Travelling by rail in Europe reminded me of what I knew, but had forgotten.
Over centuries along rivers, and from the 19th century by rail, a shared culture was developed, and eventually a common market. It is not just the logistics of transport, though they are extraordinary. It is the overlap of peoples, culture, and commerce. In six days, and travelling slowly, I have been in the high Alps, the juncture of the Rhine between three countries, at Basel, and, as I write, in Maastricht.
An overnight ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, and then into London, and eventually, via Edinburgh to Aberdeen and to the Highlands, is next.
Plan ahead, buy in advance, and you will get good ticket prices. A website called Loco2 is an idiot’s guide to booking, and seat61.com is an encyclopaedia of all things rail. Switzerland is about half the size of Ireland. The average Swiss person travels 2,300km every year by rail, on the densest network in the world. It is a spectacular, but inhospitable landscape.
The engineering is prodigious and that is only the infrastructure. Rail is primarily a social project. The effect is not simply highly efficient public transport, but an economic driver into every small village. Rail enables the spread of tourism, an important industry. Socially and culturally, it binds a diverse country — Switzerland has four languages — together.
Ireland made a great mistake dismembering its rail network. Ours peaked in the early 20th century and, until Dublin introduced the Dart in the 1980s, was in continuous decline. That decline was sharpest in the 1950s and 1960s. The car wasn’t just another means of transport; it was a social project for a different order. It was liberation from communalism and provided access in all weathers to the dance hall and the town.
Nothing was the same again. It also allowed us to live in one-off housing along the roads the cars travelled. The bungalow was the great outlier of modernity.
There were three great dishevelments in the patterns of Irish settlement: The plantations, the Famine, and the car. In fits and starts, some progress has been made on the railways since. The next start, if it happens, is the Metro North project, which is to be completed by 2027. Drogheda, Maynooth, and Hazelhatch will be upgraded to Dart lines.
But the all-important underground, connecting Heuston Station the city centre, and the Docklands, is in a file on the shelf. The capital city is being brought to a standstill by cars, which were intended as a liberating personal choice. It took you where you wanted to go, when you wanted.
The problem is that moving people within cities and between them requires shared space. That is not to mention the environmental cost of individualised, carbon-fuelled capsules to take us where we want to go. In Dublin, at least, that is straight into a traffic jam.
Travelling along routes from Basel to Maastricht refocuses a peripheral Irish perspective. Europe is a vast, and in places, deeply rich continent. Brexit isn’t a main news item.
The interest of Europeans in Brexit and, by extension, in Ireland, is self-interest. The EU works for them, and they won’t have it sundered. There is a highly-developed sense of the public space, too. The most recent leg of my journey was a 30-minute commuter train from Liege. It crossed national and linguistic borders effortlessly. Its shared space is the rich inheritance of the old duchy of Burgundy. And, curiously, another thing struck me. At intervals, high up in the Alps, are small chapels, open to the traveller. A very large cross on the mountain overlooks Zermatt, the Killarney of Switzerland. Around Maastricht, religious emblems and statuary are everywhere. Yet religion is seemingly peripheral. What is absent is the gnarling resentment that overtook mass supplication in Ireland. What we queued to kiss, we now insist be removed.
We needn’t be overawed by everything continental, however. On the edge of beautiful Maastricht, built on Roman ruins, is the new district of Ceramique. At its heart is the post-modern Bonnefantenmuseum, designed by Aldo Rossi.
It, and endless blocks of surrounding apartments, are paper architecture gone mad. The streets are sterilised by an absence of shops or services. Inside the museum on each floor, the lift opens into a vestibule, onto which opens one other service: The toilet.
Perfume welcomes the visitor.
The collection is a mix of modern art and mainly late medieval Flemish art, which is overwhelmingly religious. That thought world is dead, and now impenetrable for many.
Andy Summers, guitarist with The Police, is also a photographer. His pictures, displayed to his own soundtrack, make an old-hat, out-of-date exhibition. Moving from exquisite Flemish art from 500 years ago, in a postmodern building that is already kitsch, and championing banality presented as insight, you sense the dead-end that can trap Europe again.
Its culture presented lifelessly and out of context is a lost language. Its replacement is vacuity seeking to replace the fame of pop with the ethereal fame only art can provide. Museums, like train stations, once great 19th-century palaces for the people, have become venues for graduation shows for the famous. Downstairs is redemption, however. Grayson Perry’s 15m-long Walthamstow Tapestry sums it up. In it, dozens of brand names, such as Tiffany and Marks and Spencer, are the armorials for the seven ages of man.
The kit and stuff they represent are gone, but the brands themselves are our irreducible residue. It is kitsch — and a successful satire of it — because it contains the essential element of irony and succeeds as camp and as commentary. Grayson knows pop is an orgy of names and that we know them all.
A sharp irony of the railway journey to Maastricht was felt like a stone in a shoe while walking through the city. On the pavements are brass bricks, or stolperstein (literally, ‘stumbling stones’). They are plaques placed outside the last voluntary residence of the mainly Jewish victims of Nazism. There could have been no Holocaust without trains.
There would have been no First World War or Second World War without them, either. And that is ultimately the point of Europe, politically and culturally. There is an imperative to stop what is never far beneath the surface from burgeoning again.
Scenic journeys across Europe are hop-on, hop-off tours of places of unspeakable cruelty, and rare beauty. The railways are a means for a sustainable future. Cars and aeroplane are belching poison into the air. At the top of the Alps, the glaciers are melting. Last Sunday was the 75th anniversary of Anne Frank’s arrest. Her death, in Auschwitz concentration camp, was only months later. The allies had landed, the war was nearly over, its outcome an apparent certainty.
But it was too late then. It is not too late now, however.