Gone shopping

Internet - Andrew Brown finds heaven in Helsinki

Finland is supposed to be the most wired country in the world, but what you notice when you're here is not how virtual the place is but how physical. Even in the capital the weather transforms everything. I was walking through Helsinki last week dressed for the rain in a hunter's Gore-Tex anorak, but I should have been wearing waders as well. The rain was not unduly cold but coming down hard enough to strike bubbles from the pavement and, just as I noticed that my jeans were completely soaked through, I found a shop doorway to shelter in and realised that I had been there six months before in the warmth and tranquillity of my study.

Digelius Records is a treasure cave of every sort of folk music: any musician can have his records sold there unless he is famous, wealthy or potentially fashionable. I had found it as a sort of bet, when Angus MacKinnon, the arts editor of the NS, asked me if I could find on the Internet anything about Wigwam, a band he had enthused about as a music journalist in the 1970s. They were, he said, Finnish prog-rockers fronted by an Old Etonian or Harrovian, though I subsequently learnt that they had troubles worse than that: their bassist and animating spirit had abandoned music when he became a devout Jehovah's Witness. Their record company was run by Marxists until it went bankrupt. Bankruptcy, I was told in the record shop, gave the founders a taste for more of the delights of capitalism, and they reconstituted their company on much more rapacious lines.

Digelius's website, when I found it, offered 20 or more CDs by this extraordinary bunch and their various sidekicks and offshoots. It also offered things such as Lapp/techno fusion trance music; a box-set of Siberian shamanistic ululations ("Deep in the heart of Tuva") and vast quantities of jazz. I imagine that the record library in Gormenghast would have been put together on the same principle. It seemed to demand aged gnomes who would scurry off into a warren of stacks and shelves to fetch the music you wanted. But the reality is much, much better.

It is one of the most extraordinary record shops I have ever been in, not just because it still sells records and has racks and racks of vinyl. There are staff who are friendly, opinionated and knowledgeable, and who among their numerous languages speak several I can also manage. Now the point is that all this is very much how we imagine that a web page ought to be in real life. If the cinema is a projection of other people's dreams, the web is really fun because it gives access to our own daydreams. The surface of the screen becomes as seductive as the pool was for Narcissus (and who can really believe that Narcissus saw his own likeness in that first mirror? Of course he saw the young man he wanted to be). Yet I know that the physical reality of almost all the places and even the people I know on-line is nothing like as attractive as their shadow representation.

This is especially true with shops. The whole trick to e-commerce is that it enables customers to dress up a warehouse with their own imaginations. In the case of Amazon.com it's not even the company's warehouse, but that of another book distribution firm. But there are some things that are more like an antiquarian bookshop, where the stock in the window cannot possibly represent the riches inside. Such shops, if they have a website at all, tend to have very bald and boring ones, which consist of plain displays of searchable catalogues. (Thorntons second-hand bookshop in Oxford is a good example.) And these, though they may add to the physical experience, cannot possibly replace it. There really is no substitute for the fumbling excitement of picking out sleeve notes and discovering the complete works of Victoria Spivey or all the recordings that Billie Holiday made with Lester Young.

I could have spent a fortune in Digelius Records; in fact, I seem to have done so. But it would never have happened without the physical reality. It would never even have happened without the rainstorm, for when I sheltered in the shop window I was actually on my way to somewhere entirely different. The newspapers here are full of a hackers' convention to which 3,000 people have come from as far away as Brazil to huddle in an ice hockey stadium all weekend and play with computers where the ice ought to be, staying awake with coffee rather than the naturally effervescent sunlight. But you can have more fun getting wringing wet in the street than from any amount of surfing.