It’s time to polish up your Polish

By Simon Round, February 11, 2013

So now we know for sure what many of us have suspected for a long time - that there is an awful lot of Polish people in this country.

Polish is now the second most commonly spoken language in the UK, if you disregard Welsh, which so many are inclined to do. According to the 2011 census, there are 546,000 people who speak Polish as their first language. It's fair to assume that most are actually Polish, which means that for the first time since the Jews left the shtetl to settle in the UK, we are once again outnumbered by Poles.

And not just Poles. There are also 85,000 Lithuanians living in this country, five of whom used to live next door to me. My ancestors fled the Vilnius area in an attempt to escape persecution and, 100 years later, I found that the great-grandchildren of those who may have persecuted my great-grandparents were now living next door to me in North London.

The Lithuanian neighbours were superficially friendly (although at no point was I confident enough to tell them of our shared heritage) but I soon began to understand why my ancestors might have felt the need to leave very quickly with whatever they could fit on to the back to their cart.

Their taste in music was absolutely atrocious. One hot summer we were forced to listen to monstrosities including a Russian version of Save Your Kisses For Me. And there were many other appalling songs. Imagine Sir Cliff Richard singing his greatest hits in Lithuanian… well, it was not quite as bad as that but it was pretty hard to take, particularly when they parked their speakers under their gazebo and turned up the volume to a level that most courts would consider antisemitic.

I never told them of our shared heritage

There were also the barbecues. I did not have any particular objection to the char-grilling of cheap burgers and sausages but, while waiting for the food to cook, the neighbours would entertain themselves with long games of badminton. Every now and then a shuttlecock would sail over the fence, quickly followed by one of the neighbours. I experienced an atavistically visceral reaction whenever I glanced out of the kitchen window to see a 16-stone Lithuanian thrashing around in the shrubbery.

Having the Lithuanians next door was also slightly off-putting from another point of view. I had always taken comfort in the fact that, while the Jews had suffered persecution in Eastern Europe, we had prospered in this country while our former tormentors had atrophied under the dead hand of Soviet communism. Yet now, here they were living next door to me - and they had a shiny new BMW while I could only run to a Vauxhall Astra.

However, I have to admit that the migration of Poles and other Eastern Europeans has, on reflection been positive. Superior quality pickled cucumbers are now to be found more or less on every high street, the nation's cisterns are flushing more reliably now than at any time in post-war history and, the clincher is this: when racists complain about the invasion of foreigners from Eastern Europe, they are by and large no longer referring to us.

Last updated: 10:45am, February 11 2013