Amid new austerity, Britons meet again with Vera Lynn

Amid new austerity, Britons meet again with Vera Lynn

By Alan Cowell, International Herald Tribune | September 20, 2009


LONDON - Every so often, Britons like to measure their present against a past that time has in some ways overtaken - doughty, imperial, island folk with a reach far beyond their shores, suffused with a backs-to-the-wall fighting spirit, conjuring victory against the odds.


From Shakespeare’s Henry V rallying his troops against the French at Agincourt in 1415 to the English soccer team beating the Germans in the 1966 World Cup (not to mention, as some people would always include in the catalog of triumph, two world wars), this is a narrative built on the high points of national memory, a connect-the-dots guide to an old land’s sense of what it has done, and can do, best.


Recently, there seems to have been a sunburst of such reflected glory.


Last month, the funeral of Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the fighting in the trenches on the Western Front in World War I, drew national, live television coverage as his coffin wended through the cathedral city of Wells - escorted by, among others, German soldiers. It offered an occasion to ponder his message of war’s futility, challenging the government’s efforts to justify a war in Afghanistan that is leeching the lives of the soldiers it sends there.


But of all those moments, none seems quite so determinedly quirky, and yet so perversely predictable, as the ascent last week to the top of the British music charts of a collection of songs by Vera Lynn, at 92 the oldest person to attain that artistic peak - songs that first became popular in World War II, known probably as much to American service personnel based in Britain at that time as to the British themselves.


Vera Lynn was known as “the forces’ sweetheart,’’ the lyrics and lilt of her music resonating as much with the troops on far-flung battlefields as with those left behind to work on farms and in munitions factories, facing the harsh austerity and perils of war - in the parlance of the era, keeping the homes fires burning.


Best-known among Vera Lynn’s songs were “We’ll Meet Again’’ and “The White Cliffs of Dover,’’ offering a reminder that, in war, it is not only the troops in battle who shoulder the burden, ears ringing with the blast of roadside bombs or the enormous, intimate rattle of automatic fire.


Back home, there are those who wait and fret and hope for solace. And on the front lines, soldiers cherish snapshots and mementos of those left behind. Then, as now, Vera Lynn’s lyrics offered what she called “a bit of home and a bit of cheer and comfort.’’


Family chronicles told how husbands and wives spent years apart, how uncles were assigned to douse the flames of bombing on Britain’s north-western shipyards, how aunts stoically packed up one home and moved to another after the baleful wail of the air-raid sirens sent families scurrying into home-made shelters while bombs blew out the windows and flattened the roofs of their row houses.


In those moments of danger and absence, with soldiers far from home and enemy bombers in the skies, imagine scratchy radios tuned to the BBC, serenading its listeners with lyrics that promised bluebirds and peace.


In “The White Cliffs of Dover,’’ Vera Lynn assured the nation that: “There’ll be love and laughter/And peace ever after/Tomorrow/When the world is free.’’


And in “We’ll Meet Again,’’ she conjured the end of those long absences when a simple telegram could bear tidings of the ultimate loss: “We’ll meet again/Don’t know where/Don’t know when/But I know we’ll meet again/Some sunny day.’’


Many, of course, did not make that rendezvous with hope. Her album’s rise to the top of the charts prompts the question: why now? Britain , after all, was different then. People had different dreams, narrower horizons, lower expectations. The daily joust was literally about survival, not comfort. Consumerism was impossible for most people in an era when meat and cheese and butter were rationed and the candies and nylon stockings given as gifts by American troops seemed the height of luxury.


But there are faint similarities. Britain , like America and other allies, is again at war. Counting from the beginnings in 2001 of the current conflict in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, troops have been deployed in battle for longer - though with far few casualties - than in all the years of World War II, from Germany ’s invasion of Poland in 1939 to the defeat of Germany and Japan in 1945.


In excruciatingly relative terms, Britain also faces the same hardship as others in a world struggling to shrug off recession. In a land with far less appetite for self-denial than Vera Lynn’s generation, jobs are scarcer, house prices are down.


With elections due by next summer at the latest, there were stern and policy-reversing warnings last week from Prime Minister Gordon Brown of cuts in public spending.


Vera Lynn last topped the charts in 1952 in the aftermath of the earlier austere days.


“Our boys are away again,’’ she said last week to explain her latest success, “and the music is significant again. And it’s a bit of nostalgia, too.’’

Marion J Chard
Proud Daughter of Walter (Monday) Poniedzialek
540th Engineer Combat Regiment, 2833rd Bn, H&S Co, 4th Platoon
There's "No Bridge Too Far"

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