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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Remembrance Sunday Reflections

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PoppyEarlier this year, I caught up with veteran broadcaster Shaw Taylor, shortly after he revived his role on Police 5 after a gap of 22 years.

Shaw, who recently celebrated his 90th birthday, was one of Britain’s most versatile broadcasters, able to be sombre and authoritative, or light-hearted and self-deprecating, depending on the occasion. From the 1950s until he largely retired at the end of 1992, he took on roles as varied as quizmaster, crime fighter, talent show judge and sports commentator.

For many years, his ability to set the tone made him ITV’s commentator of choice on Royal Occasions, as well as at the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, taking on the role Tom Fleming, and nowadays David Dimbleby provides for the BBC.

Shaw understood that the job of commentating on the ceremony was a difficult one. For much of the time, the pictures speak for themselves. Say too much, and you are intruding on a private moment of grief. Say nothing, and you risk leaving younger generations ignorant of and perhaps unable to understand the emotions one experiences at times of war.

Having done his bit during the war, Shaw was well-qualified to articulate these emotions. He was called up from his London office job in 1943 to serve in the RAF, but even as a young man, he wore his trademark glasses, and short-sightedness dashed his hopes of becoming a Spitfire pilot. Nevertheless, he was very active at RAF Ventnor Chain Home Radar Station on the Isle of Wight, before being posted to Japan in the autumn of 1944, and finally Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where he was now a Leading Aircraftsman and worked as a teleprinter operator.

Eventually (at some point in the late 1970s or early 80s), ITV stopped covering the Cenotaph, and, on its final year, Shaw wanted to add something that would underline the sheer futility and waste of war but at the same time hint at the comradeship that developed amongst those who fought it.

Keep ‘em peeled! Shaw Taylor in his famous Police 5 pose

Keep ‘em peeled! Shaw Taylor in his famous Police 5 pose

Late on the Saturday night before the ceremony, Shaw sat with a blank piece of paper and gazed across the brightly-lit London skyline that he had once seen in pitch darkness lit only by the flickering flames of the blitz. He began to write a poem, and the following morning, as the Band of the Brigade of Guards struck up with ‘Pack up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag’, and the dwindling numbers of First World War veterans straightened their backs to lead the parade past the Cenotaph, Shaw picked up his microphone and began to read out his poem, ‘I Watched Him Go’.

At the end of the broadcast, the ITV Midlands franchise, ATV, was inundated with calls from viewers wanting to know who wrote it. Shaw could only answer that it was his hand who wrote it, but who guided his hand he will never know.

The following year, although ITV no longer covered the Cenotaph ceremony, the TV Times printed the verses relating to the armed forces that Shaw had actually broadcast the previous year. The verses dedicated to the civilian services, nursing, the fire brigade and the police were added by Shaw in 1995 and broadcast by the BBC during celebrations to commemorate the end of the Second World War.

Shaw intended for the poem to reach the young, and he realised its impact when he was contacted by Chris Murray, a teacher of English at an academy in Strasbourg, France. Part of his course was the study of war poets such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert W. Service.

Murray came across the fighter pilot verse of ‘I Watched Him Go’ in a book about the RAF, and not knowing about Shaw’s broadcasting career, assumed him to be a war poet. He made contact and Shaw sent him the poem in full.

Among the works of all the more famous poets, his students voted ‘I Watched Him Go’ to be the poem that most affected them in underlying the futility of, yet at the same time the strange comradeship that develops in times of war.

As we commemorate the centenary of the start of World War One, it seems appropriate to share Shaw’s poem in full on this Remembrance Sunday.

 

I Watched Him Go by Shaw Taylor

I watched him go

He climbed the trench a yard ahead of me

And hardly topped the ridge before he

Stopped stock still, and sagged.

I caught him as he fell.

Our arms entwined we slithered down

The wall of stinking mud until

We hit the duckboards at the bottom.

His eyes stared up “Why me?”

They seemed to say “Why me?”

I lit a fag and gave it him,

He took one puff, enough,

That’s when he went, I watched him go,

The smoke still trickling from his lips.

 

I watched him go.

The boat’s side caving in my ribs.

With shoulders hunched and fingers numb

With cold, I grasped his hands.

Above the gale I heard a yell

“Hold on – for God’s sake hold!”

And realised the voice was mine.

He couldn’t hear. I’d not the strength

To haul him in – nor he

And all the while the greedy sea

Kept dragging him away.

Our fingers touched and parted. Just a kid.

That’s when he went, I watched him go,

His head held back for one last breath.

 

I watched him go.

His wingtip not ten feet from mine.

“Red Leader Bandits Angels Five”

I heard the call and so did he.

He grinned and raised a thumb.

I knew the sign – the first one down sets up the pints!

And then they ran, those round black holes

From near the tail. A perfect line

Of perforation straight to him.

The forward jerk, the smile transfixed,

That’s when he went, I watched him go.

A twisting spiral trailing smoke.

 

I watched her go.

Her nurses cape held high to shield her from the heat

We kept the hissing jet of water neat

And straight towards the yellow fangs of flame.

Why did she yell and run bent low towards the blaze?

What did she see? A figure? Shape? A trick of light?

I wedged the writhing nozzle tight

Beneath my arm to keep a sodden path

Between the burning timbers

And the heat crazed walls.

That’s when she went, I watched her go,

Amid the rumbling roar and showering sparks.

 

I watched him go

He hurtled past so fast I laughed.

I’d never seen a policeman run before.

And then I saw the child

In open space, it’s face turned up

Towards the whistling shrieking sound.

The ground came up to meet them as they fell.

The child secure, held safe beneath

A shrapnel shredded tunic seeping red.

That’s when he went, I watched him go.

A shield of blue above the unharmed child.

 

They’re all gone now.

 

Their names an unremembered line

On Rolls of Honour glanced at now and then

By those with nothing else to read.

A breed of men and women I was proud to know,

And yet, I never think of them except

On days like this – and sometimes in the lonely night.

And then I wonder why they went?

What hand reached out and took them

In their prime? A time of grief

For those held dear.

Good God, you must have heard

Their prayers you must!

Or is there no-one there to hear?

 

(Copyright Shaw Taylor)

Written by Marcus Stead

November 9, 2014 at 3:37 am

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