As I was trundling up Knocklofty in the dark and feeling the crunch of snow beneath my hind paws, I was suddenly transported back to Bern, early morning walks in the dark there, the crunch of oak and beech leaves crisp with frost -and I was humming.
I don’t really call it Bern, or even less Berne. I call it Bärn – pronounced like ‘ban’ – except the ‘a’ is drawn out – as if you were leaping off one of the city’s bridges ‘aaaaaah’. And you have to insert about three ‘r’s that roll like the current of the Aare, the river which hurtles round the city and corsets it into a tight ‘U’. That is Bärn.
Now the Switzerland I got to know when I was small mole was deeply conservative. Baths were not to be run, nor lavatories flushed after 9pm. It was forbidden to do the washing on a Sunday and compulsory to clear the sheets and clothes from the communal drying rooms. Switzerland was deeply regulated and also deeply patriotic. No irregular rectangle for their flag, but a square: red with a white cross – and it was everywhere; as were images of gentians, edelweiss and mountain roses. Songs were about mountains, and jolly millers climbing them. Beating their chests, I imagine, and probably yodelling when they reach the summits. On our regular school outing we were cajoled up these same mountains like columns of soldiers. Fidiri, Fidira, Fidiralala…, we sang as we marched uphill in pairs – or wheezed in my case. The experience asphyxiated something in my moleheart. I felt encaged by mountains and longed for the sea and shabby chaos our family had left behind. Lalalala-ha-ha-ha-la, Juhe.
The song I found myself humming as I trundled up Knocklofty this week was quite a different kettle of fish. I first heard it when I was a slightly older mole and beginning to fidget at the confines of the parental burrow. I first heard it one evening when I took a tram into sleepy, buttoned-up Bern and discovered Bärn. It was hidden, not behind its beautiful facades, but deep underground, down steep steps descending from trapdoors off the cobbled streets. They were always dark, these spaces, thick with smoke. You had to feel your way for somewhere to sit, usually the rough stone floor.
Just a chap on a wooden chair with a guitar. Mani Matter, law student by day and troubadour by night.
Our schooling was all in German. Anyone who wanted to be taken seriously wrote and spoke in German. Bärndütsch was seen as backward. But Mani Matter sang in this local dialect. He and a like-minded group were determined to wrestle the language from the stranglehold of sentimental Heimat prose and platitude, and bring it to life with irony, philosophical thinking and robust debate.
His songs were gentle, witty little stories sung to jaunty tunes. And they contained nuggets.
The song* I was humming as I trundled up Knocklofty is a story in which the narrator is walking home one night when he sees a man approaching the parliamentary buildings with dynamite. Is he really about to blow them up he asks. Yes, it has to be, let anarchy reign. As a good citizen the narrator feels duty-bound to do something. His fear makes him eloquent. He espouses the state, the hard won values of freedom and democracy. In a speech that ‘would have made a horse patriotic’, he moves the anarchist to tears. Danger is averted and the anarchist slinks off.
But at home in bed the narrator runs through his speech again. Doubts begin to eat away at his convictions. Was he right to praise Switzerland like that? Now the doubts grow each time he passes the parliament, and he can’t help thinking that all it would take is a couple of sacks of dynamite.
It was this song, allowing doubt to enter what for me had been an impenetrable cultural narrative, that allowed me to embrace my adoptive city. It sowed the seed of a deep love for Bärn, and a way of questioning that stays with me here and now, the other side of the world.