BLOG Christopher MeredithNWR Issue 98
In the second of seven dispatches, novelist and poet Christopher Meredith reports from this autumn’s residency at Jyväskylä Writers’ House, Finland.
When I got up on my first Friday here it was snowing softly. The larch in next door’s garden was dark and ridged against the white. The still green leaves of the deciduous trees around it occasionally floated down among the flakes. The road, which, unusually in this modern town, is cobbled just here, was white, and students made spiky black shapes on their bikes as they strained up the hill to the campus across the road from the Kirjailijatalo.
I’d been working on a long poem since Tuesday that wasn’t coming right, writing till mid afternoon then wandering round town realising that I really couldn’t understand any label on any product, or cycling round the lake, Jyväsjärvi. The poem had decided to be set in Spain. It’s a sod when your poems decide to move to a warmer country, just when you need something nipped and northerly. But this was the kind of snow you dream about.
Downstairs, Vesa Lahti told me how the snow came later nowadays every year. He’d come in to work in an older car because it had winter tyres. Outi, the young woman doing the publicity for a theatre company staging a Verdi opera in the town in the New Year and who has a temporary office in the centre, had cycled in. It was safer than walking, she said. She slipped when she walked but she didn’t fall off her bike. I told them how in Wales four centimetres of snow like this became the main thing on the television news. All the schools shut and people went panic-buying bread and milk. Clearly writing poetry was impossible for me now, due to snow.
In Finland the museums are free on Fridays and there are a lot of them here, so this was the morning for me to go to the Alvar Aalto Museum.
It was close by, down the cobbled hill, with the delicious fuzz of dry snow filling the air, the underfoot crunch. The whitened cobbled road curved out from the trees and the wooden buildings, magically becoming modern again, with pedestrian crossings and reassuringly nondescript concrete blocks of flats softened by snow.
Public buildings here seem shy. Like the people, they’re open and generous when you get to know them, but at first they’re a little elusive. The buildings’ entrances are discreet, the signs outside sometimes small and hard to spot. After enjoying my tame suburban blizzard for a while I found a sign the size of the timetable at a bus stop that led me down some snowy steps, and I was outside the Alvar Aalto Museum. It was 10.30 and it didn’t open till eleven. It wasn’t the sort of spot to wait for half an hour so I walked away. There was next week. I could find out more about Finland’s greatest architect then.
I wandered back towards the town by a different road, passing through part of the university campus. It sits across a mound, part of the ridge running through the centre of Jyväskylä. The best of the campus buildings are massively proportioned, often severe but grand, some with bold friezes high under the overshooting eaves. I went on among wide snowy roads. Students on bikes creaked past on the wide pavements.
Eventually I was walking under a high, very steep slope, wooded with firs and all softened by the still-falling snow. Suddenly a huge ladder of wooden steps went up into the trees. I climbed them, ninety or so, I think. There was no one on the steep slope of the woods, no one on the steps apart from me. At the top I emerged onto the ridge, perhaps six yards wide. A path led away along it to right and left. In front of me almost immediately and almost as steeply as the slope I’d come up, the ridge fell away towards the town. Some grandiose stone steps led down this side. Through the trees I could see some of the grid of buildings and beyond, the lake.
To my left, along the ridge and at its highest point, among the trees was a large building in red brick dominated by a square clock tower. Above the clockface were windows. As I approached it through the snowfall, it did that shy thing. It seemed to turn away as I got nearer. It looked as if it could be a water pumping station. There were darkened windows. A few blocks of stone like chunky, low gravestones were ranged along one end. There were a few cars in a whitened car park. A road ran up to the building from its far side. As I rounded the end with the tower it yielded up its secret. The discreet sign said, in Finnish and English, Natural History Museum of Central Finland. The things I’d thought were gravestones I later discovered were examples of local granites.
So I got my free hour in a museum after all. But most interesting was the tower. I climbed the hundred or so steps, passing the plush-looking, at this time deserted restaurant above the museum. Though there was glass in the windows, the viewing floor at the top of the tower was cold. Some snow had fizzed in through the tiniest of gaps and collected like white brick-dust on ledges. In every direction you could see how this town has crept out among the lakes, with Palokkajärvi and Tuomiojärvi to the west and north-west, trees and oddly shaped buildings and towers on the shallow ridges around them, and Jyväsjärvi below me to the east, next to the town centre. A broad main road, white with snow, ran across town below me and arced over a suspension bridge across a narrow point in the lake. Through the grain of fine snow the view was forbiddingly monochrome and beautiful. At the north end of Jyväsjärvi the tight steeple of the power station chimney blurred the air with its plume. It’s a sort of gigantic multi-fuel stove, burning wood, imported coal, and I was told, peat. About a quarter of Finland is peat.
I’d come here partly to work on poems about the damaged upland peat bogs in the Black Mountains in Wales. There the blanket bog is thin, just a couple of metres, easily damaged and in summer dries to a dust as fine as the invasive snow in the viewing room. The slathers of ploughed peatland I’ve seen here hardly seem the same element.
Later I made my way down the grand steps and went back to Spain.
Christopher Meredith is the translator of the Welsh-language novel Melog
(Mihangel Morgan). His own latest novel is The Book of Idiots
, and his forthcoming poetry collection, Air Histories
, will be published by Seren this spring. His poem from that collection, ‘Twobeat Deathsong’ will appear in NWR 99 (spring 2013, published on 1 March).
This piece was first published online at Wales Literature Exchange
and is published with the kind permission of Wales Literature Exchange.
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