E. M. Forster’s London

“To speak against London is no longer fashionable. The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. One can understand the reaction. Of Pan and the elemental forces, the public has heard a ‘little too much–they seem Victorian, while London is Georgian–and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again. Certainly London fascinates. One visualises it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything; Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men. A friend explains himself; the earth is explicable–from her we came, and we must return to her.”

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“But who can explain Westminster Bridge Road or Liverpool Street in the morning–the city inhaling–or the same thoroughfares in the evening–the city exhaling her exhausted air? We reach in desperation beyond the fog, beyond the very stars, the voids of the universe are ransacked to justify the monster, and stamped with a human face. London is religion’s opportunity–not the decorous religion of theologians, but anthropomorphic, crude. Yes, the continuous flow would be tolerable if a man of our own sort–not any one pompous or tearful–were caring for us up in the sky.”

E.M. Forster – Howards End (1910)

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Elsewhere: A Journal of Place

 

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding

 

I missed the first three editions of Elsewhere but, on the strength of this the fourth issue, I’m looking forward to delving back into each of them.

Elsewhere’s strap line is ‘a journal of place’, a very apt description of its contents. Edition 04, published in September 2016, delivers up writings on London, Wales, Madeira, Prague, Hawaii and a several other global locations. The pieces on offer are highly disparate, but all are unified by their adherence to a common theme: maps. What is the significance of maps and how are they created? What is it that they tell us about the places featured and what questions do they raise about the people who live there? These are the questions addressed in this edition.

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Elsewhere is edited by Paul Scraton, an Englishman living in Berlin. There is no better place, perhaps, than the German capital in which to base a journal that embraces a global sense of place. Berlin, by consequence of its unique location and history, is not just a European crossroads but a world city: a cosmopolitan sorting house of connections.

I was brought up in Wales and many of my childhood holidays were spent in Anglesey, so Scraton’s essay reflecting on a return visit to Rhoscolyn, where he spent several summers as a child, was of particular interest to me.

American cartographer Jake Coolidge argues that maps shape our perception of place with such power that their authority is rarely questioned. But they are drawn by humans and are inevitably subject to the fixed assumptions and biases of their creators. This subjectivity is hard to avoid, but Coolidge encourages those using maps to at least approach the task with this knowledge in mind.

Daniel Reeve, on the other hand, consciously makes no effort to achieve the chimera that is objective reality. Reeve is a New Zealander and produces antique-style maps of imaginary places. The maps he created for the Lord of the Rings film trilogy and The Hobbit are amongst his best-known works.

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Jeanette Farrell is an Irish writer living in South London who seems to delight in shining a light onto some of the forgotten corners of her adopted city. She writes about Ormside Street in Bermondsey and admits that ‘this packet of South London is spectacularly grey’. But a closer examination on foot leads her to conclude that the area is a ‘clandestine wonder’.

Stephen Glennon writes about a place that one might describe as a clandestine country. The Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic is a self-declared independent nation squeezed into a slice of formerly Moldovan land between the Dniester River and the Ukraine. It is a state with no international recognition, but on a visit to its capital, Tiraspol, on Independence Day Glennon discovers a firm sense of national identity. His piece is accompanied by some striking images by the Italian photographer, Chiara Dazi.

Elsewhere is a journal that is about far more than just words. Our sense of place, our perception of the locations we visit, is rooted in all of our physical and cognitive senses. It is fitting, therefore, that Elsewhere is effectively brought to life by the work of its Creative Director and illustrator, Julia Stone. Stone’s illustrations do more than give the journal its unifying identity, though they happen to do that very effectively. Her key creative input is to pair each article with original images that add to its meaning.

The very word Elsewhere encompasses multiple layers of meaning. Many of the journal’s contributors write about an ‘elsewhere’ that they have visited. Others are exiles and, for them, ‘elsewhere’ has become their new home. Just as interesting, however, are the pieces provided by writers returning to a place they once knew, such as Paul Scraton’s essays on Rhoscolyn and Prague. In doing so he sees a once familiar place with a fresh pair of eyes. It is as if in going back somewhere we suddenly find it has become elsewhere.

 

You can buy your copy of Elsewhere here

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The House: The Poetics of Space

A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability.  We are constantly re-imagining its reality: to distinguish all these images would be to describe the soul of the house; it would mean developing a veritable psychology of the house.

To bring order into these images, I believe that we should consider two principal connecting themes:

  1. A house is imagined as a vertical being. It rises upward. It differentiates itself in terms of its verticality. It is one of the appeals to our consciousness of verticality.
  2. A house is imagined as a concentrated being. It appeals to our consciousness of centrality.1411799121938

 

These themes are no doubt very abstractly stated. But with examples, it is not hard to recognize their psychologically concrete nature.

Verticality is ensured by the polarity of cellar and attic, the marks of which are so deep that, in a way, they open up two very different perspectives for a phenomenology of the imagination. Indeed, it is possible, almost without commentary, to oppose the rationality of the roof to the irrationality of the cellar. A roof tells its raison d’etre right away: it gives mankind shelter from the rain and sun he fears. Geographers are constantly reminding us that, in every country, the slope of the roofs is one of the surest indications of the climate. We “understand” the slant of a roof. Even a dreamer dreams rationally; for him, a pointed roof averts rain clouds. Up near the roof all our thoughts are clear. In the attic it is a pleasure to see the bare rafters of the strong framework. Here we participate in the carpenter’s solid geometry.

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As for the cellar, we shall no doubt find uses for it. It will be rationalized and its conveniences enumerated. But it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces. When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths.

 

Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1958)

Edition quoted from: Penguin Classics, London, 2014

Translation: Maria Jolas

Cover illustration: Nick Misani

 

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Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London by Lauren Elkin

The flâneuse does exist, whenever we have deviated from the paths laid out for us, lighting out for our own territories.

ncs_modified20160728091228maxw640maxh427ar-160729175Lauren Elkin is well-qualified to write this book, not only has she lived in Paris, London, New York, Tokyo and Venice, but she has walked the city streets of all of them. If the female manifestation of Baudelaire’s flâneur really does exist, and Elkin contends that she does, then the writer herself is a personification of the idea.

Elkin is an American cultural critic and is currently an academic at the University of Liverpool. Her book is an exhilarating conflation of her personal journey and her wanderings blended with a wider reflection on the female experience of the modern city. In doing so she invokes the works of a host of female writers, including Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Mavis Gallant, Martha Gellhorn and Doris Lessing and, with a refreshingly light touch, she draws on the works of academics such as Griselda Pollock and Homi Bhabha.

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Walking is mapping with your feet. It helps you piece a city together, connecting up neighbourhoods that might otherwise have remained discrete entities, different planets bound to each other, sustained yet remote.

Baudelaire’s flâneur, of course, was invariably male. He had leisure time and displayed a somewhat detached attitude, being characterised by his creator as a dandy or dilettante. The flâneur, therefore, was a device that examined the city through exclusively male eyes. Chris Jenks, in his Visual Culture, refers to an ‘imbalance of ocular practice’ in nineteenth-century writing whereby ‘women do not look, they are looked at’. Until the rise of modernism there was little or no literary depiction of urban street-life from a female viewpoint. Until the early twentieth-century and writers like Woolf, Elkin seems to suggest, the flâneuse was invisible and her narrative was silent.

Women have always featured in the street-life of the city, but these were almost exclusively working-class women going about their work and, in a society dominated by wealthy men, their voices went largely unheard. Women were excluded from the literary streetscape of the nineteenth-century city; only those women whose sexuality could be commodified attracted the attention of male writers.

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Unwanted attention: American woman in Florence, 1951. Ruth Orkin, Orkin/Engel film and photo archive

Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Djuna Barnes and other female modernist writers broke new ground by presenting female characters who were free to move through, to gaze at and to explore the streets of the city. The early twentieth-century was a time of rapidly expanding horizons for women, or at least for middle-class women. They moved from the drawing room to the thoroughfares of the city and, soon, fiction began to reflect this development. The change encompassed expanding opportunities in work and leisure activities and included everything from transport, shopping, and fashion to employment, education, and politics.

Elkin takes issue with those commentators who suggest that the word flâneuse is meaningless because flânerie, by its very nature, is an exclusively male occupation. It’s true that this was the case in the time of Baudelaire and with the leisured wanderers of the arcades of nineteenth-century Paris. But Elkin offers ample evidence to suggest that the flâneuse was alive, well and walking in twentieth-century London, Paris, Tokyo and New York.

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A woman strolls past the Trocadero and Eiffel Tower in 1920s Paris, H Armstrong-Roberts Classicstock/Getty Images

Lauren Elkin suggests that flânerie, in its guise of psychogeography, has become something of a male club in recent years. More specifically middle-aged British men, Will Self concedes, each of them to a man Gore-Tex clad and prostate-swollen. But women walkers are still there she argues, citing Laura Oldfield Ford as a contemporary London example. But perhaps it is the case that the flâneuse does not shout about it as loudly as her male counterpart. Women city wanderers, Elkin contends, still feel themselves to be the object of the male gaze and their bodies subjected to sexual commodification:

And it’s the centre of cities where women have been empowered, by plunging into the heart of them, and walking where they’re not meant to. Walking where other people (men) walk without eliciting comment. That is the transgressive act. You don’t need to crunch around in Gore-Tex to be subversive, if you’re a woman. Just walk out your front door.

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An Unreliable Guide to London

This is a guide to a city you never knew existed, right on your doorstep.  Blink and you’ll miss it.

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We live in London.  We come from Monserrat and Mexico, India and New Zealand, Horley and Hastings, but this is 2016 and we are all Londoners now.  We live in the parts of the city other guidebooks do not reach: in Willesden, Hanwell and Colliers Wood.  We write about the places that are unloved and ill-served.

We travel from Dalston to Staples Corner on the 266.  We search for optical illusions on Islington street corners and discover that London’s ‘scars are worn inside’.

Mrs Dalloway goes to Mulberry’s to buy flowers and Katherine Mansfield’s Rosemary browses for antiques in Curzon Street.  We, on the other hand, shop at Curry’s and PC World, and in doing so discover that both shops are one and the same.

We are the writers of whom some will claim they’ve never heard.  Perhaps we do not even exist.  But we map this city with our words and fill its spaces with our breath.  We are London.

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About the book

An Unreliable Guide to London brings together 23 stories about the lesser known parts of a world renowned city. Stories that stretch the reader’s definition of the truth and question reality. Stories of wind nymphs in South Clapham tube station, the horse sized swan at Brentford Ait, sleeping clinics in Islington and celebrations for St Margaret’s Day of the Dead.

An Unreliable Guide to London is the perfect summer read for city dwellers up and down the country. With a list of contributors reflecting the multi-layered, complex social structures of the city, it is the guide to London, showing you everything that you never knew existed.

Authors: 

M John Harrison; Chloe Aridjis; Yvvette Edwards; Courttia Newland; Will Wiles; Noo Saro-Wiwa; Nikesh Shukla; Juliet Jacques; Salena Godden; Stephen Thompson; Irenosen Okojie; Sunny Singh; Paul Ewen; Tim Burrows; George F.; Gareth E. Rees; Aki Schilz; Tim Wells; Koye Oyedeji; Eley Williams; Stephanie Victoire

Buy From:

Influx Press here

Or any good local bookshop

 

 

 

 

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T.S. Eliot and the Flâneur

 

Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …

 

Tom Eliot was not a flâneur, or at least not in the sense that he was an idle wanderer and observer of the city streets. But he used the device of the flâneur in his poetry, particularly in The Waste Land and Prufrock. The London he wrote about was the one he observed as he walked to and from the office, before and after each day’s work. Eliot was consciously not an idler, but prided himself on being a producer of wealth at the heart of London’s financial core. Nonetheless, ‘outside of hours he was a poet. And watching, witnessing, writing about the crowd, he was a poet’.[1] Whether consciously or unconsciously, Eliot gave the nineteenth-century flâneur-observer ideas of Baudelaire a modernist psychological interpretation in works such as Prufrock. In his poetry, he fuses the realistic with the phantasmagoric and the everyday with the fantastic.

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent

 

For Eliot London was not just any city but the supreme city of the modern age; the heart of a great but decaying empire and still the world’s commercial and financial capital. He settled in London in 1917 having found both his home city of St Louis and his almae matres of Harvard and Oxford far too provincial for his tastes.

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London fired Eliot’s imagination. But, when we read The Waste Land, we do not see a world illumined by light but one of fire-revealed darkness:

  Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

 

When Eliot arrived in London he discovered a city ground down by war and with many of the best of its younger generation already sacrificed on the battlefields of France and Belgium. He found a London that was indeed the cultured, urbane society he had longed to embrace while still a young man in Missouri, but at the same time he sensed a rising tide of something that was spiritually and morally degenerate.

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The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is the centrepiece of Eliot’s first collection of London poems and in Prufrock we see his proto-flâneur. He is a wanderer of the city’s night-time streets and an observer of the denizens of its darker reaches. Prufrock, perhaps like his creator, is at once bold and also reticent and he invites us to join him in his nocturnal wanderings:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,

 

But he is torn between the drawing room with its ‘porcelain, among some talk of you and me’ and the grimy city streets of the city where he yearns for ‘the yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes’.   The genteel world indoors represents conventionality and respectability whereas the streets suggest something freer, darker and a whisper of sexual possibility.

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In Portrait of a Lady, another poem in the Prufrock collection, the narrator takes tea with his would-be lover, conjuring up a vision of bourgeois respectability, but he longs all the while to take her out with him into the streets; for the two of them to share all that the shaded underbelly of the city represents:

— Let us take the air, in a tobacco trance,
Admire the monuments,
Discuss the late events,
Correct our watches by the public clocks.
Then sit for half an hour and drink our bocks.

 

In the same year that Eliot brought out Prufrock he also published a prose piece in the Little Review titled Eeldrop and Appleplex – I. The essay centres on an imaginary conversation between the two protagonists of the title, characters whom one suspects are thinly disguised versions of Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound.

Eeldrop and Appleplex’s conversation ranges over their mutual interest in experiencing the more visceral aspects of the city. The only meaningful point of contact, or moment of shared understanding, between the human psyche and the modern city is in the steady, sustained gaze of the flâneur. We cannot inhabit a city, Eeldrop suggests, but through our spectatorship we can bear witness to it. More than that, he suggests, the actions of the flâneur allow us to decode the city.

By the time he published The Waste Land in 1922 Eliot’s modernist conception of the city was fully formed. In this work he abandons any pretence of presenting a temporal sequence of events and instead lays before us an array of images linked only by their spatial form. These images do not follow on one from the other, rather they are arranged one next to the other in a seemingly random manner.

This sequence of images, Eliot seems to suggest, is analogous to our experience of the modern city.  We cannot comprehend the city as a whole.  Like the flâneur, we can only experience the city as the handful of images at which we gaze.  At best we can attempt to piece together a puzzle that can never be completed.

And this new character living in a modern metropolitan time and place seemed to demand new techniques. The job of the ‘modernist’ artist was not to represent the modern panorama but to render the shifting internal lie of an individual consciousness, to present the spasmodic, the obscure the fragmentary, the failure.[2]

 

[1] Peter Brooker, Modernity and Metropolis: Writing, Film and Urban Formations (Basingstoke and New York, Palgrave, 2002) p. 25

[2] ibid. p. 52

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The Ladies of Llangollen

Wordsworth knew them, the first time he met the ladies was in the garden at Plas Newydd.  Their maid showed him through the house and out into the garden where he found them standing arm-in-arm before a luxuriant spread of wisteria which had cloaked itself over a wall in the kitchen garden.  Sitting at his desk years later he could still see them, albeit through the lens of memory.  It must have been May or June, he recalled, for the wisteria was in full flower; and such flowers, a profusion of open, wanton blooms.  Each flower quivered gently in the breeze as if anticipating  the caress of a lover, and to the sound of sweet buzzing endearments, each bloom’s pollen is swiftly taken leaving her alone and bereft.

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As one the ladies turned to face him and he noticed that tears filled both pairs of eyes, though the face of each had opened into a welcoming smile upon seeing him.  We are so pleased that you came Mr Wordsworth, are we not Sarah?  We are indeed, Eleanor, we are indeed.

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They showed him around the garden explaining how they had transformed it from a place of wild rockiness into one of floral profusion and, flushing with excitement, they shared their ideas for the work that still needed to be done.  Eleanor and Sarah spoke in the manner of a musical duet, delighting in the contributions of the other but constantly clamouring to take the lead.  Eleanor was tall and slim, Sarah shorter in height and broader of figure.  Both had a soft Irish lilt to their words that gave a Celtic musicality to even the Latin names of their plants.

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img_0548Their walk took them to a stream.  Were they still in the garden, or had they strayed beyond its boundaries?  Wordsworth was not sure, he made to speak and then realised that the ladies were silent and had been so for some seconds.  They had reached a glade amongst the trees and stood before a glassy pool.  Silently, so it felt, they were imploring him to stand, to look and to meditate upon air, water, rock and plant.

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Such love: Wordsworth stayed with the ladies of Plas Newydd for several days and, though the word was never mentioned, that would be far too vulgar an affectation, he felt that love pervaded everything about that place.  Afterwards he wrote about their meeting in a sonnet:

A stream to mingle with your favourite Dee,

Along the vale of meditation flows;

So styled by those fierce Britons, pleased to see

In Nature’s face the expression of repose;

Or haply there some pious hermit chose

To live and die, the peace of heaven his aim;

To whom the wild sequestered region owes

At this late day, its sanctifying name.

Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,

In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let ‘this’ spot

Be named; where, faithful to a low-roofed Cot,

On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long;

Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,

Even on this earth, above the reach of Time!

 

To The Lady E.B. And The Hon. Miss P, William Wordsworth

 

The phrase ‘sisters in love’ particularly pleased the ladies, though they took exception to their home being described as a ‘low-roofed cot’.  They chided him about this on his next visit.  Though, with a soft brush of the hand along his arm by one lady and a shining-eyed smile by the other.

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The Buried Giant

The rocks they had discussed from below now loomed before them and Axl could see, as they came ever nearer, how they were arranged in a rough semi-circle around the top of a mound to the side of their path.

Buried Giant 7Buried Giant 10Buried Giant 4Buried Giant 5Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is always possible the giant’s cairn was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war.

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Buried Giant 6Buried Giant 8Buried Giant 9This aside, it is not easy to think of reasons for its standing.  One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate a victory or a king.  But why stack heavy stones to above a man’s height in so high and remote a place as this?

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant

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Words: Kazuo Ishiguro

Images: Grimspound and Broad Barrow, Devon and Humbleton Hill Fort, Northumberland by Bobby Seal

 

 

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The Polish Embassy

It’s very easy to walk straight past the Polish Embassy in Wrexham without noticing it.  It’s a narrow, understated and not particularly distinguished building on the town’s High Street.  It also happens to be pub called the Royal Oak.

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The earliest record of a pub by that name on this site dates from 1780, though the present building was completed in 1913 and replaced the original timber-framed structure.  In terms of architectural style I would describe it as Elizabethan-pastiche: pointed gable, leaded windows and a black and white-timbered façade.  The Royal Oak’s connection with Poland dates back to the Second World War.  Units of the Free Polish Army were stationed in the Wrexham area, and the pub became a favourite watering hole of the exiles.  Since that time it has been known locally as the Polish Embassy.

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A number of Polish soldiers previously based in Wrexham expressed a reluctance to return their homeland after the war because of the Soviet occupation and many of them chose to settle in the area.  This population was added to in 1946 when the Polish Army Medical Corps, who were based in Italy, decided en masse that they did not wish to return to their native country.  Several hundred Polish service personnel and their families were, therefore, relocated to a former US Army hospital site at Penley, just outside Wrexham.

Before the Polish servicemen began to use the Royal Oak it was the haunt of American soldiers from the 33rd Signals Construction Battalion and 400th Armoured Field Artillery Battalion who were billeted at Acton Park.  The US Army, to its shame, was racially segregated at this time and the Royal Oak was one of the few Wrexham pubs African-American soldiers were free to attend.  The US Army left Wrexham in 1944 shortly after D-Day.  It was around this time that the Royal Oak’s connection with Wrexham’s Polish community began.

Polish War Memorial, Wrexham

Polish War Memorial, Wrexham

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Royal Oak today is a very pleasant pub with a jukebox, open fire, a host of CAMRA-approved real ales and, weirdly, an enormous stuffed antelope head on the chimney breast.

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What there doesn’t seem to be, however, is any reminder of the pub’s once intimate connection with the town’s Polish population.  The Polish hospital at Penley no longer exists either having finally closed its doors in 2002.

Wrexham had a thriving Polish community throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the Royal Oak, by all accounts, maintained its Polish connection throughout this period.  In subsequent decades, however, Wrexham’s Polish community began to lose its unique identity as the wartime generation died off and their children and grandchildren were steadily assimilated into the local population.

Things changed, however, in 2004 when Poland and a number of other new countries acceded to the European Union.  Wrexham’s economy was booming during this time with an unemployment rate well below the UK average and a plethora of manufacturing jobs in the area.  As a result a steady stream of workers from Eastern Europe and Portugal were attracted to the town.  Wrexham’s Polish community has been rejuvenated and is estimated to form upwards of five per cent of the town’s population.

Wrexham now has several Polish supermarkets, most of the town’s pubs and off-licences stock Polish beers and the Polish language is now vying with Welsh and Portuguese to be the second most widely-spoken tongue in the area.

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But, in concrete terms, there is very little to connect the current Polish community with the wartime generation.  On several visits to the Royal Oak, obviously just for the purposes of research, I never heard an Eastern European accent: the Polish Embassy is still waiting for a new generation to reclaim its heritage.

 

With full acknowledgement and grateful thanks to Zosia and Jurek Beigus’s excellent book Polish Resettlement Camps in England and Wales, 1946-1969 (2013)

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Permanence and Impermanence: Auggie’s Pictures

This gallery contains 2 photos.

They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one.  You’ve got your bright mornings; your fog mornings; you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light; you’ve got your week days and your weekends; you’ve got … Continue reading

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