Some Historical films

One more 2013 film post that only Eddy and Roland commented on back then. Historical dramas this time. Something for everyone, I hope.

beetleypete

Many films have been set in various Historical periods, or specific events in History. Since the silent days, and up to many of  the latest films of the past few years, History has provided rich ground for the inspiration of film makers everywhere. In my usual five film selection, I have tried my best to recommend lesser known films, and to avoid the obvious epics.

The War Lord. This film is getting on a bit, and it shows sometimes. Nevertheless, this 1965 production, starring Charlton Heston and Richard Boone, still has a lot to offer. Set at the beginning of the 11th Century, in Normandy, it tells the story of a Knight, rewarded for loyal service, with a bequest of lands, and a run-down small castle. The land is poor, and the local villagers resentful. Still, the Knight, and his accompanying soldiers, rebuild the old fortress, and begin to impose…

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Just Been Watching…(125)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. (2017)

***No Spoilers***

I didn’t rush to see this film, despite the widespread critical acclaim, and the fact that it won a bucketful of awards, including Oscars. The reason was simple enough. I don’t really like Frances McDormand. Her long-time association with the films of the Coen Brothers (she is married to one of them) has left her with a lot of fans, but also an attitude about herself that I find uncomfortable. That said, when she is not over-acting, she can be excellent.

The film finally came to the television, so I thought I would watch it for free. It wasn’t directed by the Coens, so I hoped that fact would rein her in a bit.

For anyone who doesn’t know the story, Mildred’s (McDormand) daughter was raped and killed in the small town of Ebbing, and she thinks that the local police department is not doing enough to try to find the killer. In her frustration, she pays to hire three large billboards on the nearby country road, with a sign on each criticising the police and asking why nobody had been arrested for the crime. Repercussions follow immediately, as one of the local deputies, Dixon, becomes enraged at her and the owner of the billboards. Her son Robbie feels uncomfortable at High School when his mum is thought by everyone to just be a bitter crazy woman, and even Mildred’s ex-husband becomes involved, trying to make her give up on the billboards.

With no spoilers, I cannot really say much more about the story.

The casting is perfect, with an exceptional turn from Sam Rockwell as the deranged Dixon, and a nuanced performance from Woody Harrelson as the Chief of Police. McDormand still feels ‘familiar’ as the determined Mildred, but has enough vulnerability at times that we see the conflict and guilt inside her. Locations and sets feel completely authentic, and it has been a while since ‘small town’ America was shown so convincingly in a mainstream film.

My conclusion is that the film deserved all its praise, and more.
It is excellent.

TV Review: Gentleman Jack

This BBC series may be available on BBC America, hopefully soon, if not currently. I believe it is also available on HBO. And for UK readers, it can be accessed on the i-player.

Anne Lister is a real character. She led a very unusual life during the early 19th century, and wrote about it in her diaries.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Know-Own-Heart-1791-1840-Literature/dp/0814792499

This period drama follows the usual BBC tradition of wonderful adaptations on screen. Think ‘Poldark’, or go back in time to previous serials like ‘War and Peace’.’ Cranford’, ‘North and South’, or ‘Bleak House’. The truth is that nobody does this sort of thing better, and I always anticipate any new one with relish.

Anne Lister was a landowner in Yorkshire, in the 1800s. She was a spinster, and renowned for her love of other women, long before anyone might be referred to as a Lesbian. Unusually for the time, she made little secret of that fact, dressing in male attire, and dealing with all her own business affairs. She also travelled extensively, and had open liaisons with other women, often ones who were unhappily married.

This eight-part serial starts in 1832, as Anne returns to her run-down country estate. She has to get the finances in order to save her family from financial ruin. But her return coincides with the arrival of a rich young woman at a nearby grand house. The young Miss Walker is frail, but attractive and vulnerable, and Anne soon falls for her, deciding to seduce her into a long term relationship.

At the same time, a great deal of coal is discovered on Anne’s family estate, and she realises that it is being stolen by miners working for the banking family, the Rawsons. Thus begins an ongoing feud between Anne and the Rawsons, with side stories of the struggling tenant farmers, Anne’s relatives, and her fierce reputation in the area. When she succeeds in making young Miss Walker fall for her, events take an unpleasant turn as local society and the young woman’s family turn against Anne Lister, and attempt to ruin her and her family.

Locations, costume, and period feel are all incredibly authentic. Suranne Jones shines as Anne, taking to the role as if she was born to play her. The rest of the casting is top-notch too, including such famous faces as Timothy West, Gemma Jones, and Stephanie Cole, none of whom overplay their roles. The lesbian love scenes are not graphic, and the script is superb. Suranne Jones even breaks the ‘fourth wall’, by giving knowing looks to the camera, at appropriate times.

This is the sort of drama the BBC is known for, and should do a lot more of. High production values, and a wonderful cast even in the smallest roles.

British TV at its best.

This short trailer gives a teasing snapshot of just how good this is.

Just been watching…(14)

The Guest (2014)

***Spoliers avoided where possible***

Having read many good reviews of this film by fellow bloggers, it was on my Christmas list for 2015. Last night, it came off the shelf, and into the DVD player. I confess that I was a little concerned as it began. Knowing something of the plot, I expected my sometime reactions of ‘seen it all before’, and ‘probably overrated’.

But I was wrong.

Sometimes, the casting of a film can turn it from so what, into convincing and believable In this film, the casting is near-flawless, and as a result, lifts the film high above many similar action thrillers that I could mention. Dan Stevens is an English actor, well-known for a central role in the TV series, ‘Downton Abbey’. I spent much of this film wondering who he was, as he plays such a different part, and does so very well indeed. The rest of the cast members are mostly unknown to me, which made it all the more enjoyable, as I was not constantly thinking of them in other roles. It is a little difficult to review this film properly without completely ruining it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I will do my best.

A family is grieving the loss of their oldest son Caleb, killed during military service in the middle east. The Mum is doing her best, the Dad struggling at work, and the youngest son is bullied at school. The sexy young daughter is working hard at a local diner; saving her money to go to college, but also hanging around with her dodgy drug-dealer boyfriend, much to the irritation of her parents. One day, a handsome man appears at the door. He tells the lady of the house that he had served with her son in the army, and knew him well. He promised the son that he would check in on his family when he got back to America, and make sure that they were doing OK. The new arrival is called David (Dan Stevens) and he is polite, respectful, and very charming.

Caleb’s Mum is keen to hear something of her son, and invites David into the house. When she discovers that he has made the journey all the way just to see her, she asks him to stay, offering him Caleb’s room. At first, the rest of the family are not so keen. The Dad worries that they don’t know him, and the younger son is uncomfortable around him. The daughter heads off to work, hoping he won’t be staying too long. David proves them all wrong. He chats to the dad over drinks, helps Mum around the house, and even drives to the school to collect the boy. When he finds out who is bullying him, he wreaks vengeance on the bullies, and instills some self-respect in the son at the same time.

The Dad decides that David is a great bloke, and offers to let him stay as long as he wants. Even the daughter mellows, and takes him to a party where he meets her boyfriend and other mates, and also gets off with her friend from work. Pretty soon, everyone loves David being around.

The viewer sees another side to the man though. Switching off smiles as easily as they came, hardly sleeping, and staring intently into space. We are left in no doubt that this man has a dark secret, almost from the very start. People start to get killed. The Dad’s new boss is found dead, apparently after committing suicide. This is actually great news for the family, as the Dad is promoted to the job he has wanted for so long. When the son fights back against the bullies, David arrives to stop him being expelled, casually intimidating the principal into a lesser punishment.

The film then moves up a gear, and then another one. After the scene-setting, the action begins to come thick and fast. Tension is nicely built, and as the family members start to suspect something might be wrong, the military special forces become involved, and the finale is fast-paced and explosive.
And it has a great ending too!

This film treads familiar ground, then mixes all that together into an amalgam of plots and ideas we might have seen before. But then it does it much better. Think ‘Rambo’, ‘The Bourne Identity’, even ‘Terminator 2’, and add in a few teen slashers, and you will get the idea. It is not a landmark film, and the direction and storyline are all familiar. But it is hugely enjoyable, violent, and at times even witty. It presumes an intelligent viewer, as it gives the nods and winks to so many other similar films, then changes the rules. Thoroughly entertaining, and worth a second watch.

Unforgettable films: Part Two

If you didn’t read the first part of this short series, here’s a brief explanation. I am using the term unforgettable to relate to films that have not been forgotten by me, for reasons that will be made clear. I am not asserting that they are the best films ever made, or even the best in their genre. I hope to remind you of old favourites, or perhaps introduce you to something new.

In 1962, I was ten years old. I was taken to see a film by my parents, and from the very start, I found myself immersed in the cinematic sweep of the direction, the unusual location, and solid acting. It was so long, there was an intermission to allow the audience to use the toilets, or to purchase refreshments. Even after the 222 minutes of the film had passed, I could easily have carried on watching more. Few directors have matched the brilliance of David Lean, and it is rare to find a cinematographer to compare with Freddie Young. The dazzling visuals in the alien (to me) desert landscape took my breath away, and everything from the panoramic battles to the claustrophobic sweaty scenes in meeting rooms and prisons, was burned into my memory. It all remains there to this day, fifty-four years later. Anchored by a mesmerising performance from Peter O’Toole in the lead, Lawrence of Arabia found its place into my heart, as one of my unforgettable greats.

I have always enjoyed films about gangsters. When I was young, I lapped up oldies like ‘Little Caesar’, ‘White Heat’, and ‘The Public Enemy.’ As I grew up, the genre continued in popularity, and I trotted off to see ‘Dillinger’, ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, and ‘Get Carter’. Then came the game-changer. Beginning in 1972, Coppola’s ‘Godfather’ trilogy re-wrote the rules. This was a gangster film on an epic scale, and one of the few occasions where the second film was arguably better than the first. I thought I had seen it all, and it could never be better than this. Even the sprawling ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ didn’t get close to matching it. Eighteen years after I watched the original ‘Godfather’, I went to the cinema to see Scorsese’s new film, ‘Goodfellas.’ From the opening scene, and Henry’s first line, I realised that this was it. The definitive gangster film, telling it like it was, from the mouth of someone who was actually there. I have watched this film many times since. I could watch it again tonight, and not enjoy it any less. But that night in the cinema twenty-six years ago will remain in my memory forever.

Sometimes, a ‘small film’ can have just as much impact as a big-budget blockbuster, or an acclaimed epic. It can haunt your memories, and you find yourself recalling moments from it, then wonder why.
A few years ago, I watched a film on TV, directed by David Lynch. This was not the usual surreal Lynchian fare at all. Made in 1999, ‘The Straight Story’ is an unusual tale of reconciliation between two brothers, in small-town America. The film is based on the real events surrounding the journey of Alvin Straight across two US states, to visit the brother he has not spoken to for many years. The elderly Alvin is unable to renew his driving licence due to infirmities, so he resolves to make the journey on his ride-on lawnmower instead, attaching a trailer for his luggage.
With solid performances from the gentlemanly Richard Farnsworth as Alvin, Sissey Spacek as his daughter, and the reliable Harry Dean Stanton as the brother, this film is simply delightful. It shows a very different side to the America we are used to seeing at the cinema. This is the land of manners, kindness, respect, and cooperation. Alvin completes his journey, and the two old men are once again sitting together to gaze at the night sky. Priceless.

On rare occasions, just one scene springs to mind, when thinking about a film you enjoyed immensely. You recall the events, the overall plot, and some of the characters, but it is that scene that stood out for you, and still does today. In Luc Besson’s 1990 film, ‘La Femme Nikita’, the young woman in the title role (played by Anne Parillaud) is a drug user and petty criminal. She is offered the chance to escape jail, by working for a top secret government agency. After intensive training in an anonymous facility, her controller comes to tell her that he is so pleased with her, he is taking her out to dinner. She is given a classy makeover, and stylish new clothes. She is happy to be escorted to dinner by this man, and looks her best as they arrive at a swanky restaurant in Paris. But she is shocked to face betrayal, as the man produces a pistol and tells her to kill one of the diners at a nearby table. He also gives her a route to escape after the assassination. She does the killing, and runs for her life, only to find the exit blocked, and that she is pursued by friends of the slain man.
Of course, it is a test, but she is dismayed and surprised nonetheless. And so was I.

I have not watched many modern animated films. Other than enjoying some recent classics like ‘Akira’, and ‘Princess Mononoke’, it is not an area of film that I am generally keen to explore. I have never got used to Pixar, and I dislike the dubbing frequently used over Japanese films to avoid the use of subtitles. As a child, this was not the case, and I was happy to watch films like ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs’, and ‘Pinocchio’. Later on, I was mildly amused by ‘The Jungle Book’, and enjoyed the songs in that film too. However, just one animated film (I call them cartoons still) has a firm place in my heart, and can – almost – bring a tear to my eye. The delightful tale of a flying baby elephant, his escapades in a travelling circus, and eventual reconciliation with the mother he thought he had lost. Although it was made eleven years before I was born, Dumbo endures like few other similar films of my childhood, and I will never forget it.

In 1970, I was eighteen years old. I would not have been seen dead going to watch a family film aimed at young children, that’s for sure. I had to wait for a TV showing, around ten years later, before I got to see this completely likeable film that I am now perfectly happy to say that I always enjoy, and never forget. Some films are so obviously British, that as soon as the opening credits start, you can immediately tell that you are in Britain, and in this case in the Edwardian era. I had never read the book by E. Nesbit, so had little idea what to expect when I started to watch ‘The Railway Children.’ What followed was an absolute delight. Convincing performances from the three juvenile leads, ably assisted by the cast of solid British character actors. It has everything you might expect. Social class differences, village life at the turn of the century, and steam trains of course. The background story about the mistaken arrest of the children’s father is almost unnecessary, as it is all about discovery, friendship, community, and hope. It is like a cup of hot soup on a chilly afternoon, and warms the cockles of the most cynical hearts. Including mine.

There are times when you cannot forget a film because you actually didn’t like it, or that you found the subject matter upsetting. The debate on Capital Punishment went on for many years in Great Britain, until it was eventually abolished in 1965. (Though not until 1998 for Treason) I am easily old enough to remember the execution of condemned prisoners, and how people would protest outside the prison gates when they were hanged. Many films have been made about this subject, and because of the divided opinion and controversy, most are memorable. One stayed with me more than others, and for a few reasons. For one thing it was based on a true story, and for another, because it was filmed with respect for both the police officer who had been killed, and one of the young men convicted of killing him.
In 1953, the case of Bentley and Craig caught the imagination of the British public. They had committed a robbery, and this resulted in the death of a police officer, P.C. Miles, who was shot and killed by Craig. Bentley was illiterate, and had the mental capacity of a child as well as suffering from epilepsy. Despite this, and allowing for the fact that he did not have a weapon, he was tried along with Craig for the murder, and found guilty. As Bentley was 19 years old, he was sentenced to death. Although Craig pulled the trigger, he was only 16 years old, so spared execution due to his age.
In 1991, I watched the film of these events, ‘Let Him Have It’, starring Christopher Eccleston as Bentley. Rarely have I been so moved by a story. (This trailer is from America.)

Courtroom dramas have always been popular in the cinema. I am sure that you can think of a few without much prompting. No? Here’s a reminder then. ‘Witness for the Prosecution’, ‘Twelve Angry Men’, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, or more recently, ‘The Accused.’ I have always enjoyed them, despite the necessary sets restricting the action in most cases. In 1946, the famous playwright Terence Rattigan wrote ‘The Winslow Boy.’ Two years later, the story was filmed by Anthony Asquith, with a distinguished cast of some of Britain’s finest actors. Inspired by an actual event in 1908, the story is about a young naval cadet being expelled from a prestigious school, accused of stealing some money. The struggle of the family to prove the boy’s innocence almost costs them everything, and involves many of the most prominent people of the day. The film was remade in 1999 by David Mamet, and starred Jeremy Northam as the barrister Sir Robert Morton. I don’t usually have any time for re-makes, but this one has stuck in my memory a lot longer than the original. (Which I have also seen) This is simply because the often underrated actor Northam gives a meticulous mannered performance as Morton. He does this with such skill, and feel for the period, that I could not take my eyes off him in any scene he was in. I do not often use the word ‘flawless’ to describe one actor’s performance, but on this occasion, it is appropriate.

Period and costume dramas are always popular. Adaptations of Regency novels, films of the books of Thomas Hardy, lavish productions set in country houses, or dismal mining villages, all have their fans. I could go on all day listing many that have achieved critical acclaim, and a great deal of them have been made here in the UK, with British acting talent. I can remember most of them quite well, but one stands out, and although it is not so well-known, it is always in my head. The films of Peter Greenaway tend to divide audiences. He has his fans, and as many detractors too. Even for those like me that admire his work, there are many of his films that are just too impenetrable to really understand or enjoy. One of his films is a little of both, yet is so brilliantly conceived and acted, I really didn’t care. Imagery, costume, music, a witty script, and a wonderful cast. It all comes together to make ‘The Draughstsman’s Contract’ (1982) a delight for both the eyes and the ears. An unforgettable favourite.

Some films can play tricks on your memory. Repeated viewings make you think things like, ‘I don’t remember that bit’ or, ‘I thought this film was longer than that.’ This doesn’t make them less memorable, just different. With some productions, hearing the theme music can allow you to instantly conjure up a vision of the action, or recall something as mundane as the closing credits. Films make their impact on audiences in very different ways, and one person’s perception of what happened can be very different to that of the stranger sat next to them. Similarly, what one found entertaining and enjoyable, another will dismiss as complete rubbish. However you remember them, it is a tribute to the power of this form of entertainment that you do.

Significant Songs (118)

Paradise Circus

Every so often, the BBC put on some excellent TV drama series. Recent examples that will be familiar to UK readers include, ‘Happy Valley’, and ‘The Line of Duty.’ Soon to come, is another outing for the excellent ‘Peaky Blinders’ too. In 2010, we got another show, about yet another world-weary police detective, with a problematic life. It could have been more of the same tired old formula, but it wasn’t. It was simply wonderful.

‘Luther’ starred Idris Elba in the title role of John Luther. Set in London, filmed on location, and with a different feel, adding a darkness and sinister atmosphere that pervaded every episode. The excellent cast managed to bring off some unlikely story-lines, and the short length of each episode left you wanting more. But this is not a review of the TV show, it is about the theme tune. Yes, a TV show theme tune, something that might hardly warrant a blog post, but read on.

Massive Attack has featured before on this blog, for their anthem song, ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, released in 1991. Three men from Bristol, utilising DJ skills and street music, brought all of that to a new level, with haunting songs featuring guest vocalists. They went on to win numerous awards, and sell millions of records. In 2010, they released the album ‘Heliogland’, containing this track, and the BBC snapped it up, as perfect for use as the theme song for their new dark drama. Californian singer Hope Sandoval features on the jazzy, husky vocal, which added to the repetitive beats and minimal production, seems to get right inside my head, and almost put me in a trance.

Rarely has a theme song suited a TV show (or film) so well. See what you think; but play it loud, and stick it out to the end.

This is how it comes over on TV.

Just been watching…(3)

The Goob (2014)

*****Contains plot spoilers*****

My previous post was about a rare trip to the cinema. This film was the reason that we made the effort.
Two of my oldest friends have a son who is a film producer. I have known them since we were eleven years old, so of course have also known Lee Groombridge since he was born. I was excited to hear that he was working on a film set in and around Norfolk; filmed not far from where we live, and starring many local actors too. I got the chance to visit him on set at Swaffham Raceway, as they were filming the banger racing scene. The film then went on to be nominated for numerous awards, winning the BIFA for best production, and the ‘Golden Hitchcock’ for best film at the Dinard Film Festival. I was suitably envious when Lee received the trophy from the wonderful Catherine Deneuve. There were also many very positive reviews from film critics, and it was well-received when it opened in Norwich.

So, I had personal reasons to want to see it. Nonetheless, I would not think of giving a sycophantic, or overly flattering review, just because of the connection. But just what is a ‘Goob’? I found this, and it gives a fair idea of the meaning.
Goob
Slang definitions & phrases for goob Expand
goob
noun
A tedious, contemptible person; dork, nerd: Nerds can be ”goobs” or ”tools”/ A Goob-a-tron’s Guide to Rad Speak

[1980s+ Students & teenagers; fr goober]

Newcomer Liam Walpole plays the title character. How he got the role is like a scene from another film. Unemployed, wandering off to the shops in Dereham where he lived, (and where Julie works) he quite literally bumped into the casting director, who suggested he audition for the role.

The Goob has just finished school, and plans to spend the summer helping his Mum run a dilapidated roadside cafe next to the busy A47 trunk road. (The real cafe used is the Necton Diner, closed for years now) He and his brother are barely tolerated by their Mum’s live-in boyfriend Womack, played by Sean Harris. (Also originally from this area) Harris is well-known to TV audiences here for playing nasty roles as a hard man, psychopathic killer, and anything requiring snarling and unpleasantness. And he has the look and demeanour to suit these roles down to the ground. He also played one of the crew in the film ‘Prometheus’, where again, he wasn’t very nice.

He has other plans for them, and wants help running his sideline as a gang-master, recruiting and overseeing groups of foreign workers, brought in to pick the crops in the vast farmlands of the Fens. He is also a star of the local banger racing circuit, and as ruthless on the track as he is off of it. The Goob’s Mum is dependent on him, as her business is failing, and she also enjoys the sexual attentions she receives, choosing to ignore his blatant philandering with any other woman he can get his hands on. As the summer hots up, the scene is set for the inevitable clash of personalities, as the younger men begin to come of age, and Womack reacts to everything and everyone with brutal violence. In a funny and realistic scene, the brothers steal his beloved banger racing car, when he is busy having sex with their Mum. He chases them in an off-road vehicle, and rams them off the path, resulting in the older of the two brothers ending up in hospital, wearing numerous plaster casts.

Womack recruits a reluctant Goob to keep watch on a pumpkin field at night, and he also encounters the latest group of East European pickers, including a pretty young girl who the gang-master also has his eye on. We have already had some insight into the young man’s lack of sexual experience, during an awkward date with one of the local good-time girls at the Raceway. Because of his brother’s accident, the Goob’s Mum enlists the help of Eliot, the son of a friend, played by Oliver Kennedy. He arrives in the cafe like a breath of fresh air. Obviously gay, full of fun, and carrying none of the heavy weight of the disaffected life of the young East Anglians. He has no fear of Womack, enjoys a spliff, and makes friends with everyone. It is soon obvious that Goob has confused feelings, as he is as drawn to both Eliot and crop-picker Eva (Marama Corlett) in equal measure. It seems his sexuality is yet to be fully defined, until one night, an unpleasant episode more or less makes the decision for him.

Eliot finds a dress belonging to Goob’s Mum Janet (Sienna Guillory) hanging on the washing line. he puts it on, and goes dancing into the cafe, playing for laughs with the family and staff. Womack sees this, and is furious. He and his sidekick bundle Eliot into a car, and drive him to a remote spot in the countryside. Once there, they force him to strip, and leave him there, having to walk back late at night, completely naked. Eliot can see that he has to get away, and arranges for Goob to bring his things to a local bus stop. When the first bus arrives, he departs for good.

Goob now turns his attentions to Eva, and they become lovers, with him losing his virginity in one of the surrounding fields. During a boozy party held for the pickers, Womack decides to try to have his way with Eva, but she fights him off. Enraged, Goob finally stands up to this horrible man, using an old dump-truck to wreck his cherished race car. Womack attacks him, beating him badly, until Eva and Janet intervene to stop the assault. Eva tells Goob to leave with her and her fellow pickers, but he wants to stay with his Mum to protect her. However, the dependent woman chooses Womack instead, and the boy is then alone. He rides off on his old motorcycle, to an uncertain future.

This film belies its low budget, with a convincing cast, unusual and authentic locations, and some excellent cinematography. At under ninety minutes, the running time suits the story, and any edits are not apparent in that they affect the flow. Despite an early fondness for the jumpy, hand-held style made popular by pop videos and ‘found-footage’ films, much of the camera work and lighting is superb. At times, I was reminded of Mallick’s ‘Days of Heaven’, and ‘Badlands’. There was also a feel of the French New Wave, with echoes of ‘Jules et Jim’, and of course, there is an undeniable comparison to the films of Ken Loach, and Shane Meadows. I should add a warning for very bad language, but removing this would affect the reality of life for the characters. The violence is not excessive, and no more than you would see on a popular TV show.

This film will take its place alongside many similar British dramas, as a fine example of social realism, showing the drudgery of life for the people on the edges of society, living in the farmlands and fenlands of the east of England; a place forgotten by the rest of the country. This is the first full-length feature for writer and director Guy Myhill. It shows great promise, and with his eye for scenery, sets, and casting, I have no doubt that we will be seeing more from him. It is also an excellent debut from lead actor Liam Walpole, who could well have a great future.

Here is the official trailer.

City Of Cranes

Some years ago, I wrote this short play. It was my first attempt at writing for the stage, and my only one. It was intended to be put on in a small fringe theatre in London, and last for around twenty minutes, as part of a season of shorts. It would be cheap to stage, and has a small cast, of only two (or three) people. Props are minimal, and it all takes place in one small room, sparsely furnished. As it turned out, it didn’t make the cut. I showed it to some family and friends. Some liked it, others thought it needed work. The most common criticism was that the main character was unsympathetic, and hard to like. That was very much the point though. The experiences in  his life that had made him turn out this way are explained to some extent. There is some swearing, and it is quite a long read. If you feel inclined to imagine this as a short play, and are wiling to invest your time in reading it, I would appreciate your thoughts. There is a little of me in the character, which is not uncommon, but it is mainly based on my experiences in the Ambulance Service, and being in countless situations like this one.  This was the working script.

CITY OF CRANES

Setting;  The living room of a 20th floor Council Flat in North London, Present Day.

Props ; Ironing Board, Iron, Window, Small Suitcase, 2 Armchairs or similar.

Transistor Radio, Photos in frames, Trousers, Shirt. Watch, Slippers, Dressing Gown, Clip-board.

Cast ;  White Male approx 60 Years old, born in 1947. His name is Derek Lee.

           Black male or female approx 30 years old, African origin. (Social Worker)

           Ambulance attendant, any sex or age. (Can be voice off stage)

Scene:

Small, dingy flat, poorly decorated and furnished. A man about 60 years old is standing next to an ironing board, looking out of the only window. He is dressed in a faded dressing gown, under which he wears a vest, underpants, socks, and slippers. He has placed a small case on a chair nearby, and he is arranging a pair of trousers and shirt, ready for ironing. It is around three in the afternoon, the last week of November.

He constantly re-folds the trousers, all the time staring out of the window.

Sound of doorbell/knocker

Derek checks his watch, then folds the trousers again before carefully placing them on the ironing board. He wraps the dressing gown around him, tying the cord tightly, then goes to answer the door. A young person enters, smartly dressed, carrying a clipboard. They have a breezy demeanour.

SW ‘Hello Mr Lee. Can I call you Derek, or how do you like to be called?’

DL ‘Most people call me Del, call me what you like’

SW ‘Derek then. Did you remember I was coming this afternoon, did you get my letter?’

DL (Points to case and ironing) ‘Well I’m not packing for a cruise, am I? What’s your name then?’

SW ‘You can call me Adye’. Are you nearly ready then Derek? The Ambulance will be here soon’

DL ‘Why do I need an Ambulance? I’m not ill.’

SW ‘It just makes it easier, better than waiting for cabs’

DL ‘You better sit down. I’ve got to iron this stuff yet. Want a tea or something?’

SW ‘I’m OK thanks, I have this water. (Shows plastic bottle of mineral water, sits)

DL ‘I remember when water came out of taps. Never did us any harm either. Public Drinking Fountains in parks. Remember them? Course you don’t, you’re too young. Hot Summer day, playing out, nothing tasted better, cool fountain water. So cold it made your teeth hurt. Nothing more refreshing, except a Jubbly, or a Calypso, if you had thruppence on you. Don’t ‘spose you will know what they are either? Ice Poles? Mivvis? Nah, you haven’t got a clue, I might as well be talking Albanian. Anyway, we had good stuff then, and we didn’t need to waste money on water, that’s for bloody sure!’

SW ‘Shall we get on with the ironing, Time’s getting on’

DL ‘Shall WE get on with the ironing? Are you gonna do it then? No. It has to be done right. Don’t want tramlines, or double creases, do WE? Can’t have a shiny arse either. I used to use brown paper for that. Soap in the seams, keep them sharp. Folded them under the mattress at night. It’s the pressure see? Better than a Corby press, like you see in hotels. Gets you ready for the morning. Strides pressed, tie slipped off with knot intact, cuts down on creases. Quick sluice, and off you go, gives you ten minutes more kip.’

(Derek folds the trousers over his arm. He walks to the window and parts the net curtain so he can see out)

DL ‘Ever since I can remember, London has been a city of cranes. I’ve lived high up, and in basements. I’ve been to Crystal palace, Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath, even up on that bloody useless Eye. Never seen a decent view once. Fucking cranes always spoil it. Always in the way of the best bits. They’re not even level. Big tall ones, some pointing one way, some another. Little stubby ones, cranes on lorries, cranes on docks, cranes on quaysides. I tell you, they’re everywhere! (Turns to face SW)

Ever see a crane go up? Bet you haven’t. Never met anyone that has. You go to bed one night, and they are all there the next morning. Never seen a crane taken down either. One day you’re staring at a 90 footer, next morning it’s gone. Think about it. You’ll realise I’m right. How does that happen then Adye? I tell you, it’s God’s Meccano.

Those drivers you know. They can’t come down once they start work. Take too long to climb down the ladders. Up in the morning, down at the end of work, all day in that cab. I expect they have to piss in a bottle or something. Don’t know how they manage a shit. What do they do after? Tip it over the side or carry it back down? I reckon they tip it out, don’t you? Not right is it? I mean, stuck up there all day, looking down at the world, shitting in a bucket and eating sandwiches. Not right.’

SW (Agitated) ‘Come on Derek. We have to get on. It’s nearly Time. Get packing now.’

DL ‘WE again! It’s not you being locked up is it? Carted off to the loony bin for nothing, for no good reason I can see.’

SW ‘It’s only for an assessment Derek. Only 72 hours, you will be home soon, all being well. Back here for Christmas, I’m sure.’

DL ‘Home, call this home? I’ve had homes, and believe me, this isn’t even close.’

(DL walks back to the window, stares out at the view)

‘Christmas… They light them up at Christmas, did you know? Lights all over the jibs, down the superstructure, each firm trying to better the other, adverts, or seasonal messages. That’s a new thing, that is, didn’t used to happen. American, I reckon, like most things now.’

SW ‘We need cranes though Derek, or nothing would be built. Your flat wouldn’t be here without cranes, and you would have nowhere to live’

DL ‘After the War, maybe. There was a lot of building needed then. All the bomb sites and whole areas flattened. But it never stops. More and more cranes, ‘til the whole sky is just one long crane. I’ve seen some bloody cranes in my time, I can tell you.’

(Derek sighs. He puts the trousers back on the ironing Board and sits on the vacant chair)

SW ‘Please get on with it Derek. We don’t really have time for this.’ (SW looks at clipboard and flips over the top sheet)

DL (sarcastic, menacing) ‘Oh you’ve got a clipboard. Makes you very important doesn’t it? Was a time when only the bosses had them. Ticked you off lists, marked you down on charts, cancelled your time, docked your pay. They clipped their keys and whistles to them, on a chrome chain. Tied their pencils to them with string, so they were never without something to scribble with. They held them up against their chests, to keep the rain off, or to stop you seeing what was on them. No normal person, no working man, ever had use or reason for a clipboard. Nowadays, they are ten a penny. Every tosser’s got one. Kids in supermarkets, stupid charity collectors in the street, survey women in shopping centres, AA men at motorway services. Shield of Ignorance I call it. They hold it like a shield, so we can’t see they’re ignorant. Don’t mean nothing now, clipboards.’

SW ‘Please don’t start getting angry Derek. You are supposed to be controlling that aren’t you? Remember, that’s how it came to this in the first place.’

DL ‘Oh, really? That’s not what I remember. I recall the doctor telling me I was acting strangely because I was talking to people in the street. I was having a conversation at a bus stop, what’s strange about that? The way I was brought up, it was polite to chat to people at bus stops. Everyone chatted, made small-talk, about the weather, or football.

What changed? You tell me. Was a time you could walk in a park. Watch the kids play, feed the ducks, look at babies in prams, and tell the mums how much they looked like them. Not any more. Now you’re a perv, a nonce. You get reported for being strange.

I can remember when grown-ups played with kids. “Give us a kick of the ball son”, they would say. We would ask them to help us in the park. “Ere missus, give us a push on the swing”, we would call out. If you grazed your knee, you went to any adult for help. They took you to the Parky’s hut, for Germolene and plasters. How did we lose that trust? And what has society lost with it, I ask you?’

SW ‘ But Derek, times have changed. Child abductions, increased access to pornography; more people preying on children. They have to be more careful, don’t you agree?’

DL ‘ That’s bollocks. There was just as much, if not more abuse in Victorian times. Most of your famous child crimes, The Moors Murders, Mary Bell, all happened when I was still young, at the time I’m talking about. Times didn’t change. Media hysteria made it all happen, made prisoners of children and adults alike, both afraid to go out, for different reasons. Now, I don’t go out. Can’t talk to anyone, can’t look at anyone. Kids stay in with their video games, never see the seasons, never graze their knees, never develop any social skills. And they wonder why it’s all gone to shit. I don’t wonder. I know why.’

SW ‘Well that’s as maybe Derek, and we still need to get you sorted and finish packing. Come on now, how about that shirt?’

(Derek returns to the Ironing Board, smooths out the shirt as if ready to begin)

DL ‘It will be dark soon, you’ll be able to see the lights on the cranes. Should have seen them on Bonfire Night, all silhouetted against the colours of the fireworks. My Dad used to do a good display when he was around. It was always cold and clear, sausages and hot potatoes, Sparklers, Catherine Wheels, Rockets. I looked forward to it all year, and it was always over too quick.’

SW ‘Is your Dad still alive Derek?’

DL ‘Fuck knows. He pissed off when I was about seven or eight. Never really got over the war you see. He came home in ’46. He had been in the Army of Occupation in Germany after VE Day, been away since 1941. The Desert, Italy, Normandy. He had a hard war. He had only been back a few times since he married Mum in 1940, didn’t really know each other. I was born nine months after he got back. He was never sure, you see. It was the Yanks. There was talk that Mum had put it about a bit during the War. With all the Yanks stationed in England, they were all at it. Lonely wives, and widows. Young, good-looking Yanks with money to burn. It’s understandable, I ‘spose. Dad never asked her about it. Just upped and went one day. Left for work, and never came home. Mum told me later, she reckoned he thought he wasn’t my Dad. Just did his head in. I used to quite like the idea that my real Dad was an American Pilot. I fancied his name was Hank, and he looked like Clark Gable. I half expected him to come back one day, and take me to live on his ranch in Texas. Mum didn’t hang about. She soon moved in another bloke. He was a meat porter in Smithfield. He didn’t like me much, so I learned to keep out of the way. In from school, tea, and bed with a book. In the holidays, I played out with my mates. Long hot summers, pavements burning; or freezing winters, snowball fights, and balaclava helmets. It was OK, didn’t know no different. At least we never went short of meat!’

SW ‘Isn’t that all a bit of a myth though Derek, the hot summers and snowy winters; the big smogs, and Sherlock Holmes fogs?’

DL ‘Myth? Myth? Course it’s not a fucking myth. I was there, I lived it. Look at the newsreels, the old telly. Beowulf is a myth, Mount Olympus is a myth. My life is not a fucking myth. I didn’t imagine it, didn’t dream it. Just take it all won’t you. Now my life and memories are just figments of a strange imagination. If you try hard enough you can just erase me from the records. I never existed. Winter wasn’t cold, summer wasn’t hot. It was all a FUCKING MYTH.’ (Shouting, leaning forward aggressively)

SW ‘That’s not what I’m saying. I just think that you remember it with intensity, exaggerated for effect, that’s all. The word myth is just an expression. All those old days, the characters, the weather, doors left open, I am just saying it’s seeing the past through rose-tinted glasses, that’s all.’

DL (Sarcastic tone, shouting)‘CHARACTERS! Don’t talk to me about characters. They really have gone. All that’s left are nutters shouting in the streets. We had real characters, we did. I tell you. Old men by braziers, you won’t remember them. They were night watchmen really. Kept an eye on the tools, they did, the holes in the ground. They had a nice brazier, big fire, sometimes a little corrugated iron hut to squat in, case it rained. If you were chatty to them, they would give you a cup of tea, maybe a half a sandwich; tell you some good stories, they would. What you got now? Iron cages, locked boxes, uniformed guards popping by in little vans. Lots of old boys out of work, with nobody to chat to. Tell me that’s progress. (Calms down) There used to be old women walked about with prams full of newspapers. They were a bit mad sometimes, I grant you that. Made a few bob though, selling the papers down the warehouse in Charlton, or Deptford. Now the papers just blow about in the wind, like all the carrier bags. Where’s the blokes who used to see you back? You only had to hear the crunch of a motor going into reverse and someone would be there. “C’mon, C’mon, C’mon, oooold ‘it”. Never wanted anything, just loved to see you back. Where did they all go?’

SW ‘I don’t know Derek. I do know that we have to get on please. Why don’t you just finish that shirt now? It really is almost time.’

DL (Ignores comment, gazing wistfully) ‘Respect, that’s what’s gone. You went into a shop, you behaved. I used to collect old bottles from all over. They paid deposits on them, never bothered to take them back. Me and my mates got them, took them back, got a penny for most, thruppeny bit for some. Waited our turn properly, then spent the money on sweets in the same shop. Knew the rules, the way it worked, respect. Coppers was the same. Give ‘em cheek, you got a clip round the ear, or they told your Mum on you. Kept out their way, we did, had respect.’

SW ‘I think I know about that Derek. I was brought up to respect my parents too, and Police, and Old People, and Education and Learning. I’m with you on that one.’

DL ‘Where was that then?’

SW ‘Enfield, Derek.’

DL ‘Oh, very funny. I mean originally, where your family came from.’

SW ‘Africa.’

DL ‘Africa’s a big place. Where from? I know the countries, I’m not stupid you know.’

SW ‘Uganda Derek. I was born in Uganda.

DL ‘Chucked out by old Idi Amin I guess?’

SW ‘Something like that. We came here when I was very young, I don’t remember it. But we have our values the same.’

DL ‘When I was a kid, there was some great countries in Africa. I had the stamps. Still remember them now. Bechuanaland, Nyasaland, Rhodesia, Belgian Congo, Liberia. ‘Ere. Do you know about Liberia? Given to the slaves by a Yank called Monroe it was, hence the capital is called Monrovia, after him, and the Liberia from liberation, see? Mind you, I never found out where he got it from in the first place, so he could give it to the slaves. Probably nicked it off some other poor sods, typical Yank. Done it again with Israel didn’t they? Snatched it off some piss-poor Arabs to give it to the Jews, They are good at that, deciding who has what, and who lives where.’

SW ‘It was the English who had the influence in Uganda Derek. The English who put him into the position he achieved.’

DL ‘Well we got the bill didn’t we? Got you lot here. We gave you homes, jobs, rights. What you got to moan about? Bet if you had stayed there your story would be very different. You wouldn’t be here now, telling me what to do, or where to go would you? Education? You would be walking 10 miles to school with no shoes probably, to learn English off a slate from a load of Nuns. I didn’t have the luxury of a real education. Learnings for poofs, my step-dad told me. A real man works for a living. Had to work on the Meat Market at fifteen, humping meat about at three in the morning, stinking of blood and fat. And the noise, you wouldn’t believe the noise… I had to learn from books. Read and digest, the hard way. I got out as soon as I could though, into the Print at eighteen. My Mum’s brother, Uncle Charl, was Father of the Chapel on the Telegraph. That’s like a shop-steward, a Union bloke. Got me in, and I never looked back. Not ‘til it all closed up, and went to the East End. Then came  the strikes, the aggro. All grief, I took the redundancy.’

How about that cup of tea now? I’m a bit dry, I am.’

SW ‘There’s no time for tea Derek. Honestly, they will be here soon. You really must be ready. They are busy, and they won’t be able to wait, if you are not ready.’

DL ‘Have you been back? You know, to Africa?’

SW ‘ Never, since I came here. I have no family there, so no reason to go.’

DL ‘Why not go just for interest? I don’t have family there, I’ve been though.’

SW ‘ Really? Where did you go?’

DL ‘ Went on a Nile Cruise, and a Safari to Kenya. Spent some of me redundancy money. See the world. That surprised you eh?’

SW ‘ So, what did you think?’

DL ‘Got me camera nicked by a monkey in Kenya. Lost all me photos, didn’t I. Egypt was great. Sad about all the monuments though, just ruins really, they never kept them up nice. Thing about pyramids, take a lot of work to build. Must have been a lot of cranes around in them days. Bet if you were looking out the window of a place in Thebes then, couldn’t see sod all for cranes. They didn’t realise. Building’s not the thing. Good swords, bigger armies, that’s the thing. While they were trying to build bigger and better, the Romans came and nicked it all. Better armies, better swords, catapults, that’s what was needed. High-rise wasn’t necessary in the Ancient World. Ruthlessness, not cranes, that was the order of the day. Same thing today really. French had Versailles Palace, Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame. Germans had better tanks, better guns and Blitzkrieg. Job done! Israel’s the benchmark. Name a famous building in Tel Aviv? Can’t, can you? They don’t have world class Architecture. They just have a fucking shit-hot army, so they rule the roost in the Middle East. Should have told your family in Uganda, or whatever it was called before we got there. Less grass huts, more spears, better discipline. Stop eating your neighbours, get off your arses, sharpen the spears, and bang-crash, no Colonials. Too late now, of course. You’re all trying too hard to be English, waving your passports in our faces. Well Adye, you can have it. This Sceptred Isle, this shit-hole called England. I don’t feel part of it any more. Take it, do what you like with it. I’m done. It’s not racism, I have never felt remotely like that. It’s fatigue. I have tried too hard, for too long, just to fit in. I’ve had enough now, putting in my papers. The typical Londoner, the typical Englishman. Jack the Lad, one of The Boys, Decent geezer, one of The Chaps, A Face. What’s that now? It’s not me, I can tell you.’

SW ‘It does sound racist Derek. Do you have issues you would like to discuss? You will have the next few days to talk things through, if you want.’

DL ‘Can’t you see it’s not about colour, religion or race? History has caught up with me, with everyone like me. We’ve had our day, and it’s gone. We just don’t know what to be anymore, what to do, or where to go. We used to be it, all there was. They looked to us to get it done. Now we are just in the way, embarrassing, past our time, needing to be shut up. You don’t see it now, but you will one day. Frustration is a terrible thing to bear.’

SW ‘That all sounds very interesting Derek. Why don’t you save it for the Hospital? We really don’t have the time to discuss all this at length at the moment. The clock is ticking…’

DL ‘ You only see me as I am now. You can’t possibly imagine how it was once. I had a wife, a nice flat, good job, a future. (Derek goes and fetches dusty photos in a frame, shows them to SW). Look, wedding snaps, 1967. I was twenty, she was eighteen. I had hair then, nice suits, looked sharp. She was my mate’s sister, worked in Woolworth’s in Holloway Road. Loved to dance, she did. Course, music was good in those days. Motown, Soul, Ska, none better, even today. It was great at first. We rented a nice basement in Kentish Town; two beds, inside bath and toilet. It was expensive, still we both worked and I was on shift, well-paid. Later on, I think she got bored. She started going to Bingo with her mates on Sundays. She said she wanted some excitement in her Life. First it was Gala in Holloway, then Top Rank in Kilburn. Bigger jackpots, apparently. Before I knew it, she went five days a week after work. Even as far as Tooting, chasing the big money, I thought. Never home ‘til late, always tired, going sick from Woolies. She almost never won anything, I couldn’t see the point. Didn’t see it coming really. All the shifts, always at work, what did I know? Got me dinner, washing done, occasional night out, even less occasional nookie, I was happy enough. Thought that was how it was. Seemed the same as everyone else, just life. One night, she tells me she doesn’t love me anymore, I’m not interesting or exciting, and I’m not the man she married. She’s off to Southend with a bingo caller, to start a new life at the seaside, ‘cos he’s got a job on the Pier Bingo, and she wants some fun in her life. I’m thirty one, been married for eleven years. Didn’t hear from her again, got the divorce papers in the post seven years later. I got a card from my mate, her brother, that Christmas. Seems she was up the duff. The bingo caller fucked off. Then she lost the baby at fourteen months old, from Meningitis. She lives in a mobile home on Canvey Island now. There’s a bit of fun for you! Couldn’t be arsed after that. They only lie don’t they? If you can’t keep up the fun and excitement, they’re off. What’s the point? Bet you’re not married are you?’

SW ‘No Derek, not yet. That is hardly relevant though, is it?’

DL ‘ You’ll see, you’ll see.’

SW ‘ I have to go outside to call the Ambulance. They should have been here by now. I can’t get a signal in here,’

(SW leaves the flat, voice heard off stage complaining about the delay. Derek throws the unironed shirt into the case, screws up the trousers and puts them in too. He looks at the photos, folds the stands, and places them carefully in the case. SW returns to the living room.)

SW ‘They’re here Derek. Just waiting for the lift, won’t be long now. (Notices the packed case) What about your shirt and trousers Derek, did you finish them?’

DL ‘What’s the point? I thought, going to hospital, they will give me pyjamas. Might as well stay like this. I’m only going from the lift to the van anyway.’ (Switches off iron)

(Doorbell/knocker sounds.)

Cheery Ambulance man/woman comes into flat (Or heard outside).

AM ‘Hello Derek. Are you ready then?’

DL ‘ Am I ready mate? It’s you we’ve been waiting for, bloody hours now. seems like’

AM ‘Sorry mate, we’re very busy today.’

(Derek gets up, looks around the flat, one last look out the window.)

DL ‘’Ere mate, bet you’ve never seen a crane go up or get taken down have you?’

AM ‘Funnily enough Derek, I was a crane driver before I joined the Ambulances. I’ll tell you all about it on the way…’

END

Pete Johnson, 2007. No reproduction without permission.

Gritty Brits

I have just had another article published on Curnblog.com. It is about the early films of the ‘British New Wave’, from the late 1950’s, to the mid 60’s. For any reader interested in the history of film and cinema, or social change, you may find it of some interest. If not, don’t worry, it is your choice, as always.

For anyone who would like to read this, please follow this link.  http://curnblog.com/2014/06/18/british-new-wave-5-movies-gritty-brits/

Best wishes to everyone. Pete.

 

Alec

Another work of fiction. This time, it is a conventional short story, in one part. I hope someone enjoys it.

Alec

It was the first day of the Summer holidays, no more school for six weeks. To Alec, they had seemed a long time coming, since moving down here, the previous August, had pretty much robbed him of the last ones. He had plans, he knew just how he would spend his time, and he had passed a long, boring Spring in preparation.

The new school was so-so. The second year of his secondary education had been a lot better than the first, anyway. He had grown tall since his twelfth birthday, springing up above his peers, and filling out too. He was already taller than everyone in his year, and Mum said, if he kept growing, he could end up playing basketball. Since moving south from Scotland, he had preferred the better weather, and the chance to get out more. It had brought some problems as well though. The boys at school had tried to tease him, first about his accent, then about his name. They always pretended not to understand what he said, and would keep asking him to repeat himself. It took a while, but he eventually realised that they were winding him up, then he just stopped bothering. The teachers weren’t much better, always asking him to “say that again please Alec.” Most of them were not from around here anyway, so you think that they would know better. Then they kept getting his name wrong. The other boys all called him Alex, and didn’t even seem to understand that there was a name Alec. The teachers too, they constantly got it wrong, also referring to him as Alex, when they bothered to talk to him at all. New boys entering school after the first year were just trouble to them, seemingly, and they acted as if he didn’t exist, most of the time. He had started off by explaining that Alex was short for Alexander, that his name was Alec, and that was totally different. He told them that it meant Defender of the People, and was an old Scottish name, that he was proud to bear. He soon gave up, as it just seemed to make them call him Alex even more. Nobody ever told him the truth, that it was just a corrupted abbreviation of Alexander. Because nobody really knew, or cared.

Still, being big meant that he was never bullied, and ensured that any name-calling and resentment was mostly done behind his back, or out of earshot. Besides, his Dad was a soldier, and he was serving in Afghanistan, so if anyone went too far, they would have him to deal with. If he ever came home. Alec didn’t bother with team games much either. The sports teacher asked him to play in most teams, excited that his size would give those teams an edge. Alec declined, happy to be a loner, not a part of any team, group, or gang. He had his own agenda, and it involved being alone. He coasted through the subjects, always in the middle of the class when it came to performance; never too smart, and definitely not stupid. His reports were always the same. Failure to engage, does not contribute much, lacks interaction with others, blah blah blah. They couldn’t fault him though, as he always got at least a C, and often a B. He managed to get by without being noticed too much. Eventually, they all forgot about him, and that suited Alec down to the ground.

When Dad’s regiment was amalgamated, and they had to move to the south, his parents had sat him down, and explained the reasons for the move. Alec didn’t really care, one place was much like another to him, and he had nothing to regret leaving behind in Scotland. Dad was away much of the time, and even when he was at home, he was down the pub, or visiting his Army mates somewhere. Mum said he was better off in Afghanistan, and seemed to treat that place more like home. Alec found it on his globe lamp once, but it didn’t mean much to him. It was near India, he remembered that at least. Soon after the move last summer, Dad was away again, for more training somewhere, and then back abroad. Mum got a job in a bar in the town. They had argued about that, as it meant leaving Alec from the time he got in from school, until well past eleven. Mum had won though. She needed to be out, she said, and wanted some life to be around, and people to talk to. For his part, Alec couldn’t care less; he had nothing to say to her anyway. He didn’t like the programmes she watched, and even if she was at home, as she was most weekends, he spent most of the time in his room. She was always on the phone, talking to her friends and family back in Scotland, or to people around here, that he didn’t know.

Alec liked cars. There was hardly anything to do with cars that he didn’t know about. He had all his Dad’s old car magazines, and spent hours on his ageing laptop, looking at car company sites, and browsing photos, or reading technical information. For someone of his age, who had never so much as turned an ignition key, he was an expert in the subject. His room was a tribute to the car. Posters adorned every available inch of wall space, and model cars were displayed wherever one could be stood. He also knew about light vans, and had recently started to do some research into trucks, thinking he might like to be a truck driver one day. His earlier ambition, of being a car salesman, would involve too much contact with people, and he was never that comfortable with strangers. What could be better than to spend your life on the main roads of Europe, watching all the cars go by, from the comfortable high cab of a giant truck, he thought.

One of the things that he liked best about their new house, was that it was very close to the motorway. Many would consider that a disadvantage, living within range of the main route from north to south, with the constant drone of the traffic, day and night. Not Alec. For him, it was an unexpected bonus of the move. Less than a five minute walk from his front door, was a bridge across all the lanes, taking traffic off the motorway, towards the sleepy market town that they now called home. A bit further on, was the pedestrian bridge, that allowed safe crossing for cyclists, dog walkers, and schoolchildren, who were the main users of this out of the way structure. Both these vantage points offered him an uninterrupted view of the thing he liked best, motor vehicles. He had got the notebooks ready, and a selection of coloured marker pens too. Lists had been made; his ten favourite cars, and five favourite trucks. Alec would spend his days watching the motorway, noting the appearance of those favourites, and adding their colours too. He would soon have a record of how many of each, and in what colour, passed under his view, and what time they were seen as well.  Later, back home in his room, he could transfer this information to his laptop, and add the results to his already extensive research.

Into the large sports bag, he placed the notebooks and pens, together with two bottles of water, a packet of biscuits, and a banana. He had chosen his largest bag, so that there was room for a cushion to fit in, as he would need something to sit on. Mum was still sleeping when he left. She had got home late from work last night, and he had heard her in the bathroom, well after midnight. Outside in the close, he saw two boys he knew vaguely from school, Jared and Mark. They were setting up a long plank in the road, propping it on some concrete blocks, to create a ramp. Their intention was to ride their BMX bikes up the ramp, and jump them off the raised end. In the dead-end close, there would be little danger from traffic, and most of the residents would soon be out at work anyway. They waved to him as he closed the door, possibly inviting him to watch. He didn’t know for sure, as he couldn’t hear what they said. It would have had no interest for him anyway, as it seemed a pointless activity.

The first day at the bridge was relatively unproductive. His favourite cars did not appear, though his best trucks were in abundance. When he had needed to pee, he sloped off into the nearby woodland. The biscuits were just enough to keep him going, and he didn’t bother with the banana, but he considered the addition of a sandwich for tomorrow. The half term holidays generated more traffic than normal, but most of it was made up of caravans, people carriers, and other boring family rides. There were even loads of motor homes, the ultimate slugs. Dad called caravans snails; hard shells containing soft life within. He got angry when they held him up on the road, and he would never consider such a holiday remotely relaxing. Motor caravans were even worse. Home on the road, no escape. What was the point of those?

That night, Alec was disappointed. Nine hours on the bridge, and not a single M5, Impreza, or S4; none of the best cars available in the UK. He had watched, as streams of Picassos, Meganes, and Ford S-max swept by, tantalisingly close to his position. There had been lots of Renault trucks, their suspension pumping at speed, and the comfortable cabs looking so inviting. But none of the ‘real’ cars, the serious motors. What was going on? Was the half term foiling his plans? He would need more time, extra days to continue his studies. Back tomorrow then.

The next morning, and Mum was once again asleep. Alec had thought that he had heard a man’s voice during the night. It had sounded aggressive, and insistent. Perhaps it was just a dream though. There was no milk for cereal, so he had the banana he didn’t eat yesterday. He got two Ribena cartons from the cupboard, and some chocolate biscuits from the ‘fridge, before making a sandwich to take along, filled with strawberry jam. Once outside, there was no sign of Jared or Mark. They had left their ramp from the previous day, possibly hoping to be able to use it again. Alec walked over to the construction. Looking around furtively, he could see nobody about, the place was still sleepy at that time of day. He picked up the smallest concrete block, and secreted it into his large bag. It was a tight fit, and heavier than he expected. Still, they wouldn’t be able to play their stupid ramp game today, he had seen to that.

The morning was slightly more productive. Two Imprezas, both cobalt blue, a popular colour, and a real treat, and a Honda NSX 200 in black, a really rare find in England. He had eaten the sandwich by nine-thirty, and had some of the biscuits at eleven o’ clock, with the second carton of Ribena. By now, he was getting bored, and nothing much was happening. The road seemed to be chock full of boring MPV’s, and countless caravans, heading to the coastal resorts. The cushion was not doing enough to make sitting comfortable, and his notebooks were all but blank. He emptied his bag, and perused the contents.

Darren Osbourne had been driving for most of the day. His wife Sandra was a terminal nag, and his kids Ellen and Jodie were equally annoying, moaning and crying in turn. The Scenic was past its best, and probably needed a service, but Darren hadn’t been able to afford it, on top of the cost of the holiday. One week in Cornwall, at a prepared campsite. Hardly the luxury he had once imagined, when he and Sandra had married, at 21. Ten years later, two squalling daughters, and a wife older than her years, and Darren had, quite frankly, had enough. In truth, he would sooner be at work still, in the Council Offices of their Northern town. At least there, he would have peace and quiet. After an expensive breakfast stop at the motorway services, he estimated that they had around two hours to go, before they got to their destination. The road was very busy, and Darren kept to the middle lane, so as not to get trapped by any large trucks. The girls argued constantly, the sound issuing from the from the back seat drove Darren to distraction, but he didn’t let on. Anything for a quiet life. Sandra was oblivious, reading her stupid celebrity magazine, the lives of vacuous people presented as entertainment.

Alec rummaged in his bag for the last of the biscuits. He had taken the small block of concrete out, and placed it next to the wire fencing of the bridge. The notebooks and pens were neatly stacked next to the cushion, and the empty drinks cartons were there too, as he would take them home. He hated litter, and people who littered. The last few biscuits were little more than crumbs at the bottom, but he scooped them out and ate them all the same. His gaze returned to the endless streams of traffic. Families mostly still, streaming towards the coast, hoping to change their dull lives, with one week away, at somewhere ultimately disappointing. Alec felt the rough edges, and the weight of the block in his hands. It was really heavy, at least for some people, but he was strong, and could lift it with ease. He rested it on the rail of the bridge fencing, allowing the stone to take a natural balance under his hand. He reduced control, first down to three fingers, then two, until he supported the whole thing with one determined digit. He noticed a Renault Scenic some way off in the middle lane. It was a horrible coffee colour, a brown with some silly exotic name, ‘Aztec Bronze’ or something similar. Alec couldn’t understand why anyone would ever buy such a boring car, and then choose one of the worst colours to cover it. He looked down at his quivering finger.

The impact was enormous. The windscreen was gone in a second; air rushing in, tiny glass fragments flying everywhere. Darren’s first reaction was to brake hard, the hardest he had ever braked in his life. The panel van behind slammed into the Scenic as it braked, spinning the smaller vehicle. Inside his car, Darren couldn’t think, for the screams coming from his children. They were unnaturally piercing, like something not human. As his car whirled around, he looked across at Sandra. She seemed to be wearing some sort of hat, or mask. There was something else, where her face had been, but it was impossible to take in, in these few moments, and still spinning at great speed. When his car stopped moving, Darren found himself looking back up the motorway he had been driving on, except he was facing in the wrong direction. The Estonian lorry driver had no chance, it all happened so fast. His huge truck, towing an additional trailer, was never going to stop in time. It went straight into the front of the Scenic, still braking, but still travelling at almost forty miles an hour. Enno sat shaking in his cab, listening to car after car impacting the one in front, and feeling the bumps as vehicles drove into his skewed trailer. Some people were already out of their cars, either sitting on the verges, or standing dazed in the wreckage. Enno didn’t want to get out yet. He didn’t want to look at the front of his truck, as he was dreading what he would see there.

In all the confusion, nobody had glanced up at the pedestrian bridge. They were too busy, avoiding more cars, getting out of wrecked vehicles, or trying to help their families. Even if someone had looked up, they would not have thought it unusual, to see a smart-looking young man walking across, clutching a sports bag.