The remains of the great Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski used to lie in the soft Trent-side earth of Newark in Nottinghamshire. He was laid there after dying in a plane crash in July of 1943. He was, at the time of the crash, Prime Minister in exile of Poland and Commander in Chief of their armed forces. He had been inspecting Polish military units in the Middle East and was heading back to England when the aeroplane, immediately after taking off from Gibraltar, plunged into the sea. Conspiracy theories abound as to whether it was an accident or an assassination.
His death was a severe blow to the exiled Polish and he was laid to rest in Newark alongside many of his Polish comrades who had fought and died in the war, a lot of them pilots flying out of RAF stations in the great plains of Newark and Lincolnshire.
He remained buried in Newark until 2009 when his remains were returned to a new, free and democratic Poland.
Each year the Polish Embassy would organise a ceremony to celebrate the life of the General and to honour the memory of him and the Polish soldiers and airmen who fell in the war.
Newark Town Council would host a small visiting army of Polish diplomats, military attaches and old veterans. They would bring with them, the Poles, several cases of Polish Vodka and the town hall lunch, hosted by the Lord Mayor, would quite often put to the test the ability of the English East Midlanders to drink vodka like the Polish. Rarely did they measure up to the challenge although it was never for lack of trying.
I attended one such municipal bash back in the early 80’s and found myself sitting next to the Polish Ambassador matching him shot for shot in cold Polish vodka. Of course there were innumerable toasts, to the fallen, to peace, to socialism, to peace, to good relations between our nations, to peace, to Polish agriculture, to peace, to Polish sausages, to peace, to the people of Newark, to peace. And so on. And of course there were, from the Lord Mayor and other dignitaries, including myself, loyal toasts to the Queen, to peace, to socialism, to Newark agriculture, to peace, to the Queen, to Lincolnshire sausages, to the Polish people, to peace. The lunch was long and often crept deep into the afternoon and evening.
I decided to teach the Polish Ambassador a local vernacular toast, a local Nottinghamshire toast, used in all the best Nottingham refreshment centres. It was only fair. He had taught me and all the municipal dignitaries of the County of Nottingham that the Polish toast was “Na Zdrowie!” and we had become quite expert at shouting the toast, clicking our heels and downing shots of vodka.
In Nottingham we raise our pints, usually of Shipstones, and say “Gerrit down yer duck” Although the toast consists of four words they are, traditionally spoken as one word “Gerritdownyerduck” D.H. Lawrence would have been quite familiar with the phrase and surely it would often have been used by Gamekeeper Mellors in his trysts with Lady Chatterley.
By mid-afternoon, smartly dressed, be-medalled, Polish military officers were clicking their heels, raising their glasses and declaiming, in all the sincetity they could muster and with extremely serious, profound and respectful honour to their hosts, as one voice, “Gerrit down yer duck!” before seeing off the cold Polish vodka
And so did we celebrate the life of General Sikorski.
It was a year or two later, according to the testimony of the Lord Mayor, a character hardened by years of celebrating General Sikorski, that he was visiting Poland as part of a British Trade Delegation. They were accompanied by a minor member of the Royal Family and were attending one of those state banquets that are such enjoyable perks of our political masters. The banquet was hosted by the Polish Minister for Trade, who, as fortune would have it, was the ex-Polish Ambassador of Newark Town Hall fame.
I am advised, by no less a person than the Lord Mayor, that the esteemed Polish Minister for Trade asked the assembled Polish delegates to stand and raise their glasses to the visiting British.
He raised his own and uttered the immortal words. “To our honoured guests, to their noble country and to their royal majesty, the Queen, Gerrit down yer duck!”