Wednesday, 30 April 2008

A burst of orange

A vibrant display of orange as a mark of solidarity to friends from The Netherlands who, today, have been celebrating Queen's Day.

Today is a national holiday with street fairs, markets and festivities throughout Holland. Everyone joins in and community celebration is the order of the day. The colour orange is to be seen everywhere: wigs, outsize crowns, t-shirts - and so on.

Queen Beatrix will have visited one or two towns to join in the fun.

How splendid if we were to follow the example of our Dutch friends and introduce a Queen's Day over here....

An occasion when placing the apostrophe correctly could make all the difference....

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Big Eden

Take Brokeback Mountain, remove the anguish of the two protagonists (and the homophobia of everyone else), spoon in some ultra-tolerant far-western good ol' boys and gals, add maple syrup to taste - and you've got Big Eden, a movie that appeared (and swiftly disappeared) in 2000.

All of which sounds as if I didn't enjoy this film. But I did - it's engaging, characterful and unpretentious. And if its theme of a remote community conspiring to bring two shy people together is a little contrived - well, so what?

It's refreshing to find a film that doesn't feel obliged to wave a flag for a cause, but is content to tell a simple story with charm and grace.

And by allowing its characters a 'happy ending', perhaps, when you think about it, it's maybe a tad more subversively provocative than the wonderful angst-fest that was Brokeback.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Water, water

Shopaholic Mr Gnome can rarely resist a new product.

Browsing through his local branch of the ubiquitous cash chemist, he noticed these wee spay canisters (just his size).

Mr G was intrigued by the possibility of frequent cooling bursts of spray at the press of a button. A boon on a sultry summer afternoon.

Hurrah! And at £3.89 for a can-ette containing 125ml, pricy, yes - but well worth it for exposure to the cooling hyper-sophisticated formula within.

But before reaching for his groats, he checked the ingredients. Sorry, ingredient.


Hmm, that works out at, er, £31.12 per litre of 'aqua'.

Boots are doing a tap dance.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Will and grace

Hurrah for William Shakespeare on his 444th birthday.

Nothing new to say about the author on whom I've spent more money than any other, apart from to note that, as far as I'm concerned, he still challenges, consoles, inspires and amazes.

He offers us a million opportunities to imagine what it is like to be another person, similar to ourselves, or utterly different. And each imaginative leap can be a journey of grace, taking us to new understanding, compassion and, sometimes, forgiveness.

In the play Sir Thomas More, in which Shakespeare collaborated, there's a moment when More, the King's minister, is charged with quelling the Lonodon mob.

They're demanding that a whole community of migrant workers be summarily deported. More listens and then invites them to imagine:

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I'll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

Shakespeare our contemporary? No question.

Sunday, 20 April 2008


Drizzle, a chill breeze and a moleskin sky - and in April, too. Enough to lower the spirits of the most determined optimist.

Time for a therapeutic visit to Coventry Cathedral where, no matter how dull the weather outside, the great Baptistry window may be relied on to create a soul-charging whoosh of light, colour and glory.

Each pane of John Piper's composition is an exquisite abstract composition in its own right.

The colours are intensely rich, each pane luscious in itself, yet contributing to the totality of the work. Unity and diversity.

As a child I would ask my mother to take off her sapphire engagement ring. I would then hold the stone up to the light and squint through it, drinking in its deep, intense and almost overwhelming blueness.

I can still recall the faint, yearning ache behind the solar plexus that the experience induced.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Community choirs - and a surprise 'c'

A whole day of full-throated singing at the Community Choirs Festival, Warwick University.

Some twenty singing groups gathered, more or less filling the University's Butterworth Hall.

We learned songs and chants from around the world, took part in a call-and-response workshop with a Congolese leader, and, finally, performed our party pieces to one another.

Binding all together is the distinctive approach of the 'natural voice network' - which maintains that anyone can enjoy taking part in choral singing.

So, no auditions, no regimented rows, no printed music. We warm up, loosen up and learn by listening and repeating. It's fun, energizing and, for me, liberating and joy-inducing.

We closed with a South African farewell song:
Remember me, forget me not
Think of me, wherever you go
I am yours and you are mine
Remember me wherever you go

Lovely, rather haunting tune. The song was brought back from SA by a Cheltenham choir that has a strong link with the Diamond Singers, a choir of workers employed in the de Beers mines.

Part of the choir's role is to spread positive health messages, particularly related to HIV Aids.

Read the lyrics again. 'Remember Me' is in fact a very memorable, very timely reminder to carry and use condoms.

Maybe there's a 'natural voice' singing group near you.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Home thoughts

I discovered the Puffin Book in which this illustration appears in the Salisbury branch of WH Smith on a wet afternoon in September 1961. I was eleven years old.

By the time we had returned home I had read the first chapter. I had also become convinced that the author had written his story with me in mind, so closely did it match my criteria of 'a good read'.

Four London children, a couple of whom seemed to be roughly my age, are separated from their parents and obliged to move to the depths of the country. Lucky them.

They haven't, as in my case, been sent away to boarding school.

As it turns out, they have fallen on their feet, fetching up in an upmarket, deliciously gothic mansion, empty save for themselves, a starchy housekeeper, some maidservants and, of course, an elderly professor.

And is if that isn't enough, they discover that the house contains a 'portal' into an even more extraordinary parallel, magical world.

After a variety of adventures the four children are rewarded amply and are crowned kings and queens of their newfound homeland - an outcome, which, unaccountably, had not yet been my fate.

The fast-paced text was interspersed by line drawings by Pauline Baynes. The image shown above was - and remains - my favourite.

This charming sitting room is, in fact inside a cave. Cosy, or what? 

A real fire, tea, cake, books and agreeable, if slightly semi-human, company.

In short, my eleven-year-old idea of heaven.

The Faun is my favourite character: domesticated, self-sufficient and what used to be called 'a confirmed bachelor'. Does he look as if he enjoys a vigorous game of rugby? I don't think so.

He's a book-lover, and happily fond of the 'wrong' kinds of food. In addition, he's hospitable, musical, kindly, yet carrying with him a slight air of melancholy. 

And, of course, he's flawed, vulnerable and not entirely what he seems. 

Hmm, Mr Lewis, what could you be thinking of?

Others told me that the book was a fable about salvation - and, yes, I 'got' the allegory.

But for me, it was, is and always will be about this extraordinary little scene and the thoughts and feelings that it so magically conjures up....

Monday, 14 April 2008

Cross my plam with sliver....

Spelling test coming up? Might be helpful to, er, know in advance which pesky words to prepare?

Well, you won't need a crystle ball to know to give these 'seers' a wide berth.

(Thanks to my chum BJ for pics snapped recently in NYC.)

Reminds me of a friend who lived on the edge of historic Chelsea. Two elderly friends popped in en route to a visit of horticultural and herbal interest.

'We've always wanted to visit the Chelsea Psychic Garden,' confided one of them.

Or Kenneth Williams' mother on a visit to a cathedral, admiring its spectacular 'flying buttocks'.

Or Lou Willams on another occasion: 'Yes they're getting a big loan from the bank - but they'll have to put up some cholesterol.'

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Merchant of, er, Venice?

Shakespeare producttions and London buses - nothing for ages, then a whole bunch at once...

Over to Stratford on a breezy, blue spring evening for the first show in the new season.

You've guessed: that tricky one, the M of V, with a mainly very young cast directed by Tim Carroll, a new name to moi.

Carroll and his designer have gone for the more or less modern-dress option in a minimalist pinky-red setting.

Not much differentiation between the plays two settings: masculine world of Venice and Portia's upmarket base of Belmont. The famous casket scenes (when suitors attempt to solve the riddles that will allow them to win the sparky uber-heiress) appear to be set in an industrial deep freeze. (I'll check Bill's stage directions.)

And there was little attempt to acknowledge the play's central confrontation between Jewish and Gentile culture and faith.

Directorial approach reminded me of a nervous vet donning thick gauntlets to examine an unpredictable moggie - scared in case it bites or scratches.

So in terms of 'selling' the show to us, it was all down to the actors. They were perfectly adequate and audible: but to me they seemed underpowered and lacking confidence.

Shylock is many, many things. But reticent? Please.

But.... In the interval I overhear a boy (perhaps thirteen) asking mother: 'Is Shylock as baddie?'

As his mother said: 'That's a very good question.'

And if that one lad wants to come back for more Shakespeare, then I'm happy. There'll be many more shows for him to relish and which won't short-change him as this one has done.

Benedict Nightingale's review in The Times is spot-on.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Fountain of Tears

I'm probably the last one to do so, but I have just discovered the composer Osvaldo Golijov.

And what a composer - on the evidence of his oratorio/opera Ainadamar (Fountain of Tears), his music is richly romantic, dramatic, expressive and full of melody and beauty.

I was lucky enough to hear this work's UK premiere last night at Symphony Hall, Birmingham. I confess I was drawn, not by the opportunity to hear a new talent, but because of a rare chance to hear the work's star performer, the glorious American soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Ainadamar is based on the life and legacy of the left-wing Spanish poet and dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, who was murdered by fascists in 1936.

The piece lasted eighty minutes and my normally feeble attention didn't waver. It was scored for small-scale orchestra, augmented with two guitars, a women's chorus and a subtly integrated succession of recorded sound effects.

But above all it was the beauty and passion of the musical storytelling that gripped me. Glorious.

Find out more about Osvaldo Golijov if you wish, or read a review of Ainadmar.25 April
My enthusiasm for this piece has not been diminished by the drubbing it received from the London reviewers. Here are the thoughts of the Telegraph's Rupert Christiansen.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Enemy action

My parents were married in August 1946 at the Catholic church in Sidmouth, Devon.

I have one of the cards given to them on that day. It's handmade, with the front presenting a delicately painted watercolour image of a pine tree set in a misty landscape. A bird perches on a lower branch with a string in its beak on which two wedding rings hang.

The greeting is 'Congratulation on your wedding from...'

Inside are the signatures of twenty-six German prisoners of war. My father was their supervisor on the road-improvement project on which they were working prior to repatriation.

I'm pleased that they must have liked and respected my father enough to make this gift for him and his bride.

I'd imagine that quite a few of them are still alive, well on in their eighties and nineties.

Sunday, 6 April 2008


What could be more thrilling on a Saturday morning than a whooshing, whizzing, whirring journey through the car wash?

Yes, yes.... Mr Gnome is fully aware that said activity isn't going to gain him ANY green points.

But, oh, the slightly scary, out-of-control feeling of being conveyed inexorably through so much swirling water, frothing foam and hurricano blastings of pressured air.

Mr Gnome wonders if so much sensory delight can be entirely good for him....

But only for a second or two, before utterly abandoning himself to delirium.

As another unrepentant hedonist remarked: Poop, poop!

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Browns study

Mr Gnome is a firm believer in the anti-depressant properties of a square meal in pleasant surroundings.

Hence his enthusiastic endorsement of this splendid independent bar-cafe-restaurant in the centre of Coventry.

Browns is in the way of being a bit of an architectural gem as well, with an intriguing mixture of wood, stone, glass and copper - not too mention the bold, curvacious shaping of the interior.

There's a big menu and helpings are on the hurrah! side of big. Loads of fresh vegetables.

Tonight the HB relished his chicken and ham pie with carrots, cabbage and garliccy roast potatoes. All for £5.50.

Atmosphere is a wee bit bo-ho, but the place is clean and staff, including the wardrobe-wide doorman, are cheerful and efficient.