Sling your hook! My part in the Latvian centenary series “Sarkanais Mežs”

I have always preferred minor character actors to A-list film stars. They might only get a scene or two, but the presence of these strangely-shaped, broken-nosed, odd-looking and heavily-accented figures gives a film a human appeal and variety that can never be conveyed by the handsome and beautiful leading men and ladies.  

When I was young I even had a book called The Heavies, which chronicled the careers of a certain sort of supporting player. To this day I can rattle off the biographies and filmographies of Elisha Cook Jr,. Marc Lawrence and William Bendix, oddballs who can be seen lurking in the backgrounds of innumerable films noirs. No-one else is the least bit interested in them.

So when I was offered the chance to join the ranks of odd-looking people with a minor role in Sarkanais Mežs (Red Forest), the flagship TV production of Latvia’s centenary funding project, I accepted quickly despite a notable lack of acting experience. If reading The Heavies had taught me one thing, it was that drama school and The Method were by no means pre-requisites for a successful acting career. All it really takes is an interesting face that can be suitably contorted in the inevitable death scene.

Joining the cast came by a roundabout route. I occasionally act as a script consultant. Sarkanais Mežs is an adventure series loosely based on real events and set in 1949. Part of it involves Latvians being trained in England to infiltrate the Soviet occupation of their homeland and consequently, numerous scenes are set in a postwar England conjured from locations found entirely in Latvia. 

There are a few sections of English-language dialogue and the producers sent these to me for a quick look, as a result of which a few  minor changes were made. They mainly concerned the machinations of a slimy English doctor, a sweet Latvian nurse and our fine, upstanding hero. In a couple of scenes, a barman by the name of ‘Jim’ loiters in the background and occasionally brings drinks. The part could have been written for me as I do a lot of both in my spare time.

This was a marvellous opportunity to boost my thespian bona fides. The barman who does nothing but polish beer glasses and nod to customers is one of the great stock characters of twentieth century cinema. Only on rare occasions – notably The Shining – does the barman do more than polish and nod but oh! the importance of this job in establishing the mood or mise en scene, if you prefer the Godardian to the Kubrickian.  

Night in the Museum  

I arrived on the location for a night shoot convinced a new career would soon open up for me. The transformation of the Mentzendorff House museum into an English pub of the late 1940s was extremely well done. Reproduction advertisements for Guinness and Bass Ale adorned the walls, bottles with specially printed labels were lined up behind a neat little counter and tweed-capped “regulars” filled the tables, puffing on empty pipes and playing brag with practiced ease.

After being issued with a white shirt, black waistcoat, a pair of rather tight shoes and a natty little apron to signal my occupation unambiguously to the viewing public, I wandered around the set admiring the work. I was even able to provide a little additional value by pointing out that prices on the menu (Jim seemed able to cook a variety of lamb dishes combined with increasingly unlikely vegetables but little else) and beer pumps should be written with a “d” to represent pence and not “p” in pre-decimal Britain.

When I told this to an assistant director, he looked skeptical.

“But why ‘d’ if it stands for pennies?” he asked, not unreasonably.

I had to admit I had no idea, though subsequent research showed that it was derived from the Roman dinarius. Maybe later this year Britain will regress to using “d” for pence again as its post-imperial Brexit fantasy plays out and it reintroduces the florin, the sixpence and the shilling?

Another of my pieces of advice went unheeded, for the simple reason that the change I suggested would have completely ruined one of Sarkanais Mežs‘ main plotlines. In the scene in question, some Latvians are singing along to the popular song Rozamunde when an English hooligan takes exception to these foreigners and their music, becomes aggressive and winds up having to be ejected from the premises by yours truly, Jim the barman.

The accordionists pumped, and the Latvians sang to get their voices warmed up for the scene.

“Um… there’s a problem,” I said to the assistant director.

“What now?” he replied.

“The song,” I said.

“Yes, Rozamunde. It was a very popular wartime Latvian song!”

“It was also a very popular wartime British song. It’s called “Roll Out The Barrel“. It’s exactly what you would expect to  hear in a British pub of the 1940s. No-one would ever get angry about hearing Roll Out The Barrel.” 

“Oh,” said the assistant director, “Let’s not say anything. Maybe the hooligan doesn’t like the Latvian words.”

With everyone warmed up, including myself courtesy of a small fire kindled behind me to add extra atmosphere, it was time for the moment of truth. My pre-poured beer was safely hidden out of site below my fake beer pumps. The extras were positioned with precision. The actors waited like caged panthers to hit their marks and collect their beers from Jim.  

Action!

Curiously, at precisely this moment I became acutely aware that polishing a beer glass is in fact the most difficult feat of dexterity ever required of human hands. It really is extremely demanding. When combined with nodding to customers and – even worse – moving one’s lips silently, it becomes virtually impossible. Never can a veteran barman have looked so curiously incapable of performing the basic tasks of his profession as I did during the dozens of takes it took for me to look like someone who was not being operated by a puppeteer. I was only marginally less wooden than the bar top on which I placed the beer.

But this shot was merely the prelude to my big scene. This would involve a very large working-class Englishman bursting into the bar, directing a stream of abuse at the singing Latvians and consequently being ejected by Jim.

Roll out the Barrel

Impressively, the casting director had somehow managed to track down a genuine Geordie lunatic to play the part of the troublemaker. While the set was rejigged and the cameras and recording equipment were prepared we got talking. It turned out he came from the same grimy town in the North-East of England as my mother. We compared notes while running through our lines and bonded by agreeing the town was a complete dump.

Then we were on. The accordion played, the Latvians sang, the Geordie stormed in, said something like “Shut up you rotten Germans!” and I shuffled out from behind my bar. “Don’t cause any trouble, please go away,” I advised and ushered him politely towards the exit. And that was it. This acting businesses was easier than I expected.

“Hmm, it lacks something,” said the director. It was hard to argue with this conclusion. It was about as dramatic as the unusual combinations of lamb and vegetables on Jim’s lunchtime menu.

“Try it again, only this time a bit faster,” the director suggested for the second take.

“That was better, but this time, even faster and push him in the chest,” he said for the third take.

“A definite improvement, but this time much louder and really resist each other,” he said for the fourth take, adding “And don’t feel like you need to stick to the script, just say whatever you English people would really say in this situation.” That was the key phrase, which explains what happened next.

The next few takes are something of a blur. The accordion plays, the Latvians sing Rozamunde, and in bursts a psychotic Geordie who pushes everyone aside and bawls “Shut yer f****g mouths in my f*****g pub, yer bunch of f*****g German ****s!” 

Cue barman Jim, who leaps his counter, sprints into the fray and says “Sling your hook, you stupid b*****d, they’re Latvians, not b*****y Germans and this is my b****y pub, not yours, so b****r off!”

Even as I said it I thought “I wonder how they will translate ‘Sling your hook’ in the subtitles?”

Now Jim and the thug engage in protracted pushing and wrestling until eventually the Geordie Achilles is ejected. The scene concludes with an audibly breathless Jim returning to the room to make sure no Latvians were hurt during the making of this movie and finally taking his place again behind the counter where he resumes his totally inept polishing of tankards that are already perfectly clean.

And it only took about twenty-five takes. Indeed the exertion was so intense that by about take fifteen, instead of leaping over his counter, Jim the barman unceremoniously collapses behind it with cramp in his foot, caused by the unfamiliar shoes handed to him in wardrobe and the fact it is now three o’clock in the morning and he has been standing up, polishing his spotless collection of beer glasses since 10 p.m. Look out for it in the blooper reel.

A Star is Born

But we got there in the end. I have no idea how much of my boozy heroism will make it into the final cut of Sarkanais Mežs, but I would not be surprised if Jim’s brief but memorable appearance leads for calls for him to get his own spin-off series in which he protects Latvians in dangerous situations and tells villains to sling their hooks, preferably in exotic locations.

With my brief scene having held up proceedings for several hours, it was time for the real actors to take over with some high-intensity exchanges during which they threw the English-language dialogue I had doctored back and forth. It was impressive, highly professional, and a sharp contrast with the rank amateurism I had displayed. But I was improving. I only managed to ruin their scene three or four times when I put a glass of whisky on the table between them in a manner even more awkward and artificial than the way I polish beer glasses.

Just before dawn, it was all in the can. Handing back Jim’s apron and cramp-inducing shoes to the wardrobe department, I felt very much as Peter O’Toole must have felt handing back his robes and camel at the end of Lawrence of Arabia. And like O’Toole I left in search of an early-morning drink. It’s what we actors do.

However, I do have an admission. At the end of filming I stole a bottle of beer from the set which I intend to drink at the moment I make my screen debut. This is not such a serious crime as it sounds. After all, it was my b*****y pub.

This article was originally published on March 3rd, 2019 at http://lsm.lv


You can watch the series online worldwide via the Re:Play portal.

Mike Collier is a book author and the English editor of lsm.lv

Singer-songwriter Ivars Štubis’ new album features nature sounds from Latvia

3rd generation Australian-Latvian singer-songwriter Ivars Štubis has just released a new album with nature sounds from Latvia, blended with his own compositions for various instruments. 

Your latest album titled Dabas Miers (Nature’s Peace) was just launched at the Melbourne Latvian Aged Care Facility in Australia. How did you come to choose this venue for the launch?

I work part time as the Lifestyle Coordinator at the Melbourne Latvian Aged Care Facility, the only Latvian-specific aged care facility in Australia. I like to include lots of music in the program including singing, meditation, music listening and more. The facility is also a cultural hub for many community events in the Melbourne Latvian community. For me, this was the natural place for Dabas Miers to start its journey.

Where did you draw inspiration for the concept of your new album?

The inspiration for this album also came about through my work at the Melbourne Aged Care Facility. One day I was talking about music with my colleague Ingrīda. We were speaking about meditation and relaxation music and she mentioned the lack of such music that is specifically “Latvian”. I completely agreed. There is plenty of Latvian folk music which includes nature sounds but there isn’t much in the way of instrumental music with influences from Ambient, New Age and Post-Rock genres, as well as folk. I also wanted to create something programmatic, that is, something that invites active listening and takes you on a journey through various elements of nature, music and emotion. That’s how the idea for this album was born!

What was the process involved in composing the music?

This project was the longest and most time consuming I have ever been involved in. There were many steps involved in the process – from recording, to mixing, to mastering and post-production.

First of all came recording of all the nature sounds. Much of this task was completed by Andrejs Jaudzems in the summer of 2017 when he travelled to Latvia with our Zoom H6 Microphone. Andrejs travelled to various locations in Latvia including Līvāni, Zvārtes Iezis, Buļļi and Mežaparks, where he recorded natural sounds such as birds, rivers, fields and trees. In the summer of 2018 I also had the chance to make some recordings during my concert tour of Latvia. It was a painstaking process – listening to the many hours of recordings, editing appropriate sounds and arranging them to create the soundscapes that I was after. At this point I began to fully realise the sonic impact that humans make on nature. Rarely was a recording not affected by the sound of cars, motorcycles, builders hammering, people shouting and cyclists whizzing by.

During this time I began composing and arranging for the album. My idea was to use Latvian folk melodies as an inspiration and then take them to new places. I recorded guitar, synthesizer, accordion, piano and even some voice as well as the traditional Latvian trejdeksnis. I spent many hours treating audio to create new and interesting sounds. For example, the final track “Pūt Vējiņi”, uses a mixture of synthesizer, accordion and voice to create the ethereal/spiritual sound that I was after.

After many hours of mixing and recording in my home studio I then enlisted the help of a professional mastering studio where my final touches could be realised and brought to a professional level. I am so grateful that I received funding from various organisations and individuals that allowed me to truly realise my ideas to their full potential.

What inspires your Latvian folk song compositions?

I grew up hearing and performing Latvian folk music. From a young age I went to Saturday School to learn Latvian, sang in choirs and participated in music classes. Many times I hated it and struggled to understand the meaning behind it all.
My real love for Latvian folk music was awakened when I met musicians and folklorists during my years attending the Latvian Summer High School (AZVV) near Adelaide. There I began to learn about the ancient history of Latvian folk music and the meaning that is conveyed through the words and melodies. I have to say it is the essence of Latvian folk music that inspires me in most of my work. The ancient unbroken knowledge and way of life shines through the centuries and reaches us today, much like the stories of the Australian Aboriginal Dreamtime. The gravity of thousands of years of joy and adversity seems so strong to me and is beyond our modern interpretation of music as a commodity. Traditional music emanates from the human condition itself.

What music do you listen to and do you have any favourite artists that have been influential in your own music-making?

I would have to say that my musical tastes are quite eclectic and broad. I enjoy heavy metal, ambient music, post rock, world, classical, folk and even a pop song or two. If I like it, I like it, no matter where it comes from.

One thing I do appreciate probably above all other musical types are traditional and sacred music. I particularly enjoy medieval canticles, Orthodox Choirs, first nations music, Hindu devotional music and more. This is music that was mostly composed for something other than earning money. It was composed to venerate, to tell important stories, to pass on knowledge in a time before “do you really think that will sell” was the overarching concept.

This is your third album now – yet this one is quite different to the previous two. Do you feel your compositions are moving away from one genre or are you just experimenting with different types of genre?

I have always been restless and I like to try many different things. My problem is that I like composing many types of music and I think many musical types have merit. I do however feel that guitar is my strongest asset and I greatly enjoy creating cinematic soundscapes utilising altered sounds, reverbs and delays. This album allowed me to indulge in this area and get really creative. I would like to continue moving down this path and create some more albums in the same vein.

You are an Australian of Latvian descent. Would I be correct in saying that through your albums you are expressing your Latvian identity? Or do you see it differently?

I suppose my identity is something I grapple with and explore through my music. Understanding who I am when I speak native English but the people around me don’t even bother trying to pronounce my name has been difficult. People have said to me “Your name isn’t very catchy as an artist, you should use a different one”. Then I think, “Why should I, I am who I am.” But on the other side of that, I am a third generation Australian and have never been in Latvia for longer than 3 months.

The thing for me is that Latvian folk music draws me. It seems so rich and plentiful, a fountain to draw from. I cannot find that same inspiration in the “Aussie” side of my identity. Besides the First Australians, Australia is a land of migrants and has been enriched by those migrants. I’m not sure if there exists a distinct Australian culture outside of the standard Western Capitalist paradigm. Australians are Italians, Chinese, Latvians, Indians, Afghanis and many more. Latvian traditional culture is something I can hold on to, just like many other Australians hang on to their own distinct traditions. Let’s just say that my music is an exploration of all of this.

You live in Australia, yet have created an album with nature’s sounds from Latvia. What association do you have with Latvia?

All four of my grandparents and some of their parents were displaced persons after World War Two. All of them made their way to Australia via the DP camps of Germany. All of them had terrifying stories of war, bombing, escape, atrocities and salvation. Some had to fight, others had to flee. I suppose that in the beginning they thought that they may return to Latvia, but after 70 years they became rooted in their new homeland.

I have spent most of my life volunteering and participating in the Latvian community both in Sydney and Melbourne. From choirs, to bands to teaching and now even working with Latvian elders, I have done it all. I have always been attracted to the culture and have spent time trying to understand the history and folklore of Australia.

One surprising fact is that I only set foot for the first time in Latvia when I was 22 years old and had saved up enough money to do so. I met some long-lost family members and felt my connection with Latvia grow. However, sometimes it’s hard to understand which reality I fit in with most. This is part of my life’s journey.

What do you see as the target audience for the album? 

Whilst the idea for this album came from my work with Latvian elders, I feel that this album can work for anybody who enjoys relaxing music, ambient music or field recordings. I was able to try my initial composition ideas in the memory unit at the Latvian Aged Care facility to see which sounds and songs were able to help calm people or evoke memories. I gave my songs to people of all ages to listen to and critique during the composition process.

I feel that the sounds will also connect with diaspora Latvians who long for the familiar sounds and melodies that they left behind. My colleague Ingrīda says that when she closes her eyes and listens to the album, she is transported back to the forests of Latvia. Sometimes her feelings are positive, sometimes they are sad. This album is for anyone who wants to go on that journey. I tried very hard to steer away from the usual new age meditation music and try to evoke sounds that would create a range of emotions.

As part of this album and its funding, I also want to give back to the community. I am currently in the process of sending free copies and digital downloads to Latvian aged care organisations. These include several organisations in Australia and America as well as many in Latvia itself. I hope that the music can be used for reminiscence, relaxation and meditation as well as active listening or even sleep. Even if it is only enjoyed by one person at each organisation, I feel that it will be worthwhile.

Can you share what new ideas you have in the pipeline?

As I stated before, if the interest is there, I would love to make a series of albums in this genre. I would love to have the time to record many more sounds and explore new sonic possibilities with those sounds.

In other musical pursuits I am currently working on a couple of recordings with the Melbourne Latvian Male Choir “Veseris”, and as always, I am writing songs and performing at local venues in Australia. I would love to travel to Latvia again for a concert tour soon!

Where can the album be purchased – physical copies, as well as downloads?

Digital and physical albums can be purchased and shipped worldwide via (Bandcamp) from ivarsstubis.com. Payments can be made via credit card or Paypal. If you manage to catch me at a show I will have them with me as well. It would be great to find a distributor in Latvia for the album so I can get more copies out there.

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a member of the Education Board of the World Federation of Free Latvians and the translator into English of various books on industrial history in Latvia.

Latvian elections: what should we be voting for?

The election is rapidly approaching and as Latvians in the diaspora, we should appreciate that for many Latvians living in Latvia the 27 years since independence have brought unwelcome as well as welcome changes and consequently in some quarters there is voter dissatisfaction with the whole political process. We should remember that voting in Latvia is not compulsory and that some will abstain or vote as a knee-jerk reaction because of disappointment with previous governments.

So, it is particularly important that we inform ourselves and use our votes wisely.

But how to make the choice?

We should consider what the Latvian government should do over the next four years, in the economy, education, defence … and which of the political candidates might be able to achieve this result? Look at the leader of your preferred list of candidates and ask yourself whether you would buy a used car from this person … if he/she does not seem honourable, don’t entrust them with running the country!

Personalities aside, there is another very important point to consider when making your choice. Latvia is recognised as a modern, democratic European country, which is expected to keep up with the advanced countries of the world. Latvia punches way above its weight in the fields of business and arts innovation. Unfortunately, we don’t have many politicians at this level. We have a string of popular and respected politicians, but many of these are still 20th century people with 20th century ideas, they are afraid of our contemporary open world and don’t know how to communicate with it effectively. For some, habits of mind and behaviour instilled during the Soviet occupation continue to shape political interactions.

Latvia stands on the threshold of a dynamic four years – not only internally, but in terms of the next EU budget, the future of NATO, the relationship between the West and Russia, and similar critical policy areas. For this reason, it is important that the next Latvian government is made up of forward-thinking, educated young people who have the knowledge and will to work in 21st century conditions. To give the green light to the younger generation, we can use the Latvian voting system’s uniquely offered opportunity to mark a candidate with a “plus” sign or strike him or her from the list. Contemporary, forward thinking candidates can be found in almost all the lists and it is they who should be supported for the overall benefit of our country. We may be very fond of an experienced old horse, but we need a car to even think of entering the Grand Prix.

How to choose your candidates

To navigate the Latvian political landscape, I will use the subjective approach I have developed to guide my own decisions. The Latvian political landscape can’t be easily divided into “good” and “bad”. It can be described in two dimensions as “experienced” vs. “new” and “predictable” vs. “unpredictable”, so we can each make our own decision based on our priorities.

We can understand those voters who choose to stay with the status quo. After all, the “Vienotība”, NA and ZZS coalition has, in the main, been in power since 2009 and has given Latvians some stability. Some negative aspects of this fragile stability are: Aivars Lembergs in the coalition, the OIK scandal over the corrupt funneling of “green energy” money, the lack of transparency in appointing solvency administrators. In short, the coalition has many faults. However, this government has put Latvia on a sound course that leads in the right direction – towards economic strength, integration into the EU and NATO, sustainable fiscal policies and more. This has been achieved at great cost, so it would be foolhardy indeed to allow its destruction by some barely hatched “saviours of the people”. Latvia has a lot to lose, we must be mindful of our choices.

We can also understand those voters who have decided not to support the existing government. The current coalition seems to have lost drive, energy and capacity to govern. The most obvious example is the implosion of the once-great party “Vienotība”, brought about by internal conflicts, which has frightened off many of its supporters. The other two experienced parties – Nacionālā Apvienība and ZZS – have also suffered from corruption and other scandals. Therefore, perhaps it is indeed worthwhile to seek some new alternative – even if only to change the personalities in the ruling elite. It would not be reasonable to expect young people wanting to make a career in Latvian politics to join these stagnant old parties. There is certainly a case to be made for voting for young people.

The “experienced” and “new” divide does not fall in the same place as the “predictable” and “unpredictable” divide.

The “predictable” parties are those which, despite pre-election rhetoric, can be relied upon, if they come to power, to make considered judgements on matters of policy. They share the same underlying values that have underpinned the current development of Latvia as having a free, internationally viable market economy:

  • strong support of the NATO alliance in defence
  • the importance of maintaining the Latvian language and culture in the public arena alongside respectful relations with the minority groups in Latvia
  • welfare reforms in line with contemporary thinking
  • macroeconomic stability
  • true democracy.

All the “predictable” parties may bend their rhetoric to interpret these values, but would agree that they are fundamental to Latvia’s future.

On the other hand, the “unpredictable” parties have demonstrated by previous behaviour that they are quite capable of stepping aside from such principles for short-term gains. With “unpredictable” parties in power, anything could happen. Some would argue that risks need to be taken for the possibility of great future gains – but who would ultimately benefit? It seems unlikely that it would be the voters. If, for example, “Saskaņa” or KPV.LV were part of the ruling coalition, what would they do? These parties themselves have not given any clear indication. Are voters ready to take such a leap into the unknown?

Using this two-dimensional model, the parties line up as shown in the attached diagram. Please notice that just because a party is experienced, it is not necessarily predictable (e.g. ZZS) and that some of the new parties are predictable, particularly with respect to their basic values. The subjective aspects of the diagram will, no doubt, be modified by each of you, according to your personal political inclinations.

Campaigns and current events

In the Latvian political system, a vote for a particular party is also a vote for the coalition that party is likely to form – no party has ever governed by itself. Therefore, the individual party programs should be taken with a grain of salt, they are more a list of aspirations than of policies. If your party gains a place in the ruling coalition, the government policies will be those agreed upon by this coalition. Coalition partners are carefully chosen. The hot topic in the press is what role the social-democratic party “Saskaņa” might take in a ruling coalition. Despite the media hype, there remains only a very small possibility that this might happen. However, we should be aware that the Artuss Kaimiņš scandal-riddled KPV.LV party has consistently avoided stating its position on co-operation with “Saskaņa”. This has caused a great deal of speculation. An example of this is the connection between KPV.LV and prominent politician and millionaire Ainārs Šlesers, who is a part owner of the newspaper “Dienas Bizness” which regularly supports KPV.LV and denigrates its opponents. However, although it is predicted that KPV.LV will fare well at the ballot box, it remains highly unlikely that it, together with “Saskaņa”, would constitute a majority.

Political polls over the past month have varied widely in quality and methodology, which has been reflected in the vast array of pre-poll predictions. It seems certain that the next Saeima will include “Saskaņa” and ZZS, most probably as the two largest factions. It is highly likely that Nacionālā Apvienība VL!-TB/LNNK, Jaunā Konservatīvā partija and KPV.LV will also be represented. (KPV.LV has been touted as possibly receiving 5% – 15% of the vote.) The remaining parties are balancing on the 5% cut-off line: this includes the slightly refreshed “Jaunā Vienotība”, the liberal start-up “Attīstībai/PAR” and “Latvijas Reģiona Apvienība”. It is difficult to predict the results for these parties. A dark horse in the field is Tatjanas Ždanokas pro-Kremlin “Latvijas Krievu savienība” (LKS), which has popular journalist Andrejs Mamikins amongst its candidates. This party has not done well in the ratings, but its voter base tends not to disclose voting preferences, so it is not out of the question that “Saskaņa” may have a left-based rival.

Taking into account the broad spectrum of political parties and ideologies on offer, it is conceivable that the next Saeima may be very fragmented. The current Saeima has representatives from 6 parties, the next one could potentially see representation of up to 9 parties. This could be a major stumbling block in the formation of the new governing coalition. Personalities, previous political history and pre-poll rhetoric will all have to be juggled by whoever is charged with forming the next governing coalition. Let us remember that the most unlikely coalitions can be forged into governments, as in the Saeima elections in 1995, when Andris Šķēle successfully managed a coalition consisting of 9 parties. Such a scenario is not ideal, but it can be workable for the day-to-day running of the government. The alternative of inviting “Saskaņa” to the table is not being realistically considered by any of the players.

In the end, it will be decided by arithmetic – the result of the will of the people, in which we each play a part.

Ivars Ījabs, specially commissioned by PBLA