Wednesday 5th August, 2009.
It is not every day one finds oneself on a train, heading north out of Helsinki. Just such a day is this. Nor is it every day one walks into the restaurant car to find elegant brass railings separating upholstered chairs and tables with tablecloths, and an ice-blond woman smiling coolly behind the counter. I order some meat soup.
“What sort of meat is it?”
“It’s… hmm? I don’t know.”
“Just say it in Finnish.”
She says something strange. Then makes a mooing sound.
Minutes later I am enjoying a plate of homely beef soup, whilst the wide-bodied train thunders through bewitching countryside in evening light, the landscape semi-dressed in wraiths of mist like a foxy sylph in a whirl of white silk. Ah! Finland!
What a revelation! The bread is almost black, the butter is thick and cold. Ah! My stomach sings for joy as I open my mouth. Forgotten are the countless ciabatta rolls with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes I have consumed today in the world’s identikit café chains. Now I have meat and potatoes and carrots and fragrant broth in my gullet, washed down with beer. I am like a fornicator who’s got wind of his prey, nothing can stop me now. I eat. Then I sigh with relief.
Progress, what is progress? To me, it’s when you keep the good things and throw out the bad. In England we threw out everything and replaced it with plastic bags. Attempts are occasionally made to revive or preserve the good things, but we tend to be told they’re too expensive. Or rather, financially non-viable. It’s just a regrettable fact: we have to make the most of our plastic bags and even learn to love them!
What’s so financially non-viable about a table with a tablecloth and some meat soup?
“It’s home-made! You made it?” I ask the girl.
“Yes.” Her eye-brows rise, as if to say “of course”.
“It’s very good.”
She shrugs. It’s okay, she means to say. Nothing to talk about, just a plate of meat soup for God’s sake.
A bunch of Finnish guys come marching past, all with cut-off denim jackets. They’re white, pudgy beer drinkers, but don’t underestimate the power of white fat when it comes to a showdown. These Finns will perform with enthusiastic violence, count on it and don’t utter a word in Swedish.
Swedes were always the oppressors. Swedish is still the second official language of Finland… even though only 6% of the population speak it.
Back in my seat, I watch the sun sinking over the jagged forests.
Finland… forgotten land of high technology and slightly scruffy people. I like the combination, it appeals to my aesthetic sense. Okay?
In Helsinki, I noticed, they had the most enormous cobblestones on the pavements. They looked hand-cut to me. Each one a work of art. Granite cobbles, slightly red-flushed. Handicrafts… wood, stone, glass… It’s solid, man, it’s solid. Finland… where the women are so pale and athletic that their bodies resemble the trunks of silver birches. But the men are like depressed lunatics, for ever engrossed in glum conversations, smoking and drinking as if this were the only way out.
In Helsinki I met an Old Master writer, Bengt Ahlfors, whose play I had just translated. The play was a monologue based on the conversations he used to have with his elevator.
It sounds a daft idea for a play, I know. But… by the end of that play you felt like jumping into an elevator and starting up a conversation of your own. (I tried it at the Holiday Inn, but I only lived on the second floor, so there wasn’t much time to get into my stride.)
Bengt and I went up in the elevator, a old creaky thing (his inspiration, he explained), then sat in his study where he went through my translation whilst offering me some cherries from a bowl. It seemed rude not to, although ever since I started using large quantities of Swedish snuff I’ve noticed I seem to be allergic to most fruit. It makes my lips balloon.
I feel like that woman, what’s her name, Donatella Versace, is it – whose plastic surgery went wrong? We sit there and talk, my lips are monstrously large, I slobber over my words. But I don’t think he notices.
I ask for some water and try to rinse my mouth clean of every vestige of cherry. It works. Slowly my lips reduce to their normal size.
That’s when he gets up and announces I have twenty minutes to make the train to Tampere.
As an English-speaker, I have an automatic advantage over this old writer, this old-school servant of the written word, with his diffidence and his electric piano placed next to his computer. I speak the world language.
Translators help some of the lesser-known voices grow more powerful, but we have to take away their sting, their pith and kith and kin. We have to Anglicise.
Small cultures like Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden can only live by turning themselves into type-cast, herring-eating snuff-takers. They need interpreters to be understood outside their boundaries. They turn themselves into clowns. They are not really herring-eaters any more than Englishmen are cricket-playing, meat-pie eating gentlemen.
In Tampere, the favoured fast-food alternative is a length of black blood-sausage filled with specks of white fat, eaten with a large dollop of cranberry sauce. I can’t see it catching on internationally. But who cares? Do we need to spread the word on Finnish blood-sausage? Should it be globalized and rebranded? Or can we just agree to let it rest?
Thursday 6th August
And so… day two in Finland…
Did my amazement and satisfaction continue into day two? At lunch-time I would have answered with a resounding “no!”
You see, I found myself being accosted in a restaurant by a drunk, who insisted that I had no right to be writing in my little book. When I told him I was writing about Finland he got murderous. “You know this country? Not. You not know. So… why the write?” I tried to explain to him that I was observing with my own two eyes and such things can often be more significant than dry, academic study. His eyes narrowed as he told me he had seven brothers, one of them with a prosthetic arm – this because of his love of fighting. Someone had stabbed him with a broken bottle… repeatedly.
When he slapped me brusquely on the shoulder I noticed at once he decided to give it a miss – fighting with me, I mean. I have large, muscular shoulders and I could have decked him very easily, especially as he could hardly walk.
I glared at him, and then he stumbled off mumbling curses to himself.
But if he’d known I was a Swede he’d have fought to the death. They’re a bit hung up about us, the Finns.
(But who can blame them? Swedes have been rude about the Finns for centuries. The Swedish word for “pimple” is “finne” – literally “a Finn”. An acne-troubled Swedish youth might therefore peer into the mirror one morning and say: “Oh no, I’ve got a nasty Finn erupting on my nose.” Whether there is some etymological link here I don’t know, but it seems insulting nonetheless.)
In the morning a coach picked up the festival guests and took us for a ride around the city. The guide seemed stuck at first for things to say about Tampere. “To your right is an apartment block built for the workers in the textile factories, it was built in the 1950’s, it is the tallest apartment block in Tampere…”
I turned my head and looked at a gray peeling building about ten storeys high.
We made progress, though. We drove out of Tampere.
The guide explained that the town was first established there on account of the advantageous position between two lakes, one of them eighteen metres higher than the other, thus the rapids, and thus the building of the mills and textile works.
We drove past the old mill-owners’ sumptuous villas and suddenly found ourselves in a settlement on top of a high ridge looking out over lakes on both sides. Its name was Pispala.
Finland used to have about 70, 000 lakes, the guide explained.
Then, when Sweden announced it had 80, 000 lakes, Finland held a recount and upped its total to just short of 400, 000. (More or less like the Iranian election results.)
Pispala consisted of congeries of wooden houses built by textile workers, once the slum of Tampere, where the urchins were said to be born with stones in their hands. Now the place is full of artists… rich artists. As we piled out of the bus, we saw a group of those same artists sitting on a bench. A girl in pig-tails and striped tights was singing from a book she held solemnly in front of her. A young man accompanied her on the guitar, another young man fell in with a violin.
I could have stayed there all day.
The blue, slightly ruffled lake lay at the bottom of the slope. There was something Greek about it. A lake stretching almost to the horizon. Very peaceful. Its name, the guide told us, was “Holy Lake”.
On the way back we stopped at an intriguing cathedral, whose central nub was decorated with a long coiling snake opening its jaws around the round fixture at the top of the chain by which the chandelier was suspended. Encircling the snake were countless feathery wings. Sort of God trying to snuff out Satan. (He’s not doing very well, so far.)
Friday 7th August
Today when I woke up there was a message flashing on the TV, which had switched itself on while I was sleeping. “Please pick up a letter in the reception.” I went down, vaguely curious, to find an invitation to a puppet theatre performance of King Lear – a non-verbal version. I didn’t have a lot of other invitations, so I went. Luckily the auditorium was very dark. I fell asleep in there, but whenever I woke up, I was treated to the spectacle of an odd-looking little puppet being manhandled by two women – one of them making loud moaning sounds that continued for about an hour. Occasionally she screamed as, in the background, another puppet was cut open and large bleeding livers and hearts were pulled out of a hole in its stomach. At one point the top of the puppet’s cranium opened, like a sort of lid, and a small hand emerged. Very Jungian – the writer must have had an excellent time coming up with that. Had the audience been high on LSD there would have been many nervous breakdowns.
It was a pleasure to walk back out into the sunlight. I went down to the waterfalls and bought a sausage at a hot-dog stand. The girl, another ice-blond, encouraged me to have some blood-sausage and cranberry but I told her I’d had some earlier and now felt like a regular brown sausage. She smiled in a slightly mocking way. I looked round and noticed a big fat guy wolfing down some black sausage in the background – clearly if you had too much of it, you ended up looking like him.
The other people by the waterfalls were mainly teenagers with green hair, studs coming out of their lips and generally deformed. It struck me that in out-of-the-way towns like this, the kids at school decide to make their mark on things by being “alternative”. But ultimately their efforts are futile. In Tampere, looking like a Goth freak is just another way of conforming.
Yet, after I wrote this I learnt that in July, Tampere enjoys another important annual festival: the Anarchist Counter-Cultural Festival. When I check the website I read: “For us anarchism means for example the critique of all forms of domination and hierarchy and on the other hand creating non-oppressive, egalitarian culture. We see domination not only in large structures of society, but also in oppressive customs among ourselves. Our analysis is not limited only to human relations. It also includes our relationships with non-human beings. Our aim is to strengthen critical views and empowerment in the form of taking control of our lives. Kill the police within!”
(Quoted from http://news.infoshop.org)
So maybe the green hair and weird t-shirts are signs of a flourishing counter-culture? The fact is, that drunk in the restaurant is correct: I will never know…
I was going to finish (sic) my Finnish journal here but something else has come up. Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Bengt Ahlfors’s play (the one I translated) at the Lilla Teatern in Tampere – a sumptuous nineteenth century theatre with gilt plaques above the stage celebrating great names in world drama such as Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière.
Ahlfors’s play is a monologue, so there was only one man on the stage, this being the unique Lasse Pöysti. None of you reading this will know about him. None of you will know that he starred with Birgitta Ulfsson in “Ö” in 1959, or that he appeared in Johan Bargum’s “Som smort” in 1971.
However globalized we get, these things don’t cross borders. The best things are always secrets locked up in their own language and no translator or Arts Council grant can ever transfer the magic. (Except perhaps in the case of Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière?)
Lasse Pöysti is an old hero of the stage. A war-horse close to eighty years old.
In the middle of his performance there was a fire alarm and we all had to walk out and wait in the sun-drenched square by the old Russian church, its bell-fry of yellow, cracked wood.
When Lasse Pöysti resumed his performance he muffed his lines. He ended up repeating a long anecdote, but no one minded. When he finally finished there was an emanation of pure love from the audience. We clapped and clapped. Seriously, there was not a dry eye in the house.
On my way home, I was again struck by a quality that Scandinavians all have in common, whether Finns, Swedes, Norwegians or Danes: they are all May-flies! When the sun sticks its head over the horizon and gives them a few days of summer, they rise up from their wintry graves. Girls seem intent on procreation all of a sudden. Boys lengthen their strides and know this is the time to find a companion for the long, dark winter.
A final note: did you know Scarlett Johansson comes of part-Danish parentage? When you walk down Tampere’s main street on a summer’s evening, there are tens of Scarlet Johanssons skipping along, with very milky skin… and green hair.
It’s really quite entrancing…