David Ronald Marshall was born on March 27th 1916 in Middlesborough, to a railway worker father and a mother who had been a lady’s maid. Both parents were committed Methodists and well-read individuals, perhaps influencing Marshall’s academic success at school and later his deep commitment to poetry. Certainly, by the time he had left school to work as a clerk in the unemployment benefit office he already had a deep love of poetry, especially Keats.
Having spent the period of the sixth form in escapist retreat from the harsh reality around him, he became enthused by the alternative spirit of the Spanish Popular Front. Marshall forged a letter of permission from his father (David would not pass the age of majority until March of the following years) to enable himself to explore the new experiment. Almost as soon as he had made such preparations, the fascist rebellion had begun and David was in the thick of it.
Marshall was thus one of the first British volunteers to fight in the Spanish civil war. Having arrived in Barcelona on September 4th 1936, he joined the Tom Mann Centuria, a predecessor of the International Brigades, and shortly after he signed up to the Communist Party. The Centuria was incorporated into the English Section of the Thaelmann Battalion and, after rapid training, was put up directly against Fascist troops without any artillery back up at all. In November, Marshall took a sniper’s bullet in his ankle at Cerro de los Angeles, having to been moved back the line under heavy fire. After hospital treatment in Alicante, he was sent back to Britain to aid the wider campaign.
(Pics: David Marshall – above – in later years and -right – on the far right with members of the Tom Mann Centuria, all of whom died in the battle of Boadilla.)
Marshall’s immediate poetry following his Spanish experience has been considered amongst his best, especially his `Retrospect’, included in an anthology of poems for Spain alongside the more celebrated MacNeice, Spender, Auden and Day Lewis.
Like many Spanish veterans, he was initially considered too politically unreliable to be able to join the British armed forces, although he did join the Royal Engineers eventually and participated in the Normandy landings of 1944 and the liberation of Belsen.
He returned to Middlesborough in 1947 to work in the Ministry of Labour once again but a life of conventionality was not for Marshall. In late 1947, he and others purchased an old house to refurbish and open as offices and a club for the Party and YCL. The carpentry and other skills that he acquired in the process saw him move into a grander project still. From 1950 and for the next decade, Marshall was the secretary for the Middlesborough Trades Union Club. He and a team of volunteers built a hall to hold 500 people, with a stage suitable for rallies, lectures, film shows, concerts and dances. In 1961, he moved to London to work as a joiner with the Theatre Workshop under Joan Littlewood’s direction, building scenery for theatre projects and exhibitions.
He married Joyce Ritson in January 1939, with whom he would have a daughter and a son. When Joyce died of cancer in 1975, Marshall refurbished a 90 foot sailing barge to live on and hire out for events. This gave way to an 85 foot barge on which he lived until 1992, when he went to live with his long time lover, actress Marlene Sidaway.
He continued to write poetry throughout his life, finally producing a book of poems covering his life from Spain to the present in the year of his death, when he passed away aged 89:
I wish I were back
I wish I were back in the trenches round Madrid
Along with the chicos, among the strangeness of tongues:
Strong in my body, testing it thus and thus,
Half wondering that my flesh can bear these things.
Glad in my loneliness, wrapt in my alien thoughts;
My quaintness cloaking me, like cold air
Stirring on the skin when putting off familiar clothes –
Just as I stepped out of my time-pocked life
Sources include The Guardian October 29th 2005