Travels through Switzerland: An Interview with Diccon Bewes

Photo: Diccon Bewes

Diccon Bewes is a writer who was born in the UK but has lived in Switzerland for many years, and is now a Swiss citizen.

His books include Slow Train to Switzerland, where he retraces the journey of Jemima Morrell who was part of Thomas Cook’s first tour of the country in 1863. He has also written several books on Switzerland, including the bestseller Swiss Watching.

Before moving to Switzerland, Diccon worked for 10 years at Lonely Planet and Holiday Which? Magazine.

Talking About Books interviewed Diccon about his books and his living in Switzerland.

TAB: I found Slow Train to Switzerland fascinating. Could you tell us about Jemima Morrell’s diary and how it inspired you to follow in her footsteps?

DB: When I was researching my first book, Swiss Watching, I noticed a reference in another book to a “Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal”. Thanks to the internet I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop in Holland, not knowing then it would become the basis for my second book. That edition of the diary was published in 1963 for the centenary of the tour, and I decided to follow in her footsteps for the 150th anniversary in 2013.

The original diary had actually been lost for decades and was found in a bombed warehouse during the Blitz, before finding a home in the Thomas Cook archives. I got to see the handwritten pages and Jemima’s illustrations before I set off on my travels, following the same route as that tour. It was the first-ever package tour abroad, organized by Thomas Cook (who was a real man), and it was the birth of modern tourism as we know it. Having been a travel writer for many years and now living in Switzerland, I wanted to see how this huge worldwide industry began and what effect it had on Switzerland.  

TAB: The Switzerland in Miss Jemima’s diary is very different from the Switzerland of today. What were some of the things that stood out for you when you retraced her steps almost a century and a half later?

DB: In some ways Switzerland wasn’t actually that different back then. Her descriptions of the landscape could equally apply today—the lakes and mountains are still magnificent, though the glaciers have shrunk and many have disappeared.

What has completely changed is the Swiss themselves. Jemima describes poverty we would never associate with Switzerland: beggars, barefoot children, bag-carriers desperate for work, women selling cherries for a few centimes. Switzerland was then one of the poorest countries in Europe but tourism was one of the motors that helped change that. Thomas Cook was so successful bringing the British here for holidays that hotels and railways were built for them, and local people got vitally needed jobs as tour guides, waiters or souvenir sellers.

Travelling round today, we might not see the poverty Jemima saw but we’re still using the amazing infrastructure that was built for Cook’s tourists. Whereas she had to hike through the Alps in a huge crinoline dress, we can hop on a mountain train and enjoy the same views at leisure. Not forgetting that back then Switzerland was a cheap destination for visitors from the richest country in the world; now it’s the other way around.

TAB: In Bern, you managed the Stauffacher English Bookshop: do you feel that more Swiss authors are now being translated for an international readership than when you first arrived here?

DB: Not really. There aren’t many Swiss authors who are known in English and that hasn’t changed much recently. I worked for many years in bookshops in the UK before I moved here, and even “famous” Swiss authors such as Friedrich Dürrenmatt or Max Frisch weren’t much asked for. Of course, there is always Johanna Spyri and Heidi, but modern Swiss bestsellers such as Martin Suter or Franz Hohler barely have an English edition between them.

TAB: Moving to Switzerland has meant having to learn a new language and navigate a new culture. How has this affected you as a writer?

DB: The most obvious aspect is because my books are for a multinational audience—they are all about Switzerland but are read by both Swiss and non-Swiss, even in English. So I am careful about the words I use and the cultural references I make. I try to remain British rather than American, and avoid purple prose and long-winded sentences. I’m sure that’s one reason why Swiss Watching became a No 1 bestseller in Switzerland even before it was translated into French and German.

Living in Switzerland has also made me realize how insular the British are. English has become the universal language so it can be easy to fall into the trap of not bothering too much, assuming that everyone will understand you. Not just language but also cultural tags, such as music. Most of Europe recognizes British music, from The Beatles through to Adele, but the reverse doesn’t often work. If it wasn’t in English, it seldom became a hit in the UK, so while my Swiss friends will sing along to some old 80s hit on the radio, it will be one I’ve never heard of because it is in German or Italian. That means having to be aware of using such references when I’m writing, but trying not to lose the character of the writing by making it too bland.

TAB: Tell us about yourself. Have you always been writing?

DB: Writing was not my life’s goal. I fell into it by accident and have yet to fall out. I grew up in Hampshire, studied International Relations at university and then went on a round-the-world trip for almost two years. It was all about travel rather than writing, but I loved reading and so it wasn’t a stretch to become a bookseller when I got back to the UK. Not too surprisingly I specialized in travel books, which is how I ended up at Lonely Planet—not as an author but as the sales & marketing manager. The most I wrote was the blurb on the back of a book or a press release.

And then I had some luck. I saw an advert in a national newspaper for a writer to join the team at Holiday Which? Magazine. I didn’t have the experience but apparently had the talent as I passed the writing test and interview. Suddenly I was a travel writer. On Day 2 of my new job, I was sent to Prague, with the brief of “look around and write about it”. It was daunting and exciting, and I’ve never looked back. After eight years at the magazine, I gave it up to move to Switzerland, where I eventually started writing for myself. Eight books later, I still love it.

TAB: What advice would you give to a writer who is starting out?

DB: 1. Write about what you love, whether that’s travel or crime or romance or chess. It’s really hard to write anything that people would want to read if your heart’s not in it.

2. Read as much as you can, and not only books that are in your comfort zone. See how other writers, new and classic, use words and engage the reader.

3. Don’t give up.

TAB: I love the way you have brought Switzerland, with all its complexity, to a wider world. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts about this country and about what it means to be a writer living abroad.

Read my review of Slow Train to Switzerland for the Women on the Road website.

Go to Diccon Bewes’s website.

Read the reviews of books by Swiss authors on this blog: The Baltimore Boys by Joël Dicker, The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt and To the Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm.

5 thoughts on “Travels through Switzerland: An Interview with Diccon Bewes

  1. Sophie

    Suroor that was quite an interesting interview, all the more than I missed your review about Bewes’ Slow Train to Switzerland, which I’m going to read now!

    I have a huge liking for travel writers, such as Joseph Conrad and Bruce Chatwin, along with French Pierre Loti, to only mention my favourites.

    I didn’t know about Jemima, and on a side note, I’m glad women are becoming less and less invisible in every fields of life, and that their works, feats, and various discoveries are being recognised!

  2. suroor alikhan

    Hi Sophie,
    Have a look at my reviews of travel books by women (and sometimes about women) for Women on the Road, which is a website for women travellers, especially women travelling on their own. I’ve been doing one a month for several years now.

    The thinking behind this is to highlight travel books by women—they have been travelling and writing about it for years, but are not as visible as their male counterparts.

  3. Pingback: » Back in the public eye, three times over

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