May 29, 2010 12:16 am

The Diary: Jonathan Coe

The award-winning novelist on the punctuality of Swiss trains, the hissing of iPods, and why Britain always falls short

At 17:12 sharp, the train pulls out of Lugano. All the clichés you can think of about the punctuality of Swiss trains are true. I settle into my seat and roll up my sleeves against the stickiness of the Sunday afternoon heat. I’ve just come up to the station by funicular, after pushing my way through the crowds promenading by the side of the lake, and although it’s a relief to have gained the sanctuary of the train at last, I miss the cool air that was coming off the water.

Earlier this morning I was in Chiasso, on the Swiss-Italian border, and everybody I spoke to thought I was mad when I told them I was returning to London by train. Or rather, they all thought I was doing it as a precaution against the Icelandic ash. When I told them that this wasn’t the reason, and that I simply preferred the thought of 10 hours on a train to two hours on an aeroplane, they nodded in polite agreement, clearly ascribing it to a sort of harmless and charming English eccentricity. Perhaps, if you live your whole life in the midst of a landscape of astonishing beauty, you start to take it for granted, and forget that a stranger might jump at the chance of passing through it at closer quarters.

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The other reason, I suppose, is that I just need to rediscover the pleasures of travel. I get increasingly stressed out by airports, the fluster of taking off your belt and shoes to get through security, the weary anxiety of watching the departure board for the inevitable delays. Instead, the leisured progress of this train offers an almost sensual pleasure. We’re scheduled to arrive in Basel at 20:53. As we glide through the Alps, a soothing rhythm establishes itself: the enveloping darkness of Alpine tunnels succeeded by sudden vistas of lakes and snow-dusted mountains so lovely that even the family of American holidaymakers sitting beside me occasionally glance up from the movies on their iPods and iPhones.

The light is fading as we pull into Basel and come to the gentlest but most satisfying of halts, like the firm pianissimo that closes the Honegger symphony I’ve been listening to for the past half hour. The station clock informs me that the time is 20:53 precisely.

. . .

It was the fourth symphony I’d been listening to on the train: the one subtitled “Deliciae Basiliensis”, Honegger’s wistful, feathery tribute to a city that he loved. The next morning, I have just a couple of hours to check out those delights for myself. An eerie quiet hangs over the city, perhaps because today is a public holiday in Switzerland, although I suspect it may be typical of Basel at eight in the morning. At any rate, I can’t find anywhere to have breakfast (apart from Starbucks). Never mind: I cross the river over the Mittlere Rheinbrücke and stroll along the north bank for half an hour. The sunlight on the water dazzles and it’s enough just to daydream, for a while, about what it would be like to live in one of those massive, stately merchants’ houses on the opposite bank, rising out of the water as if they’ve been growing there for centuries.

. . .

Next leg: Basel to Paris Est. Three and a half hours. We leave the station at 10:02 and I reflect that this time yesterday morning, I was just gearing myself up to address the festival audience in Chiasso. The feeling you get when you step up on to the stage in front of that sea of inscrutable, expectant faces never changes, and the same moment from a movie always comes to my mind. It’s the scene towards the end of Rear Window, when Raymond Burr has made his way to James Stewart’s apartment, and the first words he speaks to him, in the dark, are: “What do you want from me?”

Italian audiences tend to be warm, voluble and enthusiastic. This was a Swiss-Italian audience, though, which complicated things slightly. I wasn’t previously familiar with this distinctive corner of Europe, where two radically different cultures collide and appear to sustain a wry, good-humoured co-existence. Just across the Italian border was Como: the place where (I was repeatedly told) George Clooney has his house, and where super-wealthy Italians settle, giving the towns a stolid, pro-Berlusconi flavour. In Chiasso, too, the scent of money was everywhere in the air, the festival itself being part-funded by Swiss banks. Even the lakes and the valleys, for all their beauty, felt somehow privatised.

The event went well, and I was signing books for ages afterwards, but something in me still shrinks from these public encounters. They’re the precise opposite of what writing is supposed to be about. As my train now pushes its way towards Strasbourg, I try to get back to basics, taking out a writing pad and making some notes. Those couple of hours in Basel have inspired me, and trains are perfect places to work: it’s something about the way the landscape unfurls, an ever-changing backdrop that occupies the eye but never compels your attention for long.

The only problem this morning is the guy behind me, with his iPod turned up too loud. Here it goes: the click and fizz of a drum machine, pulsing away at 160bpm. I can hear the thump of the snare, as well, and suddenly I’m reminded of my beloved Arthur Honegger again. In his 1951 book I Am A Composer, he offered these predictions about the state of popular music at the end of the 20th century: “Noise benumbs our ears, and I truly believe that a few years from now we shall detect no differences except between large intervals. Rhythmic shock increasingly plays the predominant role and no longer the sensual delight in melody. Before the end of the century we shall have a very scanty and barbaric music, combining a rudimentary melody with brutally stressed rhythms – marvellously suited to the atrophied ears of the music lovers of the year 2000!”

Not far wrong, was he?

. . .

And so, the Eurostar at last. The home stretch. I suppose if we have any space in which French and British cultures collide, as the Swiss and Italians do at Chiasso, it would be on this train.

Too tired to write now. My eyes glaze over as the train speeds through the last stretches of French countryside, whizzes through the tunnel and, then, as it approaches St Pancras, falters, slows down and stutters to a series of short, unexplained stops. But of course – this is Britain: world leader in the field of anti-climax, of missed opportunities. Think of the much-hyped “river of fire” at the millennium celebrations, which never actually happened. Think of this year’s World Cup squad, which is inevitably going to raise our hopes to breaking point before getting knocked out in the quarter finals in an agonising, protracted penalty shoot-out. That’s the British way, nowadays. Striving for greatness and perfection but always falling short at the last minute. So it seems entirely typical that only now, at the very end of my journey, should the train be late. Eleven minutes late. Welcome home.

Jonathan Coe’s ‘The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim’ (Viking, £12.99) is published on June 3

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