Swan Song for Peterborough


One of the saddest stories I have ever read about the cultural effects of mass migration came from the Daily Mail of 25 March 2010. Written by Andrew Malone, "Slaughter of the Swans" related the plight of recession-struck Polish and Lithuanian migrant workers stranded in England without work, money or even shelter. Some of these have been compelled to camp out in makeshift shanties along the banks of the River Nene in the city of Peterborough, about 70 miles north of London. (There are similar camps elsewhere.)

I admire Poles and Lithuanians, and am sorry to see some of them reduced to this Third World mode of existence, at the tail end of one of Britain's coldest winters in decades. Secondly, I know this stretch of the River Nene well, and often walk my Jack Russells along the Nene's wide and lazy winding course, drawn by the splendour of Peterborough's cathedral past medieval church spires and thatched Barnack-stone cottages, along shaded, solitary paths below huge and ancient willows and between deep beds of sedge filled with the plashing of grebes and water voles - with swans processing magnificently midstream, the grandest of geese, their crisp wings curled to catch the breezes that propel them gently along to Peterborough -- but now often also to perdition.

For the indigent Poles and Lithuanians have been trapping and killing the swans, catching them on fishing hooks baited with bread or beating them to death with iron bars - leaving behind them scorched spoor of burned bones and charred feather, and carcasses in plastic bags hanging from trees to dismay and disconcert local people, for whom the swan is almost the embodiment of the fen landscape, and a part of the patriotic bestiary.

Swans are important to many cultures. In Chinese tradition, the swan symbolizes the sun, while for Hindus it laid the Cosmic Egg from which Brahma sprang at the outset of time. In Europe, the swan represented Zeus/Jupiter, as well as amorousness; it was sacred both to Aphrodite and Apollo. Cicero recorded an already ancient folk-belief -

"The swan, foreseeing how much good there is in death, dies with song and rejoicing".

Actually, swans do not have any song except alarmed hissing and snorting, and a weak trumpeting as they fly overhead, almost drowned out by the beating of their wings. But so captivating was this legend of a melancholy melodiousness that it was a great compliment to a writer to be likened to a swan -- thus Homer was the Swan of Meander, Virgil the Swan of Mantua and Shakespeare the Swan of Avon.

In Ireland, swans were solar deities, representing benevolence and incorruption. The children of King Lir were turned into swans by their stepmother and doomed to float forever until the first mass-bell was heard in the island. The bird's admirable attributes were co-opted by Christianity, and it became widely used as a symbol of the Virgin and SS Cuthbert, Hugh and Liudger. The Rhinelanders had the legend of the Schwaenjüngfrau - the young woman who could transform herself into a swan using a cloak made of feathers, and tempt mariners to their deaths. Swans also symbolize fidelity, with many still believing that a swan will not mate again if its first mate is killed (untrue). Medieval knights drew on all these associations to adopt the bird as a symbol of parfait chevalerie, and there are many surviving heraldic representations of swans, often wearing golden collars to symbolize their unearthly origins.

Traditionally said to have been brought to England by Richard the Lionheart (although certainly present here much longer), they have been highly prized in England for centuries. The monarch was the Seigneur of Swans, controlling a network of swanherds and courts called swanmotes, which would assign ownership of swans. There are still centuries-old "swan-upping" ceremonies on the Thames and in Norfolk every summer, when birds are captured by members of the Dyers and Vintners livery companies and marked with (painless) nicks on the beak, before being released again. Until Labour's legislative cleansing post-1997, it was still a treasonable offence to kill a swan (it is still illegal, punishable by heavy fines). The birds were of course eaten as much as they were admired - but the numbers taken were tiny and tightly controlled.

The swan has therefore placed its big, black, flapping feet squarely into some of the oldest and most powerful of all human myths, and holds a particular place in the affections of many countries. But not, it seems, in Poland - or at least not amongst destitute, working-class Poles.

It is not only swans that are being targeted along the Nene. Wildlife wardens and local people have also found the remains of poached pike, bream, carp, pigeons, rabbits and snails, with teams of immigrants emptying pools of their entire fish stocks. And although they are clearly impoverished, many of those living rough appear to have enough money to purchase beer and vodka in large quantities, and there are piles of empty bottles, cans, cigarette ends and human effluvia in between the animal remains. Many locals will not now venture down to the expensively restored and restocked river, even during the day -- and the local media are filled with rhetoric about the "rape" of the riverbank. The Peterborough Evening Telegraph website carries comments like

"Everyone pussyfoots around and is frightened to take action for fear of racism" -- "Must be time to say enough is enough"  -- "Shoot the migrants!!! Sick and tired of these peasants taking the mick out of us."

There have been claims by the usual apologists that these stories are myths -- notably the reliably wrong Roy Greenslade of the Guardian, who claimed that the reports were wrong, merely attempts to "inflame passions" about immigration. But as a former Mayor of Peterborough noted dryly,

"Put it this way: the swans did not disappear and their bones were not found on fires before the immigrants came."

Other apologists claim that the poachers do not know they are breaking the law -- yet wildlife wardens report that the very clear graphic and multilingual warning signs are being systematically destroyed or removed.

With these rapacious refugees apparently stuck in limbo along the riverbank, unemployment at high levels, 69,000 more migrant workers predicted to arrive in Cambridgeshire over the next five years, and the authorities at present either unable or unwilling to take action, this problem is likely to worsen before it gets better (if it ever does get better). The disgust felt by locals has already started to boil over, with at least one arson attack on a Polish campsite, although thankfully no-one was hurt.

This intra-European tension by itself would probably eventually be manageable, in a city which contains large and fully assimilated Polish and Italian communities which have been present since the 1950s. But there is also near-continual friction between Peterborough's different Asian populations, and between Asians and whites. In 2004, this tension twice erupted into serious rioting between Pakistanis, Afghans and Iraqis (once, amusingly enough, at a festival designed to foster multicultural tolerance) and has even caused murders. So ingrained are suspicions between the city's groups that when the cathedral was attacked by arsonists in November 2001, causing £4,000,000 worth of damage, many whites assumed automatically that it was Asians - although there is no evidence of this.

So much for formerly proud Peterborough, so intrinsically English - a city where there were people living before the Bronze Age began -- where missionaries founded the great monastery of Medeshamstede in the 7th century -- a place well-known to Hereward the Wake, the local noble who resisted the Norman invaders successfully for years from his fastness in the fens -- the independent Soke, with its own judges and police, that lasted from Saxon times to 1965 -- the resting-place of Katharine of Aragon  and (temporarily) Mary Queen of Scots -- the economically self-sufficient market town at the heart of a lush agricultural landscape celebrated by John Clare - the birthplace of Henry Royce and Edith Cavell -- and lastly the repository of kindly postwar dreams of a New Elizabethan Age, a sort of celestial city for Londoners transplanted here from the wrecked East End to start again, in the fresh Anglian air and light.

All this great heritage is being cast casually aside -- just as the city council coat of arms with its crossed keys, rampant griffins and "On This Rock" motto is being superseded by a green squiggle that could as easily belong to a paint firm -- and the Nene's swans are being replaced by heaps of bones. What has happened, is happening, to Peterborough is a microcosm for what has happened, is happening, to England.