Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Gnome of the north

Mr Gnome is preparing for a tartan-tastic late-winter visit to Edinburgh.

The Athens of the North beckons.

Mr G is making a list of must-visit locations, mostly based on his recollections of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the novels of Alexander McCall Smith.

But he's open to suggestions....

Monday, 28 January 2008

Leave not a rack behind....

Mr Gnome recently made a brief site inspection of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's massive 'transformation' project.

As can be seen (below), the big house by the Avon is undergoing radical surgery. Between the front facade and the fly tower is a vast empty space, formerly filled by the auditorium.

Two years and two months remain until the scheduled re-opening.

Mr G and the HB admit to feelings of nostalgia for the old theatre.

But they applaud the bold vision of company boss Michael Boyd and his team - and wish them all the Bard luck in the world....

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Gibson Pattison

It's a summer evening and we're driving up the steep fold of a Devon valley, en route to dinner at Gibson's favourite pub restaurant.

'Look - a new moon...'

'How can you tell, Gibson? Sorry, I'm such a towny. I never know whether the moon's waxing or waning.'

'Nothing simpler, old boy. Look at the crescent. Imagine a little stalk beside it - which letter can you make?'

I'm squinting up at the slender paring of silver against the blue: 'Er, a "b" - or a "p"?'

'Splendid: "b" for "beginning" and "p" for "premier". It's a new moon. When it's waning, all you can make is a "d" for "dernier". What could be simpler?'

At the time of this typically 'Gibson-esque' exchange, I'm a twenty-something primary school teacher and Gibson, a bachelor country parson, is approaching sixty. I'm his guest for a few days of rest and recreation at his village vicarage in the Dartmoor National Park.

Peppered with "I say', 'my dear chap' and 'what fun', a conversation with Gibson can feel like a scene from The Wind in the Willows.

With his slicked-down hair, spectacles and round face, Gibson has a distinct air of Mr Mole. But in character he's much more akin to the outgoing Water Rat, with just a naughty hint of Mr Toad thrown in.

Certainly, his attitude to housekeeping is straight out of Ratty's book. One morning I comment that, at home, I routinely leave the breakfast washing-up until my return from work in the evening.

Gibson shudders. 'Leave the washing-up, old boy? I fear that in my case it would be the start of the slippery slope. Living alone, I have to be disciplined.'
Genereous, kind, undemanding and discrete, Gibson was a perfect 'senior friend' - I guess today he'd be called a 'mentor'.

Another friend noted aptly that Gibson's friendships reflected an old-fashioned quality that he described as 'chum-manship'.

Quaint? Perhaps. But as embodied by Gibson, it seems to me an admirable basis for friendship: breezy, cheerful, supportive, undemonstrative - and shot through with deeper aspects, all the stronger for being unspoken.

Few things could be more cheering than a phone call from Gibson, made for no other reason that one's name had popped up in his thoughts or, quite possibly, prayers.

Today he'd be called a role model. I prefer to think of him as an old fashioned 'good example'.

And I think of Gibson, with gratitude, every time I see the new moon.
Special thanks to Julian Hamer for the picture of Gibson. Please check the link for an insight into Gibson's wartime career.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Son stroke

UK sports headlines have been dominated in recent weeks by the Lazarus-like return to top-level management of 1970s soccer hero Kevin Keegan (56).

The HB (who is to football as Queen Victoria was to hang-gliding) happens to have the same surname as the ever-bouffant KK.

He notes: 'I dropped off some items for dry cleaning today, giving my name when asked by the friendly assistant.

'Without looking up, she said: "So are you Kevin Keegan's dad?"

'When I had regained the power of speech, I gently informed her that Kevin is my junior by a mere twelve months.

'The poor woman was mortified - and we decided to agree that she must have been thinking of Kev as he was in his glory days, some thirty years ago.

'There cannot be any other explanation, can there?

'Don't all speak at once....'

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Kenneth Williams

A letter from a complex, kind man....

In the early winter of 1980, unwell with asthma and a chest infection, I was obliged to take time off work. The duvet and Radio 4 were my solace.

I particularly enjoyed a programme of Victorian 'parlour poetry' presented by the actor Kenneth Williams and the veteran radio presenter David Davis.

Williams performed with brio, making the poems emerge as if stripped of ancient coats of varnish.

Davis read with glutinous relish, his voice the texture of a Hobnob dipped in sweet tea.

I was so taken with KW's contribution that I zipped off an appreciative postcard.

The letter shown above arrived within a few days:
Dear Rory, Delighted to receive your very encouraging letter today. Actually I was amazed that it wasn't ME reading WALRUS & CARPENTER in that broadcast, & to show you my version I shall send you a recording under separate cover. Hope you will find it an improvement on that other old farts rendering. Yours, Kenneth

Mr Williams was as good as his word. A cassette arrived a few days later. His reading of Walrus and Carpenter is indeed a gem - as are his idiosyncratic treatments of Christmas Day in the Workhouse, The Dong with a Luminous Nose, Hiawatha's Photographing - and much more.

It remains a treasured possession.

Beyond shameless

'So, Mr Gnome, was the shyness-corrective therapy successful?'

'Er, yes!'

Fossilised fishhooks

Comfort reading. We all need it from time to time.

And what could offer more comfortable pleasure than a dip into the schoolboy stories of Anthony Buckeridge?

The irrepressible Jennings and his bespectacled sidekick Darbishire are boarders at Linbury Court Preparatory School where day-to-day life oscillates, as it does for small boys, between joy ('wizard') and misery ('ozard', or, worse, 'ozard cubed').

J and D's adventures, to be honest, aren't very adventurous. This isn't Mallory Towers, let alone Hogwarts.

The two boys, always well-intentioned, get into 'scrapes' - usually to the intense annoyance of highly combustible schoolmaster Mr Wilkins ('I, I, I... corwumph!').

Matters are usually brought to resolution through the gentle intervention of Mr Wilkins' opposite number - Mr Carter, a teacher blessed with a wry turn of phrase and an innate understanding of the not-all-that-complex psychology of nine-year-old boys.

Anthony Buckeridge's skill is to find laugh-aloud comedy in the lives of boys who are basically kind, honest and truthful.

That Jennings and Darbishire are never cloying, dull or prim is a bit of triumph.

Where there's a Will....

Bill the Bard does it again. The Shakespeare novice relished yesterday's performance of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Michael Boyd's vibrant production of Shakespeare's best-known history play hits all the right notes, with a tip-top performance by Geoffrey Streatfield in the title role.

Boyd's actors make the most of every square inch of the temporary Courtyard Theatre with thrilling use of ladders, ropes and trapezes (at whiich the foppish French excel).

And, best of all, the cast speak with clarity and confidence. Not always a given these days.

Mr Gnome concurs with almost every word of Charles Spencer's excellent review. (Mr G, unlike Mr Spencer, loved the trapeze aspect.)

And while I'm here....

The seats in the back row of the Courtyard's gallery are not separated by arm rests and are designed to accommodate the slenderest of slim-hipped persons. They are also raised from the floor in the manner of bar stools, with built-in foot rests.
The HB's seat neighbours yesterday were the Novice (slim) and an overseas visitor (not at all slim, but no Pavarotti, either). The HB is an average-sized person.

The problem? Overspill. The large gentleman, seated before the arrival fo the HB and the Novice, had colonised a considerable proportion of the HB's seat, obliging the HB to spend the first half of the show perched on one buttock.

Mono-cheek stress, he finds, is not conducive to Bard-appreciation.

The interval brought an opportunity to move to better seats. For this relief, much thanks.

The HB will be writing to the architects of the new RST, urging them to address some fundamental issues before it's too late.

Home help: 1950s

Proud to be considered a 'labour-saving' device, Mr Gnome takes a keen interest in the history of domestic appliances.

This advertisement comes from the programme of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The HB feels immensely privileged to remember both of the adverised items in use in his family home in the middle part of the Fifties.

Strange how at least two of the copywriters' key words are now 'museum pieces' in their own right: 'mangle' and 'housewife'....

Thursday, 17 January 2008

I remember, I remember...

...the house where I was born.

And here's the view from the house next door.

Connaught House perches on the sea wall at the western end of Sidmouth's Regency promende.

It was our family home from 1953 until 1955. We moved there from neighbouring Clifton House, where I was born.

Privileged? Yes indeed.

The remarkable aspect, to me, is how very little the view from this window has altered in fifty-five years.

I was in Sidmouth last year. I think it would be fair to say that, apart from some minor details, absolutely nothing has changed....

Many people report that a return to the place of birth and childhood can be deeply saddening - the years have changed the once familiar world beyond all recognition.

I'm fortunate to have the opposite experience when I return to Sidmouth: all the landmarks of my earliest years remain as I remember them.

A little disconcerting, but in a different way....
No prizes for guessing that Mr Gnome thinks Sidmouth is heaven on earth....

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

History - on a plate

The HB has been munching his breakfast toast off this plate for - yikes - more than fifty years.

Only recently has he realized that this humble piece of crockery is a bit of a collector's item.

The minimalist design is by Hugh Casson, famed as one of the key artist-designers of the 1951 Festival of Britain.

The Festival (largely forgotten, one suspects) was a milestone in the life of the nation, providing a massive boost of colour and creative energy after six drab years of post-war austerity.

The text on the base is equally 'of its time'....

Monday, 14 January 2008

Frozen moment....

Occasionally, when one is browsing through old photographs, time 'telescopes' and suddenly the distant past seems, well, not distant at all....

This picture shows a PE class at Topsham Barracks, Devon. Dated 28 January 1916.

My grandfather Harry Rowe is one of the two instructors - he's sitting cross-legged.

One wonders how many of them got through to the end of that year unscathed, let alone to Armistice Day 1918.

The lad third from right, back row, looks about sixteen. He should be at school.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Bard news

Both Mr G and the HB enjoy going to performances of plays by popular Midlands playwright William Shakespeare.

So vibrant, thrilling and moving was a recent performance of Henry V, that they are going a second time - accompanied by an enthusiastic 'Bard beginner' who has never seen the play before.

In fact this will be only the second time that this gent has seen a Shakespeare performance.

His first was a recent humdinger of a Macbeth. He was gripped.

Here's hoping he has as good a time on Saturday.

No pressure, Will.

There's still time to catch this Royal Shakespeare Company performance. It's in repertory in Stratford-upon-Avon until March, before moving to a venue in London.

Friday, 11 January 2008

So, was that a 'No'?

Well, if one is going to be negative, one might as well be totally, definitely, positively negative.

This sixfold 'No' greets visitors to the little park at the centre of London's Soho Square.

I guess that at the heart of a district that likes to say 'Yes, yes, YES!' a little bit of 'No, no, no!' is deemed to be an appropriate counterbalance.

Click here for a naughty response to this posting.....

Thursday, 10 January 2008


Mr Gnome is delighted to find his blog mentioned in the fragrant pages of that deliciously idiosyncratic journal The Church of England Newspaper.

How kind of author Steve Tilley to mention Mr G in his December web roundup column.

The Gnome remarks: 'One adores the publicity. But in such serious company I feel a little out of place, rather like a sequin on a cassock....

'Mr Tilley says that I 'point the camera' at myself a little more than is necessary.

'Not guilty. I have a very amenable Human Being to do all the snapping for me.

'In any case, why keep a dog....?

'Too many pictures of moi? Oh please.

'Anyone would think I was an egnomaniac with a level of self-regard to make Miss Piggy look like Mother Theresa.

'Why has it gone quiet...?'

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Don't whale, Laura....

The HB doesn't think he's alone in relishing the atmospheric qualities of railway stations on winter evenings.

Echoes of Brief Encounter, perhaps?

At Birmingham's Moor Street Station one wouldn't be surprised to find Laura and Alec gazing tensely at one another, paralysed with Cowardian anguish.

Mind you, with the new Selfridges store looming over the scrupulously restored Victorian railway architecture, you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled into a sci-fi version of Moby Dick.

Brief Encounter meets Moby Dick?

That'd be a challenge for Mr Spielberg.

Monday, 7 January 2008


Mr G has definite views regarding food, hence his endorsement of this traditional teatime treat.

It's one of those things that one either loves or loathes. A category that includes numerous operatic sopranos, packets of pork scratchings and the novels of Terry Pratchett.

Mr G and the HB can think of few things more delightfully up-picking on a winter evening than hot buttered toast, liberally slathered with Marmite.

Ah, the memories induced by the aroma.

A Proustian boost.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Apple of his eye

Ever thoughtful, Mr G likes to give a boost to up-and-coming businesses.

Hence this pose outside the stylish Apple Mac store in Birmingham's Bullring shopping mall.

Apple (or is it Mac?) produce a wide variety of easy-to-use computery, musical, communicative equipment.

Mr G has been a fan for some time, even going so far as to refer to the two phases of his life: pre- and post-Mac.

Whatever. Watch out for this company and for the logo. They could be going places.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The joy of tweed

Mr Gnome celebrates durability.

The HB's sturdy winter coat recently 'came of age', having given twenty-one years of warm and quietly stylish service.

Peacefully and without fuss, one of the buttons departed for Button Heaven, during the Christmas holiday. Sadly mourned.

The HB is already in touch with Crombie, and is certain that a replacement fastener will arrive shortly.

By the way, the HB bought the coat (autumn 1986) from the memorably named gents' outfitters, The Famous, in Cheltenham.

Still trading, The Famous is a retail outlet after Mr Gnome's heart. Transactions are completed by means of a vacuum tube that whisks one's payment to an out-of-sight cashier. Seconds later, the receipt is whooshed back to the waiting customer.


Friday, 4 January 2008


Mr G is grateful to BJ for discovering the original plate of this photograph, restored here to its full glory.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Harry at Ethel’s Party

Ethel has invited sixteen little friends, eight boys and eight girls, to an outdoor party, perhaps to celebrate her birthday.

And here they all are in sailor suits and best pinafores sitting in a grassy meadow near Stroud in Gloucestershire. It is a summer day in the early 1890s. And if it is her birthday, my guess is that there will be six candles on the cake.

As befits her status, Ethel is in the centre of the group, gazing stolidly at the camera, obeying the instruction to sit very still – as have all the children apart from two girls (tsk!) whose blurred faces show that they fidgeted at the crucial moment.

From the neat-as-new-pins perfection of their get-ups, I imagine that the party proper has yet to begin. At least four of the boys seem primed to explode into mischief.

A dark-suited boy on the left of the picture stares directly into the lens, knees drawn up to his chest. He seems hesitant, a little shy. His body is turned away from the group, increasing a sense of separation from the knot of lads on the right. I wonder if he will have as much fun as them.

His name is Henry Herbert Rowe, but the children at the party call him Harry.

I called him Grandpa.

I have only one memory of him. I was six and, hesitant and shy, I backed away from the gentle, bald-headed stranger. He died a year later in 1957, aged seventy.

A birthday-party picture of me aged six shows a small boy, knees drawn up to chest, staring straight into the camera. Put the snapshot from the fifties beside the Victorian picture: Harry, Rory – peas in a pod.

He was happily married to my grandmother for twenty-eight years until her early death from cancer. They had one child. His second marriage was not happy.

Harry loved children and may have doubted that he would ever be a grandfather. His daughter did not marry until she was thirty-eight – and then produced three sons in as many years. How do I know he loved children? From his postcards.

Work as a commercial traveller for a West of England woollen mill took him on long journeys throughout England and Scotland, and from every destination he sent picture postcards to his grandsons. I have roughly one hundred of them: castles, steam trains, battleships, ocean liners, aeroplanes – chosen carefully to delight and intrigue small boys. And all addressed to us as individuals – it never occurred to him to send a single card to all three of us.

Here’s an example from 17 January 1954: The card shows the ocean liner RMS Bermuda steaming into New York harbour.

Dear Roderick, because you are the youngest I am sending you the biggest ship. I should like to have heard you singing at the pantomime! Love to you from Grandpa.

On my way to the class I stopped, as I often do, at the Arts Centre gift shop to top up my stock of postcards. I enjoy matching the card its recipient. I guess I send between two and three hundred a year.

And though I may not be the liveliest spark at the party, I try to remember to send my host a thank-you card.

I’m sure Harry sent one to Ethel.
This is from a series of short 'life story' pieces written as part of an evening-class course. More pieces are stored in the 'Short stories' list to the right.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Gnome movies

The gifts continue to arrive - and Mr G is very thrilled with this charming volume.

His respect for copyright prevents him from reproducing any more of the spreads.

'Go buy,' he says, teasingly....