The Cambridge Union Society. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The NS debate: This house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it

Key event at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April will pit Shiv Malik, Laurie Penny and Simon Heffer against Kwasi Kwarteng, Mansoor Hamayun and Allison Pearson on the question of inter-generational equality.

As part of its partnership with the newly re-launched Cambridge Literary Festival (formerly known as Cambridge Wordfest), the New Statesman will host a flagship debate on Saturday 5 April at the Cambridge Union Society. Chaired by Rafael Behr, Political Editor of the New Statesman, six of the country’s sharpest political thinkers will debate the motion: “This house believes that baby boomers left society worse than they found it”.

Is this, contrary to received wisdom, an ideal time to be young? How have technology, travel and science improved young people’s lives for the better, and how much have they benefited from the struggles – sexual liberation, equality and post-war investment in health and education – of the baby boomer generation? Or is this, in fact, a far shallower world than the one the boomers inherited – one in which unemployment, constricted social mobility, austerity and environmental crisis are the end result of an overly selfish, financially irresponsible generation born after 1945?

As Rabbit Angstrom, the quintessential baby boomer in John Updike’s Rabbit series boasts: “I figure the oil’s going to run out about the same time I do, the year two thousand. Seems funny to say it, but I’m I lived when I did. These kids coming up, they’ll be living on table scraps. We had the meal.”

Proposing the motion will be the Guardian’s Shiv Malik, investigative reporter and author of Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth. Joining him will be Laurie Penny, columnist, activist and New Statesman contributing editor, along with Simon Heffer, Daily Mail journalist, historian and author most recently of High Minds: The Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain. Arguing in opposition will be Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne in Surrey and author most recently of Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World; Mansoor Hamayun, renewable technology entrepreneur and the chief executive of BBOXX, and Welsh novelist and columnist Allison Pearson.

Elsewhere at the festival, NS staff will be taking part in events with shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, literary critic John Carey and novelists Jim Crace, A L Kennedy and Adam Foulds. Other highlights include appearances by Melvyn Bragg, Hanif Kureishi, Eleanor Catton, Emma Donoghue, Pat Barker, Germaine Greer and Martin Rees.

Full programme information can be found on the Cambridge Literary Festival website. Tickets for the New Statesman debate, which will begin at 5.30pm on 5 April, can be purchased here.

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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