Ann Alari

Ann Alari is a London-based Estonian journalist, translator and author. She is a member of the Foreign Press Association (London) and the Estonian Writers’ Union.

The London Book Fair focusses on Estonian literature

The London Book Fair 2018 focussed on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the countries are celebrating their centenaries; numerous events at the fair concentrated on Estonian books, writers and translators in the city that is considered a gateway to the European markets.

The London Book Fair, held from 10-12 April 2018, is over. It has always been an event for discovering opportunities, to do face-to-face business. This year, over 25,000 delegates from 130 countries participated, over 200 professional events like panel discussions, seminars and training sessions took place. Traditionally, it is a showcase for individual publishing markets, where contacts are made and deals are done.

It was, no doubt, a great moment for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the countries that were focussed on at the global market place – and one may only hope that the grand event at Kensington Olympia will get transformed into a remarkable impact in the publishing industry of the United Kingdom and the English-speaking world. As several European publishers still consider London a gateway to the European markets, the impact might even be echoed on the continent. Perhaps even on several continents, one never knows; all we know is that in the modern world writers are as essential as a glass of water.

Audio books and non-fiction becoming popular

What is the news in a nutshell regarding the LBF 2018? It is the first time one notices such a remarkable growth in the use of audio books – especially among men in their twenties, thirties and forties. Also, the importance of poetry has grown – probably as a counter-reaction to politics. Blogs, literary blogs are getting more and more noticed. And no doubt, the book fair highlighted the interest in book illustration. According to statistics, children are remarkably good readers, so one can be sure that books have a great future; and not only traditional books but also e-books.

The popularity of non-fiction is growing fast; a good example being the huge pre-publication interest in “Meghan: A Hollywood Princess”, written by Andrew Morton. A generation ago, Morton’s book, “Diana: Her True Story”, was an explosive account on the princess’s conflicted secret life. The book on Meghan Markle involved a thorough research, on the basis of which the author claims that she is the person who has made the royal family relevant for the next 100 years.

Translations and translators are in the limelight, as are many cross-cultural and global topics. Brexit means insecurity for all those tens of thousands non-UK citizens who work in different sectors, including the publishing industry of the United Kingdom. Moreover, it may mean a shift from the traditional use of London as the publishing markets’ gateway to Europe.

Translators turn into writers

But back to the translators, and also the translators turned into writers. The latter may have a great future due to their obvious capability of presenting their texts in a more accessible manner for readers of the global village. The panel discussion during which Maarja Kangro (who explained that she was a translator who grew into being a writer), and Christopher Moseley (who has translated several Estonian authors into English) teamed up on the topic was utterly intriguing and most enjoyable.

Be it a box of Malta, a display area of Estonia or display areas of China, translators were given a voice. Miriam McIlfatrick, Susan Wilson, Adam Cullen, and Christopher Moseley – experienced and creative translators from Estonian into English – were seen taking part in different events of the book fair. Be it Estonia or the UK, publishers are interested in getting good translations from the translators who have developed a cross-cultural grasp and perfect language skills.

Over the years, the Estonian Literature Centre, headed by Ilvi Liive in Tallinn, has made a remarkable effort to train those who translate Estonian books into foreign languages. It is not an exaggeration to say that among many other things, the Estonian Literature Centre has managed creating a global network of professional translators.

The other side of the same coin is translating from foreign languages into Estonian. Interestingly, the topic drew a remarkably wide audience at a busy hour of the book fair. The translator and publisher, Krista Kaer, and the publisher, Christopher MacLehose, were in a gripping conversation that painted an intriguing cross-cultural picture of the history of translating into Estonian. By the questions and answers time, Christopher Moseley joined in, and the jostling of cameramen around them was swiftly followed by several one-to-one filmed interviews.

Moseley translates fiction not only from Estonian into English but also from Latvian, Finnish and Scandinavian languages – and somewhat surprisingly, even from Livonian. He teaches at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and for those English speakers who have studied Estonian, his name is familiar thanks to the complete course, “Colloquial Estonian” – the most popular text book written by him for learners of the Estonian language.

The most recent good news is that on top of grammar, from 2018 it will be possible to study under his supervision an undergraduate course introducing the literature of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in English translation.

The list of Estonian writers Moseley has translated is impressive, including Andrus Kivirähk, Indrek Hargla, Maimu Berg, Anton Hansen Tammsaare and even Ene Mihkelson, whose “Plague Grave” is a remarkable challenge for the most experienced translator (a chapter of the book is available in the Riveter magazine, Riveting Baltics Writing, April 2018).

Moseley’s most recent translation of a novel is “Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory”, written by Ilmar Taska – the book that has just been published by Norvik Press and is now available for the readers living in the United Kingdom.

Problems reflected in the Taska’s book as relevant as ever

“Pobeda 1946: A Car Called Victory” is Taska’s first novel. Published by Varrak in 2016, it has already been translated into Finnish, Lithuanian, German and Danish, and enjoys both critical success and popularity among readers in the respective countries. Taska is a modern and sensitive author with a remarkably visual style of writing. His career started in the TV and movie industries: he has worked at Tallinnfilm, the Swedish television and Hollywood film companies.

Compared with many authors, Taska’s grasp is global; however, while reading this book, one realises quickly that it is a very personal story – Taska was born into a family that had been deported to Kirov.

Taska’s novel is based on characters turned into archetypes; from victims to the new era collaborators, each character gets a voice in the light of the power change that impacted the lives of people in occupied Estonia. Moreover, each character has his or her hopes stemming from their perception of the changing world; and when the hope dies, the voice certainly dies.

As the book has been published only recently, the conversation between Taska and Rosie Goldsmith (the director of the European Literature Network and a former BBC journalist) that took place in the framework of EstLitFest was keenly followed by would-be readers.

Taska cleverly draws a line between collective and individual: on the one hand, there are people who have lost their names in the narration – the main characters are “the woman”, her son who is just “the boy”, and a KGB man who is “the man”; on the other hand, there are those who still have their names, the two striking individuals – Johanna, an Estonian opera singer and Alan, a London-based BBC news director – whose love story stamps the book with great hope. Having said that, I must admit that there stays a nagging question regarding “the boy” – will he become “the man”?

Johanna’s problems are in many ways the problems reflected on by Sofi Oksanen in “When the Doves Disappeared” and by Margaret Atwood in “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Will the woman who succeeds escaping the totalitarian world be understood in the free world? Will the door behind her be locked forever? And just to think of all those many other questions following the first two.

The problems reflected on in the Taska’s book are as relevant as ever; the wartime is not the past.  The picture he paints of news production, and the way readers are led to follow Johanna in order to discover the real news within the news is pretty amusing. It reminds one of a Russian doll, and maybe brings to mind people discovering messages left by famous tailors into the suits and dresses worn by their famous clients. Date of arrival is often depending on the mind-set and resourcefulness of the recipient.

Finally, I hope my reader will forgive me for not having been capable of shedding light on so many other truly interesting events that took place in the framework of the ever-vibrant London Book Fair. I do believe seeing is believing, and I hope to see it all continued next year, at the London Book Fair 2019.


Cover: London Book Fair 2018 at Kensington Olympia (credit: LBF). All images by Ann Alari except where stated.

Malta, seen by an Estonian: a conversation with Ingrid Eomois

Ingrid Eomois has lived, worked and studied in Malta for 18 years and has now published a book, “My Malta” that took her five years to write – here she talks about her life in Malta.

The year 2018 is important for both Estonia and Malta. Estonia is celebrating its 100th anniversary and Valletta is in the honoured position of the European capital of culture. Ingrid Eomois, the director of the British Council in Malta, has recently published her very first book, “Minu Malta” (“My Malta”) – in the Estonian language.

Ingrid lives in a 400-year-old house in Valletta; climbing the steps of the spiralling staircase to her roof patio makes me feel as if having been transported to an old fairy tale. Finally, we get to the cosy and modern patio defined by enormous potted plants; above us is the blue sky with sparkly white doves pirouetting in the vastness. No wonder her book has become a bestseller in Estonia. Ingrid has lived, worked and studied in Malta for 18 years, which puts her in a good position to give enlightening answers to a wide range of questions.

Let us start from the very beginning. What led you to Malta? What was the very beginning of your Malta experience?

I knew very little of Malta when I first landed here in 1999 – to work for an Estonian travel agency for the duration of two months. Ironically, in the beginning I did not like Malta at all: it was too dry, too crowded and too loud for my liking. I learned to love Malta slowly and cautiously. Looking back, it has been a bit like a successful arranged marriage – not love at first sight but respect and love that grows over time. I learned that there was more to Malta than first meets the eye: fascinating culture, Mediterranean easy-going lifestyle and linguistic diversity. I moved to Malta permanently in 2000 to do my master’s degree in theatre studies at the University of Malta.

Petrone Print publishers (an Estonian publishing company – editor) are well known for their My … series of books where the authors describe their lives in a specific city, country or region. What prompted you to write the book titled “My Malta”?

One of the publishers of Petrone Print approached me with the proposal to write the book. I probably would not have done it otherwise since finding time to pursue my hobbies and interests was very difficult. I was also quite keen to promote Malta not only as a sun and sea destination but reveal a deeper, more interesting side of this fascinating country. It took me five years. I think it is safe to say that writing a book is more complex and time consuming than I initially imagined.

What have been the so called important stations or life changing events in your Malta journey?

Work and professional development has always been crucial to me, so completing my master’s degree in theatre studies and another one a few years later in marketing communications was very important to me and helped my career along. I am also a licensed guide and it has been a great privilege to show Malta to thousands of Estonian guests over the years.

I have had a few great job opportunities in Malta but being employed by the British Council has definitely been the most significant and rewarding. On a personal front, I have met some fantastic people along the way who believed in me – both professionally and personally. Without them I would not be where I am today. It is true that as a grown-up, it is more difficult to make true friends and often we have to settle for acquaintances. Once again, I have been very fortunate to meet people who I trust and admire, and who have been there for me, no matter what. One of my best friends is actually Estonian, Margit, who is a successful dental technician in Malta.

I have also received a tremendous support from my parents back home and particularly from my sister and her two grown-up daughters. They come to visit almost every year and we talk to each other every day.

Of course, the birth of my son in 2013 was a life-changing experience and has changed the way I look at life and has partly changed my priorities.

One chapter of your book explains (in amazing detail) how to become a citizen of Malta, how to obtain citizenship. Why is it important to be a citizen of the country you have settled in?

I always thought that it was important to have a say in a country where one lives and without having the citizenship it is not possible. To put it simply, I applied for the Maltese citizenship to be able to vote and participate in the democratic process. In Malta, over 90% of the adult population votes in general election – I wanted to be a part of that. As an EU citizen, I did not need the citizenship for other reasons, such as the right to work or live in Malta.

How connected is your daily work with the Mediterranean countries, the United Kingdom, Estonia and the whole world?

My daily work is closely connected to the UK – at the British Council my job is to promote the UK in Malta. Working in collaboration with local partners is a must – mutuality is a strong principle in the British Council. Therefore I feel closely connected to our Maltese partners in education, arts and science. Some of our projects also involve other Mediterranean countries and countries in the Commonwealth.

My daily work is not connected to Estonia but in collaboration with the Estonian Embassy in Rome I am trying to help promote Estonian culture in Malta. We recently organised an Estonian film festival here and have some exciting plans for this year!

What languages are you using while working, while at home, while with your friends? What languages are being used by other members of your family?

At work, English is the main language. At home, with my partner and I speak English and I speak Estonian with my four year old son. My partner’s family (like most people in Malta) is bilingual (English and Maltese), in a domestic setting they speak mostly Maltese. Unfortunately I am not fluent in Maltese – I can understand a lot and hold a simple conversation but with my (Maltese) friends I speak English. My son is trilingual from birth, and I am already learning Maltese with him!

In Estonia, my family speaks Estonian, my sister and her daughters are also fluent in English. We all make an effort to speak Estonian only with my son to develop his language skills.

You live in Valletta. Why Valletta? Why not Sliema, for example?

I just love Valletta, our capital, and would not live anywhere else, at least for now. I like that Valletta’s population is still largely Maltese people; and Valletta’s people, although sometimes described as on the rough side, are mostly honest and loyal. Sliema and St Julians are highly developed areas where most of the expat community lives. Some love it but it really isn’t for me.

Valletta is changing, and the residents – me included – are not always on board with the changes. Our capital is suffering from gentrification, people with money are moving in, more and more boutique hotels and commercial outlets are opening, questionable building permits are issued to the hotel owners. Property prices are extremely steep in Valletta, most Maltese families today simply cannot afford living here. In my opinion, we really do not need more expensive boutique hotels and bars/restaurants, but affordable properties for young families and public spaces to be enjoyed by the community. Valletta’s heritage needs to be treated with respect.

Huge cathedrals and churches dominate the skyline of Maltese towns and villages. What is the role of religion in Malta?

Malta is predominantly Roman Catholic and although the influence of the church is slightly dwindling, religion still plays an important part in the lives of many Maltese people. Compared with Scandinavia and the Baltics, Malta is still a conservative society and, for example, lacks the reproductive rights that are accessible elsewhere in Europe. Just to give you a little example: divorce was only legalised in Malta in 2011. I am not a religious person myself but I do respect people who have chosen a different path.

On the other hand, in some areas, for example LGBTIQ rights, Malta is very progressive. Same-sex marriage became legal in Malta in 2017. Malta also leads with legislation about the rights of transgender people. I am very proud to live in a country that has done so much for previously marginalised communities.

In connection with Malta, it is inevitable to speak about migration. What is your personal experience with the modern world’s burning problem of migration?

In Malta, migration is quite personal for everyone – the island is small, and the number of refugees is relatively high due to Malta’s geographical location. I would be lying if I said Malta did not struggle with the influx of refugees and the financial and cultural implications it brings. My personal opinion is that we have to help people fleeing war zones because, well, we are human and have the responsibility to help – even when it is inconvenient. Many members of my Estonian family were refugees who escaped from the communist regime and settled in the UK and Sweden. In these countries, they were given the necessary assistance when they needed it most. I believe we have to remind ourselves that every human life has value and act accordingly, with empathy, kindness and conscience.

Is Malta a family-friendly country, even if one’s family happens to be not a very traditional family?

Family is a very important institution in Malta, mainly because of its religious background. Today, of course, the number of “non-traditional” families is on the increase: more couples decide to cohabit rather than get married, the number of civil marriages is increasing, same-sex couples also have a right to adopt children, and as elsewhere, many families only have one parent. All this does not change the fact that children in Malta are loved, and often spoilt! Traditionally, mothers in Malta were homemakers while fathers had the responsibility of providing for the family. These old-fashioned beliefs are changing, albeit slowly.

You have a family and a young son, plus a full-time job. Is it complicated to combine one’s family roles with career demands in a changing society?

It would be untruthful to say that it has been easy, the Maltese society still often operates on the premise that one parent (ie the mother) is a housewife. I had to return to work when my son was three months old because the maternity leave in Malta is quite limited. This was possibly one of the most difficult things I had to do as a parent. Difficult, but nevertheless possible. I am lucky to have an understanding employer, the British Council is known for its family friendly policies. I am also very fortunate to have a partner who is very hands-on father and has a very close and loving relationship with our son.

Having a career and family is not easy, it often means working late nights and having less active social life. I don’t see it as a sacrifice, though – having a family was my choice, a choice I treasure each day, even when life gets hectic and difficult. There have been a number of compromises on the way through – my house is often a mess, I don’t entertain as often as I used to, and at times I miss out on school concerts and parents’ days. Then again, I believe that it is important to be a role model for my son, and hopefully he will grow up respecting women and not being blinded by dated gender stereotypes.

Valletta is often described as a vibrant city with many ongoing projects, a city where people from different countries and continents have settled. Would it be easy for a foreigner to settle in Malta?  What might cause problems or even the old fashioned maladie named nostalgia, regarding, for example, Estonians settling or planning to settle in Malta?

Settling in a new country is always complicated. I can speak from my own experience, of course, and I can say that the first two years in Malta were relatively sad and difficult. Only after making some friends and finding an appropriate job, I felt settled. I think the key is to prepare as much as possible for your new life – talk to people, look into job opportunities and find affordable accommodation. Nostalgia will always be part of an expat life. I never stop missing Estonia, my family and friends there. In time it will just get easier.

How many Estonians have settled in Malta?

I would not know exactly how many Estonians live in Malta, but I think the number might be between 200 and 300. Many Estonians work in the gaming industry. I think that although the Estonian community in Malta is small, it is quite settled and successful. There must be some truth in the old belief that Estonians are hardworking and stubborn! Excellent qualities if one wants to live in a foreign country.

Local Estonians have a Facebook group, and at times we meet face to face, too. I must admit that because of my work and family commitments, my social life has somewhat suffered, and I don’t have the opportunity to meet other Estonians often. We always meet in June, however, for Midsummer Eve, on the beach, and this really is a lovely tradition.

What are the top five places in Malta you would advise people to pay a visit, and why?

There is a lot to choose from, but in my opinion the top attractions are: St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta with its magnificent baroque interior and Caravaggio’s paintings; the pre-historic temples in Malta and Gozo, including the Hypogeum; the Museum of Archeology for its prehistoric artefacts; Mdina, our first capital; and the island of Gozo for a small-island charm.

What are the unmissable highlights of the capital of European culture events in Malta?

There are hundreds of events to choose from, and it is difficult to be objective, but my personal highlights would be: Latitude 36, an arts project about the Maltese diaspora experience; The Island That The Sea Surrounds (a visual arts project involving 25 artists, including the well-known British artist, Susan Philipsz); the Playwriting Project, led by Malta’s only professional theatre, Teatru Malta (the renowned British playwright, Brad Birch, is commissioned to write a play about football, among other things, and it will premiere in June 2018 at Malta’s national football stadium); and certainly, Malta Calls – a fantastic outdoor dance performance by Zfin Malta, our national dance company.

What are the projects that are keeping you busy now?

It is going to be a busy year because of the cultural capital projects the British Council is involved in. In addition to my daily work and family commitments, I am also a business coach and I plan to develop it more this year. In our 400-year old house in Valletta, we are also running an Airbnb, renting out the first floor to travellers all around the world, and that keeps us relatively busy. I do guiding in English and Estonian whenever possible. Also, I am thinking of my PhD but that possibly will have to wait a few years. In my New Year’s resolutions, I also promised to spend more quality time with my son and friends and practice mindfulness more intently.

I try to live a healthy life (often fail miserably, though) and my annual appointment is the Malta Half Marathon in February. It gives me the motivation to keep training in order not to be the last person reaching the finish line!

I am very involved with women’s rights in Malta. I am a member of Business Professional Women (BPW) and involved with Women Directors in Malta. I would really like to dedicate more time to this and address important issues such as equal pay and reproductive rights.

Do weekends always mean a good rest for you?

I have learned that with a four-year-old there really isn’t such thing as a relaxing weekend! I often have to work at weekends but apart from that, I try to spend as much time as possible with my son, ideally outdoors.

Malta is a preferred holiday destination for many. What would be your favourite holiday destination?

The reality of an expat is that I spend my holidays in Estonia. Given a choice between an exciting new destination and my home-country, my heart always chooses Estonia.


All images courtesy of Ingrid Eomois (unless otherwise stated). Read also: Why do Estonians choose Malta?

A look at Estonia through plywood: the material of the modern world

An exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London highlights the historical products once manufactured by Estonian plywood producers.

A small but extraordinary exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum gives us a concise social history of one of the most fascinating materials – plywood. It sheds light over 120 objects and focuses on the development of design and industry over the past 150 years. Cars, dinghies, aeroplanes; chairs, tables, and architectural solutions – it all displays the ways plywood has shaped the modern world.

Hold on; is plywood – the material of the modern world – actually old or new? Due to reinvention and hand-making turned into digital manufacturing, plywood seems to be a perennially modern material. The technique of layering cross-grained veneers to make a material stronger than just solid wood was known a long time ago – as early as 2600 BC in ancient Egypt. Archaeologists have discovered it was trendy to use laminated timber to make a range of things from jewellery boxes to coffins for pharaohs.

Noticing Luterma hatboxes, bags and suitcases in the limelight of this exhibition is as heart-warming for me as, for example, seeing photos of my Estonian ancestors using the same kind of items while travelling in the then world. The whole collection displayed – plus many more – were made in Estonia, manufactured by Luterma (previously A. M. Luther), and distributed by Venesta.

Made in Estonia

Luterma was an important 20th century Estonian plywood manufacturer, with a large British distributor called Venesta. They sold moulded products like these in great quantities. The hatboxes, handbags and suitcases were marketed as lightweight and strong, and came in a range of sizes, telling the world about a move towards smaller luggage in the1920s and ‘30s, linked to new kinds of travel in aeroplanes and cars.

Plywood was widely experimented in connection with vehicle construction between the First and the Second World War. From 1928, the German manufacturer, DKW, used moulded plywood for the bodies of their affordable family cars. Combatting prejudice that plywood was less reliable than metal, the German producers emphasised its unique properties – strong and stress-bearing, easy to repair and quieter on the road due to better suspension.

With specimens of boats, planes and chairs dangling from the ceiling, the plywood show brings to one’s mind a knowingly arranged all-in-one shop, displaying old trends and highlighting the humble origins of what we might consider new. Examples range from plywood packing cases taken to the Antarctic by Ernest Shackleton’s expedition, where some of them were broken down and transformed into furniture, to the most stylish chairs from the middle of the 20th century.

Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition to the Antarctic (1907-09) required about 2,500 plywood packing cases. Among other things, Shackleton and his crew took a printing press on their expedition – to guard them from the danger of lack of occupation during the polar night. Some of the plywood cases that carried their provisions were cleaned, planed and polished to be used as bindings for the books. Aurora Australis (1908), written, illustrated and published by the British Antarctic Expedition crew members was printed with binding of Venesta three-ply birch plywood, leather and green silk cord, and presented to Rudyard Kipling by Ernest Shackleton in 1914.

Versatile use

One of the most prescient was a plan for a pneumatic railway in a big plywood tube, designed to hang off the side of buildings, the drawings of which were published in 1867. It makes you instantly think about Elon Musk’s plan for Hyperloop.

Although plywood was widely known and also used from the 1880s, prejudice against it as cheap or poor quality meant it was often used structurally or hidden under other materials. Today, plywood is common in the construction industry, yet it was not until 1930s that architects and builders first began to experiment with it as a building material. Plywood was of interest to modernist designers because it was seen to be industrial and symbolised the new machine age. Certainly, a big part of the appeal was low cost, uniformity and the fact that it was factory-produced in standard sizes.

The invention of synthetic glues in the 1930s revolutionised the use of plywood; it meant that manufacturers could also produce new types of waterproof plywood, ideal for exterior use. The other side of the coin was that the rise of synthetic adhesives and the lack of standards for adhesives helped create the so called petrochemical homes. Nowadays, there are strict standards for adhesives, but taken into account that a vast bulk of plywood is manufactured in the countries where the illegally logged wood is also on the rise, the production of plywood cannot be brought under strict control.

During the 1870s, the New York firm, Gardner & Company, patented a chair with a single piece seat and back of moulded plywood. The seat and back ingeniously formed a self-supporting structure that could be attached to any minimal frame – this made the chair lighter and cheaper to produce.

No wonder it was a commercial success imitated across Europe, appreciated equally in houses around the Baltic Sea and in the Alpine homes. A.M. Luther manufactured the chairs in Estonia as a part of his fashionable American Furniture range.

What if your modern chair gets broken? No need to worry! In a few minutes, a chair repaired, embellished and 15 francs saved, with Luterma. A hammer, a few nails, and you save 15 francs by easily repairing your chairs with Luterma. These are the messages conveyed by advertisements – perforated plywood posters – used in French shop windows and elsewhere during the 1920s to promote plywood seats that were easily attachable to existing frames.

Luterma copied Gardner & Company by using perforations to make their brand instantly recognisable. The two jazzy ads displayed at the London show come from the private collection that belongs to Dr Jüri Kermik, a widely recognised authority in the field. His The Luther Factory, Plywood and Furniture 1877-1940, published by the Museum of Estonian Architecture in 2004 is a thorough survey of the period.

Fascinated by its thinness, flexibility and strength, furniture designers – who perceived that the time was right – started seriously experimenting with plywood to create attractively light and curved forms. In 1929, the Isokon company was founded in London by the entrepreneur, Jack Prichard, the architect, Wells Coates, and others.

Isokon produced thoroughly modern architecture and furnishings, most often in plywood. Interestingly, Prichard had previously worked for Venesta, the British distributor of the Estonian plywood company Luterma. The pride of the present display is their lightweight plywood stool (1.1 kg; 2.4 lbs) that was made by Luterma and sold in Britain by Isokon.

In the year 1932, the Finnish architect and designer, Alvar Aalto, designed his famous chair for the Paimio Tuberculosis Sanatorium in Finland. A year later the chairs were already manufactured for general sale, alongside his other furniture designs. Aalto’s furniture was exported in large quantities to the United Kingdom and the US. No doubt his innovative use of plywood had a significant impact on other designers.

Short Chair, designed by Marcel Breuer, came into the limelight in 1936. Its thin and light seat was moulded as a single piece of plywood. The beauty of this piece of furniture lies in the impression of the seat floating on air, suspended in its frame. Plywood seats for Breuer’s Short Chairs were moulded in batches by the Estonian company Luterma; they were shipped to Britain and then attached to locally-made laminated wood frames.

Educating on design and technology

Plywood was also successfully used to produce door handles and doors. And then, in the 1930s, Plymax, a branded copper-faced plywood manufactured by Luterma for both industrial and architectural use, became fashionable. The Plymax door displayed at the exhibition was designed for the penthouse apartment of Lawn Road Flats, a modernist apartment block in Hampstead, London. The famous crime novelist, Agatha Christie, who used to live in one of the flats, probably derived some feel of avant-garde modernist design reflected in her many works also from the Isokon Building.

By using Plymax, the designers, Wells Coates and Jack Pritchard, exploited a modern material with industrial associations while also creating a rich decorative surface. Nowadays, the most modern floor designers offer similar solutions based on computer designed processed wood, and once again, the question arises – old or new?

The exhibition displays an educating story of design and technology that has been shaped by taste and prejudices in different times. Plywood: Material of the Modern World is on view through 12 November 2017 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


Cover: Short Chair, designed by Marcel Breuer. Images by Ann Alari.

Estonian books attracting attention at the London Book Fair 2017

For the Estonian delegation, taking part in the London Book Fair 2017 meant a preparation for the year 2018, when together with Latvia and Lithuania, Estonia will get the privileged position of a market focus country.

The London Book Fair is a global marketplace for rights negotiation and the sales and distribution of content across print, audio, TV, film and digital channels. This year’s event took place at the London Olympia from 14 to 16 March, and it would be correct to claim that the fair covered all aspects of the publishing industry.

Market focus countries

Over 25,000 attendees from over 130 countries were trying to make words go further, and needless to say it is not always an easy task. No matter whether a large country or a small one, being in the spotlight during the fair is of great help. This year’s market focus country was Poland. Next year, market focus countries will be Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Market focus will give a great opportunity to see a selection of the best writers from the Baltic countries in conversation with UK writers and publishers. Advertising towards the coming year was quite visible even now. Banners were being displayed in different halls, posters in the nearby street, and while one was stepping carefully along a crowded staircase in the Grand Hall Olympia, one couldn’t avoid noticing the smart logo of the Baltic countries.

Estonian publishers are not newcomers to the fair; they demonstrated their products and conducted face to face business in the hope to sign contracts and get sales. Kaidi Urmet, head of the Estonian Publishers’ Association, introduced Estonian World to the busy life at their stand, where she worked together with the Estonian Literature Centre to promote books among visiting professionals.

Demand for translated literature is growing

While at the Estonia stand, this writer enjoyed a short conversation with Piret Raud, the country’s most-translated children’s author, who began her career as an illustrator, and who seems to know how to create a unique children’s book.

The most recent statistics is showing that printed book sales in the UK are up by 7%, with growth fuelled by younger generations. It is reassuring to see how books generally, and print books in particular, are still appealing to young people, despite so many other forms of entertainment available and so much information competing for their attention.

E-book sales in the UK have declined by 4%, with multi-function devices, such as mobile phones and tablets, overtaking dedicated e-readers. And while the e-reading devices are facing a changing process, physical bookshop sales are growing.

Interesting for many, demand for translated literature is also growing. Newcomers among the extraordinarily popular foreign authors are Elena Ferrante with her Neapolitan novels and Han Kang from South Korea, whose book, “The Vegetarian”, has touched several universal themes connected with keeping oneself balanced in the fast changing modern world.

What actually shapes the identity of contemporary literature is of utmost interest, being also a permanent topic for the exciting and ongoing discussions among the book fair professionals. What is the position of national literature written in the context of multilingual local and global settings?

Some translators, agents and editors are quick to spot relevant trends in order to reach their readers in the ever-changing forest of world literature. Krista Kaer from Varrak publishers in Tallinn is one of them, and she seems to know at least some of the answers to sophisticated questions.

Estonia’s stand offering a diverse choice

The London Book Fair 2017 had an intense seminar programme with more than 200 events scheduled. In addition to this, countless business lunches and dinners, meetings and other related events took place all around this vibrant capital.

Word is Music, an evening of poetry and music to celebrate the Estonian Language Day, took place at the residence of the Estonian ambassador to the UK, Lauri Bambus. The fabulous storyteller Veronika Kivisilla recited her own poetry, and Adam Cullen, who has translated her poetry, performed it enjoyably in English – the literary duo acted in sublime harmony.

Finally, it will be of utmost interest to see what Estonian authors and books stir interest and become, perhaps, popular among those whose language is English. Will it be Mihkel Mutt with “The Estonian Circumciser” or Paavo Matsin with “The Gogol Disco”? Ilmar Taska with “Pobeda 1946 – A Car Called Victory” or Rein Raud with “The Death of the Perfect Sentence”, Maarja Kangro with “The Glass Child” or Meelis Friedenthal with “The Bees (The Willow King)”.

Display bookshelves at Estonia’s stand were extensive, offering a diverse choice. The book fair provided a perfect platform to engage with customers and would-be customers, to build awareness of one’s brand in a wider environment, and to do business. And last but not least, in a year, London Book Fair 2018 might give an opportunity to get noticed more than ever.


Cover: Olympia Conference Centre. Photos courtesy of Ann Alari and London Book Fair 2017.

George Hackenschmidt – the strong man from Estonia

George Hackenschmidt, the ultimate poster boy of the golden age of wrestling, made the sport popular in England and on every continent of the world. He was born in Tartu on 1 August 1877 – while Tartu was still Dorpat, a town in the Russian Empire.

Superstar of the early 20th century

Having launched his career in St Petersburg, Hackenschmidt lived in London, and became one of the superstars of the early 20th century. Postcards and cabinet cards with his images were collected by fans of all ages, both male and female. One may freely compare Hackenschmidt to David Beckham, and no doubt, the popularity of wrestling of the time came close to the popularity of football today.

When Hackenschmidt, nicknamed the Russian Lion, wrestled with Ahmed Madrali, called the Terrible Turk, at the Olympia London in 1904, the hall was packed to the limits and traffic jammed from the site back to Piccadilly. Alas, as our hero was not a natural showman to stir up the passions that were boiling anyway, the contest lasted only about two minutes. He won. Moreover, in his entire career, Hackenschmidt engaged in about 3,000 matches, losing only two.

Who was this charismatic society darling whose epic matches – especially those with the American Frank Gotch – were front page news around the world? How did the soft-spoken but attention commanding sportsman, born in Estonia, end up becoming a popular author, speaker and philosopher in London? Among his countless admirers was Theodore Roosevelt, also known as a proponent of physical culture and exercise, who is said to have proclaimed: “If I wasn’t president of the United States, I would like to be George Hackenschmidt.”

Astounding feats of strength

Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt was born in Tartu (Dorpat). His parents were Baltic German Georg Friedrich Hackenschmidt and Estonian Swede Ida Louise Johansson. Since his earliest childhood, he was immersed in the cosmopolitan atmosphere created by his parents and their friends – the two “official family languages” were German and Estonian. Gradually, this paved the way for him to master seven languages and become an excellent conversationalist.

In 1895, Jüri (as he was called among his Estonian friends) finished the Realschule (Grammar School) of Dorpat. On top of academic achievements, his feats of strength were astounding for both, his teachers and friends. He had become a natural leader of a pack of boys, many of them older than himself. However, soon it was clear that he was far too good-natured to accept fighting as a method of solving conflicts among mates.

Jüri had become a young man promoting wrestling and physical development in order to become the strongest.

Romantically, he enjoyed having wrestling competitions in the beautiful meadows bordering the Emajõgi – the river that had not lost its magic by the time this writer enjoyed going to the river swimming pool.

Becoming the strongest man in the world

On leaving school, Hackenschmidt went to work for the Lausmann factory, a large engineering company in the city of Tallinn – then known as Reval. He became an apprentice with an intention to become an engineer. But, “man proposes, God disposes”, as he sighs about his rather short working period in Tallinn in his book, “The Way to Live”, that was first published in 1908 and is still in print.

He has written about his life changing decision to leave for St Petersburg as follows: “The doctor (Krajewski) had, of course, visited our club (the city’s Athletic and Cycling Club – editor) and recognised me at once. When I had completely undressed in order to facilitate a careful examination of my injury, he, in conjunction with my own doctor, examined my body, and found that with the exception of a slight injury (a contusion of the arm) I was perfectly sound.

He invited me to come and stay with him in St Petersburg as he wished to have me trained as a professional athlete and wrestler.  … He was good enough to say that I possessed possibilities of becoming the strongest man in the world. Yielding to the persuasion of all my club friends, who congratulated me warmly on Dr von Krajewski’s offer, but against the wishes of my parents, I set out for St Petersburg early in 1898.”

Years later, Hackenschmidt admitted that Krajewski became almost his second father.

In England, his performance was polished by the flamboyant C.B. Cochran (Sir Charles Blake Cochran, an English theatrical manager and impresario – editor), who made the Russian Lion a major showstopper. As a team, the two prompted a wrestling boom in music halls. The evenings that Hackenschmidt defeated five men in a row were not exceptional.

Gotch-Hackenschmidt matches 

By the turn of the century, Hackenschmidt had become a phenomenal weightlifter, who had established several world records; he had also become the champion of Russia and Finland in wrestling and won championships in the United Kingdom, North America and Australia. The Russian Lion had become the first free-style heavyweight champion of the world and continued winning tournaments everywhere he wrestled. He remained undefeated until he faced Frank Gotch in 1908.

The Gotch-Hackenschmidt matches in wrestling have become a legend comparable to the Ali-Frazier matches in boxing. On the one hand, Gotch was criticised for having used unfair tactics, on the other hand, Hack (as called by Americans) was criticised for having been too slow to adapt and, even worse, prone to depression.

Following the 1911 rematch, Hackenschmidt was blamed of lack of heart. He lost to Gotch and retired the same year.

Life style and diet guru

Hackenschmidt went on to write several books on philosophy and physical culture. His circle of friends was remarkable, including people as different as the playwright, George Bernard Shaw, and the famous magician, Harry Houdini.

Probably, he was one of the first life style and diet gurus, who claimed that raw food (the high raw diet) may keep us healthy. Among his various tasks were teaching physical education to the members of the House of Lords and serving as a judge at the 1948 Mr Universe contest in London.

His contribution to sport psychology cannot be underestimated; in his books and talks on health, fitness and bodybuilding, Hackenschmidt keeps stressing the importance of inner peace, enduring will power and sound mind.

Together with his French wife Rachel, he ended up living in South Norwood, London. Physically fit even in his old age, Hackenschmidt died on 19 February 1968.

The last lines of his book, “The Way to Live”, read: “Throughout my whole career I have never bothered as to whether I was a champion or not a champion. The only title I have desired to be known by is simply my name, George Hackenschmidt.” One loves to think that the Russian Lion is being remembered.


Cover: George Hackenschmidt. Images courtesy of Ann Alari and Wikimedia Commons.

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