Vera Lynn's soaring voice gave Britons hope when hope was most scarce | Joan Bakewell

In the war’s darkest days, Lynn’s songs of optimism and love exemplified the very best of what we thought ourselves to be

“We’ll meet again”: no lyrics and no song could be more blazingly appropriate to our times. It speaks to both the circumstances of the pandemic and the sentiments of a funeral. And now Dame Vera Lynn, the person who immortalised that song and with it herself, has died aged 103. Sadness rather than regrets are in order: we all have to die. The times she celebrated are gone too, their last gasp distorted into the faux patriotism of Brexit.

Ever since her passing was announced on Thursday morning, the airwaves have been choked with tributes, reminiscences and celebrations. They are nothing if not adulatory of the woman and her life. Quite right too: she held a special place in the lives and experience of people like me who lived through the war years. What’s more, she sustained a major career as a musical and recording star through the decades since. She was always, even recently, a great entertainer.

Lynn’s iconic image depended on its purity and directness. Her songs took you right to the heart of what is seen as the spirit of Britain during the war. So much about her was right for the times: no lapses, no scandals, no disloyalty.

Take her looks: a tall willowy blonde with tumbling page-boy curls, pert little hats, smart dresses, but not elaborate or fancy. She was the perfect cross between Hollywood glamour girls such as Betty Grable and the homely girl-next-door style of Britain’s Dora Bryan. She was the sort of pin-up that servicemen could fantasise about marrying. There was nothing overbearing or threatening about her. Indeed, she glowed with sincerity and integrity. You knew she meant it, whatever “it” was.

And “it” was expressed in her songs. They spoke of love and of hope, optimism and triumph. They spoke for young lovers parted by war and facing danger and death, both in battle and on the home front. She was well served by lyricists who caught brilliantly the mood of yearning and located it in symbolic places – Berkeley Square, the white cliffs of Dover.

All the songs’ references are clear-eyed, shining with the prospect of happiness: “love and laughter”, “peace ever after”, “magic abroad in the air”, “keep smiling through”, “some sunny day”. They were classless in their appeal, admired by everyone from the young pilots defending our skies in the Battle of Britain to the troops fighting in the Burmese jungle; from the young women called up to man the factories to the young princesses, Margaret and Elizabeth. The latter would later astutely promise “we will meet again” at the lowest point of the coronavirus pandemic. Lynn was a major contributor to sustaining public morale, playing directly into the government’s message that we would finally win the war.

In the early 1940s, when her recordings were being made, that was seriously in doubt. The British had been driven from Dunkirk (British insouciance interpreted it as a victory). The blitz hit major cities: London, Plymouth, Coventry, Manchester, Liverpool. British spitfires engaged German bombers over the South Downs. There was rationing and shortages.

Things weren’t good at home, but they were worse for British possessions abroad: Singapore fell in February 1942, Malta was under siege; our armies suffered losses in North Africa; the Battle of the Atlantic was taking a huge toll on our merchant fleet – the outlook was terrible. In 1942 there were even rumblings that we might have to consider surrender. Never was the sweet soaring voice of hope more ironic and more needed.

And it was the voice that soared over the nation. There was no television at all, the service had been suspended for the duration of the war. Gramophone records were fragile shellac discs. I had a modest collection of my own, including Joe Loss’s In the Mood; before the war, Lynn had sung with his band. Now radio was king and here she also triumphed. She was the go-to voice of the younger generation, presenting a programme called Sincerely Yours, sending messages to British troops serving abroad. Again, she was the surrogate girlfriend, daughter, girl-next-door. There was no one to match her.

In the decades that followed she continued to record, and to appear in celebratory events of all kinds, including four Royal Variety Performances. Throughout the years, she dedicated herself to charity work, was showered with awards and honours, and remained her generous, dedicated self. Such a career trajectory was outstanding for a woman of her time. No male entertainer did as much.

But there is an illusion around in some quarters that these times – Vera Lynn times – were the best of Britain. The drive towards Brexit has exploited the idea that there was a golden age quite recently when the British all pulled together – when women were happy to be housewives, teenagers were temperate and patriotic and workers were compliant and hard-working. There were, in fact, strikes during the war, the black market flourished and many women were happy to be given wartime jobs.

There is a hankering to recapture the supposed virtues and cohesion of society as it was during the war. But contemporary evidence – such as that in the Mass Observation Archive – tells how our community in the 1940s was much as it always had been: full of guile and of generosity, passion and indifference, a mix of honour and of criminality, of community spirit and self-interest.

The outpouring of our love for Lynn is because she exemplifies in the clear message of her songs and her life the very best of what we thought ourselves to be. We who are old mourn, in losing her, the vision she gave us of our younger, happier selves yearning for love and peace – as we still do.

• Joan Bakewell is a broadcaster, writer and Labour peer


Joan Bakewell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Dame Vera's voice of hope | Michele Hanson

Michele Hanson: Lovely tunes are so out of favour nowadays – it's fabulous to see the 92-year-old Lynn's uplifting song top the charts once more

Michele Hanson

14, Sep, 2009 @2:06 PM

Article image
Dame Vera Lynn, singer and 'forces' sweetheart', dies aged 103
Much-loved entertainer, whose voice brought Britain together during the second world war, has died

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

18, Jun, 2020 @10:45 AM

Article image
Dame Vera Lynn obituary
Singer known as the ‘Forces Sweetheart’ whose recordings of We’ll Meet Again and The White Cliffs of Dover shaped the national mood in wartime Britain

Dave Laing

18, Jun, 2020 @10:11 AM

Article image
Vera Lynn: the best of the wartime spirit, not its continuation by other means | Stephen Moss
Despite the flag-waving that accompanied the ‘forces’ sweetheart’ at commemorative events, her songs encapsulate fellowship and battling through rather than jingoism

Stephen Moss

18, Jun, 2020 @2:10 PM

Article image
Dame Vera Lynn leads list of this year's top-selling female artists
Singer who was ‘forces’ sweetheart’ has highest-selling album released by woman in 2017, the year of her 100th birthday

Nadia Khomami

05, Oct, 2017 @3:10 PM

Article image
We'll Meet Again: how toxic nostalgia twisted Vera Lynn's pop masterpiece
The song’s magic lay in its poignancy – the very quality that has led to Britain’s parochial obsession with the second world war

Luke Turner

18, Jun, 2020 @3:24 PM

Article image
At 92, forces' sweetheart Vera Lynn tells her life story

Seventy years after the start of the second world war, Vera Lynn is to publish her memoirs

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

15, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Katherine Jenkins to perform VE Day concert at empty Royal Albert Hall
Singer will perform duet with Dame Vera Lynn in show being streamed on Friday

Caroline Davies

04, May, 2020 @1:55 PM

Article image
We'll meet again ... in court. Dame Vera Lynn, 91, takes on BNP

Forces' sweetheart consults solicitor after discovering White Cliffs CD for sale on BNP website

Stephen Bates

19, Feb, 2009 @12:01 AM

Article image
Sculpture of Dame Vera Lynn planned for cliffs of Dover
Family announce memorial for singer who died last year aged 103

Molly Blackall

20, Mar, 2021 @5:06 PM