2. Vera Lynn – A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1940)

Alongside Noël Coward, I figured we should also have a song from Vera Lynn, a singer who will be linked forever in the English consciousness with World War II, when she was the nation’s biggest star. She is best known for rousing patriotic anthems like “There’ll Always Be An England,” “We’ll Meet Again,” and “The White Cliffs of Dover,” but I’m a lot more impressed by this gorgeous ballad about a being out on a perfect date, one night in London. (We usually think of Paris and Rome as the most romantic cities of Europe, but I’d suggest that London has a lot to recommend it in the romance department as well.)

The other reason that I wanted to post a song from Vera Lynn was to get everyone to think for a moment about the Blitz. For more than eight months in 1940 and 1941, the German Air Force (the Luftwaffe) sent nightly raids to bomb major urban centres in Britain, about a dozen in total, but with a special focus on London. The raids sometimes focused on strategic military and industrial targets, but they were also in large part designed to terrorize and demoralize British civilians. Some 40,000 British civilians were killed in total (about half of them in London, which at one stretch was bombed for 76 consecutive nights) and more than 1,000,000 houses in London alone were damaged or destroyed over the eight months, but — according to the national legend — the British remained stoical and undismayed throughout the ordeal.

In any case, I bring this up because 70 years later, the Blitz is still surprisingly prominent in the public consciousness. It turns up in British movies and TV shows and novels and advertisements all the time — I’ve been in the UK for a month now and have probably seen a dozen representations of the Blitz in this time. It’s worth asking: what is it about the Blitz that has made it so continuously appealing to the British over the course of 70 years?  The British have much to be proud of, but why does this moment in particular stand out for them?  (We might similarly ask: why did the Americans make so many movies about Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s, but almost none since 2001?)

Vera Lynn, by the way, is still alive and well, now 94 years old. She released a Greatest Hits album in 2009 which, amazingly, went to the top of the charts in the UK, making her the oldest living artist to have a Number One record. Clearly there’s something going on in the British present that is making them nostalgic for this particular moment in the British past. Thoughts?

Vera Lynn

Vera Lynn

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5 thoughts on “2. Vera Lynn – A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (1940)

  1. Jessamyn Martinez says:

    My thought on this — with my super limited knowledge of London during that time, is that it was a major defining moment. The same way the defining moment in German history was Hitler’s decision to not pull out his troops during the Russian winter, that really changed the war. It was a major test of their will power as a country, and I listened to the song while pondering what the strong pull towards this particular moment in history could be…
    The song has a moment where she sings about feeling like the world is upside down, on one level the song is about two lovers, but on another it is about Londoners and their love for their city. Which will win out: their love or the ending of the night?

    And I think the equivalent to American history would be George Washington stuck in Valley Forge with his troops. At this point they have suffered defeat after defeat and it is looking very grim for Americans. Then Washington crosses the Delaware River and attacks the British on Christmas Day, now known as the Battle of Trenton. During that time in Valley Forge, when the winter was taking out their numbers and victory seemed like an illusion I’m sure the Americans felt the way the British did during their 76 consecutive nights of bombing.

    Just a thought.

    • Interesting! Valley Forge hadn’t occurred to me — although, as a Canadian, I’m a little hazy on a lot of American history.

      For me the obvious parallel in the US would be 9/11 (and I’ve wondered a little if one of the reasons I’ve seen so many references to the Blitz this past month has to do with the tenth anniversary of 9/11). But of course there are major differences here as well. Maybe the connection would be stronger if we focused only on the NYPD and FDNY stories from 9/11and not the stories about catastrophe and loss — the Blitz narratives over here are much more about the valor and stoicism of regular people, not so much about victimization or vilification.

      And of course the Blitz was a turning point in British economic history as well — it’s the last gasp of the empire, as Britain began its transformation from “global superpower” to “leading ally of a global superpower.”

  2. Cool — thanks, David!

  3. Sophie says:

    Just to provide some context from a personal perspective: my great-grandmother, who was a Romanian Jewish immigrant, lived in Berkeley Square during the war. Many immigrants, émigrés and expatriates lived around and near the Square, including the Hollywood actor Edward G. Robinson, who once gave her a pair of silk stockings (very hard to come by during rationing!). So Berkeley Square (which, point of information, is now the location of the American Embassy in London, with its anti-tank barriers) was a byword for a fragile bubble of cosmopolitan London, a reminder of the social mobility and romantic/erotic opportunity afforded by the war. Sarah Waters’ novel The Night Watch offers a great portrait of a small and tentative gay community formed during the Blitz, and was recently adapted as a TV film.

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