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


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.


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.