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Tales from the Frontier - No. 10
What a strange thing man is; and what a stranger thing woman - Lord Byron
One thing Byron did know a lot about was ‘strangeness’. He was wildly unconventional for his time. He behaved as he wanted. If there had been a Georgian #metoo campaign he would have topped the poll for the number of accusers. Men and women. Not that he didn’t have a lot of satisfied customers as well. He would have slotted in here better than he apparently did in England – what is usual in this place is the unusual. Border towns encourage a variety of people and plenty of odd behaviours.
Obviously the three main nationalities predominate: the orderly Germans, the stylish French and the acquisitive Swiss. But currently there are also any number of immigrants who have made the journey from various lands south of the Mediterranean. What do they find ‘strange’?
‘Strangeness’ is difficult to define because it depends upon your standpoint. For example, what could be more strange for someone coming from the windswept desert-like land of the South Sudan than a grown man in funny coloured trousers chasing a small white ball merely to bash it often enough to drive it into a small hole in the ground? And these comically clad people purposely build large pockets of sand in a green fertile land.
I guess the funny coloured clothes wouldn’t alarm African and Indian ladies, who celebrate a wide assortment of gay patterns in their dress. Coats of many colours don’t signify for haute-couture conscious French damsels who strive to find exactly the correct shade of accessory to match their costume. Many of the lady members of our golf club have matching grips, gloves, bags, wooden tees, and head covers which blend nicely with their slacks and polo shirts. Their object seems to be to look enchanting and to navigate the course with a minimum of creasing and wrinkling to their natty outfits. Most Arabic ladies have no such problem: black goes with everything, they don’t play golf, and a non-ironed burka doesn’t look out of place anywhere.
What must seem odd to many foreigners from male dominated societies is that it is the men not the local women shoppers who lug the heavy carrier bags and struggle with the laden wire trolleys. In the Middle East I have seen a woman with a five gallon jar on her head, leading a goat and several children, a jumble of kindling stuffed under her arm, following her husband who was trying to look important whilst managing to multitask waggling a camel stick and simultaneously chewing qat. A local man’s place on the border is not so clear cut or so easy.
The Swiss lady, if accompanied by a husband taking a break from bank duties, carries the important purse and doles out the franken. The male’s job is to shepherd the purchases. You can understand why a Chelsea tractor is necessary to accommodate the contents of several crammed supermarket trolleys.
The French ladies don’t carry anything in case it chips their nail varnish. All right, maybe a pigskin Gucci or suede Chanel handbag. Their chaps scurry around like sheepdogs manoeuvring a flock whilst juggling packages from the better shops. Their ornamental partners stand about posing and looking good. These lasses must really hate it when they have to climb into a tinny Citroen or Renault when others have the pleasure of sliding onto the soft leather seat of a classy BMW or Mercedes.
The Germans seem good at sharing tasks, which is not surprising since many of their womenfolk are as powerfully built as the men and sometimes more aggressive. Beer and würst puts hair on the chest. The independent frau is a good example for the newcomers.
Immigrant women are beginning to find their feet, which are increasingly less hidden by floor-length shapeless black. Jobs are hard to come by but more and more supermarket checkouts bleep at the hands of a lady whose customers have never heard of the foreign currency she was familiar with at school. It was rather odd the other day coming out of a shop where seven of the nine women shoppers or staff were wearing headscarves and yet within sight were three different hairdressing salons – all busy. You wonder if the ladies are sad that so few get to admire their neat new coiffures.
Odder perhaps are the many examples of Thai massage parlours in the area. Or perhaps not so odd since the average male border dweller’s body has an abundance of flesh that would benefit greatly from being pounded into shape by an expert masseur or masseuse. Paying to get beaten up is probably a status symbol for the Swiss who admire anyone with currency to spend. Money promotes strange habits.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 9
Byron’s ‘the place’ doesn’t exist in the real world. Few young children I’ve ever met would recognise the concept of ‘low voice’ and not one would apply it.
The place is very well and quiet and the children only scream in a low voice - Lord Byron
The other night everyone was restfully banging out the zeds under their duvets. Peace reigned. One child, age undetermined, went off like a siren heralding an assault by a squadron of bombers. Everyone noticed. None of us had noticed when the kid fell asleep in the first place but we all were aware when the sleeping discontinued. This seems very unfair. Sound engineers need to research the nature of silence and make it more aggressive. We’ve all been disturbed by a sudden crashing sound but never overwhelmed by an unexpected blast of quiet.
Generally speaking our little enclave of maybe fifty families is ‘very well and quiet’ and Lord Byron’s observation would fit the bill. But very intermittently. The interruptions are legion and like the Romans of that name they make their presence felt. Peace may be shattered in a variety of ways.
The Hausmeister is responsible for the building’s upkeep and also for the surrounding gardens. Unhappily he is something of an equipment nut. He has a machine for everything and they are all driven by what sounds like turbo-props. He has grass cutters, hedge trimmers, leaf blowers, rollers, rotor-cultivators, insecticide sprayers and a diesel van to load and off-load them. He likes to flash them up in the early morning following a televised sporting event on the US west coast. Witnessing a transmission of the final round of golf in Pebble Beach or the end of the Superbowl means crawling into bed in the advanced early hours of the morning – just about the same time as our Hausmeister is getting out of his pit and heading towards the hangar that houses his latest mechanical toy.
The variety of gardening equipment is matched by the variety of games that are played by the youngsters in the central area between the flats. A large chess or chequers board is integrated in the central flagstone design but no modern child plays these silent, contemplative games. The kids indulge in football, cricket, tag or anything that involves pounding feet, shouts, cries and appeals. Screaming in a low voice is one of the skills yet to be learned. Screaming in three and four part harmony seems to have been mastered. Even hopscotch appears to engage the vocal chords rather more than might be expected. One Indian family plays makeshift cricket using a wheelie bin as stumps. The three boys are no great shakes but the young girl bats like a Big Bash or IPL star and the tennis ball thuds round the walls in every direction. She has great skill because so far we have not been treated to the shattering sounds of an imploding window or glass balcony door.
Grown-ups aren’t left out. We have, as multi-culti Germany does have, a decent percentage of Turkish folk living here and they do like to get married. Weddings always involve drums and a very big noisy penny whistle (I don’t believe this is the technical term) which has a wail designed to levitate cobras from wicker baskets. The bridal conga takes place round and round the chess board and the songs without words possess at least a hundred verses. The building walls are designed to keep the music from escaping and reflect it and amplify it in every direction. I’ve been in concert halls with less effective acoustics. The celebrants then drive off in a fleet of flag-bedecked cars honking wildly all the way down the road.
The direction and strength of the wind is important when it comes to noise level. To the north is the football ground and although the attendance is roughly the same as a Commons debate on rural drainage, the crowd is rarely heard; the screams however, resulting from mistimed tackles, carry easily on a light breeze. To the distant west lies the airport and with only a medium-sized gale the Easyjets can be heard revving-up and taking off. In the opposite direction is the railway goods yard and the long line of empty freight wagons belting out of Switzerland rattle like Jacob Marley and his chains. If there is a fog and no wind then the occasional blast of a foghorn from a barge ploughing up the Rhine gives mournful accompaniment to the Hammer House of Horrors mistiness.
Ambient noise is a problem of the past for most inhabitants in this town. I strolled to the local Lidl recently, which is packed with Swiss marauders (see TFTF – No. 2), and at least half of them were plugged into mini headsets. I made a face at a passing baby and elicited a howl of rage but not one person connected to Spotify, Pandora or Apple Music even raised their eyes. I wonder if Byron was listening to his inner music when he was in ‘the place’.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 8
The poor dog, in life the firmest friend, the first to welcome, the foremost to defend - Lord Byron
It’s always dangerous to mention animals on social media or any kind of public forum. Reactions can be unexpected and vitriolic. Some animals lovers don’t seem to feel anything for humans.
Most of us only closely encounter animals in the form of household pets. (A trip to the zoo to see the elephants and lions isn’t really an encounter although a petting zoo probably qualifies). Matadors, wild-life vets (see footnote) and Crocodile Dundees don’t qualify in the ‘most of us’ category. The ‘most of us’ world is divided into three groups:
- those who love animals inordinately;
- those who’ll pat your dog, stroke your cat,then immediately forget about them;
- and those who are frightened of, or dislike pets hanging around their ankles.
Tales from the Frontier - No. 7
Switzerland is a curst, selfish, swinish country of brutes, placed in the most romantic region of the world - Lord Byron
I think his Lordship is being a trifle unkind to the inhabitants of the land of William Tell and the Geneva Convention. But only a trifle. Why did he come to this harsh judgement? Did a lady from Berne resist his charms or one of his Zurich-bought insurance policies refuse to pay out? What was the explanation for his anti-Helvetian ire? He liked the snow-capped mountains well enough, but must have been convinced the lush valleys were occupied by a very unprepossessing class of peasant.
Maybe he was a touch liverish because he had recently split up from his wife of barely a year. She was Baroness Wentworth and being named after a golf course is known to be off-putting for a sensitive young poet. She might have been named after an American course and be Baroness Whistling Straits or Baroness Brickyard Crossing so it could have been much worse. But the Swiss could hardly be held responsible for his wife’s moniker.
He left England under a bit of a cloud. He was apparently dallying with his half-sister (not illegal but frowned on by the sister-less majority and presumably by the lady Wentworth), only to encounter a bigger continental cloud.
In Switzerland in mid-June it was almost perpetual rain due to an ash-laden volcanic eruption in Indonesia the previous year resulting in 1816 being named, ‘the year without summer’. Switzerland in cold rain can be almost as depressing as the Ruhr valley in any weather. (Maybe the real reason the Dambusters had a go at drowning it).
‘Wandering lonely as a cloud’ or the Byronic equivalent is no joy with rain coming down like stair rods. Icy water tops up your wellies, and your Young Romantics hairdo gets flattened resulting in it resembling large road kill. As a dedicated philanderer our George knew that looking like a rioter strafed by water cannon wouldn’t elicit a welcoming response from the local people. Being a wordsmith, ‘curst’ is probably the politest word he used as upper lips began to curl when he squelched into view. I write ‘people’ rather than ‘ladies’ because George was known to swing both ways and contempt for his sodden appearance would have been bipartisan. If the people weren’t ‘brutes’ they would have given the poor man a rub down and a hot toddy.
He and his team, including Mary Shelley before she married Percy Bysshe, did do a lot of wandering and Byron admired the ‘romantic region’ after clambering up and down a few mountains despite the weather. Byron had a lifelong propensity to seek ideal perfection in all of life’s experiences. He would have found plenty of that in the glorious mountains of the Bernese Oberland and the Alps but the inhabitants themselves certainly fell well short of ‘perfect’. The fact that Mary Shelley’s idea for Frankenstein’s monster was engendered in Switzerland is possibly coincidental. I have noticed a few flat heads but no eight-footers with neck bolts.
The Swiss, where Byron was staying near Geneva, are rather different from the Swiss on the other side of the border from here. There they tend to be more French than German and as an English aristocrat, Byron knew it was his duty to feel superior to, and disapprove of, the French. Presumably Swiss-French would have merited twofold rejection. Being doubly foreign and half-French has absolutely nothing going for it.
Byron was only in Switzerland for about four months so his judgement as well as being harsh was speedily arrived at. The few locals he did meet were probably just as wet and grumpy as he was and were more interested in getting into something warm and dry rather than chatting to a man reported to be, ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. They wouldn’t be too concerned as to what his Lordship thought of them since at this time he had no money to invest.
As his comment above shows, he was not in the airiest of moods or at his most charitable during his stay. It was about this time that he wrote Manfred and that is far from being a bubbly light-hearted piece – rather an accompaniment for a wrist slitting session. Not the kind of prose to appeal to the Swiss where the finest writing is reckoned to be that adorning high denomination banknotes.