“Another big part of your life was religion, wasn’t it? Polish are very religious.” Maria turns to me: “Chris was an altar boy”.
Going to Polish school, we learnt about religion. Roman Catholic. I suppose it was kind of forced upon you, in that it was the expectation that you would go to church on Sunday. And when you were old enough, you became an altar boy. I was an altar boy probably from the age of five until about sixteen seventeen. “Until last week,” Maria jokes.
So every Sunday I would go to church, with my mum and dad. The Polish church would be packed to the rafters – at times it would be standing room only.
As an altar boy we used to do wedding services, funeral services, and Easter is a massive celebration for Roman Catholics, and especially Polish people. More so than Christmas, even. At Easter it would be non-stop, going to church, relentless.
I’m not a practicing Catholic now; I do it how I want to do it, in my own way.
“You’d rather go to the pub on Sundays now,” Maria teases him.
Haha. I wouldn’t force it upon anybody, it’s their choice. But back then, because that’s how my parents were brought up in Poland, it was a tradition. My parents would have been educated by my grandparents, or their parents, and it was very traditional. There weren’t such things as TVs or Radios, iPads or iPhones and whatever. So as a family you’d go to pray, you’d go to church, you’d work the farm. It was a very simplistic lifestyle.
Did you ever feel that you didn’t want to do that? You didn’t want to have that cultural experience, that you wanted to have a more ‘English’ experience?
Yeah, at times. I can go back to when I was at primary school and I was part of the football team. And primary football teams, well our matches were on Saturdays. And where was I? I was at Polish school. And I used to think: ‘I want to be playing football. Why don’t my English friends go to school on a Saturday?’ But they were English, they were being taught Monday to Friday, like I was. But, being brought up within that Polish neighbourhood and culture, the expectation was that you’d go to Polish school.
The Polish school, on a Saturday, you might have 50/60/70 kids there of different age groups. A bit like at primary school where you have year grades, that was no different to Polish school. You’d have young kids, age four or five, then the older ones, seven, eight, nines, going up to about fifteen or sixteen. It wasn’t until you take your exams, your O-levels or A-levels, then you didn’t have to go to Polish school anymore.
But yes, there was resentment. As well as having to do my English homework I’d have to do Polish homework! So while all the other kids were out in the street, playing footy or knock-out-ginger or hide-and-seek, I was at home doing my Polish homework.
Or if it was a Saturday you’d be at school, and then going to church on Sunday. So that was like your whole week gone then.
But again, the Polish culture in Bristol – you had the Polish church, the Polish ex-servicemens club, where all the blokes would go there and drink and eat traditional Polish food. We also had the Polish scouts and Polish girl guides in Bristol. And again, there would probably be 50/60/70, scouts/cubs/guides/brownies.
So every summer holiday, from about the age of seven up until seventeen, I would be sent for about two weeks to a scout camp in the Forest of Dean, not far from Tintern Abbey. The Polish community in the UK had bought this massive mansion, right on the river Wye. It’s still there, it’s still owned by the Polish community. So I would spend two weeks out of every one of my summer holidays for ten years at the scout camp. With my friends from Bristol, because there were loads of us, plus the Polish communities from Swindon, Milton Keynes, Wickham, London. All of us, from about the Midlands down, would congregate at this scout camp.
“I’ll have to take you there one day,” he says to Maria, “we can go to Tintern, too.”
So this place is huge, and it’s still owned by the Polish community. And it’s been there since – well, even my eldest brother Richard, who’s no longer with us, went when he was younger. There is a big monument to the Holy Mary made out of stone there, and my brother helped build that. It was part of their project, to build this stone monument. And that must have been 50 years ago.
On bank holidays we’d camp there for three nights. The Polish community wanted these pockets of people; Swindon has a massive community, High Wickham, Slough. And we’d all gather and spend time together, and we made lots of friends there. Then, every Easter, we (all the scouts and guides) might all go and meet up at the Swindon Polish church to do a huge mass and build a campfire – not a real one, just sticks and red and yellow paper, but we’d still sing scout songs around it. We’d put on sketches, like comical sketches, all in Polish. The parents would go there too. It’d be like… a Polish jamboree. And every year there would be like a round-robin, so the next Easter we might go to Slough, or High Wickham, or to Bristol.
It would be enjoyable, because you’d be meeting up with all your mates that you’d met at camp the summer before. You’d have a laugh and a joke, and it would be quite competitive because you’d have a sports day as well. Bristol would play Swindon at volleyball, or any traditional scout-y games. I’ve got a lot of fond memories. It was just a generation thing, every young generation in the Polish community would do all that stuff.
So when you turned 16 and you didn’t have to go to Saturday school anymore or go to church, did you feel like that was breaking ties? Was it freedom? Or did you miss it?
Back then, I probably was grateful for the release. I didn’t have to do this dual thing anymore, like I’d done my ‘Polish thing’ now and I could just relax and become ‘more English’. I stopped going to church at one stage – though I don’t actually go to church now, but I still pray in my own way – and as I got older, bought my first house, I then moved away from that standard Polish way of living that my parents had wanted. And as I got older, and a bit more independent, they might say ‘are you coming to church today?’ and I would say ‘no I’m not coming; I was working last night, or I’ve been out, or I’m tired, or I’ve got a hangover’. So I wouldn’t go. It’s sort of a natural transition in growing up.
That went on for a good few years. Do you know I had never been to Poland? Not until a few years ago when I went to Krakow with Maria. For whatever reason, it had never interested me. It could be because I’d learned so much about it, that I thought ‘I know what Poland is like, I’ve learned it, I don’t need to go there’.
But I’m glad I did. It was a great experience for me, to go to Poland where my roots were, where my parents came from. Just to experience it. And I felt a connection.
Sometimes, when I watch TV shows, if there is something Polish on then I feel closer to it now than I would have in my teens, twenties, possibly thirties. Because I guess… “As you got older you probably appreciate it more,” Maria suggests. Absolutely, yes.
Even like with stuff like English history. I used to hate history – I’d think ‘what does it matter? It’s all in the past.’ But now I want to know, not everything, but certain things interest me. And that’s the way I feel about being Polish now.