January 5, 2017


Britain's genius is its ability to integrate newcomers (Bagehot, Jan. 10th, 2017, The Economist)

Accompany Bagehot to Ely, a cathedral city sprouting from the prairies of eastern England, where thousands of central and eastern Europeans have moved to pick vegetables for low wages--and where many have settled. Your columnist visited on December 23rd to witness the segregation. What better litmus test than Christmas, with its many national variations?

Sure enough, the local Poles' traditions were widely evident. In a shop named "White & Red", green-grey carp glistened in ice boxes; shelves groaned with pierogi (dumplings) and bottles of bison-grass vodka; piles of sachets variously containing hay and communion wafers teetered by the till. Gosia Bates and Joanna Bialas, two locals, explained that each ingredient features in the Wigilia, or Christmas Eve, meal. This involves hay scattered on the floor (to evoke the nativity), wafers broken before the meal and 12 dishes including carp, herring, pierogi, mushrooms, beetroot soup and poppy-seed cake. No meat or alcohol is taken, so the vodka comes out at midnight. The steady traffic of local Poles in the shop spoke to the strength of this foreign culture. "Every year my uncle sends me this from Silesia, for good financial luck," said Mrs Bates, producing a shiny carp scale from her purse.

Below the surface, however, something else is happening. Britons also shop at "White & Red", lured by the garlicky sausage and crusty bread. And Poles are picking up British habits like eating turkey and watching the queen's Christmas speech. Those who, like Mrs Bates, have British partners are leading the fusion: her Anglo-Polish son receives British chocolate from the Polish St Nicholas on December 6th; her Christmas tree is decorated towards the start of the month (the British way) but will stay up well into January (the Polish way); her son receives half of his presents on December 24th (Polish) and half on the 25th (British). She serves turkey on Christmas Day, as is typical in Britain, but also leaves a chair empty--a Polish tradition respecting strangers. When relatives visit she cooks an English breakfast, which they love (apart from the baked beans). She enjoys crackers but feels "a bit silly with a paper hat on my head". Ms Bialas plans to create a similar mix of cultures for her baby, due in 2017.

Without oaths, integration classes or other forms of state do-goodery, central European cultures in Britain are melding with local ones. Children are leading the way. Right after the Brexit vote teachers in Ely had to sooth not just upset Polish pupils but also British ones who fretted about losing their pals. Ms Bialas describes school pick-up time, when Polish and British parents tend to stick to their own, but children pour out in a multinational muddle. Ask the Polish ones which football teams they support, she says, and they often name two: one Polish and one British. Some have become so British that they now struggle in their native tongue, getting A* grades in maths but Ds in Polish written exams. This even extends to the liturgy. Mariusz Urbanowski, a local Polish priest, says he mixes the two languages in his festive services, to cater for different generations of Anglo-Poles.

Szczesliwego New Year!

Such is the Britain forgotten by the gloomsters. Fully 82% of its citizens socialise at least monthly with people from different ethnic or religious backgrounds; from 2003 to 2016 the proportion calling their vicinity "cohesive" rose from 80% to 89%; over half of first-generation migrants have friends of a different ethnicity (among their kids the proportion is nearer three-quarters); numbers of inter-ethnic marriages and households are rising; educational and employment gaps are shrinking. The proportion of British-Pakistani households using English as their main language rose from 15% to 45% in the 13 years to 2010.

Posted by at January 5, 2017 11:11 PM


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