Fourteen years ago I met my Polish father for the first time. It was an emotional earthquake and my NHS doctor in London took the unusual step of offering to pay for me to see a psychiatrist. If this surprises you, in England the standard of public services depends very much upon where you live. Despite the talk of cuts even then, the mid-Kensington NHS practise was in a much better position than most others to afford specialist services.
I refused his offer, perhaps mistakenly with hindsight. My experience was by no means unique and the sum of human experience often resides in a priest or a doctor. I might well have found some benefit. However, fired with the euphoric thrill of discovery I settled for a few sleeping pills to get me through the initial shock and the disturbed sleep. Because, although a joyful experience, the answering of a profound question that had run the course of my life, meeting my father in my middle age was a deeply traumatic episode. It was not the questions of desertion, rejection, guilt, lost time. No. What troubled me most was coming to terms with what I saw when I looked in the mirror. Under my own face I saw another, the face of my father. It was as if my face had been superimposed on his and his, perhaps, on his father’s. I suppose this ought to have been a comfort for someone as desperate as I was to know who my father was and to understand where I came from, but it was not. It shook my identity to its foundations.
If you grow up with both your parents you accept the way you look, and you take for granted the characteristics you have inherited from both. Growing up into maturity with only one parent and then being confronted with the other suddenly in mid life is a different matter. I found it very hard to cope with. For about a year I could not look at myself in a mirror. Even when shaving I averted my eyes from my reflection though, happily, with surprisingly little blood letting. It was as if I had to overcome my internal turmoil before I could consider the external truths. Now, when I look in the mirror I see my own face again. I have reclaimed what is mine. My father is back in his place.
Maybe because of this experience, maybe because I am half Polish, I find many physical similarities between the Poles and the British. Though I spent twelve years in Italy, Italians are clearly a different breed and I never developed any great physical affinity for them. The French, Spanish, Czech, Bulgarians, Russians, Danes, Swedes, even the Germans have their own characteristics for which I have no empathy. But, apart from the clay faced Slavs of whom there are quite a few, the rest of the Polish nation could pass for English. I would even include the often considerable number of fellow Warsaw tram passengers who show marked Semitic characteristics. I regard this as a compliment to both nations. It helps to explain how so many Poles were absorbed by British society after the war and how even I myself have never been thought to be anything but English, though I have more Polish blood in me than anything.
I think there is also a shared humour, a shared awareness and enjoyment of the ironic: the absurdity of people, circumstances and life. Many young Poles adore “Fawlty Towers” and often cite it. “The Office” and “Little Britain” are extremely popular. I wish they knew”The Goons” and Michael Bentine`s brilliant “It’s a Square World”. I think they would see parallels with their own masters of the absurd such as Slawomir Mrozek and Tadeusz Konwicki.
A regular diet of BBC Radio 4 humour might even be appreciated. One evening a young Polish houseguest, a musician who was staying with me, tuned into BBC Radio 4`s “I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue”. He was in hoots of laughter, not because he understood very much but, as he said, because the audience and presenters were having such a good time together. He was absolutely right. Their laughter and enjoyment crossed frontiers.
In many ways, though not all, I feel very close to Poles and with the young in particular. Language plays a great part in this. Most of the under 35 year olds I work with speak good if not excellent English, often despite having never been to an English speaking country. They have acquired their skills at school and through constant exposure to the tidal wave of Anglo-Saxon culture that has swept through Poland in the last ten years. Since my Polish is rotten, partly because I rarely seem to need to use it, most of my communication is in English. Polish is a very deferential language. Meanings are easily obscured. Direct talk is difficult. Social distance is easy to maintain. English is much more direct and the subtle innuendos of deference and distance are difficult to detect and hard to master, today even for the native speaker. Also, when you speak in a foreign language your rules of behaviour subtly change.
Thus, I find it is very easy to communicate with young Poles who, perhaps with relief or perhaps through ignorance of the rules, can disregard barriers of age and status to say what they think. They treat me as an equal or, at least, seem to.
To illustrate the problem of communication a Polish friend, a high financier, told me this story yesterday. He is building a house in Zoliborz. A problem has come up which requires discussion. The plumbers and carpenters and builders are each blaming the other. But, they do not do it face to face. The plumber rings my friend to complain about the builder. The builder rings to complain about the plumber. The carpenter rings to complain about everyone. My friend has to mediate by phone even though the complainants are all standing on the same site within ten feet of each other and could easily resolve the problem between themselves. Is this a uniquely Polish? my friend asked me. Why cant they simply talk through the problem together? Is it, he suggested, because the language will not allow direct speech? A direct instruction from an equal is likely to be misinterpreted as rudeness.
All I could say was to repeat what a young Pole said to me when he returned from three years at Oxford. “Poles don’t discuss. They make statements”. My friend agreed. Maybe English should be adopted by the building trades.
Back that morning in the gym at the Poniatowski School I explained to the kids what I wanted to do. I asked them if they agreed. They did. They were ready and willing. I took them through the exercises, many involving close physical contact and requiring a great degree of maturity. Everything ran remarkably smoothly and the 90 minutes flew by. “What have we learnt?”, I asked. A girl said,” Shared problems are more easily resolved”. A boy said, “Our imagination is our greatest tool and it needs to be exercised like a muscle or we lose it”. My heart gave a little leap for joy.