Singer Vera Lynn, ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’, died at the venerable age of 103, and there’s hardly an English heart that doesn’t feel sorrow.
My heart is English only vicariously, but I too felt sad on hearing the news. For I was moved each time I heard her recorded voice singing “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…” I hated myself afterwards, for being a mawkish sentimentalist, but there was little to be done about that.
Every nation has songs conveying similar sentiments, war songs outlasting the war. For example, I’m sure Germans still get soppy listening to recordings of Marlene Dietrich’s Lili Marleen – although I suspect the French may have mixed feelings about Maurice Chevalier’s Paris reste Paris.
Now my memory is weird. I have none at all for numerals: the only phone number I remember is my home’s in London. When I need my number in France or that of my mobile, I have to look them up.
However, my memory for words is well above average. I’m not going to boast about my English vocabulary, that being a tool of my trade. But I do remember, trivially and uselessly, the complete lyrics of hundreds of songs in two languages, and God only knows how many poems.
Dozens of the songs I know are Russian ballads, written during or at least about the war. Some of them are as poignant as We’ll Meet Again, some even more so. But the point I wish to make is that there are indeed dozens of them.
Thus it was to my shame that I realised that Dame Vera’s signature tune is the only wartime English song I knew. I made an effort to jog my memory and still drew a blank – apart from a British ditty about the testicular deficiency of Nazi leadership and the American typological equivalent Right in der Führer’s Face.
Considering that I’ve spent most of my adult life in an Anglophone environment, these were slim pickings indeed. And there I was, thinking I had absorbed every particle of my adopted culture.
Desperate to bridge that gap in my assimilation effort I asked my wife to mention a few wartime songs. No need to sing or recite the lyrics. Just tell me what they were.
Now Penelope isn’t just English, but what my erstwhile colleagues called ‘very English’, as if Englishness were a quantifiable concept. So she instantly came up with We’ll Meet Again and… well, We’ll Meet Again. That was it.
Of course Penelope is a concert pianist, whose musical experience leaves little room for downmarket genres. She’d have no problem recalling scores of Bach cantatas or Schubert lieder, but popular songs just aren’t part of her life.
Fair enough. Recognising that my research sample was too small, I rang a few English friends and asked the same question about songs from the Second World War. Much to my dismay I also got the same reply: “We’ll Meet Again.” “And what else?” “Er… We’ll Meet Again.”
I didn’t conduct a similar survey among my Russian friends, because I didn’t have to: I already knew what the result would be. Few of them would know by heart as many lyrics as I do, but none of them would fail to recall the titles of dozens of war songs, and perhaps a line or two in each.
This is a detail, but of the kind where the devil is. Because, applying Aristotle’s cognitive methodology, we can go from the particular to the general and ask the next question: How come the British know so few war songs (or just one) and the Russians know so many?
A single-word answer will suffice: exposure. Someone growing up in Russia, and not just immediately after the war but even now, wouldn’t be able to avoid, no matter how hard he tried, hearing whole medleys of war songs every day. However, a Briton would hardly ever hear them, and that’s without making a special effort of avoidance.
Next question: how come? Here I’d suggest that anyone who ponders this question properly will understand more about Russia than he will by perusing learned tomes.
Especially if he also compares the celebrations of Victory Day in Britain and Russia. In Britain, these are short and mournful. They are a cause for sorrowful remembrance and perhaps a prayer, not for bellicose drum-rattling, bugle-whining celebrations.
Which is exactly what they are in Russia. Tanks and ICBMs trundle over the cobbles of Red Square, troops goosestep, current leaders wave from the ziggurat housing Lenin’s mummy. Thousands of tipsy idiots crowd the streets, yelling “We can do it again!!!”
What can you do again, idiots? – I’m tempted to ask. Form an alliance with the most evil regime you can find? Carve up Europe with it? Flood it with supplies it needs to pounce on the West? Finally fall out with it? Fight the war so ineptly and with so much contempt for soldiers’ lives that the road from Moscow to Berlin is still paved with the bones of tens of millions? Loot and rape your way through Eastern Europe and then Germany? Install blood-stained regimes in Eastern Europe and reinforce your own?
Individuals think, but masses don’t. A wad of humanity is no longer quite human; it acts by reflexes nurtured and conditioned over a lifetime. And idolising the war is one reflex that’s hammered into the Russians before all others.
The victory bought at the expense of 27 million lives (including at least half a million of their own soldiers executed by the Soviets themselves) isn’t just a part of history – it’s the only self-legitimising factor of the regime, its stock reply to otherwise uncomfortable questions.
How come a third of the population starve? We won the war. Why is everything worth buying made abroad? We won the war. Why is Russia always at the bottom of every list dealing with civil rights and quality of life? We won the war. Why do Russians have to die in the Ukraine and Syria? We won the war.
This isn’t a simple Q&A exercise. A population has to be house-trained to lap up that ubiquitous answer, it has to be systematically brainwashed to scream “we can do it again” instead of “down with [the current father of the nation]”.
And war songs are a crucial part of that satanic programme of universal dumbing-down and brutalisation. That’s why all Russians grow up hearing them endlessly at home and everywhere they go – not just on Victory Day but every day.
Many of those songs are very good individually; some even better than We’ll Meet Again. But unlike Vera Lynn’s classic, they aren’t pure in heart, not collectively at any rate. For everything that serves a sinister end is itself sinister.
Dame Vera Lynn, RIP.