Port of Helsinki
11.6.2020 19:57:49 //
Virve Obolgogiani
Helsinki City Museum

Hugest harbour in Härmä

After th’ war, th’ docks were th’ place where a bloke could find work, even’f only for a day. But th’ work was rough. They used t’shift heavy stuff aroun’ with no machines. By th’ sixties there was forklifts an’ cranes an’ whatnot, an’ th’ job wasn’t so tough no more. An’ that’s when th’ dockhands started to become stevedores – y’know, real professionals. 

Th’ docks, th’ ships, th’ sea – all thing a Stadi lad would dream of. Stadi is what Helsinki is called by proper Helsinki folk, born an’ bred, y’know. Jus’ think of it – what could be more amazin’ than sailin’ off into th’ wild blue yonder, t’far-off lands an’ exotic places! Specially if things ain’t so good at home, if y’get my drift.  

In the sixties, a poet fella called Arvo Turtiainen wrote a piece about Arska, who’s supposed to be this wide boy what’s come out of a stretch in th’ Nokka lockup an’ decided to go on th’ straight an’ narrow. He reckoned he might join th’ Salvationists, y’know, only they wouldn’t have him.

“So I went t’sea, an’ I’ve been sailin’ ever since, to Spain an’ Chinar an’ America, y’know.”

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Picture: Volker von Bonin

An’ twenny-five year later Arska comes back home t’look aroun’ his ol’ haunts, right? Only he can’t recognise th’ city no longer, an’ he can’t find any o’ his mates.

“All me mates’ve popped their clogs, an’ no one can make head nor tail of me lingo when I talk like we used to in Stadi.”
So Arska decides t’go back t’sea, but then he finds some young Stadi lads who talk th’ talk an’ walk th’ walk, an’ then he sees that th’ good ol’ Stadi ain’t gone nowhere after all. So there’s a happy end to th’ story, like. 

Work for th’ workin’ man t’do

But not all lads wanted t’go t’sea, or couldn’t. So mebbe goin’ t’th’ docks was sort o’ th’ next best thing, y’know? Y’could look out t’sea an’ see all th’ ships an’ think about like one o’these days it’ll be me sailin’ off into th’ sunset. Y’ had t’feel a bit sorry for them as stayed on shore. Like the chap in the Junnu Vainio song, Albatross: never lived out his dreams t’go t’sea, jus’ stayed put till he was useless an’ wasted like seagull’s droppin’s.

But th’ blokes what worked on th’ docks, they weren’t no losers. Them’s were no jobs for sissies. Anyone what didn’t have a steady job went t’hang aroun’ the docks ev’ry mornin’. What y’did was y’went roun’ th’ recruitin’ office, an’ if y’was lucky y’might get work, mebbe jus’ for a day. But th’ work was rough. They used t’ shift heavy stuff aroun’ with no machines. Early in th’ century lads could make good money workin’ th’ docks, but they knew how t’spend it too, like there was no tomorrow an’ all. 

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Picture: Eino Heinonen

Some lads went on th’ bottle waitin’ aroun’ for work t’show up, an’ it was dead easy t’cadge booze off o’ th’ ships. Sometimes chaps’d be proper wasted even in broad daylight, on th’ job. Like they said in that interview on Finnish TV with dockhands from Kotka where they talk about workin’ in th’ harbour in th’ fifties an’ sixties. (18 March 2016)

Port o’ Helsinki in th’ sixties

Seppo Palminen had a summer job in th’ harbour in Stadi for many years in th’ sixties. Not as a dockhand, mind you, but as a clerk. See, he was a scrawny little thing, as he says himself. By that time they’d already got forklifts an’ cranes an’ whatnot, an’ the work wasn’t as heavy as it used t’be. Dockhands started to become stevedores – proper professionals, y’know, so y’couldn’ get pissed on the job no more. 

It wasn’ worthwhile to keep th’ ships moored for days on end, so th’ lads had t’unload an’ load at all hours, sometimes at night. They lifted th’ stuff from th’ hold to th’ quay an’ then rolled it all into th’ warehouse usin’ handcarts. It was slow. Young fit chaps signed up for th’ jobs, ’cause they knew th’ pay was good, though y’had t’work hard for it. Seppo reckons that the extra blokes what was hired for summer jobs got the shittiest tasks.

Them as had a steady position on th’ docks eventually got the cushy jobs. Totin’ aroun’ sacks o’ coffee beans an’ pilin’ them up was heavy work. There were some women workin’ there too. They had the easier jobs, women’s jobs, y’know. Durin’ th’ war there were a lot of women workin’ on the docks, ’cause all th’ blokes were at th’ front. Seppo reckons that some o’ th’ women workin’ there in th’ sixties were so old that they must’ve been there since th’ war. Ol’ geezers who couldn’ manage the heavy liftin’ no more also got given women’s jobs.

Talkin’ th’ talk

I reckon a lot o’ people know th’ Humphrey Bogart film To Have or Have Not. It’s all about th’ harbour an’ the lots o’ diff’rent people y’find there. The harbour in Stadi was the same. Th’ dockhands were always at work, but th’ sailors had nothin’ t’do an’ they jus’ lived it up wi’ a vengeance. They jus’ had to have a single watchman on board to see that th’ ship don’ sail off by itself, y’see. The sailors drank like fish, an’ sometimes th’ dockhands made a sport out o’ countin’ how many loose women sneaked on board. 

It was some special sort o’ community on th’ docks, Seppo recalls. An’ the jawin’ was blue enough t’make a pirate blush. 

Th’ lingo what they used t’talk on th’ docks was th’ ol’ sort o’ Stadi slang, as it’s known. It was diff’rent from th’ sort that Seppo himself knew, it must have dated from th’ thirties an’ such. Seppo learned a lot o’ slang words that he’d never heard before. Stadi slang is th’ lingo o’th’ streets, but it’s also th’ lingo o’th’ docks and sailors. Everyone’s got their own gift o’th’ gab.

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Sompasaari Harbour opened 50 years ago. Now Kalasatama’s skyscrapers are rising in its place. Picture: Grünberg Constantin, 1966

Seppo went on from summer jobs t’public relations for th’ Port o’ Helsinki. Th’ ol’ slang is his passion. When he was makin’ his first multimedia thingy for an exhibition in 1976, he gave it a title in Stadi slang what translates as somethin’ like “Hugest harbour in Härmä”. Now, Finns’d know this, but for you I need t’explain that Härmä is what we sometimes call Finland.

Well, harbours have changed since way back when. Y’can’t jus’ walk aroun’ t’th’ quayside no more t’gaze out t’sea dreamin’ o’ exotic places. An’ y’can’t jus’ walk aroun’ t’th’ recruitin’ office t’see if there’s any jobs t’be had. An’ th’ dockhands are gone an’ all. What used t’be th’ recruitin’ office is now a bar where y’can get a snifter. An’ people don’ even drink snifters these days, it’s all more civilised with cocktails an’ such. But that’s th’ way it goes.