In the summer of 1949, I worked in a viscose mill in Valkiokoski, Finland. This town is in north Finland’s lake district and in 1949 all the industry there was wood-related. The complex I worked in included a State-owned alcohol plant, a paper plant, several timber operations and a viscose mill. Viscose is cellulose acetate and is made from wood pulp, or in the case of the mill I was in, from coarse paper. This is dissolved in caustic soda, treated with carbon di-sulphide and extruded through a series of spinnerettes to make single strand fiber. This is what comprises Rayon. Some viscose winds up as cellophane or adhesive tape.
I joined a group of students in a company hostel. We were all temporary summer workers and we were mostly Finnish and Swedish with two or three Germans, I and another Englishman and one Canadian-Finn. The Canadian turned out to be a real novelty because he had been brought up by his grandmother who had emigrated from Finland in 1890. He learned the language from her and it was like a different tongue. The Finns loved to talk to him with his “ye olde Finne” accent. We later had some sing-song sessions and he knew songs that only the very old people had heard.
We worked in 8 hour shifts but we all met regularly at the lake beach which is where the main restaurant was located. The weather was wonderful and because we were so far north, we had 22 daylight hours. We had to be tough with ourselves and break away from the beach and take time to sleep and to go to work.
Everyone we met spoke excellent English and it was interesting and educational talking to them all. The biggest shock for me was the Finnish custom of the sauna. They do not perspire much in their cool, dry climate, so, over the years, Finns have always had saunas. We had a communal one at the beach where men went in one side and women in the other. The sauna is heated with hot rocks and in this large one at the beach, naked men sat on bleachers close to the fire in the hot seats at the bottom or at cooler seats at the top. The ladies do the same thing the other side. Escaping from the heat by sitting up on the top row was an eye-opening experience because I found myself literally cheek-to-cheek with a row of naked ladies. When you had enough of the heat, you had to go out and run into the coldest water in Finland and you do this with no clothes on. Joint nude swimming with all shapes, sizes and ages was totally normal, but it did take a while for a shy, nervous Englishman to get used to.
Our group became the talk of the town and we were the subject of a long article in the local paper. We were all invited to a town picnic on an island with a beautiful beach. We sang songs in all our languages. The funniest song was, “She’ll be coming down the mountain,” because they all sang, “Hi Hi Uppy Uppy Hi”, pronouncing the Y like a U. It took us a while to get Yes and No sorted out. Yes is Kyla (pronounced Koola) and No is Ei, which sounds like Yes.
On this island, we were persuaded to go in their small sauna. This was nothing but a dug-out, igloo shaped building that only held four at a time. We had to almost sit on the hot stones and the heat was intense, but the worst part was when they all started hitting me with tree branches dipped in icy water. They assured me it would feel great afterwards and they were right. I felt much better when they stopped.
I worked in all departments of the mill and learned a lot about processes and quality control. After I had been there for two months, I got a letter from my mother, saying my father was ill and was diagnosed with lung cancer. A week later, another letter said he was in a hospital, so I decided to go home. There were no convenient ships to England so I took the daily ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm and went from there all the way to London by train. This was an amazing two day journey, down the length of Sweden to Malmo, a ferry to Copenhagen, across Germany to the Hook of Holland, where the whole train was put on a ferry to Harwich Harbor and then on to Victoria station in London. I went through four countries and two sea crossings, all in the same carriage compartment.
When I got home to Ailsworth, I found sadly that my father had died the previous day. He was cremated and his ashes placed in his father’s grave in Sutton, a village two miles away, where he was born. He died on September 16th, 1949 and was 50 and had always been a chain smoker.
After a few days with my mother, I went back to London in mid-September, 1949 to start my fourth year at college and to get my B.Sc. I had failed to mention that when I started my third year, I had joined one of my original class-mates, Roger Sargent in renting a basement two room apartment in World’s End, Chelsea, near the Thames. This area gets its name from the World’s End pub in Chelsea. Our flat was in a house owned by our landlady, Mrs O’Donahue. Her husband was a fighter pilot in the RAF and had been killed. She lived on the ground floor and the first floor and she had a lady student living on the second floor. I lived in one room which was our kitchen and Roger lived in our living room.
We entertained our girlfriends Doris and Shirley there, cooking dinner on our little stove. Our specialty was rabbit stew when the butcher had rabbit available. Roger did the shopping and I cooked. Roger caused quite a stir at the butchers when he got to the head of the queue and asked for four rabbit back legs. The butcher yelled, “How many bleeding back legs do you think a rabbit’s got. You want back legs you got to have front legs.” All the ladies in line got up in arms and almost attacked him.
Roger’s girlfriend was Shirley Spooner and her uncle was an Anglican bishop who coined the word “spoonerism,” meaning words accidentally or intentionally interchanged. An example is “The Lord is a loving shepherd” coming out as “the Lord is a shoving leopard.” Roger had got his B.Sc. in 1948 and was staying on to do research for a Ph.D. and we had become very good friends. He was also a big help for me with some of my classes which he had recently taken. I had enough of my grant money for three more years, so I also started thinking about staying on, at least for a M.Sc. degree, but that’s another memory for another day.