But at the same time I was also vaguely aware that it was based on a real country. The back of the book I read had a note about the author, Tove Jansson, who did much of her work on a small island in the Gulf of Finland where she, and sometimes her mother and brother, were the only inhabitants. This seemed a wonderful adventure . She later wrote of it:
‘It is so small you can walk around it in ten minutes. It is shaped like an atoll and surrounds a deep lake which in good weather makes a fine swimming pool, but in bad weather turns into a raging torrent surrounded by waterfalls. Then our boat has to be pulled right up to the house and tied to the veranda. We only have one tree, a rowan, which bloomed for the first time last summer. But we plant wild roses in the crevices, and potatoes. And we fish. We use rainwater for our coffee and driftwood for our fires. My favourite weather is fog, when the island seems to be afloat at the very end of the world in perfect silence and solitude. Only rarely does one hear the foghorns from the open sea where big ships go by for foreign countries.’
It was this notion of Finland – a mysterious, rather melancholy, place of endless forests and lakes and full of silence – that I carried with me. Statistics said there were 187,000 lakes, 180,000 islands, forest over 70% of the land. This was brought home on my first visit there. Having been dropped in the small town of Karjaa one evening from a union conference centre a few miles away in the countryside, I realised when it was time to get a taxi back that I wasn’t sure where it was - other than it was in a forest by a lake.
Solitude seemed easy to find. A teacher from Kuopio told me of some supply work she had done in a tiny country school, where she brought in finger puppets to bulk out her class of two children. At least it made calling the register last a bit longer. At lunch time they went into the fields outside and picked blueberries. The Finns also have a reputation (when sober) for silence or not talking much. I remember reading about an exchange student whose family hosts didn’t speak to him for the first 3 days. They weren’t being rude, it was just how they were.
Music from Finland , other than Sibelius and Finlandia, is not much known in the UK. It was a novelty to discover, for example, a popular Finnish dance called the Humppa (derived from German oompah music) and which looks like the name sounds. There is also a Finnish tango though, unlike the better known one from Argentina, its mood is apparently sad and nostalgic . Neither have there really been any Finnish equivalents of Abba, Bjork, A-Ha or even Aqua. The first, and apart from Hanoi Rocks possibly only, Finnish group to spring to mind is Lordi, the heavy metal group dressed as monsters that unexpectedly won the 2006 Eurovision contest with Hard Rock Hallelujah: a long way from All Kinds of Everything and Puppet on a String.
Neither have there been many songs about the country. As mentioned in a previous column, the Monty Python song Finland summed up the general lack of knowledge about the place-“You're so sadly neglected and often ignored, a poor second to Belgium when going abroad”. Helsinki has fared a bit better. 70’s prog-rock band Wigwam painted a little picture of the city in Helsinki Nights: “An' you can go up by the railroad yard, coast on down by the Boulevarde, out along past the shipping docks, Fisher women all counting their stocks” .Swedish-Finnish group Laakso gave a rather different image of Helsinki in their rather kitsch song and video, Italy Vs Helsinki.
However, the song here, Finland, by The Redwoods (primarily American artist and musician Wesley Berg), is from a whole 2010 album about Finland, Jarvi, ‘written and recorded in a small cottage in Alajarvi’. The lyrics of this and some of the others are cryptic but the sound of the songs captures, for me, the feeling of Finland. There is a sense of the dark forests and lakes –“quiet lakes with pinewood dust” - , a feeling of space and also of melancholy, noises at the edge of the music like something in the trees just at the periphery of your vision.“Fall Winter breeze has whispered things and carved out words on evergreens” (Bonfire). In this setting it is easy to see where the dream-like quality of Tove Jansson’s books came from.
Link to song
Link to song