Falling For Autumn

It’s like in that movie Almost Famous – thousands of miles up in the air and I feel I’m about to die.  No, they haven’t asked me to pay for my drink, nothing so extreme as all that.  But it’s occurred to me that I’m bidding adieu to the sun.  It’s autumn now in the land of my birth.

One week away: it was nice.  No, it was better than nice – once again I thought to myself

“Bryson, why d’you live in the UK? It is warmer here on the continent; the food is better and cheaper too.  Why, from 1 shiny 5 Euro note one can procure a packet of cigarettes, an ice cold lager and a cup of coffee that bears only the slightest resemblance to that filth they serve in Blighty.  Add in some bacon for another Euro and you’ve covered the British-standard four food groups (alcohol, nicotine, caffeine and processed meat).  One demurs at the thought of paying for the soothing balm of an afternoon in the arms of a representative of the oldest profession, but no doubt the kneecapping lawyers are less costly here too.”

Crass generalisation time, but no one worships the sun like a Brit.  We whine about the weather: it’s too cold, it’s too hot, will this rain never end, drought warning.  What can I say – we like to have our cake and complain about it.

But take your average Brit, stick him or her in a climate most would consider cool-to-moderate, and they’ll be out of their clothes quicker than you can pour their drink, fanning themselves ostentatiously and becoming irritated at the low standard of English spoken by the locals.

Variations on the theme of heavy cloud and ill wind – that’s what we know – insubstantial light.  The meteorological equivalent of a shrug.  But there’s one thing we traditionally have going for us.  We have seasons.

I’m a big fan of seasons, or at least the start of them, ringing the changes.  Winter is a time for heavy coats and natty jumpers, fires (which means splitting logs, one of my few ‘man’ skills) and euphemisms – ‘cozy’ being predominate amongst them.

Round these parts winter tends to hang on a little too long, although contrary to popular opinion January is in fact the bleakest month, not February, which is more like a houseguest that refuses to take the hint.  But when winter fades, the world comes alive again and we rediscover an emotion that other cultures refer to as optimism.

Mornings come with a dawn bombardment of birdsong, flowers happen and it’s lamb season, which is great for those who enjoy a side order of cruelty with their gastronomy.

Then at some point we all agree that it’s summer, ie it starts raining more heavily but us Brits are under starters orders to get out there in our shorts and undercook sausages in a perverted facsimile of a BBQ.  Summer is my favourite season, even if on average only about 2 weeks of it counts.

Or is it? Because then there’s autumn.  Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness as Keats would have it.  Before the leaves change colour when the UK is all lush greens – the one upside of our damp little climate – there’s a slight chill in the air, but nothing to get upset about.  There’s the smell of it, especially as the leaves start to change and then fall.  Regular season sports kick off in anger; school picks up again (ha ha, suckers).  Everything’s a little more alert, a little less sleepy before the long winter nap.

Autumn is traditionally associated with a kind of melancholy, with ageing; the possibilities of summer fade, and the depths of winter appear on the horizon.  There’s a final blaze of colour before all turns to greys and browns.  The nights draw in while the world packs up its things and turns in on itself.  Moody introspection rules the day.

Also, it’s back to school.

Personally, I don’t find it melancholy – that comes later when stepping on the scales in the post-Christmas period.  I’d hate to admit it, given my feelings towards the man’s predilection for the rhyming dictionary, but I’m with Keats on this.

For those who like their trivia trivial, autumn is the more modern word, not fall.  A certain type of Brit enjoys getting sniffy about American intrusions into ‘our’ language, ignoring the heavy influence of French, German and the like on modern British English.  Our rucksack is probably derived from a German word that is itself a conjunction of back and bag.  Other words we’ve purloined from abroad: disgust, manage, formidable.

As for autumn, there are some instances of its usage in the 12th century (it’s likely Latin in origin via old French), but it became popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Up to that point the most common word for the season August-October was harvest, similar to most of the rest of Western Europe.  The other word used was likely Norse in origin, via an old English word feallan, meaning to fail or decay or… fall.

But whatever one chooses to call it, and however others might choose to characterise it, it’s a fantastic (French via Latin) time of year (Old High German).

And I have a hunch that parents might agree.


PS: My word it’s my hundredth post. What have I learned? Nothing.

Con Heir

Amid (now-dashed) rumours that Nic Cage is set to join The Expendables cast for their third outing, we look at perhaps his most defining role…

If he’d had the good fortune to live long enough, Mahatma Gandhi’s most memorable line would’ve been “Western civilisation? It’s fantastic; gave us Con Air.”

Nicolas Cage IS a hairpiece who returns from doing army only to be goaded by How Do I Live Without You into defending his pregnant wife’s honour. A man dies in slow motion, in the rain.  Hairpiece is then screwed over by his lawyer – a scruffy, less manly hairpiece who looks like he has personal hygiene problems – and sentenced to a decade in prison.

Sentence served, our hairpiece, now a fully grown out and grown up mullet, is due for release to see his daughter for the first time, like, ever.  First though, he must fly aboard a plane stocked with a motley assortment of rambunctious miscreants including John Malkovich on scenery chewing form, some extras, a photogenic prison worker (Rachel Ticotin) and his diabetic bezzy mate, Baby-O (Mykelty Williamson).  Malkovich and Ving “They’re talking to Denzel for the movie” Rhames, get their hijacking on; Cage’s hairpiece spurns the chance to save himself and instead saves the day.

Sadly, at no point does anyone utter the phrase “Baby-O…dear”.

That’s a minor quibble, for other than that frankly unforgiveable oversight, Con Air is literal…figuratively flawless.  The plot is clearly more the work of sudden inspiration rather than sustained perspiration, and that’s putting it as nicely as one possibly can.

The dialogue speaks for itself – a poorly reheated soup of clichés, bad cod-psychology and half-remembered lines from other films.  You hope that some of it is ad-libbed but you suspect it was faithfully acted out the way it was written.

The action, especially towards the end, is clearly the work of a hyper-stimulated little boy with access to a closet full of fireworks and a team of stuntmen with nothing left to live for.

And How Do I Live Without You is the best thing about the soundtrack.  I’ll leave you to let that sink in.

Got that?

And yet and yet and yet: Nicolas Cage.  John Malkovich.  Ving Rhames.  John Cusack.  Danny Trejo.  Steve Buscemi. Colm Meaney.  Dave Chappelle.   And Monica Potter, who never quite hit the heights of her illustrious co-stars.

One ought not rhapsodise about the genius of Jerry Bruckheimer.  But even still, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

The rage of Cage, the Twitter-precursor corpse messaging, Buscemi’s discourse on the semantics of insanity, “Si!!!…” “Anara.” and the cigarette close-up; Meaney’s incredible flying convertible…

And the coup de grace: “puuut duur bunneh back eeun duur boox”; Cage speaking throughout as if he’s suffered a severe head trauma.

I used to wonder whether Con Air was a spoof on the excesses of the action genre, given that it’s so awful and its cast so awesome, but I hope not.  In these days of all-pervasive irony, Con Air works best if you view it as a sincere effort in all its shouty, testosterone-heavy OTT bullshit.  It is of a piece with all those other moronic 90s actioners (Broken Arrow, The Rock) – the bastard children of the 80s Action Jackson genre that took far too long to die.

The difference, though, is charm.

It’s a stoopid, red setter (as in the dog) sort of charm, but it’s still pretty…um…charming.  That is the only explanation for why a film so utterly devoid of merit is also so insanely rewarding.

Besides which, it’s far too good-natured to be a mean-spirited cartoon designed to mock the portion of the audience that just doesn’t get it, yeah?  Put another way, it’s in an entirely different league to the pastiche of movies like Shoot ‘Em Up.

And in these dark days of sequels, remakes, reboots and the never-ending Die Hard franchise, when every identikit superhero or faceless protagonist wants to be relevant (ie grim), when every high concept demands ‘take me serious’, the world needs Con Air.

So I propose a sequel: Con Heir.

I recognise that another sequel probably isn’t the solution to too many sequels.

Cage reprises his role as he is dragged into a plot involving an old-fashioned plane hijack while attempting to vacation with his daughter (who’s grown up to be some kind of rookie special agent/cop with a fondness for revealing clothing and roundhouse kicks).  He teaches her how things go down in the real world, as opposed to at the academy.  Because book-learning is for dickheads.

The Expendables (sadly) exists, so the cast will be drawn from the same indy-leaning palette as the original.  We want heavyweights and thesps – suggestions welcome below – and power ballads, caricatures, crap dialogue and a cameo for Denzel Washington (playing Diamond Dog in the in-flight movie within a movie, obviously).

And a bunny rabbit in a box.

I’ll leave you with Gandhi. “A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.”  I hardly think I need explain the relevance.

THAT Speech In Full: American Beauty

It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much pretentiousness in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.

Celebrating 60 Years Of The European Convention On Human Rights

When I was 13 I was taken to the concentration camp Auschwitz and Auschwitz II-Birkenau.  My family lived in Poland at the time, and it was felt by my parents that it was important for me and my education to see the lingering scars of our shared history.  It was mid-February, frozen and grey with a desolate wind.

Auschwitz has been maintained as a museum, but Birkenau – always a temporary facility – had been largely left alone.  It was a hideously affecting experience – there are no words adequate to describe these chilling monuments to the darkness of which mankind is capable.

What I learned was this: true evil lives not in hatred of one’s fellow human beings, but in the ceasing to recognise the humanity of others at all.  True evil, if there is such a thing, is banal.

The Nazi ideology was based on the concept of superiority, of race and ideology.  Their actions were justifiable because they were strong, and others were weak, and it was natural for the strong to dominate the weak.  In fact, it was better than natural – it was right.

In that sense the ideology was simply a perversion of the imperialist attitude of 19th century Europe.

The 13 year old me followed in the footsteps of other, much better men and women.  They witnessed not the lingering scars of the old but the livid wound of the now.  The result of their revulsion was a document that entrenched the rights of man most cherished by our forebears – of freedom from torture, of the right to self-expression, association and belief, of the right to private and family life; and of the right to a fair trial, among others.

And recognising that rights without teeth are as useless as no rights at all, they established a court in the city of Strasbourg to interpret and determine those rights, to bind states with their decisions; to offer protection.

60 years ago today, the European Convention on Human Rights came into force.  Today it stretches across 47 nations in Europe, covering roughly 800 million people.

One of the myths of democracy is that it is tough rather than fragile – that come what may it will survive intact, that governments will always respect the ultimate will of the people, and that words like ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ will never become empty sounds.  But political ideals are not hereditary, and no system is impervious.

Many journalists and members of my government (and the opposition) regularly attack the Convention; they decry it with spin and falsehood, they conflate it with the European Union (a separate entity altogether).  Above all they loathe the bastard child that is the Human Rights Act 1998, and the insidious fingers of continental intrusion into British affairs.

Unforgivably, some claim to seek to withdraw from the Convention altogether.

They point to so-called abuses of the system – prisoners suing for better food and a ‘cushier’ life.  There are whispers of other such undesirables using the Convention rights for their own aims, without regard to the spirit of what those rights once stood for.  Incidentally, Dostoyevsky wrote words to the effect that one can judge a society by observing how it treats those it does not need to treat well.

For tub-thumpers for the sanctity of the United Kingdom, her sovereignty and many successes, it’s interesting that they ignore the significant hand the UK played in drafting the Convention.

In this they follow the lead of the previous Labour governments, who turned quickly away from championing civil liberties and inclusion to the perhaps excusable if more exclusive language of security.  A government that proudly trumpeted the Human Rights Act introduced long-stop detention without charge and a vast raft of criminal and terrorism offences.

I was born into a country which had enormous experience of terrorism, but which nevertheless sought to balance security and freedom.  This balance was never fully struck, and there is, of course, red on both sides of the ledger – such is inevitable.

But it was never portrayed as an existential threat that threatened every aspect of our way of life.

Nowadays, a ‘terrorist’ no longer conjures an image of a man with an Irish accent and a balaclava, but he is no less caricatured.  And the cycle of interdependence between extremes remains no less bloody.

After so many reminders over the past 12 years that violence begets violence, that war brutalises those who wage it, as it does those against whom it is waged, it is, I think, worth dwelling on the Convention.

Detractors claim to seek a citizens’ bill of rights – we’ll look after our own thank you very much and you do the same with yours.  But that utterly misses the fundamental point of the Convention:  what we all have in common is our basic humanity, and what we all need from time to time is the reminder of this fact.  Humanity is the issue, not citizenship – we’ve seen where such distinctions can lead.

The Convention and its court may be meddlesome, cumbersome and slow.  The court may make decisions that infuriate governments and popular opinion alike.  Its judges may seek to broaden their jurisdiction beyond what is appropriate on occasion; it may be abused from time to time.  But show me the court that doesn’t want to extend its remit.  Show me the legal system that is incapable of (routine) abuse.

I was born into a world that bore witness to the dying whimpers of the experiment in madness that was the totalitarian vision of communism.  I was too young to understand the significance of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But throughout my life (and those of generations before and since), I have seen constant reminders of the need for the safeguards of the Convention and reasons for optimism, too; for celebration of those same rights.

Today, for now at least, we should celebrate those rights and the fledgling Council of Europe all those years ago that took such steps to enshrine them in the hope they might help prevent the horrors it had seen from ever returning.  It was and remains an important cause.

Happy birthday.