Sunday, 30 October 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I recently visited my local multiplex to see this new adaptation of John le Carre's classic book on cold war espionage, directed by Tomas Alfredson, who brought us Let The Right One In.

I grew up in the 70s, the period that this piece is set in, and I can still recall my parents being glued to the television set watching the original BBC series, which at that time was seen as very contemporary drama, starring Alec Guinness. As a young boy I found the whole thing rather dull, preferring the more exciting world of James Bond.

And I haven't changed my opinion this time round.

The production design was exceptional however, capturing the beige, anorak-wearing world of the 70s and showcasing the classic vehicles of the time and the penchant for concrete box buildings, most of which are still around unfortunately, much to the delight of the location manager no doubt.

In this most recent adaptation, when we first set eyes upon its key character George Smiley, played by Gary Oldman, you could be forgiven for thinking the whole film was going to be dialogue-free as we wait so long for him to speak, almost half an hour.

The film centres around the hunt for an internal mole within the intelligence service, headed up by Control, played by John Hurt. George Smiley, having been dismissed previously, is brought back in to root out the mole who's been selling secrets to the Soviets.
The suspects are all senior people in the Service played by an impressive cast of Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds and David Dencik. Smiley's dogsbody assistant, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a far more interesting character throughout and a fantastic performance by Kathy Burke gave us much needed relief in the form of a few laughs. I couldn't help feeling though that the casting was a little too heavyweight, probably in order to guarantee attracting an audience, to what was, overall, a very slow moving, 2 hours plus, where nothing ever really happened with any degree of pace and I was left wondering how well it would have done at the box office office without these popular stars.

What was very enjoyable was the realistic portrayal of this shabby and disorganised world of the spy, with it's drab decor and pallid offices filled with secondary smoke, typing pools occupied by only women, old telex machines, heavy steel filing cabinets and large clunky telephones. It made you realise just how far we've come in terms of computers, mobile phones and of course the world-changing internet.

The opening few minutes gave me a feeling of hope and anticipation. Set in Budapest we enter a nervous atmosphere as an agent, played by Mark Strong, enters a situation where he is to meet a contact that will assist in the defection of a general. It is very tense, where everyone in the scene could be an enemy. But from this point on it gradually changes down gears to almost stall at points.

Jason Bourne it certainly isn't, and though it is a great atmospheric piece it is still, overall, a period drama that never really gets you onto the edge of your seat.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Never go back

A number of years ago when I was in my 20s (OK, so 2 decades ago!) I went to the cinema to see Walt Disney's classic movie The Jungle Book during one of the rare occasions it is re-released. I'd seen it many years before as a small child with my friends, and it was the memory of that time which led to me returning once more to see it on the silver screen. It is a great film. A timeless classic. But at a certain level I was disappointed this time. It just wasn't the same as the first time around.

In the past few days I found myself returning to places I had once visited in the not too distant past. Whilst traveling there I was filled with a certain feeling of anxiety. Would it be the same? Was I doing a foolish thing? True enough things had changed. It was a different time of year for a start and the colours were different than my memory served up.

There was something else though. At first I couldn't quite put my finger on it. The views were familiar and I found my way around without any problem, so it wasn't that. The people were as friendly as I recall so it wasn't that. I found I wasn't really enjoying this revisit, which seemed to be against my reasoning that it would be exciting. It wasn't.

Then I passed by a few places that I remembered well for a particular reason, be that a photo-taking opportunity or a lunch stop, and it dawned on me what was wrong. It was very simple why.

I was on my own.

Previously I had shared the experience of these places and now I was alone. It wasn't the individual places that had made fond memories, or the time of year, or the people, but everything together, and the glue that held it altogether and made it whole was the friend I had shared it with.

So just as when I returned to see The Jungle Book I was older than the first time, on my own and not with friends. It wasn't a shared experience, and so in my opinion only half as enjoyable. The simple pleasure of turning to another to comment on a view, can burn that moment into your memory forever.

I had to accept that this was a new adventure, separate from before with it's own memories. I also had to accept that to revisit a moment or place from the past and expect the experience to be just as magical is unreasonable. It never can be. It's like attending a funeral and sensing the loss soul of what was once a glorious individual.

As Bob Dylan once sang, you can go back but you can't go back all the way.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

It's just different

I have been fortunate over the years to have travelled to the USA many times and have never found a problem with jet lag. That seemed to change this time. Since arriving home four days ago I have quite literally not slept and constantly feel that 2 in the afternoon is actually time for breakfast. I guess it's just the time difference still being set in my body to west coast America.

Despite being away for 5 months, like most people after visiting foreign climes, I find myself looking out of the house window to a familiar view and feeling that I haven't been away at all. I think this is connected to seeing that nothing has changed. If nothing is different from when you left, then after so many new and rich experiences, life back home can seem, well, dull. But today I noticed many different things.

I pulled the cycle gear back on and ventured out into a beautiful Fall, sorry, Autumn day. As I pulled out of my street, for a fraction of a second, I almost started cycling along the right hand side of the road. Thankfully oncoming cars reminded me that it's different here in the UK, and I pulled across to the left. I was aware that not a single motorist gave way to me, or yield as they say in the States, to allow me to cross the road. How different that is over there where 99% of drivers are very courteous.

I visited a couple of local stores for groceries and to buy some good bacon (sorry America, you can't do bacon) and marvelled at the difference in prices to America. There a single apple would cost as much as £1 whereas I could now buy 3 for that. As I checked out and paid, still wearing my cycle helmet, no one asked me where I was cycling to or where I had come from. That felt a little sad but I suppose the difference is we're far more used to cyclists here. I pedalled on through my local neighbourhood and noticed several new shops. Some had closed down and others had a fresh lick of paint. One new shop was a wonderful large organic market with a coffee shop on the way in spring next year.

With my toned and strong legs from America I pushed on through the town and out to a local park, climbing a steep hill on the sides of Arthur's Seat with ease. Breathless yes, sort butt certainly, but flying up as if it were level. This eventually joins a cycle path that was once a railway, called the Innocent Railway, what they would call a rails-to-trails in the US. I barreled along through Autumn colours to a local supermarket and found to my amusement that the staff were wishing me "have a nice day". As it is owned and operated by Walmart this shouldn't be a surprise, but I thought it was "kinda funny".

Heading home I detoured to another local park in the hope of catching the last of a wild flower meadow, but it was too late in the season and it had all but withered away. As I approached a train passed over a railway bridge and my thoughts went back to the mighty locomotives on the Northern Pacific Railroad. How different their trains are and how I miss their sound.

My final route home took me along what has been known affectionately for decades as Jobby Lane. That's not it's real name of course, but gives you some idea of it's historic use by dog walkers. Well. I was blown away. Here was a real difference. Now proudly named the Christian Path it has been landscaped and paved to 5 feet wide and is an excellent cycle path short cut to my house. For years it has just been a quagmire of mud and you-know-what. Not anymore.

Now that was a nice difference.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The American Dream

As summer draws to a close in the northern hemisphere everything starts to reveal it's hidden colours of Fall. I say Fall and not Autumn, as I am still in the United States at present in the final few days of my great American adventure.

Already the bright reds and golds of the maples have started to appear, brightening up an overcast day. Back in Scotland the trees will have begun to shed their cover and when I return they will be almost bare. On my departure back in mid May the cherry blossom of Spring was still in full bloom, but a full cycle has now passed, and all good things must come to an end eventually.

Speaking of completed cycles (do you see what I did there?), I must pack my panniers and load my bicycle one last time and head for the international departure lounge for a long 11-hour flight home. No doubt the journey home will be filled with thoughts of the adventure:

The strangers we met, all too briefly, who became friends and whose faces I can still see. It feels like we said goodbye just yesterday. If only. They represent the real America to me, their generosity and kindness knowing no bounds as they invited complete strangers into their homes. My life is richer for those experiences and I feel I can say I know, and love America because of them;

The American people as a whole, always interested and excited by our adventure, with their positive outlook on life and a can-do attitude that makes this country great;

The small town diners along the way, with the farmers meeting for their early morning coffee and chat and always with eggs over easy, hash browns and links;

The landscapes that greeted us, sometimes with high temperatures, winds or thunderstorms but always with a renewed sense of awe at the new vistas we encountered from state to state, from the forested roads of Massachusetts to the rolling hills of Wisconsin and the big skies of Montana;

The constant companion along the way in the shape of the mighty mile-long freight trains. The bright orange of the three locomotive engines pulling their load with ease from sea to shining sea. Most of all the sound from a bygone era of their distinctive horn blowing it's tune as it approached every crossing. They kept me awake at night as they rumbled through our camp spot in the blackness of night, but I miss them already;

The simple life of each day. We rose at 5.30, packed our gear and struck our tents, ate our cereal then downed a morning dose of caffeine before pedalling further west to another town or campground to pitch, eat, sleep and do it all again the next day. Life really is as complicated as you want it to be or others make it for you;

My trusty two-wheeled transport that faithfully carried me and my kit more than 4,000 miles. We will go home together to cycle another day somewhere else, but none as great as crossing America.

However, without one other ingredient it would have been incomplete. My best friend Pauline. Always in my mirror or up ahead, sometimes cycling alone for miles but always affected in the same way by the people and the landscapes we encountered. Oh what a great joy it is to have memories but what an even greater joy it is to have someone to share them with.

It all adds up to an unforgettable experience. A dream come true. Our American dream.