Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Vera LYNN: Whose Garden Was This?

She is now number one, of course, and has beaten the entire Beatles back catalogue in doing so. I note that on Then Play Long I am currently heading towards an ending which will take me back to a time before the story even started; but this is not the time to speak of Moebius strips. Nor of “My Son, My Son,” her only UK number one single, which does not appear on her current UK number one album.

But it may be a time to speak of “Whose Garden Is This?,” a 1972 B-side (to a surprisingly buoyant reading of Brel’s “If We Only Have Love”) which is also absent from the present compilation, and perhaps not without reason; we think of the nightingale singing the world back from the brink of extinction, but not of the nightingale crying for a world where nightingales, and everything else, have ceased to exist.

The song was written by Tom Paxton and is set in an undetermined post-apocalyptic world. The singer is the innocent but puzzled child addressing a survivor of the preceding horror, wanting to know what sort of world used to exist. Here, all that remains is the look of what used to be – “I’ve seen pictures of flowers/And I’d love to have smelled one,” “I’ve seen blue in some pictures,” “I’ve heard records of breezes.” But the secondary senses cannot compensate for the direct loss, and the singer has difficulty in comprehending all of this. “Can you swear that was true?” the singer asks, and in Dame Vera’s case almost demands. A subtle horror gently creeps upon her and shadows her brow.

Paxton undoubtedly wrote the song with environmental concerns in mind, but the Voice of the War renders it far more sinister. Alyn Ainsworth’s refractory strings and woodwind float like summery debris behind her, and her voice becomes steadily more distressed, its natural authority being slowly undermined. No more bluebirds or cliffs; she arrives at a ghastly dead end. “Whose forest is this?” she cries at the end, before uttering a terrible, stentorian, echoing roar: “Then why is it SILENT????!!!!!” – and the song vanishes into its own halls of mirrored dread. If you wonder whether the voice of “We’ll Meet Again” could ever terrify you, then look no further.