Dame Vera Lynn, Forces Sweetheart and National Treasure, spoke to us about her life.
How long have you lived in Ditchling?
I first came to this area in the forties, just as the War was ending, and lived here for a short while. About twenty years later, when I was doing more concert tours and didn’t need to be in London, I came back to Ditchling. I’d missed it. We’ve been here ever since, forty years, and never regretted it. I love the countryside here.
Tell me about your charities.
I’ve been interested in cerebral palsy since the 1950s, when I helped form SOS, Stars Organisation for Spastics, as the condition was then known. Then the Dame Vera Lynn Trust began in 2001. We raised funds to build a school in Billingshurst, which works with the parents of under-fives with cerebral palsy. I was also a founder member of the Vera Lynn Charity Breast Cancer Research Trust. Our aim was to make women aware of early symptoms, so to show how to do a self-examination, I managed to get a bare boob on tv! No, I wasn’t the model. I’m still involved in the other charities [for ex-servicemen], though not as much as I was. I go to certain events, such as the remembrance service in November.
Were you afraid during the war, when you were entertaining troops in Burma?
I was never afraid. One time I walked out of my grass hut and there were three Japanese prisoners, who’d been captured in the night, sitting against the hut. They were more shocked to see me – a blonde English girl – than I was to see them. Another time I accidentally walked into a tent just as the doctors were operating on a soldier to take out a bullet, and they gave me the bullet as a souvenir. It was still bloody. I was told not to take a camera to Burma, in case I was captured and they found out from my pictures where soldiers were. But many families of soldiers have sent me photos. I look at these now and wonder how many of them came back. [Shows me an album – Vera in her 20’s, gorgeous, surrounded by dozens of delighted grinning men.] Some of the boys hadn’t seen a woman for six years. But they were so well-behaved.
What’s the biggest change you have noticed in your lifetime?
I suppose television. It destroyed variety theatre, because people would rather stay in, and watch the famous names. But I enjoyed being on it, it was different. In ‘the olden days’ you could tour your act everywhere, but once you’d done it on tv everyone had seen it, you had to come up with something new.What are you proudest of?
Being made a Dame! And being presented to the Queen. But it wasn’t the first time I’d met her - I sang at Windsor castle for her 16th birthday party.
Who is the most memorable person you have met?
I’ve met so many amazing people. Probably Bill Slim, who I met in Burma: he was commander of the ‘forgotten army’ there. And the Queen, of course!
Why do you think We’ll Meet Again struck such a chord?
I actually first sang it before the war! But it was the perfect song for wartime – an optimistic lyric, but a bit uncertain, unsettled. [She sings, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”] It fitted the mood of the time. I never tired of singing it. But I never sing about the house for myself, never have done. Only when I was rehearsing. A baker doesn’t go home and bake bread!
You are the oldest person to achieve a Number One album – how did that feel?
[Laughs] I’m in the Guinness Book of Records for that! How does it make me feel? Very old!
What’s it like, being a national icon?
Rather strange, really. I can think of many more important people who are icons. I suppose the songs had such an impact at that time. The war years were a very important part of everyone’s lives; it doesn’t feel a long time ago to me at all. I’m glad children still learn about it at school. I talk to them, tell them how I used to get about in my little Austin 10. I always used to drive with a tin hat by my side, in case shrapnel came through the canvas roof.
Beth Miller. Published in Viva Lewes, September 2012