Small things


Twelve years ago a change came over Greenford. A large number of polite, hardworking, positive people moved into the area and all of them spoke Polish. Most of them were young (though not all) but they had a slightly old fashioned attitude to life which many existing Greenford residents found appealing. Pleasant and cheerful, they reminded me of our former neighbours, who had lived next to us for many years. They made use of the gardens of their rented homes, bringing out barbecues at the first hint of sunshine. We marveled at their ability to sink bottles and bottles of beer at the end of a working day and still get up bright and early the next morning, putting all their empties dutifully into their green recycling boxes. I learned not to turn on the washing machine after five in the afternoon as so many people were taking a shower after they got home from work that it would take hours to complete an average cycle because of the drop in pressure.

Many of these households were made up of groups of young men who had decided to try their luck as builders in the UK, getting work where they could and saving money by sharing houses. I doubt if many of us realised just how hard life must have been in Poland at the time to encourage such an exodus. Standing in the queue at a supermarket I was also made aware that some new arrivals had been caught out by the high cost of living in the UK. A young man was ahead of me counting out his change and making absolutely sure that he could afford a can of “All Day Breakfast”. He was carrying a backpack and may have been one of those sleeping rough in the borough’s open spaces while they looked for work. Those who traveled alone were sometimes less successful and there were a number of suicides, bodies found hanging in parks and playgrounds.

The new arrivals were an enterprising bunch and we would often answer the door to someone looking for work as a gardener. One introduced himself as Dariusz, and explained very politely, in halting English, that he was selling items that he had made. I was persuaded to part with quite a lot of money for an exquisite card with an image of a bird hovering over a landscape, made entirely from pressed flowers and leaves. The words “Polski slep” appeared in high street windows as local businesses began to exploit new customers but soon shops specialising in Polish products were opening alongside them. Large supermarket chains made room for sections, even aisles of Polish food.

This lasted for about four years after which I noticed that many of them weren’t around anymore. Apart from those who stayed because they had started families here or moved on to better jobs, most of them seemed to melt away, having made some money, returning to a Poland which had begun to recover and provide opportunities that hadn’t existed before. It seemed very quiet without them.

One afternoon early in 2009 I saw something that left me feeling slightly worried. it wasn’t actual fear, more a wariness of something based on past memories. I was seeing another change in Greenford, a negative one. Two skinheads wearing black jackets with orange piping were crossing Rockware Avenue ahead of me. I recognised them for what they were right away. Over the following months I witnessed one incident after another that made my heart sink. I had to push my way past a small group of men and a girl who were trying to frighten a shopkeeper near Greenford Station into providing them with free beer. They were white and quite openly racist while the shopkeeper was Sri Lankan. On another occasion, only metres away from the same place I stood, open mouthed, as a tall shaven headed young man told someone of Indian or Pakistani descent, in heavily accented English, “We know how to deal with people like you in our country.” It had been decades since I had come across such overt racism and it felt as though the clock had been turned back. The man on the receiving end of this abuse was probably as British as I am, it was only his skin colour that marked him out. Last week, in the same street, I watched a Polish skinhead turn and sneer at a man with hair in long dreads. It was probably too public a place to do anything worse. Even more worrying were the small posters promoting Polish/English events alongside lists of anti-Islamic websites that appeared in phone boxes on Greenford Broadway, suggesting that foreign right wing extremists were making alliances with the home grown variety.

I suspect that those expressing that kind of opinion were soon left in no doubt that it was better to keep it to themselves if they didn’t want to attract official attention. Instead stickers began to appear on the posts at pedestrian crossings, on public noticeboards, even on the rubbish bins at the skate park. They were announcements of events involving violence, organised punch ups, sometimes featuring men in ski masks holding baseball bats, often associated with football. Graffiti related to Polish teams appeared in the subways at Greenford Flyover. The most prolific practitioner was an ardent Nowa Huta fan. One local fought back. Soon after the exuberant Polish piece appeared the word “ARSENAL” was added in inch high letters. I remember talking about it to someone who ran a local business and he felt that the success of the first arrivals, who had returned to Poland, had encouraged the less well educated or ambitious or even less desirable to try seeking their fortune in the UK.

Last year I wrote a blog post about the impact of street drinking, in particular the litter and anti-social behaviour associated with it and it was pointed out to me by several people that I had taken care not to mention the fact that most if not all of those responsible for it were Polish. Looking back at it I think I did so, in part, because I wanted to be fair. I wanted to raise the issue and examine solutions to it without being labelled a racist. It would be untrue, for example, to suggest that all the litter in Greenford is dropped by people who’ve moved here from other countries or that all Polish men habitually urinate in the street. It is, however, fair to say that street drinking only reached the levels it has since the arrival of so many Poles in the area.

I was unaware of the degree to which it was taking place in Greenford until I had an encounter with a Polish woman on my way home one evening. She was in tears, sitting on a garden wall outside a house near the A40 and I asked her if I could help in any way. She explained that she was waiting for a male friend with whom she was going to stay as the man she had been sharing a house with was experiencing a violent episode triggered by his alcoholism. Her cat and belongings were still in the house with him and her friend was going to retrieve them before taking her away. She was distraught, even so I was taken aback when she launched into a furious tirade about the alcoholic Polish men she saw regularly, hanging around Greenford Broadway. She was absolutely livid about it and it left me wondering how I’d missed it, other than noticing an increasing number of Polish beer cans dropped around the place. It was only a matter of time before it became impossible to ignore, along with the anger that residents who had lived in Greenford for many years felt about it. We could hardly miss the trio who came to be known, in our household, as the Polish Alarm Clock, who for several weeks were in the habit of staggering down our street at around five on a Saturday morning, after a night drinking in a nearby playing field, stopping to shout obscenities once they reached our end. We knew enough Polish by that time to have some idea of what they were saying.

As I’ve watched these men spend their evenings clutching beer cans out in the streets I’ve been reminded of an earlier generation of immigrants, from Ireland, who came here in the 1950s and 1960s to build our roads and housing estates, but I don’t remember them drinking on the same scale. Apart from that they seemed to do most of it in pubs. Walking home in the evenings it is depressing to see so many, sometimes young, men who are so ill through alcoholism and think of the ambition and optimism that most of them must have had when they arrived here. I actually followed one of them, who couldn’t have been much more than eighteen, from the train where he had left his beer can in its blue plastic carrier bag, out of Greenford Station and into the street. I was angry with him for dumping litter, let alone being stupid enough to leave a package on the public transport system at a time when the UK threat level for terrorism was so high, but as I walked away afterwards all I could feel was sadness that someone so young already bore the red flush of a hardened drinker on his face. Such levels of alcohol consumption have left many heavy drinkers vulnerable to exploitation and violence.  The worst example of this locally was the death of Zbigniew Michniewicz in a squat in Greenford Road in 2013 but I have been made aware of others, happening just out of sight, near our homes and schools.

The Member of Parliament for Ealing North, Steve Pound, was asked about street drinking in the run up to the 2015 General Election by a caller to BBC Radio London who said he had moved away from Greenford because of the increase in such behaviour. He referred specifically to the area around Oldfield’s Circus, where drinkers were leaving litter and urinating in the alleys behind flats and shops. During the course of the call he began to run through a list of Polish beer brands and Steve Pound joined in – and so did I. “Tyskie”. “Lech”. “Perla”. These words have become familiar to anyone who walks around Greenford. They are on the beer cans left everywhere, everywhere, and they have become a considerable source of anger to people obliged to fund police initiatives like Operation Bottletop which curbs street drinking during the summer. Steve Pound suggested that part of the problem was that those responsible had nowhere indoors to socialise, that planning permission for a pub had been denied there because of the proximity of a school and there was a time when I would have agreed with him. I have been under the impression that all the rooms in shared houses might be used as bedrooms, denying its occupants a communal space. Now I’m not so sure. From what I’ve read street drinking is considered as much of a problem in Poland as it is here. They do it because they want to. When I asked Steve Pound whether there were any plans to challenge this kind of behaviour, especially littering, I was told that there had been an advertising campaign in the UK’s Polish press.

Most people in Greenford couldn’t care less if a few men meet up in parks for a few beers on their way home from work. What irks them is having to pay to have their empty beer cans disposed of because these drinkers can’t be bothered to take them home or find a bin. It can also be unnerving to come across large groups of them, even if they intend no harm. A few months ago I arrived at Greenford Station on a weekday evening and walked towards Hill Rise at around half past seven and could hardly believe what I was seeing. There were at least fifteen men in the area between the station and Hill Rise in various stages of intoxication and two of them were urinating without any effort at discretion. I am rarely nervous in these situations but on this occasion I found you didn’t have to be a looker to be leered at. Those leering could hardly focus on the cans they were holding let alone me. Even so it was really unpleasant and made me feel very uncomfortable.

This kind of behaviour is a complete departure from that which I had come to expect from those of Polish origin I grew up with. I lived a street away from a school friend with an Irish mother and Polish father who had a very strict traditional upbringing. I remember Mary, his mother, telling mine that Bronek was at home drinking with his army buddies. “Boy, can they put it away!” The difference is that the person I knew who displayed such courage at Monte Cassino as a very young man would never have behaved in the way that some of the younger generation of Poles who have settled in the UK feel they are entitled to. As far as I’m concerned Bronek had the right to drink London dry after what he went through. The same applies to all the Polish service personnel who made their way to the UK during World War 2 and served in the RAF or other units. I wonder what they would make of Polish men of the age they were then who now find it acceptable to ape the behaviour of the Nazis they fought against. I wonder if what they really fought for was the right for the next generation to get legless and pour away their earnings against a wall in a street in Greenford. I wonder what they would say if the project that evolved in part to prevent future European wars, the European Union, had been put at risk because those on the way to the polling station had been turned off by the sight of yet another empty can of Perla.

Last year, Poles in the UK were encouraged to donate blood rather than take part in a strike in protest at being scapegoated for pressure on essential services and a lowering of wages. I’m sure many in the UK were grateful but I’d be surprised if a few of us didn’t mutter under our breaths that they could also pick up a few beer cans on the way home. Along with many others I have waited for members of that community to do or say something, anything, about the issue of Polish street drinkers. It’s hard to know if some of them have their noses so far in the air that they don’t notice this kind of behaviour or, perhaps, inhabit a parallel universe where it doesn’t happen. They may even believe that there’s nothing particularly wrong with it.

I can’t help comparing this attitude with that of the Portuguese community I was familiar with as I was growing up. Both my parents are migrants, from Scotland and Portugal, in fact the only “English” thing about me is that I was born in London. Until I was about eight years old I was only aware of members of my Portuguese mother’s extended family who lived in the UK. It wasn’t until we attended an event organised by others of the community in London that I realised that there were a great many more of them around. I remember the first time I watched a crowd of them having a good time and wondered where they had all been hiding. Eventually I came to know people who lived only to work and save as much money as possible so that they could build a home in Portugal to retire to. In order to achieve this many lived in tied accommodation, in cramped flats where the ceilings were obscured by the exposed pipes for central heating that served the households they worked for. In one case the oldest son slept in the former coal store, under the pavement just outside a basement. It was unheated and he could hear people walking overhead and cars going past all night long. These were the cleaners, cooks, caretakers and gardeners who disappeared into the wallpaper, who didn’t go to pubs and only socialised at home with others from the same background. Beyond the front door there was usually little evidence that the household was Portuguese, apart from a hand painted azulejo as a door number or a slightly exotic pot plant on a window sill. Portugal tended to stay inside, along with a level of cleanliness bordering on the obssessive. It’s difficult to resent a migrant community you’re barely aware of. While I believe that immigrants in the UK shouldn’t feel the need to hide away it makes sense to try to be noticed for the right reasons.

Could the resentment that has built up have been avoided if we had been a little less culturally sensitive, a little less politically correct and a good deal less British? Laid down the law as soon as the anti-social behaviour I’ve described became noticeable? There was a time when it was amusing that almost everyone around us was speaking Polish. For many in Greenford all it does now is act as an irritant because it is associated with bad habits. It has made quite a few of us wonder what it will be like if we stay in the European Union just as other countries with citizens eager to move to the UK are trying to become members. What will they be like and what habits will they bring with them?

I’ve been surprised at who I’ve heard use phrases like “too full” or “too many” and how often they are mentioned. Would they say the same if there were “too many” people from Yorkshire or Scotland here? If they were all responsible, positive citizens could we have “too many” of them in Greenford? When I’ve spoken to residents about the referendum they’ve mentioned pressures on local services, in particular the NHS and schools. Yet, when I sign in at my local surgery, which allows you to do this in several different languages, I notice that half of them are of countries outside the EU. When I waited an hour to give a blood sample for a test at Ealing Hospital and, in the end, went home without doing so I realised that there were more people there from countries like India and Pakistan (along with their translators) than from EU nations. Polish walk-in medical centres where clients pay for treatment are everywhere but are probably less obvious than the food shops. They must be absorbing some of the pressure. As for the lack of school places, doesn’t that have as much to do with a reluctance to fund the building of schools as it does with an increase in children of school age in the area? I hadn’t heard the cry of a baby in years in our street before the influx of Poles in 2004. If it hadn’t happened there would largely be households made up of elderly or single people where I live. I see a lot more young mothers in Greenford now and I can tell they’re Polish because I see them making eye contact with their children and actually speaking to them.

When it comes to the availability of work I don’t know that I would have a job if free movement within the EU hadn’t enabled the company I work for to grow to the extent it has. A large proportion of its employees are from the EU and they are, without exception, hardworking and motivated. I suspect many of them are capable of taking jobs that are far more challenging than the ones they do at the moment but, unlike some British workers, they aren’t embarrassed to do them.

There have always been foreigners in Greenford. I’ve been told that there may be evidence of a Roman presence in the area. In 1086 those recording information for the Domesday Book noted that there were nine villagers, seven smallholders, six slaves, three cottagers, one Frenchman. At the time of the 1881 census, when Greenford was a remote collection of farms, cottages and public houses, there were five Italian agricultural labourers living in the barn at Horsenden Wood, probably near the present day Ballot Box pub. I expect there were some in Greenford at the time who believed that those five men were taking their jobs. A century later it was increasingly common to find that your neighbour had been born in India or Pakistan. I doubt if we would have late night or twenty-four hour shopping if residents from Asia had not broken ground by opening their small shops on Sundays and in the evenings. I think most Londoners don’t even consider the colour of someone’s skin when they consider national identity, something that a few people from other parts of Europe can’t seem to accept.

There is probably room for all of us in Greenford and we will have to allow for many more, whatever the outcome of the referendum, because people will always move to the London area from other parts of the UK but our ability to remain on good terms and rub along depends on the acceptance of certain rules and standards of behaviour. The fact is that for many the decision on which way to vote in the referendum won’t depend on economics or funding or straight bananas or being ruled from Brussels. It will be about their perception of what it has been like to be an average resident going about their everyday business in Greenford over the last few years.

In preparation for this post I set up a poll onlne asking if it would be better for Greenford if we were to leave or remain in the EU. The poll was anonymous, the response low (22) and hardly scientifically acccurate in that I can’t be certain that it was only (as requested) residents who live in the three wards of Greenford Green, North Greenford and Greenford Broadway who took part but, in the end, about 70% were in favour of leaving. I also asked on several sites if anyone who actually lives in Greenford was willing to email me frank explanations of why they thought Greenford would be better off in or out of the EU which I would quote anonymously. There has been no response at all to this. It isn’t unusual for residents, even those who are vocal about such issues on Facebook and other sites, to expect others to do it for them, but I suspect that the accusation of racism is made so easily with regard to this referendum that no one wants to expose themselves to it by being open about their opinions. There will be those who purse their lips, sneer and say that those with small minds care about small things like empty beer cans but the vote of the small minded man or woman will count for as much as any other today. It remains to be seen if those who have dismissed the opinions of the small minded before now will wish they had acted on their concerns while they had the chance.

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