Friday, 7 December 2018

The War on Chastity -- and Vera Lynn's part in it


"When the lights go on again all over the world ...
Then we'll have time for things like wedding rings"
(from "When the Lights Go on Again" by Bennie Benjamin, Sol Marcus and Eddie Seiler, Warner/Chappell Music)

I'm still immersing myself daily (on my drive to work) in the wartime hits of Vera Lynn and absolutely loving my fantasy of giving a Stars in Their Eyes type performance one day. My 'set' is up to ten songs now, none of them the ones that Vera is most famous for, and some of them still have the power to reduce me to tears, which is tricky when driving. It used to be "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" that made me blub, but thoroughly learning a song, including the timing of the crisp consonants that Vera always includes at the ends of her words (she has such exquisite diction!), seems to neutralise the devastating power of the lyrics after a while. Currently it's "How Green Was My Valley" and the end of "That Lovely Week-end" that still have the pathos to draw my tears.
     Singing these marvellous songs over and over has made me focus on the lyrics and what the effect of them must have been when they were hits during World War II. Two in particular have made me think about the way the war speeded up changes in behaviour and hastened the dismantling of sexual restrictions that we more often associate with the Sixties.
     When I was writing my novel, Don't You Ever Cry, which is set in 1946, I watched as many Forties films as I could and a strong theme I noticed in several of them was a push-me-pull-you wavering of the morality around women's sexuality and agency (see, for example, My Reputation from 1946). The war effort needed women to step up into men's roles, to do the work that the men had done before they went off to fight which was liberating and empowering. There was also an accelerated social acceptance of the idea that Our Boys should enjoy the love (and sex) of a good woman when they were on leave, to fortify them for their return to the front. Both of those things represented rapid and disruptive changes to the social structures that were in place before the war (such as 'saving yourself' until you were married -- of course not everyone did by any means but that was the social standard). Yet at the same time women were still expected to be good wives and mothers, and once the war was over they had to be able to be corralled back into the home, so that the men could have their jobs back again. To put it crudely, they had to pull off the old Madonna/whore conundrum, an almost impossible challenge. However, some of Vera's songs offer a kind of primer in how to do it.
     I'm going to look closely at two song lyrics. I think they contained interesting messages to the women who first heard them. There are links to YouTube so you can hear Vera's recordings.

First up is "That Lovely Week-end", written by Moira and Ted Heath and recorded by Vera in 1942. It's a narrative song in which Vera takes the part of a woman who has just spent the eponymous weekend with her soldier boyfriend. She's writing him a letter to thank him for "Those two days of heaven you helped me spend". Make no mistake, the song is about the fact that she slept with him during his weekend leave:

"To mark the occasion we went out to dine
Remember the laughter, the music, the wine..."
     Note that the one thing she doesn't mention is the food, which was probably not terribly nice, given rationing. The song continues:
"That drive in the taxi when midnight had flown
Then breakfast next morning, just we two alone."
     The lyrics can't touch on the sex itself, but they symbolise it by referring to the heady anticipation of a taxi ride back to the hotel and then with a jump over the intimate night-time hours to breakfast in their room. This is rather racy stuff for the time.
     The song has already established that the woman's boyfriend is worth risking her reputation for. Not only is he sexy ("The thrill of your kiss as you stepped off the train"), he's also kind ("The smile in your eyes like the sun after rain"). The whole premise of sleeping with your man before marriage is that he has to be worth it and the woman has to trust his commitment to a shared future. She isn't fooling around.
     After the dreamy melody of the verse, there's a bridge with a much more urgent and anxious feel -- the tone changes, there's a kind of crisis in both the music and the lyrics:


"You had to go, the time was too short
We both had so much to say
Your kit to be packed, the train to be caught
Sorry I cried but I just felt that way."
     Emotions are running high, understandably. She has given herself to her man and now, at the point of greatest intimacy, they have to part almost immediately and the chap is heading into mortal danger. But then the melody of the verse returns to pour balm on their wounds:
"And now you have gone, dear, this letter I pen
My heart travels with you till we meet again
Keep smiling, my darling, and someday we'll spend
A lifetime as sweet as that lovely weekend."
     I like the echo of Vera's greatest hit, "We'll Meet Again", recorded three years earlier so already embedded in the national conscience. The song's great payoff is the promise that the "lovely weekend" is just a taster of the long and happy life the couple will spend together. It combines reassurance that one day the misery of the war will be over (though it would be another three long years before peace was declared) with justification of the decision to have sex before marriage -- don't worry, ladies, you're simply borrowing a little intimacy on credit from your expected lifetime with your man. No doubt in many cases this didn't turn out to be the case, but I think the lyric represents a pragmatic squaring of the circle of chastity vs sexual reward for Our Boys.

The other song that seems to speak to the same anxiety -- and even more intimately -- is the wonderful "Room Five Hundred and Four" (lyrics by Eric Maschwitz, music by George Posford). It was written for Maschwitz's 1940 revue New Faces, which also gave us "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square". The sheet music above shows Judy Campbell, who was in the original cast. Vera Lynn recorded it in 1942, with Jay Wilbur and His Band. It's another narrative song in which a woman tells of a night spent with her lover in an expensive hotel. Unlike "That Lovely Week-end", the lyrics don't refer explicitly to wartime, but this story of one night in a hotel certainly fits in to the theme of squaring the circle of chastity vs the "gift of sex".

The first verse establishes the scene:
"Such a big hotel, a very grand one,
Right upon the avenue.
We could not afford it
But, Sweet, I just adored it,
My very first and only rendezvous"
     The modest bank balances of the pair are important to declare, so as not to alienate anyone listening -- this is an ordinary couple, just like you and me. The word "sweet", together with "sweetest" and "dearest", set the tone of non-threatening loveliness: this night of sex is going to be presented in as unthreatening manner as possible and, let's get this absolutely straight, our lady has never done anything like this before and never will again: her "first and only rendezvous". So don't go thinking she's some sort of loose woman.
     Let's go on to the next verse:
"In room five hundred and four,
So sweet a room, so strange and new,
It was romance, a dream come true
That perfect honeymoon alone with you
In room five hundred and four."
     The song is calling this a "honeymoon" but I don't think it's what we conventionally think of as a honeymoon, which is taken immediately after marriage. Rather, it's a kind of symbolic honeymoon -- as good as, a marker for the marriage that will surely follow. In this, it's exactly the same as "That Lovely Weekend" which looks forward to a "lifetime" together. Women were "allowed" to sleep with their boyfriend before marriage as long as they were fully committed to each other and intended to marry. In fact this get-around was socially sanctioned much longer ago than this -- in the 19th century the same quiet blind eye was turned to sex out of wedlock, as long as a couple were betrothed, certainly among the working class. But it was not alluded to in popular songs, as far as I know.
     The couple, no doubt by now anticipating their fast-approaching intimacy, go into their hotel room:

"We turned the key in the door
We hadn't dared to ask the price
That kind of thrill can't happen twice
And who could bargain over paradise
In room five hundred and four?"
     I love the line about bargaining over paradise, and the mention of a "thrill" is the raciest moment of the whole song. Let's not get overwrought, now! 

     Here comes the bridge:
"The lovely night, the starlight above,
The sleeping town below.
And in the dark you said, my love,
The dearest things I know."
     This is it, the actual bit where they, you know, do...it. In the dark. But the song veers away from passion and substitutes words in its place, the rather tame "dearest things I know". I feel this is part of the song's mission not to frighten the horses. As before, the sexual act is like an empty space at the heart of the song, and the lyrics always look away from it rather than at it -- up at the stars, down at the town, at the room itself, which becomes a metaphor for what happens there. The subtext of the song is that a "nice" woman will understandably be nervous about going to a hotel with a man, even if it's the man she fully intends to spend the rest of her life with, and so she can take comfort in the pretty hotel room and the reassurance that her man will only talk to her, not do anything physical and alarming. There's a twofold blurring of reality here, firstly the song sells the idea that sex is "sweet" and "dear" (which of course it can be, but it's not just that). Secondly, it also reinforces the idea that women won't be just as excited and passionate as men when it comes to sex. Mid-century mores are deeply embedded in this song.

     The final verse takes us forward in time and the woman looks back fondly on that night in Room 504:
"We don't live there any more,
But still in memory I adore
The sweetest room I ever saw,
A seventh heaven on the old fifth floor,
Our room five hundred and four."
     What strikes me here is the idea that the couple "lived" in the room. And this is underlined still further by it becoming "our room" in the last line. There's a sleight of hand that makes a single night in an anonymous hotel be part of the couple's "life together", a home. It isn't, but that's all part of the reassuring story which overlays rule-breaking sex with a veneer of photo-album sanctity.
     I love this song -- but it amuses me to dissect the have-your-cake-and-eat-it lyrics that gave women permission to sleep with their boyfriends at a time when no one knew if there would be a happy ever after.

If you'd like to read other posts relating to Don't You Ever Cry, my novel about love, sex and murder in 1946, which is currently on submission to literary agents, read "Vera Lynn -- One of the Boys" and "Going Back to 1946".

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