Marina Lewycka is well known as the author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, albeit people might not recognise the name. This sequel is not blessed by a catchy title (published in America under the better ‘Strawberry Fields’) but it gives a great deal of insight into the problems faced by migrant workers in Britain and also the tensions in modern Ukraine between Russian / Soviet looking mostly former industrial south east and intellectual European looking modern Ukrainian youth. This from a book that is ten years old – I was surprised as I didn’t think the Short History of Tractors (which I have never actually read) was as old as that. Sourced for me by Nicholas Willmott, bookdealer of Cardiff,* I was surprised to find this book was published in 2001. It is a tale of Ukrainian, Polish, Chinese, Malaysian, and a Malawian worker picking strawberries in Kent, of Russian and Moldovan gangsters, dodgy agri-business practice, and English and European eccentricities. It visits, in reality (a eco-protest camp) or in the personal tales (Moldovan / Transdniestrian border / post industrial post Soviet Ukraine) places I have been and paints pictures that I recognise (albeit the world of people trafficking is something I only read about in reports and articles).
Ukraine of course is not in the European Union (many people in Britain don’t realise it is in Europe) so the novel illustrates the truism that there have always been European migrant workers before the EU and from non-EU European countries. The difference in treatment is played out in surprising ways. Does Brazilians pretending to be Portuguese explain why there are so many South Americans in Liverpool more than ten years ago (which I think is great) despite Labour and Tory governments being ostensibly anti-immigration? Just as in the book, the mix of people makes for a much more interesting city and country, but a key problem is that the new workers and existing residents get little chance to meet and interact. Hence the difficulties of the young hero and heroine (intellectual student Irina from Kyiv, and ex-coalminer Andriy, from Donbass) meeting the English gentleman and glamorous lady of their dreams or textbooks. The picture that Ukrainian / Russian textbooks paint of idealised English men and women in an idealised England is what students in Ukraine still tell me today (though they also believe our country is covered in fog, has terrible food, and we are cold because we can’t afford to heat our homes).
David Blunkett gets an affectionate cameo role, as do a large cast of supporting characters from Australian chef to African care home nurse. Some of the poetry of the cheerful young evangelical Christian from Emanuel I find a bit much (he is infectiously cheerful) and I come to like the mysterious dog that just appears but wonder if the explanation for tragi-comic dog was somehow cut out by mistake. At the time of the acclaim for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian I assumed that the author was a young emerging or new Ukrainian writer. I had no idea that Marina Lewycka is the daughter of Ukrainian refugees, born in Kiel, grew up in Yorkshire and elsewhere; educated at Keele and had her first book published at 59.
I don’t know the situation for migrant workers in Britain today. Would the book be the same if written now? A new account for our times is needed.
* & father in law.