An extended interview with the founder of the POLES IN THE UK project
An extended interview with the founder of the POLES IN THE UK project
IMAGE > POLES IN THE UK project founder Brin Best (centre), with co-author Maria Helena Zukowska (right) and British Polonia Foundation trustee Anna Collins (left).
As the formal work of the POLES IN THE UK project will soon come to an end, we invited the founder, Brin Best, to tell us about the project he has led for the last three years.
Tell us a little about yourself and your career
“I’m an educational consultant, trainer and writer, and I also teach English in one to one lessons to adults and children. I’ve worked in education for 25 years.
Much of my work involves training teachers and school leaders in teaching and learning, and school management issues such as curriculum planning and fundraising for school improvement. I also give keynote speeches and lead presentations at conferences all over the UK, and am well known for several areas of specialism. I've appeared on TV and radio many times as an expert education contributor.
I’ve carried out a lot of writing, both at work and in my hobby time, over the last 25 years. I’ve written 28 books and more than 300 newspaper/magazine articles about education issues, and about wildlife/environmental issues and different aspects of history. Social history has been a special interest of mine for the last ten years.
Several of my books have been best-sellers, or have won awards, and some have been translated into foreign languages for distribution in Europe and Asia.
I've also been the editor of two national UK magazines aimed at an education audience, and carry out editorial services for a range of companies and private clients.
I live in Otley, West Yorkshire - the nearest city is Leeds (14 miles to the south-east). It’s situated centrally in the UK, allowing me to easily travel all over the country with my work.”
When did your interest in Polish people and culture begin?
“My interest in Polish people first began when I was a young child in Manchester, as the first ice cream man visiting my house in his van was Polish - he was a former soldier. That was forty years ago and I got to know him quite well; he made me really interested in Poland as a child.
My interest in all things Polish was then extended through working with Polish children in schools as a teacher and education adviser in the 1990s and 2000s, and then after 2004 I started to make new Polish friends when many Poles came to the UK (and especially Yorkshire) after EU enlargement. Throughout this period my interest in Polish culture and Poles just grew and grew. Because I’m so interested in Polish people and culture many people now call me a Polonophile!”
Why do you find Polish-British cooperation so interesting?
“I’ve always been interested in cooperation between nations, and how different countries work together to achieve common goals. There’s a long history of friendship and cooperation between Polish and British people dating back hundreds of years, yet many British people do not realise this. Furthermore, Polish people have made vital contributions to the UK in all sorts of ways, over many centuries - especially during World War II, the post war years and again after EU enlargement.
I decided to formalise my interest in Polish people in the UK by writing a book which ended up being called ‘Poles in the UK: A Story of Friendship and Cooperation’. I had intended to write the book alone, but eventually found a very talented Polish co-author, Maria Zukowska, to collaborate with. Before we wrote our book nobody had ever written a book about the Polish contribution to the UK over the centuries. We wanted to put this right and explain to people the very strong links between the countries.”
What are the aims of the book?
“A key aim was to break new ground - to write the very first book to tell the story of the positive contributions of Polish people to the UK, over the ages. During my discussions with Polish friends and Polish workers, I realised that there were many fascinating stories to tell of Poles in the UK today, to go alongside the older stories from earlier in the twentieth century (and earlier still). Together, they form an important story of friendship and cooperation which I felt both British and Polish people should hear.
I also wanted to record this story in print for the first time, so it could be archived at the British Library and in other major UK libraries, for present and future generations to read. We are living at a very significant time in UK history, with the largest influx of one nation to the UK since World War II (approximately one million Poles are here now, 1.5% of the UK population), and Polish being the second most-commonly spoken language here. The project is also a piece of social history, to document this important process of change in the UK.”
Who is the book aimed at?
“The book is aimed at both British and Polish people, young and old. We wrote it so it was accessible to people of all ages, and got the help of children and young people to make sure it could be read and understood even by younger readers. The relatively simple level of English means that it is also very suitable for Poles whose English is not yet at an advanced stage.”
How long did it take to complete the book?
“The whole book project took about three years to complete. This included 18 months which was spent on planning meetings with co-authors and other collaborators, and carrying out interviews. The interview stage was especially time-consuming because we included interviews and contributions from over 50 Polish people. The writing, editing and design of the book then took another 18 months. It was a truly exhausting project to work on, as the authors received no income for their work - it was entirely voluntary. We had to carry out all the work on top of our paid jobs, which brought many challenges.”
You set up a charity to publish and distribute the book. Why did you go down this route?
“It soon became clear, as we worked on the book and interviewed people, that we would often be dealing with people’s very personal family histories. As the number of people we would be featuring just grew and grew, we realised that we would not feel comfortable making any profit from these people’s stories.
So we set up The British Polonia Foundation (a registered charity) with the aim of educating people about the shared history of the UK and Poland, especially the Polish contribution to the UK. The registered charity route allowed us to bring transparency to the project, and ensured that any profits would be used to educate people about the Polish contribution to the UK.
My co-author Maria Zukowska joined me as a founding trustee of the charity, along with Anna Collins, who had been interviewed for the book and wanted to help the charity publish and promote the book.
It took a lot of work to set up The British Polonia Foundation, but it was worth the effort as it gave us a very professional vehicle for promoting and selling the book - and the wider messages it contains.”
How did you feel when ‘Poles in the UK’ was published?
“When the book was finally published in August 2016 we felt extremely happy and proud! The book project took up three years of my life (two years part-time, one year more or less full-time), and was a very serious and demanding commitment. Maria, my co-author, felt the same; it was very much a team effort.
It was fantastic to finally see our book published, and on publication we had an amazing reaction in the UK and Poland, with a large amount of TV, radio, newspaper and internet coverage. One of the highlights was that I spoke live about the book on the BBC TV News Channel to over 10 million people around the world. There was also a programme on Radio Poland about me and the book, and we appeared on the TVP Polonia News programme and in many other places in Poland. In the first few weeks after launch we had a huge amount of positive feedback, publicity and even fan mail from strangers, so all the hard work soon felt worth it! Our book had clearly struck a chord with people.
A few weeks later in October 2016, Maria and I were invited to meet the Polish Ambassador Arkady Rzegocki at the Embassy in London, where he thanked us for our work and later gave us a letter of support. This was a really special experience, and a few weeks later we also received a letter of thanks for the book from British Prime Minister Theresa May. More recently, we received a letter of thanks from Prince William and The Duchess of Cambridge for a copy of the book I sent them ahead of their official visit to Poland.
There have been so many exciting and important meetings since the book was published, including with Polish war veterans at a reception to celebrate the national day of Poland.”
The Brexit vote has brought many challenges for Poles in the UK. What do your Polish friends think about the situation?
“For my Polish friends who do not have British citizenship there was an initial worry that they may have to return to Poland. They were concerned about next steps, and whether they should carry on with their studies, jobs, career plans etc. Many openly talked about returning to Poland. None of my friends did end up leaving the UK, but there is some statistical evidence that significant numbers of Polish people have returned to Poland since the Brexit vote.
A year or so on from the vote my Polish friends who were initially concerned have become less worried and have decided to wait and see what happens. The truth is that nobody knows what a post-Brexit Britain is going to to look like, and how the new agreements struck with Europe will affect immigrants, but hardly anybody thinks that people with jobs here will be ‘sent home’. I think this would make no sense for the British economy which relies on these people.
I also have several Polish friends with British citizenship and they were much more relaxed about the situation from the start, because they have the same rights of residency etc. as I do. The Brexit vote has somewhat passed them by, as they are legally ‘British’ already and any changes won’t affect them. After the Brexit vote these friends have been busy though, because they’ve been asked to help several of their Polish friends prepare their British citizenship applications.”
The project grew into a wider initiative beyond scope of the printed book. What were the important milestones with this work?
“The printed book sold out quite quickly, after a few months, in December 2016. So the publisher, our charity The British Polonia Foundation, decided to publish a free PDF eBook to make ‘Poles in the UK’ as widely available as possible. This launched in March 2017 and has already been downloaded tens of thousands of times from our website and other places. (Click here to download the book).
The printed and eBook provided many media opportunities to talk about the key messages in ‘Poles in the UK’ - often to a very large audience. This boosted the reach of our work much more widely than we had imagined.
Our Facebook page (www.facebook.com/polesintheuk) has provided a very important vehicle for communicating news and features relating to Poles in the UK. Some posts have been viewed over ten thousand times, and have generated much interaction and comment.
We carried also out several school visits, both in the UK and in Poland, which enabled us to talk about Polish-British cooperation to children and young people. The reaction by British children was really excellent - they were so interested in the stories about Polish people and Poland.
More recently, we were asked by one of the editors of Tydzien Polski (The ‘Polish Weekly’) newspaper to write a series of articles based on new interviews with Poles in the UK. We eventually drew up an agreement which would see a new or existing interview (from the book) published most weeks for a year, which started in February 2017. As Tydzien Polski is the oldest and in many ways the most important Polish newspaper in the UK, this was a fantastic development. It expanded still further the reach of our work.
All these interviews and much more will eventually be hosted here on the project’s website and archive. This website will form the long-term point of reference for the project.”
Was everybody supportive of your work?
"We've come into contact with thousands of people during the project, and I feel that one of the major triumphs of our work was that we received outstanding support from people of all ages, backgrounds and political opinions. It seems that our project was able to unify people - who in many cases would not normally come into contact with each other - behind a common cause. The hundreds of messages of thanks and good wishes we received from people in all parts of world is testament to the goodwill we enjoyed, and this without doubt helped us to reach so many people with our message.
Inevitably though, we did come across a few negative people, or those who just wanted to exploit our project for their own benefit. I think in every walk of life there are people who wouldn't be happy even if you could walk on water, and I feel sorry for such people and their pessimistic attitude. However, we quickly learnt to ignore these people during the project, instead focussing on all the positive support we got. And we were able to show, through our work, that success can only come through thinking and acting positively. "
were invited to the Polish-British Belvedere Forum in London in
February 2018. Tell us more about this important meeting.
"The Belvedere Forum is the biggest annual non-government gathering of people from across Europe who wish to promote British-Polish relations. It is facilitated by the British and Polish governments, and attended by some of the most senior figures from the UK and Poland. Only 200 people are invited to attend each year, so it was a great honour to be invited in 2018. The two-day event took place in two very historic London locations - Lancaster House (made famous by several movies including 'The King's Speech') and Mansion House (where the Prime Minister and Chancellor deliver some of their most important speeches).
The event had a really up-beat atmosphere and I attended several talks and workshops, had discussions with all sorts of interesting people and was also able to set up a table with copies of our book, postcards about the eBook, my Tydzien Polski articles and further information about our project. This ensured that our work had the highest profile among the key movers and shakers in British-Polish relations, which was very satisfying. I was also able to give Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the Chairman of the Forum, a signed copy of my book and he said lovely things about it! Sir Malcolm is a former British Foreign Secretary and had key meetings with the Solidarity Movement in Poland before the fall of Communism.
in all my attendance at the Belvedere Forum was a
fantastic development for the project, and I was able to make
the most of it in many social media posts which got outstanding
levels of engagement, even from such figures as Lech Walesa - the
former President of Poland and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Fingers
crossed I will be invited to next year's event in Warsaw!"
You were awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts in 2018 for your outstanding contribution to British-Polish relations. How did this make you feel?
"During the course of the project, as our successes built, quite a few people said they thought I deserved an award or medal for all my unpaid work, determination and effort over the years leading the POLES IN THE UK project. My reply was that I set the project up to make a difference, not win personal awards, though I wasn't going to reject any offered, as they can be excellent publicity opportunities for a project!
Then, towards the end of the project, I received the exciting news that the Royal Society of Arts - the UK's foremost learned society for creative endeavour - wanted to award me a Fellowship for my contribution to British-Polish relations. Past Fellows include the world-renowned Polish scientist Marie Sklodowska-Curie, and many other people with Polish connections are current Fellows, including Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and former Prime Minister of Poland.
I felt the right thing to do was to accept the Fellowship, not least because it provided me with the opportunity to work with other Fellows to forge better British-Polish links. Fellowship allows me to attend key meetings, get involved in research projects and use the letters 'FRSA' after my name. It's obviously a great honour and I also feel my Fellowship of the Society reflects the importance of British-Polish relations at this key point in our countries' history.
What would you like the legacy of the book and your wider work to be?
“Our project was ultimately about education, so I would hope that through our book, media appearances, news coverage, school visits, Facebook page, website and Tydzien Polski newspaper articles we’ve helped very many people to understand better the Polish contribution to the UK over hundreds of years. I would also hope that people understand more fully the numerous ways in which British and Polish people have worked together over the years.
This project has also made a contribution to social history in the UK, documenting the lives of Polish people at an important time in the history of both the UK and Poland. The book and archive will live on in libraries and online for future generations to discover.
The project will never truly end because those of us who have been most touched by the stories and ideas in the book will continue to influence others as ambassadors for British-Polish cooperation. They include people who worked directly on the project and many partners - both formal and informal - who have done so much to help make the POLES IN THE UK project such a big success.
I’ve met some amazing Polish people during this project, and for me there will be a personal legacy too in these friends. Poland and Polish people will always be part of my life; what began as an exercise of the mind soon became an endeavour of the heart. It is no exaggeration to say that the POLES IN THE UK project changed my life.”
You can keep up to date with the latest developments with the POLES IN THE UK project at www.facebook.com/polesintheuk.
IMAGE > POLES IN THE UK project founder Brin Best outside POSK (The Polish Social and Cultural Centre) in West London. This centre is often described as the heartbeat of the Polish community in the UK, with over 20 different organisations having their base in the building. This includes the Tydzien Polski ('Polish Weekly') newspaper, which Brin writes for on a regular basis about Poles in the UK.
IMAGE > Brin with Belvedere Forum Chairman Sir Malcolm Rifkind, at the Mansion House, London (February 2018). Brin was able to present a signed copy of his book 'Poles in the UK' to Sir Malcolm during his attendance at the Polish-British Belvedere Forum.