Chalkeyes presents: Plus ça change!

The Second World War had been over for 15 years by the time I was born, but it loomed large in my young life.


It was everywhere: the black-and-white war movies on TV every Sunday afternoon, the war as a comedy caper in Hogan's Heroes, the teachers with their war wounds, and a look in their eye that said “you have no idea boy”, and especially my family. Mum would recall air-raid drills, having their father on the other side of the world, a stranger. And he would become the grandfather who talked endlessly about it; but only about what happened to the world, not what happened to him, not what he saw. Nothing about the agony of it, the monstrous wrongs that were done, nothing of his own harrowing moments - fleeing Crete; being dive bombed by Stukas, rabbits below rounds of fire - that wasn't for children to hear.


I heard so much, but it went only so far: the ANZACs and the Brits against Rommel; the USA and Japan, Pearl Harbor; Hiroshima. Only later would I come to comprehend the true monumental significance of aspects I’d heard only in passing: the role of the Soviet Union, the magnitude of human loss, the overwhelming enormity of the Holocaust.


And I thought I knew plenty about life in occupied Europe, but then a while ago along came a TV drama, A French Village, and I found yet further layers to know.


A French Village is a war story like so many others: how a group of people endure the perils and tragedies that befall them. Paris falls, a hush falls over the countryside and then the tanks roll into this French village and the occupation has begun. In one sense it feels as though their world has changed entirely, yet in another, life goes on as usual: at the school; at the timber mill; at the doctor’s surgery; inside the Gestapo headquarters.


The drama follows the course of the war and the course of human treachery and failings. Friendships and romantic liaisons ensue, as do the shades of grey and compromise that can pull you down no matter how principled you might imagine yourself to be. How do you find an acceptable way to live with the fascist occupier?


You are the mayor of the village; you feel you should speak up for your people. But if speaking up imperils them, is that justified? You can disappear into the forest to fight the brave resistance fight, but you have the agony of knowing that the cost of your actions may be a dozen innocents taken at random and executed.


It is a marvelous human drama. It is also a helpful reminder about the infinite human capacity for adaptation.


A crucial point I had not previously registered was made only too evident in the drama - the huge occupying German army had first claim on everything, especially the food. The French people were left with the meagre remainder. They had to make do. With almost nothing, they found a way to do it; a pinched existence of very little at all - rutabagas, soup.


Let us now all move to the side of the road to make way for my point to lumber as noisily into the picture as a tank into a French village. The Climate Commission is this year asking us to make changes to our lives; to adapt to the climate crisis, to find ways to remove carbon from our lives. It has helpfully laid out specific steps that can make this real - a final day for connecting natural gas to homes, a final day for buying a new petrol-driven car.


This is surely what we need. It has long been time for action, but action has failed to follow. Now we are being presented with specific steps we can take to change, and I have to say, as adaptation goes, we are being asked to go not all that far and charge not all that much. A petrol car becomes an electric one. Journeys we have been making in cars can be made on foot or on bike.


The most significant adaptation of my recent life has been the e-bike that now does a great many of my journeys. Out I go, with great pleasure, and the car sits there unused for days and weeks. I expect to be cooking before long on an induction hob rather than a gas one. And if they take my gas BBQ from my hot, burned hands I'll be happy to go electric.


For every change we are being asked to make, there is already a thoroughly acceptable alternative. As adaptation goes, we have it vastly easier than a French villager in the early 1940s.


David Slack is an Auckland-based author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter.


Bottom Banner Advert