Back in Basel as a Trundler, Ian abandoned the boots and Little Bo Peep of his backpacker days in favour of a passion for paintings
Trundling up the Flüssigkeit Güllegrube, without a paddle
Thirty-seven and one-sixth years ago, a 20-years-old student boarded a train at Basle railway station in Switzerland for a lengthy journey back to north-east England. He’d spent the summer working on a farm, and now had enough loose coins in his pocket for a can of coke, a packet of crisps and a Ritter milk chocolate bar that would count as lunch, dinner, and breakfast the next day.
Comparisons might be odious. But they’re also inevitable.
Even the name of the place… When I last visited, it was called “Basle”, with a short “a” and silent “s” – which was absa-lootely brilliant, man, for a 20-years old Geordie-lad. Now, apparently, it’s spelt “Basel” with a long “a” and noisy “s”; which just leaves me sound like someone trying to speak proper. Like.
Other comparisons? The full head of (long, Seventies) hair; the moustache and goatee beard (sorry!); and the trundlebag-full of unwashed clothes, which my mother insisted I leave in the garage while she went in search of a gas-mask and asbestos gloves before stuffing them into the washing machine.
Amongst the many (happy?) memories of that previous visit is my arrival at the nearby village of Kienberg, and being picked-up (on a tractor) by the farmer, Herr Burren, who invited me to throw my bag into in the back of a trailer, and share space with a dog which was clearly very proud of his party-trick of being able to growl and foam at the mouth at the same time.
Waiting for me at the top of the steep single-track lane was Frau Burren, their two little boys Christian and Ueli, their two little friends, and a pitch fork. (Those of a nervous disposition should look away now). Because the walk to the nearby field took us towards what looked like a large puddle fresh cow dung; but – being in the middle of this particular Magnificent Seven, and not wanting to show any aversion to a spot of “mud” – I opted to keep walking in a straight line, where the initial splash-or-two soon turned-out to be a pretty unpleasant paddle. Followed by a quite inexplicable, and yet heroic, knee-deep wade.
Glancing round, I noticed that Herr & Frau Burren and four small children had taken a very wide berth of what was now quite clearly a liquid slurry pit – or “Flüssigkeit Güllegrube, as they say in Germany” – and were looking at me silently with a mixture of wide-mouthed pity, and obvious disappointment that I was going to be “their student” all summer-long.
Things didn’t improve much after that. Having extracted myself from the slurry, I beat a hasty retreat and changed into my new Wellington boots, which four small Swiss children found equally hilarious, and (oh how we all laughed as they) set about dancing around me, pointing, and singing: “Neue schuhe, neu-e schuh-e…”.
That summer, I turned so much hay with a pitch-fork that, each night, I thought it might need to be surgically removed. I herded, milked, fetched, carried, and generally made myself useful (or not – as the case may be). I helped to give birth to a calf, which was named after me. I became fluent in German. I became best friends with Rinders, the dog. And I taught Christian and Ueli the words to Little Bo Peep.
But the chore which almost did for me in the end was carrying and connecting 20-foot lengths of metal pipe up one of the farm’s steepest hills. Each trip consisted of two lengths of pipe carefully balanced on each shoulder. But (obviously), the distance I needed to cover increased by around 40-feet each time. The higher up the hill I went, the steeper it became. And just to make it all that little bit more difficult, I had to step over a (live) electric fence at the start of every trip.
As fatigue set in, and those lengths of pipe started to rock back and forth, I received a mild electric shock to my shoulders each time I negotiated the fence. And slowly, but successfully, I filled the clear Swiss fresh air with the scent of singed hair on the back of my neck.
Which brings me to my latest visit to Basel…
No more wellington boots; rabid dogs (Rinders, it appears, was apparently put down after biting too many passing walkers); fluent German; goatees; or calves (I learned in the same Christmas card, which contained news of Rinders’ demise, that Jan the calf had been was sold, and slaughtered – “Oh, and by the way: Happy Christmas!”).
Just a chap, trundling into Switzerland with enough money in his pocket to buy himself something a bit more nourishing than a Ritter chocolate bar for dinner (and breakfast); and, somewhat inexplicably, a growing interest in art.
So it wasn’t too surprising that memories of my time on that farm all came flooding back to me while I stood in a gallery at The Fondation Beyeler looking at Gerhard Richter’s ‘take’ on Titian’s Annunciation. It was truly spellbinding. And one of those electrifying moments in an art gallery when the hairs on the back of your neck might tickle your shirt collar.
Only, thanks to that electric fence and those 20 foot lengths of metal pipes, I don’t actually have any hairs on the back of my neck any more.
So – for me (unusually, I know) it’s the hairs on the back of my calf that rise like a forest when something as magical as this reaches out and touches your soul.
Quite embarrassing really, when you’re wearing shorts.
But nowhere near as embarrassing as getting stranded thirty-seven and one-sixth years ago in eine große Flüssigkeit Güllegrube.