Eye-opener of the (un)known England comes back to Lithuania

  • 2011-03-23
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

With thousands of Lithuanians living in England, one may reason that all has been said about the island nation. Several books on England and the Britons have been published, but none has come close to the vociferous publicity of the books “England: about those People and their Country” and “The Tamed England,” written by Andrius Uzkalnis, Lithuanian journalist, aspiring writer, BBC contributor and traveler. While other Lithuanian-turned-English-emigrant scribblers may scratch their heads, wondering about the reasons for their success, this bestselling author can probably reveal it tersely as: “It is not about what you say – it is how you say it.” Known for his rather audacious and bold remarks on England and Englishmen, when approached for this The Baltic Times interview, he seemed to humble himself a bit when speaking on the topic. Nonetheless, England-savvy readers may themselves relate to his more modest remarks on the country.

Why did you leave Lithuania 15 years ago? Was it too bad here?
Not at all. When I was 24, I got a job with the BBC in Caversham, in southern England. My job involved monitoring the media. They needed someone who knew Lithuanian and English and could select and translate news coming from Lithuania.

You have been living in England for over 15 years now. What is your biggest discovery about the country? What do you see differently about Lithuania from there?
This is hard to say because I do not know how I would see Lithuania had I never lived abroad for a long time. I think that Lithuania is more communal, and I love everything to be personal and individualistic in England, as I can pertain that to my personality. I have always been very individualistic. England has been a very good country for someone with these character traits to blossom in. In Lithuania, they still often say ‘you cannot do this’, ‘people don’t do that’ or ‘that is not the way to write or talk.’ My answer is always – yes, I can do this and that my way. Just watch me.

Lithuanian emigrants are often depicted as poorly-educated, underpaid and desperate people, attaching themselves mostly to local Lithuanian communities in Great Britain. An unwillingness and inability to adapt to the English lifestyle is often considered another characteristic of Lithuanians in England. Is the image true?
Largely, yes. It so happened that a very large proportion of people who came to England were from, let us say, the unskilled or low-skilled segment. The background of the majority shapes their choices, their attitudes and their adaptability. However, they are a part of my country, and I never perk, assuming I am better in any way.

Tell me honestly whether you can distinguish a Lithuanian or, in a broader sense, an Eastern European, in England? When will we be able to rip off the label of ‘homo sovieticus’? Is there anything particular about Lithuanian emigrants in Great Britain?
It is harder and harder to be able to point out Eastern Europeans in London, unless they are very recent arrivals. Sooner or later, they blend in. I would rather distinguish the Eastern European features, which are different from the British appearance, and that are benign from the behavioral legacy of the Soviet Union. As for the labels and that peculiar Soviet appearance, shedding it is a journey. Some never make it. I tend to view the residual Soviet appearance as a form of mental illness, which is curable, but for some, it sits too deep, even though it is a learnt behavior. How quickly people manage to shed it really depends on the job the people do, and also on the type of their personality. Some people have lived in Lithuania all their lives and have nothing Soviet about them. As for looking, sounding and feeling Lithuanian or British in the UK, new arrivals go through various stages. Some cannot fit in at all and they do not even try. Others try, a bit. Then others try fitting in and largely succeed. And then there are some who cannot be bothered to try because they are perfectly happy with their personality and their unique characteristics.

I have read that some Lithuanians try to avoid their compatriots abroad. Are you trying to avoid Lithuanians in England? Is nationality important to you?
I am not avoiding Lithuanians, but I do not socialize with people if the only reason for me to be with them is that they are Lithuanians. There has to be something else to talk about, too, although having a commonality of language and common history helps.

However, working for the BBC, freelancing and writing rather vitriolic books about England, you obviously shed the ‘commonality,’ as you stand out in the crowd. Do you see yourself in that way? Do you consider yourself a ‘lucky dog’?
I would not call my books vitriolic. I do not know who would – that is rubbish. My writing about England, I think, contains some of the gentlest words about this country that have ever been written in Lithuanian. The Lithuanian prose about England is dominated by banal and trite reflections, as well as the ponderings of rednecks and housewives who are primarily in a state of denial and rejection because the things they see around them are not what they are used to in their stinky, concrete apartment blocks. In my books I tried to give a little bit of information, and explain that everything that happens, happens for a reason. To answer your question, I do not think I stand out in the crowd in the UK. I am known in Lithuania, but in the UK I am a nobody with a house and a car and a family. In Lithuania, I make more difference than I do in the UK, and this is one of the reasons why I am moving back to Vilnius this year. Yes, I would call myself lucky. My life has worked out well in many different ways for me.

How did you manage to get hooked up with the BBC? Tell us a bit about your work in the news network.
I got the job with the BBC by writing an application when there was a vacancy, advertised back in 1993. There was nothing magic about it. In those days, the processes would take quite a while, and I started to work in Caversham, near London, only in January 1995. I was recruited as a Lithuania- monitoring journalist for the part of the BBC that monitors international media. After a few years, I moved to a managerial position, working with teams of people who monitor media in many countries in many languages and report in English about what they see, hear and read.

I wonder what you dislike about the Lithuanian media from the BBC box?
I would say I dislike narrow perspective, lack of international context and the annoying self-righteous types who cannot stop preaching about justice and fairness. They exist in other countries, too, but in Lithuania I think they are too often viewed as examples to follow.

What would be your three pieces of advice to those pondering emigration to the UK?
Prepare in advance and collect as much information as you can about what you are going to do, where you are going to stay and whether it is going to be worth it. And, sure, go for it if you feel it is a good idea. It is important to remember that if you dislike it here, you can always go back.

You are mostly known as the author of two bestsellers about England. What, or who, prompted you to take them on? Had there been something unknown about the country before you assumed the task? What is the magic of their success, particularly of your first book, ‘England: about those People and their Country’?
Yes, indeed, I have written and published two books about England that turned out to become bestsellers. My third book is about travels to other countries - Japan, Italy, America and others. My first book came out of stories and anecdotes and nuggets of knowledge that I shared with my friends, but which never ended up in print before that. Honestly, I do not think there had been a lot of good writing about England in Lithuanian, and I saw it as an opportunity. I am happy the book was successful - it is in its fifth print run. Its success lies with its aim at a wide audience. In addition, it was written by a journalist. That was also important.

However, in your first book, admit it honestly, you sneered beyond number at England and Britons, pouring out all your vitriol onto them. If the country and its people are so ‘weird’ and ‘funny,’ why have you been there for fifteen years?
I am wondering if you read the same book that I wrote. What sneering, what vitriol? Obviously, you missed some points I wanted to say. Both of my books about England were written with compassion and with more than a pinch of goodwill. I never said that I did not like it in England, or that I was not grateful for the chance to live in another country. If I were young again, I would do the same again.

Let me ask you a question that you, undoubtedly, have heard hundreds of time. How do you describe the average English Joe? What is so special about Britons’ traditions? Have you seen England enough to draw any far-reaching conclusions?
I cannot meaningfully describe an average Englishman. That is why I did not do it in my books. People have some common features: self-deprecation, a sense of humor and natural suspicion to those who take themselves too seriously. England is seen as a very conservative country with a strong attachment to the past, and that is largely true. It was the largest empire in the world and has a lot to remember. Yes, I think I have seen enough of England to make my own conclusions. I do not think there is a mandatory threshold, as I can make my own conclusions even after three days in a strange country, if I so choose, let alone after ten years.

If you were a Briton, one who pokes fun at Lithuania and the people in Lithuania, you would probably get punched in some dark Vilnius street. Are Lithuanians too sensitive to critique over their country and its traditions? What is the biggest difference between Lithuanians and Britons?
Lithuanians are less used to foreigners and their opinions about them. They are sensitive, but this is in common among other small and not very secure nations. The biggest difference is that Lithuanians are more ambitious and want many more things in life, other than early retirement and putting your feet up, which is what most of the people in England seem to want.
Writers of older Lithuanian generations do feel much nostalgia for Lithuania, which is something you do not exhibit. Why is it so?
I think it is because they could not travel freely, and to them their country was very precious and fragile. I miss a lot of things in Lithuania, but I can go and see them a few times a year. This helps.

With stays in Delhi, Sapporo, Dubai, the U.S. and other countries, you are a seasoned traveler who has put all his insights about them in your only ‘non-England-related’ book. You seem to be more matter-of-fact in it than in your books about England. Is this the right impression? Is England the only country so far you can grin at?
I know other countries less intimately than I know England. The impressions of the tourist are usually less judgmental.

Are you really coming back to Lithuania? Did your children relinquish some of their Lithuanian-ness?
My daughters were born in England. It is their country and English is their native language. I wish they could speak better Lithuanian than they do now, but there are objective circumstances limiting this. Yes, I am coming back to Lithuania this year. I am not saying that I am coming back for good, because God knows what can happen to me next, but now my dream is to live in Vilnius and be able to see the Old Town walls and church towers out of my window.

Good luck with your endeavors.