Well, that wasn’t meant to happen: falling a bit in love with Switzerland, that is.
It didn’t start well. I noted, at Zürich Hauptbahnhof, that there were smoking lounges dotted around the place, which was great, but the one I went into to kill time was attached to a bar and a rather bossy lady came in to tell me that I had to buy something or leave.
I don’t like being told to do things, even consume alcohol, so I smoked my cigarette to the end. I also find it disconcerting to be bossed around by someone with tattoos. Then, still with another twenty void minutes, I decided I did want a beer after all and went in again and ordered one. After paying for it, I realised that at these prices I could probably afford about two more beers over the course of the weekend.
When I got to Bellinzona, the venue for the Babel festival of literature and translation, I noticed that the train had arrived 26 minutes earlier than the timetable I’d been given had said it would. This threw me into panic. If there is one thing in the world that’s meant to be reliable, it’s a Swiss railway timetable, and I looked wildly up and down the platform to see if this was some regional variant on Bellinzona, the kind of thing that makes local people roll their eyes at confused foreigners – and I knew I had about ten seconds, for Swiss trains do not hang about, to make my mind up.
In the end I dashed out of the train, and there was the hotel, just where the organisers said it would be, across the road from the station, and with my reservation and everything.
Things got worse when I got to the reception and found myself surrounded by writers. I can’t stand writers en masse. The collective noun is, I think, a smugness. And they were all European, and I felt like a provincial, a hick. The place was positively lifting with poets. Until I found the man carving off slices of prosciutto in the corner, I wasn’t enjoying the buffet very much. I went to bed at nine.
And then the next day it all fell into place. The weather was glorious, it was market day and there was a man playing a barrel organ with a toy monkey in front of it, a folk band with old folks dancing, and – a detail which had escaped or been withheld from me earlier – a per diem. Thirty Swiss francs is not a sum to be sneezed at; but still, when I and the writer Kate Clanchy went to the recommended restaurant, there was no inclination to make a suave impression: we blatantly scoured the menu for the cheapest thing that might fill us up. It was pizza.
We were joined by Don Paterson, the Scottish poet who, now that Geoffrey Hill is no longer with us, is my favourite living poet in the UK. This unnerved me, but not too much: the day before leaving I’d filed a review of his latest, which, thank God, I had praised. And although his face in repose looks as though someone has just told him his dog has died, he is, in fact, enormously good company.
But the great surprise was seeing Linton Kwesi Johnson. LKJ, for reasons that I hope I do not have to belabour, stands out somewhat in Switzerland, but I still had to double-check in the programme when I saw him sitting outside the hotel, having a smoke. I went up to him and murmured that I’m a fan (and have been since about 1979), shook his hand and then left. Later that day I saw him pack out the theatre with a reading that was extraordinarily powerful.
The same evening, at dinner, one of the organisers noticed an empty seat next to me and asked if Linton Kwesi Johnson could sit there. “Of course,” I said, though I think it came out as “squeak squeak”.
And what a decent bloke he is. I’ve seen him play venues which count their audience sizes by the ten thousand, and here he was, in this town, which can be traversed in ten minutes, playing to an audience of about 150, at most, and most remarkably, as far as I was concerned, talking to me. One does not imagine Kanye West, say, doing the same kind of thing.
And then there are the Swiss. The Italian Swiss. (There are parts of Italy that are further north than Bellinzona.) They are smart and funny, they can organise a festival, they’re not too hung up on timekeeping, and, as Mr Paterson and I dismally observed, they’re on average significantly better-looking than the British. The scenery is also OK, to put it mildly.
So, why is this column called “Down and Out”? Because I’m now back in London, and it’s rubbish.
This article appears in the 28 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories