I fell in love
with Finland on a Soviet ship in the Skattegat. All I knew about Finland before 1964, was that you turn right at Denmark.
USSR Motorship NADEZHDA KRUPSKAYA
I was terribly, terribly drunk at the time, thanks to a shaven-headed Russian barman called Valeri, whose abacus was obviously out of order, as I had spent very little money to achieve this state of inebriation. I was heading down into the bowels of the red ship, where I shared a cabin with a complete stranger in the form of a fundamentalist Christian Yank called Chuck. But I decided to first seek a refreshing breeze and clear my befuddled brain, in case the Billy Graham wanted to exploit my helplessness and general moist bonhomie in the aid of conversation, if not of conversion. So, at three o’clock in the morning, I found myself on the aft deck of the ancient Soviet ship Krupskaja, out of London, bound for Helsinki. Two tall young blond Finnish youths were methodically throwing Soviet deckchairs over the rail into the phospherent wake behind the plodding Krupskaja. They looked very serious as they worked, their pasty faces etched out of the inky night sky by the bright bulkhead lamps.“What’s happening, man?”
(At the time, when nervous, I sometimes spoke in this pseudo-hip fashion)“Ve are Finns, ve alvays do this”
That was good enough for me. Apart from the undying gratitude of an impoverished art student, which I owed to Valeri, I had no other sentimental attachment to the Union of the Socialist Soviet Republics. Indeed, I regarded the whole Marxist scam as a great threat to my personal wellbeing. So I bid the Finns goodnight and staggered down into the bowels, happy in the knowledge that two young lads were representing their country so well in the Olympics of Revenge.
A somewhat shorter blond Finn was the reason for me to be on the boat in the first place. I had studied at Leicester College of Art with a fellow student called Ristomatti Ratia. He had invited me and Roger Ford, the third member of our little gang, to Finland for the summer. Ristomatti, as far as I know, has never tossed any outdoor items overboard, but he’s certainly designed a few pieces of furniture that could be lifted with ease. He once tossed himself overboard, by mistake, in a storm, as we headed in a small boat to his island in the archipelago. It was dark, there were large waves, and we had been boozing. These are not ideal conditions to urinate off the back of the boat. We lost his glasses (thank the lord), but saved Ristomatti. Captain Olli dove overboard and did the heroic thing, leaving me and my girlfriend Judy Phillpot temporarily in charge of the vessel. This was like apes being given PDAs, but we managed to keep things ticking over until two bedraggled Finnish mariners struggled back on board. I only mention this as a variation on the theme of two Finns and disposal into the deep.
The Krupskaja, named after Lenin’s wife, was at least as wide in the beam as Mrs Revolution was in her later years. It was a ship that wallowed, in much the same way as Lenin’s better half did in the bath, when using the forbidden French bath salts that she was not allowed to use when Vladimir Ivanovic was at home, on the rare occasions when he suffered a lack of kulaks to taunt. Imagine a ship that wallows from side to side AND yaws end to end. Imagine this marine mambo beginning on the first night, as we headed out of the Thames estuary into the greeny dumbness of the North Sea, and continuing for 48 hours thereafter. Imagine, if you will, the effect on certain passengers with tender digestions. Now picture clearly in your mind, looking down a row of ashen faces leaning against the deck wall at night, with hands behind them steadying their legs against the swell below. Suddenly, a supportive hand comes to a mouth, and the hapless owner of the hand trips to the ship’s rail and then technicolour yawns over the side. A second hapless passenger, inspired by the smell of retching, trips over to the same rail, as the first staggers back. And so on. Ad Nauseum. Valeri, your favourite barman, had been plying me with Russian vodka the previous night also. He was resplendent in a white gypsy shirt, and a black leather waistcoat. He had begun his tactics of telling me ‘pay later’ when I asked for another, and later never seemed to come. Valeri and I had conversed at length about various matters and we were just getting to the philosophical stage where I ask him does he know anything about love, and he replies ‘No, been a barman all my life’.
But we never reached that stage because I began to feel a bit queasy myself, and wanted to get some fresh air. Which led me to the revolting sight described a moment ago. My sea legs have always been perfect, but that night I was otherwise legless. It was not the heaving and yawing of the ship, but the tossing of Valeri’s vodka serving hand. But I was not tempted to join in. Neither dinner nor deckchairs came in my list of throwable objects. I had instantly sobered up when confronted by these wretched vomiteers and went back to the ministrations of Telly Savalasich. When I tried this time to pay my tab, Valeri’s brain emptied suddenly like the digestive tracts on deck above, and all knowledge of English vanished into the cheap cigar smoke air of his tiny domain – Vodkanistan. Perhaps he had been employed by unknown Finns to get me in training for the hard drinking of Finland to come? We shall never know, as the files of Supo are sealed forever. But the therapy worked.
The next morning we were still bobbing about in the North Sea. I was about the only one at breakfast, apart from Mr Chuck Graham. He was reading an edifying book by the light of a porthole to the side of the restaurant. Chuck had clearly written me down as a sinner beyond redemption, and not one of the chosen few to be resurrected on Judgement Day. He was forced by the ship’s manifest to suffer the temptation of ‘Lucifer of Leicester’ in the top bunk of his cabin, but he would avoid me on all other occasions .
A waitress swooped through the tables and chairs with a tray, like a lucky drunk, and plonked down a plate in front of me, with a sweaty slice of salami and a couple of slices of gherkin. I looked up, as a middle aged couple sat down unsteadily at a table facing me. He was red in the face and sweating profusely. She was green in the face, with the unnatural skin translucency that comes with a female hangover. I recognised them instantly. Mr Salami and Mrs Gherkin. I’d seen them in Vodkanistan last night and they were actually paying for their many drinks. Valeri was subsidising my youthful hangovers by taxing the Capitalists. The waitress, again without a word, wended her way over to Mr S and Mrs G, and plonked their portrait plates in front of them. Having looked down at this healthy repast, I watched as they both exchanged demeanours – he taking on a viridian hue, and she breaking out in the cold sweat of processed food panic.
I never saw any of the crew talking, or even smiling. They were a sullen lot, chosen probably for their language disabilities, their contempt for Western hedonists, and a genetic surfeit of bile. Except of course for my personal liver masseur. Let’s hear it for Valeri!
The storm continued throughout the day. I had wandered the ship admiring the job lot of red velveteen they’d used for curtains, and the excellent globular drip effect the Red painters had imparted to all steel surfaces. I had even spent ten minutes in an edifying Soviet cinematic presentation of tractors, before the claustrophobia, the smell of disinfectant, and the motion of the ship led me out and into the ballroom. A party of French students and their tutor were happily ensconced in a bunch of wicker chairs on the port side of the dance floor. Le Professeur was just explaining a bit of Satre, as a particularly heavy wave bucked under the keel and sent the whole gaggle of Frogs sliding in their basket chairs across the shiny dance floor to starboard. I was transfixed. Le Professeur hardly noticed, so immersed he was in the black joys of Existentialism, that his party of adoring ecolettes was now sliding back to portside and returning to their original positions. Their faces showed that only the smallest of glitches in the matrix had occurred. Sang froid to the end. But not perhaps as professionally oblivious to ridicule, as the Russian Jazz trio that was to play for us a couple of hours later. Looking like KGB henchman in light grey suits and bulging biceps, the drummer swayed first behind one cymbal and then the other. The pianist’s feet kept lifting off the pedals as he rocked on his stool, and the double-bassist defied gravity as he and his massive instrument swayed many degrees off vertical, to the twisting of the ship.
That night I also talked to Linda, English rose, who was the close friend of a Finnish female pop star, and also coming to visit Finland. She laughed at my jokes, so we hit it off immediately. She was travelling with a school friend, who looked a dab hand with a hockey stick. It was hard to get Linda on her own, but I finally managed it, and we spent next afternoon snogging in my bunk, as the grey Baltic drifted by. Until ‘Thou-shalt-not-spill-thy-seed’ Chuck arrived outside the cabin door, with a crewman and a master key, and burst in to find us fairly flagrante. Christ had knocked many times, he said, but clearly passion gives me acute deafness. We were arriving at Helsinki the next day, so a further chance for a bit of slap and tickle with Linda did not present itself. But she invited me to a party at her Finnish friend’s house a week later.
There I was to meet Linda’s penpal, the gorgeous Ankki Lindqvist. My first Finnish celebrity musician acquaintance.