Thursday, 27 November 2008


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


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


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.