Tuesday, December 7

We are told not to hold back bad experiences, but a stiff upper lip may be the best | Adrian Chiles

SSometimes the people I talk to on my radio show say something that will stick with me for a long time. Marguerite Turner, 98, said two things like that to me last week. He was talking about his work in WWII. Her most vivid memory is of a single night in May 1942. As a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment, she was stationed in the south of England in a large private house that was used as a medical facility. Around midnight, he went out to take a break in the wonderful, fragrant silence of the garden. Then: “I heard some kind of engine noise somewhere. There was no light. The noise got louder and louder, then a large number of planes flew overhead. You couldn’t see them; they were so high. They went on and on. I knew they must be ours because no one was shooting at them. I was listening in that garden. Then they got weaker and weaker, obviously going somewhere. “

Those planes, it turned out, were among the first of Bomber Harris’ so-called “1,000 bomber strikes” in German cities. That night the target was Cologne. Almost 500 Germans died immediately and 45,000 were left homeless. Forty-three of the planes he had heard did not return. And there, deep in the darkness, a long way down, was this young nurse, her tranquility overwhelmed by the deafening din of violence. Seventy-nine years later, the brutally juxtaposed smell and sound are with her as if it were yesterday. As she says: “The scent of lilacs and a curtain of engines.”

So her memory, so vividly recounted, now becomes ours to carry forward. That, I suppose, is the point of conversations like this, not least those found in Lucy Fisher’s new book, Women at War, with Marguerite and others like her.

Ten minutes after my interview, I realized that Marguerite hadn’t shared anything about the horrors she had witnessed firsthand, like a wide-eyed young nurse treating the seriously injured. I found a way to ask the question, but she dodged it with aplomb, choosing instead to tell a sweet story of begging for enough trinkets to turn her patients’ woolen army socks into Christmas socks for them. Without a doubt, I pressured her to … how can I put it? – thicker material. But she wouldn’t allow it, explaining that she only chose to remember “fun and interesting things. If it was something bad and tragic, and we had a lot of those, believe me, I looked at them, learned from them, closed the door and locked the key, and that’s for me and no one else. . “

I found this fascinating, in the sense that his approach seemed to go against so many things that we now understand about the need to deal with bad things by talking and thinking about it. We fear that suppressing it will get us nowhere. Yet here we have someone who has seen the worst of things and apparently found peace by bottling the memories and corking for good measure.

It’s all too easy to dismiss this approach as a fine example of the quintessentially British stiff upper lip which, even if it has worked in this case, has certainly done more harm than good over the years. But, as a die-hard participant, I wonder if there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps you can exaggerate when talking about the bad things; there may be a danger that constantly airing it out will give it room to feed and continue to grow.

I had one more chance to get a little more out of poor Marguerite, who by now was showing signs of being fed up with me. “You couldn’t go around thinking bad things,” she said in exasperation. “No one could have flown a plane if they had been thinking about crashing all the time.”

Adrian Chiles is a columnist for The Guardian


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