Monday, 28 December 2009

The Sacred Made Real

To the National Gallery to view this extraordinary exhibition of Spanish religious sculpture and painting from the seventeenth century: The Sacred Made Real.

As the title suggests, the works on show are religious images - and the majority have not come from art galleries, but from the churches where they remain objects of devotion.

For me the most striking are the sculptures which, according to the rigid craft demarcations of the era, were carved by one artist and later painted by another.

The aim was to create an almost theatrical illusion of reality, which would have been enhanced by the dramatic lighting of the space for which the works were created.

And, of course, the overall intention was to evoke contemplation, awe and sympathy in the viewer, thus inviting him or her to deeper devotion.

The subject matter is uniformly dark: friars contemplate the cross, a hooded Francis of Assisi gazes at a skull, and the head of John the Baptist lies on its plate, every sinew and artery of the severed neck rendered with surgical accuracy.

And then there are the images of Christ's passion: Jesus stands flayed and bleeding; he hangs dying upon the cross; or, as shown above, he lies stark and dead.

The message, expressed with brutal clarity, is of the human, physical reality of Christ's suffering and death: Ecce Homo - behold the man.

The effect, for me, in the darkened rooms of the Sainsbury Wing, was powerful, horrifying and, well, all a bit too much.

I guess it must be to with the presentation of these fearful images in isolation from the story that led up to them - and of the subsequent' third-day' event which transfigures them.

Without the context, the show seemed oppressive, gruesome and deeply morbid - an upmarket chamber of horrors.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Wise man

A Christmas cheer for Archbishop of York John Sentamu and his forthright condemnation of proposed anti-homosexual legislation in his native country of Uganda.

No stranger to persecution, John Sentamu was imprisoned under the regime of Idi Amin.

Under the proposed legislation homosexual people could face life imprisonment. And anyone who failed to report homosexual activity could face up to three years in jail.

The word 'draconian' seems inadequate.

Merry Christmas, Blue Budgie

Mr Gnome ends the year by celebrating those seemingly random positive moments that, of themselves, may seem minimal and trivial - but which, taken together, make life more colourful, more interesting and, in short, richer.

Take Blue Budgie, for example.

My daily walk to work takes me past numerous houses, but only one of them catches the eye - and that's the one with the brightly lit window in which Blue Budgie's cage may be glimpsed en passant.

Sometimes BB, as I now think of him/her, rests peacefully inside his roomy cage. But more often than not, is to be seen at liberty, sitting atop his/her home - or perching on a finger offered by a human co-resident.

BB, perky of demeanour, is clearly a valued member of the household, with his/her cage in a prime position where BB can both see and be seen.

A recent flurry of stylish Christmas decoration has taken place chez BB, and one morning this week I found myself dismayed to notice that the cage and its colourful owner were no longer visible.

Relief all round to discover yesterday that BB has returned to his/her usual position, presiding cheerfully over a household which seems primed to relish every aspect of the festive season.

Blue Budgie: small, cheerful, colourful, positive - and in his/her small way making a big difference.

No surprise then that Mr Gnome raises a robust 'Hurrah!' for this brightly be-feathered bird.

NB The picture above of a blue budgie was gathered from the Internet. Mr Gnome naturally respects the privacy of the real Blue Budgie and his/her family.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Bill's Christmas cat

Christmas feels like Christmas now that my friend Bill Sanderson's Christmas card has arrived.

It's exactly one year since I wrote about Bill and his remarkable artwork.

This year's is a gem, I feel.

Sunday, 20 December 2009


Mr Gnome apologises to readers (if any remain) for the Trappist-like silence that has enveloped the blog in recent weeks.

As always, Mr G's human operative willingly takes the blame. But in the spirit of 'never complain, never explain', we crave your indulgence and shall try to do better in the New Year.

The current cold weather has transformed the neighbourhood into a hard-edged winter world. The canal is frozen, giving ducks an opportunity to show off their triple Salcos. Fieldfares bob about in the hedgerows.

There's a new linked blog, by the way. All about my plans for June 2010.

Sunday, 29 November 2009


To London to hear and see English National Opera's new staging of Handel's Messiah.

One of the most popular works in the classical reportoire, Messiah is customarily produced on the concert platform with formal ranks of orchestra, chorus and soloists.

It's an excellent way to relish the composer's gloriously tuneful score and to be drawn in to librettist Charles Jenner's artful selection of texts from the King James version of the Bible, all of which invite us to ponder the identity and significance of Jesus Christ.

But this is definitely not a static concert performance. A huge cast of chorus, dancers, soloists and children conjure up a series of 'scenes' in which the familar choruses and arias are presented in a stylised, yet instantly recognizable, contemporary urban setting.

The spare design hints at offices, a school, the street, the park - an ordinary world, into which someone extraordinary is breaking in.

There's no attempt to offer a literal presentation of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the show is all the more powerful for the obliqueness of the images created on the vast stage of the London Coliseum: small boy, fizzing with energy, runs through the crowd; a young woman finds a stranger has left lilies on her bed; a classically clunky infants' nativity play, suddenly glows with numinous meaning; a young woman lies dying on a hospital bed....

All of the familar choruses and arias are presented in the correct order, magnificently sung by a cracking chorus and top-notch soloists - you can hear every word.

Warner's great achievement, in my view, is to present this great work with such freshness and imagination that it's as if we're seeing and hearing it for the first time.

I have no idea as to Deborah Warner's own belief in the words being sung. But what's beyond doubt is that she believes that they matter - and that the Messiah narrative is beautiful and meaningful and transformative. It makes a difference.

A great way to begin another Advent season.

Year end

Advent Sunday - a good time to emerge from one's customary self-delusion that the year is far from over.

The Christmas picture-card is ready - thanks to the annual struggle with the wonderful Comic Life software. This is graphic design for the technically challenged, delightfully easy to use and providing sound effects (squeak, creak, grind, whoosh) as one shuffles the image around the screen, adding captions and speech bubbles at will.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Fresh air and fun

Mr Gnome remains semi-prostrated by the sensory overload of his recent first - and much too brief - visit to the northern Nirvana that is Blackpool.

Thanks to kind and generous hosts, we relished the full-on Blackpool experience beginning early on Friday evening with an al fresco fish-and-chip supper from the Number One Chip Shop, in Bispham at the top end of the sea front.

A short walk through driving rain took us to the start of the famous illuminations and the splendid street-side 'tableaux', free-standing installations on variety of themes. My favourite was the delightfully dodgy ancient Egyptian display, featuring animated mummies. You can't say pharaoh than that...

Soaked to the skin, we returned to the car and viewed the remainder of the illuminations from its steamy interior. We agreed that the monsoon conditions only served to enhance the dazzlement of the display.

The following day brought clear skies and sunshine for our walk along the promenade, starting from the world's biggest glitterball and continuing to the Tower.

Then we hopped aboard a tram and rattled northwards to the ancient fishing port of Fleetwood, whizzing past the gleaming exterior of the ultra-modern Fishmerman's Friend factory.

A short walk down Pharos Street took us to Fleetwood's best-kept secret: the Dolphin Cafe, a chip shop with a tip-top restaurant in the backroom. Fish and chips, mushy peas, bread and butter, pot of tea. Authenticity doesn't come more authentic.

Hurrah for the cheerful delights of Blackpool, says Mr Gnome.

He'll be back.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


In Holland recently, I spent a quiet hour in the Oosterbeek Cemetery near Arnem, tended with remarkable care by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Officers and private soldiers lie side by side, their gravestones simple and uniform: name, age, regiment, a religious symbol - or, on many, the spare inscription 'Known to God'.

Nearby is the remarkable Airborne Museum, commemorating the events following the launch of Opertaion Market Garden in the autumn of 1944.

I was particularly struck by the inscription on the stone outside the museum - and as another Armistice Day comes around, I shall let it speak for itself.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Life cycles

As winter approaches with its customary inexorable inexorability, Mr Gnome is already casting his thoughts forward to the summer of next year.

In particular, he is embarking on a period of rigorous preparation for a journey to be undertaken by his human associate in June 2010.

No prizes for guessing that the proposed month-long quest will be by bicycle.

The route? Well, at this stage we're simply indicating that it will start with St Just and end, all being well, with St Magnus.

In due course the project will have its own website / blog.

And yes, you've guessed, we shall be inviting sponsorship for a very worthwhile cause: Falcon Camps, a programme of residential adventure holidays for children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

More news soon.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Quintessentially Dutch

Mr Gnome has returned from a brief visit to the Netherlands buzzing with enthusiasm for our charming neighbours across the North Sea.

He relished, in no particular order:
  • the people: dignified, kindly, helpful and healthy-looking - must be all that...
  • cycling: travel by bike is totally built in to the the Dutch transport system, the whole culture, in fact. Of course, geography helps. But we could learn so much from our neighbours
  • applegebak: not exactly apple pie. Deeper, fuller, richer. Omnipresent. Lekker!
  • the Mauritshuis Museum in Den Haag. A treasure box on three floors of a grand, but not overwhelming, seventeenth-century mansion, housing some of the greatest works of the Dutch 'golden age': Rembrandt's 'Anatomy Lesson' and Vermeer's 'The Girl with a Pearl Earring'
  • trains: Mr Gnome couldn't get enough of the zippy doubledecker commuter trains
  • Delft and Leiden: what could be more beguiling than wandering the streets of these university cities on a crisp, autumnal day?
  • Hortus Botanicus: the University of Leiden's ancient botanical gardens were a serendipitous discovery. Glorious. And free - such a bonus for a Euro-strapped gnome.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009


How to define a term as slippery as 'cool'? I've a feeling that any attempt in that direction would be, well, more than a little un-cool.

I'll content myself with a modest certainty that I recognize it when I see it.

Take last Sunday afternoon.

A gentleman, en route to a 'do', has had the misfortune of his car breaking down.

The members' rescue service comes to his aid.

To have the AA arrive promptly may be regarded as good fortune.

But to have its red, yellow and black livery blend exactly with your clan's tartan?

That's cool.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Happy day

Mr Gnome was possibly the smallest of the many guests who gathered in Leamington Spa to celebrate with Ben and Richard (top) their recent lifetime commitment and civil partnership.

Ben and Richard, kind and generous to a fault, benignly overlooked Mr Gnome's flouting of their gentle encouragement that all guests should fall in with the day's 'black and white' theme.

This minute faux pas was overshadowed by the style and panache with which the human guests of all ages proved the power and impact of a 'restricted palette'.

No surprise then that the day also provided a checkerboard of contrasting moods and emotions as we were invited to join Ben and Richard in looking back at the journey that has brought them thus far.

Our hosts were at pains to acknowledge with grace and humour, the many roles that family and friends had played in their story.

And, with modest sincerity, they left us in no doubt of the centrality of their 'faith journeys' to their decision to make this public commitment.

Here's the text of the address given during the service.

Mr Gnome had a ball and has decided that 'by sporran' is to be his new transport of choice.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

The trouble with homonyms

So all-consuming was the routine of boarding school that I rarely gave a thought to what life was like for my schoolfellows when we returned to our various home for the holidays.

A boy named Piers was the exception, simply because his descriptions of his life at home included an element that was, to me, utterly entrancing.

He told me that he spent all of his spare time 'at the wreck'.

The wreck? How totally fantastic. I pictured him and his chums playing pirates more or less for real: shinning up the fraying rigging, crawling over the quarterdeck and descending into the murky depths of the hold in search of doubloons, pieces of eight and all forms of piratical paraphernalia.

How I envied Piers.

Years later, while visiting friends, I asked where their children were.

'Oh they're playing down at the wreck - let's walk down there an collect them.'

My heart skipped a beat and I accompanied them with a certain amount of eager anticipation, combined with a hint of concern at the parents' matter-of-fact attitude to the extraordinary privilege bestowed on their children.

We reached our destination soon enough.

No galleon, no rotting timbers, no flutterimg skull-and-cross-bones. Instead, a grassy field, some goal posts, a metal climbing frame, some swings.

In fact, a perfectly serviceable municipal recreation ground. The Rec.

The scales fell: possibly the most poignant disillusionment of my life thus far.

The picture is the work of the talented artist L M Lowry.

Friday, 18 September 2009


Occasional fashion maven Mr Gnome offers his advice to stars of stage and screen, particularly when a looming date with a red carpet propels them into a state of semi-paralysed 'frock shock'.

Such was the sad condition of the dazzling Cate Blanchett when she called up Mr G a few days ago from her home in the Antipodes.

It was a matter of moments for Mr Gnome to point CB in the direction of fashion's 'next big thing' - the retro-licious 'crocheted by my mum' look.

Think 1970s, think ponchos, think shirts with rounded collars, think big patterns - and then go bigger.

To be frank, a close look at Ms Blanchett's fabulous frock prompted moments of semi-spooky deja vu. My late mother, an enemy to idle hands, created umpteen cosy blankets from woollen squares, dispatching then on completion to one or other of the world's trouble spots.

Could one have found its way down under?

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Setting a Bard example

No stranger to the commendation 'You're a brick', Mr Gnome has impulsively turned metaphor to reality by sponsoring a 'brick in the wall' of the transformed Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

To be frank, Mr G's action is motivated by equal measures of charity and exasperation.

For months he's been overhearing my frequently repeated statement: 'I must get around to making a donation to the RST's Transformation project.'

Justifiably piqued by human procrastination, Mr G has taken matters into his own small but capable hands - and, voila, a brick has been laid, and a rather charming certificate issued.

And, shamed by a gnome, I have finally done the right thing and sponsored a brick on my own behalf, requesting that it be dedicated to Dom Gregory Miller, about whom more later...

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Awning gap?

Would-be restaurant reviewer Mr Gnome commented enthusiastically last year on Leamington Spa's tip-top La Coppola eatery.

As well as commending its value-for-money menu and cheerful service, Mr G noted that La Coppola's unusual frontage made a charming and colourful addition to the town-centre streetscape.

Fast-forward to now and the distressing news that owners Charlotte and Parham Ahmadi are obliged to remove the awnings, shutters and window boxes that lend their premises its zestful individuality.

It seems that Warwick District Council's building inspector Keith Turner feels that the ground-floor awning has 'unbalanced the architectural harmony' of the terrace.

And according to the report in the Leamington Spa Courier, he also opines that 'the upstairs awnings "completely alter" the appearance of the building and their bright colour is "out of place and unduly conspicuous".'

Oh please, sighs Mr Gnome.

La Coppola is conspicuous? How dreadful.

It's colourful? Quelle horreur.

It has unbalanced the street's architectural harmony?

Of course it has, opines Mr G. In the way that a ray of sunshine unbalances a blah day.

Mr G urges Mr Turner to relax, pour himself a crisp glass of Frascati and allow a hint of whatever is the Italian equivalent of bonhomie to steal into his soul.

It's not too late to change your mind, Mr T.

Resist blandness, proclaims Mr Gnome.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Sojourner Truth

I'm ashamed to admit that until today I knew nothing of the remarkable Isabella Baumfree (1797-1883).

Born into slavery in Swartekill, New York, Isabella grew up to be a fearless campaigner for abolition, temperance and the rights of women, choosing to rename herself Sojourner Truth.

Her lifespan stretched from the earliest years of the United States to the reconstruction following the devastation of the Civil War. My two great-aunts were young children at the time of her death.

Her activism was based firmly on her Christian faith.

I guess that Truth, as an old woman, may have felt a certain satisfaction at the progress that had been made in her lifetime. Never again in the United States would her experience as a nine-year-old be repeated: she was sold as a 'job lot' along with 100 sheep - for $100.

She's possibly best remembered for her speech 'And ain't I a woman?'

A great woman whose name should be better known.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Fancy this

Finding himself in his local M&S today, Mr Gnome swiftly abandoned himself to the timeless allure of the fondant fancy.

How to classify this very particular confection? For Mr Gnome, the FF is a wee bit too special for an ordinary tea or coffee break, freighted as it is with memories of formal 'high tea', where its pastel cheeriness would enliven the table with an air of frou-frou frivolity.

While a substantial, home-made (of course) cake would be the unquestioned diva of the tea-table, the fondant fancy was its sparky soubrette - its irrepressible charm enhanced by a hint of larky vulgarity.

If there's anything to cake-related re-incarnation, one can predict how the glorious Barbara Windsor will be coming back.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Gene therapy

It's not every day that Mr Gnome has an opportunity to meet an American bishop.

By the same token, it's not every day that American bishops get to meet Mr G.

This particular prelate is the Right Rev Gene Robinson, Bishop of New Hampshire.

As this episcopally epiphanic snapshot indicates, both parties appear to be equally chuffed by the encounter, which took place today at the splendid Greenbelt Arts Festival, sited on Cheltenham race course.

Bishop Gene had been drawing large and attentive crowds to his festival talks and lectures. Later he took time to chat with festival-goers while signing copies of his recent book The Eye of the Storm.

Charming and softly spoken, Bishop Gene was unfased by his meeting with Mr G, welcoming the impromptu photo-op without a trace of gnomophobia.

With typical diffidence, the bishop inquired: 'Am I big in Gnomeland?'

Responding through his spokesperson, Mr G stated robustly: 'Bishop Gene, you're absolutely huge.'

Sunday, 23 August 2009


To the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, for the very first performance of a new play by the sibling writing team of Vyacheslav and Mikhail Durnenkov.

In just under two hours, the pay follows hapless soldier Ilya's return to his hometown after service in the Chechnya war.

Ilya's head injury has left him slow of speech and movement - and with a highly dangerous intolerance for alcohol. And the authors make it plain that in this dreary Russian 'Anytown', having an intolerance to vodka is as problematic as being allergic to water.

So bleak and monochrome is the lifestyle depicted that hitting the bottle seems an entirely appropriate survival strategy.

Ilya's homecoming kicks off with the discovery that his wife has taken up with a new man, and that his little boy has no idea who he is. Then things start to go downhill.

An election is in the offing and each candidate is desperate to have an endorsement from the returning 'hero'. Cue high-definiton depictions of the boorish mayor, the loopily sadistic police chief (he has a Nazi weaponry 'thing') and the seemingly honourable editor of the the local paper.

I followed Ilya's entanglements with this unholy Trinity with a growing sense of despair and sadness, which continued to the play's predictably anguished conclusion.

By now you'll have worked out that The Drunks is not a chuckle-fest. And it was probably wise of the RSC to write to ticket-buyers to warn them of the play's scabrous language.

And yet the 'stage world' created by director Anthony Neilson, designer Tom Piper and the brilliant cast remains uncomfortably and insistently in my head.

I'd like the play to be a grotesque exaggeration of 'life now' in parts of eastern Europe. Maybe it is. Maybe not.

I guess I need to find out.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


My parents were married on Monday 19 August 1946, my mother's thirty-eighth birthday.

And here they are stepping out into the sunshine from the Church of the Most Precious Blood, Sidmouth, Devon.

The bride looks smart in her suit (she would have said 'costume', with the stress on the second syllable) and rather daring hat.

Rationing, my mother's status as a widow and her no-nonsense views on unnecessary expense provide clues, if any are needed, to the absence of a conventional wedding dress.

(The photographer subsequently adapted the print, thoughtfully blanking out the smiling lady who unintentionally causes my mother to look as if she has two heads.)

Marrying at an age when many couples are moving towards grandparenthood, the newlyweds are smilingly unaware of the speed with which they are about to be engulfed by family life.

By the time their fourth wedding anniversary arrived, they were parents to three boys.

My father (born 1900) lived another thirteen years. This November brings the fiftieth anniversary of his death.

Today brings the sixty-third anniversary of their marriage - and my late mother's 101st birthday.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Don't tell Gabriel

Eager to keep up with trends in popular music, Mr G read this magazine mini-review with considerable interest.

The subject is a recent concert performance by the New York band Antony and the Johnsons, whose lead singer is the extraordinary performer Antony Hegarty.

It was the reviewer's description of Hegarty's remarkable vocal abilities that brought Mr G up short.

'Smooth tones'? Hurrah!

'Perfect annunciation'?


Monday, 17 August 2009

Towelling inferno

Mr Gnome, inconspicuous when it pleases him to be so, takes a breezily insouciant attitude to a topic that causes considerable consternation to many of his human chums - the tricky business of changing on the beach.

Make that his friends from the UK.

His continental copins and copines seem non-plussed by the British 'thing' with making the transition, sur le plage, from streetwear to beachwear - that whole shuffling, hopping, wriggling towel-clenching ballet, which, in the end, often farcically reveals more than it so desperately wishes to conceal.

But, should any of his readers be losing sleep at the prospect of beach-related changing 'issues' on their upcoming hols, Mr G is delighted to offer a solution that is as stylish as it is simple - and, given the colour combos displayed above, sizzlingly sassy.

Posing cheerily on Cornwall's uber-cool Praa beach, fashionista KW effortlessly proves the truth that more is more as he models this red-hot personal mini tent-ette.

Engulfed in this towelling triumph, one is able to don one's boardies with style, confidence and, let's admit it, more than a little chutzpah.

Envious? Deal with it.

This is a one-off 'vintage' item, created in the 1960s by K's grandfather, who, had he given his design skills free rein, would by now be a name to rival, if not eclipse, those of Armani and Klein.

(Note the stylish elan with which K's orange-framed shades echo the zingy tones of the fabric. Retro-tastic, huh?)

Want the pattern? Mr G will be happy to link inquirers with the couturier in question.

Picture credit: Fi B

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Need a boost? Turn to . . .

Isn't it fab when someone enthuses so communicatively and un-boringly about a challenging pet topic (mountaineering, python-taming, extreme ironing) that you feel you could jolly well give said activity a go yourself?

Such was the can-do spirit instilled in me recently after listening to my friend JD talking with great warmth about the pleasure and solace he'd gained from reading a celebrated series of seven lengthy novels.

Far from being a slog, this literary marathon soon became a pleasure trip, engrossing, enthralling and utterly absorbing. I gained the impression that my friend would greet the discovery a further seven volumes with robust hurrahs.

JD read the books in translation from the original French.

And it's at this point that I'll make my admissions.

I know two other people, good friends, who've read these books - and both are fluent enough in French to have read them in the original.

I've also confided to both of them that, long ago, I'd actually set out from base camp and started novel number one...

Both made the same response, asking: 'In the original..?'

To which I replied in the negative - and with strong sense that, even had I got through all seven, my achievement would, in their view, be ever-so-slighty not up to snuff.

To be fair, my reaction probably said more about a sense of inferiority on my part, rather than any snootiness on theirs - but, whatever, I was discouraged.

So, I'm determined to allez-y and set out again. JD's winsome bigging-up of these books has made me hungry.

The books in question? The picture offers a teensy clue...

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Morris major

How unutterably unsurprising that Mr Gnome is a lifelong devotee of the sinuously sumptuous fabric designs of Victorian arts-and-crafts maestro William Morris.

Dating from 1886, the Chrysanthemum design has remained in production ever since.

The curtains in which Mr G is swathing himself were purchased in 1977 (darker fabric) and 1987 - and have been in more or less constant use.

The designs enjoyed a massive revival in 1970s. Sadly they were frequently 'scaled up' in line with the tastes of the time, often to proportions grotesquely beyond the modest intentions of the originals. The impression created was overpowering, to say the least, and, unsurprisingly, the Morris revival went the way of penny collars and day-glo tank tops.

But, to my eye, these designs remain as fresh, rich and, well, gorgeous as ever.

Mr Gnome's comment? 'Blogging about curtains? Oh please. And you fantasize about film rights..?'

Friday, 14 August 2009

Shaw thing

George Shaw was born in 1966 in the Tile Hill district of Coventry, which continues to be the subject of a remarkable series of paintings.

Shaw paints on board, using old-fashioned Humbrol enamel paints, creating a surface of rich luminosity that, in my view, is impossible to reproduce faithfully on paper or on screen.

I discovered Shaw by accident when I dropped in at Birmingham's Ikon Gallery some years ago and discovered a major exhibition of his work. Big impact.

The images seem bathed in light and, always devoid of human figures, seem to invite us to view these very 'ordinary' council-estate scenes with fresh eyes.

Rather like the painter Jeremy Duncan, Shaw seems eager to turn aside from subjects that are traditionally associated with landscape painting: the seashore, the mountains, the garden, the country estate.

And in so doing, he challenges us to look again, to question our definitions of 'beautiful' and, perhaps, to extend our understanding of the sacred...

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


January 1961 and our mother has taken us to London for our first taste of the metropolis. (The celebrated 'empty' plinth is clearly visible top left.)

It's taken for granted that one dresses up for London. Full school uniform for us and best coat, gloves and hat for our mother.

I'd looked forward to the visit keenly, picturing a city a-gleam with noble architecture. In reality, London had yet to emerge from post-War austerity - and the midwinter mists served to deepen the mood of melancholy neglect.

But we had a fab time, with treat after treat: lunch at a Lyon's Corner House, pigeon feeding, a climb up the tower of Westminster Cathedral, a visit to Madame Tussaud's and the London Planetarium.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Last Post

To mark the death of WW1 veterans Henry Allingham and Harry Patch, this morning Radio 4's Today programme broadcast a poem commissioned from new Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

Last Post

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If poetry could tell it backwards, true, begin
that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud…
but you get up, amazed, watch bled bad blood
run upwards from the slime into its wounds;
see lines and lines of British boys rewind
back to their trenches, kiss the photographs from home-
mothers, sweethearts, sisters, younger brothers
not entering the story now
to die and die and die.
Dulce- No- Decorum- No- Pro patria mori.
You walk away.

You walk away; drop your gun (fixed bayonet)
like all your mates do too-
Harry, Tommy, Wilfred, Edward, Bert-
and light a cigarette.
There's coffee in the square,
warm French bread
and all those thousands dead
are shaking dried mud from their hair
and queuing up for home. Freshly alive,
a lad plays Tipperary to the crowd, released
from History; the glistening, healthy horses fit for heroes, kings.

You lean against a wall,
your several million lives still possible
and crammed with love, work, children, talent, English beer, good food.
You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile.
If poetry could truly write it backwards,
then it would.

(This text will be removed as soon as it is no longer freely available via the BBC website.)

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Flu in

Mr Gnome, with as good a grace as he can muster, supervises the medication routine in a household currently isolated by the widespread flu virus.

A call this morning to the government's advisory service was answered instantly and helpfully. A simple questionnaire led to a positive assessment and I was issued with a collection number for the Tamiflu antiviral medication.

A kind friend collected the tablets on my behalf and dropped them on my doorstep.

All very efficient. Now it's simply a matter of staying at home until I'm no longer a risk to others. Nice to get it over with.

Over and out.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Every prospect

High on the Cotswold escarpment, Mr Gnome spies stormy weather coming up across the distant Malvern Hills.

The location is Dover's Hill, above the market town of Chipping Campden.

Once a year the peace of this pastoral idyll is rumbustiously shattered by the ancient antics of Robert Dover's Olimpick Games.

Among the many events featured is the not particularly health-and-safety-friendly activity of shin-kicking.

An event, now he comes to think about it, at which he might excel...

Friday, 24 July 2009

Well above Parr

Serendipity, the life-enhancing arrival of happy happenstance, keeps on happily happening for Mr Gnome and his human associate.

Along comes an outrageously generous birthday gift (from super-chum RF): a superbly produced large-format book featuring the extraordinary work of the British photographer Martin Parr.

How kind.

A few days later, one finds oneself (as one very occasionally does) in a big city with a few hours to spare before departure for home.

The city was Paris, so I decided to check out the gallery nearest to my friends' apartment; the magnificent Jeu de Paume, on the corner of the Place de la Concorde.

And, as vast amounts of posterage proclaimed, the current show was Planet Parr. One was speechless.

I have to say it is well worth the nine euros entry fee. This is a big, serious show - and there was more on dispaly than I could properly examine in the time available.

Parr's photographs are, well, 'very Martin Parr'. I guess the broad category is documentary. The majority are of people in everyday situations: at home, on a weekend excursion, at the club - or on holiday.

Parr tends to pump up the saturated colour in his images, giving clothes, furntiure, wallpaper and faces a look-at-me prominence. Combined with the seemingly random, unposed compositions, these da-glo pictures can seem borderline freakish.

But, the more you look, the more you realise that you're not being invited to look at 'them'. Parr's eye is essentially compassionate. The invitation is to look at ourselves.

In fact, photographs form only a small part of the show. Vast amounts of space are taken up with images from photographers who infleunced Parr.
And then there is his extraordinary collection of objects: postcards, tea-trays, posters, memorabilia.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Is Paris burning?

How ripping to be barreling to Paris in the hyper-efficient comfort of the Eurostar train.

Two hours and twenty minutes from the faux-gothic splendor of St Pancras to the marginally less splendid Gare du Nord.

Well, it should have taken that length of time. Ten minutes before we were due to buffer-nudge our destination, the train stopped.

There was a trackside fire in the Saint Denys district and we were obliged to await the ministrations of the Parisian pompiers to extinguish the blaze.

The delay lasted a good ninety minutes, causing Mr Gnome and I to miss the 'Suprise!' element of the 'surprise' fiftieth birthday to which we were heading.

Bonjour tristesse?

Well, not really. Both gnome and human stiffened their upper lips and sat it out, pluckily. Having a substantial AS Byatt to hand was a indeed a boon.

The Eurostar staff could not have been more calmly professional and communicative, offering updates every ten minutes - and opening external doors to cool us down. The air-conditioning stopped along with the train.

Gnome and Human arrived at the party dramatically (two hours and fifteen minutes) en retard.

Fortunatlely, the birthday boy knew nothing of our delay as he wasn't aware we had been invited in the first place. So our entrance was not without its element of eclat. Satisfying.

And the cloud had an argent lining: our next Eurostar trip will carry a 50% compensatory reduction.


Sunday, 19 July 2009

Open house

A Bard time was had by all today at the splendid RSC Open Day jamboree at Stratford-upon-Avon.

Visitors not in the know may have needed shock treatment, given the on-street prevalence of so many men, women and children suffering from hideous facial scarring - and all of them smiling contentedly. Casualties (bottom right) were all, of course, courtesy of the RSC makeup department.

In past years, the town has been awash with thespian Sirs and Dames participating in the Open Day's dizzying array of activities - everything from scholarly text sessions to revelatory exposures of the intimate ministrations of the Company's small army of backstage dressers.

But this time, canny RSC executive director Vikki Heywood (top left) managed to pull off a truly star-trumping coup de theatre.

She welcomed visitors, for the very first time, to a privileged glimpse of what's going on within the Royal Shakespeare Theatre itself, currently undergoing a massive three-year transformation project.

So today I was able to stand on what will be the Company's main stage (top right) and view the auditorium that has replaced the vast 1930s theatre where I've seen dozens of performances since my first RSC show in, ahem, 1967.

And it looks to me as if Ms Heywood and her team are well on their way to making good their promise of creating a major 'theatre space' that will be simultaneously epic and intimate. The acting area is vast, but it is encompassed on three sides by a three-level 'audience space' in which everyone is remarkably close to the action.

I'm excited.

It'll be a while before the players are able to tread the renewed boards: the contractors are due to hand over the building to the Company in July 2010.

Middle row shows friendly architect Alasdair McKenzie (right) and Tim Court (project manager) on site to answer questions.

Bottom left: Open Day ended with the company director Greg Doran ruffing up the partcipants in the annual Great Shakespeare Quiz.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Hold it!

I'm sure that zillions of amateur snappers will recognise the regret of allowing shyness, diffidence or good old British reserve to make a barrier between camera and a potential subject.

Heading across the Jubilee Footbridge on Saturday morning, I couldn't help noticing these two gentlemen who were walking towards me.

Absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about them, except for one fact: they both seemed to be very, very happy. Nothing more, nothing less.

And I passed them, and walked on.

Then I paused, reflected - and ran back to them to ask if I might take a picture.

As the picture indicates, they needed no persuasion.

So this is to celebrate Steve (left) and Iglesias - and their happy traversing of the Thames on Saturday 11 July 2009.

May all their journeying be as happy.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Diva fever

Mr Gnome alerts his friends to the fact that this is definitely not everyone's
tasse de the.

The glorious lushness of the songs of Richard Strauss is not universally appreciated. But for many listeners, these works become a bit of an addiction.

This very short song 'Zueignung' is a perfect example. In three verses, the lyric conveys an almost ecstatic sense of gratitude for the life-transforming power of love, each verse ending with 'Habe dank' ('Be thanked.')

Here the great soprano Jessye Norman gives it her not inconsiderable all in a performance that combines total vocal assurance with, well, a thrilling experience of joyful release and benediction.

If you get it, you get it. If you don't, you'll see and hear a big woman make a lot of noise while waving her arms around.

And for anyone who has heard Norman perform on the concert platform, it will be a reminder of the power of this remarkable artist, who, with imperious ease, re-defined the concept of Diva in her glory days of the Eighties and Nineties.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

The trees are singing

To Hereford and the Cathedral Close, to view Jemma Pearson's rather wonderful sculpture of Edward Elgar who lived in the town shortly before WW1.

Cycling attire has come a long way since the de rigeur Edwardian costume of tweedy jacket, plus-fours and boots. One feels that, compared to contemporary Lycra, EE's stylish 'look' has much to recommend it.

In the manner of the new Betjemann sculpture at St Pancras Station, this is very much a 'site specific' work - with the cathedral dramatically involved as Elgar, manuscript notebook in hand, gazes up at its tower.

Pearson has lovingly recreated Elgar's splendid Sunbeam cycle, which he nicknamed 'Mr Phoebus'. Such is the attention to detail that one can identify the saddle as manufactured by Brooks, the ne plus ultra of cycle saddlery.

I'm more than a little excited to discover that, in terms of personal comfort a-wheel, the great composer and I have so much in common.

The plinth carries the inscription: 'This is what I hear all day - the trees are singing my music - or am I singing theirs?'

Later I was delighted to discover that the cycle shop, pictured below continues to flourish close by. This unashamedly old-fashioned establishment may well have been trading in Elgar's day.

It was certainly going strong in 1987 when I purchased from it my Dawes Galaxy (complete with Brooks saddle).

Said bike has just been through its umpteenth service and is girding its bottom bracket for a major ride in 2010. Watch this space.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

K, Mr K and Ak

Almost thirty years separate these pictures of my friend KB.

The first was snapped in the spring of 1980, when K and his father invited me to join them on the family's boat to celebrate K's ninth birthday.

The location is the Gastineau Channel, near the city of Juneau in south-east Alaska.

I was nearing the end of my year as a US/UK exchange teacher, working with a third grade class at a local elementary school, where K was one of my students.

K was one of those children who come along every so often in a teacher's career: bright, inquisitive, eager, puzzling, funny, thoughtful - and voracious.

With K, it wasn't a case of him keeping up with what I was attempting to teach. The big worry was that I wouldn't keep up with him, so rapidly did he Hoover up the work.

Fortunately, it was here that my exchange teacher's 'unique selling point' came into play.

I'd brought with me a stack of materials about varied aspects of British life and culture: Guy Fawkes, red letter boxes, postage stamps and, my trump card, the Royals.

This was in those deferential pre-Diana days, when the Top Family was riding high after the success of the Silver Jubilee of 1977 - and was more or less divorce-free.

Consequently the simple family-tree diagram I'd prepared made it easy to see who was related to whom over several generations of assorted Windsors.

K was particularly intrigued and, under his own steam, began researching his family and forebears.

The busy school year rattled on to its conclusion. I left Juneau, travelled the Alaska Highway and celebrated my thirtieth birthday at the Grand Canyon - and returned reluctantly to the slightly less than Alaska-rugged milieu of my home and school in southern England.

In subseqent years I kept up Christmas-card contacts with K's family until, inevitably, changes of address (and my carelessness) ended such exchanges.

Until about ten years ago, when thanks to the www revolution, we re-established contact.

K, a man of deep and questing faith, now lives in Utah where he serves voluntarily on the staff of the local Roman Catholic Cathedral. And he pursues an international career as a genealogical researcher and lecturer.

The up-to-date picture comes from K's recent visit to the glaciers of Argentina.

I'm proud to count K among my friends.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

The wrong trousers....

Persistent pedagogue Mr Gnome is forever emphasizing the importance of giving credit where it's due. Hence today's story.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that conventional male trousering is unsuitable for cycling, particularly when astride a drop-handlebar machine as pictured above (my 22-year-old Dawes Galaxy).

It's a pocket-design thing. Stuff falls out. Sensible people wear specialist clothing - or empty their pockets prior ro departure.

No prizes for guessing that, when pedalling the short distance to work today, I chose to ignore this wise counsel, absent-mindedly bunging my wallet in my trouser pocket as I left the house.

I didn't notice that the wallet was missing until lunchtime, whereupon I abandoned myself to a protracted bout of searching, wailing and self-recrimination.

Next I picked up the phone and cancelled my cards.

And then my phone rang.

A charming woman informed me that her son had found my wallet and had identified me as its owner thanks to presence within of my change-of-address card. It was awaiting collection at her house.

So in the wonderful economy of human interchange, my act of foolishness was countered by a deed of straightforward honesty and kindness.

Hence the fact that I'm celebrating the integrity of one local teenager, and of the family and school that have helped to shape those values in him.

I wouldn't dream of embarrassing him by mentioning his name. But here's a link to his school.

Thank you very much.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Obama's People

Obeying his whim of iron, Mr Gnome made a summer Sunday beeline for Birmingham and allowed Serendipity to do the rest....

His splendid discovery was the highly impressive photographic exhibiiton Obama's People, hosted by that glorious people's palace the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum.

Following last November's election, the New York Times commissioned photographer Nadav Kander to create a series of portraits of the men and women of the new administration - from the Vice-President to the presidential body-guard.

And here they are, portrayed in big, rather stark images of a remarkably diverse group of people.

Some gaze impassively into the camera, others glance away, a few seem eager to please and one or two have a look of 'Why me?' astonishment.

Curator Rhonda Wilson (of arts company Rhubarb Rhubarb) was on hand to give an engaging talk in which she sketched the series of events which led to this high-profile art show coming not to Washington DC, New York or Paris - but to Birmingham.

(Although she didn't toot her own trumpet, it became pretty apparent that much of the credit for this curatorial coup should go to the energetic Ms Wilson herself.)

The exhibition captures something of the spirit of optimism that powered Obama's journey to the White House.

Let's pray that Obama and his people keep faith with us - and we with them.

Although photography is not allowed in the show, Rhonda kindly agreed to pose beside her favourite portrait - that of 24-year-old Keeper of-the Presidential Contacts Book Eugene Kang.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

A modest proposal

Cheerful of disposition, robust of character and tolerant to a fault, Mr Gnome eschews the moan, the whinge and the complaint. By which point the reader is doubtless well prepared for the arrival of....

But, Mr G feels a mildly overwhelming urge to offer a few apercus on the topic of the mobile telephone, as evidenced by that omnipresent modern phenomenon - the ringtone.

In his experience, many of these aural annunciations can be described by the words in the upper segment posted above.

Loud, insistent and intrusive, they karate-chop their way into daily life with their bold-as-brass tones as if to say: 'Hurry up! Answer me! Now! At once! Jump to it!'

Oh please, sighs Mr Gnome. Too, too wearying for words.

Needless to say, he is inordinately pleased with telephone tones that may be described by the words on the peaceful white background.

A glissando of harp strings, a ping as of a celeste, a bluesy solo clarinet - these and many other choices are perfectly audible, alerting the phone owner to an incoming call or text. But they do so with modesty and discretion.

Not racketing in with a gallumphing self-advertisment that would make Atilla the Hun look like Julie Andrews.

Chill, says Mr Gnome.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

La Coppola

Mr Gnome, generous to a peccadillo, is keen to 'big up' a splendid addition to the Leamington Spa food firmament.

To be honest, his experience of La Coppola on Regent Street is limited to one winter-evening visit some months ago.

That said, he enjoyed a jolly evening of excellent food and characterful, Italian service.

In addtion, the restaurant's frontage makes a charming, colourful and stylish contribution to the town's streetscape.

Jolly folly

Born plain Mary Mackay in Glasgow, the writer Marie Corelli was, in terms of sales and celebrity, the Jilly Cooper of the Edwardian book trade.

In her later years she settled at Mason Croft in Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon, where she relished the role of the grandest of local grandes dames.

As befitted a life of such dizzying upward mobility, Corelli had constructed in her graden this charming folly, where, ensconced above the elm trees, she could muse and pen her next bestseller.

Possibly less idyllic when viewed from point of view of the servant who had to climb the stairs in all weathers to clean the grate and re-fill the coal scuttle.

Ever hospitable, Madame Corelli hosted parties on the Avon aboard her gondola, imported from Venice.

Bringing a Venetian gondola to Warwickshire betokens a certain level of style.

Madame Corelli went a step further - and imported the gondolier as well.

And that, for me , equals chutzpah.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Browns study

So regular and enjoyable are Mr Gnome's visits to this buzzingly popular Oxford eatery, that he's astonished to discover he's been blogging for almost two years - and has yet to bestow his accolade upon it.

To be honest, Browns is managing pretty well without any bigging up from Mr G.

In terms of medium-priced eating out, Browns ticks every possible box: a straightforward menu of well-cooked, substantial dishes; attentive, friendly, speedy service; pleasing decor; nice loos - and excellent opportunities for people-watching among the diverse, all-age clientele.

Tonight an elderly gent at next table sported a cherishable Victorian smoking cap.

Mr G reckons that over the last decade he has eaten at Browns roughly five times per year - and the standards of vale and service have been consistent throughout.

With the young, cheerful staff gearing up for this week's graduation onrush, Professor Gnome is delighted to confer a Starred First.


Sunday, 21 June 2009

His beautiful laundrette

Community-spirited, minimalist and squeaky clean, Mr Gnome is unashamedly a massive fan of that splendid institution the launderette.

Havens of warmth and well-thumbed magazines, laundromats continue to provide valued service to the community - where else to take one's double duvets for their monthly/quarterly/annual wash?

Mr G is particularely fond of the Sparklean Laundrette in Stratford-upon-Avon's charming Old Town, conveniently sited on the corner of Bull Street and Sanctus Street.

The establishment offers 'added value' inasmuch as it is patronised by members of the nearby Royal Shakespeare Company - thespians have the same laundry needs as lesser mortals.

Where else is it entirely possible to encounter Lady Macbeth applying a squirt of Vanish to a well-worn T-shirt ('Out damned spot!')?

Mr Gnome once found himself co-laundering with a leading actress from the popular telly series The House of Elliot.

Something about which to get in a lather?

Saturday, 20 June 2009

High praise

More than ten years ago, kind friends invited me to a performance of a Handel opera. As it turned out the evening brought surprise that led to rare and lasting pleasure.

During the first act a tall young man strode on to the stage, portraying one of those hard-done-by exiled monarchs, usurped by an evil brother/uncle/cousin, who are two-a-penny in the deliciously dippy world of eighteenth-century opera.

And then he sang.

For me, the clarity, purity and manly strength of that voice brought one of those rare experiences of being unable to tell the music from the music-maker - so perfectly did the one complement
the other, in this outpouring of yearning and loss.

The dodgy storyline, the bizarre posh-Goth makeup, the faux classical setting - none of these mattered in comparison to the music.

Time stood still.

The singer is Andreas Scholl.

And, of course, this may not be your 'thing'....

Tuesday, 16 June 2009


Mr Gnome raises resounding hurrahs for the superbly useful phenomenon that is the iPhone.

Ownership of this gnome-sized and coolly elegant design miracle is akin to having a tireless Jeeves at one's constant beck and call.

Apart from housing calendar, diary, internet browser, address book, birthday reminders and to-do lists, the iPhone uses a 'global positioning system' so that it knows its exact location at any time.

So what? So plenty.

At a touch of the screen, the phone instnatly offers lists of the nearest restaurants, cinemas, taxi firms - and so on.

Ditto with train times, plane departures - and much more. All bypassing expensive inquiry phone calls.

One could jabber on....

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Bike boar

An unexpected gift arrives from my friend Michael Burton - this minuscule bicycle and its determined, tusky rider.

Michael's ability to create vividly characterful creatures from silver has brought delight to many throughout his long career.

More about MB here.