Friday, 15 July 2016

Horrified by "Your British World"

It's Polski Piątek, and I have finally finished reading the bilingual "Your British World--czyli jak sobie radzić w Wielkiej Brytanii" by Maria Kurek-Evans (2006). It is toe-curlingly awful if you love Britain, but it might provide good comfort and advice to a migrant Pole who has found himself on the bottom rungs of British society.

If you are British, I highly recommend that you do not read this book, or if you do read this book, recall that it is all merely the opinion of one Polish emigrée. (Seriously,  this book could have been responsible for  the "Leave" victory in the recent EU referendum.) When I read how sad and resentful the author feels when the audience sings "Rule Britannia" on the last night of the Proms, I wanted to throw her book at her. It's a soft-cover book, so it wouldn't hurt that much. I'd take off the plastic library cover first.

To tell you the truth, this book may be more about the author than about Great Britain, which for her is one vast, working-class London full of drunks and slovens. Of course, some of what she writes has a kernel of truth, and it is horrible to see Britain's cultural decline through a foreigner's eyes. Take, for example, the section "Maureen's Birthday."

"Maureen's Birthday" is simply ghastly. In short, Maureen and her husband are Irish (living presumably in London) and when Maureen has a birthday party, she doesn't provide food or drink, but accepts the bottles (and presents) her friends bring, and everyone gets sloppy drunk and then goes to a club where they behave like idiots.

Obviously Kurek-Evans has not been mixing with sophisticated people, but I have heard from Poles in Edinburgh that their British (student) hosts are stingy with food and drink. This  is not my experience of British hospitality, however. I cannot remember ever setting foot in a Scottish dwelling without being offered at least a cup of tea. There are usually cookies if there is not cake. As for parties, Scottish and English hosts are quick with drinks and nibbles, and in seven years I have never left a Scottish home hungry. That said, I don't know any women in the UK like Maureen, but from what I have heard, self-absorbed Maureen very likely exists.

Meanwhile, it is true that women across the British social spectrum get stumbling, glassy-eye, slurring drunk. It is not pretty. In fact, it is shameful, and it can not be stressed enough that Continental Europeans think a condition that is barely tolerable in a man is absolutely disgusting in a woman.

I think Kurek-Evans exaggerates the extent of British drinking a little when she dedicates two whole pages to hip flasks. She seriously seems to believe that women carry them around in our make-up bags and take refreshing snorts during cigarette breaks at work. The great irony of these pages is the one and only person I know who carries a hip flask everywhere and takes refreshing snorts (e.g. in the car park after Mass) is a Pole.  Here is one beautiful Polish sentence on the subject:

Po kilkych dyskretnych pociągnięciach ponury, zrzędny mężczyzna staje się towarzystim, gladko mówiącym, czarującym bawidamkiem.

The accompanying translation renders this "After these secret swigs, a gloomy, grumpy man is transformed into a sociable, well spoken, charming ladykiller."

In the case of my Polish friend, he is turned into a friendly chap who offers his flask to the Brits around, much to their bemusement.

Kurek-Evans obviously approaches her subject with humour if with very limited understanding. Incidentally, this book may be helpful for Britons going to Poland to understand how conservative Poland may be in terms of physical appearance and public behaviour. Kurek-Evans marvels at how in London people dress shabbily, as if in wartime, or in any odd manner they like (e.g. a hat with big feathers), and nobody shouts at them. She approves of this tolerance, which is what she deems the utter indifference of Londoners to other Londoners.* In fact, British "tolerance" and anti-racism is what she likes most about Britain, as well she might, being a foreigner living in Britain. For examples of British tolerance, she provides some highly embarrassing "Agony Aunt" letters that any Pole in 1980 would have thought fabricated by Soviet authorities to discredit the West.

This section makes me think rather uneasily about my November trip to Poland and how much I ought to spend on a new winter coat.

I would not recommend this book to any Pole who has come to the UK as a university student or who is taking a white collar job or belongs to any  profession that is likely to include people from across the social spectrum. Such preconceptions as Kurek-Evans offers are extremely socially limiting and may tempt the emigré to despise his new neighbours, sight unseen. (The section on British housekeeping--"An Englishman's Home is His Castle"--is particularly offensive when one rich seam of employment for migrants is housework. Most women are touchy about strangers' opinions of their housekeeping. Don't go there. Just don't.)

However, Kurek-Evans paints a sad and sympathetic picture of the plight of the Pole who comes to the UK to work at his trade, or to take a factory job, or merely to get by. Here the book is actually helpful. She provides good advice here for the poor Polish migrant, and this is the one part of the book that could help Britons see what the poor Poles go through when they are trying to find work in the UK (or London, anyway).

In conclusion, if you are British and you find this book in the local library and are feeling daring, you may enjoy (or not) seeing Britain (or London) through one Polish woman's eyes. However, if you are Polish and reading this post, you obviously have had an excellent liberal arts education and speak English fluently, and therefore will not find anything in Your British World  to help you navigate life in the UK. Instead, I direct your attention to acclaimed books by the English about the English. Watching the English  by Kate Fox was recommended to me by a Scot the other day.

Update: By the way, although the whole world honours Chopin, nobody gives a damn that the kerosene lamp was invented by a Pole. (Kurek-Evans is distressed that Ignacy Łukasiewicz is not mentioned under "kerosene lamp" in the Concise Oxford Dictionary.) Seriously. If you think it a crying shame that nobody knows about this accomplishment or that of your countrymen, you have a problem. Canadians can be seriously annoying when we seethe at being mistaken for Americans or when we need to inform you that Ryan Reynolds (or whatever movie star) is "a Canadian you know", but at least we don't expect anyone outside of Canada to know that a Canadian invented basketball. Meanwhile,  Canada has never produced a composer who can compare with Chopin. Try to be happy that any foreigner who has heard of him knows Chopin was Polish. (We all think Marie Curie was French.)

*As my daily experience attests, dressing in certain ways may certainly bring ire upon your head in poorer districts in Scotland.

1 comment:

  1. Naismith!!! <3 <3 <3 People still play basketball. It's better to brag about inventions people still use.

    Your "guide" to Britain kind of reminds of a "guide to Japan" seminar I attended. We were taught some Japanese phrases, manners, expectations. (Male) students who had already gone the previous year regaled us with stories of how much their hosts loved to drink, and how they all got so drunk together, and how they stayed up til 5 in the morning drinking most nights. I was worried that I could never participate properly in Japanese culture and would be a huge disappointment to everyone until I talked to a friend who had been stationed there. He told me that was insane and totally not the norm. I still brought lots of scotch and whiskey as host presents, because I heard they were more expensive there. The men said later they were surprised by how much alcohol I had brought (though they enjoyed drinking it... slowly over several days, without me needing to match them drink for drink). They also shared a few funny stories of other American (male) students who had missed morning appointments because they had partied so hard the night before.

    To be fair, Japanese sweet liquors are way way stronger than they taste, and young men are treated differently in terms of alcohol than young women. But I had to laugh at the "wisdom" of my guides, and was glad to have the "get ready to drink!" parts.