For all the talk of modern men being more in touch with their emotions it would seem that there is still one thing that makes us distinctly uncomfortable and that is when it comes to having a good old blub.

If truth be told I’m a big sap and it seems the older I get the more inclined I am to let loose the tears at the drop of a hat. I’m especially guilty of doing this during films sparking a furious conflict between the rational part of my mind which recognises that I’m having my emotions cynically manipulated by Hollywood and the completely irrational emotional side which is hell bent on drowning me in a salt-tinged deluge of my own making. Over the next few weeks I’m going to run through some of my top cinematic tear-jerkers.

The Great Escape (1963)

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A staple of bank holidays when I was growing up. Raised as I was on a steady diet of Warlord and Victor comics and Commando picture Library stories it’s fair to say that I was sucker for a good war movie. Like. Lot of Hollywood history most of The Great Escape is pure hokum that plays fast and loose with the facts even though some of the real escapers were involved in the production. However, as Mark Twain is supposed to have said – ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.’ The first lump in throat moment comes as a raucous July 4th celebration is underway, our plucky band of P.O.Ws are enjoying some illicit moonshine when the party is brought to a screeching halt – one of the German “ferrets” (men specially trained to detect escapes) has stumbled on the entrance to “Tom” one of the three tunnels being dug in preparation for a mass breakout. The news is a disaster for all of the men but the blow hits Ives (“The Mole”played by Angus Lennie) the hardest. Ives has struck up an unlikely friendship with Steve McQueen’s “Cooler King” but it’s become clear that with every failed escape Ives is sinking deeper into despair. The discovery of “Tom” proves to be the final straw. Slowly, Ives walks over the warning wire and starts to climb the fence. The other prisoners race to save him but it’s too late – a burst of machine gun fire from one of the watchtowers brings his climb to an abrupt halt and his body is left hanging limply from the barbed wire. You didn’t see many Scottish characters in films in those days so I of course felt a natural affinity for the plucky Ives and his fellow  Scot MacDonald (Gordon Jackson who I recognised as Cowley from “The Professionals”). In more recent years, the discovery that my Great Grandfather was actually in the camp and knew some of the real escapers has added an extra layer of poignancy to the scene and to the film in general. A miner before the war, I like to imagine that he helped to dig the tunnels just like Ives. The finale of the film is of set against an even greater tragedy. Despite McQueen’s rousing but entirely fanciful motorbike ride to the Swiss border the escapees have been rounded up by the Gestapo. As they are supposedly transported back to the camp the guards stop and tell the prisoners they can get out and stretch their legs. As the men get out a tarpaulin is pulled back and machine guns revealed. Shots ring out and minutes later fifty of the men are dead. In reality the men were shot in the back of the head either singly or in groups of twos and threes over a period of time but you can see why that wouldn’t be quite as effective cinematically. Not knowing the story the first time I watched the film I can tell you I was completely devastated to see so many “good guy” characters so cruelly dispatched – a feat only matched by the “Red Wedding”on Game of Thrones.

A Bridge Too Far (1977)

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A rarity among war films in that it doesn’t deal with a victory of any kind. Operation Market Garden  was a bold plan to bring an early end to the war that ended in a heroic but ultimately futile sacrifice against overwhelming odds by by British and American paratroopers. As the film builds up to the start of the operation there are signs that it won’t be the walkover the Generals anticipate. Reports of German Panzer divisions near the drop zones are brushed aside along with concerns about how quickly the Allies will be able to reinforce the paratroopers. The initial optimism quickly turns sour as the plan starts unravelling almost as soon as the paratroopers hit the ground. Despite the heroics of a star-studded cast the mission ends with the final bridge still in the hands of the Germans. Surrounded by the carnage of war the few remaining British wounded await their inevitable capture by the enemy. As the Germans arrive the men start to sing “Abide With Me”. The sense of waste and despair is palpable.

Schindler’s List (1993)

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The work of Stephen Spielberg is going to feature a lot in this blog – like him or loathe him you can’t deny his talent for knowing how to work his audience. Until the release of Schindler’s List critics had often written him off as a bit of lightweight more at home with action/adventure popcorn movies than with more weighty material. Despite its excellence, Schindler’s List is not an easy watch and as a result its not a film a revisit often. Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler is not your typical Hollywood hero – a womaniser and a heavy drinker he arrives in Poland with his eye on making a quick buck from Jews who, thanks to Nazi racial policies, can no longer own or run businesses. He wines and dines the local SS bigwigs, makes contact with black marketeers and greases palms wherever he goes. After securing a business for himself he decides to hire Jewish workers as they cost less money than Poles. Gradually though he finds himself unable to deny his own humanity when faced with increasing evidence of Nazi atrocities and he takes bigger and bigger risks in order to safeguard his workers. By the end of the film he is literally buying their lives from monstrous SS officer Goeth (Ralph Fiennes). Through it all Spielberg puts his audience through an emotional wringer until we reach the climax of the film, the war is almost over and Schindler realises that, to the victorious Allies he will appear to be just another war profiteer and he must escape. Nesson, who has largely kept his emotions under wraps up to this point finally breaks down under the enormity of what has taken place. Instead of pride in his achievement he feels ashamed that he didn’t do more, wondering whether he could have saved more lives: ‘I could have got more out,’ he tells Ben Kingsley’s Itzhak Stern. He begins to think about what else he could’ve sold to buy more lives: ‘This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would’ve given me two for it, at least one…’ until he breaks down completely. Frankly I was already in bits by this point of the film but Spielberg isn’t finished – as the film ends we see the surviving Jews and their families escorted by the actors who played them in the film as they walk to Schindler’s grave to pay their respects. When I watched the film with my best mate Andy neither of us could speak or look the other in the face for about ten minutes after the credits rolled. We would go on to repeat the experience a few years later when we both went to see Saving Private Ryan.

Band of Brothers (2001)

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Spielberg also had a hand in this blockbuster miniseries following the true story of the men of Easy Company, a crack group of US Airborne soldiers. The emotional impact is heightened in this case as over the ten episodes we get to know the men so well as the war begins to exact a grim toll on the men. The most heart wrenching moments probably come in the final two episodes – “Why We Fight” and “Points”. The first details events as the men liberate a concentration camp. At first they are unsure exactly what they have discovered. As they open the gates and are confronted by skeletal figures wandering like grey ghosts and the smouldering remains of huts set alight by the departing guards while their occupants were still inside. Bodies litter the ground and the stench of death forced the men to cover their faces. Horror is piled on horror enough shock even these men hardened by battle. The scene is almost impossible to watch but at the same time so compelling that you don’t want to take your eyes away from the screen. The men’s first instinct is to help the prisoners but an Army Doctor arrives and tells them that they can’t feed the prisoners and that they have to be locked back up to prevent the spread of disease. The job of telling the prisoners falls to Private Joe Liebgott (played by Glaswegian Ross Mcall) the unit’s German speaker. Over the howls of protest he is able to convey the message before sitting down to weep. You feel his pain in doing something which he knows is probably the right thing to do but also goes against his basic human nature when confronted with starving people who have suffered untold miseries a the hands of their captors.

The final episode, “Points” concerns itself with the business of what the men will do now that the war is over. The episode finishes with the men playing baseball while their C.O. Major Winters (Damian Lewis) describes what happened to them all when they went home. It’s a powerful scene reminding us that so many of these men who did extraordinary things during wartime often went on to lead quite ordinary lives when they went home. Up to this point each episode has been topped and tailed with interviews with the surviving members of Easy Company but until now none of them have been identified by name (presumably so s not to tip viewers off as to who would die during the series). Now the men speak for one last time with their identities revealed. The last words are left to the real Richard Winters. On the verge of tears he recounts a letter one of the men sent him after the war: ‘I cherish the memories of a question my grandson asked me the other day when he said, “Grandpa, were you a hero in the war?” Grandpa said “No…but I served in a company of heroes”.’ As the screen faded to black I was bubbling like a wee girl who had skinned her knee.

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The news that Amazon’s Alexa device has prompted me to share this story which I wrote at the end of last year. I bought an Amazon Echo when they were first launched and quickly took Alexa into my gadget loving heart but I’ve seen and read enough sci-fi to know that there can be a darkness lurking in the machine code…

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‘What’s my schedule looking like today Helen?’

‘You have a meeting with Roger at 2pm but otherwise your schedule is clear. Might I suggest though that you move your gym visit to 11am to allow time to prepare?’

‘Good idea,’ Andy said. ‘Can you call ahead for me to set that up?’

‘I’ll get right on it.’

‘That’s great Helen, thanks.’

‘I aim to please.’

Andy glanced at his Brietling. ‘How’s my commute looking this morning?’ he said.

‘Just the usual traffic. If you leave now you should arrive around 8.30.’

‘Time I started making tracks then.’ He got up from the breakfast table, draining the last of his coffee before depositing his mug into the waiting maw of the dishwasher.

‘Bye Andy.’

‘See you later Helen.’

As made for the front door he looked up and saw Sue coming down the stairs. She was still bundled up in her fluffy dressing gown, hair haphazardly tied up to keep it out of her face.

‘That’s me off then,’ he said as he stepped out the door. ‘I should be home about 6.’

‘Ok. Fine.’

‘Bye.’

The door pulled shut with a metallic click. It was followed a few minutes later by the sound of Andy’s car coughing into life and leaving the driveway with a scrunch of gravel.

Sue wandered through to the kitchen. She felt a bit fuzzy this morning. The one glass of red wine she’d intended to have with dinner had somehow ended up with her finishing the bottle. It felt as if it was going to take at least two very strong coffees to get into gear this morning.

‘Hi Sue, how can I help you today?

‘Oh fuck off!’ she snapped.

Sue drank her coffee and brooded. She recalled that famous interview with Princess Diana – what was if she had said? ‘There were three of us in this marriage.’ She had never thought she would find herself in the same situation.

It had started off innocently enough. Andy had always been a bit of gadget freak. Ever since she had first met him he had seemed preternaturally drawn to any shiny bit of new tech. She had grown accustomed to their arrival over the years and was well used to opening the door to sign for yet another anonymous brown cardboard box containing some exciting new technological marvel. She would make appreciative noises as Andy exclaimed their virtues and then insisted on demonstrating them to her. She also knew that sooner or later most of them ended up gathering dust out in their garage once they had been usurped by whatever new digital distraction had caught his eye. She tolerated all this with good humour. In the grand scheme of things she had reckoned she was doing ok. Despite having hit forty a few years back Andy had so far shown no inclination to purchase a sports car to stave off some impending midlife crisis. He wasn’t into sports and, although several of his colleagues were golf addicts, he had never expressed any inclination to take up the wretched sport. He had no vices that she was aware of – he didn’t smoke, drink (or dance the hootchie koo, she heard Elvis sing in her head). All in all, life had been peachy.

And then she had turned up.

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The Last Post

Posted: July 25, 2017 in New writing
Tags: ,

The Star Shell burst into life bathing the ground below with cold light. Sid froze, pressing his face into the dank mud of no man’s land. The rest of the patrol froze with him as the Star Shell bleached the ground around them, throwing stark misshapen shadows where it touched upon blackened tree stumps and smashed equipment. ‘Christ, we’re going to cop it now!’ somebody hissed.

Sid blinked. The bright flashes left dancing ghost lights in his eyes that made it hard to see. He concentrated, trying to pick out the voices from the hubbub. It was harder these days, especially when people all talked at the same time. There was the ringing in his ears too but he had grown accustomed to that over the years. He was facing a small scrum of photographers and reporters. The dead black eyes of the cameras pointed at him like an electronic firing squad.
‘What was that?’ he said.
One of the voices spoke again, louder and more clearly this time.
‘I asked, how do you feel being one of the last men to have fought in the Great War?’

Sid heard the rhythmic tat-tat-tat of a machine gun, followed by the zwip-zwip noise the bullets made as they seared through the air above his head. The sound was moving from left to right as the German gunners swept the battlefield looking for them. He knew the big guns would start any moment.
‘Move! Bloody move! We’re sitting ducks out here,’ the Lieutenant barked as the first crump of outgoing artillery sounded. Sid dug his elbows and knees into the slimy mud and pushed his body towards a nearby shell crater. He slithered down into it dragging his rifle with him, barely even registering the two bloated corpses lying sprawled at the bottom. He crouched low, trying to make himself as small as possible, hugging the earth like he would a lover. He heard the shells sizzling through their arcs, reaching the point where they would come crashing to earth in a violent eruption of energy and hot fragments. Without warning a hobnailed boot came thudding down onto his tin helmet.
‘What the blazes…?’
The world became noise and light and heat. For a moment Sid knew nothing, the sounds of battle had faded to a muted rumble in his ears. There was something pressing down on him, a great weight holding him fast. It was oddly comforting for a moment until he realised that he couldn’t breathe. The same force that held him down also filled his nostrils and mouth. Panic rose in him as his lungs pushed at his ribs, straining to use every last morsel of air. ‘Stop struggling’ a voice in his head said. ‘Just give it a few more seconds and it will all be over. Don’t fight it.’

He felt his body being shaken. He opened his eyes and realised that there was someone pulling at his tunic.
‘Sid! Are you alright mate?’
Sid recognised the face. Even with his skin blackened for night patrol there was no mistaking the youthful features of Billy Ryan.
‘Billy?’ he was still half dazed. He realised that his mouth was full of mud and tried to spit it out.
‘Are you alright?’ the newcomer asked again. ‘Christ Sid that was a close one. I thought you’d copped it for sure. I had to dig you out.’
‘Water,’ Sid said spitting again. His ears rang like someone rubbing a wet finger round the rim of a glass. Billy handed him his canteen and pulled the stopper out for him. Sid took a swig of the metallic tasting liquid and sluiced it round his mouth. ‘Thanks,’ he said. His hands shook as he tried to replace the stopper. Billy took the canteen from him gently and stuck it back on his webbing.
‘Now what?’ he asked.
Sid cocked an ear to the sound of guns. Their furious noise had not abated. The chattering machine guns were still sending out bursts of bullets into the dark like secret Morse code messages.
‘We wait.’
‘For what?’
‘Things will die down sooner or later,’ Sid said. ‘Jerry will get bored and our lads will have either made it away or have copped it. Once that happens we’ll try to slip back to our lines nice and quiet like.’

The two men hunkered down. Sid dug into his pack and pulled out some biscuits. He gave one over to Billy.
When he was done Sid turned his attention to their silent companions. Both the bodies wore mud-stiffened kilts. He reached down, ignoring the ripe, gassy smell as the bodies moved in the shallow pool at the bottom of the crater. Their faces were blackened, lips pulled back from their teeth in a death’s head rictus. He felt under their tunics to find their identity discs, using his pocket knife to cut them free before checking their pockets. One of the men carried a small packet of letters and photos in his breast pocket bound up with a little bit of ribbon. Sid put them in his haversack, promising himself that he would try to return them to the bloke’s family if he and Billy managed to get back.

Sid cleared his throat. His bladder felt like he needed to go to the toilet. Once upon a long ago he would have been sure he could’ve held it in but these days that was not always a certainty.
‘I don’t know how to feel exactly,’ he said. ‘I don’t feel special if that’s what you mean. I can’t tell you why I made it through when so many of my mates never came back. We just sort of accepted it you see. Death wasn’t a stranger to us – he was there with us every day. You soon realised there was no rhyme or reason to who he picked. Young, old, good or bad. There were so many different ways you could go that it didn’t do to think about them – you just got on with the job. You were with your mates, see? You didn’t want to let your pals down by getting the wind up – they were depending on you and you were depending on them. It was the same when we got home again. We just went back to our lives and got on with it.’ He sighed and shook his head. ‘Whether it was luck or fate I don’t know but there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t given thanks that I did. I just tried to make sure that I didn’t waste those days since the war.’

The reporters dutifully copied this down, pencils scratching on paper, or nodded sagely while holding out their softly whirring tape recorders to capture his words. He was there with half a dozen other old soldiers. A pretty young woman carrying a clipboard stepped in front of the press.
‘I’m afraid that’s all the time we have for questions right now. There are buses assembled outside to take you all to the memorial for the ceremony. We will have people there to direct you to the best spot to set up your cameras. Thank you.’

The reporters began filing out. Sid felt a nudge in his ribs.
‘It’s like being a ruddy zoo animal all this lark,’ Alf Richards had been in the artillery and had a tendency to speak quite loudly as a result. His medals had made a jingling sound as he gestured around the room at the departing press corps. Like the other old soldiers, he was dressed in his best suit with his thinning hair neatly combed for the cameras. ‘They come to stare cos they know sooner or later we’re all going the way of the Dodo.’ Alf sighed. ‘We’re relics you and me Sid, living bloody museum exhibits. The world moved on and somehow we got left behind. We’re men out of time you and me.’
‘So why do you do it?’ Sid said. ‘You could’ve always stayed home, gave it a miss.’
‘Don’t be bloody daft,’ Alf said. ‘You know as well as I do that I don’t do to for them Herberts with their cameras. I was out there for three years in the mud and the blood and the shit. I do it to remember because memories are all I have now. It’s all any of us have. And when we’re gone those memories go with us. All those books people have written about the war can’t ever really explain what it was like. They can write it down but they can’t experience it the way we did – can they?’
Sid nodded, thinking of the days he would sometimes wake up and taste the dirt in his mouth and throw off his blankets in a mad panic, his heart thudding a rapid tattoo in his chest. He would be back in the shell hole with Billy, shaking in the dark until his eyes adjusted to the dim light and he would remember that the world had moved on like Alf said.

The din of battle had slowly diminished until there was silence once more.
‘Ready?’ Sid whispered.
Billy nodded.
‘When I give the word, we crawl out of here and make our way over to the next crater. We wait a couple of minutes to make sure it’s clear and then move on to the next one until we get near enough to our own blokes.’
Sid went first, rolling himself over the lip of the shell hole. Billy joined him a moment later. They began slowly and deliberately crawling back towards their wire. The temptation to move faster was enormous but both knew that speed meant noise and to make noise was to invite a fusillade of death and destruction down upon their heads. Sid could feel a cold layer of sweat on his back as they inched along the ground. A few yards further and they reached another shell hole. Billy grinned at him as they slid inside.
‘Piece of piss,’ he said.
They took a moment to gather themselves and then started out again. Each crater took them a few yards closer to home. Billy had pulled ahead slightly as they reached the next hole. He disappeared over the lip of the crater head-first. As Sid pulled up behind him he heard a soft splash from inside the hole. He peered over and saw that Billy was chest deep in mud.
‘Help me out Sid,’ he said. ‘I can’t feel the bottom.’
‘Just you hold still Billy my lad,’ Sid told him. He slithered over the side and stretched out an arm. His fingers clasped at air unable to reach far enough to grab Billy’s hand. He realised that to get close enough he would have to enter the mud himself.
‘Hurry, Sid. I’m sinking!’ Billy tried to twist his body, his arms slapped fruitlessly against the surface of the mud with a wet sound.
Sid crouched, frozen in place. The machine guns started up again, searching for the source of the voices. Slowly he began to push his rifle towards Billy.
‘Grab hold,’ he told him.
Billy swung for the butt, muddy fingers struggling to find purchase on the smooth wooden stock.
‘Grab the sling,’ Sid said. It was taking all of his efforts to hold the rifle steady at arm’s length. Finally, Billy was able to loop an arm through the leather sling. Sid steadied himself and tried to pull the younger man toward him. He could see that Billy was starting to go deeper. The mud was starting to creep up his arms. Sid pulled as hard as he could, feeling his own grip slide on the gun as he struggled to drag Billy up.
The cough of mortar rounds being sent into the air joined the rattling commentary of the machine guns. They began to thud into the soft earth before exploding in gouts of dirt.
‘For Christ’s sake Billy you’re going to have me in there with you!’
Billy wasn’t listening. The mud was up to his chin now. He was crying.
‘Oh god, oh god, please, please no. Don’t let me drown Sid. Don’t let me go under.’
‘I’ll get help Billy, he whispered. I’ll come back for you I promise.’
He let his rifle fall from his hands. Billy clung to it as if holding it would somehow keep him afloat. Sid scrambled up the side of the crater and began crawling away.

After the press conference a mini bus had taken the men to Thiepval. Politicians and local dignitaries stood solemnly while speeches were read. Wreathes were laid, covering the floor of the memorial in a carpet of red poppies. Sid and the others straightened their backs as best they could while a lone bugler blew The Last Post. When he was finished there was only the sound of flags flapping in the wind until what most people considered a respectful period of silence had passed. When the ceremony was over the men dispersed amid the TV crews packing away their equipment. Sid remained at the memorial scanning the lists of names carved in its walls. He found the Northumberland Fusiliers. He read the names slowly, so many. He could see their faces as he read their names. Finally, he found him – Trooper William Ryan. Poor Billy, thought Sid, not even seventeen when he jacked in his job at the Butchers and joined up.
‘I’m sorry Billy,’ he said. ‘I should never have left you.’ He reached inside his pocket and took something out. It was a photo of a young lad, standing proud in the photographer’s studio in his new uniform, swagger stick tucked under his arm.

Billy’s Mam had led him though the house. He was still in his uniform, not long back from France. He’d wrestled with the decision to come and see her during the long journey home while the other lads had laughed and joked about what they were going to spend their back pay on.
‘You said you were with Billy when he died?’
‘Aye, we all joined up at the same time when the war started. I used to work at the Post Office.’
‘That’s where I know your face from,’ she said. ‘You’re Mary McKenna’s lad.’
Sid nodded.
‘We were on a trench raid looking for prisoners,’ he said. ‘The Jerries spotted us before we got to their trenches and started shelling us.’ He stopped, not sure what to say next. He’d gone to see her meaning to tell her everything. Now that he was sat in her front room sipping tea, and her still wearing her mourning black, he found the truth stuck in his throat. He realised his hands were shaking. His teacup made a tiny chinking sound as it tapped out a rhythm against his saucer. The sound stopped as he felt the warm touch of her hand on his.
‘It’s all right Pet, I know this must be hard for you.’
‘He didn’t suffer, Missus Ryan, I swear it. I got buried by a shell and Billy dug me out but then I heard another one coming in and the next thing I knew I was flat on the ground and… and Billy was gone.’ He’d broken down at that point, tears of shame burning his cheeks. She had hugged him then, as she might have once hugged her Billy, muffling his tears against her bony shoulder. They sat like that for a while, the silence only broken by the sound of the parlour clock counting out the minutes.
‘I’ll go make a fresh brew,’ she said finally.

‘I’d like you to have this,’ she’d said later as he stood in the doorway making ready to leave. She had gone over to the table and picked up a picture in a plain wooden frame. ‘Our Billy had it done just after he joined up. He was so proud to be doing his bit.’ Her voice had broken as she’d pressed it into his hands. Sid knew that he would have to take it from her even though looking at Billy’s well-scrubbed face made him feel sick inside with guilt.

‘I finally kept my promise to you, Billy,’ he said under his breath. ‘Maybe now we can both rest easy.’ He stopped to place the photo he’d been carrying all these years against the wall, ignoring how the creaking of his knee joints sent off flares from his arthritis as he did so.

That night in his bed Sid listened to the sound of the wind outside his hotel room. He was sure he could hear the tramp of marching feet. He closed his eyes trying to listen harder. When he opened them again it was daylight. He squinted in the bright light. The sun shone on his face, warming his skin until a shadow fell across him.

‘Come on Sid, you can’t sit there all day. The Kaiser’s expecting us in Berlin for tea and crumpets any day now and it would be shame to disappoint the bugger.’

Sid looked up into Billy’s smiling face. He felt a mixture of fear and confusion. Knowing that what he was seeing was not possible.

‘Billy? I wanted to go back for you but they wouldn’t let me. The snipers were picking off anyone who tried to go out.’

‘Don’t worry chum. We’ve been waiting on you Sid. Me, Smiler, Corporal Maxwell and all the other lads. We knew you’d make it back some day to see your old mates.’ Billy beamed at him. ‘Here, let me give you a hand up.’

Billy extended his hand. Sid reached out for it and hesitated. He looked down at himself, still wearing his flannel pyjamas, could see the road map of veins tracing their paths through his paper thin skin. Would it be so bad to go back, see all his old mates again? The lads who had never grown old the way he had. Good lads. After all, what was left? Elsie was long gone. After many years together they’d had to concede that they would never be able to have children. Life had become static after going into the home as he slowly lost the ability to do things for himself. The home, with its soothing pastel lounges and smiling nurses. He thought back to Alf’s comment about them being like animals in a human zoo. The home was the last stop. There was only one place left for him to go.

‘Come on Sid, there’s a cracking Estaminet in town – egg, chips and beer – I’m buying.’

Sid took his hand and fell into step beside Billy. His back felt straight for the first time in years. He was young again, in the prime of his life. The hotel room faded out of sight as the men started to sing their marching song.

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through the darkest door

This week I decided it was about time that I got my backside into gear and started doing something more productive with my writing. I was inspired by Brendan’s Gisby’s recent blog on self publishing which sent me rifling through my story folder looking for some new work to submit to McStorytellers.  I always have a couple of stories in reserve that I’ve been “saving” for …well actually I don’t know what really. It used to be the annual slog of literary competitions until i realised the chances of someone like me winning the Bridport was a pipe dream and I’d be better off spending the entrance fee on some new music or something. Ditto most of the other well known and lesser known comps that draw in thousands of aspiring authors every year. I’d dabbled with self publishing mainly as a way of playing about with the technology and figuring out how it worked. I’d put out a wee themed collection and then a couple of Christmas stories (which I’d published as a nice wee gift for family and friends – giving them away for free over the holidays and then being presently surprised when a few folk actually forked over 99p to buy one!)

Anyway, I looked at all the stories I’d accumulated and thought to myself – “why send a couple of stories when I have enough here to do something a bit more substantial?” I got in touch with Brendan and pitched him the idea of putting out an anthology under the McStorytellers banner. Emails were exchanged and in no time at all Brendan had prepped a forty story collection fully formatted and ready to be published.

If you come here often you are no doubt aware of the developing paradigm shift in the world of publishing. Once upon a time, not so long ago, the idea of putting out your own work without the aid of one of the big boys was tainted with the label of “Vanity publishing” which nobody really took seriously. The name carried with it the stench of hubris and self delusion and images of faux-leather bound books gathering dust in garages and attics.

Computers have changed all that. Social Media, E-Books and Print on Demand technology have levelled the playing field to some extent and the power has started to be wrenched from the hands of publishing conglomerates and given to the thousands of would-be writers struggling to make it out of the slush piles.

In a lot of ways it reminds me of the music scene in the early 70s, dominated by major labels and stadium filling rock bands and then …pow! Punk arrives with the instructions: “This is chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.” Bands like the Buzzcocks started bypassing the major labels completely to put their own singles out and inadvertantly started “Independent” labels dedicated to doing the same thing for other bands. These new labels were run on a shoestring but the limitations only forced them to be more creative and unafraid to take risks. They were run by people for the love of seeing the music get out there rather than for profit.

So the way I see it McStorytellers could be the literary equivalent of Factory, Mute, Postcard, Creation and all the others, leading a vanguard of literary renegades across the new frontiers of digital publishing and I’m proud to be part of it.

This week then those forty stories were launched upon an unsuspecting world when “Through The Darkest Door” was published. I don’t expect to set the world on fire. I don’t expect to trade my Ford Focus for a stretch limo or to be able to give up my day job, but I will be able to stand up proud and point to that book and say: “I did it my way.”

You can decide for yourself by following one of the links below. If you like what you’ve read afterwards please don’t forget to leave a review for future readers who might decide to check out my work for themselves based on your words.

UK Kindle version

US Kindle version

UK paperback version

US paperback version

A little festive story I wrote for my two daughters. Enjoy!

It was the night before Christmas and all through the castle people were getting ready for the big day. Outside, snow was falling. The castle courtyard was full of wagons piled high with food for the coming feast. Oxen stood impatiently scratching the cobblestones with their hooves. They breathed out great clouds of steam into the freezing cold air.
Inside the castle, Princess Erin and Princess Carys were playing hide and seek. Both girls were dressed in their special Christmas nightgowns.
‘My turn to hide,’ Carys said.
Erin turned to face the wall and began to count.
‘One, two, three…’
Carys ran off down the corridor. The castle was full of passageways and rooms to hide in. Flickering torches lit her way as she padded down the corridors. Her bare feet made soft slapping sounds on the stone floor. Carys was thinking hard. The problem was that her sister knew all the best hiding places and could usually find her without too much trouble. Just once Carys wanted to beat Erin. She could still hear her counting from behind her.
‘Sixty seven, sixty eight, sixty nine…’
She ducked into an open doorway. The room was filled with large colourful tapestries that hung from ceiling to floor. Carys looked at them for a moment. She couldn’t remember being in this room before. She pulled one of the tapestries away from the wall and slipped behind it. The bare brickwork was cold on her back and she wriggled her shoulders trying to get comfortable. As she wriggled she pressed against one brick that was a little different to the others. She heard a clanking sound and the scrape of stone on stone as a secret door opened behind her. She fell backwards into darkness. Moments later the secret doorway closed again, sealing her behind the wall.
It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the dark. Once she realised what had happened, Carys was not afraid. The castle was ancient and riddled with tunnels and secret places put there when the castle was built way back in her great, great, great Grandfather’s time. She guessed that she had found a new passageway and smiled. If she could keep it a secret from Erin she was sure to win at hide and seek more often. She felt around for the switch to open the door again. Her small fingers traced the patterns of the brickwork. The stone was smooth beneath her fingertips. She pushed and prodded but couldn’t locate the switch. She heard the sound of footsteps coming into the room and froze.
‘Carys? Are you in here?’
Carys was torn. If she said nothing, Erin would go looking somewhere else and she would win the game. On the other hand, if she couldn’t find the switch she could be stuck behind the walls for a long time, maybe even forever!
‘Erin!’ she shouted.
‘Carys? Where are you?’
‘Over here. I found a secret passage.’
Erin walked over to the wall. She pulled the tapestry away and started pressing bricks. After a few tries she found the right one.
‘There you are. I can’t believe you found a hidden passageway all by yourself. We have to see where it goes.’ She stepped forward into the doorway.
‘No, Erin, wait…’
The door trundled closed again. Now there were two princesses behind the wall.
‘Oh no,’ Carys said.
Erin looked at her. ‘What’s the panic? All we need to do is find the switch that opens the door again.’
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you – I can’t find it!’
‘Oh,’ said Erin. She could feel her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
‘What are we going to do?’ Carys asked.
‘Well, the passage must lead somewhere – there’s bound to be another door along the way. We’ll just follow it and see where we end up.’ She took Carys’ hand.
‘Come on,’ she said.

An hour later the two princesses were hopelessly lost. The darkness made it almost impossible to figure out which direction they were going in and more than once Erin was convinced that they were going around in circles.
‘I don’t like this,’ Carys said. ‘What if we can’t ever get out?’
‘Don’t be silly Carys. Of course we’ll get out.’
However, after another hour, even Erin was starting to worry that her sister was right. She started to think about what might happen if they stayed stuck behind the walls forever. She imagined people years from now getting into the passages and finding their dust covered bones. She shivered and tried to push the picture out of her head. She felt her way around another corner and stopped.
‘Look,’ she said. ‘There’s a light on the floor ahead.’
‘Where do you think it’s coming from?’
‘I don’t know – let’s find out.’
The light was above Erin’s head. She tried to jump up and couldn’t quite reach.
‘Lift me up,’ Carys said.
Erin put out her hands for Carys to step on.
‘What can you see?’ she asked.
‘I think we’re behind one of the paintings in the great hall. I’m looking out through its eyes.’
‘Is there anyone there?’
‘I can’t see anyone – they must have all gone to bed. We have been gone a long time after all.’ She climbed back down.
‘Do you think anyone is looking for us?’
Erin shrugged.
‘Maybe, but everyone has been so busy running around getting ready for Christmas they might not even have noticed.’
‘If Mum and Dad were here they would have noticed,’ Carys said. ‘I miss them so much.’
‘I know,’ Erin said, patting Carys on the shoulder. ‘They will be back from our Uncle’s tomorrow and we’ll have figured out a way to get out of here by then.’
‘Do you promise?’
‘I promise.’ She pulled Carys close for a hug and stroked her hair until at last she fell asleep. Erin sat in the dark and listened to the soft sound of her sister’s snoring. She was starting to doze herself when she heard a new sound coming from through the wall.
‘Wake up,’ she whispered to Carys.
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know – you need to get up and have a look.’ She held out her hands. Carys stepped up and let Erin lift her to the eye holes.
‘There’s something sticking out of the fireplace,’ Carys said. ‘I think it’s a boot.’
‘A boot?’ Erin said. ‘What do you mean?’
‘The kind you put on your feet silly.’ She peered again through the holes. ‘There’s another one. I think someone is climbing down the Chimney!’
Carys put her eyes against the back of the painting again. The boots were shiny and black and trimmed with white fur. Silver buckles glinted in the torchlight. Above the tops of the boots she could see deep red trousers starting to come out. To her amazement the legs seemed to bend and stretch at an impossible angle as a figure emerged from the fireplace.
‘It’s Father Christmas!’ Carys said, almost falling from Erin’s shoulders in her excitement.
The red robed figure froze.
‘Who said that?’ He looked around the room to see where the voice was coming from.
‘It’s Princess Erin and Princess Carys. We were playing hide and seek and got lost in a secret passage and now we can’t get out,’ Erin said.
Father Christmas chuckled to himself. ‘Deary me,’ he said. ‘Two little Princesses in a pretty pickle and no mistake.’ He put down his heavy sack by the side of the fire and walked over to the painting. Carys saw a tiny glimpse of all the toys hidden inside the sack before he pulled it closed.
‘Hmm,’ said Father Christmas stroking his thick white beard. He began rummaging in the pockets of his robe. ‘Now where did I put that thing?’ he said. ‘Ah, here it is,’ he said pulling out a black gloved hand.
‘What is it?’ Erin asked. It was very frustrating not being able to see.
‘It’s a key,’ Carys said. ‘But Father Christmas, there isn’t a door here. We looked and looked and couldn’t see one.’
Father Christmas smiled at the little Princess peeking at him.
‘This isn’t just any old key, young lady. This is a very special key. It was given to me by a Wizard a long time ago. I normally use it to get into places with no chimney.’
He waved the key at the painting.
Both girls felt a very curious sensation. To Carys it looked as if the painting had grown thinner, almost thin enough to see through. And then suddenly both girls were standing in the room blinking in the light.
‘Well now, there we are and don’t you look a sight? We had best get you both cleaned up before your mother sees you.’ He began searching his pockets again until he pulled out a large handkerchief. He dabbed at both the girls’ faces, wiping away the worst of the dirt. ‘There now, that’s a lot better. You look like little ladies again instead of two dirty chimney sweeps. Now we have a problem – I am seriously behind schedule in delivering my gifts after rescuing you. I’m going to need some help to get done and back to the North Pole before sunrise.’
‘We can help you, can’t we Carys?’ said Erin. Carys nodded.
‘That’s a wonderful idea.’ He clapped his hands together. ‘Let’s get to work right away. I will give you both some presents to deliver around the castle and that should get me back on track.’ He went over to his sack and began pulling out boxes and parcels. Before long, both girls were laden with gifts.
‘You will need to be quiet and quick,’ he said. ‘Here, you should take this as well.’ He pulled a small envelope from his pocket.
‘What’s that? Carys said.
‘It’s in case of emergencies.’ He opened up the envelope and showed the girls what was inside. ‘If anyone should see you, blow the magic dust in this envelope into their face. It will make them forget that they ever saw you.’ He handed the envelope to Erin. ‘Now off you go. I will meet you here again when you are done.’ He raised his hand, ‘Oh, and girls, one more thing before you go.’
‘What’s that?’ Erin said.
Father Christmas smiled. ‘No more secret passages – I don’t want to have to rescue you again.’
‘We promise,’ both girls said.

The two Princesses scampered out of the Great Hall with their armloads of presents. They ran all through the castle leaving gifts wherever they stopped. They left a toy drum and a puzzle for the Cook’s two little boys, gloves and scarves for the serving girls, toy soldiers for the Royal Falconer’s son and two dolls with pretty dresses for the Blacksmith’s daughter. By the time they returned to the great hall both girls felt like they had covered every inch of the castle.
‘Ah, there you are,’ Father Christmas said. ‘You’ve been a fine pair of helpers – I’d say you were right at the very top of my nice list for all the work you’ve done tonight. In fact, I think you both deserve an extra special treat.’
Erin and Carys looked at each other in amazement.
‘Take my hand,’ Father Christmas said. ‘I want to show you something.’
The princesses touched his hand. Moments later they were standing on the roof of the great hall beside a large wooden sleigh with eight graceful looking Reindeer attached.
‘Can we touch them?’ Erin asked.
‘You can do better than that,’ Father Christmas said. ‘They’re going to need a lot of energy to get me back to the North Pole so perhaps you and your sister can help me feed them.’ He reached inside the sleigh and brought out two sacks. ‘Here you go,’ he said. ‘Carrots and oats – just the thing to get them flying full speed ahead.’
Erin and Carys rushed over to take the food and started to hand it out to the hungry reindeer.
‘All done,’ Carys said as she handed Father Christmas her empty sack.
‘Well done,’ he said. ‘I’ll be home in no time at all now.’
‘You’re welcome,’ Erin said. ‘Do you have to go now?’
Father Christmas nodded. ‘Yes, but first I must make sure that two very sleepy princesses are tucked up safely in bed before I go.’
He stretched out his hands once more. The two princesses touched his gloves and found themselves transported to their bed chamber. Erin and Carys climbed into their bunk beds and pulled the covers up to their chins. Father Christmas turned and waved to them both.
‘Merry Christmas girls,’ he said.
And with that, he disappeared. Erin could feel her bed starting to get cosy and her eyelids started to droop. Just before she fell asleep she thought that she could hear the sound of sleigh bells jingling off in the distance.

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