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Tag: Finland

We’ve been in Ipswich for a couple of months, and perhaps the most common question I’ve been asked is “what’s it like” followed in popularity by “Ipswich? Why?” So I thought I’d summarise some of the key points, in the form of a tennis match. Because this is England, and it’s summer. Or at least pretending to be. It's Helsinki to serve, and oh my, it's a scorcher.


Oh dear god. The Romans got to this island nearly 2000 years ago, and they had better plumbing than the people of Ipswich, and indeed the British Isles, have to put up with. It’s a disgrace, really. The other day, a pipe got loose in the bath, while I was in it, and water escaped from the proper channel. Did it run safely through a drain in the sealed bathroom floor? No, its path of least resistance was through the ceiling light in the kitchen. I offer this video as proof, because my Finnish friends may be incredulous.

And, oddly, while it’s apparently impossible to insulate a house properly over here, and so it’s staggeringly inefficient to heat them, it’s also impossible to get a really cold shower. Which avid readers of this blog will know are part of my normal conditioning. I use shower in the loosest possible sense. The tepid trickle you get here is quite inadequate when compared to the blasts of water I became accustomed to back in civilization Helsinki.

It gets worse. The water here tastes like what I imagine the nervous sweat in Boris Johnson’s shorts would taste like if he was forced to actually state something he truly believed in on a particularly hot day. It’s no doubt perfectly safe, but oh, the water in Helsinki.

Helsinki 15 luv.

Food and drink.The water being quite undrinkable, we are simply forced to purchase large quantities of wine and beer, and drink that instead. And oh, my poor Northern friends, while the prices aren’t quite as good as in Italy, they are about half what we paid in Alko. Especially as there are all sorts of special offers, and services that will supply you with good, low cost wine, delivered to your door for free. We get all sorts of things delivered: bacon of a quality almost unknown in the benighted North (American Pekoni? no, sorry, really not); vegetables direct from the farmer through Growing Places, brought to our door, a tenner for a big box. It’s really incredibly handy having chaps in a van bring our groceries. And still cheaper than walking to K market. So on the matter of food and drink, Ipswich has Helsinki beat hands down. No salmiakki, of course, but that's a blessing, not a curse (though Grace would not agree).


The Natives.

What with all this cheap alcohol, is it any wonder that the natives are so friendly? On our first day together in town, Grace (my eldest, age 9, and a Salmiakki-eating Finn at heart) asked “why is everyone talking to us?”. She was perplexed by the way everyone smiled, said good morning in the street though we’d never met, and at school after her first day, she was quite taken aback by the way that every girl in her class spoke to her at least once. In Finland, she said, they’d have left her alone. But she has made friends very quickly, and so have we.

I love my Finnish friends, and I hope they know it. And there are many Finns who are very gregarious, by Finnish standards at least. But making new friends here has been incredibly easy.

Ipswich leads, 30-15.


But then there’s the paperwork. While Finnish bureaucracy is complex, it is at least generally consistent, and, with your personal id number and some photo id you can do just about everything you need to do, from opening a bank account, to renting a house. Here? No, really not. It’s absolutely fucking ridiculous. Proof of address that works for the county council regarding school places for the children is not accepted by the bank as proof of address when opening an account. I could go on, but I’d get very cross and it would ruin my evening. It’s almost as if all the rules were made in the 15th century, and never really updated properly. Oh, no, that’s actually exactly what’s happened.



Speaking of people: they actually visit the UK. And we are only an hour from London. So far, in the last two months I have seen more of my international friends than I’ve seen in the last two years in Finland. By the end of this month, I’ll have seen three sets of Americans, one set of Canadians, and two sets of Finns (both of which are over here not just to see us, so count as “foreign friends visiting the UK anyway, and meeting up with us too”). That is a massive win.

with Sean Hayes at the Tower of London.

Ipswich leads, 40-30



Now for house prices. Dear god, this island has gone insane. Badly designed, badly insulated houses, with poky little rooms (because proper sized rooms are too expensive to heat even by English standards), with appalling plumbing (see above) and rubbish infrastructure (the bins, don’t get me started), cost twice what the closest equivalent would cost in Finland. It’s insane, and driven entirely by a mania for ‘getting up the property ladder’, that makes the house primarily an investment and only secondarily a home. It’s absurd, and quite revolting. Sure, some of them are draughty and cold because they are truly ancient and therefore very beautiful.

That's a trade I could be persuaded to make. But houses built in the last 80 years just cannot justify their crapness by any claim to a compensating beauty.



But around these terrible houses, there is so much going on! Theatre, concerts, you name it. Yes, I know that they have stuff like that in Finland, but to be honest most of it is either a) very expensive, b) crap, or c) in Finnish, which Michaela doesn’t understand well enough to enjoy a play in, and, truth be told, neither do I. Honestly, I hate to say it, but the cultural life here in the small town of Ipswich is at least as good, and cheaper, than we got in the capital of Finland. Plus we can and do go up to London for day trips to see things and people.

Advantage Ipswich


How anybody gets anything done on their phones here escapes me. I signed up to the ‘fastest data' in the UK with EE. I am willing to believe that somewhere in the British Isles, there is at least one spot where, when the stars align, and the moon is waxing, and you hold your phone just so, you might actually get a decent 4G connection, for ten whole seconds at a time. In my actual home in Ipswich, not a mile from the centre of town, I barely even get phone coverage, let alone mobile data. And they have the absolute gall to charge through the nose for it! I switched to Three, but that doesn't seem any better (though they do have decent calls to Finland rates, and I can use my phone there too without incurring extra charges. Who knows, in Finland I might actually get a signal). And get this: even when you can get a signal: data is limited! to like 1 or 2 gigs a month! In Finland you can't even buy a limited data plan- you just pay extra for the speed. Though in Finland, you do actually get the promised speeds, at least some of the time. And it costs about half of what we pay here for a reasonable plan, such as 4gb/month.

Mobile telephony came of age in Finland, and the UK is lagging about a decade behind. It's very sad, really.


And dammit, I’m running out of space, and it’s starting to rain. Looks like we’ll have to call it a draw so far, cover the court, open a bottle of wine, and schedule a rematch for later!

Sixteen years ago, I was at a crossroads in my life, so I went and sat on top of a hill in the Scottish Highlands, and meditated for a sign. A voice in my head said “go to Helsinki and open a swordsmanship school.” So I did.

Now that school has become “The School”, and has sprouted branches in many countries. The Helsinki branch was always the “main branch”, because it was the first, and I live here. But as my readers know, I stopped teaching there regularly at the end of November last year, and am now moving to Ipswich.

I have left a couple of swords in the Salle, just in case, and a picture of the In Gladio Veritas logo that Titta Tolvanen made for me, as a reminder to the students that the principles of the school don't change, but should be the springboard for their creativity, not shackles to bind them in place.

For the first time ever, I’ve bought a one-way ticket out of Helsinki airport. I don’t know when I’m coming back. But I am confident that while the students here can manage just fine without me, I am not entirely without skills to offer and they will be wanting some instruction again soon.

The lorry arrived to collect our stuff this morning:

Not all by myself then 🙂 Thanks again, Auri and Rami!


Mikko Kari, moving professional.

(And I would highly recommend this company, should anyone think of following us over to the UK; Mikko Kari here is a lorry-loading artist.)

My reasons for moving are many and various; the most obvious and pressing one being my mother-in-law’s health. But the justification I’ve been using is that I do not want my school to suffer from the dread disease of founderitis. You know, that horrible condition where the founder of an enterprise can’t let go, and stifles the growth and creativity of his or her creation. A part of me, I will admit, was somewhat sorry that my students in Helsinki have thrived in my absence, but, since the very first day I started teaching here, I’ve been saying that my job was to make myself redundant. It seems that I have succeeded.

But leaving Finland is much harder than I thought it would be. This is mostly because I had the homesickness reflex and attachment to place burned out of me when I was a kid. When I moved here, leaving friends I loved behind in beautiful Edinburgh, I never once suffered a pang of missing them or it. Sure I’ve kept in touch, but that ache in the space where a person used to be just didn’t happen. I don’t miss people or places. Or rather, I didn’t.

Thanks to the boarding school recovery work I’ve been doing, I’ve relearned how to feel miserable when I leave a home behind me. Remember when I wrote about defence mechanisms rusting in place? Well it seems like this one has been thoroughly WD-40d and is now working all too bloody well. This may seem like a bad thing, and indeed it sucks goats to experience it, especially as I am so out of practice at dealing with it as an adult. But it’s actually a positive development, in terms of my long-term psychological health.

I am leaving behind many lovely and wonderful people, and many places that have sunk into my sense of home. For some reason I can’t explain, coming to Finland was like having lead boots removed, ones I hadn’t known I was wearing. That itch between my shoulders became the sprouting of wings. Suddenly I could do anything, be anything. The challenge now is to retain that feeling somewhere else. And in the meantime, Finland:

Kiitos kaikista, ja nakemiin!

I am right now in Ipswich looking at potential homes for my family. I travel a lot, and have the practicalities pretty much down to a fine art, but the night before this trip I was consumed by a deep and abiding sense of dread. I feel like this the night before just about every trip away from home, but this time it was way more severe than usual. I manifest the symptoms by compulsively hunting through my home looking for that one thing that mustn’t be left behind, deciding on something, reopening my bag and packing it in, then realising there’s just one more thing missing, and rehearsing all the things that could go wrong leaving me stranded forever in some ghastly airport (because airports are filled with people who have been stuck there forever, right?).

On this trip I packed my essential swords (should I do a “what’s in my bag” video?), my essential woodworking tools, and had my oldest and most valuable books taking up all my hand luggage. These will all be left in my lovely cousin’s house near Ipswich until we move in to a place here at the end of the month. It’s a psychologically important step in the direction of leaving Finland and actually living in the UK.

The swords, tools and books took up all my weight allowance, so I had none left for random bits and pieces. But the dread was driving me and my bags were bulging before I noticed it, so I stopped, and spent a moment or two sitting with the feeling to figure out what’s going on. I travel a lot, I know what I’m doing, I’m a competent adult with a working line of credit and a large support network of family and friends; barring accidents which could happen anywhere, nothing really bad will happen. There might be problems with the car hire company; the flights might be delayed or cancelled; it might be very difficult to get the kind of home we need… but these are all trivial problems, easily conquered with patience, cash, and a little help from my friends. So what, really, was I dreading so much?

Of course. It was exactly the feeling of the last night of the holidays before being sent off on a plane back to bloody school. And the thing I was looking for to pack and take with me was the one thing I couldn’t take with me. Home. No amount of warm socks (in case it’s cold) or swimsuits (in case it’s warm) or an extra pair of shoes (just because) can fill that hole, and so the bag is never fully packed. I’m never fully equipped. Once I realised this, I could stop fidgeting with more packing and go to bed.

Dammit, I’d thought I was further along than this.

What has most concerned me about this whole boarding school thing was that it was affecting my feelings and actions for years in ways which in retrospect were wholly obvious and predictable, before I even knew it was there. Figuring out what was going on was a relief, because then I could make a plan and execute it.  It had been a field of landmines in my psyche, waiting to go off. Which begs the question, what other landmines are there yet to explode? I’ve been seeking out triggers and setting off controlled explosions, and it does seem like the problem is mostly dealt with, but this sick dread (which evaporated as soon as I got on the plane, and I’ve been fine since I got here) is an echo of the past that is still reverberating.

If you're wondering what on earth I'm talking about, you must have missed my other posts on this boarding school business (lucky you!). You can see them here:

The Price of Privilege

Dealing with it

Progress report: Letters Home, Abandonment, and the Matron effect

Spring is in the air, the grass is pushing up under the snow, and books are making their way from my dusty hard drive and out into the world.

Ok, in Finland, spring is nowhere to be seen. My kids are going ice-skating and everyone I know has a cold. Bear with me. I have another book out, and it makes me giddy.

I'm spending most of this week fulfilling the promises made in my last Indiegogo campaign, for Advanced Longsword. That means doing battle with Lightning Source's arcane and wilfully inefficient “short run” printing interface, manually creating over 250 book orders so that the backers of the campaign will get their books in the post in a couple of weeks. I am also manually packing and shipping a boxful of The Medieval Dagger books. This is all, on the surface, very tedious, BUT it is actually really nice to feel that moment of personal connection with every backer, even as superficially as when I input their address into a web form.

Backers of Audatia should already know that WE HAVE SHIPPED THE FINAL PACKS: Liechtenauer and the Patron are done, shipped, and that marathon of a campaign is now 100% fulfilled. It only took about two years longer than expected. But it is a load off my mind. Crowdfunding is all about transparency, value, and keeping your promises.

And somehow in the middle of all this, I managed to edit together and publish The Swordsman's Quick Guide part 5: How to Teach a Basic ClassThis booklet is 10,000 words long, enough to cover the really important stuff, like safety, writing class plans, making corrections, and so on. The purpose of it is simple: to give inexperienced instructors confidence. If you've read it, do let me know what you think!

Thanks to my latest posts, about Lucca and Florence, my Finnish friends are now thinking “right, we’ve seen the last of the English git. He ain’t never coming back”. But hold, not so fast. I have moved countries many times in my life (England ’73-78; Argentina ’78-80; England ’80; Botswana ’81-86; Peru ’86-92; Scotland ’92-94; Finland ’95-6; Scotland ’97-2001; Finland 2001-present) which has left me with no real sense of home being a place. Home is people, and, to a lesser extent, some elements of culture. So the idea, and even the process, of moving to another country doesn’t faze me at all. But it has also made me think that it would be nice for my kids to see something of the world, but to always know where home is.

[If you are interested in what my family was doing in Africa and South America while I was growing up, go read my Dad's new memoir, More Sherlock Holmes than James HerriotI haven't read it yet (it only just came out) but I know it does include baby cheetahs, angry rhinos, and me and my sister playing with a rabid dog.]

When I moved to Finland in 2001, everybody asked “Why Finland?” They still do. It’s probably the question I am asked most often. Even while teaching seminars, in foreign lands, I sometimes get asked it in class. It’s that odd a choice, apparently.

Nobody, not one person, has asked “why Italy?” They ask “how did you manage it”. (See here for the answer.) Because Italy is a normal choice. The advantages are obvious. Gorgeous architecture? Check. Great wine? Check. Great food? Check. Fabulous bloody everything? Check. And it’s all it’s cracked up to be.

But Finland? The last decade or so has seen a major improvement in Finland’s international perception; people think “good schools” or “clean environment” or something like that. But apart from the wretched bloody snow, and the way the entire population seems to be shifted towards the silent end of the gregariousness spectrum, here are some much-under-appreciated elements.

1) The Tax Office. Yes, really. Customer service in Finland as a whole sucks. But the Tax Office staff, unless you are obviously trying to defraud the people of Finland, are extraordinarily helpful, and will go out of their way to make the quite transparent tax system even clearer. And unless you are making serious great gobs of cash, the healthcare, daycare, public order, public transport, and other taxpayer-funded benefits, far outweigh the somewhat higher taxes than you might pay somewhere else.

2) Fairness and transparency. The system seems to be pretty fair all round. Sure, it’s hard to get really rich (but that’s true anywhere); but it is very easy to start a business (and there’s plenty of government help to do so), and you have to be making way more money than I ever have before you start paying seriously high taxes. Sure, there’s some corruption, but it tends to only exist at the higher levels of finance (where it exists everywhere); knowing how to deniably offer a bribe is no part of the basic education here.

3) Kids walk to school at age 7. On their own. No problem. That is really true, and totally unlike any other country I know, other than possibly Sweden or Norway.

I could add to this list decent plumbing, properly insulated houses, free daycare, no traffic, decent cycle paths and pedestrian routes (my elder daughter and I tried walking from Lucca to Torre, about 10k. We ended up walking along a dyke for much of the journey, and not quite making it (much to her fury) as there was literally nowhere for people to walk or cycle except on the road with the Italian drivers. It was just too dangerous.). Really, people, Finland is lovely.

I miss mountains. I miss really proper old buildings and castles and such. But I can travel to see those, and even live among them for a while as I am now doing. But I have no plans to give up transparency, stability, and my kids walking to school, in an education system that seems to work.

So relax, peeps. I am not seriously planning on relocating. Yet….

A mysterious parcel was waiting for me when I arrived at my School's Christmas Party (and my 40th birthday party) on Saturday, November 23. It had been shipped from Edinburgh and was addressed to me, but I was not expecting a delivery that day. Besides, shipping companies do not normally deliver on a Saturday in Finland. The sender was a group called “The Honourable Heirs of Windsor”. I had never heard of them, and so expected somebody at the party to know something about it. But nobody did.

Sword of Windsor package My wife encouraged me to open it anyway. So out with a screwdriver, and under layers of cardboard we found the documentation that came with the shipment. It included a letter addressed to me from The Honourable Heirs of Windsor,

Sword of Windsor Letter

(which bizarrely has post-nominals but no names), a description of the provenance of something called “the Sword of Windsor”, apparently lost at the battle of Towton in 1461,


Sword of Windsor provenance 1Sword of Windsor provenance 2

and a metallurgical analysis of this sword by David Edge of the Wallace Collection.Sword of Windsor MetallurgySword of Windsor Metallurgy2

By this time, a small crowd had formed and we were all itching to see what was under the wrappings. So I unpeeled them, and there before my very eyes, was the Sword of Windsor. As the provenance suggested, it was in excavation condition (read: rusted to bits).

the Sword of Windsor The frame that it was attached to was clearly about 60 years old, and has various catalogue numbers and stickers attached to it.

Sword of Windsor back

So, some mysterious secret society had decided to send me an ancient sword. But didn’t require a signature on receipt? Very odd.

Sword of Windsor hiltThere were one or two clear problems with the sword as it stood. Firstly, the bone handle could not have survived 500 years in the ground. Secondly, the silver wire turk's head knot does not belong on a mediaeval sword. Thirdly, what is the likelihood of there being a surviving silver Windsor family crest on the pommel of a 15th century sword?

PommelShield Pommel side Pommel side 2

Given that it was shipped from Edinburgh, and that the “Honourable Heirs of Windsor Society” was “until 1994 the Honourable Sons of Windsor society” (I founded the Dawn Duellists Society in 1994), the most likely candidate were my friends in Edinburgh. But none of them have the skills to fake this. Also, the phone number on the shipment sheet was out by one digit. Exactly the same typo that appeared on a batch of business cards I had printed up about six years ago. So whoever sent this apparently had my old business card. All my friends have my number. Also, there are no names on the documents. But the seal has the Windsor crest on it, just like the sword.

I came to the conclusion that it was either real and to be taken at face value, or the most elaborate hoax in the history of antiques forgery. Fake the sword, yes, but the frame? The only people I know who could have faked it, are Lasse Mattila, and JT Pälikkö, old and dear friends. Lasse restores and conserves arms and armour for museums. JT is the best sword smith in the world (though he’d deny it). Both of these guys were at the party, and knew nothing about the sword.

So, something out of a Dan Brown book was happening live at my party. I was utterly baffled. It could not be true, yet this thing of beauty was right there. So I decided to email David Edge, to see what he had to say about the provenance. Before he could reply, I got this in my email:

Surprise! Lasse and JT had faked the whole thing, with help from David, and my wife, and my parents. That included making the seal stamp with the crest, for the wax seal on the letter, faking the pommel and crossguard, putting together the blade out of a bit of support structure from a statue that Lasse conserved about 12 years ago, making the frame and ageing it, faking the documents (that zeppelin strike in 1915 was very suspicious!), and even faking the box it all came in. The 1994 and the phone number errors were coincidences (they put the wrong number there to explain why the delivery was unannounced, but didn't know about the business cards). The whole thing never left Finland, all the shipping stuff was fake. They had thought I'd see through the whole thing in 10 seconds, and so had no plan for keeping the jape going. But what a jape!

And behind that pommel?

Back of pommel

Bastards. Sneaky, conniving, magnificent, bastards! With friends like these…

I am in awe.


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