You say you had all these different nationalities making up ‘pockets’ in the UK. Did you feel in the community that you were a separate little pocket, or did you fit in well?
From memory, I would say we fitted in quite well. From a Polish point of view: we had our own Polish church – it’s still there, on Cheltenham/Zetland Road, just past the arches – and in Clifton they had the Polish ex-servicemens club. That’s still there too, but I think it’s owned by Bristol University now. So at Christmas time, Easter time, bank holidays, they would put on traditional Polish celebrations. Like dances, or bands would play there. I used to go to a Polish school in Bristol on Saturday mornings. And this was all set up by the Polish community, because they wanted their children – i.e. me – to learn about where their parents came from. The Polish faith, Polish history, Polish language. So every Saturday from the age of five up to about sixteen I used to go to Polish school.
In those four hours every Saturday morning I would learn Polish history, culture, language, dance, singing, poems. And at the end of each term, and at christmas, we would go to the Polish club with all our families and we would put on a show. We would sing traditional Polish songs, have traditional Polish dance.
“Make him sing and dance!” Maria jokes. “No, no I can’t do that,” Chris begins to go red. “Can you sing us a song?” I ask. “No, no I won’t be singing a song,” he laughs.
As an outsider – say you two had come in, if you’d known me back then – it would have just been all Polish. Everything in there: Polish foods, Polish beers, Polish vodkas. It was made to be, and feel like, a little part of Poland for all these families.
“But all these families, they did very much keep themselves to themselves, didn’t they?” Maria asks as Chris pauses to take a sip of his drink. “I’ve spoken to your Auntie and she said to me that she wishes now that she’d mixed more with English people. She’s finding that a lot of the Polish people she knew were older, and now they are passing away there aren’t many other people left for her to talk to and socialise with. She says she wishes now she’d made more English friends and not just stuck within that Polish community.”
Well, with my Dad, he was a very sociable and easy to get on with kind of person. Even though he was born and bred in Poland, his English was good, albeit with a strong accent. But he couldn’t read or write in English, because he never had any education, but if he had to make something everything would be in his head. He could do measurements and angles and all sorts of things like that. But with my dad – born in Poland and speaking both Polish and English – coming over to England he had mixed with a lot of Italians with the same sort story as him.
So you had these foreigners all wanting to mix together, rather than with the English. My dad could speak Italian, he could speak Russian, he could speak German. And none of this was from school – it was literally from having a conversation with people with a different culture or nationality, one speaking Polish, one speaking Italian, with a bit of broken English in-between. But they could communicate. And then the Italians would learn a bit of Polish, the Polish would learn a bit of Italian. And so my dad could speak and have a conversation with a lot of Italians. He had a lot of Italian friends here in Bristol, with a similar background and story.
But Maria is right. I guess it’s very similar to what you see now, in St Pauls. You get a lot of the Somali community who stick with themselves, making their own little Somalia in inner Bristol. And in a way that’s sort of history repeating itself.