Some people – just a very few – get younger with age. Dame Vera Lynn is 97 now, but time’s sharp edge is blunted by her unflagging optimism and the blazing blue of her cloudless eyes. Just five years ago, at 92, she was still living entirely independently, in such good physical shape that she travelled regularly, enthusing about her pleasure in cooking, gardening and driving. Today, she cannot move about so freely, and when rare interviews are given, they take place at the roomy Sussex Downs house that has been her home for half a century. Here the staircase is lined with gold discs, and the grand piano in the airy living room where we talk is laden with dozens of framed photographs, testament to an extraordinary life.
Settling into her armchair, she taps her right ear, impatient with tiresome deafness, and asks that I speak up. For a moment I’m sidetracked by the red herrings of age and think how astonishing she must have been at 92. It’s only much later, when she waves me off after a two-hour chat, that I realise I’ve entirely missed the point – Vera Lynn was and will always be astonishing, at 22, at 92, at 102, God willing.
She’s a peerless figure in British culture. Mere statistics don’t convey it. Had there been pop charts in 1940, she’d have topped them with We’ll Meet Again; in 1952, she was the first British artist to top the US charts, with Auf Wiederseh’n, Sweetheart; in 2009, she became the oldest living artist to have a No 1 album – a milestone she may break with the release of National Treasure. A new album to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it features remastered tracks, as well as a “virtual duet” of We’ll Meet Again with Katherine Jenkins.
This wartime lament can be heard on Friday Night Is Music Night (8pm Radio 2), as a vintage recording of Dame Vera is combined with a live performance by Jenkins. Also on Radio 2 this week, she talks to Russell Davies about her inter- est in art (The Art of Artists, Monday 11pm).
This year, Dame Vera also becomes the only person ever known to have celebrated 90 years as a performer, having delivered her first song on stage at a working men’s club in east London at the age of seven. “My mother made me a dress to wear,” she says, smoothing her palms over the memory of its fabric. “It was white with mauve ribbon, and I had silver shoes.”
Of course what defines her in the public mind is the Second World War, which hadn’t even started when a poll of the serving military saw her voted Sweetheart of the Forces. The conflict would provide the prism through which we still see her – the cheerful, wholesome girl from Blighty, singing of loved ones separated by circumstance and the promise of a reunion on home shores in some better future. Harry Secombe said it wasn’t Winston Churchill who saw off the Nazis, but Vera Lynn who sang them to death.
“I never thought the Forces’ Sweetheart tag would stay with me, but it has, hasn’t it?” she agrees happily. “I thought it would last for the war period, then I’d just be another singer. Of course I’ve never minded that everybody always connects me with that time. It was so important.”
Perhaps she might have become “just another singer”, were it not for her unique step in volunteering to sing to the troops fighting in Egypt, India and especially Burma in 1944. Performers with Ensa (the Entertainments National Service Association) regularly appeared in Europe, but none went to distant, alien Burma. “I chose it for that reason. I wanted to go where no one else went, where it was most needed.”
Merely getting there involved an arduous 11,500-mile westerly journey to avoid the war in Europe, and she stayed in Burma for four months while the pivotal Battle of Kohima raged nearby. Among those who saw her was Corporal Frederick Weedman of C Company, 7th Worcestershire Regiment. Years later he would recall how her audience wouldn’t let this “tall, fair-haired girl” leave the stage.
“The men were clapping and cheering,” he wrote. “She sang until her make-up was running in dark furrows down her cheeks, until her dress was wet with sweat, until her voice had become a croak. She was the only Ensa star we ever saw in the jungle. There were a lot of men, that hot, humid evening, who were grateful to Vera Lynn for having remembered them so far from home.”
Seventy years later, she remembers them still. She opens a great folder of photographs sent to her after the war by soldiers she met in Burma. Picture after picture shows 27-year-old khaki-clad Vera, chin up, smiling merrily in the jungle humidity, sometimes at the bedside of just one injured soldier, sometimes surrounded by 50 faces grinning at the camera, as if by looking at the lens every pair of eyes could reach the gaze of loved ones at home. Her hands touch the photographs like fingers brushing a cheek.
“I always wonder how many of these boys came back,” she says. “What I really liked was just having a chat with them after I sang. I wasn’t separate to them. I lived in a tent like they did, with one bucket for washing and one for the toilet. I was one of them. They knew me.
“I’d go round the casualty tents where the wounded were brought in before they’d go to a proper hospital. I’d sit on one of the beds and hold their hands. They’d ask me how everyone was coping at home. I’d always say, ‘We’re fine.’ They’d ask me to sing to them, and I would. I could see they were badly injured but we never spoke of that. I tried not to show my emotions but it was very moving.”
When the war ended, she was sent to Germany to play for the troops liberating
the death camps. She vividly remembers visiting one camp and the thick silence of the place where no birds sang because the air was still polluted with gas. And having seen row upon row of gas chambers “like garages with steel doors”, hours later she would sing for the troops again with her cheerful Vera smile. “Yes, it was demanding,” she concedes, “but you overcome these things. I could be tough, if it was necessary.”
She’s always been aware of her good fortune that she herself lost no family in the war. Landmark anniversaries such as D-Day’s 70th are a fresh reminder.
“I can’t get to the commemorations any more as it’s not easy for me to get around, but I’ll watch them all on television. My thoughts will be with the families of the boys who didn’t come back. I was so lucky not to lose those closest to me.”
She met her husband Harry Lewis in the 1930s while they were both in the Bert Ambrose Orchestra (he was later in the RAF dance band, the Squadronaires). They married in 1941 and had their only child, Virginia, in 1946. Today, Virginia – hugely pretty at 68 – pops in and out, lightly vigilant that her mother isn’t getting too tired, watching as cup after cup of tea goes cold while she talks. It’s been just the two of them since Harry died in 1998.
“He was a softie,” giggles Dame Vera.
“He loved people, and they liked him because he was always relaxed and jokey. He could get on with anyone. He was always there with me except when I went to Burma. But nobody gets through life without sadness. Naturally you lose people along the way. He wasn’t ill for long. He had a heart attack. I think of him every day. He was the love of my life.”
Sixteen years since his death, she is not flagging. Her only sibling, Roger, recently celebrated his 100th birthday, and she went to the party in Brighton. Asked if she’s glad to have reached her own great age, she knows no answer but the positive. “Of course,” she says, puzzled. “Why would I not be?” Perhaps because many fear it? “I never dwelt on it. You are what you are. You’re thankful you have survived.” Is there anything she fears? “I’m not really frightened of anything. I’ve always been very optimistic and forward- looking. I still am.”
It’s time to leave. I turn in the doorway and Dame Vera smiles brilliantly. She waves, blowing a kiss, and her eyes are as blue as the English summer sky.
The Art of Artists, Monday 11:00pm, Radio 2
Vera Lynn’s two-CD album, National Treasure: the Ultimate Collection, is released by Decca on 2 June