"Cirque de Modernisme": a poem by Joe Dunthorne

                       Ezra Pound mesmerises crowds
with his which-fez-is-hiding-the-pince-nez shtick
while Gertrude Stein, astride two palomino hinnies,
recites “nightwear’s enemy” and other anagrams
of Ernest Hemingway, the burnished strongman,
who flexes his glutes then tears through Ulysses,
no sweat, before Thomas “Nine Lives” Stearns
takes aplomb-less turns on the parallel trapezes
in his unambiguous catsuit, swinging from low
to high amid footnote confetti. For the grand finale,
James Joyce, hobo clown, hoists flaming hoops
toward the big top’s roof. The Woolf tucks herself
in the literary cannon. Apollinaire starts a snare roll.
Ringmaster Proust, with his chevron moustache,
lights the fuse. A scent of burnt madeleine then boom,
in a plume of chalk dust, she splits the air,
The Human Comet, her hair aflame, she flips
through not one, not two, but three burning rings,
the crowd all stand and sing her name, her colleagues
wince, the band play Schoenberg’s Dial-up Modem
in B flat major, the tent is a plague of hands

but no-one checks where Virginia lands.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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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