Dead butterflies – 50 years since Rolling Stones at Hyde Park

It’s 50 years since the Rolling Stones played their famous free gig at Hyde Park. The show was their first with new guitarist Mick Taylor, and was given added poignancy as Brian Jones died a few days before it took place. To commemorate his death, Mick Jagger decided to release a box of butterflies while quoting Shelley.

Five years ago, I wrote an epic, 3-million word oral history piece about the gig for Uncut, which included promoter Andrew King’s memory of Mick’s gesture.

Jagger was going to release these white butterflies. I had to liaise with this butterfly farm in the West Country and the parks people who were very concerned the wrong sort of butterflies might upset the ecosystem of the park. Eventually, we agreed on a species. Early on the morning of the concert I went down to Paddington Station to collect these boxes of butterflies, they came in these things like wine boxes, about half-a-dozen. I peeped inside and as far as I could see it was full of dead butterflies. So I called the butterfly farm in a panic and said, ‘They’re dead!’ And they said they’re not dead, they’re cold, they are sleeping, you’ve got to warm them up.”

How the fuck were we going to warm them up? We had these old hot plates, the sort of thing students use to warm up baked beans, and so we put the boxes of butterflies on them to warm them up. I think one of them caught fire. When Mick opened the boxes, some of them flew away but most dropped senseless to the stage. They weren’t dead, they were cold. They only died when they got trod on.’

Peace and love.

 

Advertisements

Morrissey and I

There is a tendency to romanticise the past, but looking back on it, I got into Morrissey at precisely the wrong time. The Smiths split before I was 12 so passed me by, but in August 1992 I belatedly discovered their music. This was because I’d got tickets for Madstock! in Finsbury Park and wanted to know more about the support acts – Ian Dury, Flowered Up and Morrissey.

Ah Morrissey, what a terrible moment to fall for his charms.

morrissey_flag

I bought July’s Your Arsenal and loved it. Reviews in the NME and Select noted one song title, “National Front Disco”, and alluded to other questionable views he’d expressed. But I shrugged that off. At Finsbury Park, Morrissey waved a Union Jack and was bottled off stage by Madness fans, leading to further questions about his political beliefs, but I was now diving headlong into the Smiths’ delicious back catalogue, helped by the release a week after Madstock of Best… I.  Like so many teenagers, I became obsessed, buying and absorbing every Smiths record I could find. Morrissey understood me. He felt my angst and expressed it wittily, with sardonic melodrama and waspish sensitivity. He was exactly like me, only funnier.

Plus, unlike every other pop star in the world, he wasn’t having any sex either.

There was much here that I could identify with.

There were other bands and singers I loved deeply, but none with whom I felt such kinship. He was like an external manifestation of my id, an embodiment of my core being, an expression of my soul.

But. But But. Journalists continued to query his attitude towards race. And while I wrote stern, painfully alliterative, pseudonymous letters to the NME in his defence, I knew. Deep down, I always knew.

“Reggae is vile”. “Life is hard enough when you belong here”.  “Obviously to get on Top Of The Pops these days, one has to be, by law, black.”

As soon as I read those quotes, I knew.

This was a man whose lyrical sharpness was his everything. He was never lazy or clumsy. The idea he was saying these things accidentally or without forethought was ludicrous. Yet I continued to ignore what was in front of my eyes. Right through (the frankly magnificent) Vauxhall & I and even after (the frankly abysmal) Maladjusted, at which point I stopped buying his records. A long, very detailed, critical feature  in Uncut gave me momentary pause, but I was still excited enough by his comeback at the Royal Albert Hall in 2002 to write an enthusiastic preview in Time Out – albeit not excited enough to actually attend.

I still listened to to the Smiths. I even bought Autobiography, bristling briefly, for old time’s sake, at the criticism it received.

But always, deep down, I knew. I knew.

Now, it’s all out the open. Although some would say it always was, and they’d be right.

Why did I refuse to see what had been obvious from the very start? The human capacity for self-deception as a survival instinct is extraordinary powerful. Add the obsessive love of fandom, that cultish need to identify, and you have something that is very hard to step away from. So much is invested in this person that the truth about them becomes impossible to process.

Love takes a lot, but it gives a lot back too. Through Morrissey, I discovered amazing music, films, books and plays. My adolescence was enlightened. My teenage pain was soothed. But was it worth it?

All I know is that I can’t listen to the Smiths now without feeling a huge loss, an emptiness, a sadness. That might seem like an excessive response but the initial love was excessive too. That’s how it works.

I am now too old to have heroes, but I wish as a teenager I had picked Bruce Springsteen.

Inside Brixton Prison

Although I’ve lived about a mile from Brixton Prison for over a decade, the closest I’ve ever got to it is the view from the top of the nearby Brixton Windmill. From there, the bleak wall of the building can be glimpsed. It’s a miserable contrast to the uplifting presence of the windmill, but for some prisoners the unexpected sight of the windmill from their cell brings real solace.

The prison is now the subject of a very readable history, The House On The Hill by Christopher Impey and published by Tangerine Press. Impey tells the story of the prison in breezy bite-sized chapters, switching from general history to extended anecdotes as required. In the process, he shows how Brixton evolved as attitudes to prison and punishment have developed.

Wall_of_H.M._Prison_Brixton_(geograph_2640556)

For fans of psychogeography or coincidence, some of this evolution travels along parallel lines. When it was first constructed, the prison had a giant treadmill, on which prisoners were forced to march all day. This produced flour to make into bread. The treadmill is gone, but the prison today has a bakery, founded by Gordon Ramsay. It also has an award-winning restaurant, the Clink, and is home to the studios for the National Prison Radio.

p04nx3fv

Brixton has had a variety of uses and been rebuilt several times. Originally it was constructed as a local prison for Surrey, but it’s also been a women’s prison, a military prison and, most famously,  a remand prison for those awaiting trail in London. It was briefly planned to be used as a site for hangings – a gallows was constructed but never used after a local outcry. The building is now the prison gym.

It as a remand prison that its best known and this period saw it welcome many of its most famous inmates, among them Mick Jagger, Bertrand Russell and the Krays. Over the years, it’s housed a number of politicians, including in 1921 a group of 24 Labour councillors from Poplar who refused to pay precepts to the LCC, water board and others. The politicians were able to use their savvy to gain extra benefits, and even held 32 council meetings at the prison – six female councillors at Holloway were ferried over to take part. They were released after six weeks. During the Second World War, it was Oswald Mosley and other homegrown Nazis who were demanding additional privileges. One prison officer complained, “I have to line up at shops for my cigarettes. The Fascists get all they want. They smoke all day. The play table tennis. One of them even has a pet budgerigar.”

brixton-handcuffed

One lesser known prisoner was Colonel Victor Barker, who was arrested in February 1929 and brought to Brixton after going bankrupt. During the requisite medical examination, the Colonel asked if he could wear his vest. Would the doctor take his word that there was nothing wrong with him? The doctor refused. At which point the Colonel confessed that he was a woman. The doctor agreed, noting that Barker was “well developed woman, obese” with breasts “fully developed and pendulous”. Barker was swiftly sent to Holloway.

Colonel Barker had been born Lillias Irma Valerie Barker. She had started to live as a man ten years previously. Astonishingly, she had married – her wife had no idea she was living with another woman and declared the honeymoon “perfectly normal”. After serving nine months for perjury, Barker was released to huge crowds of fascinated onlookers. He continued to live as a man and died penniless in 1960 in Lowestoft.

The House On The Hill: Brixton, London’s Oldest Prison by Christopher Impey (Tangerine Press).

 

 

 

Farewell to The Borderline

I have a short piece in the current issue of Uncut about the Borderline (and another longer, very good, piece about the Flamingo).

The Borderline is due to close this summer after a rich history as a venue, hosting a huge number of US and UK bands including Amy Winehouse, REM and Pearl Jam. It was the last venue Townes Van Zandt ever performed, but it was also often used by labels hoping to break an act – its location, good reputation, atmosphere and 200 capacity made it an ideal showcase venue. For these reasons, Oasis chose to use it as the location for their “Cigarettes & Alcohol” video, before playing an impromptu set for the fans who attended the shoot.

I’ve seen loads of great shows here, the best of which was the UK debut by the Drive-By Truckers, which included a solo spot by new recruit Jason Isbell. I also saw Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent play here as Fillup Shack in front of an audience of around a dozen. Most of us were there thanks to the music editor of Time Out, Ross Fortune, who heard ticket sales were low so handed out freebies  to anybody who wanted a night out. Ross loved the Borderline and made it his venue of the year. He even had a favourite seat by the bar that gave him a perfect view of the stage while also allowing him to get served without having to stand up.

Jeff Buckley was another who made his debut at the Borderline – he then played a second show across the road at the 12 Bar for fans who couldn’t get tickets. I was talking to somebody recently who saw Pop Will Eat Itself at the Borderline supported by Suicide – when the crowd booed Suicide off the stage, Clint Mansell refused to perform with PWEI. A bunch of US actors who fancied themselves at musicians all played the Borderline, among them Bruce Willis, Russell Crowe, Minnie Driver and Kiefer Sutherland. How many venues in the world can claim that?

When REM played here it was under the pseudonym Bingo Hand Job, a legendary two-night stand that saw them joined by Billy Bragg and Robyn Hitchcock as this massive band played a bunch of scuzzy covers to 200 fans under their assumed identity. For the piece, I talked to Mike Mills about the shows as well as fans who say it was the most fun they ever saw the band have on stage. That’s the power and pull of a good club venue, and one you’ll never see replicated at a larger theatre or arena.

The Borderline was also worked hard. During its peak years (1990-2005) it was open every night of the week, and after gigs hosted club nights like Alan McGee’s The Queen Is Dead – which caused some entertaining culture clashes at the doors as one group of fans left and the others arrived. The music booker was Barry Everitt, who had a fascinating career in music and whose obituary is worth a read. Incidentally, the manager during this golden period now runs the Crobar, the nearby dive bar and one of the few venues that seems to be clinging on in this part of London. He believes the current owners suffered from a “lack of experience, lack of understanding, lack of contacts”.

When I wrote about the changes to the Charing Cross Road on this blog eight years ago, I speculated about what Crossrail would allow to survive. The development of this area has cost London several venues either directly or indirectly, with the Astoria, 12 Bar and Metro all disappearing along with a number of smaller bars and clubs.

And now the Borderline is going too, leaving the 100 Club  as the last decent-sized West End venue standing. Enjoy it while you can.

Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands

It feel as if the underground is heading overground. At the London Metropolitan Archives, an exhibition celebrates London’s subterranean treasures. Robert Mcfarlane has recently applied his golden Iain Sinclair-does-nature touch to a book on Underland. A photographic exploration of ghost stations is incoming from the London Transport Museum.  And at the Museum of London Docklands, London’s Secret Rivers have been granted their own exhibition.

Jacob’s Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart

London’s rivers are persistently fascinating and resistant to erasure. Like so many Londoners, I have been on their trail for decades. I nearly drowned inside the Fleet. I walked the Effra with a water dowser. I interviewed architects, businessmen and artists who have wanted to bring rivers back to the surface – or, in a particularly fascinating case, suggested we acknowledged the new flow of the buried Fleet via a subway, an underground bridge over a river under a road. I have studied the objects taken from the Roman temple alongside the Walbrook. I have stood in the middle of roads, ears to a grate, hoping to hear the passage of the subterranean river. I could go on.

All of this came flooding back at the Museum of London Docklands, a clever exhibition that features much of the above and more besides. It starts by exploring the reality of London’s rivers – where they were, what they were used for, why they disappeared – and then tackles the far meatier subject of what they mean to us now. It’s an exhibition of two distinct halves, one archaeological and topographical; the second more artistic and speculative. Bridging the gap comes a wonderful series of large photographs taken inside the Fleet, which gave me flashbacks and daysweats from my own subversive submersion in the sewer.

There are stacks of books, modern artworks, maps, films and digital pieces. Among them is a terrific sequence of SF Said‘s haunted Polaroids for Tom Bolton’t great rivers book, taken at above ground sites along the course of London’s rivers. I always think they look as if they were shot through a film of water, as if the ghost of the river has infected the lens.

It was particularly pleasing to see my local river, the Effra, getting some good space. This went back to the 1990s art/political prank group Effra Redevelopment Agency, and continues today in the form of the decorative manhole covers that mark the course of the river. It’s also given its name to a regreening project, a small but worthy attempt to restore ecological balance to the city.

I once believed that lost rivers could be restored, acting as canals or ornamental bodies of water. Now I rather like them as they are, buried but acknowledged, a reassuring secret hidden in plain sight, out of sight but never to be ignored.

Secret Rivers at Museum of London Docklands until 27 October 2019.

Spies Of London

_106302093_mediaitem106302092

Apparently this “drab” office block in St James’s was for many decades a London base for GCHQ and is now being sold off to developers. It reminded me of the time I was writing an article that briefly alluded to GCHQ. The piece was mainly about Elizabethan spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, and I remember talking over the phone to the author of Walsingham’s biography to try and confirm whether Walsingham’s portrait was still hanging in the lobby of GCHQ in Cheltenham.

Then, completely out the blue, a chap from GCHQ called me at the office, wanting to know what I was writing about. He refused to say how he’d found out that I was writing about GCHQ, indeed he seemed to take great delight in not telling me – and he did allude to general suspicions about Time Out given the magazine’s radical history. He did eventually confirm that GCHQ had a portrait of Walsingham, before signing off with what sounded suspiciously like an evil chuckle.

There was almost certainly an innocent explanation.

But it was also incredibly creepy.

To add to my sense of paranoia, I was at the time living in an old SIS office on Westminster Bridge Road. This was Century House, MI6’s HQ until they moved to Vauxhall. Rumours abounded about the secrets that still lay within the basement. Were there really old prisons cells? And a special tunnel that led directly to the nearby Lambeth North tube station? Any ex-spooks with knowledge of the building, feel free to tell me what you know. Just don’t call the mobile, that would really freak me out.

The Parakeets of London

Last month I was fortunate enough to interview 90-year-old Angela Allen for the Telegraph Magazine. Allen was a script supervisor, or continuity girl as it was originally called, for a host of great films including The Third Man.  I was asking her specifically about her experiences on The African Queen, which she filmed in the Congo jungle with Bogart, Hepburn and John Huston.

At the end of an enjoyable interview, I needed to ask one last question. About parakeets.

Big mistake.

“Oh don’t started me on the parrots,” she sighed. “Everybody says the London parakeets escaped from the set of The African Queen but there were no birds in the film and we didn’t bring any animals back to England, so I’m bored of hearing that one. I don’t know where that rumour came from but I didn’t see a parrot in London or Africa. I was once filming in Rome with Zeffirelli and somebody started blaming The African Queen for the parrots they now have in Italy.”

So there you go. However, if you do want to know more about the history of London’s parakeets, a new book has all the answers. The Parakeeting of London is the latest book from Paradise Road, the London independent publishers who did my Battersea Power Station book. It’s fantastic.

Written by “gonzo ornithologist” Nick Hunt, the book looks for the earliest reported sightings in London and explores the many urban myths surrounding their history. It also looks at the way the parakeets live, travel and feed and the impact they have on other wildlife. And the book explores the nature of the relationship that Londoners have developed with this “invasive species”, asking some pertinent questions about the concept of native and immigrant species that ties into wider, non bird-related, socio-political questions.

You can get The Parakeeting Of London from the Paradise Road website.

Lennon/Ono and “RAPE” in Highgate Cemetery

I have written the cover story in the new Uncut about John Lennon in 1969. This was a pivotal year for Lennon, as he embraced Yoko Ono’s concept of experimental autobiographical artistic experiences and prepared for the break up with the Beatles.

Ono and Lennon were endlessly busy through 1969, releasing weird albums – Life With The Lions and Wedding Album – and forming the Plastic Ono Band. Lennon played free jazz in Cambridge University, sent acorns to world leaders, got married, sat in bags, took heroin and released several hit singles, including “The Ballad Of John And Yoko”, “Give Peace A Chance” and “Cold Turkey”.

One of the lesser known results of this creative outpouring was the film, “RAPE”. Sean Ono Lennon believes this to be: “A profound piece, especially in the context of the Me Too movement. It’s not designed to be entertaining, it’s a concept, a metaphor and an experience.”

 

“RAPE” was commissioned by Austrian TV and filmed by Nic Knowland, a cinematographer working for World In Action. He told me, “An Austrian gentleman called me and said John and Yoko wanted me to work on a project. I said okay and went to meet them in hospital – I think Yoko had a miscarriage – and they explained what they wanted from this film. It was to reflect their sense of being hounded by the press. They wanted me to get a small crew and then follow anybody in the street until they screamed or broke down.”

For the next couple of days, Knowland filmed around North Kensington, shooting a lot of footage but never reaching the point Ono and Lennon wanted. The producer than gave Knowland the address of an Austrian woman who was in London and had outstayed her VISA. Eva Majlata was the sister of  a friend of the producer and Knowland was never sure how much she was told about the project.

For the next three days he followed her around London – Highgate Cemetery, Chelsea Bridge – ignoring her attempts at conversation and keeping the camera focused on her face. “Then on the third day we were given the key to her apartment,” says Knowland. “That’s pretty full on and ends with me being very aggressive with the camera, putting my foot on the phone so she can’t call the police. I felt we had pushed it as far as we could.”

You can watch the whole film on You Tube.

The finished film is extremely unsettling, as Majlata is essentially stalked for 90 minutes by a silent camera to her increasing discomfort and eventual alarm. We see everything from the camera’s perspective, making us complicit in the action. For Lennon and Ono, this was about fame but it’s also about everyday street harassment – which, as Sean Ono Lennon says, make it very appropriate today.

What makes it even more alarming was Majlata’s after story. The film landed her a couple of modelling gigs with Vogue but she then “got into a spot of bother” as Knowland put it, and moved back to Austria where, as Eva Rhodes, she opened an animal sanctuary. She then got involved in various legal tussles and was eventually murdered in suspicious and horrendous circumstances. One of the themes of Lennon/Ono’s 1969 was how life inspired art, and Majlata’s experience was the reverse – art became life.

“RAPE” is little known now, but of all the projects Lennon and Ono worked on in 1969, this was the most powerful. There are a couple of articles about it that are worth reading including here and here.

Crass – anarchy in the green belt

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Crass, a unique band who mixed music and politics in such way that they really did inspire a new way of life, and thinking about life, for their followers. Theoretically, Crass were punks – and their music was loud, aggressive, fast and very direct – but they also advocated a philosophy that tried to combine humanism with libertarianism: be true to yourself but care about others. That balance of selfishness and selflessness creates a circle that isn’t always easy to square, but Crass’s absolute dedication to their message makes their story a fascinating one. “There is no authority but yourself,” they sang, a message that’s not a million miles from Aleister Crowley’s “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

299px-crass_pete_steve_andy

I’ve always been fairly sceptical about the idea there was a sharp divide between punks and hippies, and Crass are a case in point. They were every bit a product of the 60s counterculture as much as they were 1976. The band were even formed in a commune in Epping Forest that was founded in the sixties and was dedicated to that concept of dropping out. Crass were anti-war and promoted vegetarianism and identity politics. They screened avant-garde films and took part in Situationist-inspired stunts against the mass media.

Crass co-founder and drummer Penny Rimbaud was a fan of the Beatles as well as Patti Smith and Television. Here he is on Ready Steady Go winning a prize from his idol John Lennon. Rimbaud says that Lennon’s increasingly bold political and artistic statements in collaboration with Yoko Ono from 1968 were a model for Crass.

 

 

 

And yet few bands embraced the spirit of punk as much as Crass, who arranged their own gigs, ran their own label and communicated directly with their fans. They were in-your-face and anti-establishment, and their love of slogans, uniforms and banners caught some of punk’s militaristic fetish. A song like “Owe Us A Living” could surely only have been written in the punk era.

 

Rimbaud, as intellectually challenging an interviewee as any I have spoken to, discussed some of this during our conversation. “Punk wasn’t really about nihilism, that was just the theatre of McLaren,” he told me. “The Slits were a hippie band in appearance and attitude. Hippie was about people looking to find a way to live differently, what is now called DIY and is vaunted but was then common sense. You grew your own food and looked after yourself. The big difference was that punk was more urban. It was still people squatting and wearing strange clothes. People like McLaren tried to cash in on that natural and very long-existent form of youth discovery. It’s not protest, it’s youth discovering itself by buggering about. It’s only a big deal when somebody tries to market it, and punk and hippie were both exploited to the hilt.”

Read more in the current Uncut.

Santa Claus and Lapland’s Reindeer Antler Plan

I recently spent some time in Lapland for the Guardian. I wrote about my trip here  but thought I’d put a more complete version on the blog.

As soon as you land at Rovaniemi airport you see a reindeer. Not a real one admittedly, but somebody in a Rudolf suit cheerily greeting passengers who have just arrived and are planning to meet Santa Claus at his home in Northern Finland. A couple of miles from Rovaniemi airport –“Santa’s official airport” –  is Santa Claus Village, complete with elves, reindeers, huskies, shops, restaurants and the real Santa. It’s an attraction that draws more than 600,000 annual visitors to this isolated spot on the Arctic Circle.

There are reindeers everywhere in Rovianemi. Costumed at the airport, pulling sleighs at the Santa Village and recreated in statues throughout the town centre. There is also the outline of a reindeer embedded in the city’s streets. This is the “reindeer antler plan”, which was created by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto when he rebuilt the city after the Second World War. Aalto also designed the  town hall, library and concert hall, which are arranged in a complementary cluster to the south of the city centre. But while tourists flock to Santa Claus village, few seek out the work of Finland’s greatest architect. Frank Nieuvenhausen, a Dutchman living in Rovaniemi, hopes to change that through cultural tours that take in Rovaniemi’s museums, galleries and local history alongside the work of Alvar Aalto. “People get off the plane straight on a bus to the Santa Claus village but there is a rich history here,” he says. “We don’t all have to dress up as elves.”

visit-rovaniemi-map-reindeer-antler-town-plan-600x600

Rovaniemi was a quiet trading town of around 6,000 people before the Second World War. Russia invaded in 1939, and the Finns fought off their aggressors in the brutal Winter War of 1939-1940. After that, they allied with the Germans. The Finns were not Nazis and the Germans were not occupiers – this was a marriage of convenience to protect the Finns from the Russians and give Germany access to St Petersburg. Finnish Jews fought the Russians alongside German soldiers – three were offered the Iron Cross. Even today, this relationship continues. A few miles outside Rovaniemi by a lake is a memorial to the German war dead. It’s a peaceful spot, both respectful and isolated. The silence is only broken by the sound of Finnish jets protecting Rovaniemi from a feared Russian incursion.

Under the terms of German-Fin alliance, the country was split in half: the Finnish Army controlled the south and the German army had the north, with access to ports and nickel mines. The Germans were based in Rovaniemi and the town’s population doubled. The Luftwaffe built an airfield – Rovaniami airport – while Santa Claus Village itself is on the site of a German barracks. For years, the Germans and Finns got on famously. Then the war turned and the Russians told the Finns to expel the Germans or the Red Army would return. As the Germans departed, Rovaniemi was razed. Photographs show a smoking ruin with just chimney stacks left standing. Pekka Ojala, who runs a B&B and sauna near the city centre, still finds burnt wood and metal in his garden.

This desolation is what Alvar Aalto faced. But his ambition was vast. “He saw the burned town as an opportunity,” says Jussi Rautsi a former planner and researcher at the Aalto Foundation. Partly inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s Tennessee Valley Authority Plan, Aalto created a plan for all of Lapland – a land mass as large as Holland and Belgium combined. The plan started with single housing units – designed to have as little cold north-facing façade surface as possible, and maximum external surface to the sun in south-west – and expanded outwards. Aalto factored in the hydroelectric plants being built on the great rivers of Lapland, and commissioned impact assessments to see what the effect would be on the environment, population, local industries, indigenous Sami, reindeer herds, water basins and microclimate. “Nobody in the world had done such a plan,” says Rautsi. “It had all spatial levels: regional, entire town, parts of towns, neighbourhoods, even peripheral estates. This was the only plan of this magnitude in the world.”

Rovaniemi’s “reindeer antler” street plan was conceived by Aalto in 1945. This was a stroke of visionary genius, as he simply imposed a reindeer outline on existing topography like those people who find animal shapes in the London Underground map. Aalto highlighted the natural shape of the land and the way the main roads and railway crossed. The football stadium became an eye, and the reindeer was born. It was magnificent branding, but Aalto then embellished the plan, creating different zones for commerce, residential and administration within the lines of the reindeer.

All this had to be built without Marshall Aid as the Finns had been on the side of the Germans and were also paying “reparations” to the Russians. Aid did come from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the precursor to UNICEF, which was brought to Rovaniemi by the UNRRA patron Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of FDR, in June 1950. Roosevelt wanted to visit the Arctic Circle, so the Finns built a log cabin near the airport, furnished with chairs designed by Alvar Aalto. They told her it was in the Arctic Circle although it was actually a little to the south. Roosevelt sent a letter from the cabin to President Truman – the first letter ever posted in the Arctic Circle – and wrote about it in her memoir. The log cabin became tourist attraction and was visited by other world leaders, including Brezhnev and Golda Meir. The log cabin still stands today on the edge of Santa Claus Village, where it is roundly ignored by tourists.

Tourism took time to build after the war but by 1984 Concorde was bringing visitors to Rovaniemi to see the Arctic Circle. That’s when some local entrepreneurs created the Santa Claus Village. According to Finnish myth, Santa came from Korvantunturi or Ear Fell, which is shaped like an ear so Santa can hear the wishes of every child in the world. Korvantunturi is to the far north and almost inaccessible, whereas Rovaniemi already had the airport thanks to the Luftwaffe. A rural-style wooden village was created around Roosevelt’s cabin, offering shops, reindeer rides, a Santa and a post office so visitors can send letters from the Arctic Circle. This is also where every letter addressed to Father Christmas ends up – up to 700,000 a year. In the 1990s, the Santa myth took over the town. Even part of one of the town’s nuclear bunkers was turned into Santa Park, a subterranean theme park.

As tourism grew, Rovaniemi was rebuilt. The zoning aspect of Aalto’s reindeer plan was never fully realised, but he did create three buildings for the town’s municipal centre. These were an undulating concert hall, a town hall (completed by his wife after Aalto’s death in 1976) and a library that is one of his finest works. He also built a small section of housing in the suburb of Korkalovaara, which featured terraced housing and two large apartment blocks that were modelled on the garden cities of England. In the city centre, he designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style private home and a commercial block. Not everything Aalto planned came to pass but for Raulti his successes included “climate responsive housing, separating traffic from housing neighbourhoods, using local materials, the human scale and in situ brick construction. Sound building according to nature and terrain conditions. He wanted the community to have a good and visible centre and in Rovaniemi the Aalto-centre indicates its position as the capital of the polar region.”

 

These are the sort of buildings that Frank Nieuvenhausen wishes to show visitors as an alternative to the Santa experience. A knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide, he is creating an Aalto tour, and is being supported in this endeavour by Rovaniemi tourist office, who want to increase visitors in the summer months. “Summer used to be bigger, then cold and dark became exotic,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, who runs Visit Rovaniemi. “We’d like to get that balance back.”

Santa is not the only challenge. As Aira Huovinen, curator of the Korundi contemporary art gallery acknowledges, the city’s cultural attractions also compete with nature – the Northern Lights, pine forests and wildlife. With most visitors coming for less than a week, that leaves little time to visit attractions such as the Korundi or the Arkitum, a local history/science museum. It doesn’t help that the city’s appearance is dominated by a certain post-war blockiness, encouraging tourists to stick to their out-of-town hotel resorts. There are some architectural highlights. The Arkitum has a stunning glass central corridor while the Korundi is located in one of the few buildings to survive the war, a huge brick bus depot that provided locals with shelter when the city was destroyed. Joining the gallery is a lovely new concert hall built for the Lapland Chamber Orchestra, while across the highway is a delightful and award-winning football stadium (the eye of the reindeer). The chief attraction is Aalto’s library, with its sunken reading pits, beautiful lighting and open plan. In one corner is a small section dedicated to Aalto, complete with Aalto-furniture and a picture of the reindeer antler plan on the wall.

You won’t see many tourists studying this however. It’s a different matter at Santa’s Village, which is open all year round but crammed in December. The experience isn’t quite as tacky as it might sound – we’re not talking Winter Wonderland levels of crassness – and children are enraptured. The Finns’ Santa has been shorn of any religious significance but isn’t excessively commercial. “We never let our Santa go to the mall,” says Mayor Lotvonen from his Aalto-designed office in the town hall. “He is a charitable figure.” Rovaniemi’s businesses contribute to a cheque for UNICEF at the start of every season, a reminder of the fact the city’s own resurrection and current good fortune came from an act of charity.

Santa occasionally accompanies the Mayor on official business to meet trade delegations, and he is an excellent and unique ambassador for the city. The international appeal of Santa can be seen by the make-up of Rovaniemi’s visitors, which is led by China, followed by Israel and then the UK. All find a Santa they are happy with. It’s tempting to see this as another example of the Fin’s seemingly infinite capacity for accommodation. They will make the German Army feel at home, move the Arctic Circle to keep Eleanor Roosevelt happy and then balance the needs of the West and East during the Cold War. So what would Alvar Aalto make of Rovaniemi’s adoption of Santa Claus? “Aalto liked people,” says Rautsi. “He was a social person. He would make Santa ride in a chaise lounge version of his Paimio chair pulled by three reindeers and they would leave Lapland with one of Aalto’s Savoy vases in their cabin luggage.”