Dispatch #2 Waterland
Jyväskylä, my home for a month, is bang in the middle of central southern Finland. Imagine a city the size of Newport built inland among lakes. Most of the city is new and it’s grown very fast over the last thirty years. There are some older wooden buildings, including the Kirjailijatalo, the Writers’ House, where I’m staying, but most of the town is new and often in the softened modernist style of its most famous local, the architect Alvar Aalto. Many of the buildings are his, and one, the theatre clad in ridged ceramic, actually bears his signature in bronze. The centre of the town fits between three lakes, lying under a ridge along the north-west shore of Jyväsjärvi, with the blunt south-easterly ends of Tuomiojärvi and Palokkajärvi prodding it from the other side. Järvi means lake.
I borrowed a gearless bike, courtesy of my host from the Writers’ Union, Vesa Lahti, and cycled round Jyväsjärvi a few times, once in snow and ice. He’s too polite to say it, but I think Vesa thinks I’m mad enough to be a Finn. Suffering joggers and leisurely walkers beat these bounds along with me. I passed one old man jogging with a fixed stare at the ground, looking as if he wouldn’t last 500 metres. Half an hour later he passed me again on the opposite shore, having run it at roughly the same speed I’d cycled, still going, still with the fixed stare. Or maybe he had a twin. On the same circuit I saw a jay in the thin birches among the houses, and a flock of waxwings whirred from the trees to their next stash of rowan berries.
It’s not very far, maybe 14 km, and mostly on safe paths. Jyväsjärvi is probably bigger than any natural lake in Wales, but at the northern end, not far past the plume of the power station, there’s a broad canal cut into another lake, Päijänne. It’s suddenly more rural there, and a few police launches are discreetly moored. Päijänne is immense, over 1,000 square kilometres and nearly 120 km long, curving round to the south. Another canal, cut just twenty years or so ago with huge locks and a hydro-electric generator to boot, connects Päijänne to the north with Lake Leppavesi. This creates a navigable waterway that snakes through the country for about 300 km. What isn’t forest or town round here is mostly open water. Pull back from the map a little and you see that the three lakes the town centre sits among are tiny puddles in this strange landscape of trees and water. Many of the lakes in central Finland run roughly north to south, but there’s a strangely consistent drag-mark pattern across these on the map running from the north-west to south-east, as if an enormous, clawed geological comb had been dragged across the picture from top left to bottom right before the paint was dry. It’s hard not to connect this scraped patterning with the elongated brindling you see on birchbark everywhere here.
Dispatch #1 The Man on the Plane
The man next to me on the plane to Helsinki was big. He had the sort of elbows that look as if they need most of the seats either side. But he tucked one out of my way somehow and rolled his enormous old head in a polite nod. He had a grey ponytail and a cut-down Buffalo Bill beard and moustache. I didn't think to imagine that he was probably either Finnish or American, so it didn't seem particularly incongruous when he took out a packet of Fisherman's Friends, slid one in his mouth, and as a lugubrious afterthought offered me one.
I took it. That's how airflight friendships start.
When he muttered he'd had a throat thing for weeks, then it was a surprise to realise he was American. He was quietly spoken and didn't seem to say a lot, but in the next couple of hours somehow he did. The Fisherman's Friends had been introduced to him by some people he stayed with in Kent. I suspected that these people might also have perpetrated steak and kidney pies and Marmite on him, but I didn't ask. Between lulls during which we gazed at the Thunderbird-style outfits that the female Finnair flight attendants wear, he quietly told me how good it had been to sit in an English pub and talk to English people. His parents were originally Lithuanian. He'd been visiting Lithuania, so called to see friends in England. Now he was travelling back to O'Hare via Munich, with a change in Helsinki. His sister'd got the tickets and for some reason it was the best way for him to do it.
I stared at his shoes and imagined that his carbon footprint could even be as big as the real one.
So he wasn't visiting Finland then?
Just changing. And you?
I told him I was changing to go to Jyvaskyla, still in Finland. I was a writer. Going there to write. That's all. I couldn't think what else to say.
He did that surmising pause and look that people often do at that point, during which they wonder whether to ask a supplementary or not. He was cool enough not to.
He'd been a photographer.
Commercial. Mainly. You heard of Ansel Adams?
In fact I had.
A whole lot of us young photographers went to hear him speak. We thought we knew it all. We walked out. We knew nothing.
I quoted him the line from Mark Twain, the one about when I was fourteen my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around but when I got to be 21 I was astonished how much he'd learned.
The old photographer's face opened into a gentle smile. No he hadn't heard that one. The business had changed. Photography was different now.
I told him about my friend Ossie Jones, dead now. Quiet bloke who liked a pint, who photographed Raymond Williams and Robert Graves and Brendan Behan. Did he do portraits?
No not really. Not weddings either. Products mainly.
There was a Thunderbirds lull. People shuffled past to the toilet. The middle-aged woman in front got up and made a delicate display of stretching her stockinged feet and her calf muscles, leaning on the headrest in front of me as if it were the bar in a ballet school.
He started it in the army. The army got him into it. He still did some work for veterans.
So this was Vietnam?
He'd had an easier time this way.
I told him about Philip Jones Griffiths, the Welsh Magnum photographer in Vietnam.
He didn't know this man. Quietly he took out a notebook and wrote down the name.
So it was easier for him, this doing photography?
Yes, sort of. He went in and said he knew about all that stuff. Lied. Yes, he knew about lenses and developing. He felt sorry for these young people in Iraq now. But at least they didn't get spat on when they came back. We were spat on.
His voice was calm. A little lower perhaps.
Thunderbird suits served tea and coffee. A particularly old particularly kind flight attendant apologised to my friend that there was no ginger ale. She explained the reasons in perfect English.
So anyway, he was mainly hanging out of helicopters on re-con.
He pronounced it with almost equal stress on both syllables, like air-con.
That and mine incidents. The Viet-Cong left secret marks for one another, like boy scouts, you know? They snapped branches, things like that. He took the photos and then they used them for training.
How long was he there?
The second Fisherman's Friend rolled in his mouth. There was a long pause. He was staring at the buttoned-up flap of his plastic table.
The ballet woman was back on her feet, flipping through a Finnish newspaper and occasionally hyper-extending some bit of herself. It was quiet for a while.
Had he ever been back?
The three points of his Buffalo Bill moved forward a little, then back.
He had no interest. It was still. He. No. No. No he hadn't. Hadn't been back.
He sat back and unfocussed from the table-flap.
So then it was products mainly. The lingerie was good. Somebody had to do this stuff. He went from mine incidents to lingerie. He did some real stuff sometimes. His cousin in Lithuania wanted him to do an exhibition there. Maybe they'd do it. He had negs. Like my friend Ossie. In Vilnius it could be possible.
When the plane started to drop he closed his eyes.
His ears. Popping like crazy, he said. He never used to get this. Not back then.
I had to rush to make my connection and be a writer. We shook hands. His name was Ray.