The single-carriage train that runs up to the Swiss village of Mürren (© Hakan Can Yalcin / dreamstime.com).
There are three books by the historian and essayist Tony Judt that are never far from reach when I sit down to work at my desk in Berlin. The first is arguably his masterpiece, the indispensable Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. The second is a collection of his essays written between 1995 and 2010, entitled When the Facts Change, and the third is his memoir The Memory Chalet, dictated to a colleague due to the physical limitations caused by motor neurone disease before his death in August 2010, ten years ago this month.
Tony Judt has been a great inspiration to me, in part because he was a great chronicler of Europe. He warrants a mention here on the Europe by Rail website in particular because he was a passionate advocate for rail travel. Judt’s love of trains began as a young boy, he writes in The Memory Chalet, when he was at his happiest simply going somewhere merely for the sake of exploring. “Walking was pleasurable,” he writes, “cycling enjoyable, bus journeys fun. But the train was very heaven.” Many of Judt’s early unaccompanied journeys were to the extremities of the London Underground, where lines emerged from tunnels to run on for miles through leafy suburbs and on to rural communities like Ongar and Chesham.
For Judt the historian, the railways were the transforming innovation of the industrial era. In his essay The Glory of the Rails, written in 2007 and published by the New York Review of Books a few months after his death, he argues that the railway changed our world in ways it is hard to comprehend now. The railway, Judt argued, reshaped our conceptions of time and distance and transformed our understanding of the very landscapes through which it was now possible to travel. It thus changed people’s perceptions of the limits of their world, as well as ushering in an era of tourism and travel for leisure that was open to all. As a sociable form of transport, the stations, the trains and the tracks they run on were a “necessary and natural accompaniment to the emergence of civil society. They are a collective project for individual benefit.”
As a teenager in England, Judt would have been immensely aware of the debates surrounding the Beeching report which was published in 1963. To Judt the prospect of losing the railways resembled a catastrophe, signalling society’s acknowledgement “that we have forgotten how to live collectively.” For a man who described himself as a universalist social democrat to the end, this prospect was one of almost immeasurable loss.
I loved trains before I read Tony Judt, just as I had a deep interest in history before I read his work, but in both cases the words he put down not only educated me but also helped me think critically and develop my own ideas about places, stories and how we communicate them. I was reading Postwar for the first time when I went on my honeymoon to Russia, in the winter of 2008. I remember looking up sections featuring Moscow and St Petersburg as we explored them in the biting cold, and attempting to decipher the small text in the neon light of a restaurant car with a Baltika beer at my elbow as our night train raced through the darkness between the cities. I think Tony Judt would have approved.
Re-reading The Memory Chalet in preparation for writing this piece, it became clear that although Judt writes about the railways with the typical intelligence and insight that was a feature of all his work, there was another relationship with train travel going on too. The railway may have represented history, modernity and those changes that altered our very perceptions of time and space, but a train journey was also an opportunity to escape, to take time out. The train journey was both a communal activity and a solitary pleasure, as Judt discovered taking the train to the end of a line as a twelve-year-old boy.
At the end of The Memory Chalet, Judt writes of one particular journey on a single-carriage train that runs along a narrow-gauge railway in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. It links the mountain village of Mürren with the outside world.
This Swiss community has been popular with tourists since the railway opened in 1891. Judt first visited it with his father in 1956. It was a place he would return to, including a visit in 2002 with his own children. Mürren is somewhere, he writes, where nothing really happens, and that was part of the appeal. For a historian who spent his life discussing events that changed our world, that sense of stillness in a place was nothing short of paradise.
“We cannot choose where we start out in life,” Judt concludes, “but we may finish where we will. I know where I shall be: going nowhere in particular on that little train, forever and ever.”
Tony Judt was born in London in 1948. He died on 6 August 2010. The works referenced in the text are Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945, published in 2005 by Penguin. His essay The Glory of the Rails is available on the New York Review of Books website to subscribers and also appears in When the Facts Change: Essays 1995-2010, published in 2015 by Vintage. The Memory Chalet was published in 2010 by Penguin.