A few days ago, DP Vernon Layton contacted me and asked if I might share a story on Remembrance Sunday via my blog. As you may know, Venrnon shot ‘Gone Fishing’, which I also directed. And the experience was so magical, we became very good friends. So for me, it’s a privilege to be asked to share Vernons story, both for Vernon, and for the brave souls he recalls in his words.
Chris, every year on Remembrance Day, I find myself thinking about a rather special person who, many, many, years ago, had a considerable influence on my life and the direction it subsequently took. Some time back, mainly for the family records, I wrote the following about him. Recently, trawling through various documents, I found it again, and thought it might be something you would perhaps consider putting on your blog today.
His name was Kenneth, and he was my uncle. I was born two years after the start of WW2 and my earliest memories of him stem back to when I was barely a toddler. At that time he was almost twenty years of age and a navy radar-op aboard the aircraft carrier ‘HMS Illustrious’.
His hobby was filming, and on the rare occasion he came home on leave, he’d pin the dining room tablecloth to the picture-rail, set up a little black 9.5mm hand-cranked projector, and close the curtains. When the yellow flickering light came on, the tablecloth, complete with food stains, was instantly transformed. Suddenly something magical happened and from the shaky black and white images there would be glimpses of life on board a warship.
There was a fun side. Shipmates laughing, and clowning around. Pulling faces at the camera. Spray flying from the carrier’s square bow plunging through mountainous waves. There was also more serious stuff. Aircraft struggling to land on the decks. One losing control, vanishes clean over the side. Another halting at a crazy angle. Its fin and wings, shredded with cannon shell. Blood smeared on the inside of a canopy, where they hurriedly pulled out the pilot. A crippled warship, slowly capsizing, slides silently beneath the waves in vast clouds of steam, spray, and a pall of black smoke. Tiny figures waving hopelessly, from a sea of oil and debris. And my mother, quietly leaving the room to the faint clicking of the projector.
I was of course far too young to begin to question it all at that time. But a few years later, I understood, when my mother gently explained that just before I was born, there had been another uncle. Her older brother, Norman, also a Royal Marine. He, with eight hundred others, was asleep far below deck on ‘HMS Royal Oak’, when, in the dead of night, she rapidly turned over and sank taking them all to the sea bed with her. She had been torpedoed by a U-boat that somehow against all odds, slipped unnoticed into Scapa Flow harbour. It happened in late 1939, and was the first major naval casualty of the second world war.
After that tragic event, my mother had always secretly feared for her younger brother, Ken. And sadly, she was right to do so. Because he didn’t make it either. One day, a year or so later, ‘Illustrious’ was dive-bombed and he took shrapnel in his legs. He was taken off the ship to a hospital, but there was a complication, and some weeks later he died in my mother's arms. He was barely twenty-two.
To this day, his magic tablecloth imagery lives on clearly in my memory. And I believe somewhere, deep in my subconscious, it played a big part in my decision to become a cinematographer. So, through the global reaches of the internet, which, had he lived, would have fascinated him as much as it does all of us, I’d like to dedicate this story to the memory of both of my young uncles. It is true, they were no greater than the many thousands of unsung young men who died because of that war. But one of them was without doubt, in his own small way, a great cinematographer.
Vernon Layton B.S.C
Thanks for sharing this story with us Vernon.
UPDATE – Anyone who knows Vernon will appreciate that he is, like most creative people, more than a cinematographer. He is also a poet. He just shared this poem with me about his memories of Kenneth.
A Suffolk Field
Through mists black flaking hangar looms
Where silent aircraft stood
Dense brambles cover crumbling tracks
Where nervous airmen fooled.
Sometimes a bitter wind moans cold
Where sirens sighed and howled.
And hard the rain that drives on soil
Where heavy bombers rolled.
Short breaks of sunlight strike old tower
From where green Aldis flashed.
A chattering combine harvester
Where mighty engines thrashed.
The plough’s bright foil cleaves earth aside
Where blades beat air and whined.
And over cars where lovers coil
Night bombers slowly climbed.
So like the hovering hawks above
To fighters some fell prey.
Whilst others struggled back and burned
In Suffolk’s soil they lay.
And what of grieving loved ones now?
Grown old and mostly gone.
A whispered prayer on reading
“Just one last trip – then home”.
Instead, a black-edged telegram
Through endless anguished tears.
His photo still beside the clock
That chimed away lost years.
A sacred shrine this field to those,
Who flew from here to die,
To Rhine and Ruhr and places far,
Beyond where earth meets sky.
Last rays erupt in blazing gold,
Against dark hangar’s line.
And far above a slender moon,
Faint stars like brave souls shine.
Onwards and upwards!