The story behind a name on a wall

Mark Byford
Mark Byford
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A ray of sunshine set Mark Byford on a fascinating journey, the first-time author and former BBC executive tells Yvette Huddleston.

SOME years ago, Mark Byford, at the time a hard-working senior executive at the BBC, had what turned out to be a life-changing experience at the Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC.

One morning, as dawn was breaking on The Wall – panels of polished black granite covered in the 58,282 names of the American servicemen and women who died in Vietnam between 1959 and 1975 – Byford saw a beam of sunlight settle on the name Larry S Byford. It had a profound effect on him, since not only was it his own surname but the first name was similar to that of his father Lawry. That moment was to eventually set him off on a journey that has led to the publication of his first book A Name on a Wall.

In 2011, Byford left the BBC after being made redundant, one of a number of top level managers affected by the cost-cutting streamlining of the organisation. Although he hadn’t wanted to leave, he now had the time to pursue other projects.

His first thought was to find out more about his father’s childhood and Second World War service. While at The Wall, Byford had taken a pencil rubbing of the name, which he had kept in a drawer in the meantime but now felt was the right time to show to his father. “When he saw it, he became quite emotional,” says Byford. “And we started to talk about his experiences during the war.” Together they went to Normanton in West Yorkshire where his father had grown up, the son and grandson of coal miners. Lawry Byford had enlisted in 1944 as a 19-year-old, qualified as a wireless operator and was soon dispatched to Paris to work at the Supreme HQ of the Allied Expeditionary Force. He thrived and vowed not to go down the mine when he returned home. He went on to forge an illustrious career in the police. “We were looking at the war memorial in Haw Hill Park,” says Byford. “And Dad said ‘there is a story behind every one of those names.’ It was at that moment I thought I would do it as a project for myself and my family to understand the parallels between two men in two wars with two different destinies,” he says.

He began researching the Vietnam War, found out more about Larry Byford and sketched out what had happened to him. It soon became apparent the project could potentially be a book at which point he contacted Larry’s family. “If they hadn’t wanted me to do it, I would have stopped immediately.”

They agreed to help and Byford began tracing Larry’s journey from his boyhood and young adulthood in rural East Texas through to his being drafted, boot camp training, his arrival in Vietnam in April 1967 and his death just two months later.

It is a tender, warm-hearted book – well written and meticulously researched – which sensitively explores the painful loss suffered by one particular family in one particular war while at the same time celebrating our common humanity. Wherever in the world you are, whatever your politics, religion or ideology, Byford argues that the fundamental things remain important for us all. “What we all want is family and friendship,” he says. He also delves into the concepts of duty and heroism and ponders the role that fate, chance and coincidence all play in the seeming randomness of life. In addition, the book offers some focused insights into a deeply controversial and divisive war. There is one aspect of the project that stands out for Byford. “If there is one thing that has made it all worthwhile,” he says, “it is the quote at the front of the book from Larry’s sister Debbie.” Her response to it is honest and heartfelt. “Part of me wanted to read it and part of me didn’t... It’s kinda strange how Mark Byford came into our lives. But I’m glad he did. Now Larry’s journey is complete – thanks to him.”

BBC executive to debut author

Mark Byford was born in Castleford, West Yorkshire in 1958 and grew up in Huddersfield.

He studied Law at Leeds University and after graduating in 1979, he joined the BBC Look North team as a researcher.

He went on to enjoy a long career at the BBC, over a period of 32 years, eventually becoming Deputy Director General and Head of Journalism from 2004 to 2011.

Married with five children, this is his first book.

A Name on a Wall, £18.99, Mainstream Publishing. All the author’s royalties from the book will be donated to the Vietnam War Memorial Fund.