'Does anybody here remember Vera Lynn?" Roger Waters of Pink Floyd sang plaintively, 40 years after the war that made her famous. "Vera - what has become of you?"
Not only is she remembered, but she's back in the limelight, having topped the charts with We'll Meet Again , a collection of the songs that kept British soldiers' spirits aloft during the Second World War. What has become of her? Well, at the moment, Dame Vera is sitting in her house in the south of England, wondering if she'll ever see a penny for that headline-making, chart-busting record.
Not that she's complaining, mind you, because she's been through worse: the Blitz, when she drove through the pitch-black streets of London after singing at the Palladium, with a tin hat next to her on the seat of her Austin 10, or Burma, where she spent sweltering months singing to men who might never see England again, Still, it rankles that she was No.1 in the charts at the age of 92 - the oldest performer to reach that position - and yet she's not entitled to benefit from her labour because the songs were recorded so long ago: After 50 years, the artist ceases to earn royalties.
"My lawyer is asking questions and seeing what he can do," says Dame Vera, over the phone. "It isn't right. If somebody makes a record, no matter how many years later it's released, they or their families should be entitled to the proceeds."
She doesn't sound in the least put out; her generation's motto was "mustn't grumble," not the current favourite, "complain loudly then sue." The success of We'll Meet Again , which was bumped from No.1 by the new Muse record but still shares the chart with the likes of rapper Dizzee Rascal, came as a bit of a shock. She hasn't sung in public since 1995, the songs - We'll Meet Again , The White Cliffs of Dover and her favourite, Yours - were recorded almost 70 years ago, and there's no accompanying video of Dame Vera in a bustier. (A canny television marketing campaign aimed at older audiences did help, however.) "I don't think it's nostalgia," she says. "I think it has something to do with the situation we've got in Afghanistan." Even now, she receives letters from soldiers fighting overseas, "although it's nothing like the old days."
During the Second World War, when she was "the Forces' Sweetheart" she sent and received thousands of letters to servicemen. (Early in the war, she reveals in her new memoir Some Sunny Day , one soldier's wife phoned her in a rage, having found one of Lynn's letters and thinking it pointed to an affair.) Dame Vera's voice is quick, lively, higher in pitch than her singing voice suggests. She still sounds fresh from Barking, the East London neighbourhood where she grew up and began singing when she was 7. She was not a natural performer, and her unusual voice was much lower than most girls her age, but her family, who needed the money, nudged her onto the stage. At night, after singing at working men's clubs, she'd take the tram home by herself and put her seven shillings and sixpence in the family kitty.
In September, 1939, her life changed. "I'll always have the picture in my mind," she says now. "My mum and dad and I were having tea in the garden and the news came on the radio. I thought, well, I'll be working in a factory next week making ammunition. There's my singing career up the spout."
Instead, of course, it was the making of her, as her live performances and radio broadcasts were hugely popular with the troops. In fact, Lynn became so closely associated with the war that afterward she was the butt of satirical jokes and, for a time, resented the grip the songs had on the public imagination. " I'd say, 'Here's a lovely new song I'm going to sing,' and I'd hear a voice from the audience, 'No, we want the old ones!'"
We'll Meet Again , in particular, achieved a talismanic significance, which Stanley Kubrick realized when he used it at the end of Dr. Strangelove , as Slim Pickens rides a nuclear bomb to the world's end. Dame Vera sat in the cinema when it came out, and listened to the audience's laughter trail off into awkward, pained silence. "It was a very strange feeling," she says.
Now a whole new generation can watch her sing We'll Meet Again on YouTube, but Dame Vera herself is not one for nostalgia: She doesn't listen to CDs, hers or anyone else's, nor does she sing around the house. She isn't acquainted with Mr. Rascal, with whom she shares the charts. Instead, she tends the tomatoes in her Sussex garden (her daughter Virginia lives next door), treats herself to a nightly glass of wine and bag of potato chips ("at my age you have to have something") and still leads a life of service.
On the day of our interview, for example, she's having lunch with some veterans, and the next day will launch the annual poppy drive at Horse Guards palace in London.
These moments of connection to the past are as important to her as music once was. Last year, Dame Vera was at dinner at the Imperial War Museum, when the staff brought an elderly man to meet her. At first, she didn't know who he was, but then it became clear: Almost 70 years before, she'd sat on the bed of a badly injured soldier in Burma, and asked what he wanted to hear. He said, "Please sing We'll Meet Again ." She sang it for him, possibly her smallest audience ever, and never knew his fate.
"He'd got back safely in the end," she says. "And we did meet again, after all those years."