While still a teenager, Cheryll Barron was sent out by a New Delhi magazine to conduct her first ever interview.
It was with Wernher von Braun, inventor of the V-2 rocket for Nazi Germany, and, later, the Saturn V rocket for the United States; a member of the SS who, following World War 2 was moved to the United States as part of Operation Paperclip, where he developed the rockets that launched America’s first space satellite and first series of moon missions.
According to NASA, von Braun was the “Father of Rocket Science”.
Barron’s article on von Braun, published in 1973, was entitled, “The Man Who Put Man on the Moon”.
“Somewhat guiltily, I ignored the shocking pink placard hung on the doorknob, reading ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ in three languages, and rang the bell for the second time in 15 minutes. Expecting a long wait, I was midway through shifting my weight from one foot to the other when the door opened very suddenly – just wide enough to reveal a pair of distressed blue eyes preceded by tortoise-shell rimmed spectacles balancing precariously at the end of a tanned, aquiline nose. I was face to face with the man who, more than any other scientist, was responsible for putting an American astronaut into space and on the moon.
‘Dr Wernher von Braun?’ I asked tentatively – and put in my request for an exclusive interview. Quite impossible, I was told. He was up to his ears in preparation for a lecture he was to give that evening. We argued. No, he was quite sure he couldn’t spare me half an hour – not even 15 minutes. I persisted, largely because his most exasperated ‘no’s’ were considerably softened by a gentle, eminently gracious manner. It worked. I was to wait for him in the lobby, then accompany him to the lecture in his car…”
During that car journey, the well-prepared teenaged Barron fearlessly and relentlessly quizzes the 61-year-old ex-SS Nazi von Braun on his childhood interest in astronomy, his scientific-minded mother, the progressive farm boarding-school where he was educated, the book by Herman Oberth which he read at 15 entitled ‘The Rocket into Planetary Space’ and its tremendous influence on him…the letter he wrote to Oberth aged 18 which led to Oberth inviting von Braun to come and work with him…the later development of the V-2 flying bomb under von Braun’s direction…von Braun’s surrender to the Americans in 1944…von Braun’s development of America’s first artificial satellite, Explorer 1, in orbit around the earth…and von Braun’s development of the Saturn rockets for Programme Apollo, which led to man’s first landing on the moon…
By the time the “luscious limousine” ride is over, Barron has her exclusive interview, and I’m left wondering how much energy von Braun had left in the tank for the lecture he was supposed to be giving that evening…
Let us fast-forward now through 42 years of a life…a writing life…
During those 42 years, Barron will work and write non-stop, from India to Britain to the United States…
In 1995, New York publisher, Scribner, will release her book, Dreamers of the Valley of Plenty: A Portrait of the Napa Valley
The New York Times review of Dreamers will say: 'A sensitive writer of considerable erudition, with a fine ear for dialogue and nuance.'
The San Francisco Examiner review will describe it: 'A cheeky, hip and richly detailed exploration of how foreigners have influenced the famous (Californian) valley . . . an unvarnished look at the valley's fascinating, multinational residents.'
Barron doesn’t stop to look back then but barrels on, barrels on, into new areas, new times…keeps writing and working…producing articles for The Economist, The Financial Times, The Statesman, Business Week, The Guardian, The New York Times, Prospect, The Observer…for Management Today, for Salon…for nearly every big-name publication going…on subjects from British Steel, to drug injuries caused by Big Pharma, to How Deepak Chopra Fleeced the West, to the destruction of the Royal Mail…
Somehow, over years, the constant work and the travels lead her to a fascination with one country in particular, Switzerland…and specifically with the engine of unique democracy behind its successes…
First, in 2011, Barron publishes, on Amazon Kindle only (entering her Indie Author period), this travelogue which delves into the Swiss psyche:
And then, in 2014, she publishes this on Kindle:
Enemies: A Cash-Strapped Traveller's Search for the Secret of Switzerland's Extreme Equality (The Little Country that Could, Book 1)
“Enemies”…is almost a Tale of Two Cities, except that one of them is classed only as a town…it is almost a latter-day female Gulliver’s examination of the wars between a new Lilliput and Blefuscudia, except there is no war…there are castles, and suits of armour…but there is no war…the castles in these two Swiss towns/cities not much more than a stone’s throw from one another are only historic, or historic-satire in one case…the armour and weapons safely tucked away in a rarely visited museum…
“Enemies” is an examination of the town of Olten and the city of Solothurn, in the canton of Solothurn in North West Switzerland.
"Enemies" is written, though 40 years later, by the spirit of that same tough/confident teenager who hung around outside Wernher von Braun’s hotel room in India in 1973, refusing to take No Answer for an answer…in fact that may be the unique arrow in Barron’s stock-in-trade quiver…the refusal, though often an ever-so-polite refusal, to ever take no answer for an answer…
In this new book, she goes out into Switzerland, lives there for months, interviews people, meets people, asks questions, probes further and further…sometimes with the journalist’s eye, sometimes the economist’s, sometimes the historian’s…sometimes, yes, from the viewpoint of the relatively cash-strapped traveller, which makes this a great and refreshing change from the other well-sponsored travelogues produced on publisher’s stipend…no, this is an Indie Travelogue…and sometimes, it is the gem-stone precision art of the novelist that Barron suddenly brings to the examination, with chapter titles like “A Headless Horseman in Holy Stone” and “Left-Wing Writers and Freezing Whores”…or themes like the democratic rights of the dead to remain buried, or not, as the case may be:
“Egalitarian exhumation – I mean, equal rights to having what remains of your relations dead for a century or two dug up for an identity check – was not a cause that had ever occurred to me…If DNA analysis can be deployed to determine which are Disteli’s bones, should they be reburied ceremonially (after being dug up to make way for a new underground car park)…?
‘They all knew him. Drank with him and fought in silly little wars together.’
‘Their graves would have to be saved, too. With DNA analysis. All one hundred-and-ninety-nine of them.’
‘Equality and fraternity.’
‘It could take a while.’
There was more to be gleaned from the imaginary conversation. In it, as in life, Oltners seemed most apt to honour Disteli below ground, as if paying obeisance to an expired mole…”
Barron had originally come across this town of Olten because it is a train hub for northern Switzerland.
“Olten – because of that railway station seen by the town itself as its chief raison d’etre – was supposed to be my jumping-off place, my diving board for exploring Switzerland.
I was meant to be there only to go somewhere else.”
Barron’s Monty-Python-esque, surreal visits to the tourist offices of both Olten and later, Solothurn, can also yield good information, as in this visit to the Olten office where the Geschaftsfuhrerin, or executive director, Maria Sagesser “strides in on her long model’s legs to bring me a surprisingly decent espresso squirted out by a machine with robotic dispatch. When she is reseated on her side of the meeting-table, I notice that her lambent large eyes could be cut-outs designed to give glimpses of the river flickering past the plate glass to her left in the pale, elongated boardroom lit by refracted light from the water. She is pleased by my keen interest in the framed black-and-white sketches on the walls. ‘Martin Disteli,’ is her reply to my question about their provenance.
Tourism is new here, she says…
‘The city administrators do not think that people from abroad are interested in Olten.’
Maria concedes with a carefully neutral expression that Solothurn, the capital of the canton to which Olten belongs – also called Solothurn – sucks in nearly all the tourists in these parts.
‘We feel they are like “the big Solothurn” to which we have to give so much money! And we’re always the losers.’
This is said with calm restraint and good humour.
‘So how can Olten Tourismus hope to compete?’
‘Our location is better. If you go to Solothurn you can first stop here. Here is much more authentic Switzerland. It’s just the way it is…the difference between Solothurn and Olten is that here the people have always worked. Here we have the culture of the working people. Then they got the money from our taxes…for me, it’s not a competition. They have some things, we have others.’
Oh, but the rivalry is fierce. Like a younger sibling who defines herself in relation to a glamorous much-made-of older sister, Oltners cannot seem to stop mentioning Solothurn. ‘If Solothurn had had a Disteli, his bones would have long ago been resting in a mausoleum,’ Urs says to the other Urs, in the Capus story (Alex Capus, author of Leon and Louise, and native of Olten) about the disinterment dilemma. In another sketch in the (Capus) collection, the narrator is cycling across the Sahara with his friend Guido when they are accosted by a blue-veiled Tuareg riding a camel. ‘He gestured with his scimitar at the license plates of our bikes and said, ‘You are Swiss from Solothurn.’ He means, the canton. They confirm his guess.
‘From where in Solothurn?’
I shrug: ‘Well, Olten.’
Said the Tuareg: ‘Ah, Olten, I know it well! I lived there for three years. I know Olten-Hammer, Dancing Tropicans, Coop City…’
Galaxies of meaning reside in those two words of a native son. ‘Well, Olten’”
And here begins Barron’s exhumatory examination of the centuries of bitter enmity between these two north-western Swiss towns, only 25 miles apart. One, Solothurn, with a history of riches earned by the sale of “Swiss flesh”, in the form of mercenaries (the best soldiers in the world according to both Caesar and Napoleon); the other, Olten, standing in the shadows, and perhaps, it is suggested, even being repeatedly burned down by agents of its hated rival, Solothurn, during those medieval years when Olten might have been able to “get ahead” otherwise and forge its own destiny, but instead is kept in the shadow of its wealthier, more powerful neighbour, kept in subjection for centuries by these neighbouring overlords, until seismic political and social changes sweep Europe…an upsurge swell in the irrepressible spirit of democracy itself…which would set in motion the beginning of the release of this poorer neighbour from its shackles, readying it for the oncoming industrial revolution with its egalitarian hard-work opportunities which would align perfectly with the sweat-toiled peasant spirit of the true “Schweiss” Oltner…
These were all things I knew nothing about at all before reading Barron’s book.
I saw Switzerland at a distance only, perhaps through that fictional lens of Graham Greene/Orson Welles in The Third Man’s famous cable-car speech:
“You know what the fellow said – 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.”
Yes, I’d always bought that line. Switzerland – bankers, watches, cuckoo clocks…maybe Laurel and Hardy yodelling…
I’ve never been to Switzerland, so at least I had that excuse, but what is fascinating is that half the Switzerland Barron went to and lived in for weeks/months at a time, did seem to also believe itself to be this Public Image Greene/Welles cuckoo clock version of Switzerland…judging by Barron’s book, half the Swiss she met did seem to live in that world of castles, banks, watches, clocks…it’s just that there’s another hidden half of Switzerland, perhaps the “peasant heart”, the workers’ heart…the “more authentic Switzerland” as Sagesser says…and, as Barron investigated, she seemed to find that, yes, these two halves of Switzerland do hate each other…always have! And yet, this is the mystery she seeks to uncover…they are “happy haters” and cooperate together in what Barron believes to be such an exemplary model of democracy that it is almost criminal neglect to not at least spread word of this working model and…perhaps dream of applying its successes elsewhere?
The nitty-gritty, earthiest parts of “Enemies”, though, are just as fascinating as Barron’s greater context/thesis on these two towns as examples of functioning Atoms of Democracy: her struggles to find affordable accommodation in a country where a visitor’s purse “emptied seemingly in a blink”, encounters with toothless pickpocket dopers and neo-medieval shopping mall pageant musicians…a hotel manager whose hobby is to dress as a human-size Apple iPhone…the lofty and disengaged staff of the Museum of War where visitors are left alone to roam rooms of used armour and weaponry where the blood can almost be smelled…the Tourismus bureau with its gauntlet of junior “malevolent Cherub” and executive “Uber Cherub” staff possessing “Shakespearean first names”…descriptions of solitary traveller’s necessities like haircuts, meals…run ins with super-posh government agency representatives who bray loudly about their mothers’ and aunts’ preference for “Swiss maids”…there is a delightful willingness in Barron to meet affably with such folk and then report openly on their snobbishness to us, the Faithful Reader…(again this is a unique facet of a low-budget, micro-budget in fact, travelogue…a constant worry about each "penny" spent, not kept secret from the reader, but passed on openly…), and of course there is the constant revelation, through the residents of Olten, and of Solothurn, whom Barron meets, that they do in fact, indeed, at some level, really hate each other…with faces that can become “acidic” when speaking of the enemy…bringing an “unmissable glint in the eyes”…
It seems to be an ingrained, trained, inborne hatred, as can be seen, of course, between many of this world’s towns/cities/countries…for reasons of history, economics, politics, society etc…but in this case unique because, as Barron terms them, these are the “Happy Haters” of the world…the cooperative democrats of enmity…set amid an historic landscape of burned churches, destroyed castles…but living in a present that has somehow culminated in…peace.
And there, on the philosophical side of this book is the puzzling thing to be unravelled, the thesis on Democracy that has Barron begin to interpret much of the ancient and modern history she learns of Olten and Solothurn, and passes to us, as “a piece of a larger and older pattern of combating unjust domination on every front. It was in Olten that I realised that the history of democracy was best characterised as a saga of acting on resentment of unfairness – rather than steady progress towards realising ideals of freedom, equality and brotherly love…So a small patch of earth in a small country gives us a tale of two cities whose citizens have disliked each other for centuries. They tend their mutual loathing as if guarding a sacred eternal flame. Yet they are both part of the same solidly prosperous canton in the world’s wealthiest country, are administered by the same elected representatives, share the same pool of taxes for the upkeep of civic fabric, and public services like their police overlap.
Neither city is in the position of Muslims living in India, governed by a Hindu majority. The people of their canton are not like the Belgians of the north and south straining to survive as a single unit. Not like Catholics or Protestants living in a part of Ireland or Northern Ireland in which the other denomination dominates government and the cultural environment. Not like parts of the Middle East or Africa with tribes eternally at war.
Oltners and Solothurners live on equal terms, do not kill each other, and advertise their mutual antipathy with pride. In a lifetime of travelling that has included living on three continents, I have encountered nothing like this.
Yes, their relationship is indeed the strangeness at the heart of the uniqueness of Switzerland.”
“Enemies”, available on Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/Enemies-cash-strapped-travellers-Switzerlands-equality-ebook/dp/B00PZ8FHG4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1444216789&sr=8-1&keywords=enemies+cheryll+barron
Cheryll Barron’s Blog: http://post-gutenberg.com/