Before my dad died in August 2010, he had begun work on his next book. “The time has come,” he had decided, “to write about more than just the things one understands; it is just as important if not more so to write about the things one cares about.” The thing my dad understood was twentieth-century European history. The thing he cared about—more than almost anything or anyone—was trains. His next book would be titled Locomotion: a history of the railway.
He spent his Putney, London childhood riding trains to nowhere in particular, just for the sake of riding. On summer days, he took the quaint suburban electric railway around suburbs and lumpy British hills, then back to Clapham Junction, where he picked his ride home from a row of grunting diesels and majestic old steamers that shuffled along nineteen different platforms. I spent my childhood listening to these wistful remembrances, trying to imagine eight-year-old Tony peering out onto a dark and smoggy London.
Whenever he could, Dad took us railroading through Europe. We would board at the Gare du Nord, with its serpentine TGVs, or the Gare du Midi, with its blue and yellow boxy Belgian locals, or Paddington, with its rows of channel-hopping Eurostars. We always arrived early so Dad could sip a double-espresso in the main hall.
If stations were his “cathedrals,” as my dad once wrote, timetables were his Bible. “My Europe is measured in train time,” he wrote. I distinctly remember the Christmas when Mom got him a Cook’s European train timetable, stuffed with up-to-date minutiae on the comings-and-goings of even the most local lines. It sat on his bedside table for months. My dad, ever the social democrat and in most respects fiercely egalitarian, took great pleasure in the fact that trains would not wait for anyone. “Rail travel,” he wrote, “was decidedly public transport.”
The other reason my dad cared so much about the railway’s effect on time was that rail travel was decidedly historical. “The truly distinctive feature of modern life,” he wrote, “is neither the unattached individual nor the unconstrained state. It is what comes in between them: society.” The advent of the railway marked this historical turn. Riding a train became the physical embodiment of a society moving collectively—not just through space, but through time.
This was the metaphor for trains that the historian Tony Judt, perhaps with a healthy dose of deformation professionelle, firmly held. What strikes me when I read him on railroads, though, is how his writing bears strikingly little resemblance to the man I grew up with—Tony as a private individual, and as a father. For that Tony, the railway was decidedly solitary and ahistorical. The two trains he cared about the most—one in a tiny Swiss town called Mürren, the other in a slightly larger but also tiny Vermont town called Rutland—were not about going somewhere collectively. They were a way to enter a state of timelessness where the past didn’t matter—where history didn’t exist.
To get to Mürren, you have to take the train. From Lauterbrunnen, a small valley town dappled with sun that glints off mountain glaciers, a cable car rocks you gently up a cliff side to Grütschalp. From Grütschalp, a dinky, light-brown single-carriage electric snakes slowly along the mountainside, stopping only at Winteregg—a stereotypically Swiss café with coffee, ice cream and astonishing views of the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains—before tugging you into Mürren. This route has been the same since 1891.
The people on the train to Mürren were almost always tourists and almost always British. My dad first came with his dad, Joe, in 1956. Joe, born in Belgium but by then a seasoned Londoner with a lower-middle-class British accent, saw Mürren as an escape: away from his wife (they eventually divorced), away from London, back to the continent. When I asked Joe a few years ago what he remembered of Mürren, he told me about the silence. “It was so quiet, a silent sheet of ice, a small village overwhelmed by the heights around it.” And indeed: 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.
From 1916 to 1918, some four hundred British soldiers and officers made Mürren their home. They were injured prisoners of war, held as part of an Anglo-German repatriation agreement. Switzerland’s location and neutrality made it the perfect place for the English, Germans, French and Belgians to exchange prisoners without risk of seeing their former captives back on the battlefield. The soldiers’ journey up to Mürren was the same as Dad’s in the Fifties, or mine today: a funicular followed by a trundling brown carriage.
Perhaps sensing they might be a while in Switzerland, the soldiers transformed the Swiss village into a surreal, miniature homeland, a London in the Alps. On May 27, 1917, they renamed Mürren’s few streets. One could stroll down “Piccadilly Lane” onto “Old Kent Road,” and from there wander to “Bow Street,” where he might stop and watch the train make its regular departures from “Charing Cross Station”! (“The geography is rather mixed,” one officer conceded.) The British internees established shops and training centers: a carpenter, a tailor, a dentist’s office, a motoring school, even a watchmaker’s store. They founded a YMCA hall for entertainment, and opened a library with over two thousand English volumes. They formed sports teams out of the hotels they lived in—the Hotel Eiger versus the Hotel Jungfrau in football, for example—and kept careful track of the results.
Soldiers communicated with their friends and families in England (and frequently wrote to ask for money), but they rarely heard news of the war that raged on around them. Sometimes, they didn’t want any. The editors of the local magazine BIM, British Interned at Mürren, asked not to receive war updates from London-based correspondents, perhaps to avoid raising hopes and fears. “At times echoes of the heavy guns reach us, reminding us of days that are past,” wrote BIM’s editors in their first issue. “We more or less patiently await the day when, for the last time, we descend the funicular on our way … home.”
Eventually, the YMCA ran out of its cheap tobacco, and to pass the time, soldiers began speculating on what part of the car to sit in, should the funicular cable snap and send them hurtling down the mountainside. “One end of the town seems dead and deserted, and the other end is not much better,” mused a listless writer for BIM in October 1917. “We are altogether lonely and miserable.”
When the war ended, so did the little world the soldiers had created in Mürren. BIM stopped without notice. The village’s roads were renamed. Its hotels no longer doubled as sports teams, and went back to serving wealthy British tourists. It was as though a little civilization had, one day and without warning, tumbled off the face of the earth. For two years, four hundred British troops had waited desperately to board the little electric train at “Charing Cross Station,” out of Mürren and back into the world.
In 2002, Dad brought me and my brother to Mürren for the first time. I was eight—the same age he was when he’d first gone in 1956. We took four trains: an impeccably modern inter-city line from Zurich Flughafen to Interlaken Ost; a slower but equally punctual regional train, with light blue polyester seats, from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen; the cog-rail funicular up to Grütschalp; and the single-carriage cream-and-light-brown electric into Mürren. “There was still nothing to do,” he later wrote of our trip. “Paradise.”
I’m certain Dad didn’t know about the interned soldiers who, some 85 years earlier, would have agreed with “nothing to do” but objected to “paradise.” And yet had he known about BIM, about renamed streets and hotel sports teams, I think he would have said that history confirmed his instincts. The British soldier and my dad saw the same scenic train and felt the same escape from history, though only one of them enjoyed it.
At the end of every night, my mom, my brother and I walked down the little sloping road to Dad. We were heaving from our race up the hill, raw mountain air chilled our lungs, and we did not talk. Dad’s outline came into focus. Catcher-like, stocky, with a thick neck and a ruddy head, he stood alone in the crisp air, the bald plateau of his scalp reflecting the light of Mürren’s streetlamps out towards the Eiger mountain, whose dark outline carved a puzzle out of the blue-black sky. I stared at Dad, Dad stared at the mountain; nothing moved. In that second, I knew nothing would.
The railway brought us, at least metaphorically, from New York City to Rutland, Vermont in 2004. There were other reasons, too: the shock of September 11 had sent us and many other New Yorkers in search of refuge, a place where planes wouldn’t fly into skyscrapers and where the world remained unchanged. The clapboard house we settled in, creaky with old wooden beams, sits atop a hill, twenty minutes from town. At the bottom, a wall of evergreens conceals the railroad. Dad, double espresso in hand, stood on the back porch twice every day to catch a glimpse of the freight train through the trees. “We chose Rutland very deliberately because of the train station,” Mom said. For Dad, a train meant Rutland was an American Mürren.
Rutland is the last stop on Amtrak’s “Ethan Allen,” which runs daily out of New York City. The engine, a big, hunkering diesel, arrives at Rutland Station late each night and leaves early the next morning. The only other train in operation at the station, an earth-shaking freight, pulls propane, marble and everything in-between from Rutland to Massachusetts. But Dad never asked why this modest Vermont enclave (as opposed, say, to larger cities like Burlington or Manchester) could boast Amtrak service to New York or a freight railway that bordered our house.