We all like to think we are different.
We all like to think that we stand out from the crowd, that we’re better than the next guy, that we’d “do the right thing” in the face of evil.
The question I’m asking is:
Let me tell you a story.
In the early nineties I worked on cruise ships sailing around the Caribbean (it sounds glamorous, but it was mostly spent selling underpants.)
One evening, after a long hard day of underpant vending, I went for a beer after work. I was sitting in a bar when an elderly gentleman nodded, smiled and then pointed at my name badge.
“Schumacher? Sie sind Deutsch?” (Are you German?)
“No, I’m English, are you German?”
“No I’m French, I was hoping to practice my German, I’ve not really used it for fifty years.”
I tried to do the maths in my head (I’m a writer not a mathematician) then said:
“You learned German during or after the war?”
“During the occupation of Paris, my father owned a café so we had to speak German if we wanted to make any money.”
“That must have been fascinating, the city in turmoil, the occupiers, the resistance; it must have been an amazing period to live through?”
He shrugged, moved his glass on the bar a few inches, smiled at me and then said.
“To tell the truth, we were just trying to make a living and survive.”
Our conversation went on a while after that. It mostly centered on me trying to elicit a war story or a resistance anecdote, but none came. It seemed this old man’s war years were pretty much the same as the years went before and after the Nazis marched along the Champs Elysee.
His family worried about bills, about food, about making a living and getting through the day, normal stuff, unhurried and unharried by the invader.
That conversation stayed with me for a long time.
Partly because he was such an interesting character, he chain smoked, was fond of a Gallic shrug and was funny and laconic, but mostly because he had a gorgeous daughter and I was a randy twenty five year old.
Years passed, I flitted about the world, and then landed back home in Liverpool to rejoin the human race and get a proper job. A long time after that, one night I saw a picture on TV that gave me an idea for a book. I started writing The Darkest Hour, a story set in an occupied Great Britain that had lost the war and now answered to the Nazis. I wrote about a Policeman, I thought I had an insight because I’d been a British Bobby, I thought I would call upon my experiences and create a protagonist who would fight back against the Nazis and resist from the start.
I thought he’d do the right thing, be British, be a hero, fight for what was right.
Then I remembered the old French guy on the ship.
I remembered his shrug.
And I wondered… would we have been any different?
The Darkest Hour by Tony Schumacher is published by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins on 20th November and is available to buy as a paperback original and ebook priced £7.99