Saturday, October 31, 2009

Armenians: badass killerz or total geeks?

So I'm watching the Shield and the Armenians are back. In the criminal underworld of LA as depicted by the Shield, the Armenians are the 'other', not under control of anyone, not scared of anyone and not really understood by the locals, cops or criminals. If you upset them, they cut your balls off. If you really annoy them they cut your feet off and watch you bleed to death. They play the same role as the Russian Mafia do in many other crime series - an impenetrable and out of control force of berserkers who will do anything to anyone. Most ethnic minorities get their chance to be the bad guys in some US cop drama series eventually, so maybe it was just poor Armenia's turn to be cast as the baddie, but then I also happen to be reading White Jazz by James Ellroy at the same time. Despite being set in a L.A. half a century before the Shield, an Armenian crime family is at the heart of the murder, chaos and perversion once again. It appears there is a meme here and at least in SoCal, the lesson from popular fiction seems to be don't fuck with Armenians.

But then about the same time I was digging on the L.A. Armenian crime scene, the BBC had to come along and spoil all the hardass gangsterism with a documentary about the real Armenia - Armenian: the cleverest nation on earth. It appears that actually Armenians are all totally hardcore... errr... chess geeks.

Monday, October 26, 2009

“Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall” by Jarkko Sipilä. Long dark nights do not noir necessarily make.

On my way to Brussels last week I happened to notice in an airport book shop a recently translated Finnish detective novel – “Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall” by Jaakko Sippila. Although I’ve only read (and liked) the first two of Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, I know there has been a bit of craze in recent years for Scandinavian crime fiction in the UK and US. For instance, I first heard Larsson reviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air and bought the first novel on that basis. So it seemed pretty cool to read a crime book set in my hometown and particularly one where the original Finnish version had won an award as the best crime novel of the year.

The book has been translated and published by a small, new American publishing house, started by Sipilä and his brother, and I wish them good luck in bringing more Finnish crime fiction to the English speaking world. But they still have some room for improvement. Not being good enough at Finnish to read the original is a bit annoying as it would be interesting to know whether it is the translation or the original Finnish that is a bit flat. With the book having won this crime novel of the year award, I presume it’s the translation because otherwise it doesn’t say much about Finnish crime fiction currently. Being translated primarily for an American market means that there were some slightly confusing American terms in there; it took me a second to remember that a “streetcar” is a tram and I’m not really sure if “half an ounce of meth” is a lot or not. It is not just that I'm used to British terms, but more that I’ve spoken English with Finns for over a decade and never heard one of them call a tram a “streetcar”. Likewise a Helsinki cop would have an even harder time than me working out what half an ounce is, so it just sounds unnatural for the word to be put in his mouth.

I guess these are really hard issues for a translator to resolve, but in Against the Wall, it seemed the translation never really did go one way or t'other. Things are half translated – the road Kehä I gets translated as “Beltway I” (despite the fact the Swedish name for it – remember Finland is bilingual so the signs say both – is ‘Ring I’, exactly what everyone, both Finnish and foreigners, call it in English). Yet the street where one of the characters lives is only half translated as “Tehdas Street”. This totally confused me: Tehdas means ‘factory’ and as I know that part of town I was trying to think where there is a “factory street” – completely forgetting the genitive of Tehdas turns the streetname in Finnish into Tehtankatu – a street name that EVERYBODY knows in Finland. Tehtankatu is the address of the imposing and rather intimidating bulk of the formerly Soviet, now Russian, embassy – a building that has long cast shadows over both the street and Finnish political life far more widely. So why does “Beltway” need a translations whilst Tehdas only needs half of one? Similar issues crop up through the book, which had me back translating words into Finnish so I could work out where or what in Helsinki was being discussed.

Having said all that, it is an enjoyable read if you like that sort of thing and anyone who knows Helsinki will enjoy spotting places they know. For example, my old local in Kallio – a dump admittedly, but a cheap one at that – appears to be where to go when trying to make contact with a contract killer. I never noticed this when I used to drink there but was probably distracted by cheap beer. I also, rather embarrassingly, realise I know most of the petrol station cafés of the greater Helsinki region and have eaten donuts in many of them. They pop up quite regularly through the book and the author even gets to note which serves the best coffee (personally I see myself as more of a donut connoisseur).

I think perhaps I was hoping for the book to say a bit more about modern Finland, being Finnish, and the like – like Steig Larsson’s distopian vision of modern Sweden. But Sipila isn’t that interested in this – it’s a detective story from a bloke who clearly know about how the Finnish police work. There are few nice snatches that hint at more – the modern Finland I know; a scene where a middle aged man can’t bring himself to hug his grieving grown-up daughter. Finns aren’t the most ‘huggy’ of nations. Helsinki is also dark and cold throughout the book, but also generally damp. In these days of warmer winters forget any tourist bureau bollocks of arctic winterscapes, at least down here in the south. The damp cold is a fitting background to a story of corruption and people trying to rip each other off. But don’t expect Against the Wall to make and deeper points, it sticks within a formula and keeps to the rules, even if the hero cop gently prods at the margins of acceptable behaviour.

It is may be not a fair comparison but I also read in the last few days 1974 by David Peace, the first book in his Red Riding Quartet. Peace is James Ellroy’s British acolyte, and a worthy one at that. That book drips with despair like, well, piss and shit would once thrown in your face by a corrupt rozzer in a cold interrogation cell. You may not actually enjoy reading that descent into hell but it is bracing to say the least. Peace’s world is one where there are no rules: as one of the policemen screams as he beats the “hero” half to death “THIS IS THE NORTH. WE DO WHAT WANT!” Maybe in the Yorkshire of 1974 but not in Sipilä’s Helsinki. The good guys are generally pretty decent, and they hold the line. The book may be more realistic but is less exciting as a result.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Brussels; Tehran. No connection.

I'm in Brussels again. It's a sad thing when you have to head to Belgium for better weather, but it's better here than in Helsinki! I'm back in a few days but minimal blogging this week may well be the result.

Apropos to nothing really beyond that I was listening whilst wandering around Brussels after finishing my meetings today, the BBC has a really interesting programme about religious tensions inside Iran and how the version of Shia Islam that President Ahmadinejad follows is increasingly being seen as heretical and anti-clerical by the Shia establishment putting them at odds with the authoritarian government and in league with the democracy protesters who took to the streets this summer after the stolen election.

Now out for what Belgium is famous for. Beer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Smackdown (part II)

The road to work and some morning mist - the gravel cyclepath sections are great as they aren't slippy in the frost like tarmac!

It has been pretty frosty first thing in the morning all this week and every morning up until friday I couldn't quite bring myself to get on the bike. But Friday dawned sunny and the thermometer at home was only just touching freezing. I started off riding cautiously knowing that there was a chance of black ice. I felt my back wheel slip once just a few hundred metres from home, but after that it all felt ok. About three kilometres into the ride the bike path takes a 90 degree turn to the left, a spot I remember seems to catch frost, so I touched the brakes slowing down my approach and even unclipped my left foot from the pedals ready to put it down if necessary. Going into the corner all of this made absolutely no difference at all and the tyres lost all gripon real black ice, not just frost, and down I went.

Oddly I had recently been trying to work out how often I fall off my bike - buying a new helmet had led to this speculation. I'm sure I came off at some point last winter riding in the snow, but I don't actually remember when. So twice in two weeks is a) sore and b) totally annoying. A grazed hip, knee and elbow were yesterdays injuries, but between this and last week's fall I now own:
  • 1 pair of windproof trousers with rips in left knee and left hip
  • 2 pairs of bib tights, one pair with a hole in the right knee and one with a hole in the left
  • A Pertex windproof top with a hole in the left elbow
  • a thin micro fleece with a hole in the left elbow
  • A Helly Hansen Lifa base layer with a hole in the left elbow (and, yes as you might guess, a small hole in my left elbow)
  • One pair of windproof winter cycling gloves with a hole in both palms
Interestingly, and fortunately, I haven't hit my head in either spills but I am starting to wonder if during this annoying time of the year with the chance of ice, but not enough to make you want to change to winter tyres, elbow and kneepads might be the way to go!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A multilingual Finnish political history

I forgot to mention this last week: Helsingin Sanomat International had a great piece by Unto Hämäläinen looking at the language skills and language needs of various Finnish political leaders from its independence to the present day. It's one of those great articles which is actually much more profound than it sounds at first. It uses one specific prism, in this case what foreign languages were spoken and needed to be spoken by leaders involved in the country's international relations, to show the profound changes in Finland's geopolitical situation and internal political culture during the period. I won't try and sum it up, if you are at all in interested in Finnish politics or history just read it. Overall though I was left with the image of a tide of cosmopolitanism that went out from Finnish shores after independence leaving all sorts of strange things lying on the beach. But the tide always turns and that lost cosmopolitanism has returned again in the form of Finland's European vocation and its globally competitive economy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Olhava the great

The view from Olhava's summit

Olhava never fails. It's the best cliff in Finland, even if it gets too busy, or you think you've done all the routes there you can do, or it's a bit too far to drive and a bit too far to walk, too difficult for a busy family man to fit into his schedule. Make the effort and it will repay you. Dave and I got there for sunset on Saturday. It's a touch gloomy down in the trees but high above the top of cliff is orange in last sunshine. I tie on, grab the gear and sprint up Mänty. Mänty is a good climb, easy enough to do swiftly, but not well protected enough to take lightly. I enjoy the sunset from the belay as Dave seconds. We rap quickly back down to the ground. Dave puts his head torch on his helmet and starts up Honey in the now thick gloom. He boulders through the steep start and by the light of the lamp he places gear, but its now really dark. I lower him off, and pull the ropes. We'll do it in the morning and get the runners back then.

I put my little tent up, Dave rolls out his bivvy kit then we wander over to the fire place to cook sausage, drink beer and chat with the other small collection of climbers who have braved the autumn chill in search of good climbing conditions. As people head to their tents around midnight I take the row boat out into the middle of the lake and marvel at the stars. The air is well below freezing and the now warmer lake is covered in a fine low mist. If a hand had appeared from the inky waters and given me a sword, it wouldn't have seemed surprising. Magic. I row back to the shore and head to my sleeping bag.

Morning breaks and with it being -6 getting out of your pit is a real struggle. I linger snug inside my little tent. Eventually I get out and start on breakfast - Dave gets tea in bed as reward for having slept the night out in his bivvy bag with just the stars for his roof. Then we make coffee, then some more tea, just putting off the need to take off our thick duvet jackets and start climbing. But the sun comes around the temperature inches out of the frost. We climb a couple of routes above the camp site but know we're still really avoiding the main issue - the main face. What Olhava is all about.

Dave starts up Josse, 6- (E1 5b)

After a quick lunch, we take the row boat out to island that forms the base camp for climbing on the main wall. It's Dave's lead. He picks Josse, a soaring crackline. He's done it before but a more than a decade ago. I've seconded it before as well - on my first ever trip to the cliff 12 years ago. I don't remember much beside abject terror and falling off the crux. Dave cruises it in the perfect afternoon sunshine. I second less smoothly but I don't fall. Now it's my turn.

Your correspondent on Suuri Leikkaus, 6 (E2 5c although see comments below)

The great corner of Suuri Leikkaus awaits, as it has for a decade. I've always found excuses not to try - mainly based on it being grade 6 and me not being able to climb grade 6. But after recent ascents, mates had assured me that I had at least a fighting chance. It's perfect timing, the shadow has inched away across the main wall as the afternoon has drawn on and finally even the two walls of this 45 metre high open book are golden in the low sun. Weighed down with all the cams and hexes we have between us, I lock a hand in the crack and pull up. It's a physical route and you want to be a confident hand and fist jammer, but it's not actually that hard. I have no idea how it gets grade 6, as all the 6-s to its left, as well as the 5+s, are probably harder. But it is superb. I arrive at the top grinning.

Dave seconds Suuri Leikkaus

The sun is soon to set so we ab down, jump back in the boat, row back to the camp area and pack up. What a day; I've heard woodpeckers tapping, seen a capercaillie fly by hooting, watched mist rise off a silent lake, sun glint through yellow and golden trees and done some great climbing in good company. What more can you ask for.

You can see a few more pics from the weekend here, including another climber who was there, Juha, doing a possible first ascent.

Olhava - the trailer

Home from a brilliant day climbing, and wonderful night out camping. Gotta to sleep now, and will do a proper post in the next few days, but here's a quick clip to be going one with. Dave climbs Josse 6- (E1 5b) on the main face at Olhava.

Thursday, October 08, 2009


A sharpish corner, going downhill, wet sand and gravel from road works covering tarmac. Not a good combo. It all happens so fast, I've hit the floor and rolled before I know what happened. Back wheel skidded out I guess. Dammit, that hurt, but I'm ok and sit on the ground for a bit swearing. Palms of my newish winter biking gloves both shredded. Knee of my bib tights ground away and blood is starting to soak into the muddy material around the hole. It hurt again washing the dirt out in the shower at work later, but overall I'm more annoyed about the trashed clothing than the injury.

That was going to work. Coming home, I stick to the tracks through central park and Paloheina - away from traffic, and sand-slicked tarmac cycle paths. The knee hurts a bit, but the autumn colours and setting sun make up for it.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Finnish Afghan "debate"

(A Finn on patrol in Afghanistan via YLE) So it's been a big few weeks for Finnish politics, what with the planks an' all. A mate was filling me in this morning on the debate in the Eduskunta (Finnish parliament) he went to watch last Thursday evening - a debate that he reckoned a whole 20 MPs had found the time to turn up to. Regardless of what your position is on the point and purpose of the mission, if troops from your country are volunteering to go out to do a dangerous job in a dangerous place, it strikes me that the elected representatives of that country could at least turn up and hear what the government has to say on it and think about whether it is a wise policy or not.

As recounted to me, the debate amongst the 20 who did make it was acrimonious to say the least, with former chair of the SDP, Eero Heinäluoma, using a rather insulting term for coward from the end of WWII* about Jaakko Laakso of the Left Alliance. From what I've heard Laakso say over the years, the old tankie almost certainly deserved it. The SDP also accused the Left Alliance of knee-jerk anti-americanism, which makes me think this was a certain strain within the SDP talking (which fits with chosen aphorism for the Left Alliance). This is interesting because amongst the other SDP member at the debate was Jutta Urpilainen, the current chair of the party. I don't really know anything about her foreign policy thinking, but she did beat Tuomioja who is from the left-pacifist wing of the party to win the chair. If she had taken the time to be at the debate, and the SDP position is reflected in Heinäluoma's comments, it marks a change in the party's foreign policy thinking from the Tuomioja/Halonen axis perhaps?

Anyway, with sad timing, a Finnish patrol in Mazar e Sharif got blown up by an IED the next day. Two soldiers were seriously injured and have been brought back to Finland, two other are in a German hospital in Afghanistan with less severe injuries. Get well soon guys. Had the poor buggers got blown up the day before, I wonder if a few more MPs might have troubled themselves to turn up to discuss their deployment.

*The insult, käpykaartilainen, or "Pine Cone Guard" was aimed at deserters who hid in the forests and seems to have particular resonance within the different factions of the Finnish left dating back to the civil war. I'm glad I looked that up because just like my teachers said when I was about 7, you learn something new everyday!

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Kakarsberget update topo

Just for any Helsinki climbers who are interested - a quick topo of the big buttress at Kakarsberget which isn't update yet on Kimi's master topo.

The red line is Vesan Reitti, 4, climbed in April 1997 by myself with Vesa Kautto. I don't think it has been done since then so needs a good brush. I will try and do it myself if I get chance. The blue line is Piton Route, 5-, with no known FA details. The yellow line is the Pool Cleaner Guy, 5+ (6-?), done in Sept. 2009 by Jonas Broo.

More climbing photos: Kakarsberget and Muurla

No climbing this weekend - other things I had to do, plus crappy weather. But here are some pics from a couple of weekends back that I never got around to putting up. Any Helsinki climbers reading might be interested in some pics of a couple of new (well sort of - see below) lines at Kakarsberget, Kauhala - which is well on its way from being neglected esoterica to the best collection of mid-grade routes in the Helsinki region.

Jody climbs Pelkkiä Mustikoita (Fin. 4/Sev), that I had done the first ascent of just a week before. The clean slab partly visible to the left is Jody's new sport route Baby Steps 6a+, a really nice addition to the cliff.

Another view of Pelkkiä Mustikoita, showing its offwidthy nature. The route is probably the easiest offwidth I've done in Finland - so if you want to get some practice in the dark arts of the wide, borrow some big cams and get stuck in, literally and metaphorically.

Thanks to Jody for this picture of me on the crack of "Piton Route". "The Pool Cleaner Guy" heads up to the thin crack on the headwall at this point. "Piton Route" carries on to the up right. This is one of the Kauhala mystery routes; in that it has had a piton in it, and has done for as long as I can remember, despite no one seeming to know who placed it and whether it was climbed as an aid route, a trad route or perhaps even a winter line. Anyway I've called it "Piton Route" for the want of a better name. It goes at about 5- (VS 4c) and I found it rather 'old fashioned' in that hexes were more useful than cams. If anyone knows the history of the piton I'd be interested to hear.

La Sportiva Cliff 5s that I have as test shoes for UKC. They are a bit punter-looking, but I have realised a) I'm a punter anyway, and b) they are actually bloody good. A full review will be on UKC at some point in the future.

Gekko, a ferociously fingery 6c

The photo above and those that follow are from Muurla. Muurla is one of those odd Finnish crags that seems to have fallen out of fashion – if it was ever truly in fashion. It is a long, sunny, south facing escarpment above the old Helsinki-Turku highway. The bits of rock that stand proud of the forest below are very clean by Finnish standards. The cliff became famous amongst old school Finnish climbers because of the presence of what is probably the country’s first sport climb – Baby Face, an impressive, overhanging 7b put up by Henrik Suihkonen in 1989. But the Baby Face area is by no means the only one – there are some other sports climbs dotted about. They look a bit dated now: expansion bolts and bent-sheet Petzl hangers whilst the modern norm is chunky glue-ins. The bolting is also of the relatively minimalist 90s school. I’ve never found out for sure but always presumed this was because the of the cost of bolts back when people were paying for them out of their own pockets allied to the difficult of drilling Finnish granite (it takes a rapid toll on drill bits and batteries), rather than any real minimalist bolting ethic. It does mean however that the second bolt is often high enough to make taking a fall whilst trying to clip something you really want to avoid.

Pataässä, a spooky looking 6b

But Muurla is not only about sport, we climbed two trad lines, one very easy but pleasant up a natural ramp and crack feature, and another up the wide crack in the corner at the left end of the Baby Face. I presume these will have been climbed in the past although there is oddly no record of any trad lines done at the crag. There are numerous other possibilities along the length of the cliff for those willing to do some cleaning.

Dave on what we thought was Mefisto 6b+, but isn't. I think it's called "Spedestalli" although puns are well beyond my meagre Finnish spelling skills. It might also be about 6c.

If Muurla is going to have a little renaissance in the style that Kauhala has this summer, the thing that might do it is the at long last completion of the Helsinki to Turku motorway. Not only is the crag now much, much quieter with probably 95 percent of the traffic that used to pass by below it now over the hill on the motorway, you can get there in less than an hour from Helsinki. So for those climbers bored of the same old routes around the Helsinki region – get yourself a brush and get over to Muurla and find yourself some first ascents.

You can't win 'em all

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Bikes, boats and balloons.

My favourite bit of downtown Helsinki cycle path, now with added hot air balloons. Taken sometime last week when it still felt a bit warmer (frosty this morning).