A war evacuee shares her recollections... and reveals how well it works

There’s a new novel by Pat Barker and, once again, she reflects on the cost of war to those already regarded as expendable. Reading The Women of Troy , I recalled interviewing her when her Second World War novel Noonday was published, and asking her about a particularly striking image, in which bedraggled troops returning to London are briefly glimpsed as though they might be survivors from Boudicca’s army. “From the point of view of the common soldier,” she told me, “one cockup is the same as another.”

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Sometimes, the past seems to come closer. Recently, I went to talk to the distinguished academic Dame Gillian Beer , who has written a short piece of memoir called Stations Without Signs, much of it focused on her experiences as an evacuee. We talked in the garden and, as Spitfires from the local war museum droned overhead, giving rich folk a taste of danger, she remembered two young brothers whose mother had ordered them to return to London to be with her. They didn’t want to and, indeed, absconded back to the countryside. Once again, they were summoned back to the city where, months later, they were both killed by a bomb. I told Beer about my father, who had also taken to life outside the capital and been allowed to remain in Burnley for the duration. He never saw his mother again; she died while he was away. He was seven. But he was still alive. Evacuation from war, to state the obvious, works.

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Hot tub hedonism

As does isolation. Until I left the Irish countryside for a spell of work in the UK a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t seen my closest friends for what felt like years, but we had all remained well. Reunited, we went a bit over the top. It seemed as though there were no treat too frivolous to mark the start of happier times, any reckless expense justified by the reassurance that we hadn’t spent any money enjoying ourselves for ages. Staying with two beloved pals, I was touched that they had turned their spare room into a luxurious hotel suite, complete with lotions, potions and even a miniature of gin.

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They had also furnished me with a fluffy robe, the full significance of which only became apparent when the visit’s greatest indulgence arrived – an inflatable hot tub, hired for the week. Being in middle age, we are all on various health regimes to counter our crocked knees and rising cholesterol, but during the visit we threw caution to the winds and ate red meat and drank coffee after 6pm. We agreed that we can’t keep up this kind of hedonism, but it was lovely while it lasted. One day, I met another friend, who is of a more ascetic cast of mind. When I regaled him with tales of the spa, he was horrified. “My God,” he cried, “you’ve got a sex pond!” And that, I fear, has pretty much ruined hot tubs for me, and now for you.

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Cat takes the bench

Returning home, I was bemused to find that little had changed. Specifically, a garden bench was still in the dining room, whither it had been brought to provide extra seating during a recent family lunch – another reunion. Keeping my tone as non-judgmental as possible, I remarked to my cohabitant that I thought he might have found time to return it to the outside in my absence. He countered that it was impossible, because the cat had taken to sleeping on it and he couldn’t bear to upset her.

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What could I say? Our pets have kept us on the straight and narrow, sanity-wise, during lockdown and I suppose now it’s payback time. And she does look very comfortable. We’ll get used to it.