We’ll Meet Again/There’ll Always Be an England

The Queen does not often quote pop lyrics, but she did two months ago, in her address to the Commonwealth from within her regal quarantine, assuring her subjects that “we will meet again”. Even the CBC, which since Mansbridge’s retirement often gives the impression it has no memory of anything before Pierre Trudeau’s later ministries, managed to get the allusion:

‘We will meet again,’ she pointedly said in a direct reference to the most famous British song from the war years of the 1940s, when she was a teenager.

And perhaps we will meet again …but not with the lady who made that song a hit and kept it in the affections of her compatriots for eight decades. Vera Lynn died on Thursday, a few weeks after her 103rd birthday. This is the version of “We’ll Meet Again” most often heard these days – Dame Vera, with Roland Shaw’s orchestra and a chorus of Her Majesty’s sailors, soldiers and airmen, recorded in 1953, by which time “the Forces’ Sweetheart” and the song and the war and the men were all of a piece:

To be sure, the song has a life beyond the war, and beyond Her Majesty’s Dominions. A few years ago, I heard Johnny Cash on NPR discussing his version of the tune, and telling his interviewer that it was a Rodgers & Hammerstein song. Needless to say, Mr Cash’s error went unremarked. Hard to think of anything that sounds less like Rodgers melodically or lyrically less like Hammerstein at even his most larks’n’anthropomorphized-hearts sentimental:

We’ll Meet Again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know We’ll Meet Again
Some sunny day…

It is, in fact, a British song, by Hughie Charles and Ross Parker, the team that gave the country its other great war anthem, of which more anon. I never knew Ross Parker, but I met Hughie Charles a couple of times, and at one point his grandson Léon happened to be musical director for my Sweet Gingerbread Girl Jessica Martin. In 1938, Charles & Parker had written their first hit song, “I Won’t Tell A Soul (That I Love You)”, recorded by a handful of the top British dance bands – Roy Fox, Victor Sylvester, Lew Stone. A year later, like most Denmark Street songwriters, they were trying to figure out a musical angle on the ever more imminent war. They made an attempt at a local version of “God Bless America”, and then they decided to address the impending global apocalypse rather more obliquely:

Keep smiling through
Just like you always do
Till the blue skies
Drive the dark clouds far away…

Its slightly stodgy optimism is quintessentially British. In that summer of ’39, they passed it to the bandleader Ambrose, who’d taken on a young singer called Vera Lynn. She’d sung with the Charlie Kunz orchestra and had made her first solo record with a childhood evocation called “Up The Wooden Hill To Bedfordshire”, which you can hear on this weekend’s Mark Steyn Show. It wasn’t a hit, but Hughie Charles considered Vera “a very nice kid” and thought “We’ll Meet Again” would be right for her.

The very nice kid was born Vera Margaret Welch on March 20th 1917 in East Ham, in the East End of London. Her father was a plumber called Bert and her mother a dressmaker called Annie. She told me her dad was easygoing and not particularly exercised by fame and fortune, but mum had drive and energy and ambition for her little girl. She made her debut as a public performer at the age of seven in an East End working men’s club, and took her singing seriously enough to adopt at eleven her maternal grandmother’s maiden name for her stage persona: Vera Lynn. Miss Lynn made her broadcast debut on the BBC at eighteen and was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall by twenty. During her late teens, she sang in the evening and got up each morning to work as a secretary at a shipping company, but everyone seemed to discern that the “very nice kid” would not need a day job for long.

From her first recorded performance, she always had great enunciation – and a very direct and sincere tone. But in 1939 she wasn’t a star, and no one wanted to spend money on a big orchestra. So “the most famous British song from the war years” started life with just a girl singer and Arthur Young on the ghostly “Novachord” – a sort of protean synthesizer invented the year before:

As Dame Vera told me back in the Nineties, audiences responded to it immediately, and it quickly became her sign-off song in engagements with Ambrose and his orchestra. During the eight months of the “Phoney War” (from Britain’s declaration in September 1939 to Germany’s invasion of France and the Low Countries), The Daily Express polled British servicemen on their favorite musical artistes – and to everyone’s astonishment the still somewhat obscure Miss Lynn came out on top. So they called her “the Forces’ Sweetheart”, because the squaddies adored her before most people had even heard of her. The Phoney War turned real, and Vera became a solo performer, on stage in Coventry in July 1940. The BBC gave her a radio show – at two-thirty in the morning, for all the troops east of Suez, and she cemented the bond between them. Then came a British humiliation – the fall of Singapore -and in a characteristically stupid move the brass canceled the show for fear Miss Lynn’s sentimental songs were bad for the chaps’ morale. Young Vera was unfazed: She toured with ENSA, and sang to the boys direct, spending three months in Burma at a time when it was a very dangerous place to be.

“We’ll Meet Again” made Vera Lynn a star, and Vera Lynn made “We’ll Meet Again” the song of the era. In 1943 Columbia Pictures (whose name will surely have to be changed, won’t it?) built a film around the song and starred Vera as a thinly disguised “Peggy”, a music-hall dancer with a composing friend who writes a song for her. Miss Lynn was never really an actress, but she didn’t have to be for this picture, because all she had to do was do what she’d done in front of thousands upon thousands of British troops around the world:

The sound of Britain at war is Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” – and, despite the general English antipathy to audience participation, she never had to cajole the Tommies or anybody else into joining in:

So will you please say hello
To the folks that I know?
Tell them I won’t be long
They’ll be happy to know
That as you saw me go
I was singing this song

We’ll Meet Again…

That’s right, it’s one of those songs in which you sing about the song you’re singing even as you sing it. That middle section is the trick of the whole thing: It has an affable ease; it’s a textbook definition of what Betty Comden used to call “the singable song”, not merely a number you want to hear some guy do on the jukebox but one you can’t help singing yourself. Until the lockdown, if the RyanAir flight was delayed and the Costa-bound Brits were slumped at the gate waiting in vain for an explanation as to what’s going on, the urge to sing “We’ll Meet Again” seemed to rise spontaneously in their collective gullets and burst forth. If you treat the number as an anthemic Brit singalong, you can’t go wrong. If you make the mistake of treating it as a real ballad – as an “I’ll Be Seeing You” or “As Time Goes By” – you’ll come a cropper. In the early Sixties, Frank Sinatra came to London to make what would be his only album ever to be recorded outside the United States, Great Songs From Great Britain. And the minute they got wind of that title every songwriter from Noël Coward down was trying to push his best material on Frank. Instead, for reasons best known to Sinatra and his arranger Robert Farnon, the final selection included “We’ll Meet Again”, whose stoic sexlessness Frank can’t get his head around at all.

But sometimes you don’t need Sinatra. After the war, Vera Lynn was certainly known in America: In the Fifties, before the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or anybody else, “Auf Wiedersehen, Sweetheart” made her the first UK pop star ever to have a Number One hit on the Billboard charts. But the scale of her wartime celebrity in Britain and much of the Commonwealth was of an entirely different order – and, even as post-war decline accelerated, the gulf between the ghastliness of the present and the greatness of the past only confirmed Vera Lynn in the affections of her countrymen.

In my BBC days, I chanced at one point to see a memo on the corporation’s plans for a post-nuclear Britain. In the event of the country getting nuked by the Soviets, some two-dozen underground bunkers around the British Isles would provide public service announcements and general morale boosting, as part of which there would be extensive broadcasts of Dame Vera singing “We’ll Meet Again”, notwithstanding that the odds of so meeting would now be considerably longer. Maybe, in the event of an Iranian strike, the same old plans will be dusted off and put into action. I wonder if Peter Sellers, who suggested the use of “We’ll Meet Again” to Stanley Kubrick for the finale of Dr Strangelove, had also seen the BBC nuclear melodies line-up.

After Strangelove, there were two “We’ll Meet Agains”, the real thing and a rather flatfooted and heavy handed attempt at ironic subversion, which never quite came off. One reason, I think, is that the song’s resilience already has a kind of loopiness about it. Rosemary Clooney told me about playing the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium in front of the Queen a few years back. She was sitting in her dressing room, and musing on her earlier Palladium appearances, with Bing Crosby and other pals no longer with us. And she must have looked a bit glum because when Shirley Bassey caught a glimpse of her in the mirror she decided to cheer Rosie up by singing “We’ll Meet Again”. And, by the time they got to the middle eight about saying hello to the folks that you know, Rosie threw in the towel and she and Shirl finished the song together. (By the way, the subsequent Clooney recording is one of the best.) The cheerless British Fifties and the imperial sunset did more to “We’ll Meet Again” than Kubrick and the ironists ever could.

In Mark Steyn’s Passing Parade, I recall a rather depressing lunch presided over by Princess Margaret, at which I sat next to Dame Vera and her husband (and former clarinetist) Harry. But I was impressed by the way she sent back the avocado vinaigrette with the splendid dismissal “This foreign food disgrees with me.” And I was rather touched to find that, despite her advance from Forces’ Sweetheart to national icon, she still had a pronounced Cockney in her speaking voice.

Not when she sang, though. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” is a lovely record, though it was surely not a part of town her young self would have been familiar with. It’s not a creamy voice, like GI Jo Stafford’s or the other American band canaries. Young Vera was pretty but not glamorous – like a girl next door who just happened to be incredibly famous, and who could infuse the catchpenny sentiments of sometimes very ordinary popular song with something tender and honest.

Those qualities came in useful on that other song of Hughie Charles and Ross Parker that they wrote in 1939. Like many foreigners, I learned the American landscape through songs – “Moonlight In Vermont”, “Old Kentucky Home”, “Yellow Rose Of Texas”, “Alabammy Bound”… English lyricists are more sheepish about place, and certainly more sheepish about home as an idea and an inspiration. But cometh the hour, cometh the songwriting team:

I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen
I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen
May this fair dear land we love so well
In dignity and freedom dwell…

Don’t recognize it? Well, the verse is largely forgotten – although it’s one of two big English hits to use the word “awry”, the other being Noël Coward’s “I’ll See You Again” : “Though my world may go awry”. It’s a lovely word, especially set to Coward’s notes. This second deployment of the thought is more pedestrian but it gets us nicely into the chorus:

Though worlds may change and go awry
While there is still one voice to cry

There’ll Always Be An England…

Ah, yes: a song that’s such a full-throated expression of love for England that it seems in some sense paradoxically unEnglish. And, in a way, that’s not surprising. It was April 1939, a very dark spring in Europe, and one concentrating the minds of Ross Parker and his publisher. “He said, ‘Ross, there’s a song doing very well in the States called “God Bless America”. Think you can do one like it?’ So I sat down and wrote, ‘There’ll Always Be An England’.”

In 1939, England didn’t seem so quite so obviously blessed by the Almighty as America, but Parker and Hughie Charles set to it. It’s a stirring declarative martial song but with, at least initially, oddly delicate imagery:

There’ll Always Be An England
While there’s a country lane
Wherever there’s a cottage small
Beside a field of grain…

Six years later, at the end of the war, Ivor Novello was writing:

We’ll Gather Lilacs in the spring again
And walk together down an English lane…

Even in a small and highly urbanized state, the idea of a rural England is very potent. I once had a long and rather moving conversation with Mrs Thatcher, as we stood side by side looking through the mullioned windows of an ancient manor house at the lawns and fields beyond, about how England had more or less invented the idea of the “countryside”. Not the semi-wilderness of the Great North Woods in Maine and New Hampshire, but a very ordered, very English kind of country – a patchwork of lanes and hedgerows and stiles centered around a church and a pub and a manor house. Even in the cities, the myth of a bucolic rural England is a potent one. So, having doffed his Denmark Street cap to it, Ross Parker moves on to the great industrial cities:

There’ll Always Be An England
While there’s a busy street
Wherever there’s a turning wheel
A million marching feet…

That’s more like it. Billy Cotton and his band introduced the song at the Elephant and Castle, and it went down so well it was decided it was just the ticket for a film called Discoveries, starring Doris Hare and Issy Bonn and a bunch of variety acts, and loosely inspired by a BBC talent-spotting show. It was August, the eve of war, and the picture had already been previewed, but the producers reckoned the public was hungering for a big patriotic finale. So they got in a ten-year old boy, Glynn Davies, to sing “There’ll Always be an England” accompanied by full chorus, military band, thousands (well, dozens) of extras on a set festooned in Union Flags, and grafted it on to the end of the movie. It was the first war song of the new struggle, not just for England, but for His Majesty’s realms beyond these islands:

Red, white and blue
What does it mean to you?
Surely you’re proud
Shout it aloud
‘Britons, awake!’

The Empire too
We can depend on you.
Freedom remains
These are the chains
Nothing can break….

And so it seemed, as an unprepared England found itself dragged into yet another European conflict. When the moment came for Britain and the Dominions to declare war on Germany, “There’ll Always Be An England” was the Number One song in Canada and many other parts of the Empire. Dennis Noble and Vincent Tildsley’s Mastersingers and a few other acts of the day had the first records on the song but it was a young female singer who embedded it in the heart of a nation. And when she got to the final eight bars, a contrived local knock-off of “God Bless America” was suddenly the real thing, genuine lump-in-the-throat stuff:

There’ll Always Be An England
And England shall be free
If England means as much to you
As England means to me!

This is Dame Vera’s 1960s remake for Parlophone Records:

Hughie Charles was a genial old fellow in a battered trilby enjoying his retirement by the time I met him. But I asked him whether Ross Parker had written the words “And England shall be free” as a conscious evocation of “Britons never never never shall be slaves” from “Rule, Britannia”, and he said he thought it was probably unconscious. If so, it was extremely fortuitous: A very foursquare song, it was nevertheless the one that summed up what was at stake in that testing time between the fall of France and Pearl Harbor when Britannia and her lion cubs stood alone. Its sentiment matched the challenge posed by Churchill: Does England mean as much to you as England means to me? If it does, we can press on, and win.

1939 set Hughie Charles and Ross Parker up very nicely for the next six years. But Vera Lynn was indispensable to both songs’ success. The soundtrack of Britain at war is her voice, whether singing “There’ll Always Be An England” or “We’ll Meet Again”.

After that rather strained luncheon with Princess Margaret, Dame Vera and Harry and I had a little chat about her songs. “They still like ‘We’ll Meet Again’,” she said (I seem to recall a couple of laddish telly pop stars had just had a Number One cover version with it). “But ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ is what they call ‘controversial’,” she added, lowering her voice, lest someone might overhear.

By “controversial”, she meant that the very concept of “England” was now officially discouraged. “There’ll Always Be An England” was conspicuous by its absence on her hundredth birthday album and her other hit CDs of this century. With one of her two signature songs all but banned from the airwaves, the survivor was imbued with a kind of pathos it had never had during the lowest moments of the Second World War. It came to symbolize simultaneously both Britain’s wartime defiance and a resigned acceptance of remorseless decline. To me, Dame Vera’s original near-eight-decade-old recording sounds sadder with every passing year:

We’ll Meet Again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know We’ll Meet Again
Some sunny day.

Will we? You can see what Dame Vera means about the “controversial” nature of “There’ll Always Be An England” at the Blairite website set up after the 2005 Tube bombings. Its object was to try to identify British “icons” around which a roiled nation could unite. In the comments responding to “There’ll Always Be…”, a reader who identifies himself as Alex rages that the song is “an appallingly syrupy anthem to petty nationalism and ‘little Englanders’. Haven’t two world wars shown us that nationalism is a scourge, a hangover from the tribal groupings of the Dark Ages? I’m a citizen of a united Europe, and proud to be so.” On the other hand, Margaret Stringfellow says, “The EU is hell bent on destroying England as a country, by replacing England by the Regions. There will not always be an England unless the English people wake up.”

Incidentally, that line of Alex is a classic example of how even Britons learn the wrong lessons from history – in this case that “two world wars” had exposed nationalism as “a scourge”. As for “appallingly syrupy”, evidently the country lane and field of grain no longer resonate, at least with him. In the early Nineties, to blunt the arguments advanced by the likes of Margaret Stringfellow, the Prime Minister John Major declared:

Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and, as George Orwell said, ‘Old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist’ and, if we get our way, Shakespeare will still be read even in school.

I doubt it. Old maids bicycling between the Euro-juggernauts on the bypass were a rare sight even a quarter-century ago, and will be rarer still circa the early 2040s. And I wonder if we’ll still be aware of “There’ll Always Be An England”. It’s a curious entry in the song catalogue. The phrase is known and, credited to Parker and Charles, turns up in Bartlett’s and any number of other collections of quotations. But it’s not sung very often and when it is – at least since Tiny Tim did it at the Isle of Wight pop festival in 1970 – it’s usually performed with heavy-handed irony.

Truly it belongs to a pre-ironic England. On November 25th 1941, off the coast of Alexandria, HMS Barham was torpedoed by a German U-boat during a visit to the battleship by Vice-Admiral Henry Pridham-Wippell. The ship lurched to its port side, the commanding officer was killed, and the vice-admiral found himself treading oil-perfumed water surrounded by the ship’s men and far from rafts. To keep their morale up, he led them in a rendition of “There’ll Always Be An England”. The 31,000-ton Barham sank in less than four minutes, the largest British warship destroyed by a U-boat in the course of the war. But 449 of its crew of 1,311 survived.

“There’ll Always Be An England” was written for that England.

It’s different now. It’s still a popular headline, but today there’s a question mark at the end, either explicit or implied. Dame Vera told me she still had her charts and could sing it at the drop of a hat – if anyone asked. But they never did. And that in itself made the penultimate line more conditional with each passing year:

There’ll Always Be An England
And England shall be free
If England means as much to you
As England means to me.

It did mean a lot to her. In 1919, aged two, she had contracted severe diphtheritic croup and had spent over three months in an isolation unit. One hundred and one years later she ended her century in a land of lockdown and mass isolation. Her last public performance came less than two months ago, in a special performance of “We’ll Meet Again” by West End theatre performers:

After three-and-a-half months of it I’m a bit Zoomed out, and a few of those in that video are auld acquaintances. But, for all the talent on display, I wonder how many could sell you on that song if it wasn’t already iconic. It takes something special to sell you a song you’ve never heard before, and something even rarer to raise it above all the other passing fancies cluttering the hit parade and make it not just an eight-week wonder but an eight-decade icon. I said about “There’ll Always Be An England” that there’s now a question mark at the end of the title. Notwithstanding Her Majesty’s assurances, I hear one in this song, too:

We’ll Meet Again
Don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know We’ll Meet Again
Some sunny day.

Nevertheless, here is Dame Vera in fine voice, just shy of eighty, on the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, taking a verse and chorus for herself at a lovely ballad tempo and then letting the crowd have their singalong:

Rest in peace.

~If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-audio companion, a bonus Song of the Week Extra, midweek on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show – and sometimes with special guests from Mark’s archive, including Eurovision’s Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone from Herman’s Hermits, Paul Simon, Lulu, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman.

Our Netflix-style tile-format archives for Tales for Our Time and Steyn’s Sunday Poems have proved so popular with listeners and viewers that we’ve done the same for our musical features merely to provide some mellifluous diversions in this age of lockdown and looting. Just click here, and you’ll find easy-to-access live performances by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Loudon Wainwright III; Mark’s interviews with Chuck Berry, Leonard Bernstein and Bananarama (just to riffle through the Bs); and audio documentaries on P G Wodehouse’s lyrics, John Barry’s Bond themes, sunshine songs from the Sunshine State, and much more. We’ll be adding to the archive in the months ahead, but, even as it is, we hope you’ll find the new SteynOnline music home page a welcome respite from house arrest without end and revolution on the streets.

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