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Martin Meyer | The vanished crocodile and other losses

21.09.2018 – JÜRG MÜLLER

Once there were crocodiles on the Gotthard. They were not dangerous reptiles, but mighty goods locomotives. With their long, powerful nose sections, they were not dissimilar to the feared creatures. Seeing one of those monsters creeping up the ramps, bridges and spiral tunnels of the old Gotthard Line was “a special occasion”: “The rotating rods produced a rhythmic hooting noise, the centre section appeared to be perpetually shuddering and shaking. (…) The lamps attached to the train’s bogies scouted alertly.” In the 1980s, however, the reptiles-on-rails had to give way to technical progress.

In his book, Martin Meyer traces in 86 brief texts many techniques, items, customs, manners, fashions, cultural aspects, figures of speech and phenomena of all types that have disappeared over the past 10, 20 or 30 years. Things that were still there “Gerade gestern” (the book’s title), just yesterday. An opportunity for Meyer, born in 1951, to reflect on the “gradual disappearance of the familiar”.

“Gradual” is the key word with Meyer: sudden huge upheavals are rare in history. Changes in everyday life usually happen slowly, covertly, until one day you realise that something is just not there anymore. The pipe-smoker, for instance, whom one seldom sees these days. Or the playboy, who has died out – or at least the term is no longer used. Postcards, despite the smartphone and selfie cult, are still available as before, but how often do posted summer holiday greetings land in our letter boxes?

The object of each short text often serves simply as a springboard for precise observations of everyday life, for deep reflection. Even the North Face of the Eiger in the Berner Oberland gives Meyer occasion for existential analytical observations. Once the 1,800-metre-high rock face was “the perfect stage for horror fantasy”; countless tragic dramas had been observed by the public through telescopes and field glasses. But it is no longer the grand stage for mountaineers, at some point the North Face also “vanished”. Mountaineers no longer struggle with the vertical over days, but thanks to modern equipment, ascend the face frequently in only a few hours.

Meyer is neither a cultural pessimist nor nostalgic. Yet the author cannot always conceal a touch of melancholy. But he has wrapped it in some beautiful text.

Martin Meyer: “Gerade gestern: Vom allmählichen Verschwinden des Gewohnten”, (Just Yesterday: About the Gradual Disappearance of the Familiar), Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 2018, 320 pages, CHF 36.90