A few years ago, I was chatting with another father at a children’s playground in Trondheim, when the subject of høstens vemod came up.
“Høstens vemod is a very important Norwegian concept,” he told me. “Perhaps the most important concept in our entire national psychology. Believe me: to understand høstens vemod is to understand Norway.”
He watched as my children circumvented the safety barriers of the guaranteed safe Swedish-designed playground and climbed precariously onto the roof of the slide tower.
“The literal translation of høstens vemod might be something like ‘autumn sadness’,” he continued. “Put simplistically, this is the sadness that you feel in autumn after the summer has passed. There is, of course, nothing wrong with autumn in Norway, it is perhaps our most pleasant season. But after autumn comes the oppressive horror of winter. Therefore we cannot enjoy the pleasures of autumn because of the unpleasant future event that lies ahead.”
“This, of course, can be extended to Norwegian life in general. How can you enjoy eating an icecream, for example, when you know that death is inevitable. Dying in a cancer ward, perhaps? Your own death ahead of you like an inexorable freight train about to crush you—that is the worst thing. This is why we Norwegians lack confidence; why we can’t properly enjoy our vast sovereign wealth funds. Even Frida Lyngstad experiences høstens vemod. Did you know she is Norwegian? People don’t warm to her because of her melancholic nature; she is the most depressing member of ABBA.”
A long silence followed these words. Neither of us felt like talking. The sun had faded behind a cloud; the playground chilled as a damp gust of wind blew in from the sea. Perhaps this was the first hint of autumn, I thought. Why did I suddenly feel sad?
It is no understatement to say that this conversation has been a profound revelation to me. The høstens vemod of Norway finally put into words an emotion that I’ve suffered all my life. Perhaps not so much an obsession with the unavoidability of death, but certainly a Eeyore-ish inability to fully embrace happiness—purely as a consequence of the knowledge that, inevitably, all happiness must pass. It may even explain why my enjoyment of ABBA is only 25 per cent that of most other people.
Nevertheless—who knows how—I somehow manage to struggle on. For the last couple of years my little daughter, Polly, has been a great help with the building work to which fate has sentenced me. At first, I admit, her presence was a bit frustrating. But then she became rather useful: handing me tools, doing simple carpentry work, negotiating improved trade discounts with my suppliers. Eventually she became indispensable. In a few months, however, she will be going to school, and already I am overflowing with høstens vemod at the thought of her departure.
It is a fascinating thing, with your children, to be able to see another person’s life—a person who is often wholly different to yourself—in its full unedited format. Polly has a will of iron. Whereas her older brother had to be cajoled and persuaded (and, in some cases, threatened) through every stage of childhood development, Polly has been grimly determined to overcome every obstacle in her path. Toilet training was over in a flash; she demanded a grown-up girl’s bed before the thought had even occurred to her parents; afternoon naps were forsaken at the earliest possible opportunity.
It is perhaps only in her difficulty with bedtime that she resembles her brother. For several years Polly was unable to fall asleep except via the mechanism of an extended pushchair ride. There is a great deal of entertainment in the vicinity of our house: cows, sheep, horses, pigs, chickens, alpacas, a church, and a café where occasional icecreams are eaten. While we trundled along, Polly felt obliged to provide a travelogue of the various sights. Her disembodied voice would drift up from beneath the pushchair’s hood.
A street-light flickering into illumination could provoke an interesting observation: “I am a lighthouse. Whenever you push this button, my light goes on. And whenever my light goes on I lay an egg. These are all my eggs. Most of them are for eating, but we have to look after this one because it has a baby lighthouse in it...”
The combination of church and café and a passing police vehicle could provide culinary inspiration: “Welcome to my cafe. Would you like some steeple pancakes? They are made from church steeples. Don't worry, the church said they didn't mind. And the police gave me some of their special potion that you sprinkle over things to make them good to eat. Your baby could have a bottle? We have real breast milk. It came from my mother who died when I was a baby and all her breast milk fell out. We use the special police potion to make it taste nice and fresh...”
As the kilometres rolled by (a nine kilometre bedtime ride was not unexceptional) then Polly’s travelogue would gradually begin to fade. Long periods of silence would ensue. As I finally began to hope that our nightly journey was over, her voice would re-emerge sleepily, often with a particularly recondite observation: “Gerry Brownlee came along and tried to knock down our chicken house. Then the chickens all got free so they came and pecked his eyes out. He couldn't see so he stumbled around and around. Then he banged into his own house because he couldn't see it. And he knocked his own house down. Ha ha.”
This last item touches upon the main source of unhappiness in Polly’s life: the government. I suppose that when the government has razed your entire former neighbourhood then you are inclined to view them in a less-than-charitable light. The blind on the window next to Polly’s bedroom must always be pulled tight at night “to prevent the government getting in”; a trip to Christchurch was ruined when a shop clerk mentioned that John Key was visiting the city, and Polly hysterically demanded to be taken home in order to protect our house from government demolition.
A year or so ago, Polly several times refused to leave the house at all. “I have to stay home in case Gerry Brownlee or John Key come with diggers,” she protested tearfully. I attempted to counter her heartfelt arguments by explaining that our house was now under the jurisdiction of the district council, and therefore Gerry Brownlee or John Key had no power to make demolition orders (I admit to glossing over certain aspects of parliamentary sovereignty and the Public Works Act 1981). Polly countered my counter-argument by demanding to be taken to the district council in person for reassurances.
Our local councillor was thus proven to be a man of great flexibility in terms of job description. When Polly was ushered into his presence he immediately launched into a detailed explanation of the powers of his council in preventing Gerry Brownlee or John Key from demolishing houses. I think it was the man-traps baited with hamburgers that finally convinced Polly. We were both highly impressed by our local democracy in action.
Although Polly’s steely negotiation skills have been the source of much parental difficulty, they have certainly come in handy when visiting building and engineering suppliers. Employees in such establishments are psychologically unprepared for strong-willed customers wearing tiaras and fairy dresses. It is but a small step from praising Polly’s drawings to acceding to requests for the “junior builder’s trade discount”. Indeed I’ve had to ban Polly’s preferred farewell (“Don’t send my dad a bloody bill, okay?”) from fear that a sales clerk might actually follow her instructions and lose their job.
Grandmotherly sales clerks present an unusual problem in their tendency to praise Polly for her beauty. “Aren’t you beautiful?” is a common greeting (to which Polly would reply with devastating honesty: “I know.”). This necessitated long speeches from me about the inconsequence of exterior beauty in comparison with the vital importance of interior beauty. The devastating logic of my speeches has now prompted Polly to offer the compromise response, “I’m beautiful on the inside, too,” (sometimes ungraciously adding: “I have a brother called Bob who’s beautiful as well—but he’s only beautiful on the inside.”) A slight parental victory, I suppose.
The other awkward issue with grandmotherly sales clerks is their tendency to request too much information about Polly’s art works, which frequently produces distress in those unfamiliar with the macabre.
Grandmotherly sales clerk: What a beautiful picture of a flower!
Polly: It’s a poisonous flower.
Grandmotherly sales clerk: [in a tone of slightly mystified disappointment] Oh...
Mind you, this is exceedingly mild in comparison with some other of Polly’s artistic works. I have mixed emotions with regard to an overheard conversation about the well-known painting Daddy Driving Lawnmower, With Two Flowers.
Admiring adult: What’s this lovely picture about, Polly?
Polly: This flower and this baby flower have just been to a ball, then after the ball they got nice and clean. But now it is night time and they are asleep snuggling up to each other, but now this big one is being struck by lightning, there, see? And now it is going to die. And the baby one is dying too. The flowers are us, actually. They turn into us when they die. Over here is a baby squirrel with only one arm that we are looking after. It is going to die from the thunderstorm too. And this is the handy helper. He's watching but not doing anything. And this is Daddy, driving the lawn mower. He is driving it in the middle of the night because it has been raining and the grass keeps growing. There is more thunder coming and he is going to be dying too.
Above: Daddy Driving Lawnmower, With Two Flowers.
I feel a certain amount of guilt that my building work has deprived Polly of much of the attention that was lavished on her brother—there have been very few nature walks or rainy-day trips to museums in her pre-school years. But I suppose she has been educated in other ways. Polly recently built a stile of her own design between our property and the neighbours, and I had an embarrassing moment (half way through a lecture on how her planned structure could be improved) when I suddenly realized that her design was much better than the one that I was suggesting. It seemed a good sign that some sort of useful learning had taken place.
Polly attends the local kindergarten several days per week. I’m astonished by how much I miss her presence when she’s at lessons: the quirky observations, the surrealistic conversations, the fascinating details of her future plans. “When I go to school I shall build a beautiful gypsy caravan and live in our coppice. Then when I’m older—and if you’re not dead—I’ll live in the big house, and you and Mummy can live in my caravan. And then I’ll have children, and I’ll be the grown-up, and I’ll look after you!” It’s rather sad to think of Polly going to all-day school, and of my lonely builder’s future without her.
The head teacher at Polly’s kindergarten is an immigrant from Norway, and I felt that she—of all people—would be culturally capable of understanding my melancholy at Polly’s approaching departure to primary school. “Of course, your people have a word for this anticipatory sadness,” I added. “Høstens vemod.”
“Høstens vemod?” replied the head teacher. “Really? I’ve never heard of that. I mean the actual words make sense in Norwegian, but I’ve never heard of it as any kind of cultural thing.”
She sent a text message to her brother in Norway. Her brother is a high school teacher who is known for his in-depth understanding of Norwegian culture and society. “He’ll certainly be able to clear up the mystery of høstens vemod for me,” she said confidently.
A few minutes later she received a reply. “Well no,” she said. “Apparently he’s never heard of it either.”
I now suspect that I’ve been a victim of the wry Norwegian sense of humour. My cultural informant at the children’s playground was perhaps indulging in a spot of Nordic hyperbole. All I can say is that it’s a shame to be suffering from a psychological phenomenon that doesn’t officially exist (though, if it doesn’t exist, then why does it make me so sad?). Perhaps there’s a word for it in Finnish.
Above: Polly running to school on her first day.