11 JANUARY 1992, Page 7


Reflections after a short sojourn in Switzerland at Christmas-time


On my return from eight days spent in Lucerne over the Christmas season, one of my brothers-in-law (I shall not reveal which since, like all of them, he occupies an emi- nent position in his own world) remarked that on every visit to Switzerland he felt a strong urge to deface the public buildings with an obscene slogan about some English football team or other. I quote him because his remark seems typical of the English atti- tude towards the Swiss, which is one of his- torical and cultural superiority, well illus- trated by Graham Greene's famous joke about cuckoo-clocks in The Third Man.

It occurs to me to wonder whether there is any significance in the accident that Greene, like Nabokov, chose to end his days in Switzerland. In fact, I was assured in Lucerne that the Swiss did not invent the cuckoo-clock and do not manufacture them now. All the cuckoo-clocks for sale in the tourist shops are imported from Germany, where they were invented and are still made in the Black Forest, home of Black- pool's famous gateau.

At any rate, this country of 6.5 million has just celebrated its 700th birthday, and it seemed a good opportunity to escape from the Police Terror in Britain. From Saturna- lia to Christian festival to drunken chil- dren's party, Christmas has now degenerat- ed into a celebration of State power in Britain.

We were lent the palatial villa of an immensely rich Swiss publisher and his Widow, recently dead, on a hill over the Palace Hotel, with views of Mount Pilatus across the lake. The house was full of their photographs and other belongings — every time one opened a cupboard, 20 hats fell out — and I spent the first few days laugh- ing helplessly at the poignancy of the thought of anyone being born, living all their days and dying in Switzerland. An Indian in the Bihar desert might make just such an impression on the world's history. I ended my stay with a profound respect for the Swiss; admiration and envy combined with a suspicion that they might have dis- covered the answer to most of life's present problems.

Jan Morris, in an interesting article recently for the Times Saturday Review which half expressed the hope that the end of history might be Swissness, suggested that the English found Switzerland's neu- trality in two world wars sufficient proof of that country's cowardice, escapism or sim- ple wetness. I wonder how that criticism stands up since our own ludicrous involve- ment in America's Gulf war against the tiny desert state of Iraq. Does not neutrality begin to look like rather an attractive option?

As I inspected all those clean young women and friendly, well-mannered young men in leather jackets and jeans, with silly little moustaches which do nothing for any- thing, I began to see her point of view.

Switzerland is probably the best defended country in the world, with every square yard gridded on Swiss army artillery maps and able to be bombarded at a moment's notice. The Swiss army itself, famous for its penknives, demands the annual attendance of every male citizen up to the age of 50; all keep rifles and ammunition in their homes, which may explain the absence of burglars and the generally respectful demeanour of the Swiss police, who see themselves as public servants rather than gauleiteis appointed by an occupying power, on the English model.

The Swiss do not flaunt their wealth but they are very, very rich. After a few days, I found that the expensiveness of things becomes a pleasure in itself. For dinner on Christmas Eve, we bought two loups de mer or sea bass. They cost £46. On another day, I decided to take our little party of five across the lake on a ferry-boat and up Mount Rigi, about 12 miles away, by funic- ular. The tickets for this little expedition came to £112. Tingling with pleasure and admiration at the expense of it all, we final- ly settled in our seats in the empty cabin only to be approached by the ticket inspec- tor to say this was the first-class cabin. As holders of second-class tickets, we would have to sit below deck.

One of my sons noticed that none of the shops was advertising a sale, no shop win- dow promotion suggested that anything was a bargain. This is reasonable enough, since everything is very expensive indeed, but the whole bargain-hunting syndrome. so pow- erful in American and British marketing, seems entirely absent from the Swiss men- tality. The whole of Switzerland seems designed to discourage the poorer class of European visitor. Wine, which is light but delicious, is almost unbelievably expensive; I have always believed that people enjoy good wine even more if they know it is expensive. In the course of eight days I dis- covered many new pleasures — an excel- lent snail soup in the Wiener Café of the National Hotel, a bollito misto which included generous helpings of osso bucco, raclette, a wonderful national dish, much better than fondue. But perhaps the most delightful was the city of Berne. Nobody had ever told me that it was one of the glo- ries of Europe, with its arcaded streets, its trams, its polychrome 17th-century statues and music coming out of every church and café.

But then very few people, quite probably, have ever been there, because it is so expensive. That is what protects Switzer- land from what has happened to Britain, America and, to some extent, to the rest of Europe, even more than its admirable army with its world-famous penknife. Sitting over cups of hot chocolate (£4 each) in a café, I reflected that some people undoubtedly enjoy the company of the poor, whether out of Christian charity or some perversity of choice. Christmas is the traditional time to brood about them, and it is quite right to reflect that by no means all of them are irredeemably vile, covering their areas with obscene graffiti about football teams. Many of them are people who simply do not have one's own advantages in life: poor, dear Jolliffe; dear, dear Booker.

Even though Christmas is the time of year for having charitable thoughts about the poor, I could not help reflecting, as I sipped my £4 cup of hot chocolate in Berne, that there are solid advantages, even from the point of view of one's immortal soul, in reflecting about the poor from a safe distance. Berne is possibly the only place in the world where one can be absolutely certain not to meet Jolliffe or Booker, let alone any of the lager-swilling heroes who are missed by my brother-in- law. These are perhaps the only pleasures one has to deny oneself in this otherwise blessed land.

The simple truth is that Switzerland rep- resents the high point of liberal, bourgeois,

humane -Western culture at its extreme

counterpoint to the proletarian-populist New-Brit culture which Thatcher-Tebbit and Murdoch-Neil have to promote. We are approaching a century when it will be hard to convince ourselves we have a des- tiny to exercise dominion over palm and pine. To ask the question: What is life's pur- pose? rather presupposes, in my view, that life has no purpose. If I am right, then Switzerland is the answer.