In iced Helsinki,
I go in search of glögi,
with smoke drifting south.
I can’t say they didn’t warn me. But this is a Winter that is breaking records like nobody’s business and to the disgust of taxi drivers, Helsinki City Council is having trouble coping. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s always so warm in our flat but every time I go out I still feel outraged by a cold wind that bites so hard you want to have it humanely destroyed. My fault for being too mean to buy a proper winter coat I suppose — the cheap anorak I bought in Oxford Street just ain’t doing it.
It’s not the length of the nights that gets to you but the darkness of the days. Every now and again, you catch a glimpse of a low, steamy sun but mostly the best you get is little more than a dim twilight. At least the discovery that a local bar offers a very good pint of Fullers ESB provides some welcome relief.
A second traditional Winter in Finland gives us a fairy-tale Christmas up in the wilds of Kainu. Thick snow encasing the trees got us asking why we find this kind of scene so beautiful. I wondered how much it came down to some kind of conditioning. Brought up on storybook images of snowy landscapes, experiencing it for real is like entering a childhood dream. Perhaps a people who had never seen snow, the Pirahã of the Amazon Rain Forest for example, witnessing such a scene unprepared and for the first time, would find it just plain spooky, threatening even.
So for want of any available evidence, I turn to a fictional case, that which takes place in Tove Jansson’s Moominland Midwinter. Moomintroll wakes up during his winter hibernation and unable to get back to sleep goes out into an unwelcoming dark and cold world. At first he undergoes feelings of melancholy and even anger at the sun that refuses to rise above the horizon. Always lurking in the background is the gloomy Groke, who sits on the Midwinter bonfire to warm herself only to extinguish it completely.Some suggest that the Groke (Mårran in Swedish and Mörkö in Finnish) is Jansson’s symbol for Nordic Melancholy. In fact the whole book can be read as a journey through malignant sadness.
But it has a happy ending. Eventually Moomintroll finds a way to accept Winter in the midst of a blizzard:
Not until then did Moomintroll notice that the wind felt warm. It caried him along into the whirling snow, it made him feel light an almost like flying.
And here Moomintroll has his satori:
“I’m nothing but air and wind, I’m part of the blizzard,” Moomintroll thought and let himself go.
Of course, no season (of the world or the heart) lasts for ever. Eventually, Spring returns. The wise Too-ticky says,
“When the summer’s hot and green, and you lie on your tummy on the warm boards of the landing stage, and listen to the waves chuckling and clucking…”
“Why didn’t you talk like that in winter?” said Moomintroll. “It’d have been such a comfort. Remember, I said once: “There were a lot of apples here.” And you just replied: “But now there’s a lot of snow.” Didn’t you understnad that I was melancholy”
Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. “One has to discover everything for oncself,” she replied. “And get over it all alone.”
Last night I looked out onto the courtyard at about 2am to find the buildings eerily shrouded in mist. This morning the fog had frozen onto the trees. We caught the no. 10 tram to Eira and walked through the park to the sea and watched the Suomenlinna ferry glide along a channel through the frozen water. I wish sometimes that I could freeze time.
Preparing myself for returning to England, I tune into the Today Programme on Radio 4, only to catch the normally sensible James Naughtie start an item with “unless you’ve been living on Mars, you will know that…” And what was this event of momentous import of which filled the conversations in every pub, fish and chip shop and tearoom in England, nay, on Earth? Well for those of us on Mars, we have for the last [insert period of time here – after 5 minutes I’ve given up trying to find out when this happened], for some not inconsiderable length of time, we have been blissfully unaware that, wait for it…Jonathan Ross has left the BBC!!!!!
“Who?” or rather “Kuka?” I hear you shout. Well Mr. Ross was the highest paid employee of the BBC being paid enough annually to build at five hospitals and a couple of schools — all from the £142.50 licence fee which is paid by every British household that uses a TV set (except if they hide behind the curtains when the inspector comes round). Ross is a man of a number of talents (remember, zero is technically a number) who had a chat show on BBC1 on Friday nights and hosted a radio programme on BBC Radio 2. He made headlines last year after he left an offensive message on Fawlty Tower’s star Andrew Sax’s answerphone as part of a witty and hilarious jape on his radio show.
Well I am not going to comment on whether it is a good or a bad thing that the BBC will now have several millions (£16.9 or €18.8 to be exact) extra to spend on say Doctor Who special effects rather than maintain the lifestyle of one “personality” who is about as entertaining as watching a puppy urinate on your living room carpet (makes you smile involutarily for a moment before feeling really pissed off). But I do at least now realise why I’ve not felt worried about missing the news from England.
When I came to Helsinki, I started out listening to Radio Four daily but gradually wearied of the diet of politicians’ minor misdemeanours combined with wacky policy announcements, which everyone knows will never be enacted but are rather being market-tested as potential manifesto fillers for a party that has little hope of being re-elected. OK, so the YLE news programme is perhaps over-serious, but at least it mainly covers items of, well news.
All the same, for any Finn who wants to feel self-satisfied there’s plenty of stories on the BBC website on how Great Britain is falling to pieces after a little light snow.
And for my British readers, this is what a snow plough looks like.