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Vera Lynn didn't sing about war – she sang about hope

The Forces' Sweetheart eventually came to embody a nostalgia for the “Blitz spirit”, but her best music strikes a more uncertain note.

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Vera Lynn released her last original single in June 1982. When British troops returned from the Falklands, the 65-year-old avatar of wartime pluck greeted them at Portsmouth Harbour with “I Love This Land”, a bit of patriotic guff credited to Vera Lynn and the Victory Group. Now the Falklands conflict is as distant from us as it was from the D-Day landings, Britain’s nostalgia for the Second World War appears inexhaustible – and Lynn, as its living embodiment, was a physical or spiritual presence at every commemoration and jubilee. Recently, her signature song “We’ll Meet Again” was quoted by the Queen in her coronavirus address and entered the Top 75 in two different versions. Two months later Lynn died aged 103 on 18 June, the 80th anniversary of Churchill’s “finest hour” speech.

It is the fate of many singers to live for decades in the shadow of their youthful hits, but nobody has shouldered their past for as long as Lynn did, or with such good grace. “We’ll Meet Again” (1939) and “The White Cliffs of Dover” (1942) pre-date rock’n’roll, the UK pop charts and the long-playing album. It’s not that she refused to move on, but she knew what people really wanted from her. In 1952, the song that made Lynn the first British artist to top the US charts was “Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart”, another ballad of parting and reunion that included the line “we’ll meet again”. As the Beatles appeared on the music scene in 1962, Lynn released an album called Hits of the Blitz.

For most Britons, she was frozen in time as the working-class East Ender with the bright, strong voice and the modest, wholesome charm. Born in East Ham in 1917 to a plumber and a dressmaker, Lynn became a dance-band singer in her teens and was famous before she became the “Forces’ Sweetheart” (according to a 1940 poll of servicemen’s favourite singers) who entertained troops in far-flung theatres of war.

There was a showbiz joke at the time that the war must have been started by Vera Lynn’s agent. Songwriters loved her because she delivered their work with total sincerity and a very English romance. On “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, her first ornithologically incorrect classic, her voice is a music analogue to Brief Encounter. She had a timely gift for stoic yearning. “We’ll Meet Again” and “White Cliffs of Dover” were both promises of a return to peace and normality, recorded when there was no guarantee of either. Unlike “I Love This Land” or “There’ll Always Be an England” (1939), their patriotism was implicit; she was singing about the people rather than the country.

This common touch explains why her wartime radio show Sincerely Yours, broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme, was so popular, and why it was criticised for ­fostering unmanly amounts of sentimentality and homesickness in the troops. She sang not about war, but war’s eventual end.

Lynn, who was unwaveringly supportive of the armed forces but silent on divisive issues such as party politics, disdained the xenophobic strain of patriotism. Shortly before the war, she sang at a fundraiser to help get Jewish refugee children out of Nazi Germany. Seventy years later, she threatened the BNP with legal action for selling an album that included “White Cliffs of Dover”. (The song was in fact written by two Jewish Americans as a kind of Battle of Britain riff on “Over the Rainbow”, hence the misplaced bluebirds.) That was one benefit of her longevity: you can’t co-opt somebody’s legacy if she is still around to tell you no.

There remains an uncanny power in these songs, especially “We’ll Meet Again”. Whether used for irony (Dr Strangelove), tragedy (When the Wind Blows), catharsis (The Singing Detective) or camp (the Libertines’ reunion), it is universal musical shorthand for Britain at war. But which version? The most famous arrangement, debuted in the 1943 movie of the same name, but not released for another decade, makes the lyric an iron-clad promise by cutting straight to the chorus and featuring a lusty choir of servicemen. But the one she recorded in the war’s first month strikes an uncertain note. Accompanied by the eerie tremulations of the Hammond Novachord, the world’s first polyphonic synthesiser, 22-year-old Lynn really does not know where or when a ­reunion will be possible.

British war nostalgia derives from the knowledge of victory. It’s the possibility of defeat that distances the 1939 version from Churchill kitsch and Blitz cosplay and represents something truly worth remembering: resilience in the face of the unknown. 

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist, host of the Remainiacs podcast and author of The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell's 1984. He tweets at @Dorianlynskey.

This article appears in the 26 June 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Political football