud & clear that Poles are incredibly welcome in the UK & the word “Solidarity” never felt more appropriate.’