Opening Pandora's Box - Brexit, Xenophobia, My Polish Father and Me



The day after the Brexit referendum I remember my husband saying 'they have no idea what they've unleashed.' To be fair, I don't think any of us realised what had been unleashed, although by now, many of us have a fair understanding.

I was born to a Polish father and an English /Irish mother, in smoky post war Leeds. A couple of weeks ago, I travelled to the Polish consulate in Edinburgh, carrying a sheaf of papers, including copies of my birth certificate, my parents' marriage certificate and dad's naturalization papers, as well as my own application for the restitution of the dual nationality I once had. The consul was polite and helpful; the process was fiddly but reasonably straightforward. It remains to be seen whether the application is successful and it could take some time - but the process is under way.

I had been thinking about doing this ever since the referendum, but it seemed wrong to undertake it purely to retain my freedom of movement in a post Brexit world, even though it was bound to be a consideration. In retrospect, I think I delayed for so long because I wanted to be sure that there were other, better reasons.

My dad came to Yorkshire with General Anders' army at the end of the war. He spent some time in a Polish resettlement camp, and then worked as a textile presser in a woollen mill, learning English and studying at night school. He didn't apply to become a naturalized Brit till the mid 1960s. By that time, we had moved to Scotland, where he was working as a senior research scientist. Because he would occasionally have to travel to the Eastern Bloc and they wouldn't be able to offer him protection there, the Home Office advised him to renounce his Polish citizenship. It meant that both my mother and I lost our dual nationality as well.

I don't know what dad felt about it, because I was young and didn't ask him. It was one of those questions that you only think about later. I still felt very Polish and can only assume he did too. We celebrated Christmas in the Polish way, and he would become a little emotional over old Polish Christmas carols, something I don't think my mother, who loved him dearly, ever fully understood. Later, it struck me that she simply wanted him to be happy, and because he was usually a cheerful, kindly man, any intimation of despondency upset her too. I visited Poland several times, met long lost relatives and eventually spent a year working at Wroclaw University, teaching English under the auspices of the British Council.

Back when my mum and dad were first married, there had been the odd instance of xenophobia. I wrote about these in my recent book, A Proper Person to be Detained: somebody remarking to my newly married mum that she 'thought they should send all these Poles back now'. The fact that throughout the early years of their marriage, whenever a crime was committed by anyone vaguely foreign sounding, the police would come calling, until my mum, tired of the midnight hammering on the door, went down and told them in no uncertain terms where they could go.

But as time passed, these seemed like increasingly isolated incidents.

Now that I reflect on it from a Brexit perspective, I can see that we weren't immune. My surname caused me problems at school and as a writer, and still does. I was told it would have been better if I had done as some Poles did, and changed it, but I defiantly refused to do it - and probably still would refuse to do it. When I occasionally suggested that I'd like to write about Poland in my fiction, I was invariably told that 'nobody would be interested'. Much worse though, was that my father - a biochemist - was repeatedly refused promotion. Repeatedly turned down for the headship of his department in the government research institute where he worked. This would have been acceptable if there had been no evidence of his expertise, but some years after his PhD, he was awarded a Doctor of Science degree. This is a higher doctorate whose fundamental purpose is to recognise excellence in academic scholarship. He was, in effect, a double doctor. He was popular with the staff and he had become an expert in his field, working in particular on ways of helping to set up sustainable third world agricultural projects.

He was the only person in his research institute with such a senior qualification not to be given promotion. In fact few of his peers had that qualification or international recognition at all. They were too busy working on commercial projects for inventing 'spreadable butter'.

He should have moved, but he loved this part of Scotland, loved his work and his quality of life, so he elected to stay. Nevertheless it rankled. Fortunately, before retirement, he was offered a prestigious attachment to UNO City in Vienna, where he and my mum spent two very happy years, and from where he travelled the world, working as a special scientific adviser. I still have correspondence from that time, from researchers worldwide who clearly admired him as much as we did. It was long after dad's death, that I finally understood, or perhaps admitted, what had been going on.

What had been going on was nasty, low key xenophobia. Impossible to prove or challenge. But present all the same.

Along with many other people, I've spent our years within the EU blithely supposing that suspicion of foreigners was a thing of the past. Or that at the very least it was dying out. I wonder now how I can have been so ridiculously naive. It hadn't died out at all. It had just gone underground. Temporarily. People may have found it socially unacceptable to admit to it, but many of them felt it all the same.

When I look back now, I remember the odd occasion where I heard tourists or migrants, speaking in their own languages in public places. Fascinated, I would try to figure out where they were from. But how could I not have noticed the hostile glances? Now I remember the young men emerging from the Polish shop in town, being accosted by a vitriolic old woman, shouting at them to 'get back where they came from.' Nobody intervening on their behalf except me. The English woman on a Spanish service bus, saying angrily 'You'd think they'd speak the language' to her companion. She expected the driver, in Spain, to speak English. The hideous exclamatory headlines in all the tabloid newspapers, the newspapers I didn't buy or read, and tried to ignore. The fact that my dad would occasionally say that fascism could happen at any time and in any place. All that it needed was for the conditions to be right.

You know, Pandora's Box wasn't really a box. It was a large storage jar. And in this case, the lid had been tipped for a long time. We just didn't notice. Every now and then, some right wing bloviator would give it a nudge. With his Brexit referendum, David Cameron lifted the lid clean off and out they all tumbled: xenophobia, prejudice, racism, hatred, bigotry and a host of other evils. Why did we imagine, even for a moment, that they had gone away?

I feel European because I am. For years, in response to 'where do you come from?' I've listed the complications of being English, Irish and Polish with a bit of Hungarian thrown in for good measure. But I've lived in Scotland for more years than I've lived anywhere else. Like so many much younger people, I'm happy being a citizen of nowhere, but if I can't have that, I'll settle for becoming a citizen of the places with which I feel most affinity: Poland and - with a bit of luck - a future independent Scotland.

As for my dad - I miss him more than I can say. I need his wisdom and his affection to guide me. But I'm very glad that he's no longer around to find himself on the shifting sands of prejudice all over again, to hear the alarming tales that I hear every single day now from EU citizens living in the UK: the jubilation over the ending of  free movement, the refusal of settled status to people who have lived and worked and paid their taxes here for forty or more years, the daily acts of bigotry, the lack of any recognition that when you characterise migrants as foreign invaders or - worse - as vermin, you are also talking about the neighbour who gives you fruit and veg from their garden, who feeds your cat when you're away, who chats to you in the street, whose child is friendly with your child.

It's no good saying 'oh but we didn't mean you.' I'm afraid you did. You did.

Over the past three years the cracks in what was once the United Kingdom have become gaping fissures. We're governed by men and women who lie as the birds sing. And the divisions in our society are now so deep that I doubt if they will be healed in my lifetime.




Comments

Kathleen Jones said…
Well said Catherine. The wolf has been let out of the wood and given permission to show his teeth. It makes me feel sick.
gz said…
Good for you for reclaiming your identity. We are both too far from our French forebears to do likewise, I'm tantalisingly one generation away from an Irish passport. We love Scotland but would stay in Aotearoa NZ if we could...but there are the same problems all over the world. Your father was right.
Each of us must get things right in our home environment .
alison333 said…
Thank you Catherine, for voicing how current politics is impacting on you and importantly, why this is the case. We exist in our own silos. All too often we walk blindly forwards, following what we assume is the correct path. What we don't see however, are the weeds which have silently grown, obliterating our initial good intentions. Right now, we all have a chance to do a spot of serious tidying up before our correct path disappears again for another generation.