Poles Apart?

Mike Kielty 22 November 2007

There are lots of potatoes in Poland, and lots of potatoes near Cambridge, so it seems appropriate to start with them.

Whether we’re dining at ‘Strada’, in Hall or enjoying one of those late night visits to the fast-food vans in Market Square, lots of us will eat many a good spud over the next week, but one doubts whether they will prompt much discussion unless they are especially delicious or vile. Who dug them up? Who gave them a wash? Who chopped, fried, mashed, boiled or roasted them? Chances are that it was a Pole, but as ever, the work of Cambridge’s Polish community will be brushed under the carpet like so many potato peelings.

This is a group of migrants who most of us simply refuse to acknowledge or appreciate. Everyone seems to have their own horror story regarding those mean, matronly Polish bedders, and the resulting complaints are now a common conversation starter whenever the normal ‘essay crisis’ talk has lapsed. Those gripes reflect a wider trend: in a poll earlier this year, nearly half the British people questioned insisted that migration had been bad for the country. In this university and across the nation, we have been gripped by a collective delusion: perhaps you could say that it is a bit like wanting to chomp down those cheap spuds (with a nice dollop of gravy, thank you very much) and then insisting that we would have preferred pasta anyway.

During the summer, I was sent to Poland by Rough Guides travel-books in order to write a chapter for their new European edition. It was the dream summer job, but perhaps it would be wrong to call it the easiest. I had just a fortnight to explore the famous towns, indulge in the local food, and embrace the ‘traditional customs’ before then encapsulating the workings of an entire nation into 15,000 glib words. I left two weeks later, my notebook crammed with a string of disparate thoughts and impressions regarding a people that had charmed, surprised and in many respects baffled me. On arriving back in Cambridge, it was then impossible not to notice just how much of their work we take for granted.

A recent government report has shown that, since 2005, 7,200 migrants have registered to work in Cambridge, including 1,720 Poles. This influx has not just affected students however; the Cambridgeshire Chief Constable recently called for more cash to deal with an increase in ‘community tension’.

Leaving aside the old gripes about ‘town versus gown’, there is a new tension that many locals in Cambridge feel towards these Polish immigrants. When I talked to some of the English bedders at my College, it did not take much to stir the waters regarding the new arrivals. ‘They don’t mix’; ‘they accept lower pay’; ‘they try and get their mates jobs at our expense’. ‘They’ were certainly not popular. Yet casting my net beyond the College laundry-room, I found a more charitable response elsewhere. I met Dawid and Michal, two lads from Warsaw who rise at six a.m everyday before working a thirteen hour shift at a local Polish restaurant. They were an embodiment of the industrious work ethic which has led many local businesses to welcome the Polish migrants. John Bridge, chairman of Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce, even argues that the “attitude and approach to work of migrants is often much more positive than UK workers”.

Dawid had an English girlfriend and was making plans to buy a home in Cambridge, but Michal had no qualms about telling me that he was only here for a short time. “Every new generation has its challenge,” he said. ‘Ours is to develop Poland so that people don’t have to emigrate.’ He planned to keep sending ‘shiny British pounds’ back to Poland for the next few months, before returning to Warsaw.

Yet there are also tensions back home that many other Poles are well aware of. In Poland, these emigrants are often called the “John Paul II generation”; they are happy to find their fortune anywhere and in any capacity, but they remain deeply connected with their homeland.

Many of the Poles in England still adhere to the Catholic faith in which they grew up, but that Church at home has also criticised the “materialist obsessions” of the emigrants. On my flight to Warsaw, I sat next to a polite twenty-year old who was indulging in some 50 Cent on his new iPod – ‘I bought it on Oxford Street… wow, what a place!’ I could not help noticing, however, that he constantly mixed listening to his rap beats with close examinations of a crumpled Barclays Bank statement. When he arrived he was greeted by a wife and a young son: ‘we haven’t seen each other since Christmas’, he said. Many a Polish marriage is breaking under the strain of this quest for financial gain.

Nor do all their stories match the immigrants’ dream of arriving in a new country and finding the streets paved with gold. The local police believe that as many as 100 brothels are operating in Cambridgeshire alone and that sex traffickers are luring women here from Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe with the promise of lucrative jobs.

Yet still the Poles are coming over to peel our potatoes, clean our beds and, increasingly, to find a place in more lucrative modes of business. Dawid’s tales of coming to the UK were told with smiles, and no regrets. ‘I had two suitcases, one packed with instant soup and Polish ham, so I know how it feels to be an immigrant.’ He visited a sandwich bar and was perplexed by the range of fillings on offer: ‘I only knew how to say, “Everything.” The next time, I made sure I knew the ingredients. That Marmite was horrible!’

The numbers of Poles arriving here indicates that life in Britain and Cambridge must have more pros than cons for the average migrant. Having considered that immigrants produce £6bn worth of economic output every year in the UK, it would be wrong to simply lament these ‘new arrivals’ as a disaster for Britain either. But we all need something to complain about, and immigrants will always offer some of the easiest targets. Despite all those little details that we have come to expect, the eager young Poles who come to Cambridge should take heed of Dawid’s cautionary claim: ‘It’s not like being on vacation’.

Mike Kielty