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Angela Tilby: Salute to Dame Vera Lynn, a national treasure

26 June 2020


Dame Vera Lyn in 1999

Dame Vera Lyn in 1999

DAME VERA LYNN never forgot her sense of purpose. Her job was to lift the spirits of fighting men far from home. She broadcast to them on her weekly show Sincerely Yours. She travelled to be with them in the Burma campaign, visiting terrifying field hospitals in the jungle. And, after the war, she retained her connections with the armed forces and supported many charities. She was, perhaps, the first and archetypal national treasure.

I met her once when I was a rookie radio producer. I had been offered a programme idea by the renegade Christian writer George Target, an abrasive, angry man who had left the Seventh-day Adventists to forge a career as a Christian novelist. He had come up with the outline of a Remembrance Sunday programme made up of fictional letters from and to men at war and their mothers, fathers, sisters, wives, and girlfriends at home.

It was beautifully written, harrowing, and touching, perfectly scored for radio. Predictably, it was called We’ll Meet Again, and it was commissioned for broadcast on Radio 2 on a Remembrance Sunday in the early 1970s. Dame Vera, then approaching 60, consented to record a selection of her wartime favourites with one of the big BBC light-music orchestras. She came to the studio with her husband, Harry Lewis.

I found her, as everyone did, warmly approachable, not at all grand, and hugely professional. Her visit was brief. The orchestra having rehearsed, she got up and sang one flawless take for each number. The programme was warmly appreciated, and taught me a great deal about popular broadcasting.

Among the tributes paid to Dame Vera last week was a comment on the part that she played in wartime by the Times writer Quentin Letts: “‘Where all else was gloom and death and heartache, she sang unaffectedly of love and hope and reunion.” It was that note of love and hope which brought comfort to terrified young men. No wonder that the Queen echoed it at the start of the pandemic. Dame Vera was never the voice of propaganda. As she herself said, people in the end were fighting for “precious, personal things rather than for ideology”.

That phrase is one that Christian ministers could well reflect on. Where ideologies divide and embitter, common ground lies in sharing personal experience. I realise now that Dame Vera played a part in helping me to realise what is truly involved in pastoral ministry. It is not correct belief, or profound theology, or even harping on about “community” which matters, but the precious, personal things.

I am often struck in the Gospels by how Jesus let himself be diverted from his mission by the urgent private needs of particular individuals for healing, hope, and forgiveness. Parish ministry loses its way when we forget this.

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