If you have never been to Helsinki, put it on your bucket list. But, go twice. Once in summer for 20 hours of sunshine daily and again in winter, when night rules and the Northern Lights dance across the sky in a riotous kaleidoscope. We recently made our second pilgrimage and arrived to find the locals cockahoop: the mercury had soared to 17 degrees, the ‘first summer heat wave’ of 2017. It’s all relative: the previous weeks had been more frigid than a Sydney winter.Helsinki is a place that time almost forgot and, in parts, you wish it had. The modern architecture is eminently forgettable and utilitarian in a thankless Stalinist way, reminiscent of Australian housing commission blocks. That brutish architecture, though, is counterbalanced by the magnificent cobblestone streets replete with distinctive neoclassical and Jugend architecture that makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a Le Carré novel. Finnish folk are terrific, too, and smart. The average Finn speaks four languages, fluently, including Finnish, Swedish, English and, usually, German or French. Many speak five. Our barman laments he ‘only’ speaks three — English, Finnish and one of the Sami languages of his native Lapland — yet he manages our Australian with aplomb. I am quietly embarrassed about my rudimentary Italian. Helsinki is foodie heaven. In brief, book a table at Juuri. Finnish food is the star. One word: reindeer.
Before Helsinki we enjoy a real heat wave in England, which beckons for research in The National Archives in Kew. There, amid historic documents and photographs, I search for gems about a little-known Australian pilot who performed outstanding feats of bravery over the skies of Nazi Germany during WWII. He was 20 then. Now, he is the subject of my next book. Luckily, I find several. We take a tour of the Churchill War Rooms. It is impossible to convey the power of this underground bunker from where Britain and her allies fought the good fight: it’s not the claustrophobia you feel, imagining the terror Londoners felt when their majestic city was strafed by the Luftwaffe at the behest of Hitler, revanchist and maniacally hell-bent on conquering Europe. It’s not the sight of Churchill’s chamber pot, or the knowledge he had no qualms about having an aide empty it. After all, Churchill did step rose pink and steaming out of a bathtub, proudly naked before an American president for a meeting. No, the monumental success of the museum is a healthy reliance on Churchill’s brilliance. Among my favourite exchanges was this with playwright George Bernard Shaw. Shaw: ‘Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Bring a friend — if you have one.’ Churchill: ‘Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second — if there is one.’ Touché! We make a quick side-trip to the beautiful English village of Battle, where the invading Norman King William slaughtered the army of England’s King Harold in 1066. The battlefield location has long been a subject of conjecture, but the spot where Harold met his end with an arrow through the eye is now settled, marked by a spectacular new sculpture of two warriors in the middle of a small roundabout on the main drag, erected for the 950th anniversary last year. It’s earned rave reviews across England.While there, we celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my in-laws, John and Marianne. On the big day, the postie delivers an embossed envelope. ‘You have a special delivery.’ Pause. ‘From Her Majesty,’ she declares, rather chuffed. ‘I am so pleased to know that you are celebrating your Diamond Wedding anniversary,’ the Queen writes. ‘I send my congratulations and best wishes to you on such a special occasion.’ She signs the card with black ink, ‘Elizabeth R’, and you know it’s been written by her own hand as the ‘z’ is a little wonky, (possibly assisted by a pre-prandial G&T, I hope, smiling). Naturally, it is all class, as befits our Queen. The happy couple get another surprise during Mass the next day. The priest presents a framed certificate with a blessing from the Pope. It can’t outdo the Queen’s card, but it reminds me that it’s hard to beat the English when it comes to pomp and ceremony.
Next up, New York for a dose of Trump Derangement Syndrome. I’m no fan of the short-fingered vulgarian and here, in Trump’s hometown (where he has long been rated an outsider and something of a joke), it seems few are happy about their president, except tourists and tourist shop vendors making a motza selling All Things Trump. I stroll past my former workplace at 1211 6th Avenue where I toiled happily as a foreign correspondent at News Corp covering, among other things, Trump, his philandering, his divorce from wife 1, and remarriage to wife 2 (that was Marla, after Ivanka, before Melania). The memories! 1211 also now houses the Fox network — Trump’s cheer squad. Protesting outside is a gaggle of Bernie Sanders lookalikes (you know the type) shouting ‘Trump/Pence regime must go’. Hey ho! They say they’ve been here 100 hours, and counting. Why? ‘Because Fox is the mouthpiece of the regime and it must go’. ‘Fox or the regime?’ Momentarily flummoxed, a superannuated former bra-burner chirrups: ‘The Trump/Pence regime must go’. She then asks for a donation. I laugh. She doesn’t find it funny. Neither does another histrionic critic, leftie film-maker Michael Moore, who’s about to make his Broadway debut in Terms Of My Surrender. No prize for guessing it’s a Trump jeremiad. His goal? To bring down the president! He sings, dances, but mostly rants. Yup, that’ll work. Turns out, it doesn’t. Even the anti-Trump New York Times trashes Moore’s show, likening him to a ‘self-regarding, time-sucking uncle’ whose ‘schtick has become disagreeable with age’. Ouch! I think of Churchill’s retort to Shaw. Or, as Trump himself might tweet, #SAD.
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