Of Locomotives and Old Wood
From The Point:
In the Fifties as today, there is nothing to be done in Mürren but listen to silence, broken only by the habitual click-clack and whirr of the brown electric train. There are no cars (there is no road up the mountain) and only 426 inhabitants. Mürren’s hotels—seven, by my count—have nearly fifteen hundred beds, but these are hardly ever full, especially in summer, when my dad liked to go.
As a child in the 1950s, my dad was struck by how Switzerland seemed untouched by the war. The hotels were still “old, solid wood everywhere,” he wrote. The trains were methodical, technologically stunning, and a wonderful exception to Europe’s otherwise demolished infrastructure. Dad’s favorite quotation—one he managed to sneak into nearly every lecture he gave—was Harry Lime in The Third Man: “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” He read this as a compliment.
But when I read his work, it becomes difficult for me to distinguish between Dad’s childhood idea of Mürren and his adult one. When he was a child, Mürren might have offered him an escape from all the usual schoolboy alienations; perhaps it meant refuge from London; or perhaps it was simply a beautiful vacation spot that his father loved. When he began to study the history of twentieth-century Europe, though, I suspect Mürren took on a different role. My dad chose to become a historian of his own land in his own time. He remained perpetually at work: his source base was the world around him, always there, right under his nose. I suspect that Mürren became a place for my dad to turn off his historical radar; a beacon of childhood nostalgia, yes, but also of profound academic relief. If nothing happens, there is no history to be done.