Don's Diary

December 8, 1995

Monday. To Riga, Latvia. We're off for a seminar with university lecturers who might add British studies to their sophisticated programme of advanced English language teaching work. I have spent several days assembling bibliographies, picking up new textbooks, reading essential parts for new ideas, editing videotapes, finalising notes. My suitcase is overweight but kindly checkers let me off!

I spot my colleagues, slightly bog-eyed and already crumpled. Manchester at 5am is no place for elegance or frolicking. I follow them on to the plane for the first of a series of ham and cheese breakfasts.

That evening our first meeting with course members is direct: can we apply Habermas in a linguistic analysis of one of Mr Blair's recent speeches? Can we then compare this with one of Mr Kinnock's earlier speeches?

In my room I look over my papers. The bed is very short, hot water is rationed to two hours daily. There are no sheets, only a heavy felt blanket in a cotton wrap. My short-wave radio works well, BBC World Service is even better on FM. I swat several mosquitoes with my notes. My Worldtraveller kettle bubbles into action and I make a cup of tea - a bit browner than usual but tastes OK. Finally I wriggle beneath my felt mat. Surprisingly cosy, I fall asleep.

Tuesday. Language, identity and cultural production. I talk about ways of reading dictionaries and pose some queries about the Oxford English Dictionary's lexicography. My audience seems attentive but remote. I sketch recent views of the history of the language, highlighting the nation-building project in the 19th century. I close with the national curriculum, government efforts concerning Standard English and the ways in which this is seen by British teachers.

As the morning proceeds I begin to realise the absolute nature of language differences in the Baltic. The four languages of our audience clarify as plainly national identities without margins. No wonder my vapourings about the OED, Standard English and the national curriculum were received so blandly.

Wednesday. regional languages: perspectives on regional esteem and regional vs national language. I change to a more interactive mode, deny the audience a narrative, question them regularly. A dialogue begins to shape up. Eye contact improves too. After our post-supper session we walk to a nearby bar.

Most houses have only one light showing. We learn that this is because of the high cost of electricity. Inside the bar, we sip our beers in almost total blackness. We are advised to try Latvian Balsams, the local speciality. But none here. We suppose the gloom is another economy measure? But no, someone else says that electricity is not expensive after all. We abandon attempts to count our change.

Thursday. British identities: tensions between ethnic, class and regional identity. Parallels between local concerns and British variants begin to emerge. We focus on tension between social class and ethnicity: Bob Hoskins's video anecdotes say more than 30 minutes of socio-linguistic exposition. Actor Peter Bowles pleads identity loss following a forced change of accent. Although such things are the point of many liberation pleas from British educational-linguistics, the expose hardly raises eyebrows here. Why does Bowles not just change his accent back again?

Friday. Language and the press: critical awareness and gendering. A recent course member's paper: "Is there a future for feminism in Estonia?" hinted at local scepticism. But now we plainly see the rhetorical drift of the article was a resounding "no!".

Audience irony takes us in a bound from recognition of gendering to a query: why do we not simply recommend breast implants? We are pleased and gratified by students' written comments. If we had such positive feedback at home we would be delighted.

Saturday. We have the afternoon to ourselves. In Riga market we pass lines of pensioners selling household chattels. I remember that our pocket-money for the week equals a pensioner's monthly income.

Sobered, we press on into labyrinthine fleamarkets. I buy a Russian claspknife and an imposing war veteran's medal. Further wanderings take us into cavernous food halls plentifully stocked but strangely quiet. Still no Latvian Balsams.

Later we dine out. After vodka we have travellers' tales. A rewrite of Ulysses' misadventures on the island of dog-headed men; a student trip in a Bulgarian cattle wagon filled with edible frogs, (which escaped); an account of a visit to a doubtful establishment in Istanbul. Then an exposition from our female colleague on the difficulties experienced by modern young men.

Sunday. Homeward bound. Crammed into a tiny cab, we trundle through forests to the deserted airport. Timber must be Latvia's major export. But no, I remember it is machinery. The duty-free shop has Latvian Balsams at last. It must be cheaper here. No, it is dearer. I remember Mike Fitzgerald's talk on managing contradictions that I heard in Washington. He said it could be done with goodwill. I reflect that British studies might do worse than exporting just that.


Principal lecturer in English at Edge Hill College of Higher Education.

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