Monday, 31 December 2007

A good New Year....

The Gnome sends greetings to all his blog chums and wishes them a fab 2008.

He assures the HB that he's entering the New Year with optimism and delight. Hurrah!

And lighter of one illusion, as well.

That stuff about the lava lamp being energy-saving.

Baloney, it turns out.

But its retro pointiness more than compensates. So, Hurrah anyway!

Which, of course, could be a motto for 2008....

Sunday, 30 December 2007

To infinity

Retro, sparkly and pointy....

It ticks all the right boxes. How could Mr G fail to be incandescently in love with this delightful Christmas gift?

Green too. This ingenious device runs on spare energy from the HB's computer, via a handy usb cable link.

Gifts galore

Mr G and the HB have relished - with immense gratitude - this year's bumper harvest of Christmas gifts....

How to describe the variety of good things that came their way?

They thought of 'random' - but have opted for the slighlty more upmarket description, 'eclectic'....

More simply, a bit of everything.

Some faves are pictured above:
  • gnome-related merchandise
  • so-useful bus timetable
  • fab book about the Bard
  • devotional toastmaker
  • velvet covered holy statuette (doubling as a savings box) - hurrah!

Monday, 24 December 2007

Santa pause

Mr Gnome greets all his blog chums with a cheery, festive 'Hurrah!'

He's signing off for a short Christmas break. But he will return to the 'blogosphere' very soon, energised and peppy.

Pip pip!

Friday, 21 December 2007

This gnome's gotta brand-new bag...

Few are more aware than Mr G of the healing, health-promoting power of the humble sequin....

What, he queries, would life be like without scintillation, style and sparkle?

And, of course, he is speaking both literally and metaphorically.

Twinkle, everybody, twinkle....

(This meditation was prompted by the item photographed above, a sparkly mini-purse that's about to be given as a tiny Christmas gift.)

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Calm down....

The ever-tranquil Mr Gnome is finding his sang-froid tested as the HB starts his pre-Christmas flap.

Here come the same old symptoms: he's losing things, worrying without cause and firing off last-minute cards to fill those inevitable 'I've just remembered' gaps.

'For goodness sake, ' murmurs Mr G, 'Take a powder, relax - does it matter...?'

The gnome, as always, is right.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Ties that bind

Preparing for a job interview some years ago, I decided to zhuzzh up my image with a new tie, choosing the floral number pictured above.

The dark suit and plain shirt would say 'responsible, mature and reliable'.

But the tie would complement that impression with 'creative, original, daring'.

For all the good this ploy did me, I might as well have turned up for interview in my pajamas.

Hey ho.

After my toe-twistingly embarrassing performance in front of the panel, I mooched head-down and defeated into the nearby city centre in search of tea, cake and solace.

A young woman, in the shabby trappings of a street person, approached me.

'Spare a few pence, guv?'

I blanked her, lowered my chin and plodded on.

Hearing her draw breath, I quickened my pace, certain of the inevitable low-level insult that was coming my way.

But in her small, hoarse voice, she said: 'Groovy tie....'

Yes, I turned back - and slipped a pound coin into her hand.

But I reckon she gave more.

And she gave first.

Monday, 17 December 2007

GP consultation...

Inspired by his South American guinea pig chum, Mr Gnome is trying hard to give a fair-trade focus to some of his Christmas shopping.

Fortunately for him, that's not too difficult. He has made several festive forays into Birmigham's splendid Shared Earth shop on New Street.

It's a glittering Aladdin's cave of splendid items, decorative and useful.

Mr G was particularly taken with some small-scale (there's a surprise) nativity sets from Peru. He bought two.
Tiny problem. He likes them so much that he's reluctant to give them away.

So much for altruism. Tsk!

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Inclusive church

Mr G's afternoon visit to Birmingham included a pause to relish the tranquillity and beauty of St Martin's Church, at the heart of the Bullring shopping district.

People of all sorts clearly enjoy coming to the church and absorbing its peace - and they are made to feel welcome.

Mr Gnome made a few last min shoppings at the Muji store, source of all sorts of cool household and 'desky' items.

He wishes that the staff serving the HB had been a little more interested in serving the customer - and a little less interested in chatting to one another.


Small note...
Mr G has been in discussion with the HB regarding the content of the blog.

Mr G feels that the time has come to make postings a wee bit more incisive.

He told the HB: 'I'm intrigued by that feisty American adjective "kickass". I'm wondering if, in 2008, my blog should adopt that word as its inspiration....'


Roughly eighty singers raised the roof of Leamington Spa's parish church last night performing celebratory songs from around the world - to a house-full audience.

Conducted by the charismatic Bruce Knight (festively costumed as a shepherd, foreground above), this is no ordinary stand-and-deliver choir.

For a start, there are no auditions and no printed music is used. The singers learn by listening, repeating and gradually building up the layers of harmonies under Bruce's cheerful, encouraging guidance.

Many of the singers have never sung in a choir before, having had negative experiences at school or eleswhere.

The HB, an enthusiastic recent convert, never believed that singing was something he could even begin to think of enjoying. It was definitley for 'other people' - the musical ones.

But Bruce's choir is based on the inclusive principle: 'If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing.'

Liberating, or what?

Finding a voice, and liberating his inner bass has been one of the top experiences of 2007.

By the way, the concert raised money for the excellent devlopment charity WATER AID.

Thursday, 13 December 2007


Mr G recently heard the following story concerning the late Queen Mother.

In her old age, HM QE the QM was a fan of American telly soaps.

She was watching such a programme one evening in the company of longstanding lady-in-waiting who happened to be a wee bit deaf.

At the climax of a typically fraught scene, a young male character announced: 'Gee, I feel so much better since I came out of the closet!'

The lady-in-waiting turned to the QM: 'I'm sorry, Ma'am - I didn't catch that. What did he say?'

The Queen Mother didn't miss a beat: 'He said that he's feeling much better since he came out of the wardrobe.'

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Jessye + guinea pig - they work for us...

Ever persistent, kindly-but-firm Mr Gnome has at last succeeded in motivating the HB to crack on with Christmas preparations.

The record player has been cranked up and the sumptuous strains of Jessye Norman's Christmas Album provide the background to this year's frenzied card-fest.

Should energy levels dip, the Village People are standing by.

Cards are plunking through the letterbox at an alarming rate - all of them delightful.

Mr G's favourite so far is pictured: a charming guinea pig sporting a dashing knitted hat.


Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Monday morning boost

Some like to be soothed into the start of a new working week. But not Mr Gnome. He relishes some cerebral stimulation.

Hence his enjoyment of AN Wilson's weekly World of Books column in the Daily Telegraph.

It's the equivalent of a brisk tutorial with this interesting, provocative writer.

This week, for instance, Mr W recommended four worth-reading titles on the much-discussed topic of fundamentalism.

As a result, Mr Gnome is urging the HB to read The Islamist, by Ed Husain.

Discursive Mr Wilson also managed to comment on the popular telly series Cranford, casually dropping in a daringly incendiary remark, particularly so given the fact that he's writing in the DT.

Did he make a controversial statement about Islam?

Nope. Far, far more shocking.

He outed himself as a shameless non-fan of Cranford's star turn, actress Judi Dench.

In fact, he was really rather rude about the semi-divine Dame.

Rude about Dame Jude? And in the Telegraph?

What next?

Monday, 10 December 2007

Doris! For goodness sake....

Always eager to keep up with kulcha and literature, Mr Gnome made a point of tuning in to tonight's Radio 4 interview with Nobel prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing.

Well on in her eighties, the determinedly grouchy Mrs Lessing was firing on all cylinders, making the most of a day that had clearly begun with an exit from the wrong side of her bed.

Was she honoured, delighted, humbled, thrilled to have received the world's most prestigious literary prize?

Was she heck.

Dismal Doris took every opportunity to snipe at the 'stupidity' of the prize givers, at the inanity of her citation and at the overblown swankiness of the whole jolly jamboree.

Mr Gnome was a wee bit taken aback.

Of modest literary pretensions, Mr G adores all forms of 'positive feedback'.

He still glows from his teacher's 'VG' scribbled in the margin of a schooldays essay.

What, he muses, could provide more positive feedback than a Nobel Prize?

The Archangel Gabriel dropping in at your next book-signing session?

Consequently, he's bemused and befuddled at La Lessing's seeming ingratitude.

And - don't faint, Doris - he has removed her name from his 'must read' list.

In short, a very big 'Tsk!' indeed for this delightfully grumpy old lady.

By the way, the prize is worth a cool-ish £763,000.

Hurrah for Matt...

Mr Gnome usually starts the day with a laugh thanks to the Daily Telegraph's peerless cartoonist Matt.

Morning after morning, Matt's splendidly deadpan figures come at the news with an eccentric originality that's frequently laugh-aloud funny.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Radio daze

With a few exceptions, Mr G's attitude to television programmes is one of languid indifference.

But radio is a different matter.

Consequently, he's a massive fan of his HB's rather spiffy digital radio.

Crystal-clear reception and all those extra channels. He's going to get around to exploring them as soon as he can tear himself away from the pleasures of digital-only Radio 7.

Mr G, unsurprisingly, is a Radio 4 chap. But he's a frequent visitor to 5 Live, Radio 3 and Radio 2.

Classic FM? He has tried - valiantly. But he doesn't really 'get it'. Music as fridge magnets, he murmurs.

Currently giving him wireless pleasure:
  • Intriguing daily documentary focusing on rural life in south-west Midlands - the HB has suggested that this is, in fact, a scripted drama. Naive, or what?
  • 5 Live presenter Rhod Sharp's world-ranging Up All Night. Mr G thinks of Rhod as a friend....
  • Sean Rafferty's life-enriching bletherings on Radio 3's In Tune.
  • Garrison Keillor's Radio Show - woe, be gone! (Radio 7)
And much, much more....

Apologies to non-UK readers for whom this post may be a wee bit opaque.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

The eye of the master maketh the horse fat

Mr Gnome rattled along the rails today to visit the historic port city of Bristol.

The HB improved the shining hour with some Christmas correspondence.

Mr G was privileged to be granted a behind-the-scenes glimpse of an up-and-coming local eatery - THE MAGIC ROLL.

It's located at 3 Queen's Row, a short step from the University. Do try. SO not a chain.

Mr G declares an interest. His HB is related to co-proprietor JPK.

A colourful expression emerged.

JPK noted the importance of a gently watchful management style in a business that employs many people with cash-handling responsibilities.

One doesn't have to mount a heavy surveillance operation. One simply has to be around, taking an interest and letting people know that you are aware.

Since he's been doing this, cash no longer goes astray - the tills balance.

He remarked: 'Old proverb: 'The eye of the master maketh the horse fat.'

Wise words from a wise man.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Birmingham brilliance

The sounds, the smells, the tastes and the delicious dazzlement of Birmingham's German Christmas market have lifted Mr Gnome to a pinnacle of pre-Christmas pleasure.

He urges all to hasten towards New Street to participate in this annual celebration of mid-winter light, colour, sparkle and innocent delight.

Hurrah indeed!

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Plinth Charming...?

Usually eager to 'accentuate the positive', Mr Gnome is uncharacteristically disappointed by a new piece of public art.

This less-than-life-size portrait bronze stands on the South Bank of the Thames in central London, immediately outside the National Theatre.

It shows the great actor Sir Laurence Olivier as the Prince of Denmark, in costume and pose drawn from the 1940s film of Hamlet, which he also directed.

Mr G says: 'From my point of view, this work misses every target, capturing none of the energy, stature, presence and sheer dramatic oomph of this remarkable thesp - and it makes nothing of its site. Bland-tastic, really.'

Pop to Mr G's post on the new statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras Station for a cheering-up view of a tip-top piece of public art.

Diva fever?

As a micro-celeb himself, Mr Gnome casts a gently sympathetic eye on the follies of 'celebrity culture'.

The HB was recently recounting a long-ago 'meeting' with the peerless American operatic soprano Jessye Norman.

The HB seems to have valued the meeting to the extent of having engineered a picture of himself with the Diva, which, almost twenty years on, remains a treasured item.

If Mr Gnome thinks 'Sad', he keeps his own counsel.

But he did gently point out two easy-to-miss aspects of the picture.

Background right. Has spooky-ish lady gazing over HB's shoulder wandered in from the set of a Harry Potter movie?

And what about the splendid gent, left background?

Munching happily on his fish and chips, and beaming cheerily into the lens, he's clearly in no doubt that this set-up is about no other celeb than his own remarkable self.

Hurrah for random celebrity, says Mr G.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Shire delight

Mr Gnome strikes a Tolkienesque pose beside one of his HB's most treasured volumes.

The HB recalls: 'I bought this with my pocket money at a school book event in the spring of 1962.'

(The enterprising bookseller was also briskly shifting under-the-counter copies of Lady Chatterly to the older boys.)

'Puffin had the rights for a relatively brief time and I believe this paperback edition is something of a rarity. The cover is by Pauline Baynes, the illustrator of the Narnia books.

'Discovering The Hobbit was one of those very special childhood moments.

'I felt that the author had written the book entirely for me.

'I found myself reading slowly, not wanting the story to end.... '

Monday, 3 December 2007

Product placement

Mr Gnome isn't at all sniffy about 'brand name' coffee shops. He likes them.

Here he is planning a jaunt in Leamington Spa's Caffe Nero.

Or Caffe Nerd, to some.

Friendly staff, good coffee, pleasant ambience, newspapers, open all hours.

What's not to like?

Cardy gnome

Constant communicator Mr Gnome is a massive fan of the cult phenomenon known as Moo Cards.

Here he is with a selection of his current collection of colourful calling cards.

He's yet to meet anyone who is less than delighted to receive a card from him or his HB.

Not yet received a card from Mr G?

Be patient....

Find out more about Moo Cards at

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Current affairs

Micro-celeb Mr Gnome tonight helped bring twinkling illumination to a Midlands street by switching on the famed Banbury family Christmas lights.

Mr G said: 'What an honour! I'm galvanized, electrified and dynamized to have been chosen to perform this joyous task.

'The Banbury family brings light into the lives of many people. How appropriate, then, that their home at Christmas should be transformed into a glorious glitterball of a zillion coruscating points of light.


Saturday, 1 December 2007

Earth has not anything to show...

Another Saturday in London, this time with a distinct hint of winter. The river and skyline always makes provincial me pause with something like wonder.

Sorry, Mr W. I was gazing from Waterloo, not Westminster, Bridge....

Mr Gnome ponders...

Mr G's boundless self-confidence makes him proof against bouts of dreary introspection. That said, he occasionally pauses to ponder....

He says: 'I'm small, bearded and a proud wearer of a splendidly pointy red hat.

'As if you hadn't noticed.

'My name and my appearance match my status - Mr Gnome is indeed a gnome.

'Strange, then, that many HBs seem reluctant to notice or acknowledge my "gnomehood"

'It doesn't bother me. But occasionally I feel rather sad at the assumption that, for them, there's something unacceptable about being a gnome....

'They assume I'm a rather small, pointy-hatted, bearded HB.

'Or maybe they know I'm a gnome. But they don't like the idea of having a gnome in their midst. So they pretend I'm an HB.

'I play along. It's simpler. Gnomes are a minority group, after all. The HBs hold most of the cards. (Not all!)

'But I'm not an HB.

'I'm a gnome....'

Thursday, 29 November 2007

Mr G is feeling nostalgic

Mr G confesses to a moment of wistful reflection as he browses through his HB's old family photos.

This shot was taken in the early 1950s in Sidmouth, a seaside town in east Devon. A middle-aged man, a latecomer to parenthood, looks fondly at his three small boys.

He's pausing during the construction of what is to become their family home: a fine house perched on the sea wall, overlooking the pebble beach and the English Channel.

Click goes the camera, and on goes life.

The proud father died in 1959.

The boys are now aged 60, 59 and 57.

One of them is a grandfather.

The two older brothers have now outlived their father.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Mr Gnome scrubs up

On drab winter days Mr G cheers himself up with memories of his summer ramblings, which this year included an August outing to the Glyndebourne opera festival.

He relished the tea room (top notch), the restaurant (spiffing), and the glorious gardens with their artful air of laid-back carelessness that belies year-round labour.

In fact he enjoyed every aspect apart from the music.

The opera was Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, in a production that had the reviewers salivating as they dished up the superlatives.

In the past, Mr G has throughly enjoyed the epic, surprisingly tuneful journey of Herr W's Ring Cycle (sounds like something from Hotpoint?), which comprises buckets of human interest and quite a few laughs along the way.

Tristan is, by contrast, a chuckle-free zone - and a massively long sit-down. The few passages of gorgeous music are separated by hours of doomy musings by the desperately un-engaging eponymous lovers. 'Oh, get on with it!' Mr G was tempted to mutter.

Worst of all for cheery, positive thinker Mr Gnome, the show is saturated in negativity: death, doom and desperation are its key themes.

Mr G hopes to return to Glyndebourne one day - possibly for an invigorating dose of Puccini....

For Mr G's video experiment, go to archive and check his very first post....

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Mr Gnome is illuminated

Mr G's sense of himself as a mini-celebrity was boosted today by an invitation to switch on the Christmas lights at a prestigious midlands address....

The splendid Banbury family will be standing by on the evening of Sunday 2 December as Mr Gnome flicks the switch that will transform their four-bedroomed detached home into a twinkletastic beacon of Christmas luminosity.


Mr Gnome comments: 'Magic and sparkle? I adore them with a passion bordering on the extreme. Let's celebrate the extraordinary importance of this festival with a sequin-encrusted dazzlement of joyful, big-hearted generosity.'

Separated at birth?

One is a revered leader, deep of voice and noble of bearing. The other is the Archbishop of Canterbury....

As a matter of fact Mr Gnome is flattered to have been - occasionally - mistaken for Archbishop Rowan.

Mr G says: 'The Archbishop's mitre could do with being a wee bit more pointy. That said, I have nothing but admiration for this fine man. He's doing a difficult job with grace and wisdom. Hurrah for Rowan Williams.'

Mr G's art is in the right place

Mr Gnome likes to think he has an 'eye' for talent. So when a young artist sends him samples of his or her work, Mr G becomes very excited.

He says: 'Here I am admiring some delightful drawings by Paddy from Cheshire. Paddy has chosen a tip-top subject for his work: ME!

'I feel very honoured to have been captured on paper with such energy and confidence. Hurrah for Paddy!'

Mr Gnome rather likes the idea of being a 'muse' for artists - and is open to all offers.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Alan Bennett's The Old Country

Mr Gnome likes few things more than an evening at the theatre. His most recent outing has been to see Alan Bennett's intriguing play The Old Country.

Performed by the gutsy players of the Kineton Amateur Dramatic Society, the play went down a storm with the first-night audience in the cosy village hall of this lively Warwickshire community.

Three cheers for the KADS for picking a piece that's very definitely not standard am-dram fare.

And extra hurrahs for director Alison Hunt and the six-strong cast for presenting this very 'nuanced' play with subtlety, energy and a splendid mixture of melancholy and robust humour.

Plot summary? Er, Mr Gnome feels it's better not to give too many details. Enough to say that espionage plays a part - but this is Bennett, not Bond., so no fights or chases. But quite a few surprises as elegant surfaces crumble to reveal murkier truths beneath....

Finally: tip-top front-of-house team, offering a cheery welcome, informative programme and splendid refreshments.

What's not to like?

Black bikes can be green...

A fan of all things 'green', Mr G is particularly keen on the splendid bicycles created by the firm of Pashley.

Sturdy, elegant and retro-tastically chic, a Pashley offers a comfortable, clean alternative to the 'boy racer' models of today.

And, don't get him started, Mr G could rhapsodize at length on the benefits of the Brookes leather saddle that is standard issue with each Pash.


Check 'Links' for, er, links!

Fissure king....

Mr G recently visited the Shibboleth 'installation' at the Tate Modern gallery in London.

Not usually a fan of the arty 'i-word' (to Mr G, 'installation' means a new back boiler), he found himself hugely enjoying this zig-zagging fissure in the floor of the vast turbine hall.

He says: 'The brochure spoke of deep meanings connected to notions of boundaries, exclusion, imperialism and goodness-knows-what.

' Whatever! I simply relished the way it broke down barriers between complete strangers - everyone was talking. Good crack.'

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Sing out!

Mr Gnome urges Midlands-based music lovers to head for the Songlines Winter Concert on Saturday 15 December.

Led by the inspirational and extremely tall Bruce Knight (above), two enthusiastic a capella choirs will join forces to perform songs from the USA, Africa, New Zealand, Bulgaria, France and Scotland.
  • Where? All Saints Parish Church, Leamington Spa
  • When? 8.00pm / Saturday 15 December
  • How much? £5 (adults), £3 (children)
  • In aid of WaterAid
Bruce's groups are community choirs. The singers learn by listening and repeating: no printed music, no tickings-off, massive amounts of energizing fun.

E-mail Mr Gnome for more info....

Monday, 19 November 2007

Mr G admires vicars with vim...

Outgoing Mr Gnome relishes encounters with HBs (Human Beings) of all types and backgrounds - even Anglican clergypersons.

One of his favourites from that (occasionally) exotic fraternity/sorority is the Rev Steve Tilley.

Original, thoughtful and kind, Mr Tilley offers something rare in today's church: platitude-free ministry.

Mr G is quietly in awe of the Rev Steve, who is an experienced and often inspired (well, he should be, shouldn't he?) blogger. More than that, he's a tip-top writer.

Enter the wholly splendid world of this remarkable gentleman via Mustard Seed Shavings.

Be warned, Mr T occasionally provokes.

But as Mr Gnome remarks: 'And why not? Beige is so, so No...."

Mr G says: 'Hurrah for Oxfam!'

Mr G's resident HB (Human Being) lives in a trendy block of flats with a communal area for garbage dumping.

The HB popped down to the rubbish store recently to deposit some, er, rubbish.

A glance into one of the bins revealed this treasure trove of nearly-new belts, bags and shoes.

They are now on sale at the nearby Oxfam Shop.

How smug did the HB feel to receive the gratitude of the assembled Oxfam shop ladies?


'Hurrah for re-cycling,' says Mr G.

Adding a crisp 'Tsk!' in the general direction of a shoe-shedding fashionista with more money than sense.

Nosebag for an Oxonian gnome

While Mr G's academic achievements are a closely guarded secret, his love for the ancient city of Oxford is not.

He's a frequent visitor and usually finds that he has time to ascend to his favourite local cafe, The Nosebag, tucked away up a steep flight of stairs on St Michael's Street.

Mr G likes the informal cafeteria-style servery. The healthy salads and substantial main dishes remind him of his heyday in the 1970s - as do the chunky crockery and no-nonsense decor.

Pictured is his absolute fave: the lemon cheesecake. Generous portions, or what?

Mr G is NOT a fan of the minimalist slice on the large plate with the arty swirl of coulis.

'Oh, please....' he murmurs, eyes rolling heavenwards.

The cafe is popular with students and dons, affording splendid opportunities to 'listen in' as one munches. Mr G has turned a discreetly sympathetic ear to many anguished outpourings re the state of Phyllida's PhD or Giles's overdue essay on metaphysical poetry....

Three rumbustious cheers for The Nosebag.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Gnome Modern

Having relished the Betjeman extravaganza, Mr G nipped to one of his favourite London eateries: Café 2 at the Tate Modern art gallery.

This is a tip-top, moderately priced place to meet for lunch. Super menu. Friendly, speedy service and a busy, buzzy atmosphere. Totally family friendly.

Knockout views over the river, of course.

Naturally, if you're Mr G you have to put up with a wee bit of papparazzo attention.

Actually, we spotted a literary celeb-ette during the short wait for our first course: Nick High Fidelity Hornby.

You can't beat a good celeb-spot when you're out in the capital.

Mr G gives this splendid venue three loud Hurrahs.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

St P and Sir John B impress Mr G

On a flying visit to the capital today Mr G took a detour to view the renewed, restored St Pancras station - and to view the newly unveiled statue of Sir John Betjeman, the work of Martin Jennings.

Smashing marriage of sculpture to place, creating a thrilling sense of wonder and delight as we are invited to share Betjeman's joy at this amazing, glorious space.

Sentimental? Possibly. Theatrical? Definitely.

But nothing wrong with that.

Mr G is a big fan of the bold, generous gesture.

He gives ten out of ten.


Monday, 10 September 2007

Quiet days are the most dangerous

Quiet days are the most dangerous. Days that are in between more important days.

Like today in Krakow. Yesterday we arrived by plane. Tomorrow the trucks carrying our bikes will catch up with us and we will start our holiday journey to Budapest. So today is a free day and we have time on our hands. There’s no point in unpacking.

A town called Ozwieczim is only twenty kilometres from Krakow and we decide to go there. It’s a hot August day and we share the cost of a taxi. The countryside is green and wooded. We pass small farms where the harvest is beginning.

It’s mid morning when we reach Ozwieczim. There are many other visitors. During the war the German occupiers gave the town a new name: Auschwitz.

Our guide is Polish. She speaks quietly and our group has to stand close to catch her words. She leads us through what is left of the camp: rows of brick-built barracks and tall tenements that remind me of nineteenth-century factory buildings. Between them are gravel paths and many tall trees. And it’s quiet: leaves rustling overhead, dappled sunlight, our guide’s soft voice.

Here are the main gates with the inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – work makes you free. Here someone has threaded a white carnation between the bars. Here the transports arrived. Here new prisoners lined up. Here the separations were made: to the right those fit enough to join the working parties; to the left, all others. Here is where the prisoners slept and ate and defecated and became infested. Here is the ramp down to the bunker where they undressed. Here are the heavy metal doors. Here are more flowers.

We go into one of the tall buildings where there are maps and photographs. At each stop our guide speaks briefly and then the group silently separates to look at what is there.

In some rooms long sections of floor have been angled up. Tumbled out on these slanting surfaces are the prisoners’ possessions: a tarnished slope of a thousand silver cigarette cases; a slope, wide as a playground, of dolls and teddy bears; a slope of jumbled artificial limbs; a slope of false teeth; a slope of hanks of hair.

And then the longest slope of all, extending the full length of the long building. The slope of suitcases. Suitcases and suitcases and suitcases. Nothing else. Each case has a name and address painted neatly on the lid by its owner: Stein, Rosenberg, Pehrlmann; Warsaw, Berlin, Dresden.

And I stand in that quiet room and I look and I think.

I think of every case I’ve ever packed for every journey I’ve ever made. Suitcases packed in hope for arrivals safely achieved. I choose one case and read the neat white painted name and I try to picture A E Bergmann packing it on a quiet day like this. I turn away.

Outside it has grown hotter. An Australian family tags on to our group, the father balances a video-camera on his shoulder, seeing the camp through its lens.

Near the gate a taxi is waits to take us back to Krakow.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Running away

Reading is easy when it’s just me and the book. I look at Janet. I look at John. I look at them on the beach, or by the river, or playing with their dog. I look at a picture and then I look at the big words in the white space underneath. And then, while I’m quiet and thinking, the words come floating up off the page and into my head and they tell me the story. And then I turn the page and more words come floating up. It’s quiet and happy for me and Janet and John.

It’s harder when I have to read to Sister André at her big desk. The book is between us. I stand so close that I’m pressed against the big black folds of her habit. I can see the soft, downy hairs on her plump hands as she turns the pages. The words aren’t always light and floaty when I’m with Sister. But she is kind and she smiles. She helps me when the words get stuck to the page. If she is pleased I get a sweet from the small green tin she keeps deep in her pocket. Her rosary beads rattle as she reaches for it.

But today Sister wants me to read to the class. I am going to have to stand up with my book. And while Janet and John play and laugh and splash, the big words in their white spaces will curl and twist into hard spiky shapes. I’ll stare and stare but instead of flying gently up towards me, the words will hook themselves into the paper. And there they will stay. And while I’m staring my tongue will go tight and dry and there will be heavy weights hanging from the corners of my mouth, pulling them down and down as my eyes fill with hot, splashy tears

And that’s why I hid among the trees at the edge of the playground. The big hand-bell clanged and the other children lined up. Nobody missed me. And when it was quiet again, I walked through the empty playground, past the little house where the lavatories are and down the tree-lined path to the street. And I walked home. Along the top lane, past the allotments and down the hill by the railway line. I felt free and happy and safe as I passed the park gates and saw the swings hanging still in the morning sunshine. Then I was on the long uphill street that led to the edge of the town and the winding lane where my house and garden was – the last bit of the town and the first bit of the country. Nearly home.

And then a blue car that I recognised was coming down the hill towards me. It was our car and my mother was driving it and she had seen me. The car stopped. I climbed in and we drove off. But we didn’t go to the shops and we didn’t turn around and go home. Instead, we sped past the park, up the hill by the railway line, past the allotments and straight back to school. Within minutes we were outside the classroom door and my mother was talking quietly to Sister André.

‘Of course, I told Miss Briggs immediately,’ Sister said.

Miss Briggs? Miss Briggs was the headmistress. She taught the big children. She didn’t look a bit like plump, comfortable Sister André. She was tall and thin and wore a brown scratchy tweed suit. She had round, wire-rimmed glasses. She carried a stick. When Sister André took you anywhere, she held your hand. If Miss Briggs needed to, she held you by the wrist.

And while my mother and Sister André murmured, Miss Briggs appeared at the far end of the corridor: almost as thin as the stick in her hand. Her heels click-clicked on the polished floor. Miss Briggs gripped my wrist and led me down the long, long corridor.

I can’t remember much of what happened next. I think she asked a question that began with ‘Why?’ and I think she asked me to promise that I’d never run away again. I promised. She smiled. And I noticed that Miss Briggs was much younger than my mother.

And then I was back in the classroom. Janet and John were still playing on the long tree branch by the stream. The dog was still splashing in the shallow water. The words floated up towards me as I sat quietly reading to myself, sitting at my desk at the back of the class.