The President's Summer Reading

President Obama enjoys his reading - but where's the politics?

The books blogs went into a rumpus yesterday when the White House Press office released details of President Obama's reading list for his summer holiday at Martha's Vineyard. The President is concentrating on fiction this year, and not shying away from the mainstream: it includes Cutting For Stone, the bestselling fiction debut of Abraham Verghese, The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell, author of Winter's Bone, adapted into a successful film last year, and To the End of the Land by Israeli novelist David Grossman, a family saga that doubles as vigorous criticism of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. As a little light relief, the White House confirms he also brought along Rodin's Debutante, set in Chicago, by cult author Ward Just, and Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson's history of the migration of black southerners to the north and Midwest, The Warmth Of Other Suns.

The list includes a notable lack of politics books - but after all, the President is on holiday from all that. The NS has some of its own suggestions for illuminating things to read in what's left of summer. Chris Mullin's A Walk-On Part: Diaries 1994-1999 provides an account of the veteran Labour backbencher's mid-Nineties stint, up to his appointment as a junior minister, with his trademark self-deprecation and wit. Vintage's "Summer of Unrest" series has published at least two worthwhile e-books - The Debt Delusion by the NS's Mehdi Hasan and Kettled Youth, an analysis of last year's student protests by NS contributor Dan Hancox. Dan Hind's The Return of the Public has been much-hyped, and sheds interesting light on the phone hacking scandal. Also out now from Verso is the paperback of Owen Hatherley's The New Ruins of Great Britain. And, of course, there's the book of the blog of the NS's own Laurie Penny, out from Pluto Press in October, but ready to pre-order.

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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