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Hidden alphorns sounding out from the rooftops of Leicester Square!
Now what is going on? Quite why the Swiss Ambassador chose to invite me to the Inauguration of the Glockenspiel, now returned to Swiss Court, I have little idea – but I thank him and I’m certainly pleased he did. Considering it an honour to the ABA, I was certainly going to attend. Originally positioned on the corner of the old Swiss Centre, the Glockenspiel, with its revolving Swiss herdsmen set against an Alpine backdrop, the arms of the cantons, twenty-seven bells and four Swiss Jacomas representing bellringers, all topped off with a Swiss Railway clock, now reappears as a free-standing unit – ringing out and performing daily to amuse and entertain Londoners and visitors. (Not to mention providing a convenient meeting-point and telling us the time).
Proceedings began with a rather outlandish procession of folkish people in swisswear with (variously) masks, uniforms, drums, cowbells, yokes and cigars – all making hell of a racket – beating their way into the vicinity of the clock and penning us in a circle. Flown in specially for the day, they let it rip.
The ten-metre high structure is a renewed gift from the Swiss Confederation (not forgetting the Principality of Liechtenstein) and
was cordially accepted by the Mayor of Westminster, with speeches from her, the Ambassador and various other dignitaries. Former Swiss president, Adolf Ogi, regaled us with reminiscence of his time in London in the sixties, recalling Frank Ifield yodelling his way to the top of the charts with I Remember You-oo and even giving us a snatch of the song. And then the real music began. I stood startled and amazed as the blonde alphornist stormed out the lead in a full-on jazz session – the singer floating above the rhythm in a mixture of yodelling and scat. A snatch of Tiger Rag on an alphorn? Well, yes – but golly, it was good.
We adjourned to the new W Hotel in Wardour Street – Swiss wines and nibbles – and now we come to the bookish part. The occasion doubled as the launch of my good friend Peter Barber’s ‘A Curious Colony’ : Leicester Square and the Swiss. Peter, as we know, is head of the Map Library at the British Library – but he is also a formidable researcher of the history of the Swiss Community in London, then as now a community which has a special connection with Leicester Square and its neighbourhood. In the book he charts not only the history of the Swiss in London, but also to some extent the return influence of the British on Switzerland – Swiss tourism a virtual invention of mad nineteenth-century British mountaineers and winter-sporters.
All in all, an excellent and rather moving day. A celebration of dear old, chaotic and welcoming London as a “a roost for every bird” as Disraeli had it. A celebration of peace and amity between two independent and quirky nations, both long wedded to democracy. And a reminder from someone that Swiss bells are made to last – “May they ring out for a thousand years”.