British Week makes great waves

  • 2001-05-24
  • Nick Coleman
RIGA - The arrival of three Royal Navy ships in Riga ensured that British Week, which runs from May 18 to May 25, got off to a roaring start. So popular were tours of the frigate HMS Campbeltown that while 3,000 people managed to get aboard another 1,000 had to be turned away.

After this nautical fanfare, attention soon turned to the orchestra of the Latvian National Opera, conducted by Stephen Barlow, which performed music by English composers Elgar and Tippett and Latvian composer Arturs Maskats. Meanwhile the bell-jangling performances - and prodigious drinking - of a group of traditional English Morris men, made a strong impression on local people - who thought they had seen it all after last summer's invasion of kilted Scottish football fans.

On shore, the 250-strong crew of HMS Campbeltown, rather than lurching around Riga singing "Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!" as might have been expected, instead chose to attend "La Boheme." At least that was how sailors Clare Martin, Sarah McGuire and Kelly Whybrow spent part of their shore leave. While they were impressed by the lack of bread queues and Riga's historic buildings, they did have one or two criticisms. "It's not a girl's town," said McGuire. "There aren't enough shops."

The purpose of their visit was to alter perceptions of the navy, said McGuire. "People have the wrong idea about warships. This trip is about promoting friendly relations, showing people we do humanitarian stuff - like charity work and disaster relief."

But it is Britain's willingness to defend Latvia that concerns Valters Nollendorfs, chairman of the Occupation Museum of Latvia, who attended a private lecture by Admiral Sir Jock Slater, former first sea lord and chief of naval staff. Slater described the role of the British navy in defending the Baltic states from Soviet attack immediately after World War I, a period when war-weary British sailors with communist sympathies were on the brink of mutinying.

The West must make amends for its abandonment of the Baltic states to Soviet rule after World War II, Nollendorfs told The Baltic Times. "Latvia has always felt betrayed by the West. Our forest partisans looked to Britain, especially when Churchill spoke against the occupation in 1946. I hope our great friends will not let us down again. Latvia may not be completely ready for NATO membership, but are you going to leave the Baltic states dangling?"

Along with small projects such as the construction of a playground in Riga's Esplanade Park, the British navy is currently clearing up some of the detritus of war. Two British mine sweepers, HMS Grimsby and HMS Pembroke, were also in Riga at the weekend, taking a break from a two-week mine clearance operation in the Baltic Sea.

At press time 15 mines had been cleared, containing a total of 3,000 kilograms of explosives. In most cases a remote-control submarine was used, but a diver had to deal with one mine in person, said Commander John Murphie.

"Mines can either become more or less dangerous with time. These had become more dangerous and all of them exploded. We'll still be talking about this problem in the Baltic Sea in 50 years."

Meanwhile, at a Latvian-British commercial exhibition at the Radisson Hotel, Ken Parsons, director of ECB, a British company that exports marine products to Latvia, said he had made some useful contacts, despite an underwhelming number of visitors. He was having trouble with his prize exhibit, however, a large, solar-powered buoy for marking shipping lanes.

"It has been impounded by the Latvian customs authorities, who want to charge excise tax even though it's only for the exhibition and I will take it out again. But hopefully it will be here soon."

Unfortunately, when the buoy is released Parsons will not be able to put it in the exhibition hall. "No one told me we would be on the second floor, but we will put it in the river outside the hotel."

British Week continues with a multiplicity of events. Highlights include the Random Dance company performing in Liepaja on May 25, stagings of Carol Churchill's play Top Girls on May 24 and 25 and the all-night Animal Farm dance party on May 25. Details are available from the British Embassy (Alunana 5) and the British Council (Blaumana 5).