We’re told not to bottle up bad experiences – but a stiff upper lip can be for the best

Sometimes people I speak to on my radio programme say something that will stay with me for a long time. Marguerite Turner, 98, said two such things to me last week. She was talking about her work in the second world war. 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 at a large private house being used as a medical facility. Around midnight, she stepped outside to take a break in the blissful scented silence of the garden. Then: “I heard a sort of engine noise from somewhere. There was no light. The noise grew louder and louder, then a whole lot of planes flew over. You couldn’t see them; they were so high up. They went on and on. I knew they must be ours because there was no one shooting at them. I stood listening in that garden. Then they grew fainter and fainter, obviously going somewhere.”

Those planes, it turned out, were among the first of Bomber Harris’s so-called “thousand bomber raids” on German cities. That night the target was Cologne. Nearly 500 Germans were killed outright and 45,000 were made homeless. Forty-three of the aircraft she had heard didn’t return. And there, deep in the darkness a long way down, stood this young nurse, her tranquillity overwhelmed by the deafening din of violence. Seventy-nine years on, the viciously juxtaposed smell and sound are with her as if it was yesterday. As she puts it: “The scent of lilac and a curtain of engines.”

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

Ten minutes into my interview, I realised Marguerite hadn’t shared anything about the horrors she had witnessed first-hand, as a wide-eyed young nurse treating the grievously wounded. I found a way of phrasing the question, but she dodged it with aplomb, choosing instead to tell a sweet story of begging enough trinkets to turn her patients’ woolly army socks into Christmas stockings for them. Unedifyingly, I pressed her for – how can I put it? – gorier material. But she wouldn’t have it, explaining she only chose to remember “amusing and interesting things. If it was a bad and tragic thing – and we had a lot of those, believe you me – I looked at them, learned from them, and shut the door and locked the key, and that’s for me to deal with and no one else.”

I found this fascinating, in that her approach seemed to fly in the face of so much we now understand about the need to deal with the bad stuff by talking and thinking it through. Bottling it up, we fear, will get us nowhere. Yet here we have someone who has seen the worst of things and apparently found peace by bottling the memories up and gluing in the cork for good measure.

It is very 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 doubtless done more harm than good down the years. But, as an inveterate over-sharer, I wonder if there’s a lesson to be learned. Perhaps you can overdo talking about the bad stuff; maybe there is a danger that constantly airing it gives it the space to feed off itself and carry on growing.

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