I've always had a soft spot for the Poles. Any set of people who can manage, while putting away that much vodka, to overthrow an occupying Communist superpower, establish a functioning Western-style democracy, and provide us with the first ever Goalkeeping Pope, has got to have something going for it. So- unlike some of our nastier newspapers, which have confidently predicted that the latest wave of immigration from Eastern Europe will bring about The End Of Civilisation As We Know It, I have been cheered by the recent arrival of large numbers of Polish economic migrants- and intrigued, as much by the people themselves, as by the physical clues as to their growing presence in south Manchester. Last week there was a postcard in a newsagent's window advertising a flatshare, all written in indecipherable Polish except for the words '£440PCM'; and my bike ride home from work takes me past a pub in Hulme with a white and red halved billboard outside, emblazoned with the words 'Friday Night- Polska Diskoteyka'. And today, the most intriguing development yet: just 20 yards from my front door, one of the many thousands of kebab houses that line my part of Stockport Road has transformed itself overnight into a shiny new Polish grocery store.
This, I decided, must have been how it felt to be alive 100 years ago, when the first wave of Irish immigrants pitched into Levenshulme. Busy little shops would have strung up along Stockport Road to serve the new arrivals, and the more curious of the native Lancastrians would have braved their threshold, enticed by the exotica on display, such as soda bread, bottles of stout, and three-day old copies of the Cork newspapers. Among the tightly-packed shelves, cultural barriers would have been faced and overcome. Friendships would have developed, and romances blossomed. In this Victorian melting-pot, modern Manchester would have begun to take shape.
These are the scenes that are playing out in my mind as I set out onto Stockport Road tonight. The pretext for my excursion is to get a loaf of bread, but what I really want to do is make a connection with this semi-hidden community moving among us- to show the newcomers that, despite what they may have read in the native newspapers, a warm welcome is all that awaits them on our shores. So, beaming with expansive love for all humankind (but for Polish people especially, of course) I stride through the open door of the brightly-lit new establishment, making sure as I do so to bestow upon the proprietor a particularly northern nod-and-wink combination that I have pilfered wholesale from old episodes of Morecambe and Wise. The shopkeeper nods back, perhaps a trifle guardedly. I beam at him again- even more expansively- and march off towards the nearest shelf, resolving to demonstrate my status as a free-thinking Citizen of the World by purchasing some outlandish Eastern European grocery item, cost no object.
It is at this moment that matters take a turn for the worse. Too late, I remember how absolutely useless I am at impulse buying of any kind. Hell, the choice between four different kinds of bin-bags in Sainsburys the other week was enough to reduce me to a jibbering wreck, and every single time I have visited the Turkish supermarket in Victoria Park I have come out with exactly the same jar of gherkins- so what chance do I have when faced with five shelves packed with unidentifiable tins of Polish delicacies? Actually it's not even all Polish in here- that tin of dried Mangoes (or they could figs, or some ghastly variety of miniature apricots) is decorated with Arabic writing. And the neon sign above the door (I now recall) said 'Polish, Iranian and European Grocery'- and the proprietor, who is now studying me more closely than ever (I am the only customer in the shop at this late hour), appears more Middle Eastern than Eastern European. There is more to this little shop than meets the eye.
I consider turning around and giving the fellow behind the counter another nod and a wink- perhaps throwing in a joke or two about short fat legs or Angela Rippon- but hesitate at the last moment, fearing some unspecified but terribly embarrassing Turko-Iranian-Polish-Mancunian-Geordie-Irish cultural misunderstanding . I'm starting to feel a bit dizzy. The fellow is fiddling loudly with a set of keys. Something is going to have to give.
Summoning up a last effort of will I move along to the next set of shelves. Now then, this is more like it. McVities chocolate digestives. Andrex. Fairy Liquid. Marmite. Those familiar native commodities you find yourself missing when you spend more than a week or so away from home, bless them. Heaving a sigh of relief, I reach out for a packet of Walkers cheese-and-onion crisps... and then stop. What sort of message am I sending out here? Am I really some sort of lily-livered, narrow-minded Little Englander so lacking in imagination that he can't come out of a Polish-Iranian (Moroccan, Algerian, whatever) supermarket with anything more exotic than a bag of fucking crisps? I should at least get a jar of olives to go with them. Are those olives up there on the top shelf, or some kind of miniature salted Mediterranean fish, for the love of Jesus? Oh, I'll just buy them anyway- what's the worst that can happen?
But it's too late. My nerve has gone. I make clumsily for the door, attempting to give the proprietor the Eric Morecambe treatment again on the way out as some kind of recompense, but only managing a kind of watered-down Benny Hill leer, which probably amounts in his native culture (Polish, Iranian, whatever) to an outright invitation to a dawn gunfight. Thirty seconds later I am back in my front room, shaking and sweating profusely. Charlotte looks up from the paper:
'So did you not manage to get any bread. then?'
'Oh- er... they had run out. You can get some in Tescos tomorrow, eh?'
This all happened two hours ago- and now, of course, I am racked with liberal Guardian-reader guilt. What if the nice shopkeeper man really thought I was some kind of... bigot? It's not easy setting up in business yourself (I imagine, anyway- everyone I know reads the Guardian and works in the Public Sector, I don't know any actual entrepreneurs)- what if the Polish (or Iranian, or Moroccan) grocer takes the failure of the day's last customer to make a purchase as a definitive sign that his venture is doomed to failure? Maybe tomorrow the shiny new grocery store will have dissappeared, and yet another kebab joint will have opened in its place. And it will all have been my fault. My fault!
There's nothing for it. I'm going to have to be waiting at the threshold tomorrow morning with my best cheeky northern grin (I'm thinking Vic Reeves, with just a touch of Les Dennis) across my face, and a crisp twenty pound note in my back pocket. I'm not even going to look- just take three items off each shelf, entirely indiscriminately and with no regard to their provenance- and plonk them right down on the counter in front of the startled proprietor. After all, a jar of Polish gherkins, a bag of dried Iranian figs, and a box of Daz washing powder seems a small price to pay in exchange for my place in the constantly developing story of Mancunian cultural integration, no?
Hell, you know what? Get the groceries out of the way, then next Friday I might give the 'Polska Diskoteyka' a go. Four pints of neat vodka and a whirl around a sticky Hulme dancefloor to some prime Eurotrash. Now that sounds like a way of proving my liberal credentials I can just about get away with, don't you think? Hell, it can't be any more traumatic than tonight's little excursion.