In addition to two Spitfires flying over them in her honour, Dame Vera Lynn will have her image beamed on to the White Cliffs of Dover tonight to mark her 100th birthday. For most of you reading this she’ll just be an occasional name, I expect; but even for me, born just before the end of WWII, she never directly impinged on my aural memories. I heard the recordings, of course – “White Cliffs of Dover” and “We’ll Meet Again” – but they were already of the past.
Vera Lynn wasn’t especially pretty; her voice, though strong and immediately recognisable, wasn’t exceptional; she had a quiet reserve to her. She lacked the pizzazz of Gracie Fields and the glamour of Anne Shelton. Yet the troops adored her precisely because of this relative ordinariness, because she was the proverbial Girl Next Door who comforted them with song as a mother lullabies her babies. She was their mothers, their sisters, their wives and sweethearts back home – those women were there with them during those few brief hours of Vera’s songs.
Astonishingly brave, she sang to the troops at the front in Burma – at Kohima, the “Stalingrad of the East”. “The battle was up the hill. I was at the bottom”, she says laconically. She sang to the Tommies home on leave, in concerts which she refused to break up when an air raid began. She couldn’t – it was, in her words, “her job”.
And like but quite unlike Bowie, she’s always been here behind my life, coming to the front once in a while as during the D-Day anniversary, but otherwise just quietly getting on with over six decades of fund-raising and work for Her Boys. (Yet no Honorary Colonelcy with the 2nd British Division, in fact no formal recognition at all by the Forces, above all by the Army, always a bizarre and ungracious omission to me. This woman was awarded the Burma Star, a military medal, for her bravery during three months in that country – so thank you to an appreciative War Office).
Icon? National Treasure? Grande Dame? Oh yes. And how. It’ll amaze me if you don’t know at least the tune of “We’ll meet again”, probably the greatest and sweetest song of hope ever written. I’ve sung along (badly) with her and “The White Cliffs of Dover” today. And I wish her a very VERY happy day. I think she’s earned it.
And so do Her Boys.