My life through a lens: Vera Lynn, 102, shares the stories behind her favourite snaps

My life through a lens: Forces’ sweetheart Vera Lynn, 102, shares the stories behind her favourite snaps

Celebrities share the stories behind their favourite photographs. This week it’s Forces’ Sweetheart Vera Lynn, 102.

Dame Vera Lynn, 102, pictured, shares the stories behind her favourite photographs

1918: I was born Vera Welch in East Ham, Essex. The first thing I remember was being stuck in a tent at East Ham Hospital surrounded by steam kettles, 18 months or so after this picture was taken of me aged one. I was in isolation with diptheric croup [a respiratory infection] – and steam was part of the treatment. I later found out they didn’t think I’d live. Who would have predicted I would become a singer?

1918: I was born Vera Welch in East Ham, Essex. The first thing I remember was being stuck in a tent at East Ham Hospital surrounded by steam kettles, 18 months or so after this picture was taken of me aged one. I was in isolation with diptheric croup [a respiratory infection] – and steam was part of the treatment. I later found out they didn’t think I’d live. Who would have predicted I would become a singer?

1924: This is me in the garden with my mother Annie, father Bertram and my beloved brother Roger, who died a day before his 103rd birthday in 2017. My father was easy-going but Mum had get-up-and-go, she got me into singing professionally. I started singing in public aged seven and adopted my grandmother’s maiden name Lynn as my stage name aged 11

1924: This is me in the garden with my mother Annie, father Bertram and my beloved brother Roger, who died a day before his 103rd birthday in 2017. My father was easy-going but Mum had get-up-and-go, she got me into singing professionally. I started singing in public aged seven and adopted my grandmother’s maiden name Lynn as my stage name aged 11

1932: After leaving school at 14, I joined a dance band aged 15, and by the late 1930s I was touring and singing on records by Joe Loss’s band, among others. As soon as I heard We’ll Meet Again I sensed something special about it – I recorded it in September 1939, the month the war broke out, and it became a hit. It was the perfect song for the times: everyone hoped they’d see their sweetheart again when the war was over and our brave servicemen were back home. It’s still my favourite of all the songs I’ve sung. It meant a lot to my generation, and it’s timeless

1932: After leaving school at 14, I joined a dance band aged 15, and by the late 1930s I was touring and singing on records by Joe Loss’s band, among others. As soon as I heard We’ll Meet Again I sensed something special about it – I recorded it in September 1939, the month the war broke out, and it became a hit. It was the perfect song for the times: everyone hoped they’d see their sweetheart again when the war was over and our brave servicemen were back home. It’s still my favourite of all the songs I’ve sung. It meant a lot to my generation, and it’s timeless

1941: I’ll never forget my wedding to my late husband Harry, with Roger on the right. It was very simple: I wore a white suit, and food was rationed. Harry was a clarinetist and saxophonist in Bert Ambrose’s band, with whom I’d toured. He was a little shorter than me, Jewish, with lovely hair. He kept saying, ‘I’m going to marry you’, and one day I replied, ‘Yes, you are!’ My wonderful Harry died in 1998, and I still think about him every day

1941: I’ll never forget my wedding to my late husband Harry, with Roger on the right. It was very simple: I wore a white suit, and food was rationed. Harry was a clarinetist and saxophonist in Bert Ambrose’s band, with whom I’d toured. He was a little shorter than me, Jewish, with lovely hair. He kept saying, ‘I’m going to marry you’, and one day I replied, ‘Yes, you are!’ My wonderful Harry died in 1998, and I still think about him every day

1944: Here I am sitting in a jeep after flying out to the Far East to entertain the troops of the ‘Forgotten’ 14th Army in Burma, which Japan had invaded in 1942. I had to get special permission to go and was made an honorary colonel so I could eat in the officers’ mess. I performed on makeshift stages in forward camps a stone’s throw from the fighting. The worst thing was the mosquitoes. I had to wear khaki trousers and shirts with long sleeves, while any make-up would run because you’d perspire so much

1944: Here I am sitting in a jeep after flying out to the Far East to entertain the troops of the ‘Forgotten’ 14th Army in Burma, which Japan had invaded in 1942. I had to get special permission to go and was made an honorary colonel so I could eat in the officers’ mess. I performed on makeshift stages in forward camps a stone’s throw from the fighting. The worst thing was the mosquitoes. I had to wear khaki trousers and shirts with long sleeves, while any make-up would run because you’d perspire so much

1950: This is my daughter Virginia, aged four. People ask why I didn’t have more children, but it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t have carried on working if I’d had more, so it was meant to be. Virginia and I are the best of friends. She and her husband Tom are very supportive of my work with the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity

1950: This is my daughter Virginia, aged four. People ask why I didn’t have more children, but it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t have carried on working if I’d had more, so it was meant to be. Virginia and I are the best of friends. She and her husband Tom are very supportive of my work with the Dame Vera Lynn Children’s Charity

1994: I was lucky enough to meet the Queen Mother a few times, as well as Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill. I first met her at a performance at Windsor Castle in 1942 to celebrate Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday, and got to know her well over the years. We shared a bond over our lifelong association with the Blitz and our support for veterans, and she really did like to be called the Queen Mum. I love this picture – we’re sharing a joke, as a guardsman looks on fondly, as if to say, ‘Look at these two!’

1994: I was lucky enough to meet the Queen Mother a few times, as well as Field Marshal Montgomery and Winston Churchill. I first met her at a performance at Windsor Castle in 1942 to celebrate Princess Elizabeth’s 16th birthday, and got to know her well over the years. We shared a bond over our lifelong association with the Blitz and our support for veterans, and she really did like to be called the Queen Mum. I love this picture – we’re sharing a joke, as a guardsman looks on fondly, as if to say, ‘Look at these two!’

2017: My 100th birthday was so special. This is a photo of Virginia and me at the celebrations. There was an album, Vera Lynn 100, of re-recorded versions of my songs with artists like Alfie Boe, and a tribute concert starring Russell Watson at the London Palladium. What’s the secret of living to a grand old age? I’m careful what I eat, I’ve never smoked and still do little daily ‘workouts’. Mind you, I do still love a slice of lemon drizzle cake with my afternoon tea at home

 2017: My 100th birthday was so special. This is a photo of Virginia and me at the celebrations. There was an album, Vera Lynn 100, of re-recorded versions of my songs with artists like Alfie Boe, and a tribute concert starring Russell Watson at the London Palladium. What’s the secret of living to a grand old age? I’m careful what I eat, I’ve never smoked and still do little daily ‘workouts’. Mind you, I do still love a slice of lemon drizzle cake with my afternoon tea at home

Keep Smiling Through: My Wartime Story by Vera Lynn is out now

Churchill’s finest fare: Biscuits au fromage

Churchill’s finest fare: Biscuits au fromage

Winston Churchill loved his food, and here, from this hearty beef fillet tournedos to a tempting clafoutis, are some of the dishes – as prepared by his chef Georgina Landemare – that fuelled his struggle against the Nazis.

Delicious! These biscuits make a lovely snack to pair with some cheese and grapes

Makes approx 16 biscuits

  • 175g (6oz) plain flour
  • 140g (5oz) butter 
  • 70g (2½oz) Parmesan cheese, grated 
  • 70g (2½oz) Gruyère cheese, grated 
  • Salt 
  • A pinch of cayenne pepper 
  • 1 egg yolk 
  • 1 egg, beaten, for brushing 
  • Grapes and cheese, such as Stilton, to serve 

Preheat the oven to 180°C/fan 160°C/gas 4 and line a baking tray with parchment. Rub the butter into the flour and add the grated cheeses, salt and cayenne pepper. 

Mix into a paste with the egg yolk until you have a soft dough texture. Roll out on a lightly floured surface and cut into desired shapes using a cutter (we used 5cm letter ‘V’ cutters). 

Transfer the shapes to the prepared baking tray. Brush each of the biscuits with beaten egg, prick with a fork and bake for 15 minutes, until lightly golden. Serve with cheese and grapes.

Recipes adapted from Churchill’s Cookbook by Georgina Landemare, published by Imperial War Museums, priced £12.99, with additional photography by Will Heap. www.iwm.org.uk. 

Churchill’s finest fare: Potage parmentier (Potato and leek soup)

Churchill’s finest fare: Potage parmentier (Potato and leek soup)

Winston Churchill loved his food, and here, from this hearty beef fillet tournedos to a tempting clafoutis, are some of the dishes – as prepared by his chef Georgina Landemare – that fuelled his struggle against the Nazis.

Scrumptious! This tempting potato and leek soup was a delicious dish favoured by Churchill

Serves 6

  • 55g (2oz) butter
  • The white portion of 3 leeks, cleaned 
  • 1.2ltr (2pt) water or stock 
  • A pinch of salt 
  • 4 potatoes, chopped 
  • 2 slices of bread, cut into shapes of your choice 
  • 250ml (9fl oz) milk, boiled 
  • 4-6tbsp cream 
  • A few sprigs of chervil 

 Melt half the butter in a saucepan. Slice the leeks very finely and add to the butter. 

Cook on a low heat, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Add the water or stock. Season with salt. 

Add the potatoes and simmer for 20 minutes, until cooked. Remove the potatoes and leeks from the pan, reserving the liquid, and strain them through a sieve. 

Return the puréed vegetables to the liquid in the pan, then bring to the boil, stirring.

Brown the bread shapes in a frying pan with a little butter. 

Stir the milk and most of the cream into the soup and serve garnished with a spot of cream, chervil and the bread shapes.

Recipes adapted from Churchill’s Cookbook by Georgina Landemare, published by Imperial War Museums, priced £12.99, with additional photography by Will Heap. www.iwm.org.uk. 

British-American alliance was forged centuries earlier, says MONTY DON

My childhood was dominated by the Second World War. I was born ten years after it finished but every adult I knew had lived or fought through it, and every story book, comic and film seemed to be based upon it. 

The image of plucky, isolated Britain standing alone against the full might of the Nazis dominated every portrayal. 

The enduring popularity of Dad’s Army shows that this version of events still has deep resonance. 

But the more complicated truth is that without American help we would almost certainly have succumbed and definitely would not have been able to invade and regain Europe.

Monty with his camassias. The gardening expert says American and British gardens are bonded together

As the 75th anniversary of D-Day arrives on Thursday, it is right and proper to see it as above all a celebration of Britain and the United States working together in harmony towards a common goal.

All this might seem a long way from gardens and plants, but in fact American and British gardens have been bonded together by mutual plants, skills and experience ever since the first settlers founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

I am currently filming a series for the BBC on American gardens, to be shown at the beginning of next year. 

A VERY BRITISH LUPIN

The herbaceous lupin, Lupinus polyphyllus, was brought to Britain from the American west coast in the 1820s by the great botanist David Douglas, after whom the Douglas fir was named.

Russell lupins. They do best in well-drained, sandy soil with their deep tap roots delving for moisture

Russell lupins. They do best in well-drained, sandy soil with their deep tap roots delving for moisture

A century later, gardener George Russell noticed the lupins and thought that although the blues were dominant and very strong, their rather weak shades of yellow and rose pink could be improved. So he set about breeding a better lupin, crossing L. polyphyllus with L. arboreus and some annual species. He refused to sell his plants and destroyed all his records, but at the age of 78 agreed to allow James Baker, the owner of a nursery at Codsall near Wolverhampton, to show the plants to the public. The Russell lupins were shown for the first time in 1937 at the Royal Horticultural Society’s June show and the clear, bright colours caused a sensation.

They do best in well-drained, sandy soil with their deep tap roots delving for moisture. They grow on my heavy clay, but never reach the size they might on a lighter soil. Dead head flowers as they fade but do not cut back too hard. Lupins tend to be short-lived and resent being moved. Although easy to grow from seed, the seeds do not come true, so propagation of a particular colour combination is best done by basal cuttings in spring or splitting clumps in early spring every three or four years.

I spent the last two weeks of April in the Deep South and will be returning a couple more times over the coming few months, so naturally this is a subject that I am currently very bound up in.

The early settlers took with them all the tools, equipment and seeds they needed to establish a version of the life they had been living in England. 

With these, they forged for themselves, through huge struggle and deprivation, a harsh survival. 

But gradually they learned to harness the native plants and eventually began to send them back to England.

Francis Drake had started the process, bringing back tobacco, maize and potatoes in 1586, but the trickle became a flood with the famous father and son nurserymen both named John Tradescant. 

The elder Tradescant introduced the black walnut (Juglans nigra) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), among many others. 

Although the father never actually visited America, the younger John Tradescant went on collecting expeditions to Virginia in the first half of the 17th century, and introduced asters, erigerons, the false acacia, the tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), the red maple, the swamp cypress (Taxodium distichum) and the insect-eating sarracenia to Britain.

The relationship was continued through the 18th century by great men like Thomas Jefferson, who visited many English gardens, making notes and ordering seeds and plants for his garden at Monticello, his plantation in Virginia. 

Gardens and gardeners were exchanging plants, ideas and inspiration – including my own forebear George Don, who went to the east coast of the US in 1822 on a plant-hunting expedition for the Royal Horticultural Society.

Plant hunting in the early 19th century was characterised by intense competitive acquisitiveness, and there were always dedicated, even slightly crazy, amateurs gathering new trophies for British gardeners. 

Thomas Nuttall was a printer who in 1808 went to Pennsylvania from Yorkshire with no intention of collecting plants. 

But he soon found himself obsessively exploring unknown territory, storing seeds in the barrel of his gun. 

He brought us penstemons, artemisias, evening primroses, rudbeckias, camassias, Ribes aureum and Ceanothus thyrsiflorus.

The upshot is that your garden is bound to have American plants growing in it. 

Monticello in Virginia. American and British gardens have been bonded together by mutual plants, skills and experience ever since the first settlers founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607

Monticello in Virginia. American and British gardens have been bonded together by mutual plants, skills and experience ever since the first settlers founded Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607

Echinacea, witch hazel, Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’, coreopsis, Phlox paniculata, monarda, the shuttlecock fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), and heleniums are just a smattering. 

On top of that, North American trees have changed not only our gardens but our landscape. 

SENSATIONAL MAGNOLIAS

The first magnolia to arrive in Britain was M. virginiana in 1688, brought back from the American colonies by the naturalist and clergyman John Banister. It caused an immediate stir when it began flowering, as no gardener had ever seen anything like it before. It is by no means the most glorious magnolia, being a kind of poor cousin to M. grandiflora, but it does have one of the best fragrances of all the magnolia tribe.

M. x soulangeana

M. x soulangeana

It is easy to understand the sensation it caused, because all magnolias are an astonishing exhibition of trees immodestly flowering. There is something about the combination of large, waxy petals and bare branches set against a brilliant blue sky (such as M. x soulangeana) that stops you in your tracks and upsets all notions of how plants ought to behave in a British spring. On my recent visit to South Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, the evergreen M. grandiflora, the bull bay, was everywhere, smothered with massive flowers the size of plates.

M. macrophylla is native to the south-eastern states

M. macrophylla is native to the south-eastern states

M. macrophylla is native to the south-eastern states and is deciduous but grows enormous leaves, 60-90cm long, every year. It has huge, deliciously fragrant flowers that grow to scale. It prefers lots of sun and heat but is hardy down to about -10°C if it has plenty of shelter from wind.

Many evergreens, including cypresses such as leylandii and Lawson cypress, are American, as are Douglas fir, western hemlock, thuja, sitka spruce, noble fir and the huge wellingtonias (Sequoiadendron giganteum). 

I actually had about ten of these giants lining the drive of my last garden, nearly 30 years ago. 

They must have been among the first to be planted and were part of a Victorian craze for evergreen American introductions. 

Before these hardy and dramatic trees started to become readily available in the middle of the 19th century, evergreens were rare in the UK and often tender. 

To be able to grow them outside regardless of weather or position was a great luxury.

The American star in my own garden for the past month has been a bulb which creates great swathes of colour and yet was originally an important food source of the Pacific Northwest. 

Camassias are a meadow flower with a large bulb that was harvested when the flowers were in bloom and roasted or boiled. 

Apparently they taste a little like sweet potato. I confess I have not tried eating one – and I am reluctant to do so, not out of squeamishness but because I am loath to lose any of their wonderful flowers.

The tall spires with scores of small blue flowers come back stronger year after year, and mine, mostly planted three and four years ago, are now twice the size and number they were. 

They grow in a border or in grass, although, as with all spring bulbs, the grass must not be cut until the camassia leaves have died right back. 

In my Writing Garden, which is filled with white flowers, I have Camassia leichtlinii subsp. leichtlinii, which has white flowers that last for ages.

One side of the garden is in full sun and the other in light shade and the camassias seem to be just as happy in both.

Camassia cusickii is another absolute gem. 

It is slightly smaller and the pale blue flowers with their startling bright yellow stamens appear some weeks later. 

All camassias should be planted in autumn, putting the bulbs a full 10cm deep and about 30cm apart.

It is a good idea to give them an autumn mulch as protection against hard frost.

THE MAN WHO STARTED THE RHODODENDRON CRAZE

American gardens were all the rage in mid-18th-century Britain, and a must-have was a ‘shrubbery’ boasting American flowering shrubs, particularly those that thrived on acidic or swampy soil.

Many of our popular shrubs come from the other side of the Atlantic, and if shrubberies have become unfashionable, the shrubs are most definitely not. Garrya elliptica, Ribes sanguineum, mahonia, romneya, berberis, magnolia, callicarpa, ceanothus and amelanchier are all American introductions.

Rhododendron catawbiense. The downside of R. catawbiense is that it is very similar to the dreaded invader R. ponticum and hybridises with it to make a plant that is extremely hardy and difficult to clear

Rhododendron catawbiense. The downside of R. catawbiense is that it is very similar to the dreaded invader R. ponticum and hybridises with it to make a plant that is extremely hardy and difficult to clear

The passion for American plants, which were unlike anything seen before, grew among collectors, and when a Scotsman called John Fraser (1750-1811) brought home a rhododendron, it turned out to be universally popular as it was hardy, easy to grow, smothered in red flowers and small enough to fit into most gardens. Hundreds of new varieties followed, called the catawbiense hybrids, with flowers ranging from creamy white and pink through crimson to deep purple. These then hybridised with the Indian rhododendron species that were introduced by Joseph Hooker from Sikkim in the middle of the 19th century.

By the end of the 1850s there were huge numbers of these new hybrids, and they particularly thrived in the warm, wet climate of the Gulf Stream-protected west of the UK. Great estates began to be filled with miles of these gaudy, flower-smothered shrubs. However, the downside of R. catawbiense is that it is very similar to the dreaded invader R. ponticum and hybridises with it to make a plant that is extremely hardy and difficult to clear.

Churchill’s finest fare: Coq au vin

Churchill’s finest fare: Coq au vin

Winston Churchill loved his food, and here, from this hearty beef fillet tournedos to a tempting clafoutis, are some of the dishes – as prepared by his chef Georgina Landemare – that fuelled his struggle against the Nazis.

Looking good: This bowl of Coq au vin is a French classic and was a favourite of Churchill’s

Serves 6

  • 1 medium 1.3kg (3lb) chicken or 2 thighs, 2 breasts and 2 drumsticks
  • A piece of bacon, about 225g (8oz), or 225g (8oz) smoked bacon lardons 
  • 40g (1½oz) butter 
  • 12 small onions 
  • A bouquet garni 
  • 12 button mushrooms 
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper 
  • 2tbsp brandy 
  • 300-425ml (10-15fl oz) Burgundy wine 
  • 25g (1oz) flour 
  • A few sprigs of thyme 
  • Fleurons of puff pastry for garnishing 

Cut the chicken into 6 pieces (if using a whole one) and cut the bacon into thick cubes (unless using lardons). 

Melt half the butter in a large, lidded saucepan and brown the bacon with the onions. 

When golden, add the chicken pieces, bouquet garni, mushrooms and seasoning.

Cover the pan and cook on a medium heat for 5-10 minutes, until all is brown. Remove the lid and take off any excess fat with a spoon. 

Pour the brandy over the mixture. Tilt the pan slightly and, using a safety match, flame the brandy to burn off the alcohol.

Add the Burgundy, cover and cook for 45 minutes, or until the chicken is tender and cooked through. 

Make a thickening sauce by creaming the remaining butter and flour together with a wooden spoon. 

Stir in enough of this to just thicken the sauce, immediately before serving. Garnish with a few sprigs of thyme and fleurons of puff pastry.

Recipes adapted from Churchill’s Cookbook by Georgina Landemare, published by Imperial War Museums, priced £12.99, with additional photography by Will Heap. www.iwm.org.uk.