Showing posts with label refugees. Show all posts
Showing posts with label refugees. Show all posts

Boswell Book Festival 2023 - A Ukrainian Experience


Last Friday I spoke at the Boswell Book Festival alongside Ukrainian refugee Liudmila Proniakina and her sister Olga, at beautiful Dumfries House, here in Ayrshire. The event was sensitively chaired by Georgina Adams in the centre of the picture above.

Liudmila and her five-year-old daughter fled Ukraine in 2022. Helped by Lara, who translated for her, and Mila's sister, Olga, who was already living in Scotland, she told story of that perilous journey. Among much else that was horrifying, it involved seven days in a freezing cold basement with bombs falling around them. The most moving and chilling moment was when Mila pointed out that her worst fear was that the adults would be killed, leaving her infant daughter to the Russian soldiers. At that moment, the hideous reality of the situation Mila and her family found themselves in struck the whole audience. 

For me, who has spent some years researching my grandfather and my father's WW2 experiences in Lwow (now Lviv), reconstructing lives that were torn apart and, in my grandfather's case, cut short by war, Mila's account had an added resonance. Dad was in the Warsaw Uprising, was liberated from a Nazi labour camp and finally settled in the UK. My book The Last Lancer shares his story. But hearing intriguing stories from much loved family members is one thing. Hearing similar stories in the present day has an immediacy that no historical account can ever quite equal. 

The thing that struck me in speaking to my father about this - and still strikes me listening to Mila - is the incredible suddenness of invasion. I don't think we, who live on an island that has seldom known invasion, can ever understand how instantly everything can change. The normal, the precious mundanity of everyday life, changes overnight. 

Even while I was writing my book, I was seeing TV pictures of a little Ukrainian boy, trudging alone towards the Polish border, clutching his passport, and weeping. I wept with him and for him, but I think I was also weeping for the brave boy that my father had once been, heading for another border that turned out to be closed, and then heading back to the city, all by himself, clutching his little brown suitcase. 

I was so grateful to Liudmila and her sister for sharing something of these experiences with us. I've found myself thinking about them and everyone else caught up in this situation every single day. 

Also, profound thanks must go to all involved with The Boswell Festival for organising and facilitating this most relevant of sessions.

At Dumfries House

Just a Little Ukrainian Boy, Weeping.


It was a few days ago. I was scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, I can't even remember which, before going to bed. Thinking that I must stop, because the more I see and read about Ukraine the less I sleep. 

The feeling of helplessness in the face of monstrous events is dreadful. Yesterday, an elderly lady in our local Co-op stopped me just to express her horror and indignation. Not anyone I knew. She just had to speak to someone about it. We stood amid the cereals and packets of tea, trying to comfort each other.

But it was the short video of the little boy that made me cry.

There he was, walking along a road - towards Poland? Another country? He couldn't have been more than ten years old. He had a good warm jacket on - a jacket that looked nice and new. Bought for winter, probably. He had his little backpack, the kind kids take to school. He was carrying something in his hand - a phone? Passport? He was trudging along with dogged persistence, an exhausted little boy who knew that he had to keep going because there were monsters behind him. 

And he was crying his eyes out. Real, terrible, anguished tears.

Questions flooded my mind. As, I'm sure, they did for any other human being who saw him. Was he really alone? Where was his mother? Had he lost his family? Were they just ahead or behind him? Who was filming? Who comforted him, hugged him, tried to make it a little bit better? What happened to him? Where is he now?

It has haunted me ever since. I keep thinking of all the children who had just had Christmas. Who were going to school, playing games, enjoying the ordinary pursuits of childhood in ordinary homes, looking forward to spring. 

For the past three years or so, I've been researching a new book, about my family's own sad history in Eastern Europe. And there too were so many stories of displacement, unspeakable cruelties inflicted on the innocent at the behest of evil men. The fact that most such evil men face a terrible reckoning  - as they almost always do - is no comfort at present. 

All I can think about is that little lad, trudging along, crying his eyes out. 

Days of Hatred

Yesterday the hideously xenophobic nature of England became all too clear. I don't often make political posts on here, but the deaths of 27 refugees in the English Channel elicited the kind of response on social media that made me, the daughter of a refugee myself, feel a deep despair for the country where I was born.

I can't see any way back for England now. I just can't. Scotland has a slim chance. That's about it. 

These were human beings like us, with hopes and fears. Every single person alive today in this (dis) United Kingdom is descended from an economic migrant. That means you. Even those of you proudly proclaiming your Anglo Saxon and Viking roots. Economic migrants all of you, searching for a better life. Without them, you wouldn't be here. 

These were refugees. They aim for the UK because their second language is English. We take fewer than any other European country. Many of them have relatives here. Many of them are young men, because few want to send elderly women and children across a continent in search of a new life. Some young families risk it. But who wouldn't, if they could, send their sons ahead, hoping for their safety and the possibility of a home and a future? 

What surprised me was that the very worst, the most racist, most disgustingly inhuman comments were on Facebook, rather than on Twitter, which generally tends to have something of the bearpit about it. Mostly they came from older men and women. A few were quite obviously bots. It's a fair bet that if you misspell country, but get all the long words right, you're not posting from the White Cliffs of Dover. But far too many weren't. Far too many were people who would otherwise consider themselves to be fine upstanding human beings. 

Dehumanizing others leads to catastrophe. 

Perhaps if the refugees dressed up as cats they'd meet with a bit more sympathy from the denizens of Facebook..  

An Unforgettable Novel

Often, when I'm working on a new book, I actively avoid reading fiction set in the same period, although I always read plenty of non-fiction books around the subject, especially if I'm writing historical fiction and non fiction. Sometimes the 'voice' of a particular piece of fiction is too strong and gets in the way of the made-up voices in my head - and this is even true of non-fiction in which I tend to write narrative rather than academic non-fiction.

But this wonderful novel, Neal Ascherson's, the Death of the Fronsac, is the exception. 

I don't know why I didn't know about it earlier. I should have, given the subject matter and the narration, and also given that I admire the writer both as a journalist and a historian. Set in 1940, it is mainly, but not wholly, told through the experiences of a Polish soldier who has found himself in Scotland when his own country has been divided between Hitler and Stalin. It is, as one reviewer describes, an extended and 'marvellous meditation on what it means to have lost a country and a past.' It is a book about the meaning of the word 'home' in Polish more than in English. What it means to lose it, where it resides and whether, once lost, you can ever find it again. 

I finished it at 3 o'clock one morning, found myself dreaming about it for the rest of the night, wept over it, and wrote an online review which I knew wouldn't do it justice. My late father could have been the main narrator of this book - he too lost everything in the war and had, if anything, an even more traumatic time. He too arrived in Britain and elected to stay here, in the face of suggestions that the Poles 'go back home' to a home that no longer existed. I think nobody in his new country, even his much loved wife, my mother, really understood how it no longer existed and what his experiences had been. Not back then, anyway, although my mum certainly came to an understanding later. They simply didn't understand the trauma of it. 

During the course of my life, so many people here in Scotland have rushed to tell me how much they loved the Poles who stayed at the end of the war. 'Oh, they fitted in,' they'll say. 'Fine people.' I always suspected that it wasn't quite the whole truth at the time. It certainly wasn't my mother's experience in post-war Leeds. This book serves to confirm that it wasn't the whole experience of Poles in post-war Scotland either. 

I'm in the middle of researching the history of the Polish side of my family for a new book called The Last Lancer, and I've found more than one Scottish person asking me 'why didn't your dad go back to Poland'? Among much else, this fine book also explains some of those reasons why, in sensitive, detailed and horrifying terms. 

The novel also clarifies for me the reasons why my father's attitude to Churchill was equivocal at best. It was an attitude he shared with many Poles. But above all, it explains something central to the Polish perception of 'home', an inadequate word in English, and of the way in which Poles never confuse the piece of land labelled state - and nation. 

But what is that nation? What does it mean to be Polish? What, and where, is home, when home has been all but obliterated.

I think about it a lot these days, having recovered my own precious Polish citizenship a year ago. I think about it when, as happened to me recently, a new social media 'friend' posts something astoundingly insensitive, inaccurate and angry about 'illegal immigrants' (And is promptly unfriended - something I very rarely do!) 

There are no easy answers, and this is by no means an easy book - but it is still the finest and most illuminating piece of writing on these subjects - and on my own heritage - that I have ever come across.

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World Beating?

Throughout his life, here in the UK, people would occasionally ask my Polish dad about his experience of fascism. His country had been overrun and carved up between Stalin on one side and Hitler on the other. Most of his family and large numbers of his friends had died. He had been in a labour camp before coming to the UK as part of a Polish unit of the British army and stayed as a 'refugee alien'. You can read a bit more about him in my book A Proper Person to be Detained

Throughout his life, he encountered a certain amount of prejudice, including in his career as a research scientist. He was the best qualified biochemist never to be promoted to head of department in the government institute where he worked, better qualified than most of his colleagues, holding a DSc, which is awarded only on career merit, as well as his PhD. Fortunately, his expertise was recognised before he retired when he spent a couple of years based in UNO City in Vienna, travelling the world as visiting expert in his field. My mother was Leeds Irish so she knew a bit about prejudice too. Somebody once asked her if she thought they should 'send all those Poles back where they belong now' - to which she responded that no, she didn't think so, because she had just married one.

My mum was a forthright, occasionally fiery person. Dad was more measured, wise and kindly. Dad had plenty of bitter experience of fascism and totalitarianism. But he would always say that it could happen anywhere and at any time, because nobody and no nation is ever immune.

How right he was. 

Yesterday, a respected political commentator said that there was no point in getting angry over those Brits who were jeering and cheering over the death of a 16 year old Sudanese refugee - such people had already lost more than they would ever realise. He had a point. My dad might even have agreed with him. But all the same, if we do nothing, remain silent, aren't we complicit? My mum - never one to hold her tongue - might have favoured anger. She might well have been right too. 

As Karl Popper says: 'unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed and tolerance with them.' 

Fascism doesn't arrive proclaiming itself in song, like the people in that chillingly beautiful scene from Cabaret.  It creeps in slowly and insidiously, with the willing connivance of the media. It labels other human beings as 'not like us'. Once they are 'not like us', once we have othered them, we can attribute all kinds of vices to them. We can see them as potential threats to our safety. We can easily slide from thinking of them as the 'enemy' to thinking of them as 'not really human at all'. 

The Daily Mail's moderated comments on the death of a sixteen year old included such gems as 'that's our kids safe from one of them' and 'one less we have to keep and pay for' and 'good enough for him' and 'cry me a river'. There were more, many more like that. Since first writing this, I've discovered that there are similar comments on Sky News, on the Metro site and elsewhere. If even half of them are bots or fake accounts, that still leaves plenty who aren't: people who actually typed the words 'cry me a river' about the untimely death of a young man whose entire life had probably been marked by hardship and horror. It's tempting to call these people inhuman but they are all too human. They walk among us. And our so called 'leaders' conspire in fostering the hatred - or at least do nothing to mediate it. 

I don't know what the answer to any of this is. I'm not a politician. But it's on my mind right now, because I'm writing a book about the Polish grandfather I never knew, and his extraordinarily tragic story. 

The truth is that history never repeats itself or at least nothing happens in the same way twice. All the same, if you have ever wondered what you might have done in pre-war Germany, in the years when Hitler was coming to power, you're probably doing it or something very much like it right now. Pretending that all is well. Hoping for the best. You might even have voted for him because you didn't much like the alternative, and he promised to restore prosperity, create civil order and make the country a world power once again. 

National Poetry Day: Aliens

Me and the alien.
Happy National Poetry Day!

Years ago, I wrote more poetry than anything else. Did readings in Edinburgh and various other places. Even had a couple of collections published. Then I started to write fiction and plays and found myself writing fewer and fewer poems.

I've very occasionally gone back to poetry, so over the years I've found myself with a collection of poems, some of which have hardly seen the light of day. But mostly, all the impulse that went into writing poems seems to have gone into fiction and plays, although I'm sure it informs a lot of what I write, which critics occasionally tell me is 'lyrical' whatever that means.

Anyway, here's a poem I wrote some years ago, but it seems peculiarly apt today when I feel that I no longer recognise England as the place that gave shelter to my dad at the end of the war. My grandad was from a Yorkshire Dales family - 18th century lead miners in Swaledale - and had probably come over with the Vikings. My nana was Leeds Irish. Dad reckoned there was some Hungarian in the family tree as well. So, I'm a citizen of Europe, if not the world.


I am small in springtime
on my father’s shoulders.
I can see everything even the
bald patches on the
heads of passing men,
a precarious and thrilling position.

My father’s hair is coal black and curly,
Polish hair as foreign as he is.
The word refugee is as familiar
to me as my own name.
I hold his ears for balance,
while he trots with me aloft.

My father’s papers proclaim him alien
which makes me half alien too.
Poland might as well be Pluto but
the iron curtain is real.
I see it sweeping across Europe
made of polished metal,
dividing kin from kin,
as unfathomable as space.

Small and safe on his shoulders
his hands steadying me,
I grip his ears and laugh.
We are what we will always be
to one another:
complicit and loving
alien invaders of
a mystifying new world.