Train trouble

‘Every holiday of my childhood was spent either looking at art or making it. I remain helpless to resist the pull of the landscape on one side and lure of galleries on the other’

Daisy Dunn

“The trains are never a minute late,” a friend promises before I leave. “Everything in Switzerland works, well, like clockwork.” I begin to doubt this when the carriage empties at some forlorn station miles from where we’re headed. Passengers glide down the stairs from the upper level in total silence. Even their dogs are silent.

I’ve come to the mountains for a bit of a break ahead of a busy few months only to find myself on another commuter platform. And it’s freezing. The temperature has dropped more than 20 degrees overnight and snow is now falling lightly over the tracks. As if the scene could be any more cinematic, a hundred or more boys in army uniform suddenly appear out of nowhere.

Military service is mandatory for men in Switzerland. Normally it begins when they’re 18, but many of these seem younger, chatting in colloquial German as we watch for a replacement train. When a referendum was held to abolish conscription six years ago, almost three-quarters of the population voted against it.

While we’re here, a decision is taken by the Swiss supreme court to overturn the result of another referendum, this one held in 2016, to propose that married and cohabiting couples should pay the same tax. The court rules that the public did not have sufficient information when 50.8 per cent decided against the proposal, and that there should be a second vote. My confidence is restored. Two minutes later and we’re speeding past the boys in green.


Lucerne is like a dreamscape, ice blue, even on what turns out to be a hot day. Between the lake and the Alps and the magnificent Chapel Bridge, I feel as if I’m on the cover of a Caran d’Ache tin. Every holiday of my childhood was spent either looking at art or making it. When your parents are artists, a “holiday” or “bit of a break” is merely a change of scene and reason to buy a new sketchbook. I remain helpless to resist the pull of the landscape on one side and lure of galleries on the other.

My stepfather, himself the child of artists, learned to swim in Lake Lucerne. I imagine this was as much a lesson in colour as it was in survival. The water looks so cold that only the palest pencil could do it justice. No paddling today. The Picassos in the Rosengart Collection glow with that warm Cannes light that is the very antithesis of this.

When Mark Twain visited in the 1890s, he complained of tourists, but everyone seems to be outside, leaving the galleries empty. In the paperback we’ve brought with us, Twain writes of a lion carved out of a Lucerne rock face. There is an “indescribable something”, he says, that makes this colossal dying beast “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world”. There’s not a child standing beneath it who doesn’t long to hop onto his back and save him.


It’s refreshing to see toddlers playing outside because childhood isn’t what it once was. If children aren’t on their iPads they’re being ferried to one activity or another—tennis on Mondays, piano Tuesdays, Kumon Wednesdays—no time for doing nothing. I feel sad when I see youngsters showboating on Britain’s Got Talent or Child Genius. Life isn’t a competition, but they’d be forgiven for thinking it was, priming themselves for “battle” from which their opponents will be “eliminated”. Their confidence is either shattered or elevated to such a pitch that they can only fall down.

The impetus is coming from above. When adults are shouting from the rooftops—from Twitter, LinkedIn and the rest—it’s natural that children should follow. How things have changed. No one dreamed of trumpeting their achievements when I was at school. Christ, we’d do anything to conceal them. I remember a few of us being packed off at the age of ten to sit tests for Mensa. No one spoke of their results or declared themselves geniuses then. A piece of paper and tiny gold pin provided reassurance you could cling to in private. That was enough.


Home from Switzerland, I push on with the publicity for my Pliny book. There’s a podcast to record for Dan Snow’s History Hit, notes to prepare for Hay, and the audiobook to record. I’m reading the author’s note, but not the book itself. That task falls to the actor Mike Grady, who does it beautifully, with just the voices you’d imagine the Plinys to have had.

In the studios, I’m amused to find a group of friendly twentysomethings beside a screen showing a not very enticing beach. There are now websites that link to thousands of webcams around the world. Some will show you the live view outside a famous museum or monument, but others make you feel like a voyeur. I doubt most people on this Genoese beach have a clue that they are being watched as they towel themselves down and shake sand from their shorts. Still, they have the privilege of being a talking point in a room in north London, which is something.

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