Saturday, 9 November 2013
PART 14: GOODIES AND BADDIES
As a writer I sometimes ask myself why it is that villains often appear to be more interesting than the virtuous? Is it that at least in books, films or plays we can allow ourselves to be drawn out of our comfort zone into an exciting place without being in any real danger? In real life we wouldn’t enjoy being a victim and having our throats ripped out by a werewolf or our blood sucked by vampires, even to be the hero plunging a stake into the vampire’s heart or pulling back a curtain so sunlight can flood in and shrivel the vampire to dust, is a role I would not like. Although there's many a writer these days turning the un-dead into heroes and making a mint of money out of it. I’ve occasionally wondered what vampires live on besides human blood. Maybe I should read the book by Bram Stoker one day and find out!
I’ve never forgotten my future husband taking me to see Dracula, starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, at the Cosy cinema,(known to some as the Flea Pit). It was still lit by gas, so quite spooky. I was sixteen at the time and I remember I couldn’t seem to move my legs at the end of the film because I was frozen to my seat in terror. I’ll also never forget Alec Guinness as Fagan in Oliver Twist and Robert Newton playing Long John Silver in Treasure Island. No doubt they had similar real counterparts in Victorian and Georgian Liverpool, London, Bristol and Portsmouth. These characters, of course, appeared in books, long before the movies came on the scene.
Then there were the gangster movies of the roaring Twenties and more recently ones to do with the Mafia and nasty aliens, not forgetting those ordinary looking people who turn out to be serial killers.
I must mention the baddies in the old cowboy films, who always wore black stetsons, such as Dan Duryea and Jack Palance. The latter popped up as an old cowboy in City Slickers a few years ago.
To deal with our cowboy villains, we had to have our heroes. One such was Roy Rogers who always wore a white stetson and never rode a black horse but his faithful steed Trigger. Besides indulging in fisticuffs and exchanging gunfire with the baddies, Roy used to romance the heroine, playing the guitar and singing such songs as ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. But he never sent shivers down my spine the same as the baddies. Audie Murphy was another hero to don the white stetson and ride a horse. In fact he was the hero in The Guns of Fort Petticoat the evening I met my husband, John, in the Lido cinema on Belmont Road. Audie also made war films and was a hero in real life, winning the Purple Heart for his bravery during WW2.
The American costume dramas, such as Ivanhoe based on a book by Sir Walter Scott, contained a swashbuckling hero played by Robert Taylor, could be fun, but British war films such as The Cruel Sea, were much more serious and based on fact. The book of the latter was written by Nicholas Monsarrat who was born on Rodney Street, Liverpool, in 1910, the same year as my father, just like many a Liverpudlian, Nicholas was in the navy during WW2.
I’ve always loved the flicks and probably that is the reason why the cinema and film get mentioned so often in my sagas. They were so much part of my teenage years and the majority of us growing up in the Fifties. It was the heyday of cinema. There were at least six picture palaces within walking distance of our house. The Royal Hippodrome on West Derby Road, where my parents used to go on their Saturday night out, started life as a theatre in 1902 and became a cinema in 1931. I remember going with my sister and my mam in the fifties and paying a shilling to sit in ‘The Gods’ to see the musical OKLAHAMA.
There were at least another six cinemas in Liverpool city centre, so we were certainly spoilt for choice. Generally there would be two feature films, a cartoon, newsreel and trailers and the performances were continuous. The Sixties weren’t bad either for cinemas, despite the writing having been on the wall since the Queen’s coronation, which heralded the appearance of thousands of televisions in homes throughout Britain.
As I mentioned earlier there are films that were books first in which the goodies, as well as the baddies are unforgettable. I think my most unpleasant villain is Bert Kirk, who first appears in my Chester based book, ‘Step by Step’. I had the idea for him from listening to my mother-in-law reminisce about the old days and people she’d never forget. It was never my intention, though, that my Bert should exactly resemble anyone living or dead.
Like most good villains, my Bert could put on a act, so there were those who believed him to be goodness personified; his mother for example, who could not accept that he had a dark side. When I decided to write a sequel to ‘Step by Step’ and mentioned it to my editor, he asked me was Bert going to be in the book. I told him that he certainly was and my editor’s reply was ‘Good! He’s such a great character!’ Bert’s presence certainly created suspense and conflict.
Here is a scene from the next book Bert appeared in which was ‘A Dream to Share’.
Deep in thought, Alice was halfway across the bridge when she was seized from behind and a familiar voice whispered against her ear. ‘Hello Alice, fancy meeting you here.’
She stiffened with fright, realising that she had done what Hannah had warned her against and let her guard down. ‘Let me go,’ she gasped.
‘Not until you give me a kiss. I’ve missed your kisses, Alice. The feel of your body pressed against mine,’ murmured Bert.
She felt the blood rush to her face as he rubbed up against her bottom. For a moment she couldn’t breath, and then she managed to stammer, ‘You’re mad! Let me go-go.’
His breath stirred an auburn curl beneath the tiny rim of her felt hat. ’It’s not me that’s crazy, sweetheart. It’s your family that’s tainted with madness. You would have had a jailbird for a father if they hadn’t locked him up in the loony bin. I reckon I had a lucky escape when you ditched me … even so you’re going to pay for the trouble you caused me.’ She struggled wildly, lashing out at him. He caught her arms and clamped them to her sides, forcing her round to face him. To her amazement, he was wearing a balaclava, so she could only see his eyes and mouth. She saw the flash of his teeth in one of those smiles that had once had the power to charm her. ‘Do I frighten you, Alice? I’ve thought of joining Haldane’s volunteers and being taught how to kill. Just think of that: A bayonet in the guts or a bullet in the head, which would you fancy?’ He put a hand to her throat and she felt sick with terror …
I shiver even now thinking about Bert, who also made an appearance in the next book in that series ‘When the Clouds go Rolling By’. It’s not easy writing such scenes because one really has to get right into the head of your villain so their actions are consistent with the character. Fortunately my heroines and heroes can act in admirable fashion.
One of my favourite heroes is Harry Peters, the father of my young heroine, Greta, in ‘A Place to Call Home’. The following extract takes place during the May Blitz, 1941 in Liverpool.
Harry removed his cap and wiped the sweat from his brow that threatened to trickle into his eyes and blur his vision. His mouth was raw and dry with dust. He reached for the tin mug standing on a convenient brick and gulped down some of the hot, sweet tea. A cry came again from the rubble and Harry put the mug down remembering how, back in March another rescue worker had found a baby still alive after three days of being buried beside her dead parents.
He looked up at the men, who took orders from him. Just like him they were exhausted, having gone without sleep for two nights. He had returned home yesterday for a brief rest and to check whether Greta and Cissie had returned home but the house had been empty and according to Wilf, Rene had not come back home, either. So he had returned to Mill Road Infirmary where a parachute mine had caused devastation. They had dug people out alive, but there had also been more than fifty dead. A sigh escaped him. He was near the end of his tether, but if there was a baby trapped under the debris, he wanted to be the one to get it out. Such moments of lifesaving were sweet and made the danger worthwhile. He imagined taking the baby in his arms. He pocketed his trowel and his eyes narrowed as he gazed into the tunnel entrance, angled to a degree by a kitchen table and a chair, which had become locked together beneath tons of bricks and charred wood. He reached for the piece of wood used to protect his head and crawled into the hole, inching his way along, careful not to disturb the wall of rubble held up with props of wood. The cry came again and it was close. With a delicate touch he withdrew a chuck of brick and mortar without disturbing the broken timber beside it that might bring down a ton of debris.
No, Harry doesn't get killed but I got a lump in my throat just reading that excerpt over again. Something I haven't done for ages.
Of course, there are those in films, books and real life, whom we might call loveable rogues, such as Hans Solo in the Star Wars trilogy or anti-heroes, like Rhett Butler in ‘Gone with the Wind’. They appear in my medieval and Tudor romances, too. My latest one is ‘The Adventurer’s Bride’ and my husband likes them the best, not only do my heroes generally indulge in a bit of swordplay but John's a bit of a romantic.
I was delighted to hear a couple of days ago that ‘The Adventurer’s Bride’ had a mention in USATODAY amongst the UK Medieval releases. More recently I have been rewriting the very first book I had accepted for publication 'Beloved Abductor' with the thought in mind of having it put up as an E-book.
No doubt in earlier times heroes and villains were often seen as either black or white. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was definitely England’s hero during the Napoleonic wars, whilst Napoleon was the villain. Interestingly, recently when I was fortunate enough to be in a group doing a tour of Liverpool Town Hall, we were told by the visually impaired guide, the very informative, Steve Binns, that one of the ceremonial swords on display had been made for Nelson. Apparently he was due to visit Liverpool but unfortunately he was killed at Trafalgar before the ceremony at the town hall could take place. Sadly that is the fate of many a hero in times of war.
This weekend we'll be remembering all those killed in the wars that took place during the 20th century. Although my father and several uncles were in the army during WW2, they all survived. My uncle Stan Milburn served in the auxiliary fire brigade in Liverpool which could be horrific during the blitz but he came through it.
Stan Milburn in his fireman uniform and is on the left.
I was extremely surprised to discover through Ancestry that my grandfather William Nelson volunteered for the army during the Great War at the age of forty-three. Fortunately he never reached the trenches as it was discovered he had a heart defect. I discovered from army records that he was only five feet, four inches tall. Even so despite the tough life he had, he reached the ripe old age of seventy-three and died in 1944.
So on Remembrance Sunday, I will be thinking about all those I never knew, who gave their tomorrows that we might have our today, but I will think especially of my mother's cousin, sailor Thomas Milburn, aged 20, who went down with the royal naval ship BLACK PRINCE at the Battle of Jutland, 1916. As well as those two distance fourth or fifth cousins, Tom Lancaster and Arthur Hindson, whose names are on the memorial in Culgaith parish church. (see photo Part 13)
LEST WE FORGET