Dame Vera Lynn: ‘Music reminds us that we’re not alone’

The Forces’ Sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn, who’s back in the charts aged 103 with her song ‘We’ll Meet Again’, reveals what her wartime hit really means to her and daughter Virginia.

Dame Vera’s story

Singer Dame Vera Lynn was one of Britain’s most famous – and best loved – figureheads during the Second World War.

I was just an ordinary girl from London’s East Ham, and it’s nice to know that ordinary people can achieve something. I think I was thought of as the girl next door, so the troops would feel comfortable. With the boys going away to fight, ‘We’ll Meet Again’ was perfect to have as my signature tune.

Vera and Virginia
The pair at home in East Sussex. Image: Rex Features

VE Day was lovely and sunny. I was in my garden with my parents and my grandmother in Barking when we heard the news on the wireless. We were euphoric and had a sherry to celebrate, raising a toast with our neighbours across the garden fence. It was wonderful news but I don’t think we shed a tear – you did that privately. It was a time when people didn’t show their emotions. You just got on with life.

Now we are separated from loved ones again as we deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately I’m not alone as my family live with me in East Sussex. My daughter Virginia, her husband and our wonderful carers live at the house, too. I am lucky that we can be together for special times such as my birthday in March, Easter and the anniversary of VE Day. It means a lot to me during these uncertain months.

People have compared coronavirus to the war and it is the same sort of thing, as you have to be extremely careful about what you do and where you go. During the Blitz we could see who our enemy was. This is an invisible enemy but we are still fighting, and people are getting together in new ways, so it does evoke the Blitz spirit.

I think that’s why my song ‘We’ll Meet Again’ resonates at this time – even the Queen referenced it in her speech last month. I have known the Queen for nearly 80 years and sang that song at her 16th birthday party. I had no idea she’d use those words in her address but I thought it was absolutely wonderful. I had phone calls from all over the world from people I knew saying they watched her and got emotional when they heard the famous line. She said it in a very definite way which linked the song with the feeling that all being well, we will all be together again. The Queen is a wonderful role model. At times of crisis we need someone constant and strong to reassure us, and she is well-equipped to do so.

As well as the Queen, I was very fond of the Queen Mother. I remember her and our chats about motherhood very fondly. She would always ask after Virginia and if I found it difficult being away from home. I would ask after the Queen and her family.

I’ve spoken before about my decision to have only one child because of work. I tried
to balance being a mum with being in the public eye by staying at home as much as possible. It was important that we maintained the family unit and had a semblance of normality, especially for Virginia. I made sure I was there for the important occasions such as Christmas, birthdays and school holidays.

It has always been difficult to be a working mother, trying to find the balance, and it’s probably even harder today. Now that in this crisis we have proved that working from home is a great possibility, I hope in the future more women will be able to be at home – especially those with young children.

It’s hard to believe it has been 75 years since VE Day. I was invited to perform at Buckingham Palace in 1995 to celebrate 50 years. Now it is funny to hear that ‘We’ll Meet Again’ has gone back into the charts [Dame Vera and Katherine Jenkins have recorded a new version to raise funds for the NHS]. It’s a strange thing but it’s wonderful too. I’m hoping it will make a lot of money for the NHS.

It’s important for us all to remember the war and those who lost their lives. Unless you experienced it you had no idea what it was like. That’s why we must teach children in school what it was all about so we never, ever forget.

Dame Vera with Virginia as a baby in 1946
Dame Vera with Virginia as a baby in 1946. Image: Mirrorpix

We are living in strange times but it’s important to try to find joy in everyday things. I don’t go out any more but I love looking at the roses in my garden or I sit by the window to watch the birds. Often my daughter comes to join me for a cup of tea. That’s what I love doing to pass the days. I used to enjoy listening to music but I am sadly very deaf now. But I think it’s a great idea that young singers are doing concerts online for people to enjoy at home just as I used to perform for the troops during the war.

I’ve always found music a wonderful comfort and great food for the soul. There are people of all ages isolating alone, and listening to music makes us feel connected to each other. It reminds us that we are not alone. We are all part of something so much bigger.

Virginia’s story

Virginia Lewis, 74, lives in Ditchling, East Sussex, with her husband Tom and her mother Dame Vera.

People always ask what it’s like having Dame Vera Lynn as my mum as she’s so famous, but I don’t know any different – she’s been famous since before I was born. I always knew the part my mum played in the war, although it was only when I got older I realised how important she was. We even wrote a book about it, called I Keep Smiling Through.

Fan letters still arrive from all over the world, sometimes simply addressed to ‘Vera Lynn, UK’. Mum and I look very alike so people often mistake me for her. Now Mum doesn’t like to leave the house any more, but when we used to go out people would look at me, then at Mum, and say ‘Gosh, it is her’ – I look like the younger version of her that they recognise from the pictures.

Despite our physical similarities, our upbringings were very different. I stayed in school until I was 16 whereas Mum was singing and dancing from seven. She worked all through her childhood, as her family needed the money and also because she loved it. If you have a talent you need to use it. I can’t sing at all so we would never sing together.

Mum used to love listening to music but she is now very deaf. She had a very broad taste – she loved Dolly Parton. My father [Vera married Harry Lewis, a saxophonist and clarinettist, in 1941; he died in 1998] used to play the piano and she loved hearing him perform.

Growing up, she would go away and do shows but I had the most amazing extended family who looked after me. Mum would send me to stay with my nanna, or my dad’s parents came to stay at my house. I always felt well looked after and there were always lots of people around. My mother used to tell a story that she rang me one day from America and
I said, ‘I can’t stop and chat, I’m going to my friend’s birthday party.’ Obviously it didn’t affect me very much.

Vera and Virginia, 1956
Vera and Virginia, 1956. Image: Getty Images

I used to live next door to her in Ditchling but we moved into her house just over five years ago. We took over the top floor as she needed someone there permanently and she said she would rather have us live with her.

Like most mothers and daughters, we have little spats, but we have very similar personalities, which is why we get on so well. We like the same things and have the same interests. We both love the countryside. Mum and I always loved sewing together and pottering around the garden, but sadly she can’t do much of that any more. These days things are a bit more sedate. I go downstairs for a couple of hours every day to chat
or sometimes we watch TV programmes together. We used to love Time Team and Mum likes a murder mystery, too.

Mum’s song was a hit in 1939 so I think it’s hysterical that she is still going into the charts and breaking records at 103. It’s really fun and long may it continue. Her songs are synonymous with a certain feeling that is still as relevant today. It’s great for her, too.

Of course, it will be just us on the VE Day anniversary on Friday this year. We are going to have a glass of champagne and watch the telly. It’s such a shame that so much has been cancelled but we are looking forward to everyone leaning out of their windows at 9pm and coming together to sing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ into the night air.

My cousins and I have planned to get together as much of the family as we can when all this is over – as long as Mum is fit and well – and have a big party in the garden. We’ve got to play it by ear but there will be a lot to celebrate.

The new version of ‘We’ll Meet again’ featuring Dame Vera Lynn and Katherine Jenkins, to raise money for NHS Charities Together, is available to download now.

As told to Kelly Allen.