Tonight, the chhau dancer has a moon on his back,
and he clasps each of its crescent wingtips
above his head like an angel holding its horns.

When I said that I have looked for you in the bodies
of others, this is what I meant: these martial stances,
these masks, the way his shoulderblades convulse

in tandem with a shuddering drum, the way he raises
a foot to the level of the eye. Some of us are forged
salamandrine, enduring the universe with no more

than the will to be reborn. Others must wear falconry
hoods, and sometimes, when even I can no longer bear
to see, I think of you, once, your head in your hands

in a gesture of mourning, that night at the beginning of
the year of broken idols when a beautiful costumed
man ripped his chest open and showed you that secret

theatre, that solitaire, the hooked bijou of my heart.
Since then, the cosmos has been without choreography.
The seraph on stage unsheathes his trident. I wrap myself

in a serape of sadness and wonder how many dancers I
have watched on how many nights since; how many
I have torn my gaze from to beseech the sky,
as though the night numbered among
its many stars    the zodiac of your eyes.

Words are the very DNA of literature; the tiny building blocks that make up the characters we love and cherish, the worlds in which they inhabit, and the sentences that describe every action within.

At least seven hundred words in the English language can be attributed to just one man: William Shakespeare. If words are the DNA of language he is the Lord of creation.

I hated Shakespeare at school. I was won over through my own reading, although the simple fact that he invented the expression ‘what the dickens?’ would have been enough. Mostly it was down to Hamlet. I love that play. I used to know the speech he gives to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Act Two, Scene Two off by heart…

I will tell you why; shall my anticipation prevent your discovery and your secrecy to the King and Queen, moult no feather: I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appears no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

In Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead the whole speech is dismissed by one of the title characters as Hamlet saying ‘something about losing his mirth.’

I’m currently working as script editor on a condensed adaptation of Hamlet for a friend who’s directing it at the big theatre in town. I’m pretty proud of that, and was flattered to be asked to do it. It’s a fairly standard production that does little to the original text aside from place the action in a more modern war setting, and cut out as much as possible in order to keep the play to approximately an hour in length.

I’m also writing a version of Hamlet which is little more than a low brow version of Stoppard’s play. It tells the story of Hamlet through the trial of Horatio, who is arrested at the end of Shakespeare’s play and charged with every death in the play. It’s indisputably a low-rent bastardization of a literary classic in which original lines are re-worked as lame jokes.

The bit I’m least proud of is Horatio informing the ghost of Hamlet that Tuborg is the new most popular beer in Denmark, to which Hamlet replies ‘something is rotten in the state of Denmark…’

I wouldn’t protest too much if the ghost of Shakespeare appeared in my room, gagged me with his ruff, and then stabbed me through the heart with his quill until I die.

I hope it doesn’t come to that though.

I wrote a play over Christmas which is being staged at an arts festival in the summer. It’s loosely based on The Divine Comedy and features God as an alcoholic raconteur. It plays the concepts of journeying though Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven for laughs— and cheap ones at that.

And yet poking around and mutilating Hamlet somehow feels more blasphemous… more sacrilegious….

There’s always the sense with long dead writers that you can get away with messing with their original work without asking. Jean Rhys didn’t ask if she could borrow the characters from Jane Eyre, she just did. She won a literary prize for it, and then complained that it was long overdue and worthless.

You couldn’t exactly do that with living writers, in the same way you have to get permission to borrow any songs you want to re-work, or borrow parts of. I couldn’t really sit down after lunch and take the characters from The Da Vinci Code and place them into my own idea for a zany comedy.

That’s not a great example to use, as I’m really talking about literature.

How can it be that pillaging from the shit-sodden streets of medieval London feels more acceptable than playing with the characters from a more modern time?

I think it is as simple as the concept of ownership, very similar to the idea of songs entering the public domain. Except that with literature you have to wait more than fifty years for it to be okay. Hamlet has been around so long most people know the story without even reading it, or being conscious of where they picked up that knowledge. Its part of British culture, the same way I knew what a Tardis was despite being born the year Doctor Who was cancelled.

Essentially people were borrowing from Shakespeare before he’d even finished giving us all those new words… those fresh building blocks of literary life.

I’d love to ask Shakespeare what he thinks about all the thousands of versions of his work… particularly how he would feel about my own twisted experimentation with Hamlet.

I hope that he’d crack a wry smile, and enjoy and appreciate the affection that is intended. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you could sit down and write without a deep familiarity with the text, and a genuine love of it…

We sit there, the two of us. We’re drinking Carlsberg against out better judgement. Shakespeare asks me if there’s any mead, and I have to tell him sorry, we haven’t had that liquor here since 1869.

I begin to tell him about this play I’m writing, and about how it starts right after Hamlet ends. I tell him how as Horatio says ‘now cracks a noble heart: good night sweet prince’ we hear police sirens.

‘Police sirens?’ enquires the Bard, who died several hundred years before Sir Robert Peel founded the modern police force.

I explain to him as briefly as I can the history of the police. I tell him they’re officials who are meant to uphold the law.

‘People who stop people like you stealing my work?’ he asks. He asks with a smile so I can’t tell if he’s being serious or if this is that famous Shakespearean banter.

Slightly nervously I try and explain away any feeling of guilt and wrong-doing I feel. I try and explain that no, what I’m doing isn’t theft. I ask him to listen and to understand that I’m taking his characters and putting them in my own story. Then I let him know that what happens is Horatio gets murdered for every murder in Elsinore.

‘That’s ludicrous’ says Shakespeare. ‘Hamlet killed everyone. You should know that.’

I tell him that he doesn’t get it, and that times have changed and that now if the police walked into a building that was full of dead bodies and there was only one guy in there still alive then he would be under suspicion. Furthermore he would have a motive by being Hamlet’s sole heir as his friend, and thus become the King of Denmark.

‘That’s stupid’ he says. Shakespeare starts sulking. ‘I don’t like it.’

‘Tough’ I would retort. ‘I’m taking a logical approach to your story and using that to derive humour.’

He begins to look visibly angry. He crushes his beer can into an aluminium ball and throws it to the ground as he rises to his feet. ‘It sounds like you’re just picking holes and making fun of my work!’

As the Bard rises he draws a small bladed weapon from his coat pocket.

‘What the dickens?!’ I exclaim.

‘Stop. Stealing. My. Words!’ The Bard says through gritted teeth.

I panic and cry; this hypothetical chit-chat has rapidly spiralled out of control.

‘Is that a dagger I see before me?’ I shout, which only really exacerbates the situation.

The Bard moves towards me silently, thrashing his blade in my direction.

‘O happy dagger!’ I cry, still refusing to learn my lesson. ‘This is thy sheath; there rust, and let me die!’

I feel the blade kiss the base of my neck, and few droplets of warm red blood blossom like rose against my skin.

‘A touch, a touch I do confess’ I announce, only enraging the Bard further.

‘For fucks sake! Stop taking my words and placing them out of context for comic effect!’ Shakespeare shrieks as the dagger plunges deep, raking over the topsoil of my flesh and planting the seeds of death deep into my leaking heart.

His face contorts into a cracked smile of evil satisfaction. My blood drips from his dagger like the droplets fall from an ice lolly in the hot summer sun.

As I lie there the blood pumps from my open chest cavity, the blood cells escaping like rats deserting a sinking ship. There is a darkness… a terrible, ghoulish darkness. The edges of Shakespeare’s body begin to slip into the shadows and merge with the black abyss.

‘You’re not so clever now, are you?’ he says, and it sounds like a distant echo… a whisper on the wind.

With the last of my vitality I break into a beatific, taunting smile. My lips twitch uneasily. I look into his eyes and I in a fractured whisper I say ‘O! I am slain.’

In those final moments I am left with the frustrated horror enveloping the Bard’s countenance.

The rest is silence.                                                                            

Wednesday 5th August, 2009.

It is not every day one finds oneself on a train, heading north out of Helsinki. Just such a day is this. Nor is it every day one walks into the restaurant car to find elegant brass railings separating upholstered chairs and tables with tablecloths, and an ice-blond woman smiling coolly behind the counter. I order some meat soup.

“What sort of meat is it?”

“It’s… hmm? I don’t know.”

“Just say it in Finnish.”

She says something strange. Then makes a mooing sound.

“Ah, beef!”

“Yes. Biff.”

Minutes later I am enjoying a plate of homely beef soup, whilst the wide-bodied train thunders through bewitching countryside in evening light, the landscape semi-dressed in wraiths of mist like a foxy sylph in a whirl of white silk. Ah! Finland!

What a revelation! The bread is almost black, the butter is thick and cold. Ah! My stomach sings for joy as I open my mouth. Forgotten are the countless ciabatta rolls with pesto and sun-dried tomatoes I have consumed today in the world’s identikit café chains. Now I have meat and potatoes and carrots and fragrant broth in my gullet, washed down with beer. I am like a fornicator who’s got wind of his prey, nothing can stop me now. I eat. Then I sigh with relief.

Progress, what is progress? To me, it’s when you keep the good things and throw out the bad. In England we threw out everything and replaced it with plastic bags. Attempts are occasionally made to revive or preserve the good things, but we tend to be told they’re too expensive. Or rather, financially non-viable. It’s just a regrettable fact: we have to make the most of our plastic bags and even learn to love them!

What’s so financially non-viable about a table with a tablecloth and some meat soup?

“It’s home-made! You made it?” I ask the girl.

“Yes.” Her eye-brows rise, as if to say “of course”.

“It’s very good.”

She shrugs. It’s okay, she means to say. Nothing to talk about, just a plate of meat soup for God’s sake.

A bunch of Finnish guys come marching past, all with cut-off denim jackets. They’re white, pudgy beer drinkers, but don’t underestimate the power of white fat when it comes to a showdown. These Finns will perform with enthusiastic violence, count on it and don’t utter a word in Swedish.

Swedes were always the oppressors. Swedish is still the second official language of Finland… even though only 6% of the population speak it.

What else?

Not much.

Back in my seat, I watch the sun sinking over the jagged forests.

Finland… forgotten land of high technology and slightly scruffy people. I like the combination, it appeals to my aesthetic sense. Okay?

In Helsinki, I noticed, they had the most enormous cobblestones on the pavements. They looked hand-cut to me. Each one a work of art. Granite cobbles, slightly red-flushed. Handicrafts… wood, stone, glass… It’s solid, man, it’s solid. Finland… where the women are so pale and athletic that their bodies resemble the trunks of silver birches. But the men are like depressed lunatics, for ever engrossed in glum conversations, smoking and drinking as if this were the only way out.

In Helsinki I met an Old Master writer, Bengt Ahlfors, whose play I had just translated. The play was a monologue based on the conversations he used to have with his elevator.

It sounds a daft idea for a play, I know. But… by the end of that play you felt like jumping into an elevator and starting up a conversation of your own. (I tried it at the Holiday Inn, but I only lived on the second floor, so there wasn’t much time to get into my stride.)

Bengt and I went up in the elevator, a old creaky thing (his inspiration, he explained), then sat in his study where he went through my translation whilst offering me some cherries from a bowl. It seemed rude not to, although ever since I started using large quantities of Swedish snuff I’ve noticed I seem to be allergic to most fruit. It makes my lips balloon.

I feel like that woman, what’s her name, Donatella Versace, is it – whose plastic surgery went wrong? We sit there and talk, my lips are monstrously large, I slobber over my words. But I don’t think he notices.

I ask for some water and try to rinse my mouth clean of every vestige of cherry. It works. Slowly my lips reduce to their normal size.

That’s when he gets up and announces I have twenty minutes to make the train to Tampere.

As an English-speaker, I have an automatic advantage over this old writer,  this old-school servant of the written word, with his diffidence and his electric piano placed next to his computer. I speak the world language.

Translators help some of the lesser-known voices grow more powerful, but we have to take away their sting, their pith and kith and kin. We have to Anglicise.

Small cultures like Finland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden can only live by turning themselves into type-cast, herring-eating snuff-takers. They need interpreters to be understood outside their boundaries. They turn themselves into clowns. They are not really herring-eaters any more than Englishmen are cricket-playing, meat-pie eating gentlemen.

In Tampere, the favoured fast-food alternative is a length of black blood-sausage filled with specks of white fat, eaten with a large dollop of cranberry sauce. I can’t see it catching on internationally. But who cares? Do we need to spread the word on Finnish blood-sausage? Should it be globalized and rebranded? Or can we just agree to let it rest?

Thursday 6th August

And so… day two in Finland…

Did my amazement and satisfaction continue into day two? At lunch-time I would have answered with a resounding “no!”

You see, I found myself being accosted in a restaurant by a drunk, who insisted that I had no right to be writing in my little book. When I told him I was writing about Finland he got murderous. “You know this country? Not. You not know. So… why the write?” I tried to explain to him that I was observing with my own two eyes and such things can often be more significant than dry, academic study. His eyes narrowed as he told me he had seven brothers, one of them with a prosthetic arm – this because of his love of fighting. Someone had stabbed him with a broken bottle… repeatedly.

When he slapped me brusquely on the shoulder I noticed at once he decided to give it a miss – fighting with me, I mean. I have large, muscular shoulders and I could have decked him very easily, especially as he could hardly walk.

I glared at him, and then he stumbled off mumbling curses to himself.

But if he’d known I was a Swede he’d have fought to the death. They’re a bit hung up about us, the Finns.

(But who can blame them? Swedes have been rude about the Finns for centuries. The Swedish word for “pimple” is “finne” – literally “a Finn”. An acne-troubled Swedish youth might therefore peer into the mirror one morning and say: “Oh no, I’ve got a nasty Finn erupting on my nose.” Whether there is some etymological link here I don’t know, but it seems insulting nonetheless.)

In the morning a coach picked up the festival guests and took us for a ride around the city. The guide seemed stuck at first for things to say about Tampere. “To your right is an apartment block built for the workers in the textile factories, it was built in the 1950’s, it is the tallest apartment block in Tampere…”

I turned my head and looked at a gray peeling building about ten storeys high.

We made progress, though. We drove out of Tampere.

The guide explained that the town was first established there on account of the advantageous position between two lakes, one of them eighteen metres higher than the other, thus the rapids, and thus the building of the mills and textile works.

We drove past the old mill-owners’ sumptuous villas and suddenly found ourselves in a settlement on top of a high ridge looking out over lakes on both sides. Its name was Pispala.

Finland used to have about 70, 000 lakes, the guide explained.

Then, when Sweden announced it had 80, 000 lakes, Finland held a recount and upped its total to just short of 400, 000. (More or less like the Iranian election results.)

Pispala consisted of congeries of wooden houses built by textile workers, once the slum of Tampere, where the urchins were said to be born with stones in their hands. Now the place is full of artists… rich artists. As we piled out of the bus, we saw a group of those same artists sitting on a bench. A girl in pig-tails and striped tights was singing from a book she held solemnly in front of her. A young man accompanied her on the guitar, another young man fell in with a violin.

I could have stayed there all day.

The blue, slightly ruffled lake lay at the bottom of the slope. There was something Greek about it. A lake stretching almost to the horizon. Very peaceful. Its name, the guide told us, was “Holy Lake”.

On the way back we stopped at an intriguing cathedral, whose central nub was decorated with a long coiling snake opening its jaws around the round fixture at the top of the chain by which the chandelier was suspended. Encircling the snake were countless feathery wings. Sort of God trying to snuff out Satan. (He’s not doing very well, so far.)

Friday 7th August

Today when I woke up there was a message flashing on the TV, which had switched itself on while I was sleeping. “Please pick up a letter in the reception.” I went down, vaguely curious, to find an invitation to a puppet theatre performance of King Lear – a non-verbal version. I didn’t have a lot of other invitations, so I went. Luckily the auditorium was very dark. I fell asleep in there, but whenever I woke up, I was treated to the spectacle of an odd-looking little puppet being manhandled by two women – one of them making loud moaning sounds that continued for about an hour. Occasionally she screamed as, in the background, another puppet was cut open and large bleeding livers and hearts were pulled out of a hole in its stomach. At one point the top of the puppet’s cranium opened, like a sort of lid, and a small hand emerged. Very Jungian – the writer must have had an excellent time coming up with that. Had the audience been high on LSD there would have been many nervous breakdowns.

It was a pleasure to walk back out into the sunlight. I went down to the waterfalls and bought a sausage at a hot-dog stand. The girl, another ice-blond, encouraged me to have some blood-sausage and cranberry but I told her I’d had some earlier and now felt like a regular brown sausage. She smiled in a slightly mocking way. I looked round and noticed a big fat guy wolfing down some black sausage in the background – clearly if you had too much of it, you ended up looking like him.

The other people by the waterfalls were mainly teenagers with green hair, studs coming out of their lips and generally deformed. It struck me that in out-of-the-way towns like this, the kids at school decide to make their mark on things by being “alternative”. But ultimately their efforts are futile. In Tampere, looking like a Goth freak is just another way of conforming.

Yet, after I wrote this I learnt that in July, Tampere enjoys another important annual festival: the Anarchist Counter-Cultural Festival. When I check the website I read: “For us anarchism means for example the critique of all forms of domination and hierarchy and on the other hand creating non-oppressive, egalitarian culture. We see domination not only in large structures of society, but also in oppressive customs among ourselves. Our analysis is not limited only to human relations. It also includes our relationships with non-human beings. Our aim is to strengthen critical views and empowerment in the form of taking control of our lives. Kill the police within!”

(Quoted from http://news.infoshop.org)

So maybe the green hair and weird t-shirts are signs of a flourishing counter-culture? The fact is, that drunk in the restaurant is correct: I will never know…

I was going to finish (sic) my Finnish journal here but something else has come up. Tonight I had the privilege of seeing Bengt Ahlfors’s play (the one I translated) at the Lilla Teatern in Tampere – a sumptuous nineteenth century theatre with gilt plaques above the stage celebrating great names in world drama such as Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière.

Ahlfors’s play is a monologue, so there was only one man on the stage, this being the unique Lasse Pöysti. None of you reading this will know about him. None of you will know that he starred with Birgitta Ulfsson in “Ö” in 1959, or that he appeared in Johan Bargum’s “Som smort” in 1971.

However globalized we get, these things don’t cross borders. The best things are always secrets locked up in their own language and no translator or Arts Council grant can ever transfer the magic. (Except perhaps in the case of Lopez de la Vega, Ibsen and Molière?)

Lasse Pöysti is an old hero of the stage. A war-horse close to eighty years old.

In the middle of his performance there was a fire alarm and we all had to walk out and wait in the sun-drenched square by the old Russian church, its bell-fry of yellow, cracked wood.

When Lasse Pöysti resumed his performance he muffed his lines. He ended up repeating a long anecdote, but no one minded. When he finally finished there was an emanation of pure love from the audience. We clapped and clapped. Seriously, there was not a dry eye in the house.

On my way home, I was again struck by a quality that Scandinavians all have in common, whether Finns, Swedes, Norwegians or Danes: they are all May-flies! When the sun sticks its head over the horizon and gives them a few days of summer, they rise up from their wintry graves. Girls seem intent on procreation all of a sudden. Boys lengthen their strides and know this is the time to find a companion for the long, dark winter.

A final note: did you know Scarlett Johansson comes of part-Danish parentage? When you walk down Tampere’s main street on a summer’s evening, there are tens of Scarlet Johanssons skipping along, with very milky skin… and green hair.

It’s really quite entrancing…