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The Ballad of Teddington’s Dunkirk Little Ships: a Critique

by on 7 June 2020

Boys with Their Backs to the Wall

The Ballad of Teddington’s Dunkirk Little Ships

by Mike Pemberton

a critique by Vince Francis

Having a deep interest in local history, I have always been conscious of how seeped in history is our area on the west of London. One such link is Teddington Lock and the famous Little Ships. Then, whilst browsing, page 12 of the 29th May edition of the Twickenham and Richmond Tribune led to the discovery of a little gem in the form of a ballad describing some local history and the involvement of a local business in one of the major events of World War II. The Ballad of Teddington’s Dunkirk Little Ships, by local balladeer Mike Pemberton, commemorates the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk during the period 26th May to 4th June 1940 and incorporates a particular nod to Tough’s Boatyard, a Teddington business that played a pivotal role in the exercise. The article includes the lyrics and a brief background; enough, in fact, to pique interest and prompt some further investigation.

Little Ships Tough

Doug Tough at Teddington, May 1940

A version of the song, incorporating fascinating authentic contemporary film footage is available as The Ballad of Teddington’s Dunkirk Little Ships on YouTube.   As indicated in the Tribune article, the YouTube version includes some edited footage of Tough’s boatyard and the Dunkirk evacuations. The editing is sympathetic to the song and thus enhances the presentation overall.

Little Ships Hampton

Tug Pulls “Little Boats” Requisitioned at Windsor Past St. Mary’s Hampton, May 1940

This is a well-constructed piece, using many of the norms and devices of ballad singers through the ages. For example, the key sentiment, the “Boys with their backs to the wall” has a natural rhythm in speech which is reflected in the singing and repeated at the end of each stanza for emphasis. The accompaniment, solo acoustic guitar, starts each verse in the root minor key, moves through a major key chord sequence and returns to the root at the end, so we get a sense of development resolving back to the initial premise. Minor keys generally signify sadness, mourning, or drama, so the use is appropriate for this piece. Mike uses a sparing finger pick pattern, which supports, rather than competes with the lyric and so helps us to retain focus on the story.

(On a personal note, and speaking as a fellow musician, Mike’s picture on YouTube shows him playing a Yamaha acoustic guitar, which, presumably, he used on the recording. I’ve always had a high regard for Yamaha guitars. This one appears to be at the upper end of their range and gives a nicely articulated and well-rounded tone. I’ve owned a couple over the years – generally mid-range models, but I’ve always been pleased with them.)

Mike has a couple of other numbers out there, which you may wish to check out, but none I think will make you fill with pride in the part played locally in the cause for freedom some eighty years ago.

Vince Francis
June 2020

Photography by Luke Radcliff (by courtesy of John Tough)

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