“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