Vera Lynn: “I remember the sense of community – everyone did their bit”

The nation's original sweetheart reflects on her impact during wartime Britian and a career that made her happy in a Letter to My Younger Self

If I met the teenage Vera today, I’m not sure what my first impression would be. It’s been quite some time since those days, it’s really quite difficult to imagine what it would be like. I’m grateful to have had such a long and diverse career, and I would relish the opportunity to share some of the experiences I have had with her – though I am not quite sure she would believe them all!

I wanted to be a singer for as long as I can remember. I have very early memories of singing around the house growing up with my parents in East Ham. I performed Glad Rag Doll on stage at seven. My mother made my dress and a matching one for my doll. I went up to the front with the rag doll in my arms and went on to win the competition! I remember receiving applause and it was really quite special – it must have been, considering I remember that moment all these years later.

People always respected my ma and pa, and I learned a lot from them about how to conduct myself and treat others. My mother worked for a London dressmaker who took on royal commissions and then carried on dressmaking for people at home after my parents married. Dad worked as a plumber, and he was a quiet man who liked a good laugh. He was also an excellent dancer and often sang to me at bedtime. I still remember my father carrying me to this day.

I have always enjoyed being creative, so art was my favourite subject. Throughout my life, I have enjoyed painting and if I wasn’t a singer, I would probably have pursued art further.

I was fortunate enough to have a carefree childhood and that continued through into my teenage years. My parents always worked hard to keep us and we were always disciplined to be well-mannered. Nowadays, you hear that some young people have an ‘attitude’ or that there might be some issues with our youth, but that just wasn’t the case back then. We were always dealt with firmly and fairly, but we also never really had much to worry about until the war.

The first time I sang We’ll Meet Again was in 1939 when the war started. I was working as a professional singer and decided I’d do what I could for the war effort, which involved joining ENSA [the Entertainments National Service Association]. Everybody was doing their bit and I wanted to help out as well.

The troops kept me perfectly safe, so I never feared for my life or felt that I was in any danger. They, of course, were putting their lives on the line on a daily basis. This courage motivated me to be there to support them and bring them some hope and I am so happy to have had the opportunity to do so. Those brave boys fought for our freedom and sacrificed so much and in comparison, entertaining them with ENSA or reconnecting them with their family over the radio was the least I could do. I visited young mothers in hospital and was able to give them cheerful messages from their husbands in far-flung areas of the world. We will always owe them a great debt of gratitude, and I am thankful I had the chance to share the nation’s appreciation with so many of our boys during that time.

Back then it was quite uncommon to travel the world, so I feel very fortunate to have visited the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavian countries and Burma. There are so many wonderful placesand I really do encourage people to go out and explore.

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As it happened, I flew back from Burma on D-Day in a private plane with my pianist, a general and a few officials on board, and felt utterly exhausted after a punishing tour. When the pilot heard the news of the D-Day landings on his tinny spitting radio, he called through to the passengers. We stopped in Djerba, Tunisia to refuel and were taken into a tent near the runway. Here they continued listening on a crackling wavelength as the news spilled out. There was no alcohol, so we charged our glasses with water and drank to ‘the beginning of the end’.

My main memories of those days are about the sense of community we all had. Everyone came together to do their bit – it was really quite inspirational to see that optimism and team effort, I have never seen anything quite like it since. During the war there was rationing so everything was scarce. Bridal gowns were not an option and [my wedding] was pretty basic compared with grand affairs of today, but it was a very special, happy day.

I have been very fortunate through my career to be surrounded by mostly kind-hearted people. I never performed a song I didn’t want to, and I look back on my years in the industry with great fondness. My wonderful late husband Harry looked after me from the Fifties onwards and I couldn’t have had anyone better. I was fortunate to have my daughter Virginia, with whom I have always been very close and we still manage to spend lots of time together. Family is so important for keeping your feet on the ground, and without them I couldn’t have done all the things I have.

Which achievement or performance would I pick out to impress my younger self? Professionally, having the opportunity to sing with Bing Crosby was very special but personally, all those times singing for our brave boys. I truly cherish those moments and I think my younger self would be encouraged to know that we played just a small role and did our bit during that dark time.

Vera Lynn
Vera-Lynn-Flowers-Archive-(low-res)
Vera Lynn captured the heart of the nation during World War II

I don’t think there is anything I would envy the young Vera for. I have achieved everything I could possibly have wanted to, and I am incredibly grateful that I have had the opportunities I have had. Perhaps the only thing to envy would be that young Vera would be able to enjoy those wonderful experiences again.

I am humbled that people still enjoy my music all these years later. It is encouraging to know that a part of history seems to have been kept alive by playing those nostalgic songs – and it is always overwhelming to receive an accolade. It is good to hear from people around the world and hear their stories about those songs.

Music continues to be extremely important to me. I’m not sure I could ever lose that sense of joy when I hear music and sing along, but my performing days are sadly long gone. I also think it is important to stay active, both physically and mentally. I always try to remain young at heart by keeping up with current affairs and maintaining my interests. I also think it is so important to have good company; it really makes such a difference.

I very much enjoy spending time with my family and close friends these days, and I also enjoy watching television and reading crime novels. I think it’s important to count your blessings, and I am always mindful that I have a lot to be grateful for. We have a lovely garden here [in East Sussex] and I also enjoy looking out at the nature, enjoying the wildlife and watching the seasons change.

As you get older, it’s important to keep up your appearance too. It keeps your spirits up if you can look in the mirror and think ‘I don’t look too bad’! I even wore lipstick in the jungle! And I still use powder and lipstick every day.

I don’t have any regrets, I think it is important to take each day as it comes and focus on the present moment. We can’t change the past but of course, we can learn from history and remember the important things – the sacrifices our loved ones made, and the price of our freedom today.

Find out more about Vera Lynn and other Decca Records artists in The Supreme Record Company: The Story of Decca Records 1929-2019, out now

Image: Liz Mills