In May of 1940, when the Germans attacked, the French didn’t know what had hit them. Eight months of phony war had dulled the vigilance of generals. In June the Germans entered Paris. In July 569 representatives of the people gathered at Vichy – because the spa offered plentiful lodgings – and voted full powers to Philippe Petain (eighty voted against, seventeen abstained). Eighty-four years old, the hero of Verdun was vain and a bit deaf; his memory was unreliable, and he tired easily. But affairs would mostly be handled by Pierre Laval, the ex-Socialist mayor and deputy of a working-class constituency, who never could see any sense in war and who never faced a horse trade that he couldn’t close.The most sordid period; God, that sounds great. Also, ‘he never faced a horse trade that he couldn’t close.’ Of course not!
It’s details like these that make historical writing so interesting, and so absolutely trivial for me. I have a horrible – horrible! – memory for dates and names, rendering me an awful student of history, and so a week from now, when asked about Vichy, I’ll reply in terms of horse trades, hands’ height and dollars for the tail, and sordid deals between vain, ear-trumpeting heroes, of who slept with who and who screwed it all up, and basically I’ll pretend the whole thing happened in a novel.