In honour of Remembrance Day, this week First Person looks at the memories and heartache of war.
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That unmistakable voice sang as the night came on. Each of us was alone in the gathering darkness, yet all of us were overcome together with the shared feelings she sang to us. It was the most wonderful group emotion I have ever felt.
We all began crying: all 60,000 of us in the late London twilight. We all recognized her unforgettable song, as only she could sing it. I could hear the quiet sobbing of the crowd around me, the hushed catching of breath as our tears flowed. We could not help it. Her song made all of us weep.
Dame Vera Lynn was singing The White Cliffs of Dover, the great Second World War classic of the London Blitz. It was the finale of a concert in Hyde Park on the eve of the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, when the war in Europe ended.
As a baby boomer of the postwar years, I knew about the world war, knew Vera Lynn’s songs, even though my father had fought on the enemy side. That did not matter as I wept with that crowd in May, 1995.
Vera Lynn’s voice, her song and our tears all came back to me when I heard of her death this June at the age of 103.
Of course, I knew the famous words of her song’s haunting opening lines: “There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow just you wait and see.” Her voice, with its characteristic and pronounced crystal clarity, held each of the words long enough so that they went deep inside and stayed with you.
There was longing for a better future in the song’s opening words, a sense of freedom in the blue birds, the promise of a better tomorrow for you, if only you would wait. Those were powerful feelings in 1940 as the German bombers flew over Britain, killing and wounding and setting fire to the world below in a total war that marked no difference between soldiers and civilians.
The white, chalk cliffs of Dover that spoke of home and that had protected the British Isles now guided the bombers to their targets. But Vera Lynn’s song put hope back into those cliffs. She sang of love and peace and a time “when the world is free” and the war will be over. Most moving was the promise in her song when she sings, “And Jimmy will go to sleep in his own little room again.”
Children by the thousands had been evacuated (some of them sent as far as Canada) from the targeted cities, or spent the night in air-raid shelters. For wartime mothers of those children, those lyrics must have hit deep. If you were a father, in uniform and far from home, Vera Lynn’s distinctive voice, with its feminine force of feeling, must have provoked a longing for the loved ones you missed.
Her song over, followed by a thunder of applause, we thronged out over the grass and footpaths of Hyde Park into the London night. With David James, my old friend from university who had invited my wife Ann, five-year-old daughter Catherine and me to their Chelsea flat, we walked, mostly in silence, back to his place.
Everyone there had gone to bed. It was an unusually hot early May night in London and all the windows were open. Bitten by the reporter’s bug even though I was on vacation, I knew I had to write about what I had experienced and send it home to my newspaper, The Kingston Whig-Standard. So I sat in the glow of my laptop’s screen and was tapping away about the concert after everyone else went to bed, alone in the night as the cool breeze wafted in from the open window.
That’s when the second Vera Lynn musical miracle happened.
Suddenly, wonderfully complex bird song came out of the night, overwhelming the background din of the great city. I had never heard one before, but I knew with certainty that the bird was a nightingale. As the poet John Keats had written, the bird was singing "of summer in full-throated ease.”
And I couldn’t help but remember that other famous Vera Lynn wartime classic: A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. She sings of two lovers, perhaps both of them, but certainly the man, on leave from military duty and on the town in London. To the evocative sound of woodwinds and strings, she begins: “That certain night, the night we met, there was magic abroad in the air.” She remembers dining at the celebrated Ritz Hotel, her lover turning to smile at her, when they hear the nightingale in Berkeley Square.
“It was such a romantic affair,” she sings with that purity of voice that makes each word so distinctively musical and unforgettable that you become one with the song. That is the essential romance of her singing, made even more emotively powerful, I imagine, in wartime, when you cannot escape the dread that you can lose everything in your life.
So on that certain night, 25 years ago in London, I heard two nightingales, and was forever enchanted by hearing the voice and song of Vera Lynn.
Steve Lukits lives in Kingston.