Culture

Vera Lynn, R.I.P.

Dame Vera Lynn receives the applause from the audience and fellow performer Cliff Richard during a concert in Hyde Park in London, Britain May 6, 1995 (File Photo/Reuters)
Best known for singing We’ll Meet Again, for Brits, she was the last great living symbol of “the war.”

There are moments when a connection between the past and the present, fraying for decades, finally snaps. As a child in Britain in the late 1960s, I remember the old men from the Western Front marching past the Cenotaph, the survivors of Ypres, Passchendaele, and all the other killing fields. As the years passed, their ranks thinned, then dwindled to a handful in their wheelchairs. Then there was no one.

Sadly, another fading of the guard is well underway, as the veterans of the Second World War march into their nineties and beyond. On Thursday, Vera Lynn, Britain’s “forces’ sweetheart,” died at the age of 103. For Brits, she was the last great living symbol of “the war,” as so often it is still referred to, a conflict that needs no other identifier, a reflection of the grip it still has on the British psyche — for good, or some say, ill.

To Luke Turner, writing in the Guardian:

Throughout her postwar career, Lynn’s fame was trapped in symbiosis with the anxiety of a nation in decline, forever doomed to look into the past, to the time when Britain had its “finest hour”.

Oh well.

Much of Turner’s focus is on Lynn’s most famous — and most evocative — song, “We’ll Meet Again,” written in the last weeks of a doomed peace and recorded by Lynn shortly after the war began. It has a lovely, lilting melody and lyrics that, as the troops went off to war, perfectly reflected the uncertainty faced by millions: “We’ll meet again/Don’t know where/Don’t know when.” It acknowledged the pain of separation; “Don’t let this parting upset you/I’ll not forget you, sweetheart,” recognized the challenge ahead (“dark clouds”), and put a traditionally British emphasis on presenting a good face (“keep smiling through”) to the world:

So will you please say hello

To the folks that I know

Tell them I won’t be long

They’ll be happy to know

That as you saw me go

I was singing this song

And, of course, the promise that ran through this song was that this parting was not forever: We’ll meet again.

The best-known British soldiers’ songs of the First World War — in its initial stage (later they became more sardonic) — such as (the prewar) “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” or 1915’s “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” were for marching. While they had plenty of equivalents in World War II, it perhaps says something that the one song more than any other to define that era for Brits came in a sadder, slower tempo: The illusions of August 1914 were gone for good.

In a 1939 newspaper poll, British servicemen picked Lynn as their favorite entertainer. She had caught the mood.

Turner maintains that “perhaps the most powerful use of [We’ll Meet Again] is in Stanley Kubrick’s ever-timely Dr Strangelove, when in the final scene it drifts out, with savage irony, across a world disappearing into atomic fire.” A curious verdict, but then that wildly overrated film (don’t @ me) has attracted many of those. If I want a tune to mock and mourn our perennially imminent nuclear annihilation, I’ll go for Tom Lehrer:

And we will all go together when we go

What a comforting fact that is to know

Universal bereavement

An inspiring achievement

Yes, we all will go together when we go

Nevertheless, Kubrick, like Turner, recognized the mythic power of this song, as did the Queen (like “the war,” she needs no other identifier), when in the course of a (rare) address to the U.K. as COVID-19 shut it down, she focused on 1940. The “finest hour” still looms very large in Britain’s vision of itself, and, as she made clear, it is a year that she remembers well. This latest broadcast, she noted, reminded her of her “very first,” made, she recalled, “in 1940.”

And towards the conclusion of this section of her speech, she said this:

We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again.

The allusion was not missed.

Born in 1917, towards the end of the First World War and in a far from glamorous part of outer London (her father was a plumber), Lynn began singing before live audiences at the age of seven and was already embarked on a showbusiness career by the late 1930s. She thought that World War II would put an end to that. Instead it transformed her into an icon, and not only because of that one miraculous song. She sang through the Blitz; she sang to Londoners sheltering from the bombs in tube stations; and she sang for the troops, sometimes by the bedsides of the wounded; she sang on the home front; and (after some stops on the way) sang to “the boys” of the “Forgotten Army” in Burma, not infrequently with the Japanese rather too close for comfort. Decades later she was awarded the Burma Star.

A corporal who heard her sing there wrote:

We went mad. Never have I yelled, bellowed, hollered or clapped so much before . . . we gave her an ovation, all right. She couldn’t sing for 10 minutes and she cried, too. Broken hand or not, I made it clap . . . I saw blokes crying with joy at seeing our own Vera.

She had her own radio show, Sincerely Yours, for the troops overseas, on which she sang and read out letters from her listeners. The broadcast always ended with “We’ll Meet Again.” Some MPs criticized Sincerely Yours for being too sentimental — “sloppy muck” and so on. A more martial replacement was introduced. It flopped.

Lynn sang other songs, of course, in that period — typically sentimental ballads — and one or two numbers that became patriotic standards, “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover,” and the somewhat bombastic “There Will Always be an England” (the latter also written by the same duo behind “We’ll Meet Again” just a few weeks before the outbreak of war), but, just as the war overshadowed everything else Lynn did afterwards — something she accepted with grace — so “We’ll Meet Again” overshadowed everything else she sang.

Over the years she was to reprise this song on numerous occasions and in different ways, but to understand its power, the best version is one in which a chorus of servicemen join in. “Deeply affecting,” writes Turner — and that is putting it mildly. It is impossible to listen to without thinking of what lay ahead for those men, and it is impossible to miss the sense that she, they, and, by extension, her listeners, were all in this fight together. An abbreviated take can be heard (and seen) at the end of We’ll Meet Again, a movie shot in 1942, and released in January the following year, days before the German defeat at Stalingrad and months after the British victory at El Alamein. As Lynn sings — and, in the film, the RAF sings along — the evolution of the song since she first recorded it, accompanied, oddly, by a Novachord, (a proto-synthesizer, with a slightly cheesy sound to it) into an anthem is there to hear and — check out the clip — see. Somehow it now looks back at what the country has been through and resonates with a more confident belief, even if the words are unchanged, in the victory to come, one day, if still not quite yet:

We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day

Keep smiling through

Just like you always do

‘Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds far away.

Most Popular

Media

The Unrelenting Assault on President Trump

There has never been a presidential campaign in the United States where the administration was so massively opposed by the principal media outlets as in this election. Nor, in at least a century, have the national political media so widely and thoroughly discarded the traditional criterion for journalistic ... Read More
Media

The Unrelenting Assault on President Trump

There has never been a presidential campaign in the United States where the administration was so massively opposed by the principal media outlets as in this election. Nor, in at least a century, have the national political media so widely and thoroughly discarded the traditional criterion for journalistic ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Education

Destroy the ‘Public’ Education System

‘Public” schools have been a catastrophe for the United States. This certainly isn’t an original assertion, but as we watch thousands of authoritarian brats tearing down the legacies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it’s more apparent than ever. State-run schools have undercut two fundamental ... Read More
Culture

Two NFL Apologies

So Drew Brees defended the American flag and all it stands for, said he didn’t agree with kneeling for the national anthem and correctly described this gesture of open disrespect as disrespect. "Is everything right with our country right now?" said the Saints' future Hall of Famer. "No, it is not. We still have ... Read More
Culture

Two NFL Apologies

So Drew Brees defended the American flag and all it stands for, said he didn’t agree with kneeling for the national anthem and correctly described this gesture of open disrespect as disrespect. "Is everything right with our country right now?" said the Saints' future Hall of Famer. "No, it is not. We still have ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place. When encountering a fence in his way, ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Chesterton’s Cops

Conservatives are big on “Chesterton’s fence.” That’s G. K. Chesterton’s principle that you cannot reform what you do not understand, that you should not for the sake of convenience knock down a fence until you understand why it was put up in the first place. When encountering a fence in his way, ... Read More
Regulatory Policy

Going Medieval

Writing in Bloomberg, Noah Smith gives more than a nod to Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction (or, as Smith neatly relabels the phenomenon, “elite over-competition”) as a cause of the current wave of turmoil in the West, something with which I would agree but, I think, more emphatically. Quite ... Read More
Regulatory Policy

Going Medieval

Writing in Bloomberg, Noah Smith gives more than a nod to Peter Turchin’s theory of elite overproduction (or, as Smith neatly relabels the phenomenon, “elite over-competition”) as a cause of the current wave of turmoil in the West, something with which I would agree but, I think, more emphatically. Quite ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More