Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Jesus and James

The peerless Clive James ended this year's series of Radio 4's A Point of View with a terrific essay.

Fascinating that a 'non-believer' is so profoundly in touch with essential aspects of JC that some of his followers seem to miss.

Click here to read.

Toodle-oo to 2008

Mr Gnome bids farewell to another year - and sends good wishes to all who are kind enough to glance at his blog, or even to read it.

And a not-too-profound (that'll be the day) guide to enjoying what will surely be a challenging year....

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Christmas cornucopia

Once again, Christmas has brought a torrent of fabulous gifts. Mr G is beside himself with pleasure and gratitude.
  • A suite of office-related paraphernalia: tape dispenser, stapler, hole-punch, pen holder - each item bearing iconic images of Mr Gnome. How useful.
  • A pack of gnome-inspired playing cards. Snap!
  • A trio of glow-in-the-dark gnome figurines, inspired surely by the famed Easter Island statues. Uplifting.
Hurrah for Christmas!

Don John

Last night, to wintry Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Kneehigh Theatre Company's Don John in the RSC's Courtyard Theatre.

This was a re-telling of the storyline treated so memorably in Mozart's opera Don Giovanni - with the characters transported to the dingy streets of London at the end of the 1970s.

During the course of the first half, a frail old man was senselessly murdered, an unhappy vicar ranted to the audience of his loss of faith and numerous brief couplings took place. And we had sight of possibly the most unappealing selection of underwear ever to grace the Stratford stage.

Those Seventies styles were, indeed, pants.

Characterization was minimal and the writing, to my ear, was stilted and unengaging.

In short, the whole mise en scene conjured up an atmosphere of such sordid despair that my companion and I were of one mind when the interval arrived. We went home.

Of course, things may have changed entirely in the second half, so, please, dear reader, this is simply a diary entry - it's not a review.

Er, for a review - try the excellent Charles Spencer of the Telegraph.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Theatre of war

An outing today to see the National Theatre's celebrated adaptation of Michael Morpurgo's novel War Horse.

Beginning in Edwardian Devonshire, the play follows the linked fortunes of Albert, a farmer's son, and his beloved horse Joey, both of whom are called to serve king and country in the horrors of the Great War.

Working with the remarkable South African Handspring Puppet Theatre, director Marianne Elliott and her mainly young cast conjure up the the deep bond between man and horse in a fast-flowing narrative that takes us from pastoral peace to the bleak devestation of Flanders fields, where men and beasts fell in their hundreds of thousands.

Yes, the horses are puppets. But the word seems uttelry inadaequate to describe what the War Horse audience experiences. Exquisitely crafted from leather and wicker, each horse is operated by three clearly visible men.

At first glance they make no concessions to naturalism - but when they move.... they live and breathe and prance and gallop with such extraordinary truth to life that one is drawn in to their story with an emotional impact that bypasses any hint of sentimentality.

This is a tough afternoon in the theatre, harrowing at times, and yet also deeply moving and uplifting.

Five stars.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Light

This is one of my favourite nativity images: light and darkness, amazement and mystery, peace and disturbance, heaven and earth.

A tiny, naked incandescent baby bathes his young mother in dazzling light, the illumination shared by a group of small, excited angels and by two attentive animals.

Joseph, rapt and still, watches from the shadows. All is peace and adoration.

But outside on the hillside, it's a different story as the shepherds desert their little fire to gaze in wonder at a single, vibrant angel, who chooses them, the poorest of the poor, to be the first to hear the news.

The picture was created by Geertgen and may be seen in the National Gallery, London.

I wish you a joyful Christmas.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Bill's Christmas cats

My friend Bill Sanderson makes his living as an illustrator. The arrival of his Christmas card has become an eagerly anticipated annual treat.

His theme is often feline. The image above appears on the front of the card and its witty sequel appears within.

Bill works on scraperboard, removing and removing the black surface to reveal the white board below. It's the opposite of traditional drawing, where dark lines are added to a white background.

I love the amazing economy of his images, and his ability to evoke textures, in this case the tufty silkiness of this very comfortable cat.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

All cisterns go!

'Flushed with pride' is a cheerful shorthand for any boast related to the achievements of one's friends and relations.

In one instance, for me, the metaphor switches happily to literal truth.

How? Well, if you drop in to London's glorious Science Museum, it's possible to view the collection's splendid example of the epoch-changing valveless cistern as pioneered by the sultan of sanitary ware himself, the semi-legendary Thomas Crapper.

It's interesting to note that this splendid appartus (pictured above on a poster from the 1980s) is a relatively recent acquisition.

It was donated by my brother. Having had pride of place in his bachelor apartment in north London (as a 'coversation piece', not as a plumbed-in arrangement), it became superfluous to requirements when he moved subsequently to his marital home.

He had the bright idea of offering it to the Science Museum. The offer was accepted with enthusiasm, a van was dispatched - and my brother's humble Thomas Crapper cistern was elevated to a status shared by the Rembrandts in the National Gallery - that of a bequest to the nation.

Hurrah!

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The truth can be hard to bear

Mr Gnome and wee Spencer Bear appear to be the best of chums. And yet, how tissue-thin is the demarcation between happiness and horror, trust and terror, delight and despair.

A recent radio discussion focused on childhood fears, particularly those triggered by films, books and music. No difficulty for me in recalling my nursery nightmare, stemming from a seemingly innocent song, a classic 'children's favourite' to boot.

If you go out in the woods today
You're sure of a big surprise.
If you go out in the woods today
You'd better go in disguise.

The woods? The forest? So far so mildly exciting. Something surprising and possibly dangerous (hence disguise) is going on down there. A situation the Famous Five would doubtless relish: 'I say, Julian, let's all cycle down to the woods - and in case we bump in to any ne'r do wells, I vote we should jolly well go in disguise. Hurrah!'

For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic.

OK. Not spies and jewel thieves. Phew. Just a bunch of bears. Not the big ones we saw at the zoo, but teddy bears. In fact, bears of the ilk of my very own Ted, currently spending yet another day guarding my pyjamas.

Picnic time for teddy bears,
The little teddy bears are having a lovely time today.
Watch them, catch them unawares,
And see them picnic on their holiday.
See them gaily dance about.
They love to play and shout.
And never have any cares.
At six o'clock their mummies and daddies
Will take them home to bed
Because they're tired little teddy bears.

The song puts its child listener squrely in the shoes of the disguised observer of this cheerful scene. The lyric seems to paint a charming picture of the bears' jamboree.

But once again, why must I be incognito? Why am I obliged to 'catch them unawares'? What would happen if the bears were to see me?

The second verse packs a lethal punch:

If you go out in the woods today,
You'd better not go alone.
It's lovely out in the woods today,
But safer to stay at home.
For every bear that ever there was
Will gather there for certain, because
Today's the day the teddy bears have their picnic

Gradually, so gradually, the truth seeped into my six-year-old consciousness.

If, against all advice, I were to stray into the woods on the day of the TBP, and the bears were to catch sight of me..... What would ensue?

An invitation to join in the fun?

Oh no. I would become the fun, the sport, the quarry.

Those bears would seize me, play with me certainly, but as a cat plays with a mouse. And the game would conclude with me being torn limb from limb prior to being served up as a bonne bouche to complete the picnic.

Having grasped the horrific import of the song's thinly concealed subtext, what was a boy to do next?

I ran to my room. There was my bed, my comic (Swift, actually) and, still on PJ duty, there was tranquil, dependable Ted.

I hugged him, pressing my face into the soft fur. But somehow, he didn't feel the same.

And I knew, with utter certainty, what was going on in that small fuzzy head:

'Little boy, face the truth. I'm not here because I love you. Love? Forget it. I'm here because I have to be. It's my job. That's all. And it's not one that I particularly enjoy. To be honest, the only time I feel genuinely happy is on the rare occasions I can let my fur down and have a picnic in the woods with my friends and relations. As far away from you, little Human, as possible. Got the message? Good. Now put me down.'

The seed of doubt was sown. Was the song telling the truth? I heard it on the radio. It must be. It was to be years before I could again feel secure with a bear.

As Noel Coward remarked: 'Strange how potent cheap music is.'

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Very Bard puns

Tip-top gift today from a kindly Secret Santa - this wee coaster uses a design by cheery punster Simon Drew.

We hooted at the liberties taken with WS's titles.

Have you got them all yet?

Monday, 15 December 2008

Corduroy Mansions

Alexander McCall Smith's spiffing online novel Corduroy Mansions prompts Mr G to an enthusiastic 'Ding dong!'

But enough of this year's Gnome Bell Prize for Literature. It's enough to say that the prolific McCall Smith has scored another hit with his new story, published in daily installments on the Daily Telegraph website.

You can read the text, or, like me, you can listen to Andrew Sachs' brilliant reading of it, online or downloaded to our MP3.

McCall Smith has chosen west London as his setting, deploying a large cast of characters in and around the eponymous block of flats.

They are a rum assortment: an odious MP (a Lib Dem - tsk!), a young gay man with a problem (he's worried he might be straight), a kindly health shop proprietess (with a missionary zeal for colonic irrigation), a wine merchant suffering the agonies of not-yet-empty-nest syndrome and a dog who's the reluctant focus of a dog-share scehme. And many more...

This witty, humane observer of the human (and canine) comedy is becoming so popular that I guess it's a matter of not much time before it becomes trendy to revile him.

Meanwhile, my only problem is the looks I get when I start laughing on the bus, while listening to the latest installment on my iPod.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Brief notes

Nick Couch's blog Post-itup couldn't be simpler: 'a little slice of my day drawn on a Post It Note'.

Small-scale, charming, positive and celebratory - no wonder that Mr G is such a fan.

Cavey Christmas

Mr 'in-the-moment' Gnome doesn't quite 'get' the concept of delayed gratification.

But this year, he's been making a sturdy effort to avert his gaze from the avalanche of twinkly, Christmas-related doo-dahs that threatens to overwhelm the human world.

Today, however, he has succumbed.

The catalyst? The advent of the first, fabulously festive guinea pig of the season.

Let the mince pies and mulled wine be brought forth. Mr Gnome is, er, 'up' for Christmas.

Ding dong.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

What a shame...

'Of course, these days we give equal value to everybody, regardless of their gender,' said the speaker. And I thought: 'Hmm?'

Nothing, in my opinion, is better attuned to working out the truth of our popular credos than that handy piece of sociological equipment - the embarrassometer.

Imagine you're sitting at the dinner table with friends, mixed company and the cheerful conversation veers towards childhood memories.

(Tucked discretely behind your lapel is the highly sensitive antenna of your embarrassometer, connected wirelessly to a display on your wrist.)

After a while, Fiona says: 'I was a terrible tomboy when I was a girl. Climbing trees, digging tunnels, playing football and rugger with my brothers. I lived in jeans and T-shirts. I gave my mum a terrible time when she tried to get me into a dress.'

Quick. Check the display. Registering any embarrassment? Nope. Not a flicker. In fact the general feeling around the table, among both males and females, is that feisty Fiona is a bit of a good egg. Spirited and independent. Hurrah for her.

The Fred chips in: 'Snap! I was very similar, Fiona. While you wanted to do "boys' things", I was all out to be as much like a girl as possible. I was so easy when it came to birthday and Christmas presents - I'd simply ask for another Barbie. By the time I was ten I had seventeen Barbies and umpteen outfits for them. I'd spend hours dressing them and playing with them.'

Check the embarrassometer. What's the reading? Well, what do you think? Yes, totally off the scale.

Several guests are squirming silently and your host has just realised he needs to get back in the kitchen to check the next course....

Am I right? I think so.

I've heard dozens of women hark back to childhood in the manner of Fiona. I've yet to hear, in a similar situation, any man make an admission along the lines of Fred's.

I'm fascinated by the fact that while Fiona has a handy, affirmative label for her childhood self (tomboy), Fred has nothing.

Well, he does have some choices, but none that he'd want to adopt - 'cissy' and 'nancy boy' being the two that come most readily to mind. Shame words.

So, is that wee embarrassometer telling a deeply uncomfortable truth?

Here we are in the 21st century. But when push come to shove, we still value maleness more highly than we do its counterpart.

Or is the tomboy scrambling up the wrong tree?

Thursday, 4 December 2008

R and J

As Uncle Matthew (in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love) remarked after a long-ago performance of Romeo and Juliet: 'It was all that damn padre's fault....'

Unlike Uncle Matthew, I wasn't gulping back sobs at the end of the RSC's latest outing of the star-cross'd lovers. But I was in full sympathy with him regarding the dodgy plot device that brings on the play's tragic denouement.

R and J end up dead, not because of some deeply ingrained flaws in themselves or those around them - but because Friar Lawrence's postal service goes to pot. If only his message had got through, Romeo would have known that Juliet wasn't really dead - and all the hideous hoo-ha of the final scene could have been averted.

Neil Bartlett's production is striking to look at, done out mainly in black and white, with a 1950s film-noir feel to it.

There's a hint of minimalism as well. The lovers are denied a balcony for that so-famous scene. I felt a teensy bit short-changed. With the characters on the same level, the scene falls a bit, er, flat.

Loads of stylish choreography to the violence and sword-play, setting up a sense of a male-dominated culture, where love and tenderness have little chance of flourishing among so much mindless devotion to macho codes of honour.

The young actors playing the eponymous lovers are fresh, ardent and touchingly vulnerable. Top marks for diction as well.

But, oh dear, how everyone shouts. If you like a lot of acting for your money, this show offers terrific value. Histrionics aplenty. Arms are waved, documents abused, chests beaten, foreheads slapped, railings walloped. A wildly hysterical Friar Lawrence leads the way, redefining the notion of 'OTT'. Oh brother!

If only the director had asked his actors to calm down just a wee bit. Subtlety was in short supply. For me, it's always a bad sign when I 'm yearning for an actor to deliver a few lines of verse simply using his or her voice. Give those hands a rest!

Mind you, I think any director who is brave enough to take on this difficult play deserves a medal.

In my opinion few of the Bard's shows are are more difficult to present convincingly. Next to Romeo and Juliet, King Lear is a piece of cake.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Fourteen

I bought this wee anthology (on a whim) some twelve years ago - and since then it has crept up on me and is now a strong contender to be my Desert Island book choice.

I'm a bit of a fan of the sonnet - too short to be boring, but long enough to give the writer space to express a thought, a mood, a challenge - and to do so with economy, drama, precision, flair.

Compiler Don Paterson clearly loves the form as well - and, a poet himself, is strongly aware of the challenge and opportunity of having a mere fourteen lines in which to pull the poetic rabbit from the formulaic hat.

His selection included a handful of poems that were familar to me - and over the years I've come to love many of the sonnets (and poets) which he has introduced to me.

My thumbed copy has been with me to Greece, Spain, France, the USA and New Zealand. And, very selectively, I'm memorising my favourites.

As someone remarked, it's possible to appreciate all sorts of works of art. But a poem is the only masterpiece that you can 'download' into your head and take with you wherever you go for the rest of your life.

There's one sonnet per page, which means that apart from sonnets 1 and 101, each opening of the book places two poems to the eye. Paterson has a neat trick of pairing poems in ways that are, by turns, illuminating, intriguing and, occasionally, deliciously naughty.

For example, he pairs this sonnet of William Alabaster (1567-1640) with John Donne's famously forthright prayer-poem 'Batter my heart, three-personed God':

Upon the Crucifix
Now I have found thee I will evermore
Embrace this standard where thou sitst above,
Feed greedy eyes and from hence never rove;
Suck hungry soul of this eternal store;
Issue my heart from thy two-leaved door,

And let my lips from kissing not remove.
O that I were transformed into love,
And as a plant might spring upon this flower,
Like wandering ivy or sweet honeysuckle:
How would I with my twine about it buckle,
And kiss his feet with my ambitious boughs,
And climb along upon his sacred breast,
And make a garland for his wounded brows:
Lord so I
am, if here my thoughts may rest.

As Paterson remarks: 'Phew!'

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A gnome after midnight)

There are those who believe that universal popularity must be an indication of a degree of iffy-ness in a work of art.

Not so Mr Gnome.

Today he cheerfully joined the nearly 2 million people who have bought the DVD Mamma Mia! The Movie since its release two days ago.

(He recalls with sadness hearing a renowned critic remark sniffily: 'Oh yes, I adore Handel - but not Messiah, of course.' Which says more about the critic than it does about George Frederick.)

Mamma Mia! is never going to join the ranks of the great musicals. (Daring judgment, huh?)

Naff singing (Pierce Brosnan? Bless.), dodgy dancing, wobbly storyline

But somehow its sheer sunny chutzpah swamps all resistance. And who could resist the perfect pop songs of Bjorn and Benny?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

A lot of house for a little work

Mr Gnome pauses on his recent walking tour of the Marais district of Paris.

This sumptuously restored courtyard belongs to the Hotel de Beauvais, possibly the grandest of the many grand hotels (here the word means simply 'mansion') of this splendid quartier.

The house was built by Catherine Bellier, Baronne de Beauvais, to the design of Antoine le Pautre.

How did Catherine, who started out as woman of the bedchamber to Anne of Austria, come to afford such a palatial dwelling - and the style of life to go with it?

Well.... Anne of Austria was the mother of King Louis XIV, who ascended the throne shortly before his fifth birthday. When His Majesty reached the age of fourteen it was deemed appropriate that he should be, er, 'initiated into the rites of manhood'.

But who was to provide the training? Anne selected Catherine Bellier, a woman, by all accounts, of remarkably unprepossessing aspect. Courtieers referred to her as 'wall-eyed Kate'.

Louis turned out to be an attentive pupil and needed but one lesson from Catherine. He cottoned on with no difficulty, threw his L plates in the air and embarked confidently upon a lifetime of amorous adventure.

Catherine was rewarded handsomely, and like her sovereign, never looked back, and the Hotel de Beauvais became one of the most stylish addresses in Paris.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Camping trip

What could be more cheering-up in drab November than a sparkly evening of music and comedy at Leamington's premier venue the Royal Spa Centre?

Mr Gnome was charmed by the, er, boys' eclectic mix of stylish cabaret numbers, saucy patter and cheeky bonhomie.

And, gosh, they can sing. To be honest, their vocal talents almost exceed their abilities as purveyors of comic campery.

Funny and fabulous, 4 Poofs and a Piano deserve far bigger audiences than the small but enthusiastic crowd that welcomed them to Leamington.

With the possible exception of their mildly outrageous closing number, the chaps' brand of humour falls happily into the honourable British tradition of 'naughty, but nice'.

The tour continues into 2009. Check them out!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Love's Labour's Lost

Shakey's wordy, playful comedy doesn't make the journey from page to stage all that often. From the evidence of the recent RSC production, that's a definite shame.

The bachelor King of Navarre decides to forswear hunting, feasting and female company to pursue three years of studious self-improvement. And being a Royal, he's easily able to 'persuade' his three attendant lords to sign up to the palace penance fest.

Before the ink is dry on the parchment, along comes a delegation comprising the young Princess of France and her attendant ladies. How many? Go on, guess.

Masculine resolution dissolves as the king and his lords are pierced by Cupid's darts, while resolutely attempting to hide their lovesickness and broken promises from one another.

Meanwhile a fantastical Spanish aristocrat, an ancient schoolmaster and country clod poll offer sidleights on the dizzying ups and downs of love and lust.

Director Greg Doran dusts off the play, dresses his cast in sumptuous Elizabethan costume and delivers a production that's fast-paced, funny and, at times, surprisingly affecting.

All eyes, of course, on David Tennant as the wry, keen-witted Lord Berowne. And he doesn't disappoint, speaking the complex verse with clarity and warmth, making it seem fresh-minted. He has a stand-up's rapport with his audience -and is very funny.

Only weakness, for me, is the decision to cast a young woman (instead of a boy) as Moth, the pert pageboy. The actress is tiny, but not in the least boyish. Halfway through my companion and I realize simultaneously the nature of the problem - it's all a bit Janette Krankie.

In its closing moments, the play takes a sudden, daring turn from comedy to near-tragedy. Doran manages the gear-change with aplomb.

And the final melancholy image of a single owl swooping eerily over the audience - a touch of true theatre magic.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Abacus

Quite apart from the two redoubtable women, every item in this picture is familiar to me. I'd say this dates from 1961 or '62.

Here are two of my great aunts, both of them Jersey women. They lived with us in the early 1960s.

Marie-Louise (left) we knew as Auntie Marsie. She was born in 1882. Her sister Clementine-Louise (Auntie Ti-Ti) was born in 1874.

The only unusual aspect of the shot is the apparent absence of Marsie's cigarette.

There were times when it was a challenge to see across the room through the nicotine haze.

This has to be early afternoon, the traditional time for a rest after a busy morning of domestic chores.

Both were avid readers, fans of long-gone popular magazines such as Tit Bits, Reveille and John Bull.

They relished a racy read and, no surprise, my brothers and I devoured the mags as soon as the aunts were out of the room.

Loads of celebrity gossip. I remember reading a spicy series on the rise and rise of Soho strip-club supremo Paul Raymond. I would have been about ten.

Marsie, in particular, appreciated the occasional saucy frisson. According to family legend she once snapped her library book shut, muttering: 'This is disgusting!'

'Whatever's the matter?' queried my mother.

Marsie reopened the volume and whispered the offending passage in her best pas devant tones: 'The Chinese shopkeeper stood at the counter, his abacus before him. Idly, he fingered its little balls.'
And here they are as children.

Titi stands behind her little sister. But which one is Marie Louise? I think she's the youngest here. But the sister on the right has her gaze exactly as I recall it when she was an old lady.

The short hair would have been unusual in England at that time - but was the style for girls in French-influenced Jersey - so my mother told me.

There's a strong possibility that the third little girl is my grandmother, Gladys Marguerite (Daisy) who died in 1936 - so, sadly, I never knew her.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Reportedly...

Fifty years ago I was Keegan III and a beginner at St Peter's School, near Exmouth in Devon - and I was very, very happy.

This ancient end-of-term report gives a clue as to my contentment.

The teachers were kind and sympathetic to a degree that occasionally makes me wonder: Bless you - but what were you thinking?'

For instance: riding. Our teacher for this extra-curricular activity was the glorious Helen Rhys-Jones, the Head's 21-year-old daughter - Miss Helen to us.

Her comment on my equestrianism reads: 'obviously at ease with ponies. Good position and sympathetic hands.'

How kind - but clearly she was unaware that I spent the two hours before every lesson in the lavatory - that's how at ease I was!

For 'games', I read: 'A sincere little boy who has proved himself a real sport and done jolly well in cricket'.

Again, how generous to mask my total non-ability under the charitable euphmemism of sincerity.

Grumpy music teacher Mrs Powell's 'makes no effort' was a pretty accurate judgement, I am ashamed to say. But, golly gosh, she wasn't the most inspiring of teachers.

Wonderful Miss Rushton says 'good' for Scripture - and awards me 37%. What might the comments have been for pupils who achieved above 70%?

Divine? Numinous? Transcendent?

Happy days.

Can do

Mr Gnome has an appropriately modest view of his blogospheric role in Senator Obama's successful campaign for the presidency of the United States.

Both Mr G and the HB are second to none in their pleasure at the result - and in their measured optimism that Mr Obama will make a massively positive contribution to the future of the USA and of the world.

Who could not have been moved by the content of his acceptance speech, and impressed by the composure with which it was delivered?

Meanwhile, do read his excellent autobiography Dreams From My Father, written (no ghosts involved) more than ten years ago.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Pilgrim - with camera

How I loved that camera - a tenth-birthday present.

The time is Easter holidays 1961. The place is the pilgrimage town of Lourdes in southern France, where, in the 1850s, the peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous was granted a series of visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The occasion was the week-long pilgrimage of the English schools of the Irish Christian Brothers.

We travelled by train, hundreds of boys aged nine to eighteen, and numerous black-habited, chain-smoking brothers.

Full school uniform (my cap must have been in my pocket) was de rigeur for the whole trip, as was attendance at meals at the hotel, some morning devotional activities and at the evening processions.

Apart from that supervision was at a minimum. To be truthful, for most of the week we were completely off the leash, to an extent that would cause cardiac trauma to today's hyper risk-averse teachers.

During those few days we climbed into the hills, smoked our first cigarettes and tippled on French wine and beer - to a greater or (in my case) lesser extent.

And we saw Lourdes - in all its bewildering diversity.

Outside the grotto area, a thousand shops dispensed merchandise to every taste and budget. (I prided myself that not every holy item I purchased glowed in the dark.)

There is no buying and selling at all within the vast, tranquil area that borders the river, and encompasses the basilica and the grotto where the visions took place.

I remember the hundreds of very sick people, some on stretchers, some with deformities that one no longer sees, such as goitre - and their carers.

Some hoped for miracles, I'm sure. But for many, my guess is that the miracle had already occurred.

Thanks to their faith and the support of their friends, they had made the pilgrimage and had visited the shrine, where, despite their frailty, their value and significance had been endorsed, celebrated even, in that extraordinary place.

We dipped in the baths fed by the icy spring water that bubbles up in the grotto, obeying the instruction that true pilgrims don't dry themselves before dressing.

I recounted this piece of piety to my chum Anthony Harcourt, who hooted derisively.

'What a load of rubbish!'

My response was as decisive as it was devout. I grasped my school cap firmly in my hand and whacked my friend repeatedly about his unbelieving head and shoulders.

An action which, I am certain, merited at least a plenary indulgence.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

October snow

Do you remember snow in October before? As is so often the case, Mr Gnome remains typically Trappist on this topic.

Big excitement for the rest of us here in the midlands when Tuesday 28 October brought a chill wind and clouds with a curious ochre tinge, relieving themselves of big wet flakes across Warwickshire and environs.

Mr G managed to resist the ensuing hysteria.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Almighty guide

There are guides, good guides - and then there is Malcolm Miller, English guide to Chartres Cathedral for more than fifty years.

In October 1986 I spent a few days in Paris and took the short train ride out to Chartres to see the cathedral. Noticing a sign advertising 'Tours in English', I tagged along - and fell under the spell of MM.

Softly spoken, deliciously theatrical, MM draws you in with his whispered opening line: 'I'll tell you a secret...'

And you're away, the cathedral's long life unfolding while Miller shows you how to 'read' its 'hidden meaning' - particularly through its miraculously complete, totally integrated programme of stained glass and statuary.

Hint - for the best possible time, take your binocs.

And by 'hidden meaning', he doesn't mean 'da Vinci-style' esoterics - he's referring to the fact that the whole place tells a single narrative - which I guess could be summed up as the story of salvation.

History, engineering, gossip, theology and, well, a kind of numinous glory - these are all elements of the MM experience - all the more intense if you have a prior inkling of the broad sweep of the Bible - from the garden to the heavenly Jerusalem.

I was so mesmerised on that long-ago Tuesday that I joined his afternoon tour as well - and returned for two more on the Thursday.

Two 'MM neophytes' accompanied me when I returned to the Cathedral recently - after a gap of twenty-two years. I worried that the 'magic' might have faded and that they would feel let down after my enthusiastic trumpeting of Mr Miller.

My fears were groundless.

His hair is whiter, his posture a liitle stooped, but his style, erudition and élan remain undiminished.

Catch him while you can.

And here, from a 1980s documentary film, is a glimpse of MM's enthusiastic approach:

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Grand plaisir

Blessedly blasé re most worries, Mr Gnome is a reluctant flyer.

Imagine then the intensity of his pleasure as a spanking new Eurostar train whooshed him from London to Paris in a dizzying two hours and thirty minutes.

(Train - terra firma. Plane - terror-former.)

The journey would have been fifteen minutes shorter had we not been obliged to pass through 'Le Tunnel' at half speed - a consequence of the recent, er, 'incident'.

Leaden English skies dissolved and insouciant Gallic sunshine took over. Hurrah!

More Parisian posts shortly....

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Off the fence?


Back in Blighty after his autumnal foray to the United States, Mr Gnome reflects on the momentous choice facing his American friends.

Having once lived and worked in the USA (in Mrs Palin's home state, to be precise), the HB has retained a lively interest in the affairs of our transatlantic friends and allies.

Somehow this year's election seems particularly important - for the USA and for the whole world.

Not being a citizen, Mr G and the HB are reluctant to say: 'Vote this way, or that way.'

But we do urge our readers (if we have any!) to give a thoughtful perusal to this persuasive piece from this week's New Yorker.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Ear this!

Approaching the end of his brief sojourn in the USA, Mr Gnome has been intrigued by the varied manifestations of the approaching presidential election.
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We encountered the charming wearer of this 'earring' in the glitzy interior of Boston's spanking-new Institute of Contemporary Art.
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She was delighted to pose - and her only regret was that our alien status disabled us from voting in her home state of Virginia.
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In addition, she made an extraordinary prediction regarding an 'event' that, in her belief, may well precede the election day in November.
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Cautious Mr G is reluctant to reveal the fascinating prognostication at this stage - but, fear not, we'll let you know should it come to pass.

Monday, 6 October 2008

First day of vacation. OK?

How thrilling to be in Boston, Massachusetts, once again.

We celebrated by going out to breakfast at the delightful Theo's Cosy Corner Cafe, tucked away in the city historic North End.

No need to describe this riot of self-indulgence - the evidence is before your eyes.

Enough to say that we relished every mouthful.

Service was friendly and, of course, our coffee mugs were replenished frequently.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Iona

Briefly back at base after six bracing, memorable days as a guest of the Iona Community.

The island of Iona has been a place of pilgrimage for more than a thousand years.

Restored in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Abbey is now home to members of a Christian community of lay and ordained people, who share a commitment to peace and justice and to the renewal of the church.

I've just relished a short stay in the comfortable hostel-style Macleod Centre, just up the hill from the Abbey.

Our sessions were led by the remarkable John Bell (beard, red shoes, above) who shared insights into the freshness, challenge, relevance and vivid aliveness of the 'family book', the Bible.

And we sang.

John is one of the most influential composers/writers/collectors of songs, hymns and chants of the last thirty years - and he has a terrific gift for getting untrained people singing with joy and gusto - and, before they know what has happened, in four-part harmony as well.

And then there was the food, the company, the weather - a mixture of fierce winds, horizontal rain and dazzling shafts of sunlight.

More pictures on Flickr.

And Mr Gnome was delighted to encounter two cheery gnomes (one of whom posed) who had travelled to Iona from Roanoke, Virginia, USA. Hurrah!

River deep. mountain high

Returned from his northern sojourn, Mr Gnome pauses from reflecting on Celtic spirituality, to gasp in wonderment at the news that Tina Turner (born 1939) is touring again.

These very recent pictures bear witness to the truth that age cannot wither the infinite variety of this remarkable woman, surely the ultimate role model for all of us who have passed our half-century.

Mr G (Born? Don't ask.) is saving up to attend one of TT's lively 'gigs' when she blesses the UK with her ineffable presence in March 2009.

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Gnome of the north....

Mr Gnome bids farewell to his readers for a wee while as he travels north to spend a few pilgrim days and nights on a remote Scottish island.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Mr G gets on bard - er, on board....

Mr Gnome muses that summer's lease (2008) has definitely had all too short a date.

In fact the stage seemed set for melancholy musings and a Winter's Tale of considerable discontent.

But, ever the optimist, Mr G has shaken off dull care and is enthused, energised and excited by the arrival of a bulky envelope from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Hurrah!

It contains a torrent of information about the 2009 season of plays to be staged in the 'rusty shed', aka The Courtyard Theatre, the RSC's temporary home during the three years of its massive transformation project.

Mr G is salivating at the prospect of:
  • As You Like It (currently his fave among the comedies)
  • The Winter's Tale (he apologises in advance for blubbing in the climactic 'statue scene')
  • Julius Caesar (which usually comes across as if written yesterday)
In addition, he's intrigued by the inclusion of three Russian-themed plays to be given alongside the Shakey shows.

What's more, the season will be performed by a single troupe of actors who will continue working together until 2011.

This means that they will be the first enesmble to perform in the renewed RST when it opens in 2010.

As an extra treat, the mailing included a spelndid DVD report on the amazing Transformation Project.

Canny people at Bard HQ.

So exciting was the DVD that Mr G is signing up to make a small (he's a Gnome, OK?) regular donation to the funds.

Of course, with the Appeal's poster boy and girl being Sir Patrick Stewart and Dame Judi Dench, how could a Gnome not respond....?

(Message to Appeal Central - looking for a poster gnome...?)

Monday, 22 September 2008

Austin. Austen. Bostin'!

'What can be more joyous than a juicy juxtaposition?' queries Mr G.

So many themes link the pocket-sized elegance of a classic Austin A30 with the small-in-number, but glorious, oeuvre of Jane Austen.

At the most obvious level one could mention bonnets: the A30's, neat and stylish; Mr G's, red and robust - and where would any muslin-draped Austenesque telly adaptation be without a bounteous abundance of bonnets?

Perhaps, too, there's a theme of empowerment - with the A30 opening up new horizons to the Britons of the otherwise staid 1950s.

And Jane Austen, with her sharpness of eye and depth of insight, offering counsel and consolation to a zillion readers as they negotiate the chances and choices of the hand that life has dealt them.

Steady on, murmurs Mr G. We're merely discussing a jolly good car and some splendid old books. E-nuff! Enjoy.

Whatever. I can certainly picture Jane Austen tootling , had it been possible, through the Hampshire lanes in an A30, occasionally cutting up rough with a too-slow farmer's cart.

What, one wonders, would Shakespeare have driven? Or Dickens? Or dreary old Goethe?

Drawing a line

Shopping in a small-ish town can remind one of Haydn's Farewell Symphony, in which, as his or her part ends, each player leaves the platform, until only one is left.

One by one, small independent shops are closing, their premises being filled by 'chain' shops or charity outlets.

Here in Leamington this month brought the demise of Blackie's, a well stocked art supplies shop. Hey ho.

On The Parade, our classy 'main drag', there remain just two independent shops - an upscale leather goods retailer and Harways, a traditional-looking (I've not ventured inside) purveyor of ladies' underwear - I have a feeling that the word corsetiere may be appropriate.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Small, stylish and speedy

Mr Gnome is to cars as Queen Victoria was to roller-skating - not particularly well acquainted.

If pressed, he will admit to a smouldering passion for the half-timbered pleasures afforded by the Morris Minor Traveller.

But he's prepared, every now and then, to be seduced by the shiny delights of more modern motors.

The 'new' Mini is a case in point.

Mr Gnome is unashamedly interested in that key question regarding any new car: 'What colour is it?'

He feels that red is the sine qua non tint for this particular set of wheels. For a vehicle so packed with 'va-va-voom' any other colour would be inadequate. Pale chartreuse? Please....

Ever alert to the vagaries of human psychology, Mr G enjoys noting links between the 'personality' of a car and the character of its owner.

So often the one expresses the other.

Definitely so in this case - see the title above....

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Stage by stage

I'm keeping a record of the massive building project that is transforming the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Most of the original Victorian building was destroyed by fire in the 1920s.

It was followed by Elisabeth Scott's Odeon-style building which butted on to what was left of the original fabric at the western end - you can see a fair chunk of the original building to the right of the top picture.

By the 1980s the building housed two auditoriums: the 'main house' seating roughly 1100 people - and the 450-seater Swan Theatre, housed in the horseshoe-shaped space at the back of the original building.

Last spring, the building closed for redevelopment.
  • October 2007 (top): The whole of the main auditorium is removed, but Scott's facade and foyer will be retained.
  • July 2008 (middle): Demolition complete - a huge cavity where stage and auditorium once were.
  • September 2008: Work is well under way on the galleries that will surround the new thrust-stage performing space.
On the Avon side, the building is being stripped bak to its original 1930s aspect - and there will be a new, accessible riverside promenade.

I've been relishing performances here since August 1967.

Sad about the changes? Not at all. I've a strong feeling that the renewed building is going to be a massive success when it opens in 2010.

Read more here: Theatre transformation.

Friday, 12 September 2008

Sneaky peek at Sneaky Pete

Ever eager to promote all that's peppy in the world of 'pop music', Mr Gnome is delighted to publicize a splendid 'band' from Somerset.

Sneaky Pete and the Vipers have been been 'gigging' for roughly three decades, enlivening a wide variety of social events with their distinctive blend of 'Louis Jordan, Cajun and R&B - never too purist, and always fun.'

Here's a wee sample, via a deliciously 'raw' video recording.

Hurrah for Sneaky Pete. Here's a link to their website.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Train of thought

There's a cocoon-like cosiness to a railway journey in optimum (clean, uncrowded) conditions.

No intriguing interruptions or overheard conversations on a recent journey to Oxford.

Instead, the luxury of 'blank space' between the connectedness of the rest of the day. Disengagement. Peace.

The sense of separation increased by the silvery sheen of flooded fields and the sudden uplift of a hundred gulls as the train rattles past.

Time to relish the new 'Scotland Street' novel from Alexander McCall Smith, the fifth of his witty commentaries on contemporary life in Edinburgh's well-heeled New Town.

Originally published in short daily instalments in The Scotsman, the books follow a diverse bunch of characters as they negotiate the chances and choices of city life.

Smith's eye is kindly, but gimlet sharp - the books are definitely 'comfort' reading, but not too comfortable.... Watch out for the barbs.

Readers vary in their nominations for 'most loved' and 'most loathed' characters.

I have to admit to a soft spot for poor Irene Pollock - the wildly misguided uber-mother whose gifted six-year-old son is the focus of what she terms the 'Bertie project' - 'advanced' child-rearing taken to gloriously ludicrous extremes. Poor Bertie.

But then there's Angus Lordie, Domenica, hapless Matthew, the egregious Bruce, Pat and, my favourite, self-educated, unlucky-in-love cafe proprietess Big Lou....

More info at Alexander McCall Smith.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Cool?

For one so definite in views, Mr Gnome is strangely tentative when it comes to discussions re that strange concept - 'cool'....

Too canny to attempt a definition (always a hostage ot fortune), he simply says: 'Well, I suppose I recognize it when I come across it.'

And he most definitely senses it here in this 1955 Richard Avedon shot of Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra on the set of Guys and Dolls.

The clothes, the pose, the monochrome - I guess they all add up and combine with the men's exuberance, insouciance - and cheek.

And then there's what the viewer brings to the image. In my case, the 'frozen in time' capture of two extraordinary performers at the peak of their ability, looks and success. Plus the poignancy of knowing what was to follow in the ensuing years....

A great picture. Cool squared.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Free Nelson Bundela

I so wanted her to shut up, the fair-haired, power-suited young woman opposite me on the train. Two phones. Too loud. Too much.

Over the course of several calls my fellow passengers and I piece together the sheer awfulness of her day - her second day in her first job after university, working for a big-name international firm of accountants.

In brief: I'm based in Edinburgh. I flew to Birmingham this morning for an appointment in Coventry. I was supposed to fly back to Edinburgh this evening. But I missed my train connection to the airport because of a taxi driver with a dodgy tom-tom.

(Er, tom-tom? Techno-savvy readers will have grasped, unlike moi, that a Tom-tom is a type of satellite navigation device.)

This is a bad thing because I have to join a bunch of new colleagues at Edinburgh Airport early tomorrow morning so that we can all fly down to London for a high-level conference at Windsor. It's an accountant thing.

But now I'm heading south, not north, to High Wycombe, where my kind grandfather will meet me so that I can stay the night with him and Granny, prior to one of them driving me to Windsor tomorrow.

This is good because I'll have a bed. But also bad because I'll be up half the night washing and drying my clothes. All I have is what I'm wearing right now.


Further bad thing: my boss has resigned and skidaddled without giving me names or conatct info of any of the people who'll be at the airport tomorrow morning wondering why I'm not there. Can things get worse? Oh, yes.

There's Nelson.

Nelson is in my flat in Edinburgh, awaiting my return tonight. Without me, he may die. So I have to phone a friend, and my letting agent. Friend will kindly collect flat key and go and check that Nelson is OK, ensuring that he is fed and watered.


I've enough stress in my life without having the death of a six-month-old rabbit on my conscience.

And it's not as if Nelson's short life has been angst-free.

Until four weeks ago Nelson was Tilly. My boyfriend returned from South Africa, took one look at the bunny and - whoosh - instant gender re-assignment, with a nod to the great Mandela in the re-naming.


I'm SO unlucky - and, yes, I really was born on Friday the thirteenth.

Hmm.

Unlucky? With kind grandparents on hand to ferry and accommodate? With a chum to rescue Nelson? With a flat in Edinburgh's New Town? With a boyfriend who can sex a rabbit at ten paces?

Please.

By this stage the train is nearing my destination and, to my surprise, irritation has long since morphed into rapt attention. I SO don't want her to stop.

Something to do with the power of story, perhaps?

What started as merely an irritating voice has become a real young woman who's in a bit of a pickle - and a bunny with gender issues.

Fellow-passengers are offering advice and suggestions. Could you call your head office? Call the airport to page your colleagues? Call the conference venue?

Leaving the train at LS, I murmur: 'Goodbye. I hope everything works out for you and Nelson.'

Later I find myself saying a wee prayer for them.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Greenbelt 2008

Mr Gnome, coffee and cake - a perfect threesome.

OK, possibly this scrummy trinity lacks something of the theological heft of the Big Three, but, all the same, they are very nearly all-sufficient, particularly when served up in the Greenbelt Festival's semi-legendary Tiny Tea Tent.

Mr Gnome and the HB relished every moment of their recent visit to this unique festival, frequently sallying forth from the TTT to be stimulated, charmed, challenged, moved and delighted.

The festival offers talks, seminars, panels, drama, music, dance, visual arts, film, loads of participation and fun.

And all within the context of an intelligent, questing, provocative relationship with the Christian faith.

Greenbelt is open and welcoming, offering a forum for a very wide spectrum of opinion and practice.

It's unique within the UK Christian set-up: nowhere else would you find so many varied views and opinions, co-existing in an atmosphere of respect and willingness to listen.

Consequently the festival is both challenging and a remarkably 'safe space' for those who feel themselves, for whatever reason, to be on the edge of the orthodox church scene.

So, hurrah for Greenbelt.

Both Mr G and the HB intend to return in 2009.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Next stop Gnometanamo?


Rapturous at the prospect of jetting off for a cut-price weekend away, Mr Gnome poses pertly on the parapet of a provincial airport's multi-storey car park.

Moments later, at ground level, the Human Being is stopped by a trio of plain-clothes airport staff.

'Excuse me, sir, but we couldn't help noticing that you were taking photographs up on the sixth floor of the car park. It looked as if you were taking pictures of a little thing. A bird?'

'Er, are you security?'

'Yes, sir, we are.'

'Oh. Well, actually (fumbling in bag) I was taking some pictures of, um, my gnome.'

By now the trio are in the full-on presence of Mr G.

The HB continues feebly: 'He has a website.... He isn't political.'

A pause. The prospect of internment looms briefly.

But, once again, the 'G-force' has its semi-numinous effect.

The trio smile and move on.

Mr G and the HB continue to check-in, both strangely encouraged by the vigilance and politeness of these watchful guardians.

(Grateful fraternal acknowledgment re headline.)

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Nano domini


Poor Mr Gnome, lofty of thought, virtuous of conduct, pure of heart - and yet, when it comes to certain products, a total retail-recidivist.

Egged on by the Human Being, he poses beside this luscious i-Pod Nano, which is not in the least bit borrowed.

Pause and listen.

Yes, those unattractively sibilant cries of 'My preciousss, my preciouss....' are indeed emanating from the shameless lips of the product-sated Human Being.

But what's not to love about this small-but-exquisite masterpiece of modern engineering?

Elegant, easy to use, intuitive, simple, beautiful.

Yikes, we're getting carried away.

It's a jolly good toy and we like it very much. We promise to play with it nicely and not to break it.

Hurrah!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

What was one doing when...?


I've been invited to recall what I was doing when I heard of the following events.

Princess Diana's death - 31 August 1997
I was camping in a field near Stratford-upon-Avon. Prior to packing up the tent, I switched on my car radio.

Instantly aware that something wasn't right - why was James Naughtie presenting the news on a Sunday?

Tone of voice suggested a death. For a few seconds, I don't know why, I thought that Mother Theresa had gone aloft. And then Naughtie confirmed Diana's death.

Margaret Thatcher's resignation - 22 November 1990
A headteachers' meeting re the National Curriculum, near Andover, I think. Cold afternoon.

A tubby headteacher announced the news at end of the meeting. Majority of those attending applauded, which I could understand - but felt was rather mean-spirited.

Attack on the twin towers - 11 September 2001
I was at work. A colleague heard news from a friend via a phone call.

The BBC website was not working and I went to my car to hear the report confirmed. At this point neither tower had collapsed.

I called my brother in Boston, Mass, to check that he and his wife were all right.

I felt overwhelmed.

In the evening I went and sat quietly in Coventry Cathedral.

It's of no consequence, but kind New York friends once took me to brunch in the Windows on the World restaurant at the top of one of the towers. Windows on milk that day - we were in the clouds.

England's World Cup Semi Final v Germany in - 4 July 1990
Er, so sorry. God didn't give me the appropriate gene for this one.

Why couldn't the question have been about the 1966 World Cup Final?

President Kennedy's Assassination - 22 November 1963
I guess, for my generation, the head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest event.

I was thirteen and in the study hall at boarding school near Bath doing 'evening prep' - so the time was between six and eight o'clock on that Friday evening.

My friend Andrew McNinch was called out to take a phone call. Passing my desk on his return he whispered: 'Kennedy's been shot.'

I think that our housemaster confirmed the news at the end of prep.

The next day my brothers and I went home, for a planned two-day visit.

News bulletin followed news bulletin. The images: the motorcade sweeping through Dallas in clear sunshine; the jolt following the shot; Mrs Kennedy turning and reaching out towards the Secret Service agent and pulling him into the car.

And later, the swearing-in of Lyndon Baines Johnson aboard Air Force One. Mrs Kennedy beside him, still wearing the same blood-spattered outfit.

On the Saturday evening we watched the first episode of a brand-new TV series called 'Dr Who'.

Sunday evening brought the news of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

Prayers in our church, of course for the first Roman Catholic president.

Of no consequence, but C S Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day as JFK.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Versed past the post


Cheltenham race course was the venue for Mr Gnome's epiphanic encounter with tip-toptasic troubadour Ian McMillan.

The almost shockingly gifted McMillan, accompained by his equally talented orchestra, was performing a selection of songs and verses at the Greenbelt Arts Festival.

Funny. Moving. Witty. Clever. Droll. Tuneful. Punchy. Wistful. Robust. Funny.

Ian McMillan celebrates the hidden stories of those whose stories are rarely told - and makes you laugh, think and, in my case, dash away the occasional manly tear.

Mr McMillan offered an improvised poem (to jauntily soulful accompaniment from the orchestra) based on three topics called out by members of the audience: 'myself', 'British summer weather' and, inevitably, 'gnome'.

The moving epic that emerged, Homerically, from Mr McMillan's lyre depicted Mr Gnome fleeing inclement weather across a wide vista encompassing the delights of both Ibiza and Cleethorpes.

A gnomapotheosis.

The applause was rapturous.

Hurrah for the magnificent Mr McMillan.

And, all you poets out there, Mr Gnome modestly acknowledges his ability to inspire, which is, I guess, a talent - to a Muse.

By the way, this event was sponsored by the Church Times.