Whatever genre I write in, I always write about people plucked out of their comfort zone by a traumatic event that turns their world upside down. The question is always how do they deal with it? Do they crumble? Do they meekly adapt? Or do they find hidden strengths within themselves to take on the trauma and come through?
I’ve said all that before (probably too many times), but as I was wallowing in memories of childhood holidays recently, it suddenly struck me what might have sparked this lifelong interest in how people would react to terrible situations. It was a school trip and, no, nothing traumatic happened to me, other than dropping my purse in a stream. But…
I was twelve, and my high school (I was a first year – I don’t know what that is in new money) organised a trip in the Easter holidays to Switzerland. God knows how my parents scraped together the money for it, but it was the first opportunity for anyone in my family to go abroad (other than my father’s war service), so I went.
I recall Switzerland, once we’d arrived, as a picture-book place of towering, snow-capped mountains, glittering lakes, lush green meadows and happy cows, with gift shops full of cow bells and chalet musical boxes. Imagine Switzerland and it was just like that. So exactly like that that its images slipped into my memory as a neatly packaged collection of holiday snaps, dug out occasionally but no longer real.
What made far more of a lasting impression on me was the journey. Birds and film stars flew back then. We went in a couple of coaches, with two overnight stops. The most thrilling part of the entire holiday was waiting in the cold dark, at about 3am, with my parents, as the coach arrived to pick us up, and then arrival at Dover as the sun came up.
From the ferry, down across France to Reims, through farmland. First mild shock of the journey was the sight of farmers ploughing – or harrowing, or whatever it would have been at Easter – with horse-drawn ploughs (or whatever). The only horse-drawn anything I had seen before that was the cart of our local Steptoes, going up the road with a nasal call of “Ra’bong!” I was entering a time machine.
The greater shock was the graves. War graves. Regimented white markers, not in the vast cemeteries like Bayeux, but in smaller cemeteries, scattered everywhere, so casually embraced by the countryside. The first World War was no longer just a few stuttering clips of faded film and an amusing poster of Kitchener. It was blood and shattered bone absorbed into the soil, part of the land. That was one of the moments when it came home to me that “history” had once been “Now.”
On our second day, heading for Basel, we stopped briefly in Domrémy. My father liked George Bernard Shaw. I’d read his play, St Joan (I’d really like to see a modern version, set, maybe, in Afghanistan). Domrémy, despite its gift shops, was a reminder that St Joan had once been an actual girl, born there and deciding, at the age of 16, to fight rather than settle for life as a peasant wife, inspiring French resistance to English invaders, and being burned at the stake at the age of nineteen. I couldn’t get my head around it. Some of the school children on my trip were 16. Could they? Would they? Joan was a long time ago. People were different then.
We travelled on over the Vosges mountains, and stopped on a hairpin bend, looking down over steep rolling forests. The real purpose of our stop was to let several of the boys relieve themselves in the trees. But it happened to be the site of a memorial. A teacher explained that it was a memorial to some French resistance fighters who were captured and executed there by the Nazis. They included a father and son who were killed at the same age as my grandfather and one of my uncles. Which made it strangely personal. And again, it rubbed in that history had been real people doing real things, not just tales in a storybook.
As children, we tend to believe that everything before us is fantasy. The second world war, to me, had been, like cowboys and injuns, simply the subject of black and white films with thrilling music on Sunday television. My parents had been through it, but that was when they were young, an enormously remote time. By the age of 12, though, it had dawned on me that it had been happening, bombs had been dropping, people had been dying less than ten years before I was born. I had been alive longer than the time between the end of the war and my birth. I was on its heels.
It was suddenly much closer and behind the heroism and the pantomime villainy of war films was a terrifying and horrible truth. The Nazis had been real, they had done unspeakable things, they were merciless and they were strong. It was easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to take their defeat for granted, but at the start of the war, it was their victory than seemed far more likely. Would my relatives, if they had lived south of the Channel instead of north, have dared to risk torture and death, to join the resistance against Nazi occupation? Would I dare? How would any of us react if confronted with challenges we’d hoped never to face.
I was standing where people were murdered because they had dared to resist, knowing the likely cost. It was that scene, on a forested hillside, that drilled deepest into me, out of all the delightful things I witnessed on that holiday. An unknown memorial on some anonymous hairpin bend in the middle of nowhere.
There’s nothing quite so useful as Google maps and Street View to help you find spots you can’t quite place. I knew it was in the Vosges mountains. Turns out, it’s quite easy to find. A very spectacular hairpin bend with the Memorial de Steingraben. I don’t know if it was identical in 1967, but the spot is certainly the same. A pity that I can’t find anything about it on the internet apart from pictures of the memorials. One day I’ll have to go back and pay my respects to the place and the people that probably sparked my writing career.