Sunday, 30 March 2008

Spring to attention

While waiting for yet another train, Mr Gnome relished the tubs of spring flowers decorating Leamington Spa's railway station.

A chance conversation revealed that this planting does not happen by magic.

The tubs are the work of the splendid members of the Leamington Spa Soroptimists International, a community-minded group of business and professional women.

Mr Gnome offers his thanks and good wishes - and a robust 'Hurrah!'

Saturday, 29 March 2008


Mr Gnome and the HB are ever so slightly bouleversés having just listened to Cyrano de Bergerac on the radio.

They can't think of another work of art that so abundantly celebrates the power of language.

Kenneth Branagh was superb the be-hootered soldier-poet.

Quelle panache!

This spanking Radio 3 production is available for a limited period via 'Listen again'.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Look for it

On a knife-sharp afternoon at the end of March, grace and beauty can be in short supply.

And the railway station at Cheltenham Spa might seem an unlikely venue for an epiphany of any sort.

But then the clouds part. The evening sun reveals the filigree delicacy of Victorian ironwork and a drab platform is suddenly lit for a re-make of Brief Encounter.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Supporting cast

Shock news! Mr Gnome adores all things in the category 'small but exquisite'....

On a recent visit to Cheltenham Spa, the self-styled 'jewel of the Cotswolds', Mr G made a bee-line for the glorious caryatids that decorate the facade of the shops in the town's Montpellier district.

Based on figures in the Parthenon, these dames bring an air of classical hauteur to the toney spa town's architectural splendor.

Cool? Yes indeed. But, ahem, bringing with them more than a hint of abundant sensuality.

I'm sure that more than one retired colonel was troubled by these curvy sirens.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Boosting or boasting?

Mr Gnome's in two minds about this sign on Oxford Station.

Justifiable civic pride, or a wee bit boastful?

Though he loves Oxford, Mr G would rather the city left it to others to toot the trumpet.

He relishes the city's beauty and its centuries-steeped air of academic seriousness.

But the unavoidable atmosphere of elitism can be hard to take - Mr G, like most of us, is prey to chilly 'Jude Fawley' moments when he wanders through the city.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Ruff and tumble

Mr Gnome is immersed in this deliciously enjoyable yarn.

Shamelessly leaping aboard the Da Vinci bandwagon of secrets and conspiracies, author JL Carrell dishes up a steaming banquet of top-quality tosh.

The text is definitely better than the delightfully dodgy back-cover blurb:A serial killer is bad enough. But a deadly one? Yikes.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

He's not dreaming - it's a white Easter

A steel-grey day, a sky of moleskin and those white flecks - yes, snow....

Mr Gnome, ever ebullient, is trying to be cheery, despite the dismal weather enfolding this year's desperately early Easter.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


Tomorrow, Good Friday, I'll be in Birmingham to take part in an event that's been, for more than a decade, an annual landmark.

St Matthew's long narrative of the final days of Jesus Christ's earthly life has been set to music, so that we hear the words of Jesus, Peter, Pilate and the narrator as they appear in the Bible text.

Between each vivid scene are reflections, sung by one or more soloists, or a large choir, which invite us to respond to the events depicted.

And, fr0m time to time, the narrative is punctuated by hymns which appeal directly to the emotions.

The composer created an intensely dramatic work, full of shifting moods and changes of tone - glorious, memorable tunes.

Each year I'm drawn in and find myself responding in new ways.

Image copyright Simon Smith 2007

Monday, 17 March 2008

Son of Man

This terrific new film from South Africa has not received the exposure it deserves.

Here's the commentary from the Warwick Arts Centre website:
Mark Dornford-May brings the greatest story ever told to the screen in this crisp, rousing and politically engaging film. The language is modern, as is the setting, a violent township in the fictional Kingdom of Judea, which could stand in for any African country which has experienced poverty, upheaval, political corruption and ethnic conflict.

Modern parallels are implied - war-torn Judea is taken over by 'coalition forces' until democracy is established - but details are irrelevant. Jesus is a political figure, videoed by a spying Judas, making his mixed bag of disciples give up their guns, tempted by a black-leather-clad Satan. Hypnotic visuals, eloquent music and gritty performances make this a riveting, moving experience.

Not only a political figure, but a healer as well. And, yes, he rises. It's a wonderful, unconventional film.

Sadly, it probably won't get a screening at your local multiplex, so look out for it when it comes out on DVD.

Director Mark Dornford May's previous film was U-Carmen, equally extraordinary, and starring the magnificent Pauline Malefane in the title role. (She is Mary in Son of Man.)

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Happy campers

Not particularly vehicle-fixated, Mr Gnome has a weakness for certain classics of automotive design.

He freely admits that recent sightings of these lusciously colourful VW camper vans left him breathless with pleasure.

Poop! Poop!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Of man's first disobedience....

I know, yet another boost for the four-hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Milton.

Since the first of January it's been 'Milton this', 'Milton that' and 'Milton whatever'.

Yak, yak, yak. Radio, telly, cinema - not to mention the Paradise Lost tie-ins at Starbucks.... And those groovy specail issue stamps.

What? You missed the clamour? The frenzy has passed you by? Er, yes. Me too.

Not a whisper about the poet who, until relatively recently, was bracketed with Shakespeare as a national poet.


I'm doing my bit, re-reading Paradise Lost over Easter, relishing the rolling beauthy of those amazing verse paragraphs.

And the birthday isn't until December. There's time....Good to see that some special events are taking place.

But where's that daring, risk-taking adaptation of Paradise Lost / Comus, Samson at the National Theatre?

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery....

Mr Gnome relishes the radio, but with a certain amount of discrimination....

Not for him the uncritical air-wave hoovering demonstrated by the HB. In fact, Mr G cannot suppress a refined shudder when asked to comment on his human chum's listening choices.

Principal source of irritation at the moment is a daily 'slice of life' show focusing on a rural community somewhere in the English midlands.

What a place. What people. What lives.

Grumpiness and misery reign supreme over this dismally dysfunctional village.

Shrieks, crossness and misunderstanding abound. Marriages founder. Inheritances are disputed. Children shout at parents. Parents roar back. Suicide. Depression. Dodgy parenting. Sibling rivalry. Senile dementia. Cancer. Infantile illness. Tractor accidents. Addiction.

And, unless he's very much mistaken, an incipient case of Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy.

Oh come on, says the Gnome. Cheer up, you chaps. Or at least distribute free samples of Prozac along with the Radio Times.

Meanwhile Mr G is twiddling the dial to reach the delightful haven of Radio 7.

Been there yet?

Retro radio. Heaven on toast.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008


A picture book about bereavement? Yes, and an extraordinary achievement.

Michael Rosen's son Eddie died - and the sadness flooded in.

As with all great illustrated books, the marriage of text and pictures is perfect.

A very human, very affecting book.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Don't judge a book...

This unpretentious building (OK, it's a pre-fab) is home to tip-top café/restuarant Alfonso's Place.

Tucked away behind the railway station, Alfonso's is one of those eateries about which people say: 'I didn't think places like this existed any more.'

Friendly service, fresh ingredients, home-made puddings (yes, all are home-made, including the ice cream, I think) and plenty of choice. Low, low prices.

The HB and Mr G enthuse about the breakfasts (fab) and the Sunday lunches (terrific).

Saturday, 8 March 2008

Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure

Mr Gnome is in a state of barely suppressed frenzy as he anticipates a visit to the Bantam Team Rooms, Chipping Campden.

The Bantam Tearooms, in his opinion, are as close as one can get on this planet to the Platonic ideal of quintessentially English teashop-ness.

Let the home-made cakes be brought forth, let the warm crumbly scones be dolopped liberally with clotted cream.

One could continue - but the tidal wave of delight overwhelms man and gnome....

How to be topp

The immortal Nigel Molesworth (aka the Curse of St Custards). I wonder if anyone remembers him....

Molesworth was the deeply subversive love child of writer Geoffrey Willans and illustrator Ronald Searle.

I discovered him when I was nine and a boarder at a prep school that had echoes both of Linbury Court (of the Jennings stories) and the loopily recognizable world of St Custard's.

It's one of those books where much (but not all) of the humour comes via Molesworth's idiosyncratic spelling.

I relished the fact the Molesworth's constant efforst to be 'tuogh' came to nothing, and he's frequently trumped by the gloriously effete Basil Fotherington Thomas 'who say "Hello clouds, hello sky" and skip like a girlie'.

Nigel Molesworth, friend and role model. Hurrah!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Maybe in your town....

We're five minutes into a creative writing lesson. Heads are down, pencils are scratching, and the majority of the twenty-four third-graders in my care seem to be, er, creating. I'm an optimistic teacher.

Then the miracle occurs.

Ricky appears at my desk with his notebook. He wants a word. Could this mean that he wishes to take part in the lesson?

It does.

This is the classroom equivalent of Margaret Thatcher volunteering to hawk copies of Socialist Worker to passers by from the doorstep of Number Ten.

By this point in the school year Ricky and I have reached an uneasy truce. He doesn't disrupt the class. I don't ask too much of him in terms of work. It's not going to up the achievement profile. But it's working for us.

I've no idea what this nine-year-old native American boy makes of me, the English exchange teacher. I've gained the impression that as far as he's concerned I may as well have dropped in from the moon.

But now he wants to join in. The lesson is based around a series of cartoon drawings I've prepared. They show an old-time prospector working in his mine. Check shirt, spiky beard, the works.

We've talked about the mining history of the region - we can actually see a worked-out gold mine from the classroom window. And now we're going to imagine that Spike the miner is telling us his story. Inspiring, huh?

'You need a word, Ricky?'

'Uh huh. Strukkid.'

'Strukkid, Ricky?'

'Yeah, strukkid.' Slight rolling up of eyes.

'Er, so what's the sentence you're trying to write?'

As if speaking to a dimwit, Ricky says: 'Spike was happy 'cos he strukkid rich.'

'Great sentence, Ricky. But actually it's two words "struck it", not "strukkid".'

A sigh. 'I want strukkid.'

Two brown eyes are focused on me. This boy probably knows every disused mine shaft within a five-mile radius, just as he knows where the local bald eagles nest, and where the Pacific salmon surge up the pebbly creek beds to spawn and die. How weird is this teacher not to know a simple word like strukkid?

I give it one last shot: 'Ricky, believe me. There's no such word. It's not "strukkid", it's "struck it". OK?'

Those eyes fix me, the so-called teacher from England, wherever that is, with a look of infinite pity, as Nicky sighs and delivers his unanswerable put-down.

'Maybe in your town....'

Good news in a bard place

On a whim I took myself to the Mothering Sunday service at Holy Trinity, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Big church, packed with people aged from a tiny baby (baptised without a whimper during the service) to a woman of over 100 (I think I heard that correctly.)

Nice mixture of the formal (vestments, white-cassocked servers, trad hymns, vibrant organ) and the informal (teenage singing group, friendly MC-ing from cheerful vicar aided by tip-top radio mike.)

During the service we were invited to take part in an 'activity.'

Not a big fan of audience participation, I nonetheless appreciated the opportunity to jot down a mum-related thought/prayer/thank-you on a small paper flower and later leave it on the altar. As someone with neither parent living , and no children, I was grateful that someone had thought of this simple but effective way of including everyone in the service.

The vicar is Martin Gorick (yes, poor man, it rhymes with Yorick). His talk/sermon was short (hurrah!) and to the point. He spoke affectingly about the 'fathering' and 'mothering' love of God.

And he spoke clearly and simply about the church's 'vision' to be 'bridgebuilders' - to help take God to the community, and the community to God. Sounded like a good concept, to me.

He mentioned the fact that as a church they have adopted three 'values' to help them as they start to build bridges: humility, holiness and hospitality.

Hmm. I think I could start to get excited about that.

Anyway, ten out of ten to the community at HT, S-u-A for a joyful, inclusive, positive experience. Hurrah.

Overseas readers: please don't panic re climate change in UK. Photo was taken in August.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Fair exchange

At the end of the 1970s I taught this third grade class at a school in South East Alaska.

SE Alaska is an elongated mosaic of islands hugging the north-western edge of Canada. The community where I taught, though sizeable, is inaccessible by road. You arrive by plane (two hours from Seattle) or ferry (fifty hours).

Mostly uninhabited, the region's main industries are fishing and logging. Though northern, SEA qualifies as a rain forest. And I remember the rain as constant, relentless, endless.

After a shaky start (homesickness) I fell in love with the place - and relished every moment of my Alakan experience.

More recollections soon.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Edward Ardizzone

As a boy I was a dedicated devourer of Puffin Books. So it was only a matter of time before I fell under the spell of the illustrator Edward Ardizzone.

Ardizzone's pen-and-ink drawings, mostly black line only, manage to suggest so much through a minimalist, loose, seemingly speedy technique.

Long ago I decided I'd like to buy an orignal drawing and wrote to the artist, receiving this charming response.
I contacted his agent and bought the picture shown here. It's from The Godstone and the Blackymor, an eccentric little volume of Irish memoirs by TH (Sword in the Stone) White, long out of print.Mr Ardizzone died shortly afterwards. I am very proud to own this tiny example of his work.

Want to know more? Take a look at the Imperial War Museum's archive of Ardizzone's career as a War Artist.