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Writers in Residence: Creating (literary) links between Finland and the UK

By Kirsi Korhonen

 The British Council is known for its work promoting British literature overseas, and in Finland we have over the years seen many British writers giving readings and talks. Although such brief visits are important, a longer stay would often be of more benefit to both the writer and the Finnish audiences. In 1995, the British Council in Finland set up a Writer-in-Residence Scheme to develop a long-term programme by British writers to Finnish universities.

The idea is simple: the Council invites a British writer to spend about six weeks teaching and writing in the host university. The Council pays the writer a fee for his or her work and covers travel costs, while the university is responsible for accommodation and a per diem payment.

We try to identify a writer who best suits the interests and requirements of the department and the local community. They are expected to devote part of their time to the needs of the students and staff at their host university, but we try to ensure that there is also sufficient free time for them to concentrate on writing. 

The success of the residence depends on many factors: publicity, local taste, the hosts' hospitality, students, other staff -- and the writer's own personality and willingness to make the most of his or her stay. Good advance publicity among students, staff and public is a must.

A particularly successful residence was the visit to the University of Helsinki in February-March this year by Andrew Barrow. He gave a series of lectures on aspects of British life and literature. His many other activities included an appearance on Valopilkku, the leading cultural programme on Finnish television, and interviews with Finnish journalists. He also compiled a book of poems written by students on his creative writing course.

There are already two further residences in the pipeline. Stewart Home, whose work has been published in Finnish by Like Publishing, will be our next writer-in-residence at Tampere University during the academic year 1997-98. The University of Vaasa will host Kathy Page's residence in 1998. A further dimension to the overall artist-in-residence programme will be added next year when the UK photographer Elizabeth Williams takes up a residency in Lapland. She will examine the Sami culture as part of her long-established study of nomadic cultures, making her research public on the Internet. The artist-in-residence programme offers endless possibilities for developing fruitful partnerships between Finland and the UK.

 Kirsi Korhonen is Arts Officer at the British Council office in Helsinki.


The Poet Also Writes

by Andrew Barrow 

When the idea of my going to Helsinki University as writer-in-residence was first floated, I wondered if it was perhaps a practical joke. Was some London wag having me on? Or was it a misunderstanding of some sort? Had I been mistaken for someone else?

In spite of these doubts, I approached my six-week visit with an open mind, skimmed through a few guide-books but, on the advice of the not-so-mad professor who had conceived the idea of my visit, avoided more serious reading. The experience would hit me harder that way, he promised.

When I mentioned the forthcoming trip to friends and acquaintances, they came up with interesting responses. "I don't want to be rude," began the gossip columnist Nigel Dempster, "but isn't Helsinki the most boring place in the world?" Another friend, or foe, said simply, "Everyone is mad there", and there were other comments about Finnish drunkenness and disorders, though as a keen vodka-drinker, these warnings rather washed over me.

So far, so bad. Within a few hours of arriving in Helsinki, however, I had become besotted with the place and its inhabitants. Helsinki strikes me as a dignified, rather old-fashioned city which welcomes visitors without overpowering them with its own quirkishness or character.

I suppose it's all a question of self-restraint. Just as some Finnish trains have separate sections for dogs and children, the Finnish mind seems to consist of different watertight compartments.

I guess, too, that Finns are much closer to their roots than most Englishmen. The students I addressed at the university are only a generation or two away from the country's agricultural past. The past in England is often grotesquely dressed up as a bogus tourist spectacle, but in Finland you can sense a real closeness to the farmhouse kitchen, the hearth, the harbour, death and destiny.

And what I like about the Finnish character is reflected in the buildings of Helsinki. The great granite fortresses which butt onto the sea may not be to everybody's taste but they strike me as infinitely romantic and full of reassuring flavours of Scottish baronial homes inhabited by some of my own ancestors. They also provide an awesome frame for the lovely and much milder mustard and custard coloured Classical buildings which face each other in the Senate Square. Perhaps there is a metaphor here for the rather heavily fortified Finnish character and the gentleness to be found within?

On the hopeful assumption that I will live to be a hundred years old, I could argue that my visit to Finland came at the middle of my life. Helsinki certainly provided me with the right clinical conditions for me to reflect on my own life and times. It is, I think, the perfect place for anyone to look coolly, or even icily, at the rest of the world.

As I floated about the place in my own private bubble, the less pleasant experiences were few and far between. To many people's amazement I loved Finnish food. When I praised the Baltic herrings and mashed potatoes during a lecture I was met with sniggers of disbelief, but reindeer meat did, I fear, prove unpalatable.

Of course there were things I did not get round to doing. I travelled a bit but not up to the Arctic Circle. I did not have a sauna, despite much encouragent to do so, and I did not take a dip in the icy sea. Perhaps the opportunity to do these things will come on my next visit.

I am longing to return. Not perhaps this autumn but when the winter comes again and the temperature falls to a physically thrilling -25 Centigrade. I will stay, I hope in somebody's wonderfully warm apartment overlooking the sea on Puistokatu -- Helsinki's unwonky central heating system must be one of the wonders of the world -- and have tea at Ekberg's. I will go to the Opera again and dine at Elite off, yes, Baltic herrings and mash, served by a reassuringly nanny-like but not unattractive waitress.

 Andrew Barrow was the writer-in-residence at the University of Helsinki in February-March 1997.

Mr Barrow can also be caught at the Finnish Institute on Tuesday, 11 November, at 6 pm, giving a talk about his work and stay in Helsinki.

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