This story is drawn from the interview with Tomasz Wlodaraczyk by Eithne Nightingale as part of her research into child migration to East London.
I was born in 1968 in Lodz, a Polish equivalent of 19th century, industrial Manchester. The old town is pleasing, secessionist architecture.
Lodz Poland c.1970
The suburbs are communist brutalism.
Mother left when I was about seven or eight. I was quite young so I could move to different family members. They were given a 12-month sentence as I might not have been the best-behaved little boy.
My great grandmother was absolutely lovely. She was truly ancient, 90 something and had a lovely house just outside the city so it was gorgeous countryside. I had a good time there.
I lived with my father for a year or so because they were still together when my mother came here. They divorced when I was probably ten or something. He was a nice enough chap but liked the bottle a bit too much. I think that’s why they divorced. I have two half-sisters that I’ve never met and don’t even know their names.
I’m sure I missed my mother but kids are very resilient. You adapt to whatever situation you’re in. There were times I wasn’t particularly happy, but no kid ever is. Living with my aunt and my grandmother wasn’t much fun. I ended up bunking off school for about eight months
I got to know the city really well. I walked for long distances and with no one batting an eyelid. I would go to markets, trade bits and pieces, meet friends. Bizarrely for a kid who bunks off, I often sat under a tree to read.
I had access to forbidden books through my grandmother at the university. Academics had to have access to them for Marxist Leninist criticism. I read loads of trash but also good stuff. I was about nine when I read Catch 22 – quite inappropriate.
As I was moving around I got quite good at making friends quickly, but also dropping friends. That’s a habit I picked up. Quite a bad habit really.
The one school I really liked was quite strict but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You’re assigned a form tutor and he stays with you throughout. Mine was this kind of military, mathematics teacher and I really liked him. It gave me structure.
Everyone was aware of politics. We would make anti-Communist pamphlets to give out at school. It was a patriotic duty to disrupt Russian language lessons but I wish my Russian was better these days. I remember a favourite history teacher who taught us about Katyn, where the Russians murdered 20,000 Polish officers at the beginning of WW11.
We never saw her again. It was political but I don’t think she’s pushing up the daisies anywhere. Poland wasn’t as repressive as other Eastern Bloc regimes.
We’re naturally a libertarian nation so the whole Communism project never sat easily.
I don’t think you would call my family particularly politicised. They just did little acts of resistance. My grandmother ran the cafeteria at Lodz University and a massive meat franchise at a time of meat shortages. She was in charge of distributing it and made sure party members were slightly less privileged than others.
It was a time of Solidarity and Lech Walesa.
It was not like Dansk where it all kicked off but we were the second biggest city so there was a lot of activity and demonstrations. I don’t think anyone got shot which happened in other places. People just used to get truncheoned, arrested, beaten up in backs of cars, disappear. You interacted with others aware of where they stood. I got truncheoned when I was about 11. They were ghastly, miserable times really.
I was in the Scouts which was fun. Polish Scouts is a bit different. They have a history fighting the Nazis so you had to join. You would set up camps, do a bit of military training probably considered quite unsavoury these days. I loved it.
We were quite a secular family which is unusual for Poland but Easter can be quite fun. There’s lots of egg painting and they made this basket full of painted eggs to take to church to be blessed.
My mother would come every so often and I would visit here. I came over three or four times before settling down. I flew a few times. Twice I came on a ship, once on a cruise ship and once on a cargo ship. That was kind of cool. I think I was 13 or something when I came. It just didn’t seem that big a move. It just seemed natural to step into a new life.
My mother was a manual worker. There was this big warehouse in Wapping where they would collect old clothes and send to different parts of the world, an early version of recycling. It was primarily black market because there were so many things we were not allowed. You can make quite a good living taking jeans to Moscow and coming back with diamonds. It wasn’t something she did all the time but it certainly helped.
My mother married my stepfather, a Czech. We lived in a totally derelict, three storey, building on Wapping High Street with a view of the Thames and the Tower Bridge. It was great fun. I really liked my stepfather and, my mum too but I wasn’t very good at taking direction so there was a bit of conflict but not too much. They did allow me to do whatever I felt necessary.
My school was quite a long way so I had to get to Poplar from Wapping on buses so that gave me freedom. You could hang round with lots of friends. Poplar was slightly different in those days. It was Cockney, very working class and I loved it. It was very much cockles and mussels. It was quite ugly ‘cause it, got bombed to hell. They put up vile blocks of flats everywhere.
In Ealing there were huge Polish communities from the war and a public school that gave bursaries for Polish kids. I was offered one but for me personally, a comprehensive in Poplar was much better than a public school in West London. If you stay in your own culture then you never become part of the mainstream.
I went to a very good Catholic school, Philip Howard in Poplar, run by a Dutch headmistress. The teachers were fun and education standards were quite good. It was a well-structured school.
In Poland, I took some English lessons but the chap that taught me was a WW11 RAF pilot and I picked up his accent that was like something out of a WW11 movie. When I first arrived in this working class area I had hardly any vocabulary, my grammar wasn’t good but I sounded posh. I had about eight fights within a fortnight. I had moved schools enough to know you stand your ground, blood a couple of noses and then everyone leaves you alone. I almost got expelled.
Because my English wasn’t good I got sent to a language centre near Brick Lane and there was quite a few Bangladeshis there. They were a very tight group and weren’t always polite. If I had not been able to turn the mean gene on at will, I would have had a horrendous time.
I took O-Levels but because my English wasn’t very good they weren’t brilliant. I took time out, bummed around, odd job here and there. I remember clearing market stalls, worked in a pub, had a job for BT in Holborn in an IT department.
I’ve been independent from a very young age so I moved out to Poplar the day after my 16th birthday. Four of us from the same class in school ended up having an apartment in an abandoned tower block. We weren’t paying rent but it was derelict so no one really bothered. We put locks on, contacted an electricity board. It was fine, a good community. We had beds, an occasional chair and lots of beanbags. I didn’t actually tell my parents where I was living. [Laughs] I didn’t want them to worry
I did get knifed quite badly but that wasn’t because of the building. One night this bunch of guys started chasing us. I think it was racially motivated as they were black. We were running down the middle intersection of the motorway across the Blackwall Tunnel approach from Poplar. I saw a piece of wood and I stupidly picked it up.
I didn’t actually know I was knifed until a couple of my friends managed to chase them and they went “you’re bleeding like a pig.” I went to pubs where music was playing. I didn’t really go to cinema. It was days of videos so groups of us would lock ourselves in a room and watch Kung Fu movies. Chasing girls is just what teenagers do. I had a girlfriend from an Italian background. There were quite a few Italians around.
I did A-Levels in different places – City and Jubilee and Kingsway Princeton Colleges and went on to university. I was like 20. I went to Reading for Modern European Literature and Philosophy, a degree designed to be able to bullshit at dinner parties. I can bullshit for England. I decided to do a PGCE, which I hated, volunteered for Friends of the Earth and got the job as fundraiser within the week. I was there for about two years before I moved to be a Director of Strategy for Dignity in Dying.
The first time I went back to Poland was with Alison, 20 years down the line. I went to Krakow, which was nice. I’m not into keeping in touch. The only family member I was close to was my great grandmother who died. My relationship with my family was a bit complicated. I think they got paid by my mother to look after me,
I like visiting Poland because it’s good to try and speak the lingo. My Polish is atrocious. I’ve got a foreign accent in whichever language I speak. Me and my parents speak “Poleglish” — whichever word comes to mind first. I have a fondness for good vodka, so that’s a Polish thing and I’ve always been a great fan of steak tartar. Here people think it’s dreadfully posh but it’s not. I really missed that when I came over.
I started making stained glass as a hobby and when the time came to leave Dignity in Dying I had a go at making this as a living. Certainly my designs are quite Polish. It’s kind of in there. Poland had a very strong Bauhaus before Bauhaus existed.
If I had to have an identity I would say English rather than British. Britishness is a very vague concept. I suppose my identity came from Poplar, East End. There are very few of us left [laughs]. I feel I am a cockney or an East Ender though I don’t sound it. It must sound strange from a foreigner, doesn’t it?