Miles Kington: We'll meet again? Not bloody likely, we won't

'Blimey!' he said. 'She hasn't sung in G for years! She's down to E flat now'
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The Independent Online

I have suddenly realised that if I don't tell my VE Day story now, I'll probably never get a chance again, so here goes.

I have suddenly realised that if I don't tell my VE Day story now, I'll probably never get a chance again, so here goes.

VE, of course, is short for Vera Lynn, the plucky singing lady who guarded our shores against the enemy while Gracie Fields took the offensive against the enemy and drove them back. Spike Milligan relates rather movingly in one of his volumes of reminiscence about the Second World War that whenever news got around in Italy that Gracie Fields was about to appear in concert for the troops, the Germans would fall back out of earshot. Trouble was, said Milligan, that the British would too, so not a lot came of these tactics.

VE Day itself I cannot remember. Nor the day after. Nor the day after that. So I am going to scroll forward many years until we come to a day in the late 1970s, when I was in the cabaret quartet Instant Sunshine, which had a regular slot on the Saturday Radio 4 programme Stop The Week with Robert Robinson. Every week our talented songwriter Peter Christie would write a new song for the show, every week we would rehearse it like mad and record it, and every week we would go home and forget the song again for ever.

But one week the producer, Michael Ember, said to us that at the end of the year, fast approaching, there would be a special edition of the programme to be called Stop The Year With Robert Robinson, with glittering guests like Jonathan Miller.

"And we have managed to persuade Vera Lynn to come along," he said. "Not only that, but she has promised to sing, if we provide musical backing. So I just wanted to know if you can play 'We'll Meet Again'."

We looked at each other in mingled scorn and shame. We never played any songs that Peter Christie hadn't written. We played only original material. We were very proud of that. We wouldn't know how to play any other songs. We were not so proud of that.

"No," we said.

"Could you learn it?"


He looked crestfallen. So I found myself suddenly saying that I didn't just play bass, I played piano as well, and there was no reason why I shouldn't provide a sort of wartime pub piano backing for her. He was delighted. So off I went to buy a big volume of Second World War songs all about kissing the sergeant-major goodnight and nightingales singing in Berkeley Square, and "We'll Meet Again" was in there and the key it was written in was G major.

G major isn't a bad key. It's only got one sharp. I like flat keys better, as most jazz people do, but Instant Sunshine always played in sharp keys because it's easier for guitarists, so I was used to keys like G major already.

I practised and practised and got it down all right on the piano, even the tricky chord in bar 4, which is a sort of unresolved E seventh, and turned up on Vera Lynn Day thinking that my rendezvous with history would be uncomplicated and joyful.

I hadn't reckoned with fate, in the shape of a small elderly man who I think was Harry Lewis, her husband and manager, and who came up to me and said: "Are you the bloke who's playing for our Vera?"

"Yes," I said.

"What key are you playing in?"


"G?!" he said. "G!!! Blimey, she hasn't sung it in G for years! She's down to E flat now! She couldn't get up to G if she tried!"

I had a few panicky minutes in which to transpose the song from one sharp to E flat, which is three flats, a very tricky swap. I still have the hastily pencilled chords in my copy of Great Songs Of World War Two. I did my best, but it wasn't all very accurate. I especially didn't have much luck with that tricky chord in bar 4. Still, a bit like the war, we muddled through somehow. Vera never said thank you.

After the programme had gone out, Instant Sunshine got a letter from a fan. He said he thought we sounded great on the programme.

"But who on earth did they get to play piano for Vera Lynn?" he added.

That's my VE Day story.