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The Nightingale Sings

November 2023

This past week, I committed a couple of bold acts. I translated “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” into French. I then proceeded to sing my version of a song made magnificently famous by the late Vera Lynn.


An hour later, after I’d sung an acceptable version for this website, I conducted some research on that part of the history of The Forces’ Sweetheart.


Boy, am I ever glad and thankful that I waited until I’d performed my vocals on a song that is imbued with World War II, and whose sensibility imbues my novel, THE DAWN.


I’ve already written an essay about the attitudes of the BBC toward American music broadcast in England during that fight to save Western Civilization from the Nazis and the Fascists (See The Bands and the Beeb). I’ve firmly concluded that the BBC has always been a stinker, and is still a stinker, more today than ever.


What I’d not known is the utterly appalling attitudes and opinions of the BBC — and Parliament — toward an infinitely patriotic and brave young Englishwoman whose strong voice of hope soared over all of the despair in, and the firebombings of, her beloved native England.


Vera Lynn, according to her friend, the Welsh entertainer Harry Secombe, joked that “Churchill didn’t beat the Nazis. Vera sang them to death.”



And the thanks that Vera Lynn received from her governmental comrades, after the war, was akin to that given to Winston Churchill:


The war’s over now. You’re not needed. Good riddance.


Even more despicable was the treatment of a young woman, who was not much more than a girl at the start of World War II, by the BBC, and by a few hoity-toity Members of Parliament.


The British intellectuals have almost succeeded in being the death of them all Over There. But the rank hypocrites in Parliament during that war would have been — without that British Bulldog, Winston Churchill — the death of them all right then and there in 1940. Churchill certainly knew who those stinkers were — and they were glad to get rid of him, post VE Day.


Vera Lynn devoted her life to voicing the warmth of her genuine optimism during some of the darkest days of the history of England. Born of the working class in East Ham, Essex, Lynn, from a young age, possessed a uniquely rich contralto, reaching later into the mezzo-soprano range, with an alluring and powerful “sob” in that remarkable timbre.


After the war, her radio programme and any work with BBC Radio came to a grinding halt because the Head of Variety told her that the “sob stuff” was outmoded. Years later, this marketing expert would be quoted as “still looking for the new Vera Lynn.”


The Officials of the BBC, and even some MPs of that merry olde England didn’t deserve a new Vera Lynn. They took the old Vera Lynn, her vibrant brightness and her pluck, her volunteering to put herself in harm’s way to entertain the Forces, and they showed themselves to be the stinkers they were, and still are. I wonder if being the Sweetheart of the Forces ultimately worked against her in the eyes of the BBC.


The peoples of England grew to love her, and faithfully and fervently tuned into her radio show, Sincerely Yours, in fantastic numbers. Behind the publicity scenes, however, the brassy brass at the BBC were pitching fits which approached the snobby pique reserved for le Général, General Charles de Gaulle.


Her most popular and inspirational songs, performed with her calm but ardent assurance, and an indefatiguable optimism, were drawing huge numbers of listeners to the Beeb. Assembled members of the august BBC Committee deplored her show, but they cynically took note of its popularity.


Vera Lynn was clearly a problem that had to be dealt with — in the BBC way.


The gross opposition to this patriotic show of patriotism had its roots in the style of singing that quite naturally belonged to Lynn. An overall objection and supercilious dislike of “crooning” was rife amongst the elitist BBC heads. I don’t find the direct and well-enunciated singing of Lynn to even approach crooning. This young Englishwoman, though, had chosen to perform a ditty or two written by an American.


“The White Cliffs of Dover” was sent out over the airwaves in 1942. It was thrillingly confident and movingly patriotic — despite having been composed by Americans. (Now I know why there were musical bluebirds put into a part of the world where, in reality, they don’t ever fly.)


The intense dislike by the BBC of crooners, male crooners, and, above all else, American male crooners, must have elicited an automatic response from Bing Crosby to go sing over there often, very often! Dean Martin, on the other hand, entertained in England after the war. He felt so disgusted by the treatment he received from certain officials that he vowed never to return to England to entertain, and he never did.


Lynn was spared the uppity ire of the Civilizational Censors because her voice was bringing in the radio-numbers, big-time. The heads at the BBC, though, snootily maintained their keen dislike of crooners, deeming that vocal style overly sentimental and tinged (tainted) with Americanisms.


In Parliament, the singing voice of Lynn was verbally attacked as being likely to undermine the morale of the British fighting men. One MP (whose name is somehow lost to history) critiqued her speaking voice as “refined Cockney.”


Vera Lynn, stung by this cuttingly unfair statement, replied that “millions of Cockneys are fighting in this war.”


Perhaps her persistent spunk, her resilient spirit, and her unwavering sense of loyalty to her cherished homeland were factors in the refusal to grant this patriot an Order of the British Empire until — 1969 — 24 years, almost a quarter of a century after the end of World War II in the European theater.


In very recent years, traitors in the Commonwealth have been tossed OBEs after 24 minutes, if not 24 seconds, of their perfidy against the peoples of that ancient land.


Vera Lynn was made a dame in 1975. Better late than never.


As the moderns Over There attempted to use her image, her voice, and her historic role in defeating despair, and in helping to defeat the ravenous enemy called Nazis, Lynn had to engage in legal battles to reclaim her dignity, publicly and privately.


The nightingale that sang in Berkeley Square was Vera Lynn. She’ll not be forgotten by the people who count — the patriots of embattled nations where the enemy is now within.



Un rossignol a chanté dans Berkeley Square


A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square

Music by Manning Sherwin, with lyrics by Eric Maschwitz;

Translated into French by Debra Milligan


Cette certaine nuit,

la nuit où nous rencontrions

La magie française circulait dans l’air

Les anges dinaient au Ritz

et un rossignol a chanté

dans Berkeley Square.


Je peux avoir raison, je peux avoir tort

mais je suis parfaitement disposée

à jurer

que lorsque tu a tourné et a souri à moi


un rossignol a chanté dans Berkeley Square.


La lune s’est attardée sur Londres-ville

Pauvre lune perplexe

elle a fait une moue

Elle ne pouvait savoir que

nous deux

tombaient tant amoureux


Le monde satané entier semblait renversé.


Les rues de la ville étaient pavées d’astres

C'était une affaire tant romantique

et alors que nous nous embrassions

et disaient bonne nuit


un rossignol a chanté dans Berkeley Square.


Lorsque l’aube brumeuse s'est levée

pleine de bleu doré

pour interrompre

notre romance

Je me souviens encore

de comment tu a souri et a demandé


Est-ce un rêve

ou est-ce vrai ?


Notre pas de retour était

aussi léger

que les pieds claquetants

d’Astaire


et comme un écho de loin


un rossignol a chanté dans Berkeley Square.


Je le sais car j’étais là


cette nuit-là

dans

Berkeley Square.


Original lyrics:


That certain night, the night we met

There was magic abroad in the air

There were angels dining at the Ritz

And a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square


I may be right, I may be wrong

But I'm perfectly willing to swear

That when you turned and smiled at me

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square


The moon that lingered over London town

Poor puzzled moon, he wore a frown

How could he know we two were so in love?

The whole darn world seemed upside down


The streets of town were paved with stars

It was such a romantic affair

And as we kissed and said goodnight

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square


When dawn came steaming up all golden blue

To interrupt our rendezvous

I still remember how you smiled and said

Was that a dream? Or was it true?


Our homeward step was just as light

As the tap dancing feet of Astaire

And like an echo far away

A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square


I know 'cause I was there

That night in Berkeley Square

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