How strangely things sometimes work out. In the surreal days of the Coronavirus lockdown, I continued and expanded a self-appointed role as picker-up of litter. Beer cans, old pizza boxes, wrappers of chocolate bars—it’s mostly youthful litter. The earnest local campaigner who told me, “Today’s young care so much more about the environment; they are quite different from older people”, is simply wrong. Old ladies don’t crush beer cans in half, or eat pizza in the street and discard the crusts.
The young are often genuinely puzzled when they see me picking up litter “Why are you doing that? They pay people to do it”. “They” are the public authorities. When I ran after a young man to say “Excuse me, you dropped this” after he had dropped a pizza box at my feet, he was genuinely puzzled, responding, “I don’t want it”. The thought that it might be odd or wrong to throw it down had not occurred to him. The box was half-full: he belongs to a generation, which often chucks food it doesn’t want, with no thought of taking it home to eat later. Memories of World War II rationing are long gone, of course, but there is also the fact that hardship and lack of food is rare for anyone under thirty.
My big plastic bag was soon bulging, and my rubber gloves were uncomfortable; I stood to peel them off and to head homewards. That was when I got chatting to a polite young man who called out his thanks for my efforts to clean the place up a bit. His accent identified him as Polish, so I greeted him in that language—my greeting being about the limit of my knowledge, as I hurriedly went on to explain in English.
After some general chat about litter, the lockdown, and London, we got talking about Poland. He asked me why I seemed to know Kraków and Warsaw quite well. I told him that I had visited several times, and then, in a sudden now-it-can-be-told moment, I explained that, in the Communist era, some of us in Britain and elsewhere wanted to try to help, so we took in useful items (I remember in particular supplies for printing an underground newsletter) and literature for the then-illegal Solidarity movement. I added that lots of people in the West wanted to help; I had two friends who launched charity taking food into Poland.
There was a sudden silence as he looked at me. “My father was in prison at that time, because he was very active with Solidarity and was arrested,” he said. “I would have gone hungry, but I was given food that I knew came from the West.”
And the years rolled back and I felt old. I’ve been back to Poland many times since, but that first visit long ago stays in the memory. Shabby shops and heavily polluted air, an unforgettable Mass at Jasna Gora, deep conversations, and kind hospitality from the people to whom we were delivering the materials and books. Among the latter were copies of Paul Johnson’s History of the Modern World in Polish, which had been specially requested and was being taken in by people like us in suitcases crammed with paperback copies.
My new Polish friend knew that there had been helpers from the West but hadn’t met any. I knew there were children with parents in prison but never met any. Now we were standing on a suburban street corner in an over-littered London street and he was giving me his views on modern Poland, and whether anyone in Britain really understood Poland’s complex and often tragic history.
And his generation of young Poles are also giving British people a new perspective on our own history. I had known about the Polish squadrons in the Royal Air Force who had fought with such courage and skill in the Battle of Britain. Now they are mentioned much more frequently when any TV documentary of serious feature on the Battle is presented. The story of the postwar exiles—Poles who had fought at Monte Cassino, or in the streets of Warsaw in the 1944 Uprising—is also becoming better known, and the Catholic parishes they established thrive anew with today’s young Poles coming here to work and settling.
There’s a bleakness in the story. While many young Poles attend Mass regularly, many others don’t. Some are cynical about the Church or simply disagree with the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage. And the post-Communist era, now in its third decade, has produced its own confused legacy and its own projections on to history, complete with urban myths and conspiracy theories.
Some years after the collapse of Communism, a number of us who had been travelers into Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe and the USSR gathered to remember and share stories—stories we hadn’t told in detail at the time for obvious reasons. How strange it felt to realize that this person or that had been involved on a scale I hadn’t known. And yet how ordinary. Of course, we had all wanted to help and had done so. And the stories were somehow quite ordinary too: no heroic deeds, just Cold War traveling as comfortable Westerners with luggage to share. No one made any grand speeches, but some one said, “Well, each of us can at least say that we helped to shorten the Cold War by 00000000000.1 of a second.”
All of a piece, perhaps, with the absurdity of collecting litter in a coronavirus lockdown in an ordinary London suburb.
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