Arriving in Helsinki airport, I feel an unusual calm. The airport’s website says it was designed for a “smooth travelling philosophy” – it takes just 10 minutes to walk from the plane, past Moomin toys and stacks of Fifty Shades Sidottu, and on to a bus.
I am in town for the European meeting of the Trilateral Commission, a non-partisan talking shop founded in 1973 to foster ties between the US, Europe and Japan. Finland is the only Nordic EU country to adopt the euro and its prime minister, Jyrki Katainen, greets us at the House of the Estates. Like all the Finns I meet over the weekend, he patriotically flourishes Nokia’s new Lumia phone (though Esko Aho, a former prime minister, suddenly finds someone else to talk to when I ask about Nokia’s feeble recent results).
Aho is happier talking about why Finland has a reputation for design. That history is evident in the design district – a perfect place for ambling past art deco buildings and vintage shops, including one devoted to the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. Inside are neat white boxes titled: “Stool E60, ONE CHAIR IS ENOUGH.”
At the wonderful Amado secondhand shop, found by chance, the proprietor insists I try on a fur coat that she says is “perfect for Verbier”. Maybe, but not perfect for London. I ask advice on where to eat. She books Olo for me, which gained a Michelin star in March for its modern Nordic cooking. The meal includes sugar salted lavaret with fresh scallop and a liquorice dessert (Finns are obsessed with liquorice).
Our group meets in the Helsinki town hall. Though it is a short walk from the hotel, students with signs are positioned every few hundred metres in case we get lost (or go awol). Long rows of tables are set out alphabetically with our surnames. There are four current prime ministers, among them Mario Monti of Italy, but in spite of the impressive CVs, there is too little urgency about Europe and too much deference to long-winded speakers. After one soporifically slow session, no wine is served at lunch, to the dismay of some Brits. We chew on reindeer.
As ever it is the stories on the sidelines that are most memorable. One of the best raconteurs is Field Marshal Charles Ronald Llewelyn Guthrie, Baron Guthrie of Craigiebank. Aged 73, he is still an inveterate traveller. A few years ago he was the only parliamentarian on an official trip to North Korea. He was taken to a zoo in Pyongyang. “There was a mangy-looking cat under a sign: ‘British Tabby Cat’.” Guthrie was underwhelmed and insisted he see some troops. He was finally taken to a room where the cadets slept 15 to a bed.
In June he was made field marshal, the first appointment in 18 years to the highest rank in the army. “I was surprised because I thought field marshals were an endangered species, if not extinct,” he tells me. “I was amused to receive a letter of congratulations from Malcolm Rifkind, who as secretary of state for defence had said field marshals were no longer relevant.”
As the 138th field marshal, Guthrie joins a list that includes Emperor Hirohito, Kaiser Wilhelm II (“Queen Victoria tended to lob these things out there”) and the Duke of Wellington. His official duty involves carrying a ceremonial baton. “Does he get to twirl it?” “Absolutely not,” he says, childishly shocked and delighted at the prospect. “It’s too valuable to throw up in the air.”
Indeed, it is no ordinary baton – made of gold and red velvet and worth £75,000. One of them is immovably secured to a wall, so he is borrowing another for his first official act at the Cenotaph this Remembrance Sunday.
Our final day of the meeting ends with debates about Russian security. Helsinki is just 184 miles from St Petersburg. Finland was part of the Russian empire for a century, but broke with it during the first world war. Today, however, there are more than 11m border crossings a year.
The commission staff arrange a visit to the Mannerheim museum. It is just a short taxi ride away, but I and Nigel Higgins, chief executive of Rothschild, are the only members to tag along. Arriving at the home of Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the former Finnish commander-in-chief, we are told to put blue plastic bags over our shoes. It is hard to look anything other than sheepish.
I had not heard of Mannerheim before, yet his life was epic, and his career spanned several wars. Born in 1867, he spent time as a spy in central Asia, masquerading as an ethnologist. In 1917 he fled the Bolsheviks. His house exudes derring-do, from the skulls of tigers shot in India to a preserved box of “The New Captive Golf Balls – with parachute attachment, indispensable to the novice! Thousands in Use.”
The first room reveals a sartorial tradition that puts Guthrie’s gold baton to shame. It has uniforms from his days in the Imperial Russian army: silver epaulettes the size of giant hedgehogs, and a gold helmet with a Romanov double eagle. A menu from 1910 evokes that grandeur, offering asperges de Moscou, sauce mousseline sloshed down with xérès amontillado, “vodkis divers” and champagne. You can almost see the candlelight dancing on crystal, hear the clank of stirrups, smell cordite and horses.
In the next room, displaying Mannerheim’s medals, Finland’s uneasy war record is evident – from 1941-44 it sided with Nazi Germany. A friend tells me that in three of four meetings, the Finns spontaneously mentioned the war ties, then offered excuses for it. Mannerheim both received the British Knight Grand Cross in 1938 and in 1944 gem-encrusted military crosses from Hitler. “He took the diamonds out and sold them,” says the museum aide. “He was a reluctant architect of the co-operation. The world is not like a chess board in black and white.”
It is a fitting epitaph to two days of talks on foreign affairs.
I am back in London for US election night. This time four years ago I had just stopped covering the White House and Karl Rove kept me updated by text. This time, I’m more disengaged. I go to the Frontline Club in west London. There are half-eaten Sky News muffins. The crowd is vastly pro-Democrat. One person says a Republican was spotted upstairs, but adds sotto voce, “she has dyed hair”, as if to make her more malign. Amid the cheers for Ohio’s exit polls, she has wisely fled. I wake to the Obama victory and Rove, the master tactician, pilloried for his meltdown after Fox News called Ohio for Obama. On this night, at least, the outcome is black and white.
Caroline Daniel is FT Weekend editor