Mike Collier is a British writer and journalist who has lived in Latvia since 2008. He currently edits the English-language version of LSM, Latvia’s public broadcasting service, and is also the author of two works of fiction, The Fourth Largest in Latvia and the recently issued Baltic Byline (you can read a short extract on Deep Baltic). Baltic Byline is a sharp, witty collection of stories following seedy, cynical foreign correspondent Beacon in a country very like Latvia, as he deals with the vicissitudes of the profession in a small country; he manages a presidential campaign as a way of getting revenge on a politician who has crossed him, covers a gay pride parade and its fervent opponents and inadvertently gets interrogated by the secret service, all the while focusing on looking after his cat, keeping up with rent payments and dealing with the vanity and ignorance of the Brussels journalists flown in for the top stories. Deep Baltic editor Will Mawhood caught up with Mike on a wintry March day in a central Riga park to discuss journalism, Latvia and writing.
Let’s talk a bit about Baltic Byline. First of all, I was interested that you go into Latvian society by way of a journalist who comes into contact with almost everyone who is prominent in society. I think this reveals something both about Latvian society and also about journalism.
I’m interested that you say you thought it shows something in Latvian society, because I don’t really think that this one does very much. Certainly compared to the first book [The Fourth Largest in Latvia] where the subject was Latvia and Latvian society in a way. This one is a bit more isolated in that the subject is journalism and journalists, although the background is Latvia. In the first draft of the book I didn’t even specify the country – even though it was Latvia, and bits of Estonia and other countries I work in as well – but working around that sounded so phoney, referring to “the country” or “the state” or whatever, so I changed it back. But the intention wasn’t to have Latvia in the foreground; it was to have the journalists in the foreground. To an extent, that is just the majority of my experience since I’ve been here, but along the way I hopefully have accumulated stories and seen things. It is autobiographical, but I hope it’s not purely autobiographical – a lot of the things I’ve stolen from other people or they’re things that have been whispered around the journalistic community.
It’s actually interesting how that’s changed during the time I’ve been here as well. I actually think that journalism per se is in a much better position than it was when I arrived eight or nine years ago. And that’s partly because I’ve come to appreciate a lot of the local journalists and the good work they do. It was kind of fashionable to bash them for many years, and I’ve realised that actually that’s not fair at all. So if there is any bashing of journalists, it’s exclusively the foreign journalist brigade, in which I include myself, that gets the treatment in this book. And the various assumptions and arrogances and ego trips that we’re all prey to sometimes.
I guess when I say Latvian society, I mean really the people who shout loudest – the politicians and self-proclaimed leaders of whatever kind
Yes, there are these interactions with people in positions of power. But I’m not so much satirising the institutions they represent as the personalities of people who happen to be in these positions. I mean, we like to think that a journalist is interviewing a central banker. But what I like to think of is maybe it’s a man who’s hungry interviewing a man who would rather be playing tennis. There is this charade a lot of the time that “I am Professional A and you are Professional B and that’s all we represent”. And I wanted to undercut that and show that we’re all these fallible and messy and rather stupid human beings, and we shouldn’t forget that, because I think when we do that’s when we start getting into the “people believing they are the great god” or “I am the saviour”.
Do you think there’s a lot of that in journalism?
Oh yeah, because you have to have some kind of ego to do journalism. It’s like the musician who claims “you know, I don’t do it for the adulation or the audience; I would do it just in my bedroom playing in front of a mirror”. Well why do you bother leaving your bedroom, then? There’s got to be some sort of ego in there. And we all like it when we see that byline – it’s a big thrill at first, and then it’s not such a big thrill. It’s partly about how the process of working as a journalist changes that reaction, because in a way it’s a real naive innocent beautiful reaction, because you work so hard to see that first byline. That’s why the title is Baltic Byline, because that’s supposed to be the big thing – that’s your identity. You get a big rush, and you want to show everyone, and you’re proud. And a few years later, maybe you’re blase about it, because it happens all the time; you no longer value it. But it’s nice to have that reminder. And in the meantime, your byline will have been attached to some things that maybe you’re not proud of, which you think are not good. Or maybe even those early pieces which you published, which you thought were great at the time, you look back on them and feel quite embarrased about how bad they were.
And anyone can find them
Yeah, and there’s an example of that in one of the stories as well. So again there’s this human frailty thing – I have a byline, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m a great journalist. I mean I personally don’t think I’m a very good journalist at all. I think I’m quite a good writer and I’m quite a good storyteller, but I know for a fact that I’m not a good journalist, because I don’t have what these real hotshot journalists have, which is that drive to tell the story without embellishment, without shifting the emphasis, because I just want to keep shifting the emphasis all the time.
Aside from the features that do clearly identify the country, like references to the Saeima [Latvian Parliament] and people speaking Latvian, how universal do you think it is? Do you think someone could read this and think, for example, “well, this could be Slovenia”? Could it be applied to anywhere beyond the Baltic states?
Yeah, I think so. It could be applied to anywhere where you have this idea that there is the cosmopolitan intelligentsia in operation, and some kind of regional underlings. Or that you have an elite here – it’s kind of like the Eloi and the Morlocks. In this book it happens to be that the Brussels journalists are seen as the elite, and the local journalists are seen as second-raters, but the book shows that actually that’s not the case and actually a lot of good stuff is happening on the local level, and these pampered poodles who get thrown in are maybe not such hotshots as they think. That’s not to say that everyone is an idiot; there are some really good Brussels journalists, but there are also some really bad ones.
Well, yeah, I’ve read a lot of terrible coverage of the Baltic states, that just got a lot of things wrong.
In particular, ego does play a part. And that was really noticeable in the Latvian EU presidency, for example, which I don’t cover directly, but I did take certain character traits and hierarchies of journalism from the things I saw then, when you would see people who you know that they have a thing about getting the first question in – whether it’s a good question or a bad question, whether it’s relevant or not. It’s like an alpha male thing. Or there’s the guy who boasts of his particular connection with a certain politician, or the guy who just happens to wander into the room – I say man, it could be a woman, but women tend to be better journalists and tend not to engage in these games quite so much – and will hint that he’s got something that no one else has got so that he can then set the newsroom a-flurry. The best example of this is when Yanis Varoufakis [former Greek finance minister] came to the meeting of finance ministers here, and there were suddenly all of these whispers of “oooh, he’s been told he’s an idiot and Schäuble [Wolfgang Schäuble, current German finance minister] was really ragging on him.” And this was going like wildfire around the press room, and all of these stories actually came out, saying that he’d been told that he was an idiot and he was an amateur. And later on it seemed that, well, maybe that didn’t actually happen and that was just some obscure finance minister trying to boost his own credentials. Certainly, according to Varoufakis, it was like “no, that didn’t happen. Everyone was very polite to me.”
So there was no truth in that at all?
Well, I don’t know if it was true or not, but it was reported, and so, as far as Google and the internet are concerned, it’s true (laughs).
Because one of the other things that come out in the book, I think, is just how little these hot-shots know about this part of the world, and that they like everything to be in boxes that they already know about. There’s a reference at one point in Baltic Byline to just how much the international press love anything hinting at Ruritanian processes in Eastern European countries.
I wasn’t necessarily intending to point out the ignorance of other journalists, because i have plenty of my own ignorance to share around, but more than the news suit gets cut according to the preordained cloth. A recent example would be editors saying “what’s this about all this unrest around the Latvian border? All the local Russians, I guess, want to be in Russia, so can we have something on that?” And if you tell that “well, actually, no, people aren’t doing demonstrations saying they want to be part of Russia”, it doesn’t fit their preconceived notions, because “obviously, all Russian speakers, right, they want to be with Russia, don’t they?” Well, no, not necessarily. So that’s another example of it. I mean, who wants to read about the complexities of Latgalian identity, when you can read that people along the Russian border want to be part of Russia?
To the uninformed reader, I suppose it does sound like it makes sense.
Yeah, but it does hark back to that Ruritarian tradition – “countries far away of which we know little”. And presumably they’re all very picturesque, and they’ve got nice castles that were left over from someone else, and they all hop around doing folk dancing, and aren’t they amusing? But we don’t really have to take them seriously, because they’re a long way from London and Brussels and New York.
How much of the book is based on truth? Are most of the incidents based on things that really happened?
Mostly, yeah. So, for instance, a good example would be the incident towards the end of the book where there’s a road traffic accident – quite a serious one. Nearly everything happened as I told it, except in real life the car just missed the little girl; in the story, the car hit the little girl.
So I was driving away from this quite official event, behind this official car, which by a matter of inches – it was going way, way too fast in a built-up area, there were loads of schoolkids all over the place – just missed this girl. And I thought, this is the measure by which destinies are judged; six inches to the right and what would have happened? What would I have done in this situation? What would have been the consequences for these other people? So it was really just turning it up one notch.
Some of them I’ve crammed various incidents together and combined it into one story, some of them are completely made up. I mean it is a fictional book; it’s not a roman à clef. There’s a great line that Evelyn Waugh had; he says ‘people ask me “who are the real people in my books?”’ And he says it’s not as simple as that – we don’t just go through the garbage in one place, load up our bin, carry it somewhere else and then tip it out. You actually have to be selective, and change things and invent things.
I’m interested in your editorials for LSM. You’ve been working for them for about 18 months. Who do you feel the audience for LSM’s English-language service generally, and also for your editorials are?
I really don’t know. The official answer would be something like: people in embassies, people who have a pre-existing interest in the Baltic region, expats who are here and so on. But those editorials, they only happen – usually when I’m doing something like chopping logs or I’m in the middle of the forest, something like that, and I’ll just get an overpowering desire to write something about a certain subject that I’ve been thinking about for a while. And at that point I rush to the computer and I write it. They wouldn’t work, they wouldn’t be as good if I had to do one every week.
Because they’re not at any particular regular interval, are they?
No, they’re not. They should be, according to all the laws of journalism, but I just want to make sure that the ones I do are actually quite good. So in a sense it’s quite a selfish way of doing it, and I’m writing it largely for myself. I want to write stuff which is good and offer it out there and just hope that there is an audience for there. And it seems that there is some sort of audience there. I don’t know who it is, but just from the figures – the clicks. For instance, the one comparing the Livonian Sword Brothers to Isis, that really hit some sort of chord amongst Latvian people, which I was really pleased about. And that had been something that I had been thinking about for literally months. And it just bubbled up at some point – partly because I thought someone else was going to do it if I didn’t.
So at that point I sat down and did some research into the original texts, and did it. And yeh, it worked. Most of them I think have worked; some of them are stronger than others. It sounds like an incredibly arrogant thing to say: “oh, I’m not writing for a particular audience, or I’m just writing because, blah, blah, blah…” But that really is the case. Because I have the freedom to put whatever I want on that website, effectively, I thought well let’s just try something which… Probably if I was pitching to an editor, they would say no, because they would say “well, I know I need something every week” or “I need it to this length or that length”. So what I’m pleased about is that I’ve also got some other stuff on there – so last week there was a piece by Alexander Krasnitsky about the closing of the last tochka – a sort of illegal booze point – in his village. And I thought that was an really brilliant piece of writing. So I want to get other voices in there as well. But hopefully that I’ve done a few of these and I’ve shown that you can write with freedom and people will like it will encourage people like that to do the same sort of thing. In a sense it’s a bit like what you’re doing [at Deep Baltic] as well – trying to do longer pieces and trusting that there is an audience there, rather than seeking an audience. There is a bit of a faith in people, doing it that way.
In the case of LSM, you’re writing for an audience of which – I would assume – quite a lot of whom English is not their first language. So the temptation then is to say “well, we must keep it all very simple, so that people for whom English is not their first language can understand it, and not put any puns in there or demotic language or colloquialisms, or so on”. And then I thought – no, let’s just make it as good as we can. And if there is some vocabulary that might be challenging, people can usually get the meaning anyway. If it’s the right word to use, then use it and let’s just trust that people will appreciate the quality. You know, you can’t talk down to people – that’s the worst thing you can do in journalism, and sadly it’s something that happens all the time.
Judging from the comments I’ve seen on the English-language version, it seems to me that the majority of readers probably are Latvian. Do you feel that Latvians can learn something about their country as a foreigner? Because I’ve sometimes seen reactions from Latvians to foreigners writing about Latvia that can essentially be summed up as “it’s not your business to tell us about our country” – and this seems especially the case if they’re being critical in any way.
Well I’m certainly not going to say “Latvians can learn something from me”, because I don’t necessarily identify myself as a non-Latvian. It’s not like my way of doing things is a system – it’s not something I can recommend to anyone else. Again, it sounds trite, but I just try to do some good writing and hope that people will like it. I think some of that stuff does seem sometimes to resonate with Latvians. Also, Latvians are quite internationalised now – there is an international class of Latvians, and particularly young Latvians, who do get a lot of their media exposure from American, British, Swedish websites and so on… so it’s not like there are these isolated communities colliding; they’re all sort of overlapping anyway.
And you said you thought journalism has improved a lot over the time you have been in Latvia. Could you expand upon that?
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say that journalism has improved.
Well, maybe your perception of it?
Yeah, my perception has certainly deepened, my appreciation has. Things like investigative journalism have come on a long way – things like Re:Baltica, [TV programmes] De Facto, Nekā Personīga; they do some really good stories. On the other hand, Diena used to be a quality daily and it’s not really now. So the print media has withered really; it would be nice to see some kind of renaissance there. It’s only really Ir keeping things ticking over there.
It’s also that I’ve come to appreciate the conditions in which most Latvian journalists are operating.
Do you think it’s much harder to be a journalist in Latvia than in the UK, for example?
Well, not necessarily, but a national-level journalist in Latvia has to get by with the resources of a regional-level journalist or a town-level journalist in a larger country. So it is the case sometimes that you have to pass cameras from one to another or book them a long time in advance to be able to shoot a story.
And if you’re writing on some regional title in some smaller town in Latvia where newspapers do still exist, your resources are really limited; you’re on a very small wage – I mean, you could be on a small wage if you’re in the UK on a regional title as well, but there’s far less support for you and you’re much more exposed as well. So I really appreciate the work they do, and I think it’s important.
Do you feel Latvia has changed during the time you’ve been here?
Not really (laughs). I suppose I should say yes, but no. The very first time I came here was on a camping trip, and I remember stopping in Cēsis and looking around and thinking “this is quite a nice town; this would be a nice place to live” – and then, seven years later, I found myself living there. And my impression is still that it’s a very nice place.
But in many ways Latvia’s been through a lot of very big changes during your time here – things like the financial crisis, joining the euro.
Yes, there are things like political changes and a certain amount of social changes, but the essence of the place hasn’t changed.
And what would the essence of Latvia be?
Well, there was some good research done a few years ago, which was kind of rejected by officialdom, which suggested that it was something to do with smallness, protectiveness, enclosing things keeping things within reach. And it’s something to do with that – I think that’s along the right lines. But on the very basic physical level, the essence of it is for me the ability to walk through forests for hours and hours – and that is a very big attraction. You know, I go back to the UK and I get culture shock there, because I think: where are all the trees? Where I’m from is close to the Forest of Dean in the West Country, but I go there now and I think: yeah, it’s a beautiful place and everything, but this isn’t a forest; it’s a series of slightly overlapping woods. Maybe it’s that ability to find solitude, which is so rare now in much of the world, still exists in this part of the world. Ironically, something that could be brilliantly marketed – “come here and get away from everyone else”.
Maybe something also to do with attention to detail – the willingness to spend a lot of time on something small. So like a Lielvārdes josta [a traditional hand-woven Latvian belt], which is the most expensive thing you can buy, because it involves so much workmanship. Or an Autine axe – it’s a small thing but it’s built to last and it’s done with the greatest of craftsmanship and quality. It’s not mass-produced – you know, a mass-produced Lielvārdes josta is a contradiction in terms.
One reason I think this attention to detail and smallness and so on is important is because it implies the ease with which everything can be lost. And when you’ve had everything taken away from you so many times, as most Latvians have over the centuries, I think that becomes ten times more powerful. It’s like keeping your hands wrapped around something, keeping it so you can look in there and check that it’s still there and still safe, because you know that there are probably forces out there that are going to try to rip it out of your hands.
In many ways it’s a very bleak book – for example, in the last story, Beacon is contemplating suicide. Do you think it is that hard a life for a foreigner here?
Well, I don’t think it really depicts a hard life. Because part of Beacon, the character’s, make-up, is the fact that actually journalism’s quite easy for him, and he should really be doing something better. He has this book which he’s always going to write which he never quite manages to do. That waste of human potential is maybe the bleak aspect of it. In terms of physical comforts his life is OK; he doesn’t seem particularly dissatisfied.
He doesn’t seem particularly fulfilled either.
No, but a lot of people have got it a lot worse (laughs).
You mentioned the difference between being a good writer and being a good journalist, which I think is an interesting point because in many ways you have to be both for the book to be a creative success. Why would you say you’re a good writer but not a good journalist?
Well, because I don’t really care about news. Most of it is completely ephemeral flim-flam and highly uninteresting quotes from uninteresting people about uninteresting topics. I’m not one of these people who is a news junkie and thinks that everything is awfully exciting. Unless I had to I really wouldn’t give a toss about whether I got the first quote from such and such a prime minister or not. I don’t care about interviewing important people unless they happen to be interesting in their own right as human beings, so that’s the main thing.
To write journalism I have to really rein myself in.
To be objective?
No, not to be objective. But in terms of vocabulary, in terms of structure, in terms of the way you can express things. It’s pretty much churning it out, feeding the machine. Whereas in creative writing you can do anything – you can set empires in motion; you can destroy the cosmos. But you can’t do that in 250 words about the signing of a memorandum of understanding about some electricity lines.
There might be something that I find interesting in the situation, but I know that the editor is never going to find the same thing interesting as me. They just want to know on what date the memorandum will be signed, and I would like to ask “do you really trust this guy that you’re signing a deal with?”
How far do you feel that at LSM you have a responsibility to make the case for Latvia, bearing in mind as you’ve said that its view isn’t often represented internationally?
I don’t think making any case, just maybe hoping that the facts can be put out there and then people can draw their own conclusions. [On the subject of the Latvian citizenship tests for Soviet-era immigrants, often criticised by outside observers] If on that particular case you can give some indication that the situation is a complex one, as you say – you don’t have to say whether you think these rights should be automatic or whether the citizenship tests, which are reasonably straightforward, maybe more people should take them. But if you say what the situation is: that in order to obtain a passport, all you have to do is X, Y and Z, that’s something that people probably don’t know; the assumption would probably be that these people are excluded somehow from taking a passport or that they don’t have the right to it. They all have the right to it; it’s just a matter of whether you can give up a few hours of time to study, really.
You said you don’t think that Latvia’s changed since you came here, but there are clearly processes taking place that will result in changes in the long run. For example, you mention a gay rights parade in one story. Something else that you don’t touch upon in the book but that will I imagine make a huge difference to the country in the long run will be the arrival of the refugees.
Maybe the gay rights thing is the most obvious sign that things perhaps have changed. In 2008, there were pretty nasty scenes when it happened. And then the last one was kind of “what’s all the big fuss about?” So in a sense, regardless of what you feel about that issue, the fact that the country is mature enough that it doesn’t necessarily have to make a big deal about it. That, to me, is far better than if everyone is marching around saying “yay, this thing is great”. People have the right to say “I’m not really bothered”.
Do you think this is the attitude?
Yeah, and this is probably the result of one of the other big changes, in terms of migration. People have spent a long time in other countries, and sometimes they come back, and they’re highly mobile.
If you’ve been living in, I don’t know, London or Dublin for a few years, you’re amongst a big mix of people there. When you come back to Riga and you see some similar sort of people, it’s not such a big deal.
So you think that could be an unexpected benefit of the emigration thing, which is often presented in quite apocalyptic terms – as if Latvia is just going to die?
Yeah, and I don’t believe it when all these people say “these Latvians are going away and they’re never going to come back”, because I know that Latvians do actually feel deep down in their hearts a great sense of being tied to their homeland. And I think a lot of them will come back – or sufficient numbers to ensure that the nation carries on, and they’ll have expertise and extra money, and in the long run, it will be probably a positive thing. What it has done is accelerated this process that maybe we saw in the UK in the ‘70s, which is going to happen much faster here. People will be more confident about being in a more cosmpolitan environment here much quicker than happened there. So, do other countries have things to teach Latvia? Well, in many ways, no, not really, apart from by giving Latvians the opportunities to experience other countries.
Going back to the novel – or collection of stories – why did you decide to present it as something that had been found by a friend of Beacon’s, rather than simply a first-person narrative?
I’m glad you said “novel”. It’s supposed to be a novel. It’s actually based on Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden Stories, which were about a spy. Basically the structure1’s the same – it’s supposed to add up to a novel, which is a form that I really like. A series of short stories, but basically you get a novel at the end of it.
Why present it second-hand like this, though?
Partly because it’s a device I really like – like in the Flashman stories of George MacDonald Fraser. I wanted to put a bit more overt critical distance betwen myself and Beacon the journalist. So I’m not saying that this guy is me; there are some important differences between us. He doesn’t have a family or any other responsibilities apart from his cat. And I do have a family, and when that happens it fundamentally changes your character. Again, it’s an alternative version of where I might have ended up, but where I’m definitely not at the moment.
What similarities do you think there are between you and Beacon?
Well, a tendency towards depression, which is a bit more obvious in Beacon perhaps. Irritability, a sense of disgust (laughs). There’s quite a lot I share with him. But I would like to think maybe I’m not quite so pathetic – or not quite so seedy. I mean seedy was the word I had in mind when I began, based on this character that Graham Greene has called Minty in his book England Made Me, which is actually set in Stockholm, so it has kind of a Baltic feel to it.
And he has this minor character called Minty, who basically steals the book – he’s a minor character but he’s much more interesting than the main character. He’s a seedy journalist, and I always thought that “wouldn’t it be great if there was a whole book of Minty stories?”. He is the epitome of the seedy journalist, but who does actually get the story. To a certain extent that’s what Beacon is as well – he’s an updated Minty transplanted from the other side of the Baltic Sea.
Why do you think people find that interesting – that kind of character?
It’s partly to do with the freedom that such characters have. They seem quite oppressed, but they actually have a lot of freedom in terms of how they can spend their time. They can – theoretically, at least – spend hours waiting outside an office for someone to come out so that they can ask them a question. You know, they don’t have to pick the kids up from school; they don’t have to do another job, or anything like that. So it’s partly that freedom, and the simplicity of the life is quite appealing as well, even though it is, as I say, a seedy life – a life of rented lodgings and coffee cups; it’s quite appealing and in a way stress-free.
And also, as a seedy journalist, it’s his job to ask questions that maybe are a little bit rude. The sort of questions we would like to have the nerve to ask people ourselves. He’s doing it for monetary terms – he wants to get a story he can sell, but he knows what a story makes and maybe there’s that kind of vicarious interest in undercutting people, which we like as well – that ties in with the whole satirical thing as well, but it’s a slightly different technique.
Header image – Mike Collier [Image: Finkeltroc]
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