Icebreaker, page 1
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Horatio Clare
Chapter 1 Ghosts
Chapter 2 Helsinki
Chapter 3 Oulu
Chapter 4 Otso
Chapter 5 Silence
Chapter 6 Ice and Albedo
Chapter 7 The Coast of Lapland
Chapter 8 Care of Ice
Chapter 9 Frankfurters, Death Traps, Droids
Chapter 10 Long Friday
Chapter 11 Bright Weekend
Chapter 12 Frozen Monday
Chapter 13 Noises at Night
Chapter 14 Kalevala Day
Chapter 15 Darkness
Chapter 16 Changeover
About the Book
‘We are celebrating a hundred years since independence this year: how would you like to travel on a government icebreaker?’
A message from the Finnish embassy launches Horatio Clare on a voyage around an extraordinary country and an unearthly place, the frozen Bay of Bothnia, just short of the Arctic circle. Travelling with the crew of Icebreaker Otso, Horatio, whose last adventure saw him embedded on Maersk container vessels for the bestseller Down to the Sea in Ships, discovers stories of Finland, of her mariners and of ice.
Finland is an enigmatic place, famous for its educational miracle, healthcare and gender equality – as well as Nokia, Angry Birds, saunas, questionable cuisine and deep taciturnity. Aboard Otso Horatio gets to know the men who make up her crew, and explores Finland’s history and character. Surrounded by the extraordinary colours and conditions of a frozen sea, he also comes to understand something of the complexity and fragile beauty of ice, a near-miraculous substance which cools the planet, gives the stars their twinkle and which may hold all our futures in its crystals.
About the Author
Horatio Clare is the bestselling author of the memoirs Running for the Hills and Truant and the travel books A Single Swallow (which follows the birds’ migration from South Africa to the UK), Down to the Sea in Ships (the story of two voyages on container vessels) and Orison for a Curlew, a journey in search of one of the world’s rarest birds. His books for children include Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot and Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds. Horatio’s essays and reviews appear on BBC radio and in the Financial Times, the Observer and the Spectator, among other publications. He lives with his family in West Yorkshire.
ALSO BY HORATIO CLARE
Running for the Hills
Truant: Notes from the Slippery Slope
Sicily: Through Writers’ Eyes
A Single Swallow
Down to the Sea in Ships
Orison for a Curlew
Myths and Legends of the Brecon Beacons
The Prince’s Pen
Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot
Aubrey and the Terrible Ladybirds
To my shipmates,
at home and afloat,
with love and thanks.
And through the drifts the snowy clifts
Did send a dismal sheen:
Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken—
The ice was all between.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
LIKE A SMALL luminous yeti in search of food I tramp towards the centre of Oulu. Snow floods out of the darkness, shoaling around the lights, settling deep on the town. Nothing else moves. It is half past eleven on a Sunday night and I am quietly, dizzily happy. Tomorrow morning my ship comes in. In my violently orange coat, warm as a bear’s belly, I am ready for the ice. The ice is close by. You can smell it, a hard purity in the cold.
The north seems a vast imagined surround, pine-dark, duned with snow and specked with Arctic towns as deserted as Oulu, their garrisons all stood down. They are in bed all over Ostrobothnia now. They are in bed across the water in Sweden and over the border in Russia. Seven hundred miles south-west, beyond the Skagerrak, the Danes must have finished their Sunday hygge (‘to stay in with loved ones and enjoy an absence of stress’); around here, perhaps, the odd Finn is still practising kalsarikännit (‘to get drunk at home alone in your underwear with no intention of doing anything else’). In the peace I experience one of those leaps of the heart, of love and thrill for the world, a euphoric gratitude for life and travel for which there can be no one word in any tongue.
Oulu is at the northern end of Finland’s west coast on the shore of the Bay of Bothnia. The Bay is the northern armpit of the Gulf of Bothnia, which is the northern arm of the Baltic sea between Finland and Sweden. We are a hundred frozen miles short of the Arctic Circle. I am here to join Icebreaker Otso, the bear. Otso is coming in to change her crew and take on food and fuel. Tomorrow we go to sea. For ten days I am going to break ice with a crew of Finnish seafarers, mostly in darkness, certainly in snow.
For months I have been waiting for tomorrow, since the message came from Pekka, whom I knew a little at school. He was an angular, amused boy then, with that staccato way of speaking English the Finns have which lends itself to wryness. Last year he wrote to me, ‘I just got an idea which might interest you, given your fascination with ships. Would you like to hear more?’
Pekka is press counsellor at the Embassy of Finland in London. He is charged with raising his country’s profile in 2017, the centenary of the nation’s birth.
‘Would you like to travel on a government icebreaker? I think if you do the journey, something will come of it.’
A Finnish proverb says, ‘The brave eat the soup, the timid die of hunger.’ I have no great appetite for public relations trips but I did not hesitate: darkness, ice, Finland and a ship! Three days ago I turned up in London lugging a bag stuffed with thermals and layers and merino and a hat and an under-hat, mittens and under-gloves, these thumping army surplus boots and this ridiculous coat, to find I was thirty-six hours early for the flight.
Another Finnish proverb says, ‘Don’t jump before you reach the ditch.’ ‘A man comes back from beyond the sea, but not from under the sod,’ says yet another. The first part of this last one is reassuring but the second is nonsense. I am also here because of a man under the sod who keeps coming back.
Pekka and I had someone in common: Thomas, an arresting boy who became a beloved man. Thomas was extremely tall; his thoughts and comments were terribly quick and his face was a satyr’s, wickedly clever, the nose slightly lopsided, the impression a beautiful hotchpotch of narrowing eyes, high bones and round rumbustious jaw. Thomas could be an explosion of noise, ludic dash and charisma, or Thomas could be utterly attentive, searching your face as he listened to you, devoted to understanding what you were really trying to say. Thomas loved to solve problems. In his thirties he seemed to have cracked the problem of life. He lived in Switzerland with his family. He was engaged on a project which involved putting capital to work for charity: he was one of those people who habitually improve strangers’ lives simply because they can. And then, one foggy day, Thomas fell on ice while skiing. He was in a coma for weeks.
Here is the strange thing. While Thomas lay between life and death my partner gave birth to our son, and as the baby began to be able to focus on the world, as its lines and depths began to cohere, and as Thomas slipped further away, I began to see in the baby’s eyes, beyond all sense but there, and growing and focusing there, some blaze-bright light of will and life which I knew, which I had seen before in Thomas.
The turbulence of grief for my friend and my adoration of the child surely con
As Pekka and I planned this adventure, we spoke of Thomas, who connected us.
‘It is amazing, the effect he has,’ Pekka said. ‘That he keeps having. It is wonderful.’
In my heart I feel that this is why I am making this journey and this obscure voyage. ‘Something will come of it,’ as Pekka said.
I will not know what that something is until this book is finished. But perhaps this is not a story about seafarers and ships, and Finland, and ice, and the dreams of worlds that are gone and others still forming, and nightmares of worlds melting, and the wilderness of an obscure and frozen sea, though it will surely be about these too. Perhaps it is really a story about gulfs inside, about inner uproar contained in silence, about the breakable and about that which cannot be broken. Perhaps this is why I am nervous. You meet yourself at sea in ships, and your ghosts too.
YESTERDAY THE PLANE descended over a striated scape of snow and forest, frozen lakes and outcrops of rock. A century ago Finland was sundered in civil war, Reds against Whites, a vicious overspill of the Russian Revolution. The Second World War came in three parts here. First was the Winter War, in which the Finns halted a huge Soviet attack. In the Continuation War the Finns attempted to regain lost territory by joining the German attack on Russia, and in the Lapland War they turned on their former allies, driving German forces out of northern Finland. During the Cold War Finland opted for ‘active neutrality’, staying out of Nato for fear of offending Russia, a policy which continues to this day.
Since the last shots of the Lapland War a population of five million has produced a nation where the education system is among the best in the world, where women occupy 40 per cent of positions in a government ranked among the world’s least corrupt, and where social mobility is strong, thanks to education. Until the 1990s the gap between rich and poor in Finland was narrowing; a banking crisis early in that decade reversed that, and the divides between the most affluent, the middle class and the poor have since grown. However, the Finns believe that decent lives should not be reserved for the privileged. Taxes are high, and Finland has recently become the first European nation to offer a sample of unemployed citizens a basic income which is not withdrawn if they find a job. A universal basic income may not be the answer to unemployment, but it is typical that Finland should be the first country to experiment with it.
If the measure of a place is its treatment of the most vulnerable, Finland is a world leader. This is the only nation in Europe which does not have a crisis of homelessness, the only one in which homelessness has declined – achieved by providing permanent housing for the homeless, rather than temporary accommodation. Seen from Britain, Finland might as well be floating somewhere above the crisis-ridden muddle we currently call reality.
Forehead pressed to the window, I stared at the cold cobbled land. I have wanted to see the northern regions since I was very young, when I fell for Manka the Sky Gypsy by BB, about a pink-footed goose which migrated to and from Spitzbergen. The high north is a frigid paradise in BB’s descriptions: cliffs of birds, tundra, snow hares and Arctic foxes. Then Alistair MacLean’s Ice Station Zebra gripped me; I read him deep into the night, imagining the scream of the polar winds and the unseen tracks of nuclear submarines beneath the ice cap. Later came Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, and last year I was asked to review A Farewell to Ice by Peter Wadhams, which engrossed and terrified me.
From Wadhams, one of the world’s leading authorities on sea ice, I learned that ice is extraordinary stuff, like water with twists. A ‘puckered honeycomb’ of oxygen and hydrogen atoms, ice is highly mutable in different states because the length of the hydrogen bonds in its molecules varies. Ice exists near absolute zero, the lowest temperature theoretically possible. Recent research suggests it may have entirely covered the planet three times, making ‘snowball earths’. Ice coats space dust, giving stars their twinkle. Life may have originated in this shining matter, according to the astronomer Fred Hoyle. Sea ice functions as earth’s air- and water-conditioning system, our thermostat, and we know that it is melting at an unprecedented rate. But the kind Wadhams worries about most covers the Arctic seabed, permafrost from the last ice age. Losing this will release huge methane plumes. Methane is twenty-three times more effective in raising global temperatures than carbon dioxide. Wadhams and colleagues have modelled different dates for methane release. If humanity continues to warm the world as we are now, Wadhams believes catastrophic methane plumes will erupt as soon as 2035. The worst floods, fires, droughts and storms we have seen will be as nothing in comparison to what Africa, Asia and the Americas are likely to experience in the case of ‘runaway warming’ caused by massive methane release. Millions would die, low-lying areas would be inundated and survivors would live in a patchy post-apocalypse. Europe’s current refugee crisis would be dwarfed.
Travelling the Bay of Bothnia and talking to people who spend half their lives working on it should give me a rare perspective on sea ice. If Wadhams is right, we are going to need to know much more about this vital crystal.
Helsinki’s Saturday-morning traffic was a straggle of democratically filthy vehicles spattering through slush into a low-rise city. The buildings were stoical in expression, as though they had endured many winters without great loss of face. Patches of grass were wilted yellow-green, scalded by snow. My hotel, the Vaakuna, was built for the 1952 Olympics, its lobby ringed with wooden thrones like a conference chamber for elves, the swish and flash of the international hospitality industry blissfully absent. Bags dumped, out into Helsinki I went, watched over by four severe and long-haired granite giants, each grasping a globe lamp. They guard the central railway station, its arches a looping entrance to an art nouveau otherworld. The curving mass of the edifice speaks of formidable self-assertion; the giants, magnificently straight-backed, look like warrior-priests. They were created in 1911, during the last years of Russian hegemony. Behind us is the world, their bearing suggests, but we gaze on Finland.
Under the gaze of the lamp-bearers the pedestrians were phlegmatic, navigating the slush and ice. There was a doughtiness about the crowds; they dressed in flat blues and browns, all practicality. Helsinki feels like a common-sense sort of city until you try to cross the street. Civic-mindedness becomes eccentricity as knots of people stand beside empty roads in the shivering cold, waiting for the crossing signals. It would be open rebellion to step off the kerb alone. Of their national character I had gleaned that Finns are law-abiding, punctual and given to introducing themselves by saying their names while shaking hands rather than before or after contact is made.
Two Irishmen passed. One urgently demanded of his friend, ‘What the hell is up with that language?’
Finnish chirrups, rattles and croons like a collision between Chinese and Greek. While Swedes and Norwegians understand one another, they do not understand Finns. Though Finnish descends from Proto-Uralic, which came out of the Urals around seven thousand years ago, Finnish and Russian have no common root. It being a good idea to imagine difficult travel situations before they arise, my preparations for this mission have involved envisaging standing on the deck of an icebreaker in minus twenty Celsius and utter darkness, reciting, ‘Poo-hoo-koa koo-kaan tael-lae ayng-lahn-tia?’
If anyone there does speak English, this will be their cue.
The paving stones of Helsinki are heavy granite slabs; there is an echo of the old Russian Grand Duchy in their might and heft. From 1809, when Russia relieved Sweden of Finland, until independence in 1917, these roads were thronged with travellers to and from St Petersburg. The leisured classes of that city came here to holiday (the only way of going abroad, with foreign travel banned), while Alexander II, known to the Finns as the Good Tsar, ef
South towards the sea art nouveau rises again in terraces; Jugendstil the Finns term it, using the German for ‘youth style’. The houses in their yellows, pinks and blues seem venerable and youthful at once, like pensioners in carnival gear. The terraces of Belgravia and the mansions of the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris are overblown compared to these pleasing and pretty streets, the houses decked in joyful colours, their bay windows, turrets, small spires and bas-reliefs speaking of a lightness and playfulness of wealth. Contrary tensions of East and West flicker in the atmosphere and architecture: there are Gothic echoes of Prague in some of the mansion flats; in the Liberty style of others, and in the dock cranes and quays, the intertwining of sea and city, there is something of Trieste. There was a lovely in-betweenness in the city that Saturday afternoon, as a pallid sun broke out, dog-walkers appeared, and at the seafront a glittering soup of ice slush hushed against the shore.
The traveller is obliged to have a sauna in Finland. As a Finn you take your first before you are six months old. On average the population steams and sweats itself every ten days. I found one by the sea but it was not accepting walk-ins. The democracy of Finnish sauna culture means that you are not refused entry because you have not reserved a place, but on the practical grounds that you have not booked space in the wardrobes for boots and coats. I deferred my steaming to the ship (all Finnish icebreakers have saunas) and feasted in the health centre restaurant on fish soup, black bread and reindeer shin. Beyond the windows cruise ships and ferries made for Estonia, Sweden and Russia. At other tables glossy women and neat men ate slowly, an air of deep and gentle satisfaction in the room. Reindeer is delicious, tanged and redolent of berries and heathers. From here, looking south, with Europe and the world somewhere below the horizon, it felt as though we were looking on, almost looking down, as though the northern rim afforded a privileged view. They looked future-proofed, those Finns. The fires and famines will not reach them.
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