Alice-Azania Jarvis: Latvia is a small country with a big history

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'For you. From Latvia." Our taxi driver leaned forward to hand over a punnet of strawberries. So much for the superiority of English strains; these were the best I'd tasted by a long way. The gesture – made midway through a journey from Riga to the spa town of Jurmala – had involved a mini detour to an outdoor market where everything, we were strenuously assured, was locally produced: Latvian cucumbers, Latvian yoghurt, Latvian curd, Latvian strawberries.

It was a pattern that was repeated time and time again: little gifts bestowed with pride and the words "it's Latvian." When I expressed my fondness for the home-made pastries that accompanied one meal, I was presented with three boxes full by the host (three too many, cried my conscience, though my appetite was inclined to disagree.) Admiring a display of sweet peas on one of dozens of street-side stands, I was promptly assured of their home-grown status and invited to choose a bunch, free of charge. Generosity and local pride: it's an attractive combination. An effective one too; I'm already planning a return visit to the self-styled "Capital of the North."

Surely, I pondered, this constant self-assertion must be rooted in the country's history. Dominated by foreign powers – first the Russians, then the Germans, then the Russians again – until 1991, Latvia had enjoyed nation status, in the concrete, autonomous sense of the word, only fleetingly. Tasked with the challenge of nation-building, the modern state has attempted a variety of identity-assuming initiatives. The results haven't always been successful; there have been misguided attempts to enforce Latvian-language education, despite the strong minority of Russian speakers, and flirtations with stringent citizenship restrictions.

Indeed, throughout our visit the past loomed large. Wandering the streets of Riga's Old Town, circling the famous Freedom Monument, visiting the rural holiday homes of the Russian Politburo, I struggled to recall a visit to any region that had been quite so conditioned by its history. One subject, though, was conspicuous in its absence: the not-so-dismissible matter of the country's occupation by the Nazis. Everywhere we went, the Soviet era was memorialised; evidence of the Latvian Holocaust, however, remained elusive.

The question of how, exactly, to remember those years – a small part of the country's history if longevity is your measure, an enormous one if it's a matter of continental significance – has occupied national debate for some time. Since Mr Cameron's association with Latvia's Freedom and Fatherland party within the European Conservatives and Reformists Group, it has extended to the international arena. In March, when veterans of the Nazi-allied Latvian Legion participated in their annual walk to Riga's Freedom monument, David Miliband declared the event "nauseating."

No doubt much of the fault was ours; it was, after all, just a flying visit. Reflecting on the subject at the end of my stay, I was recommended the "Jews in Latvia," museum; regrettably, our time was up. Still, the contrast with the attention paid to other eras was striking. Inevitably, if nation-building is the task at hand, it's a matter that must be resolved – sooner rather than later.

Punk's old tunes really are the best ones

Green Day long ago left behind the raucous, poetic punk that won my adolescent affection (not to mention acted as gateway to the genre's back catalogue).

Now, two decades into their career, they have become little more than an above-average American pop act, spouting run-of-the mill anti-establishmentisms and colour-by-numbers expressions of angst. Judging from the reviews of their recent mega-selling gig at Wembley Stadium, though, they do, at least, know it.

"The old songs are better anyway," Billy Joe Armstrong, the group's still boyish frontman is said to have announced, before launching into a series of Dookie-era classics for the delighted audience. How refreshing to hear an acknowledgement of the fleeting nature of greatness. Bob Dylan made a similar observation several years ago, during a rare appearance on the CBS chat show 60 Minutes. "I don't know how I got to write those songs – they were almost magically written," he mused of his 1960s heyday. "You can't do something forever. I can do other things now but, I can't do that."

If only every performer was so self-aware. Then, perhaps, we wouldn't have to contend with the unedifying spectacle of every comeback-primed rocker taking to the breakfast-show sofa to insist that their latest, below-par comeback represents their "most exciting/ most accessible/most creative" work yet.

Masonic mystique

I don't know anything about the Freemasons and, frankly, that's just the way I like it. They are, in my imagination, a shadowy cast, all passwords, insignia and hidden identities. They are enigmatic, exciting, the stuff of film scripts and conspiracy theories.

Soon, though, all this is to change. In place of shadows, we are to have press releases, information packs and – gasp – transparency. The United Grand Lodge of England has asked communications group Bondy Consulting to "build greater awareness of Freemasonry."

No doubt there are all sorts of sensible reasons for this. Still, things haven't started well. In a symbolic first act of openness, a spokesperson has announced that "there is no secret handshake", shattering illusions of alternating grips and intertwined thumbs. No secret handshake? Then what's the point?

a.jarvis@independent.co.uk

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