It was the day the Tauranga hairdresser sang for the forces’ sweetheart herself.
“Vera just asked me if I knew any of her songs,” says Raewyn Fairweather. “And I told her: ‘Of course I do’.”
To prove the point Raewyn launched into song, her favourite song of the time.
“There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover.”
And Vera Lynn, the sparkle, the voice that lifted England’s spirits above the bombs, the mayhem, the blood and sacrifice of World War 2, just hummed along with Raewyn.
“Tomorrow, just you wait and see.”
Vera was a captive audience that day. She was under Raewyn’s salon cape at the time, being preened for a gig at Hamilton’s Founders Theatre. A shampoo, cut and set for the woman with a gentle smile and timeless songs.
The songstress must have been impressed because Raewyn, who now lives at the Bayswater Retirement Village, was as good at singing as she was with a pair of scissors. “I knew all of the words to all of her songs. I used to sing them with my sister.”
And apparently, the daughters of an Irish tenor were very good.
But how did an international treasure end up at Raewyn’s on River Rd by the Fairfield Bridge in Hamilton? “Vera Lynn was touring New Zealand and I got a lovely letter from Vera Lynn’s manager asking me to meet them at an Auckland hotel to discuss a visit to my salon.”
And Vera, who has just turned 100, who is now a Dame and has just released a new album, lived up to her reputation as the girl next door. “She was very pleasant, very, very nice and a very down to earth person.”
This was someone adored by the masses but who liked nothing more than to sew, garden, paint or cook. She had the common touch because she enjoyed common things.
Raewyn remembers Vera Lynn bringing her daughter Virginia to the salon that day about half a century ago.
“I asked her if she enjoyed her mother’s singing and she said it was dreadful because she had to listen to it every day.” Virginia was a teenager and probably preferred rock ‘n’ roll and Elvis.
“I reminded her that her mother had a beautiful voice, a lovely powerful voice.” And Raewyn also reminded Virginia that her mother had made huge personal sacrifices to entertain people when it so desperately mattered.
It was Vera Lynn’s courage as much as her songs that established her as a household name. She drove her Austin 10 to gigs while bombs rained down on London. “That’s why I always carried a tin helmet,” she is reported as saying.
In 1944 she was embedded in the Burmese jungle despite being warned of the dangers. The appreciation she received from the troops, her “boys” as she called them, was something that “remained special to me my whole life”.
And the day peace was declared she was sent to Germany to entertain the troops fresh from liberating the Nazi death camps. “There were no bids flying,” she recalled at the time. “I was told the gas was still in the air.”
Then, little more than a decade later, there she was being coiffed in Raewyn’s salon.
“She didn’t tell me what she wanted done. She just left it to me. But we did have lots of chat because she was delightfully humble, a real country girl.”
And how much do you charge the woman who gave us ‘We’ll Meet Again’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square’?
“Nothing. No, it was an honour and a privilege. And she loved what I did,” says Raewyn.
So much so Vera invited Raewyn to Auckland to do her hair before that concert. “Hullo Raewyn,” said Vera.
They were on first name terms now. “Vera was in her bathrobe. I did her hair and I was enormously proud. I just so enjoyed making people happy, making people beautiful. It was such a lovely experience and a wonderful story to share with people.”
Vera Lynn’s popularity has never waned. She still gets 50 fan letters a week. And next Tuesday, April 25, Anzac Day, ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ will be dusted off yet again.
“I’ll never forget the people I met, Braving those angry skies, I remember well as the shadows fell, The light of hope in their eyes.”
And a local hairdresser will recall a very personal encounter with the forces’ sweetheart. Raewyn’s story has endured as well as Vera’s songs.