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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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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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Flashmaster!

Bit of a plug today. Brendan Gisby, publisher of the McStorytellers site has accepted three of my short flash pieces to showcase. McStorytellers is the place to find quality examples of short fiction from writers with a Scottish connection and well worth a visit if you enjoy dipping your toes outside the bestseller lists and celebrity autobiographies. Click on the link above to go to the site.

Enjoy!

James Smythe is on top form this week with his critical dissection of King’s  novel “Cujo” – the novel which King has famously admitted he can’t remember writing as he was mired deep in alcohol and drug addiction at the time. I’ve always had a soft spot for the book – it moves with the same relentless pace as other King books from around this time like “The Running Man” and you get the sense that the story must’ve poured out onto the page once he started it. James makes a good case for the book being a metaphor for King’s personal problems which bring a whole new meaning to the story which I have to admit that I hadn’t previously considered.

As usual you can read the full article over at the Guardian website – Rereading Stephen King week 11.

Enjoy!