From the Introduction:
There’ll be Bluebirds
In 1942 Vera Lynn, ‘the Forces’ Sweetheart’, recorded a song including the refrain that, perhaps more than anything else, summed up the British attitude to the Second World War.
There’ll be Bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see.
Those fifteen words said it all: this horror would not last for ever; Britain would just have to keep a stiff upper lip and it would soon be over. The air would no longer be filled with Spitfires and Messerschmitts, and the characteristic sights and sounds of the English summer skies would return. That’s what we were fighting for.
Lynn’s popularity, cemented by other hits like We’ll Meet Again, was almost universal. As one historian of war songs put it, her lyrics would ‘articulate fairly basic emotions for those unused to expressing emotions of any sort’. That was an important service to a nation with a stiff-upper-lip epidemic.
There were some dissenters, however. For a start, there was my father, Flight Lieutenant Max Engel, who couldn’t stand the sound of her voice: ‘She ruined my war,’ he would say. More influentially, but just as unsuccessfully, some of the top brass in both the BBC and the Army thought she was bad for morale. The corporation’s controller of programmes called for waltzes, marches and cheerful music with ‘more virile lyrics’ and the ‘elimination of crooning, sentimental numbers, drivelling words, slush, innuendoes and so on’.
And then there were the ornithologists, whose successors wince to this day whenever they hear that opening line. The bluebird is an American bird, a kind of thrush, found in three different forms across the United States. There never were any bluebirds over Dover or anywhere else in Britain, before or after 1942. Not one, ever.
It is a well-loved bird in the US, among the smaller percentage of the population which cares about such matters there: the bluebird kills a lot of pests in gardens, and culturally has a longstanding association with good times (‘the Bluebird of Happiness’ ….’Mr Bluebird’s on my shoulder’… ‘I’m always chasing rainbows, waiting to find a little bluebird in vain’).
How then did such a palpably alien symbol become the embodiment of Britain’s wartime spirit? John McEwen, The Oldie’s ornithological columnist, has tried to argue that Lynn was right: swallows, Britain’s bluest bird after the kingfisher, often gather for a pre-migratory party over the Kent coast, and that they constitute blue birds, if not exactly bluebirds. Others have tried to find a connection to the blue uniforms of the RAF.
The most convincing explanation came from the singer herself, in her long and revered old age as Dame Vera. ‘It’s American,’ she said in 2007, just after her ninetieth birthday. ‘You don’t get bluebirds over here, do you?’ Her tone, according to The Times, was apologetic. The composer, Walter Kent, first saw the white cliffs nearly fifty years after he wrote the song; the lyricist Nat Burton, who died young, almost certainly never saw them at all.
Does any of this actually matter? There is such a thing as artistic licence, after all. And we all make mistakes. On their own, those lyrics would merely be an obscure curiosity. But the bluebirds have to be seen as part of an invading force that proved far more effective than the Luftwaffe. Largely unseen, unending, unstoppable. The American language.
The history of the two major strands of English — British and American — now falls into two equal parts. British settlers arrived on the American continent in the early seventeenth century: the best-known group, the Pilgrim Fathers, reached Massachusetts in 1620. The British prevailed against all-comers and ensured that the new-found land would become first a British colony and then an English-speaking independent nation. For the first two hundred years these Americans took the language they brought with them and shaped it to their own ends.
And then, round about 1820, they began exporting the words they had themselves created, or retained in stock long after the British had made the words redundant. The Americans did not foist their language on Britain; the British found it useful, attractive or both. This process sped up as America outstripped in population and power what was once the mother country. In 1928 a single technological advance increased the speed of travel exponentially, and the process continued rapidly after peace returned to the white cliffs.
Now, as we approach 2020, the American words the British invited into their homes are in danger of taking over. And it has become possible to imagine a time — 2120 would be an plausible and arithmetically neat guesstimate — when American English absorbs the British version completely. The child will have eaten its mother, but only because the mother insisted. This book is an attempt, feeble though it might be, to try to ensure that prediction does not come true.
Much of what follows is the story of how the cultural relationship between Britain and America has turned upside down over the centuries, how that has affected the British vocabulary and created Britain’s current self-imposed verbal enslavement.
It is also a cri-de-coeur, a call-to-arms, a wake-up call. Forgive that last cliché, but it has all the hallmarks of a classic Americanism. Until about the nineteenth century, it seems the British didn’t wake up, they just woke. They understood well enough that waking involved getting up. Maybe adding the up at all was American influence: adding the likes of up, down, in, out, to or from to a verb is often but not always a indicator of that.
However, turning a verb into an adjective and then compounding it to create a new phrase is exceedingly American. In any case I think the whole idea of a wake-up call must be American. Until quite recently being woken in a British hotel normally involved the night porter bringing in a pot of tea, fresh milk, a china cup and saucer and a morning paper. There might not have been a phone in the room at all.
But that’s not the kind of wake-up call I mean. Somewhere along the line the phrase turned into a metaphor. The earliest use of that I have so far found is an ice hockey report in the New York Times in 1975. Over in Britain it popped up in a headline in the Guardian only two years later, but appeared again only very sporadically until the 1990s. By the first four years of the twenty-first century The Guardian was reporting wake-up calls — some real, most metaphorical — at an average of two and a half times a week…