In the Critics this week

Craig Raine on Turner, Andrew Adonis on LBJ, John Gray on Victor Serge and Helen Lewis on the science of the breast.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our Critic at large is Craig Raine, who writes about Tate Liverpool’s exhibition of late Turner, Monet and Twombly. The show, Raine argues, “passes the kleptomania test with ease. There are many, many works here that one would steal without compunction were theft possible with impunity.” Of Turner’s painting of the salute in Venice, Raine says “There is something candidly magical at work. The same applies to Monet.” As for Twombly, Raine maintains he is a “great painter, the equal of Turner and Monet”.

In Books, former Labour Cabinet minister Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson. This book, which deals with the first year of LBJ’s presidency, shows, Adonis writes, that “Lyndon Johnson left behind the second most substantial legacy of any US president of the 20th century, after Franklin Delano Roosevelt”. The “compass” of Johnson’s presidency was set, Adonis argues, within days of his assumption of it following the assassination of John F Kennedy. “Within weeks, its triumphs and its disasters were equally foretold.”

Also in Books: John Gray reviews a new edition of Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary; Guy Dammann on Soul Music by Candace Allen; Olivia Laing reviews Anne Carson’s translation of Sophocles’s Antigone; and Helen Lewis on Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams.

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Lynn Shelton’s slacker comedy Your Sister’s Sister; Rachel Cooke on Armando Ianucci’s Veep; “The many moods of Marilyn, à la Andy Warhol”, a poem by John Kinsella; Andrew Billen on The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre; Antonia Quirke on The Cave on Radio 4. PLUS: Will Self’s "Real Meals".

Power play: President Lyndon B Johnson in 1965 (Photograph: Getty Images)
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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