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Tuesday 30 April 2013


We recently published Ray Johnstone's All Fall Down - a remarkable account of two young boys growing up in occupied France. This thoughtful, well-researched work, perceptively conceived, brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of the period.  We asked Ray to contribute to the blog - which he has done in typically thorough fashion. So! How many French soldiers does it take?

Because of the invasion of Iraq, most people know the answer to this question, but before I respond to it for those who don’t, let’s go back a few steps to 1914.
    It is now almost a century since an assassination in the Balkans triggered World War I. For convoluted reasons understood by very few these days, within weeks mankind was enmeshed in a worldwide conflict that resulted in destruction and death on an unprecedented scale. Four terrible years later, the Armistice was signed and the cliché that this had been the ‘the war to end wars’ was introduced into the language. But within a few short years the League of Nations failed and the political and diplomatic manoevering in Europe’s capitals once again became difficult to follow. Eventually appeasement was abondoned and brinkmanship became a thing of the past as most countries prepared for another war.
    But in France, large sections of the population tried to ignore these developments. The overwhelming majority was hoping against hope to avoid repeating the nightmare of the Great War which killed over one and a half million French citizens. The carnage, it is said, touched every family in France.
    The promise of peace finally proved to be a lie when Parisians noticed telltale smoke plumes rising over public buildings as beaurocrats burned their sensitive documents. Then the government abondoned Paris for Bordeaux.
    When the blitzkrieg came it was so fast that there were almost no pitched battles. The French army resisted  for a while, then it faltered, crumbled and was finally routed. A few weeks later the Fuhrer went on a triumphant tour of Paris and the long, dark days of occupation began.

The War Memorial

Even the tiniest hamlet in France has its monument aux morts or war memorial, with a list of names of those who died in each World War. The same applies to Australia where every city, town and village has a monument with a Role of Honour to commemorate Australian deaths in the two conflicts. But in France the World War Two list is always much shorter because the war itself was short. The French army capitulated in little more than six weeks and those who died as martyrs of the resistance - or in deportation - always outnumber those killed in action - and often by a considerable margin.
    The idea for ‘All Fall Down’ first came to me when I stumbled across a nondescript grave near my home in Gascony. It marks the spot where a young boy was shot by the departing Germans just a few months before the war ended. I felt confounded that such barbarity could have taken place in this idyllic part of France little over sixty years ago.
    As an Australian I am aware of the widespread feeling that France took the soft option by capitulating so quickly in the wake of the blitzkrieg. But the longer I live in France, the more I realise how terrible the years of occupation were. So I decided to start researching and writing a novel for English speaking readers in an effort to try and put the record straight.
    Although my book is a work of fiction, everything (well almost) is based on actual events. Several of the incidents were described to me by older French people I have met - some are taken from descriptions I have found in resistance museums and on war memorials - and others are from books, magazine and newspaper reports I have rooted out. The result (I hope) is a graphic, crude and violent novel, without a jot of romanticism.
    The twin themes of the story are, I suppose, collaboration and resistance. These are complicated issues, and there were many shades of both. For those of us - like me - who have never lived in an occupied country, they can be especially difficult ideas to unravel. Active resistance was certainly a long time coming, and during those bleak and frightening years, the primary objective of millions of French citizens was to simply keep their heads down and to get on with their lives. But through some of the fictionalized events described, I hope I have been able to provide an insight into how complex and dangerous living through the dark years of Nazi occupation was for the people of France.

A Finished Book?

Ten years later I felt that ‘All Fall Down’ was finished.
    But it wasn’t. 
    J.K. Rowlings is quoted as saying that she became rather depressed when her first Harry Potter book was rejected by so many publishers. Twelve, apparently. Well,  All Fall Down has been rejected or ignored by a few more than that. My estimate is that a thousand publishers and/or agents responded to my submissions with a deafening silence.
    But luckily one day when I had long given up the idea of getting my book published, I stumbled across the Buzzword Books website and read Dan Mills’s no holds barred blog. It pulls no punches on the subjects of writing (and rewriting and rewriting) and the almost negligible possibilities of ever finding a publisher - let alone ever making any money out of writing. It is probably best summed up with the line: 'All of us are doomed to obscurity,' but I decided to give it another try (taking my submission total to one thousand and one).
    Fortunately for me, something clicked, and an email followed suggesting that I, wait for it, yes, rewrite the manuscript (with certain changes) for further consideration by Buzzword.
    So it was back to the starting point with many revisions and several more drafts. But the lapse in time allowed me to see all kinds of problems in the original manuscript I had not noticed before. During this rewriting, I saw things with new eyes and I was able (sometimes with considerable pain) to jettison many overwritten passages, lots of turgid stuff and long slabs of unnecessary, self indulgent writing.
    Then (wow! out of the blue) Buzzword Books eventually deemed it ready for publication.

In war, there are no winners

But what about the question of French soldiers defending the French capital? Well, the answer, as most Americans and other Anglo Saxons know points back to Paris under Nazi occupation: no one knows because it’s never been done before.
    Jokes like this abound in the United States and most English speaking countries because of the widespread impression that France gave up too early and too eagerly when the Germans attacked in 1940 - and because France refused to support the allied invasion of Iraq in 2003.
    But, as George Orwell pointed out, the quickest way to end a war is to lose it.
    In war there are no winners, and to illustrate this, in All Fall Down, good does not triumph over evil. The price for treachery is seldom exacted, and brutality is meted out equally on both sides in the struggle for Liberation.
    Although my sympathies are categorically and wholeheartedly with the French, it is folly to believe that evil attaches itself exclusively to one side in any conflict.
    So without belabouring the point, I hope the unrelenting anti-war theme, as well as the idea that prejudice is universal, come through loud and clear.

The Triumph of Evil

The subtitle I chose for All Fall Down is The Triumph of Evil. This is because I do not believe that much has changed since the end of the First World War.
    Although in the West living conditions and wealth have improved dramatically for many over the last hundred years, to this day, much of the third world still lives in poverty or on the cusp of starvation. Racial and gender equality remain a dream for most, and crimes against women, gays and other minorities often go unpunished. Almost all countries have governments that are, in some way, manipulative, corrupt, suppressive or undemocratic - and the electorates in many have lost confidence in the political process. Class, tribal and ethnic conflicts are endemic. Religious intolerance is rife. Terrorist acts are universal. The taking, torture and execution of hostages is commonplace and from China to the United States the death penalty is either tolerated or condoned. In some countries it is even popular.
    So now, still in the ascendancy nearly one hundred years since the war that was fought to end all wars, it seems that evil has triumphed.

RJ Mezin April 2013

Read more about All Fall Down here. Just $3.95

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