Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

Big problems in miniature

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Sometimes profound truths can be found in obscure places. Underlying the whole Brexit issue is the matter of national perspectives and culture, yet outwith Remainer online groups this is still seldom being discussed. (There is an exhibition currently running in Bonn called Unrequited Love – about the German love of many things British – and the utter disregard that is this country’s reply).

You might not expect to find it in something as apparently trivial as the world of model railways – but I think it is there. (On second thoughts, we might reflect that if those attitudes are real, they will indeed be evident precisely in the nooks and crannies of national life where people lower their guard).

Railway enthusiasm is by some measures the second most popular male hobby (after fishing). I have been afflicted since my youngest years, most particularly by the strange urge to capture what I see in model form. Perhaps the public perception of railway modelling has been shifted somewhat recently by the TV series The Great Model Railway Challenge – though for those serious about their hobby, there is a feeling that the sensationalism and gimmickry of that show has overlooked the slow, patient craftsmanship of the finest modellers. Be that as it may, looking at the attitudes expressed in the modelling fraternity itself can be informative.

Perhaps the best way of doing this is to look at publicly-expressed attitudes, as seen through the hobby press (as in what will sell) and its widespread manifestation in model railway exhibitions.

Attitudes to non-British modelling in the UK are revealing. There are perhaps half a dozen monthly magazines for the hobby. Several of them actively refuse to publish articles about non-British subject matter. The market-leader, Peco, which has published Railway Modeller for 70 years now, far-sightedly set up a dedicated magazine as long ago as 1979 to cater for the perceived niche that modelled non-British subjects. It was called Continental Modeller, a misnomer as it covers the rest of the world – but the point was clear: there is a divide between the main, domestic market and those few who look elsewhere. While the dedicated magazine was welcome and has thrived, the effect has to been to lock non-British modellers into their own little bubble, while the mainstream never sees anything non-British.

Others of the magazines, not least British Railway Modelling, overtly refuse overseas subject matter. One might have thought that that name refers to the location of the modelling, but no: it refers to the subject matter. At least it’s honest, I suppose. And while the up-market Model Railway Journal has very occasionally featured non-British models, it has always treated it as an exception and a curiosity.

Underlying this is typical British prejudice. The more I think about it, the more I think it reflects a wider reality: it’s not necessarily deliberate, so much as what was in the cultural ‘air’ we breathed. The received wisdom in the modelling fraternity is that the continentals don’t produce good models. They are supposedly dominated by brightly-coloured plastic kits and trains that run far too fast, and are really glorified toys – in contrast to the British obsession with grimy ultra-realism. There is a grudging acceptance that the Americans sometimes produce good models – but as with everything, they are mostly too big and brash for British tastes. Little has been done to challenge such preconceptions.

Also noticeable is a striking asymmetry in the situation: the current edition of Hornby Magazine, for example, does include a model built by a German – of British railways. But we are not ‘allowed’ to see the work of Germans modelling their own railways – or indeed of Britons modelling them – except in Continental Modeller. Knowledge of continental railway systems amongst British enthusiasts is widely negligible. By contrast, I was recently approached by the editor of one of the large German magazines, Eisenbahn Journal, for articles on some of my methods. I know from experience that continental magazines cover a wider range of prototypes than just their own national ones. The mindset is more open, the reach wider.

In a striking parallel to the wider situation, British modelling has been kept separate by accidents of history: we model in scales slightly but significantly different from the rest of the world, and the differences are enough to prevent inter-changeability. In most cases, the British versions are less accurate compromises of what was being done elsewhere. If you want n’th degree of accuracy in Britain, you have to do it the hard way and make it all yourself…

Perversely, there seems to have been a grudging counter-current underlying this: for all the condescension, there was an acceptance that continental commercial models were more reliable and finely-made than ours, which were crude and unreliable by comparison. Top of the pile, yet again, are the Swiss whose models are made with the same precision as their watches (at prices to match). But that has now largely changed: our models are now almost entirely made in China.

The parallel can be taken further, for there is another side to the story. In recent years, there has been a noticeable growth in interchange between the exhibition circuit in Britain and the continent. Dutch models in particular are not unknown in Britain – but certainly less so than some of the best British models which are increasingly invited to the big continental shows. There is undoubtedly a genuine admiration for British realism modelling on the continent; I have experienced this myself with my latest model which portrays a French scene, and I have had requests (granted) from French modellers to visit. One is coming in ten days’ time. But once again, there is generally much less interest shown at large in the other direction. The internet has become a significant fact here as everywhere: it is easily possible to see what is happening on the continental scene – but in my experience it is largely emasculated by the sheer lack of interest.

There is, on the continent, an organisation called FREMO (Friendship of European Railway Modellers) which lays down basic parameters which allows modellers to connect their modules to assemble giant super-models. It is almost unknown in Britain.

What I think we see here is a microcosm of Britain’s relationship with the continent: one in which the majority of people here remain determinedly isolated, wanting to have little to do with outside influences, which they genuinely believe are inferior to the home-grown version. The admiration British modelling receives is just not reciprocated. It is not that British modelling is without its merits – indeed the standard can be high. But there are just as many plasticky, toy-like models in the UK as elsewhere, and many very fine models on the continent, some of which knock the average British effort into a cocked hat. But by refusing to lift their eyes from their own domestic baseboards, most British modellers seem to have at best a distorted view of this, and at worse they remain in complete ignorance of good practice elsewhere, the sharing of which could enhance their own efforts. Therein lies the disadvantage this country repeatedly puts itself at by its refusal to integrate.

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And that is without the general camaraderie that comes from sharing one’s hobby. I now have railway-enthusiast friends in several other countries, and the interchange is great. Our shared hobby provides an excellent vehicle for international friendship – and what’s more, I now know a lot more about not only the railways but architecture, geography and language of those countries as a result.

In this one small teacup, it seems we can sum up the attitudes that underpin our current problems – and until they change so thoroughly that it can be seen in such esoteric parts of British life as railway modelling, I fear we will not get over them. There is little sign of that happening.

But there is one final aspect where the wider pattern is replicated in the hobby: since control systems went digital, most of the best technology that railway modellers are using comes from one place: Germany. And we buy that shamelessly.

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Above and below: The work of Dominic Burraud

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Petitioning the European Parliament in Brussels

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The view from my seat. Guy Verhofstadt straight ahead…

On 2nd October I travelled to Brussels to hear my petition debated by the European Parliament petitions committee (PETI).

On occasions like this, the anxiety still jangles away unpleasantly in the background, but I managed to get myself to Brussels (and find a decent lunch!) I walked the mile to the Parliament, and despite a forecast of fine weather, this being Belgium, it rained on me…

I arrived in good time, and was met by members of the EP secretariat, who got me rapidly through security and into the chamber, which was in the form of a mini-hemicycle. I had expected to be sat somewhere towards the rear – but no: petitioners are seated on the floor of the chamber, along with MEPs and Commission representatives. Luckily I was familiar with most of the technology from my visits to the EP in Strasbourg.

Despite running early when I arrived, the debate did fall behind time – mostly because of the arrival of some of the EP ‘big guns’, notably Guy Verhofstadt (Lead on Brexit) and Antonio Tajani (former President of EP). Verhofstadt is never one to be brief, and he was still going well after the time petitioners were due to be heard.

As the time I had been given for my contribution came and went, I began to wonder whether I would get my chance before needing to head back to Midi to catch my Eurostar. In the event, my ‘caretaker’ managed to get my speech brought forward and I eventually spoke at about 17h20.

I got a round of applause, and as I was leaving the building, one of the British MEPs rushed out and congratulated me on my speech. So it seemed to go down well.

I have included the text of my speech below the photos.

Having watched, and taught, EU affairs for many years, this was a great experience. I can only say that anyone who doubts the value of European co-operation should watch the webcasts of such proceedings.

While this is admittedly a committee rather than the main chamber, proceedings are calm, unassuming and tinged with good humour. Those present seem to have few pretensions, and it is perhaps worth looking up the background a few of them, such as:

• Dolors Montserrat (Chair)
• Jude Kirton-Darling
• ClaudeMoraes
• Irina Von Wiese
• Christian Allard

When I arrived, the discussion was about how to extent animal welfare controls to laboratory animals and to curb the eating of songbirds in Cyprus. A significant issue. It is hugely varied. It was quite humbling and hugely enthusing to sit amongst such people from all over Europe and be heard and to hear their responses.

PETI hears several petitions at a time, grouped by themes. There were other representations from groups concerned about ex-pat rights and refugees after Brexit – but none other about the position of ‘regular’ British citizens. I am still left with the sense that while there is a lot of concern, no one really knows what to do about us. The Commission position is still that EU citizenship is a product of citizenship of a member-state and it would take a treaty change to alter that. Hence British citizens lose their rights if we leave. But they did not completely rule out a treaty change – huge though that would be – and there were a number of calls from MEPs for European citizenship to assume an identity independent from national ones. That would be contentious.

It is worth noting that PETI does not count numbers of signatures before admitting a petition. I was worried that mine only had a few hundred signatures – but there was one heard earlier in the session that had only THREE. It is the strength of the case that counts. And the ability to sit in a hearing and present one’s case is of course, conspicuous by its absence from the procedures in Westminster. While sitting there, I could not help but think that it will be an utter tragedy if Britons’ voices cease to be heard at the end of this month, or indeed at any point.

The meeting was web-cast and is available here.

  • Beginning at 15h57’50”
  • My speech is at 17h21’25”
  • There is a Commission response to my points from one of Michel Barnier’s team at 17h47’47”
  • Important point at 17:55’55” Where the representative says that the EC is not giving up on the existing Withdrawal Agreement despite what BJ says.
  • There is debate from the Committee at 17:57’50 and an important (but probably little-known point) about the cost of passports at 18h03’52. (Why does a British passport cost nearly FIVE TIMES the EU average for people claiming naturalisation?)
  • The section ends at around 18h14′.
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I don’t normally do selfies, but here I am just before going into the EP…

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Text of my speech:

Thank you for admitting my petition, and for giving me the opportunity to address you today.

Should Brexit happen, British citizens will in effect be stripped of their European citizenship. For many, this will be against their deeply-held wishes, and represents in effect the oppression of that group by its own government, similar in style if not degree, to events that often provoke moral outrage when they happen elsewhere in the world.

While accommodation will have to be found for nationals living in each other’s countries, pro-European Britons remaining resident in the UK will be the most disadvantaged group. Our rights and abilities to function in the rest of the EU risk being severely curtailed after Brexit.

As can be seen from the outpouring of pro-EU feeling in the UK, this is a greatly significant matter for many millions of us. It represents the theft of a deeply-important part of our identities by our own government and our peers. Our lives will be not only practically but culturally and emotionally diminished as a result. I have seen and experienced at first hand the deep anguish that this is causing.

Particularly for us islanders, whose history and geography have always set us slightly apart from the European mainstream, this is extremely important. It matters greatly to us that we can look our fellow Europeans straight in the eye and say “we are part of this project too”.

When it comes to resolving this issue, it is noticeable that our own administrations have had nothing whatsoever of substance to say to us for the past three years. We have become invisible; the daily rhetoric about the “will of the people” makes absolutely no reference to our wishes. As one commentator put it, “We are being written out of our own futures”. In short, the British government simply does not know what to do about us, and it is all too evident that the new UK administration cares even less than the last one did.

It is also very clear that Britons who are in favour of Brexit care not one iota for our welfare. They see this as a zero-sum victory for their views, and the likely consequences of this are not encouraging. I live in the constituency of the Home Secretary, and have stood on the streets of that constituency, experiencing the hatred of some Brexiters towards Remainers.

Guy Verhofstadt has argued that the lives of ordinary Europeans should not be harmed by Brexit. Whatever the political future, geographically and culturally speaking, Britons are still Europeans – and the lives of European-thinking Britons will be harmed by the actions of a minority of our fellows. I argue that the wider European community should not be prepared to let this happen, and should do whatever it can to mitigate the impact.

I maintain that should Brexit happen, and the U.K. becomes in effect just another external country from the EU’s perspective, it will be no business whatsoever of the UK government, what recognition and treatment the EU chooses to dispense to people within the territories of its own member-states.

I therefore call upon the EU to create a status – perhaps “associate citizen” – that would recognise this unique group of disadvantaged former EU citizens and provide them with as many as possible of their former rights whenever they are within EU27 countries. My petition sets out a number of possible dimensions of this. I suggest that this need not compromise any other citizenship arrangements either in the EU or the UK, and I urge the EU to act, unilaterally if necessary, to implement it.

I realise that there would be costs to doing this, and therefore it would be reasonable for those to be at least in part recovered. An application charge (and perhaps other checks) could also test the genuineness of the application – but I would urge you to implement any such system in a way that does not exclude those on low incomes. The EU has a great record on promoting equality and will surely recognise the importance of this. Again, I submit that such procedures would be nothing whatsoever to do with the UK government.

As someone who has been engaged for many years in European education in the UK, I urge you seriously to consider such moves, not least because they will help preserve a European consciousness in the UK during the dark times outside the EU. Should Brexit happen, providing this identity-option would be very significant in terms of reconciling British Europeans to an unenviable situation, and helping to heal the rift in our society – as something similar through the Good Friday Agreement has helped resolve such issues in Northern Ireland. An act of faith such as this can only encourage the U.K. to rejoin in due course.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Blame it on Mary.

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Mary Plain was a small bear. She lived in the Bear Pit in Bern – at least in the imagination of Gwynedd Rae, who wrote her children’s stories in the 1930’s, and which were a youthful favourite of mine. She has a lot to answer for.

Every time I pass through Bern, a necessary ritual is to go and say hello to Mary’s descendants. The bear pit as drawn in the books was quite accurate: a pair of round, sunken stone compounds, with various (rather denuded) trees for climbing, a large bath and sleeping quarters at the back. As I child, I was delighted to see that you could indeed buy carrots and sugar lumps to feed to the bears.

We made our latest visit a couple of weeks ago, on the way back from Lausanne to Basel, when the city was looking especially mellow in the late-afternoon glow of a sunny September day. Pleasingly, the Swiss have moved with the times when it comes to animal welfare, and in a neat reversal, the original bear pit is now an exhibition space and gin bar containing humans, while the bears roam a much larger and more naturalistic enclosure outside, on the steep hillside leading down to the river Aare. Now the trees have grown, however, it is much more difficult to spot them…

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(Library picture)

Despite its being their capital, amongst the Swiss the Bernese have a reputation for being slow and lumpen. (“Why shouldn’t you tell a Bernese a joke on a Wednesday? Because he might laugh in church on Sunday…”). On the train into Bern earlier in the day, we had an impromptu conversation with a not-at-all lumpen young Bernese man, who was returning from visiting his girlfriend in Basel. He told us, though, that he does indeed like Bern because although it is the capital, “it is just like a large village”. But it still has some pretty swish quarters, if my experience is anything to go by, of the one where, a good many years ago I once went to a rather smart party. Even if it did go by the name of Bümpliz…

There can be few capital cities where you can see wooded hills at the end of the main street (and on some days snow-capped Alps too), and yet at the same time indulge in a spot of serious shopping or eat at a top-notch restaurant (avoided, given the distinctly non-provincial prices…). Bern has a wonderful character, and as with the other larger Swiss centres, its conservatism is pleasingly spiced with a noticeable undercurrent of trendy urban rebellion. It is a place that moves slowly and deliberatively, but always with its eyes on the future.

The centre of the city lies on a neck of land surrounded by the deeply-incised valley of the Aare, giving a dramatic setting, the main streets gradually sloping down towards the sharp point of the meander, while both road and rail routes are forced to approach over dramatic high bridges. The outer sides of the valley are scattered with desirable villas, while it is possible to indulge in a spot of river swimming here in the city centre, as in Basel. Topographically, the city has a superb natural arena.

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Many of the timeless buildings have decorated shutters, and are built from a sandstone that is a particular shade of mustard-green that seems to be found nowhere else. Quintessentially Swiss. It goes without saying that the public transport is peerless, even if the main station was rebuilt in the seventies in the style of Birmingham New Street. Here, twice an hour, inter-city trains from all over Switzerland draw up at adjacent platforms so that easy interchange is possible from almost anywhere to anywhere.

We love the arcaded streets, a larger version of those all over Switzerland which were, of course, never flattened by the ravages of the Twentieth Century. It’s all original. The old clock tower and the square outside the parliament building are straight from a fairy tale; visiting them, on the way to the bears, is another ritual. Even more than elsewhere in Switzerland, the shop-keepers seem to take a pride in making the most attractive window displays imaginable, which promise to turn the most mundane of purchases into a super-stylish adventure. I decided to make a small photo-survey of some of the present ones – see below.

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I like the scale of Swiss cities: I know exactly what the young traveller meant: it is a capital built on a very human scale, just as Switzerland is a nation built on an equally human scale. Ironic really, considering the physical grandeur all around. Maybe the ever-present mountains give the Swiss a sense of their own, human, insignificance?

My amusement with Bern’s slowness got its own back, however. As we were leaving the station, I was stung by a wasp. Being Bernese, it moved slowly enough that I was able to bat it away before it did its worst. But it left its venom to work a very gradual inflation of my right arm over the following two days, which then lasted a good week. Even the smallest inhabitants know that slow and steady brings results that are both progressive and unchanging over long periods of time.

I like Bern precisely because it feels both thoroughly modern and timeless. Thanks to Mary Plain, we have come to know quite well another Swiss city which subtly, perhaps unintentionally, drives home all that could be so much better about the life that, inexplicably, one has to live somewhere else.

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Below: a short photo-study of Bern’s shop windows…

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Food, Travel

Beyond Schoggi

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Schiesser, Basel

I am very partial to a grand continental café. A classic of the kind is the Cafe Romand in Lausanne (below), its unchanging parquet-floored, wood-panelled interior a place where old men still come to pass the afternoon with a paper and coffee, and grandes-dames take afternoon cakes. In the evenings it serves fondue in traditional ceramic caquelons. It is immensely popular, a local institution, even though it’s a youngster, dating only from 1951. I’ve been an occasional customer since the late ’80s, and it is one of those places that somehow move with the times without ever changing.

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Cafe Romand, Lausanne

Then there is Schiesser, an institution in Basel dating from 1870, another darkly-panelled tea shop on the upper floor of the eponymous confisserie opposite the town hall. Proper black-and-white-dressed waiters still prevail here, and the heiẞe-schokolade most definitely comes not out of a Cadbury’s tin.

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Elevenses by Schiesser

Swiss cuisine doesn’t have a particularly high profile abroad, partly perhaps because it, like the country itself, is so heterogeneous. The obvious features are fondue and – of course – cheese in general, together with the increasingly-known raclette and rösti. Like the country itself, the diet is a sometimes-perplexing mix of Germanic, French and Italian influences, which can crop up in disconcerting combinations. But there are also delicacies such as filets de perche, which have almost cult status on Lake Geneva. And we shouldn’t forget the fresh apricots and peaches, and the wine, even though it is something of an acquired taste, and not widely available elsewhere.

Food is done with the same care that the Swiss attach to most things – and they don’t forget the importance of the visual, either. Their food is tasty, and often cosmopolitan, but the thing that really stands out is that it is so enticingly presented.

Visiting food shops in Switzerland is a feast for the eyes even if you don’t purchase, and this is something else that to me gives the place a solid sense of well-being that is often lacking in Britain (and sometimes elsewhere). Sorry, but Greggs is just not the same. Somehow the Swiss manage to make their food outlets classy without being elitist, in a way that even their neighbours often fail to match – and that is saying something.

Britons might consider the approach quaint; there are still quite a few restaurants where waiting staff are traditionally formal, and even on the trains one still eats off crockery with proper cutlery. Old-fashioned, or simply maintaining high standards? There are plenty of street-food stalls of course, but the things that really appeal to me are the more solid outfits.

A much-missed attraction in London is the Swiss Centre in Leicester Square, which used to contain a Mövenpick Marché self-service restaurant in its basement – a bit like a culinary version of an IKEA marketplace, only much tastier. One could, for a while, imagine that one was in Bern or Zurich, and it was (presciently) where my wife and I went on our first date.

Mövenpick is a reputed Swiss brand, which covers restaurants, hotels and more. For me, its crowning glory is its ice cream, which unlike the company’s other offerings can be found scattered (thinly) across the U.K. I most recently came across it, bizarrely, on the menu of a pub in deepest Cambridgeshire. Recommended.

Even department stores and motorway service stations get in on the act as foodie destinations. While the up-market Globus might be expected to have a seriously sexy food hall, even the more mid-market Manor offers its own Marché. One proceeds with tray to various ‘stalls’, from which to mix and match salads, patisserie, fruit smoothies and more, or to have various dishes cooked while one waits. To top it off, the store in Basel has a great roof-top terrace, where one can park for a good while, looking out over the city.

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Globus food hall
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Manor Marché, Basel
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Manor Marché, Basel
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Rooftop terrace, Manor Marché, Basel.

But I suppose we must inevitably come to chocolate. Forget Nestlé. An up-coming company is Läderach – first founded in the 1960s and producing superb chocolate. While Britons at last seem to be learning a serious chocolate habit (for which, sincere thanks Hotel Chocolat) this is on a different level entirely, with comparable prices; good chocolate is not a cheap commodity, but then a small amount goes a long way. Once again, the Swiss elevate an everyday transaction to the level of serious luxe; it is also rather more grown-up than Hotel Chocolat’s sometimes-gimicky presentation. It is noticeable that this brand has been expanding vigorously in recent years, and has now spread to several other countries, though not yet the U.K. It is possible to order online, and they do seem gradually to be addressing their shipping costs.

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Above and below: Läderach

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I suppose it is possible to argue that presentation doesn’t make any difference to the product. But I think it does: if it is true that consumers are shifting their spending from goods to ‘experiences’, then presentation and quality of service are part of making the purchase of something into a feel-good experience. It is something that too many retailers in Britain seem not even to begin to understand. I might have been tempted to suggest that large chains simply aren’t capable of delivering such experiences – but the Swiss show that to be incorrect, too.

As I wrote in my previous post about Morges, Swiss streets seem to be little-harmed (as yet?) by the online shopping revolution, certainty compared with the free-fall being seen in the U.K. Maybe that is because they understand (or just care) more about these matters.

The proof of the theory is in the eating.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Morges please!

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Some places are just naturally blessed. Consider, for example Morges, a small town of 15,000 people on the shore of Lake Geneva a little to the west of Lausanne. I have known it for many years –and it was the place where I once took my wife-to-be, to cure her leg-pulling that my near-obsession with Switzerland was nothing more than rose-tinted imagination. It worked.

I suppose it’s the geographer in me that means I rarely go anywhere simply to switch off; travel is an opportunity for gentle, observational research. I am drawn to examine the differences between places, why they exist, and the effect they have on people’s lived experiences. It is patently not true that people and places are the same everywhere – but precisely how and why they are different can be complex, and behind the physical exterior lies a cultural landscape that is even more difficult to divine. In the case of Switzerland, as well as my general appreciation of the country’s more well-known attributes, I have become fascinated with what makes it tick. And yes, on occasions that can appear quite obsessional.

As with much of Switzerland, it’s not a matter of being on a different planet; it’s just that things there tend to fail to work badly, in the way they can do elsewhere. Morges is the kind of place that I suspect many would agree would be something close to a dream or ideal – and yet it is entirely real – and therefore realisable. True, it has an exceptionally beautiful setting, but more than that, the Swiss always make the most of what they have: a small town centre that in some countries would be peeling and faded, half the shops either boarded up or filled with junk shops is, instead, beautifully maintained, artfully lit, and full of genuinely interesting small shops and eateries.

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The main street.

The traffic, while busy, is generally subordinated to pedestrians, and there is plenty of opportunity just to enjoy being there. What puzzles me rather, as a Briton, is that there is very little sign of the town suffering from the onslaught of online retailing, as is so obviously happening in my own country. The only evidence I found was the hoarding of a new mixed development near the station which talked about boosting the life of the town centre.

I think the answer is one that Britain would do well to note: the shops are not the cloned bulk-warehouses of conglomerates; most of them appear to be small, and individually-owned. They offer a range of goods that is genuinely enticing, high quality, and often displayed with panache. There is not a fast-food outlet or chain restaurant in sight. It makes using the town centre a desirable and rewarding experience, and this surely has to be the way forward.

As a non-native, it’s hard to get to the bottom of Morges’ seemingly charmed life. It is hardly ordinary – that would be nigh-on impossible given its location on the Rivièra Suisse, former home to the likes of Audrey Hepburn, Roger Moore, Charles Chaplin and Freddie Mercury – but it is seems largely by-passed by those on the Geneva – Lausanne – Montreux tourist drag. Judging by the levels of social interaction observed in the streets, most people there are locals – though that can perhaps conceal who those ‘locals’ are.

A little research shows that nearly a quarter of residents were born in the town, another quarter elsewhere in the Canton (region); a further 20% were born elsewhere in Switzerland and the remaining 30% is from elsewhere in the world. That is perhaps not surprising given Morges’ position between two international cities (ICRC and UN in Geneva, International Olympic Committee in Lausanne). But it is not unusual in Switzerland, where nearly the same percentage nationally is not Swiss. It is, in many ways a ‘just’ a local, provincial town. It has a well-known tulip festival in spring which brings in the tourists – but otherwise it is largely configured for its local population. I once went to an evening class on motor mechanics there.

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The waterfront.
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Art Deco restaurant on the lake front.
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Lausanne in the distance.
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The lakeside promenade.

 

It’s too easy to dismiss the solid, refined quality of the place as the product of one of the world’s wealthiest countries. Undoubtedly, that is a significant factor – but more important is how the money is spent: invested in a high-quality public realm, excellent public transport, a well-maintained historic centre and beautiful landscaping, all of which are accessible to the whole population. It is not wealth, for example, that stipulates that lake shorelines in Switzerland must maintain continuous public access – something that elsewhere even Roger Federer is struggling to overcome.

It is not wealth alone that established the tulip festival, or the year-round programme of cultural events. Nor is it wealth alone that seems to make the Swiss populace take so much care over everything they do, from personal appearance, to the cleanliness of the streets and the beauty of even quite ordinary shop windows. Twenty years ago, I bought a shower curtain with a silly cartoon Swiss cow on it in the Morges branch of Interio. It is still as good as new.

Unlike many places with glossy exteriors, Swiss quality is real. Judge for yourself from the quality of this small town’s municipal website here.

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The tulip festival.

It is easy to dismiss Morges as a place living a charmed life – but many of my observations about it could equally apply to almost any similar town in Switzerland. What’s more, in Britain I suspect that not only would many equivalent small towns be struggling with the effects of decades of under-funding, but they would be desperately clinging to what is left of their ‘heritage’ And yet Morges is busy, in conjunction with Swiss Railways’ property arm, building an entirely new urban quarter next to the station, that will combine public space with a school and crèche, offices, shops and apartments – all built in a modern style that would do credit to some of the smarter bits of London. So different from the fight a few of us have had in our local town to get anything other than Disney-esque fake cottages built.

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Apartment in the new quarter being built near the railway station.

It was good to be back in Morges after several years in which we lost our local connection. We did the customary walk along the lakeside, had the ritual (superb) ice cream from our regular kiosk and enjoyed a crêpe lunch in the lovely main street. But the real wealth of the place is simply its superb natural setting, looking across the Lake with its constant animation of paddle steamers, yachts and water-skiers, to a grandstand view of the Mont Blanc massif. It is just as glorious, in a quieter way, in winter.

The problem with Switzerland is that one is daily confronted with one’s ideals made real. Morges is the kind of place I would love my actual home to be, a place where one can imagine putting down deep roots, and feeling really proud of where one lived. Of course it does not do to be taken in purely by physical appearances, but I know the country well enough after a lifetime of visits, to know that Swiss quality is not a sham.

My sense, from being in the country, is of a place that is generally content, stable and reassuring: a place where the balance between what you put into life and what you get out of it is right, where life is lively without often being fraught, where it is possible to live genuinely well. That Switzerland regularly appears at or near the top of global life satisfaction surveys would seem to confirm this.

Maybe it is true that people are conditioned by their environments. All the Swiss need to do, in which case, is to capitalise on what they inherited. And they do. As I said, some places are just naturally blessed.

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Mont Blanc, seen from Morges.

 

Opinion & Thought, Travel

Coming home

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On Eurostar in The Tunnel

I’ve always found coming home difficult. Perhaps it is because for me, home is such an important place. I’ve heard it said that for most of us, it is the one place in the world where we can shape things more or less to our own, unconditional liking. And for us that seems to mean something rather at odds with the norms of the country in which we live. Of course it is well-known that part of the pleasure of going away is the renewed appreciation of home that it brings when you return; perhaps with it can come a resolution to do things a little differently, a little better, inspired by what you saw when you were away… It probably depends on where you’ve been: perhaps sometimes you are just relieved to be back?

But home is a nested concept. At its most intimate, it is the specific building that you inhabit, and in our case we have an extra layer, namely our specific part of the old school house that we share. In another sense, during our recent week in Switzerland, we never left our European home in the first place, something reinforced by the fact that we know that country and a few of its people well enough to consider it home from home.
What gives me the problem is the bit in the middle: the national level. And that is, of course, all the more difficult at the moment given the current state of play in this country.

I think it stems from my thoroughly English up-bringing, at a time between the 1960s and 1980s when European countries were nowhere near as integrated as they have since become, and the sense of superiority that it is now evident has been a part of this nation’s problem was barely identified. It was just an unspoken part of the national narrative.

As I travelled abroad much more often, more widely and for purposes other than conventional holidays, it became clear to me that Britain was not always the enviable place we had always been led to believe. Other places do some things as well, if not better. It is only logical: why should one small island have a monopoly on The Best? It’s nothing other than our own particular national myth – but it seemed so deeply embedded that it was almost invisible. Perhaps that’s the whole point.

Yet as so often, empty vessels make the most noise. I fear that the drum-banging that many in Britain still seem to feel they need to engage in, is a subconscious reaction to the above fact. I wonder how many stop to think – or care – about how this appears from the outside. We spent a week travelling across borders between France, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. Sometimes it was only cursory – such as the evening we had a meal in a Greek restaurant in Germany – a mere 15 minutes’ drive from our friends’ home. The whole thing was unremarkable in the extreme, now that the Schengen Agreement covers all of those countries.

Why, then, on reaching the Eurostar check-in at Lille Europe station, do things so noticeably change? The first things one sees are large boards detailing all of the things that are prohibited on the train. These were followed by notices instructing visitors from Canada, Australia, The USA, Japan and South Korea that they are “granted” leave to visit for six months (how condescending), but that they are not entitled to work or any access to state funds while they are there. Welcome to Britain! As they are only in English, I wonder how many South Koreans take any notice.

One then passes in front of stony-faced Border Force staff (notice the choice of wording in the name) and endures the ritual humiliation of removing watches, belts, loose change and personal technology while struggling to haul luggage up into the X-ray scanners.
Once through this obstacle course, one is assaulted by repeated loud-speaker instructions decreeing insistently what one should and should not do at every moment of one’s progress onto the train. At every point, progress is micro-managed by Eurostar staff. It is not surprising that people start to behave like harassed sheep.

On the train, the same recorded and live loudspeaker instructions persist; perhaps they were just trying to be helpful, but how many people really need to be told to press the door-open button in order to open the door? On arrival at somewhere like Ashford, one hears urgent-sounding announcements telling people that they are not yet in London. At least they are now tri-lingual.

It doesn’t take much to notice the change of culture that such behaviours communicate. One is left with the impression that Britain is still more about keeping people out, and if not that, then treating them like idiots whose every thought and action need to be controlled. I think it is an unconscious extension of the way the authorities and elites in this country perceive the rest of the population. Britain is fundamentally about control, not liberty – even if, thus far, it has generally been achieved by ‘soft’ means.

I have also been told recently that the reason the British government does not want regional services through the Tunnel is that it wants to be able to control entry points closely – and that means keeping them at a few specific places. Who knows? Elsewhere, facilities make it increasingly easy for people to come and go as they please; why should Britain be any different?

I can only wonder at the mindset that still has this view of Britain in the modern world. Where does this assumption that the U.K. must be bulwarked against the outside world come from, in a way that no other European nation seems to think? Just what is it that we have that they are supposedly all intent on stealing? And why do the authorities seem to believe that people in this country need to be controlled and told what to think and do at every turn, rather than liberated to live their own lives?

When I mention such things in conversation, the reply is often that it is “very important” that the country keeps “undesirables” out. Well really? So much more than any other country – some of which are quite possibly far more attractive to migrants than the U.K. And at the cost of the freedom to move of the rest of us? Who told us this? Answer: the same people who put gave the Border FORCE its aggressive name.

From what one overhears in places like Lille station, plenty of other Britons feel about this as I do. And I when I asked one of the French security guards (in French) how he felt about subjecting visitors to Britain to such treatment, he gave me bemused shrug. Those Britons who are in the know can see the idiocy of this mindset: it is the authorities whose thinking is lagging, not us plebs.

At least Eurostar now has interiors that can hold a light to the TGV and ICE – so we needn’t feel quite so like second-class citizens while under the sea. But in between getting off the train and reaching our little haven, we had to cross what increasingly feels like hostile territory, parts of South-East England which despite their physical proximity to the continent, are populated by those who can’t or won’t see what we had just experienced – and perhaps never do. Those who can’t see that Britain’s increasingly scruffy, congested and sometimes-aggressive public realm is not “just like everywhere else – only better”. And we all know what they, and their attitudes, have done to the country.

Then we got home to our apartment, which increasingly feels like a retreat, a little bubble of Europe-inspired sanity adrift on a sea of hostile, xenophobic madness. It’s not anger, but sadness that makes us feel like this – because after all, ultimately, there is no place like home.

Food

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It is often the little things that lift daily life beyond the mundane, and as I’ve written many times eating well, for me, comes pretty high up in that. But doing so depends on being able to source good-quality produce, hopefully without a major trek from home. Good food is always worth the effort – but having it close at hand is hardly unwelcome…

I’m very fortunate that my small town still has a market every Thursday, whose charter dates back to the 13th Century. Within literally one minute’s walk of my front door, I can buy excellent fish, meat, bread, cheese and vegetables – and that is in addition to the local independent food store that we still have. Pleasingly, while the food on offer is diverse, the market itself still has its feet firmly on the ground.

One of the highlights for me is the cheese stall. Martijn Knap  is the owner of The Cheese Wheeler, a motorised Dutch cheese counter that can be found at a number of markets across the northern Home Counties in the course of a week. Martijn is a distinctive character, whose past life has included a stint in the Dutch National Ballet, various top-ranking shows on both sides of the Atlantic and restaurant ownership in London. He also runs a gym. But his best asset so far as I’m concerned is definitely his cheese stall.

This man has unintentionally done much to educate me in the appreciation of cheese, as he stocks many types that I had not encountered previously, from all over the U.K. and Europe. He chooses his suppliers carefully. I am now an afficiado of the various tommes – Savoie, Provence, Pyrenees and more, as well as Vacherin (only seasonally available), Munster and Epoisses, not to mention lesser-known (here) Dutch cheeses such as boerenkaas. Satisfyingly, like many foodstuffs, done properly there is a lot to know, which you will never pick up from a supermarket chiller-cabinet.

Martijn has a wide range of goat and sheep cheeses too, and we live in the knowledge that the raw materials for fondue or raclette are reliably available just round the corner on a weekly basis. Parmesan cut freshly from a round is so much better than shrink-wrapped supermarket offerings. Apparently, British supermarkets often receive the cracked cheeses cut and packaged, that no self-respecting cheese-aware Italian would even contemplate…

Sometimes there is excellent fresh mozzarella from a dairy in London, and occasionally even fresh ricotta. And around Christmas he also has a fantastic range of terrines and pates. I could go on, but I will start feeling hungry.

Predictably, I envy the cheese stalls in continental markets – but with this of all products buying is rather restricted when one is away, since they don’t exactly go well in hand luggage. All the more reason to appreciate little gems like Martijn’s stall when you are lucky enough to have them on your doorstep.

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