The Third Leader: When Switzerland went cuckoo

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The Independent Online

Stop all the clocks: the Swiss Federal Railways have been paralysed by a power failure, stranding more than 100,000 passengers, unprecedented in a country where things are supposed to run like, ah, yes, no prizes, lot of people pointing it out, clockwork.

Stop all the clocks: the Swiss Federal Railways have been paralysed by a power failure, stranding more than 100,000 passengers, unprecedented in a country where things are supposed to run like, ah, yes, no prizes, lot of people pointing it out, clockwork.

Your reaction? The Swiss have a word for it: Schadenfreude. Orson Welles has not been the only non-Helvetic unimpressed by the stolid Calvinist competence that in his view had managed only one significant contribution to world civilisation in 500 years, the cuckoo clock. This has always seemed to me most unfair. Consider the cuckoo clock: how imaginatively unstolid, how, well, cuckoo, is that concept, exactly?

No, the cuckoo clock is the key to understanding a playful, even daring, aspect to the Swiss character so often ignored in the interests of cliché. After all, they did invent the yodel, you know. Consider, too, this revelation on the train crisis: there was no back-up plan in the event of a power failure. No back-up plan! That sort of thing is supposed to be our exclusive preserve! We're the ones who muddle through and call an inquiry! How subversive, anarchic, unsettling and un-Swiss is this?

I mean, what next? Quiet Italians? Punctual Spaniards? Naughty Norwegians? Terse Irish? Swedish stand-ups? Smiling French waiters? Famous Belgians? Late-rising German holidaymakers with a relaxed attitude to sun loungers? Scots addressing you as "Jimmy" unthreateningly? Famous Belgians? Larger-than-life Luxembourgers? Welsh who think Jonny Wilkinson's a great inside centre? English writers not dealing in stereotypes?

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