From Captain Tom Moore’s chart-topping You’ll Never Walk Alone to Katherine Jenkins’ charity take on Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again – a cover version as grey and sickly as 1940s rationed margarine – 2020 has been a year in which we’ve been reminded, more than ever, that British culture is unable to escape the long shadow of the second world war.
It was during that war that the beautiful We’ll Meet Again, all soaring optimism and poignant nostalgia, became one of the first great pop hits. It had a profound impact on the servicemen who, in a 1940 take on contemporary fandom, voted Vera Lynn their favourite musical artist. The 16m-Spotify-streams incarnation version we know best today is slightly different from the 1939 original, which began with a simple scale and the line: “Let’s say goodbye with a smile, dear.” This was eventually edited into a perfect three-minute pop song, instantly recognisable from the Roland Shaw Orchestra’s swinging intro, with the main lyric coming in before the 10-second mark. In this simplification, there’s an echo of how the meaning of the song has evolved over the decades.
Like all perfect pop songs, We’ll Meet Again became something more than itself. It undoubtedly meant so much to millions of women and men, uniformed or in civvies, as they faced situations that are unimaginable to us even today. That most popular version of the song is redeemed in the deeply affecting section in which Lynn’s voice is joined by a massed choir of servicemen.
Yet as the generation who fought the war have died, so a romantic view of the conflict has become weaponised in the construction of the myth of a plucky Britain, fighting alone against Nazi foes. Britain in 1940 wasn’t alone at all, with the resources of an empire behind it, but that hardly serves the war-evoking narrative that formed the core of so much discourse around Brexit and today’s culture war. The examples are numerous: Matt Hancock, now the UK’s bumbling health secretary, invoked D-day in a speech to launch his abortive Tory leadership campaign, and on “Brexit day” in January the Daily Mail printed a front page image of Dover’s white cliffs, immortalised in another of Vera Lynn’s wartime hits. In recent weeks, the tediously polarised argument over Churchill’s legacy has become tied up with discussions over monuments to our imperial past.
This jingoism has frequently been deployed as a smokescreen for government ineptitude over coronavirus and Lynn, the “forces sweetheart”, hasn’t been immune. On 28 May, the Sun published a front page with the headline “Ale Meet Again” above a picture of Boris Johnson brandishing a pint. On the same day, it was announced that the official death toll from Covid-19 had reached 37,837 – more than the number of Londoners killed by German action in the entire second world war.
I wonder now, reflecting on Vera Lynn’s life, if she was always entirely comfortable with the song that followed her through to the end of her 103 years. After all, when she appeared on the Morecambe & Wise 1972 Christmas special (and Morecambe got her confused with Gracie Fields), she refused to sing. As comedian Barry Cryer later recalled, Wise said: “Vera doesn’t know we want her to sing. How can we get her to sing?” with Morecambe replying: “Short of starting another war, I’ve no idea.” A comedy sketch, yes, but within it there might lie a kernel of truth. For Lynn, and for Britain, the war was never over.
In 1952 she became the first Briton to have a US No 1 with Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart; 30 years later her single I Love This Land was released when martial fervour was once again stoked by the Falklands war. In 2009, as Britain reeled from austerity, she became the oldest living person to have a No 1 album with a compilation of her hits called, of course, We’ll Meet Again. As the UK thrashed around in post-Brexit turmoil in November 2018, the choral group D-Day Darlings – finalists on Britain’s Got Talent – reached No 5 with an album featuring a cover of We’ll Meet Again, illustrated the singers dressed in 1940s RAF uniforms. Any honouring of the dead had tipped into a tacky, nostalgic martial fetish.
Throughout her postwar career, Lynn’s fame was trapped in symbiosis with the anxiety of a nation in decline, forever doomed to look into the past, to the time when Britain had its “finest hour”. Coincidentally, her death comes 80 years to the day since Churchill made the speech in which he coined that term.
Pop as good as We’ll Meet Again will always have a presence – it provides gravitas to any cause. Perhaps the most powerful use of the song is in Stanley Kubrick’s ever-timely Dr Strangelove, when in the final scene it drifts out, with savage irony, across a world disappearing into atomic fire. The version used by Kubrick also features a soldiers’ chorus and as I listen to it now, I think not just of the long life of Vera Lynn, but those millions of men and women from Britain and beyond to whom it gave so much hope, and whose memory we now see being so terribly abused.