RIGA - Lancashire native Leigh Smith first traveled to Riga in 1991, when the "bullets were still flying." That first trip didn't last very long 's a group of tough looking soldiers with blue berets soon told him the country wasn't safe for foreigners 's but it was long enough to spark his interest in Latvia.
Smith, a world renowned martial arts instructor and former European champion, came back to Riga in 1992. This time, however, he brought a group of students to try to build good relations with the people of the newly freed country and to help lay the foundations for a karate club in Riga.
His group was able to start serious martial arts training in Latvia and met up with Janis Reimandovs, a security services agent who remained a close friend and student of Smith's until his death. Romandov helped Smith navigate the complicated and dangerous world of post-Soviet Latvia.
Not everything on his trip went as planned, however. Much to his surprise, when Smith and his entourage got to Riga they were greeted with posters around the city proclaiming their arrival. He was shuffled to a large arena where thousands of martial arts fans who had bought tickets for a karate demonstration/competition waited impatiently. A local club, composed mainly of bulky military personnel, had already broken all but one of the boards and bricks meant for the demonstration, but Smith somehow still managed to make the best of the situation.
Smith said that this sort of money-grubbing martial arts is still commonplace in Latvia. "Lots of people here, unfortunately, are just in it for the money. They have no real loyalty," he said. He explained that when students finally start to gain appreciable skills, they all too often run off to start their own club which 's in an attempt to make a quick buck 's panders to thugs, gangsters and other unsavory types.
By contrast Smith's club, Saxon Karate, is a "family oriented" club that works to help people rather than empty their pockets. "We give a lot of donations to charities in Latviaâ€¦ [and] if someone doesn't have the money to pay for lessons, they should never be turned away," Smith said.
He went on to explain that his organization helped foster the first city-to-city partnership that independent Latvia had ever known, with the help of prominent political and business connections that the club had established. He said that over the years the club in Latvia has become like a family to him, and now he comes back multiple times a year to visit.
While the karate scene in Latvia is becoming stronger and stronger every year, Smith said the club may still struggle to make ends meet in the future unless it gets some help from the government. He said that since the club takes charity cases and doesn't cater to Mafiosos, it will continue to have to deal with financial realities.
Smith's eyes light up with passion when he tells stories of his rough and tumble adventures traveling the world 's a promising sign for an up-and-coming author who just finished his first book.
He tells of the time he was almost killed while acting as a bodyguard for a perspective buyer looking to get a Soviet nuclear submarine for scrap metal. The sellers were being so amiable that he thought it appropriate to ask if he could snap some photos of the men in front of the giant sub. That little photo-shoot went off without a hitch, but Smith suddenly found himself looking down the barrels of a number of AK-47s when he tried to take pictures of a nearby area labeled "botanical gardens."
He tells of the magnificent impression left on him by the Tamil Tigers 's a Sri Lankan separatist group 's and of the plight of the Tamil people. When he arrived in Sri Lanka, he was greeted with some of the most welcoming hospitality he had known. Thousands of people came to take part in his classes on the first day.
Smith seems to have an endless supply of tales of daring from his exploits across the globe as he founded and ran what has now become one of the largest karate clubs in the world. From these stories it becomes clear that he truly loves the art of storytelling.
That may be why his book has already become such a huge success. All 5,000 copies printed in the first run sold out within 48 hours. His first official book signing in the UK earlier this month drew more than 10,000 book orders, after which his publisher told him that it was simply not equipped to deal with that level of popularity.
The book, titled "Norvern Monkey," is loosely based on Smith's childhood life surrounded by poverty and violence in northern England. It's labeled a work of fiction "because my lawyer says so," Smith says.
During his childhood, Smith's family walked on the wrong side of the law. His two brothers were notorious ruffians involved in organized crime. Smith remembers being impressed with their fancy cars, beautiful movie star friends and the respect that so many people showed them 's at least until he was old enough to see that the respect was rooted in fear.
Their knavery eventually resulted in the untimely deaths of his two brothers 's one gunned down on the streets of London and the other dead of a brain tumor possibly caused by the numerous blows to the head he received in fights.
When he started his own family at the tender age of 20, Smith sought to extract himself from the criminal world his brothers were involved in, not wanting to raise his own children in an environment laced with violence.
"Norvern Monkey" is to be the first of a trilogy, and Smith said that Latvia plays a large role in the series.
Smith said that the hardest part about writing this first book was putting his real name to the work, implicitly acknowledging some of the more difficult aspects of his turbulent past. Once that hurdle had been crossed, Smith said, "the most difficult thing about writing the second book will be the same as the difficulty I had with the first 's convincing my wife that the steamy sex scenes are fictional."
"Norvern Monkey" is due to be released in the UK over the weekend of Oct. 27 and 28.