Chasing the Lights – by Mark Powell

It’s just a few days until Stuart Maconie headlines The Real Story Live!

To get y’all excited, here’s a new essay by Mark Powell. Mark will be reading it, alongside Sarah Handyside, Danielle Peetand co-editors Nija Dalal and Kate Feld on April 22 at 7:30pm at Gulliver’s in Manchester. More info here.


A crisp March evening, 1985. I’m five years old, blanket-wrapped and saucer-eyed, tracking skyward line of my dad’s outstretched finger across the pin-pricked vastness of infinity. He joins the dots through Orion’s rakish belt and then, losing the thread, begins to recount a teenage camping trip on a bleak and blasted Scots highland peninsula. Waking in the small hours with a bladder full of cheap whisky, he says, he’d clambered blearily over his tent buddy and weaselled his squinting head through the zipper, only to find himself lassoed by the colossal blazing halo of something called the Northern Lights, pulsing in a soup-thick ring around that frostbitten, heather- choked valley.

It’s the first I’ve heard of such an apparition and I’m immediately fascinated, but without a visual frame of reference, my imagination strains with its exotic heft. I picture something like a giant, spectral version of those cheap plastic disco balls from Argos. For me and these so-called Northern Lights, it’s love at first sight.

A considerably crisper March evening, 2006. I’m 26 years old, blanket-wrapped and saucer-eyed, vibrating on a wooden bench in the sleeper cabin of a diesel train raking northward from Helsinki. Above me, Andrzej snores off a pyrrhic victory over a bottle of something called Apple Flirt. Outside our tiny window, the thermometer reads a stern –14 and falling. We left the city behind over an hour ago, and suburbs have long since given way to scattered farms, then the occasional pine spinney, and now… nothing. Pale moonlight, glinting blueish and silent back across mile after mile of motionless, unbroken snow. The local time is 3.57pm.

Morning arrives in a quick flurry of travel clichés: a lurch and hiss as our plucky locomotive collapses at the last stop in the charted universe; a frantic scramble for trousers and ticket stubs; a bed-haired tumble to an empty platform. Rovaniemi is the de facto provincial capital of northern Lapland. It’s by no means a rustic hamlet – but, at 6am on Sunday morning in a soft late-winter blizzard, it’s hardly a bustling metropolis either.

Up a twisting hill road glazed in echoing permafrost, we slither along a fence-line to our guesthouse. Bags go on beds, socks go on radiators; we go for breakfast. Eventually finding a café both open and staffed – a rare combination – we order a rerun of the salty black bread and smoked cheese that had passed for last night’s train rucksack dinner. It’s remarkable, I think, how quickly we’ve acclimatised to these alien delicacies. Or, less charitably, how few food words we’ve learned in a week.

Rovaniemi squats six miles south of the Arctic Circle. Our otherwise pedestrian jaunt through hip urban Scandinavia is ending with this histrionic flourish at my insistence. I’m convinced that it pretty much guarantees us an Aurora encounter in the goosebumped, teeth-chattering flesh. A combination of heavy cold medicines and blinkered whimsy meant I’d all but sleepwalked through our six previous days on the broad, neon-lit boulevards of Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki: for me, the trip begins and ends here, tonight, dark and shivering and no doubt gazing victorious up at a purple-green firmament in full celestial cri de coeur.

The café owner breaks into a warm smile when we tell him this. He throws a floury arm around my shoulder, and brightly informs us we’re visiting at the arse-end of the cloudiest February on record – they haven’t seen so much as a star for a fortnight, and this weekend isn’t looking any brighter.

Andrzej shrugs and stumps off to inquire about a pint at the town’s most famous watering hole. He returns moments later with a leaflet that promises the renowned Rovaniemi ice bar is, both depressingly and confusingly, closed for winter. As if by way of compensation, it points out that we’re less than 400ft from the world’s most northerly McDonalds, open year-round.

Abandoning my dream of a midnight husky hunt for the elusive and skittish Borealis, we limply cash out at a day trip to a reindeer farm.

10am and we’re 30 miles north. A local Soundgarden fan in a dented Passat had spirited us over the mystical Arctic boundary line. He pulls over at a suspiciously nondescript kerbside, and I grab a crestfallen snapshot on the vague circumference of what turns out to be an entirely conceptual circle.

We finally arrive at a modern, UPVC-glazed farmhouse. The farmer glances at our improvised survivalist wardrobe – two Primark coats apiece, a medium worn under a large – and rolls his eyes, raiding a wicker basket for a brace of unfathomably fattening reindeer hide onesies. Waddling through the family kitchen to his back yard, he hands us each a short length of knotted rope as he gestures toward a fuzzy brown mass by the fence.

The ‘reindeer’ is an overturned water butt, slung with off-cuts of matted Axminster and crowned by a pair of wonky bolt-on antlers. Over the next hour, we heroically master the art of snaring and bridling our inanimate target, earning admission to the real paddock in much the same way, we’ll convince friends back home, as the hardy Norsemen of yore.

Our first encounter with any actual reindeer is dominated by the realisation that they aren’t the same size as any other animal. With two dozen of them jostling around us, it’s impossible not to notice that there’s always been an empty seat at the table between ‘deer’ and ‘horse’, and I feel stupid for never having clocked it in my 26 years. Also: reindeer, with their long lashes and rubbery suede muzzles, have easily the most expressive faces of any beast of burden. As I gingerly bridle my chosen steed while dancing around his murderous horns, he effortlessly conveys a wide array of quasi-human responses, ranging from sarcasm to impatience to genuine pity.

Finally sledded up, we turn away from the farm and set off at a faltering trot through a snicket into boreal pine forest. This humble fence gap turns out to be Finland’s answer to the Narnia wardrobe, and within minutes we’re lost on the set of a cheesy fairytale. Crunching through clean powder, our sleds weave looping tracks through thickets of low-hanging boughs, the brilliant white ground dappled in soft gold and paw prints. The first watery sun of the month breaks more strongly through the canopy, and the air around us thickens into a fantasy cascade of glittering ice crystals. Our guide calls out that this is ‘diamond dust’, an almost exclusively Arctic phenomenon caused by sudden temperature inversion just above the snow pack.

I slide down under my coarse hide blanket, and try not to think about words like moment, and memory, and – least of all – Facebook.

We stop around lunchtime in a small clearing with a blackened firepit, where our guide bakes fat pancakes on a vast iron paddle suspended over glowing rocks. We perch on a felled log swigging granular coffee from battered enamel pans, frost thickening on our cuffs and bootlaces, while he tells local folk tales in his indigenous Suomi purr. After stuffing the reindeer with bags of emerald moss from a nearby shed, we tackle up and steer our little caravan through the tree-line, breaking out on to the vast, open ice rink of a frozen lake.

A barked command, a flick of the reigns down the right flank, and our reindeer snap open like coiled springs, hell-for-leather towards the horizon while we cling on for grim death behind. If we’d been struck by the animals’ anthropomorphic qualities back in the paddock, we now learn of one area in which reindeer are vastly superior to humans: not only can they sprint at 45mph, but they can do so while shitting violently, every few metres. I scream oaths against deciding to leave sunglasses at the guesthouse. My howls are inaudible against the scrape-clatter of wood, ice and hooves, and indecipherable through repeated mouthfuls of fresh turd sorbet.

And then I’m laughing, and it’s one of those laughs I know I’ll be able to pick up years later, whenever I can’t see another one lying around.

That evening I text dad from the guesthouse, confessing that I hadn’t managed to track down the Aurora, but that I had seen diamond dust and lassoed a barrel and picked reindeer poo out of my teeth.

Like everywhere in Finland, phone reception and WiFi signals sing a crystal clear, unwavering note of reassurance. They’re terrible where he lives in Sheffield though, so it’s three hours before I hear back, by which time, I’m midway through the highest-latitude Filet O’Fish money can buy.

The text comes in his standard formation, a telegraphed three-liner, signed off like always:

“Sounds good. Always wanted to see NLights too, Gramps used to tell me he saw them in Scotland. Brush your teeth. Dad x”