Caught by the River

Shadows and Reflections: Dan Richards

Dan Richards | 13th January 2020

It’s time once again for the annual series of postings we like to call Shadows and Reflections, in which our contributors and friends look back on the past twelve months. From Dan Richards:

In October I met up with Tove Jansson’s niece, Sophia, immediately recognisable as the heroic little girl of The Dangerous Journey and The Summer Book. The following week, I was set to travel out over Finland to see the islands where Tove lived and wrote for much of her life — a blue/green waterworld east of Helsinki where the coastline fragments into the sea.

Over coffee, Sophia spoke about growing up amidst Moomin mania — a family business; her father, Lars, took over work on syndicated comics when Tove tired of the troll-inking treadmill, and Sophia is now Creative Director and Chairman of the Board at Moomin Characters. The Pellinge archipelago, first explored as a child on family holidays in the 1920s, was sacrosanct to Tove and she returned here throughout her life — splitting her time between her islands and Helsinki turret atelier.
Now Sophia is spearheading a major international initiative to clean up the Baltic Sea and protect its cultural heritage. The campaign is named #OURSEA.
“The sea is an essential part of the Moomin stories.” Sophia explained. “Tove created the Moomin stories in the Pellinge archipelago, inspired by the beauty and power of the sea. She loved the sea, like we all do, Moomintroll included.


A few days later, I was driving down to the village of Söderby through a mix of flat ploughland and undulated holms of fir and amber birch, linked by bridges and bright yellow ferries. A sparsely inhabited, richly forested landscape of deep greens, hushed reeds, still waters, and iron skies, all of them pulling you in and on towards the sea.

It was here that Tove wrote and illustrated many of her books, conjuring Moominvalley in Pellinge’s image — the topography alive in her frontispiece chart of caves, coves, beacons, piers and paths through dark woods to Lonely Mountains. On bright mornings when the red-rose Baltic brims, heat hazes make the outmost islets appear to float slightly above the horizon, as the mysterious Hattifattener’s island hovers top left on the iconic Moomin map.

Today Pellinge has a community of some 260 hardy folk dotted across the isles — boat builders, mechanics, fishermen, teachers, farmers, carpenters and guides; a practical people steeped in the sea, many descendants of sailors so skilled that King Charles XI of Sweden dubbed them his pilots of choice back in 1696.

Söderby might be said to be the archipelago’s heart. A village on the largest island, it’s home to the shop and post office. Owner Erika Englund also runs Islands Riddles, a forest trail inspired by Tove Jansson’s writing.

The riddles lead down the path Tove took as a small child when her parents sent her for milk — an epic quest recounted in The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. The way wound through spruce stands splashed with bright lichens, quags which wet my boots, sticky firs, blue- and lingonberry bushes; boscage such that the light grew dim. Several times boulders reminiscent of the cursed carbuncular Groke loomed out of the gloaming. Luckily the local children I was walking with were brave and pulled me through. Later we stood in forest cut red with late sun listening to the sea shushing in the blue distance, perhaps as close to the Moomins and their maker as its possible to be. “There are no Moomins on the walk, you know?” Erika’s husband Jon told me. “But this is where they came from, this unique and special place.”


I love borders.” Tove once wrote. “August is the border between summer and autumn; it is the most beautiful month I know. … Twilight is the border between day and night, and the shore is the border between sea and land. The border is longing: when both have fallen in love but still haven’t said anything. The border is to be on the way. It is the way that is the most important thing.

A lot has happened in the couple of months since I visited Pellinge. Thoughts of borders and belonging, tolerance and antagonism, the proliferations of walls. Borders too often lines of denial, dividing lines. Yet, there has been an exciting election since I returned to the UK — Finland has elected Sanna Marin, the world’s youngest serving prime minister at 34, and the Social Democrat leader of a coalition of four other parties all led by women (three of them in their thirties). The Guardian reports that ‘The five-party, Social Democrat-led coalition has agreed to stay together and maintain the policy programme it announced in June, focusing on major increases in public spending on welfare and infrastructure, and a pledge to make the country carbon neutral by 2035.’ So that’s good news.

From their first visit to the archipelago, Tove’s sculptor father and illustrator mother found fellowship in Pellinge’s sea-facing community and the bohemian incomers were welcomed and quickly became an aestival fixture. The family rented a house from Kim Gustafsson’s grandparents. Kim showed me the attic room where Tove stayed in the winter of 1970 to write Moominvalley in November, pointing out the roof where she practised sliding “as research” while his bewildered family, sat listening in the kitchen below, wondered what on earth was going on. A lot of people in Pellinge have similar anecdotes. Stories of a shy childlike lady: ageless, mischievous and charismatic; paradoxically astute and naive, warm yet removed; but always generous, particularly with children. And it was here that she and her partner, the artist Tuulikki Pietilä, known as Tooti, lived for many years, left to their own devices — the remarkable union passing unremarked, I was told; Pellinge being a safe-haven from such gossip, a place of impeccable discretion and courtesy, central qualities of the Finnish character.


Back in London, Sophia and I had spoken about some of the real-life adventures which fed into the books; the way Tove retreated ever further out in the archipelago as her fame began to grow. How the outpost of Bredskãr, inspiration for The Summer Book, would sometimes become overwhelmed with visitors, as the Söderby’s little post office became inundated with fan letters and how Tove and Tooti would sometimes pack up and ship off to another, smaller, barren rock to camp away from their guests.

As we talked, I begin to see parallels between Tove and her most famous creation. Moomintroll often berates himself for being a pushover, no match for a bossy Hemulen or domineering Little My. One can imagine Tove and Tutti bracing themselves against well meaning but inconvenient interlopers from Helsinki and beyond, drawn out to the offshore shed by the question of what their artist friends were up to. “Making art!” laughed Sophia. “Trying to make art, or write or just have a quiet afternoon.”

So it was that Tove established a small cabin on the outcrop of Klovharun — a rock which resembles the back of a great black whale. This was where the pair summered for close to thirty years. Söderby’s retired shopkeeper showed me an example of the shopping lists they’d wire ahead in readiness for a Klovharun stint — a marvellously idiosyncratic roll-call of vivers, staples and vices. Like Road Dahl and Tom Waits, Tove required vast quantities of cigarettes and coffee to work and one can imagine them working in the square little room with enormous windows. Sun streaming, smoke spooling, seabirds whooping; happy and safe in their far flung fort.

“Sometimes deliberate people look for their island and conquer it, and sometimes the dream of the island can be a passive symbol for what is one step beyond reach. The island — at last, privacy, remoteness, intimacy, a rounded whole without bridges or fences… Dreams become simpler and one wakes up with a smile.” Tove wrote in 1961, and one can read her love of island life in many of her books and paintings. In Moominpapa at Sea, Moominpapa decides to uproot his family and move out to a lighthouse on the high seas. Tove was always fascinated by lighthouses. Her Helsinki studio is full of books and box-files of collected clippings about such seamarks; pictures of waterspouts and glowering storms. Sketches of paddle-steamers are pinned to the walls while fishing boat maquettes sit on the windowsills.
In the catalogue of a recent show of Tove’s paintings Frank Cottrell-Boyce recalled how, as a child at Liverpool Library, he was initially drawn to the Moomin books by their charming, magical woodcuts and the cheery character names, but when he actually sat down to read Moominland in November et al, ‘it was like Kierkegaard had come round to play’:

And now, look, Moominpappa is taking his family off on a sailing adventure. By putting his loved ones in danger he hopes to reawaken their sense of dependancy. They are all hostages to his emotional redundancy. Ho ho ho.

When I ask my own mother why there were no Moomin books in the house, growing up, she replies that they always seemed ‘too dark.’ Reading back now, I see that darkness as a subtle thread which runs through all of Jansson’s work; the summer days may be bright but the winter nights are long and deathly cold.


The night before I’m due to sail to Klovharun, I look out into the moonlit gulf. I think about the Finnish faces I’ve encountered so far, their shared look, an ancient steely calm. Earlier in the day, Marie Kellgren, who fishes in the waters around the peninsular throughout the year, told me how when the sea freezes and the days turn dark for months on end, she skates out onto the ice on her motorised fan-sled to fish — attuned to the behaviour of the animals above and below her feet, the slightest hint of thaw. After the depths of winter, it’s no surprise the people of Pellinge celebrate the summer equinox with special fervour and welcome the sun back with euphoric fires and shindig, and revel in the return of jolly, itinerant friends — as the arrival of Snufkin in the Moomin books aways heralds Spring — but you’d know something of ennui and fortitude too, oh god yes.


The next morning was still, the pines and rocks around my cabin frosted. The waters were gold, the approaching vessel’s wake torn silk. Jon helped me aboard. Lisbeth Forss, my island guide, shook my hand. The outboards whooshed and we turned to face the sea.

Klovharun is open for a few days each summer but in the winter everything is closed up. The wind rose and the waters chopped and we left Pellinge’s natural harbour. I could see Klovharun ahead and, as it grew the little cabin revealed itself. There was the jetty. We slowed and scooted. I scrambled onto the slippery rocks. The island was tiny, a wind-skimmed nub of bristly grass. One could walk around it in a minute.

Is Sophia’s Summer Book island near? I asked Lisbeth. Yes, she said, but she’d prefer not to show me. The privacy of the Janssons is important. I looked out at the surrounding isles and fir Mohican’ed tumps. “That is Sophia’s island over there”, announced Jon, wandering over having tied up the boat. Lisbeth had a word. “Oh”, said Jon, affably. “Well, there is it. Never mind.”


Whenever Tove and Tooti returned to Pellinge, parties would be thrown. “I knew that, as soon as we saw their boat coming in, everything would stop,” said Kim. “Activity for that day would be suspended, everyone would sit down at the garden table and drink coffee… then small spirit glasses would come out…”

There is a fierce pride in these stories, a sense that this most celebrated artist was theirs for a time, their friend. “It felt like family really,” remembered Kim. As a child he was endlessly fascinated by their travels. Postcards arrived from every corner of the globe and when they returned the couple would sometimes bring back interesting food and, occasionally, gifts and Gustafsson almost bursts with pride at the memory of a Hattifattener that he was once given, handmade from cloth and wood. “Of course, it wasn’t as fancy as the other presents… but it was just so kind and thoughtful. It’s the most amazing, beautiful thing.”


All of Tove’s books, whether they were for adults or children, involve consequence and interrelation. They’re surreal psychedelic stories that highlight the importance of ecology, kindness and care so it was wonderful to see how the people of Pellinge are working hard to simultaneously salute and preserve Tove’s legacy in a way that celebrates the archipelago’s peculiar magic and beauty, whilst doing so on their own terms. It’s an initiative rooted in the animism at the heart of both Jansson’s writing and the Finnish custom, a wonderful confluence of respect cultures — the practical and the fantastical, the local and universal; these lingonberries, that global hippo-troll phenomenon. “We were visited by this amazing woman, this pair of amazing artists,” Kim told me. “Of course, we loved them — even as children we knew they were exceptional and we felt very protective. We wanted to take care of them. I hope that we still are.”


This is the Europe I want to treasure all my days. The tolerance, kindness, art and life which give me hope and lift my heart. Tove Jansson will be my pilot into the storms to come; Tove Jansson, Marie Kellgren, Greta Thunberg, Sanna Marin and all those brilliant beacons pushing back against the dark.