In Sled we trust

Why the sled is as American as pie

At the heart of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane is a sled ("sledge"?) called "Rosebud", which, we are told, represents the key to unlocking the secret life of the film's reclusive newspaperman. According to Gore Vidal's 1984 article in the New York Review of Books, Rosebud was, in fact, the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst's "pet name" for his paramour Marion Davies's clitoris. Perhaps this explains, in part, why Hearst took so strongly against a film that many believed was a veiled biography about his life.

In February 2006, meanwhile, Disney's dog movie (as opposed to dog-of-a-movie) Eight Below made its debut at the top of the US box office, taking over £14m in its opening weekend. Alongside the likes of the American Pie star Jason Biggs were the canines Max, Maya, Old Jack and Shadow --all of whom took on multiple roles. Among the film's protagonists, an abandoned pack of sled dogs, numbered two mutts named Dewey and Truman, after the 1948 presidential candidates Thomas Dewey and Harry Truman.

Is there something I'm missing about the iconic significance of sleds to Americans? Kane's working title in the RKO lots was, rather bluntly, American. When militant flag-wavers see the burning sled at the end of that film, do they slowly reach for their Smith and Wessons (which they are legally entitled to bear, even at Obama rallies)?

Speaking about gun nuts, the Field and Stream website's "Gun Nut" blog -- yes, Gun Nut -- once ran a piece about the Lead Sled, which is a "metal pan upon which is affixed a rifle mount". The bloggers explain: "To use, you lock your rifle in the mount and throw lead-filled shot bags on the sled. Then you aim the rifle and shoot."

Apparently, the Lead Sled eliminates the risk of self-injury when shooting things. This is a bad, un-American innovation and, as the headline makes clear, to "America's shame". For "good shooting," they say, "begins with the acceptance of pain. Great shooting begins with the love of pain. Do you think John Wayne would have used a Lead Sled? Do you think John Wayne would have appeared in Brokeback Mountain ?"

Finally, in this week's Big Issue, Bob Dylan talks to his regular interviewer-cum-stooge Bill Flanagan about his charity album, Christmas in the Heart. Flanagan describes the record, consisting of festive favourites originally popularised by Dean Martin and co, as a "celebration of family, community, faith and shared memory". Which all makes it as distinctively American as the non-scary bits of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and almost as enjoyable (though this is a moot point). Having spent a career mining the nation's cultural riches, Dylan has, of late, refashioned himself as a Mark Twain-esque folk figure with his whimsical turns on Theme Time Radio Hour. His appearance in Cadillac's TV commercials, too, seemed designed to confirm his uber-Americanness. At the end of the interview, Flanagan asks him: "What's the best Christmas gift you ever got?" Bob says: "Let me think . . . oh yeah, I think it was a sled."

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Getty
Show Hide image

How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution