Saturday, 30 May 2009

Father's day

Patrick, my father, aged 50, cradles me, the third of his three sons, on a bright morning early in 1951.

The horizon, just over my head, is the English Channel, viewed from our home in Sidmouth, Devon.

Patrick spent most of the 1950s in declining health and he died on 5 November 1959, forty-two days before his 59th birthday.

To me he was always kind, loving, indulgent and funny.

And like all true storytellers, there was also something mysterious and unknowable about him.

And today, my life has lasted exactly as long as his.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

North and west

A pause in the postings as Mr Gnome and the Human Being  journey once again to the remote, beautiful island of Iona.

We shall be staying with the Iona Community.

Monday, 25 May 2009

Wet, wet, wet

Mr Gnome relishes few things more than a refreshing, protracted dip in water, salty or fresh - he cares not.

I, too, love swimming - though am by no means a strong or particularly proficient breaster of the billows.

A few years back I took part in swimming holiday in the Greek Cyclades organised by Swimtrek.

Well supervised, and in graded ability groups, we swam several crossings between islands, all of which are enchantingly beautiful.

It was definitely the most challenging physical activity in which I have ever taken part - exciting and very rewarding.

No pressure to do more than one felt comfortable with - and I pooped out of the massive six-km crossing that was the biggest swim of the week.

Shortly afterwards I took part in a home-based Swimtrek adventure - a summer day out swimming a stretch of the Thames from Gloucestershire into Oxfordshire. Writer Kate Rew wrote it up for The Observer.

The piece also appears on page 94 of her glamorous book Wild Swim.

Now, where did I leave my goggles?

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Principle Gnome

Following intense media speculation (it always is 'intense', isn't it?), Mr Gnome has issued a statement.

'I wish to make the following points very clear:
  • I am, of course, a first gnome. I am not now, nor ever have been, a second gnome.
  • The charming waterway beside which I am posing above is the Grand Union Canal. It is not a moat.
  • My associations with ducks are sociable, respectful and mutually beneficial, but stop far short of involvement in duck-related housing issues.
  • And while most ducks flap, they never flip. Neither do I.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

1609 + 400 = 2009 + 14/154

The dodgy mathematical statement above is inspired by the fact that BBC Radio 3 is today celebrating Sonnet Day, in recognition of the 400th anniversary of the publication of William Shakespeare's immortal collection of 154 fourteen-line poems.

During the course of today the station's output has been interspersed by readings of a varied selection (fourteen, natch) of the Bard's extraordinary reflections on love, loss, life, death - the whole big thing, in fact.

The reader is that tip-top, and very brainy, thesp Sir Ian McKellen.

Mr Gnome approves - and not only because he happens to be roughly the same height as a sonnet in a standard print setup.

So much so that he has issued a challenge to the Human Being (aka moi) to do a little more than to download these texts and recordings on to his computer.

Given that a poem is the only work of art that one can store on one's personal in-brain hard drive - the memory - I've decided to memorise all of the sonnets chosen for today's readings. And I've set myself the target of doing so by the end of 2009.

Fear not, one has no intention of inflicting impromptu readings on one's nearest and dearest - or on total strangers, for that matter.

To be truthful, I have a teensy bit of start on myself - somehow or other I already have Sonnets 18, 29, 60 and 116 under my belt. So, ten sonnets and 140 lines to go....

Monday, 18 May 2009

Worth the wait

Ten years ago I was knocked sideways by Kate Summerscale's extraordinary book The Queen of Whale Cay.

It's the biography of Marion 'Joe' Carstairs (born 1900), champion speedboat racer and spirited 'ruler' of a group of islands in the West Indies. Jo's boundless self-confidence was underpinned by an equally unlimited private income (Standard Oil).

Central to the story is Carstairs' wildly peculiar 'relationship' with an inanimate object - her beloved doll/mascot/alter ego 'Lord Todd Wadley' (on her shoulder above) - creepy at first glance, poignant as the story unfolds.

Intriguing, funny and deliciously outré, the book is a page-turning proof text for 'truth being infinitely stranger than fiction' .

Not surprisingly, Summerscale has taken her time finding another subject for her pen. I'm pleased to report that, ten years on, she has delivered a humdinger.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a factual account of the shocking event that took place at Road Hill House, Trowbridge, in the summer of 1860: the murder of a child.

But this is much more than a whodunnit.

Through the prism of a family trauma, Summerscale manages to show us a vivid image of a whole turbulent society, where the seemingly powerful bonds of class and family are, in reality, deeply vulnerable.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Gnat, camel. Camel, gnat.

From time to time Mr Gnome rolls his eyes in wonderment at the giddy antics of Human Beings.

Take this weekend's events in Moscow.

On Saturday, the city's police broke up a small-scale demonstration by a group of thirty, soberly dressed gay-rights activists. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov has reportedly described gay parades as 'satanic'.

Meanwhile, in an other part of the city, preparations were in full swing for the evening's live broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest, that annual fandango, not especially noted for its restraint, moral seriousness and sequin-free costume design.

So the teeny-weeny demo gets walloped. And the zillion-rouble extravaganza of wigs, glitter and deleriously dodgy backing dancers (check the uber-kitsch Roman legionaries) gets the city's blessing and imprimatur.

As Puck murmured to, er, the King of the Fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream: 'Lord, what fools these mortals be!'

Or as Someone else remarked: ' You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!'

Romans in the gloaming

To Stratford for the second public performance of the Royal Shakespeare Company's new production of William Shakespeare's ever-popular toga-tearer Julius Caesar.

As we enter the auditorium two mud-and-blood-encrusted actors are on stage, exhaustedly stalking each other with the occasional grunt-and-grapple engagement. Then, as the play begins, one pins his rival to the floor and despatches him - with a bite to the neck. Nice.

The show is all of a piece with this initial image. Director Lucy Bailey and her design team conjure up a far-from sunny ancient Italy, where an elegant civilisation seems constantly on the brink of bloody anarchy.

The action is accompanied by a high-volume percussive soundtrack and a series of huge projected images, sadly not clearly visible from our side of the thrust stage.

That fine actor Greg Hicks, in the title role, brilliantly suggests the blinkered self-admiration that has fuelled the seemingly so-reasonable conspiracy hatched by the cool-headed Cassius (excellent John Mackay) and his fellow plotters.

Caesar's line 'Let me have men about me that are fat ... Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look; He thinks too much' will probably get laughs. Next to the spectral Hicks, the slender Mackay looks positively chubby.

I guess the play's most challenging role is that of the thoughtful, troubled Brutus (Sam Troughton, above), whose journey charts the terrifying consequences of a decision to do a bad thing for a good reason.

As Mark Antony, the well-fleshed Darren D'Silva, seizes his 'Friends, Romans and countrymen' opportunity with relish, the fickle populace duly u-turning in response to his rhetoric.

With luck, the director will rethink the distracting repertoire of stylised jerk-and-twitch movements assigned to the Roman citizenry.

Criticisms? Shouty moments (plenty of these) are punctuated by occasional passages where one wants to call, 'Speak up, lads.' With luck, these variations in dynamics will even out as the performers settle in to their roles.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Chuff or chop?

A recent visit to the National Gallery prompted a recollection of the basics of art appreciation.

Years ago I was in the NG shop, browisng the postcards - as one does. (You see all the pictures in the collection without the bother of traipsing around the vast building.)

To my right is a mother with her young son - about five years old.

He's staring intently at a couple of cards and is clearly in an agony of indecision.

Meanwhile his mother is losing patience: 'Come on, make up your mind. You can have one card. Now decide - the steam train, or the beheading....'

I haven't noticed the tall man browsing quietly to my left. He, like me, appreciates the little boy's dilemma.

He's less restrained than me. I hear him murmur (deep New England tones): 'Tough choice, kid...."

The works of art under consideration are shown above.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Mr Gnome's Rest Home for Tired Words

Do you worry about 'overworked' words? You do? Me too.

Take this pair.

Time was when the figurative use of 'icon' and 'iconic' denoted something of an accolade. Big endorsement.

Not any more. Just about anything getting a recognition score of more than five out of ten qualifies for 'iconic' status: 'the Marmite jar, the iconic sine qua non of the British tea table' - and so on....

Having got this far, a chill breeze of self-doubt prompts Mr Gnome to search the blog for appearances of the 'i-words'.

He finds three occurrences with reference to, in order, Valerie Singleton, Mr Gnome himself - and The Wizard of Oz.

Hmm. One rests one's case.

Any suggestions of other words in need of respite care?

Monday, 4 May 2009

Various Voices

Mr Gnome was privileged to visit the recent Various Voices international choral festival at London's South Bank Centre.

A rainbow-hued diversity of ensembles gathered beside the Thames, united by their love of that most joyful of human activities - singing together.

Mr G relished contributions from North America, Holland, Germany, Scotland, England and Ireland.

Special mention to the splendid singers of the Vancouver Men's Chorus, performing outside North America for the very first time. Dashing, dignified, disciplined and gimmick-free - inspiring and uplifting. Hurrah!

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Wilde card

To the Stratford-upon-Avon Literary Festival - on an impulse - to hear Gyles Brandreth promote the latest in his series of murder mystery novels, featuring Oscar Wilde moonlighting as an amateur detective.

Brandreth is a bit of a one - clever, witty, charming, hyper-energetic and, in my view, very definitely a good egg.

The venue was an opulent, though chilly, tent in the Bancroft Gardens. The audience was small, bordering on microscopic. Maybe fifty of us. But Gyles was unfazed and proceed to offer a masterclass in 'working a room', puffing his book and giving us an informative and highly entertaining hour.

Gyles was educated at Bedales School in the 1960s, where once a week he played Scrabble with the school's retired founder John Haden Badley, who had known Oscar Wilde in his youth - which helped launch his lifelong enthusiasm for Wilde.

Solid potato salad

Mr Gnome celebrates the sheer, mind-boggling
bizarrerie of that long-gone entertainment genre known as 'variety'.

Here are the Ross Sisters who start off not unlike the celebrated Andrews Sisters - and then, whoosh, they go into their, er, 'speciality'....

Thanks to kind Mr Robert Lindsay for drawing my attention to this remarkable trio.

Friday, 1 May 2009


Mr Gnome cheers lustily at the appointment of Carol Ann Duffy as Poet Laureate.

He feels no shame in admitting that his knowledge of Ms Duffy's ouevre is limited to one poem.

But what a poem - the much anthologised 'Prayer'.

The HB has committed it to memory - feel free to ask him for a recitation should you so wish.

Mr G would reproduce 'Prayer' here, were it not for the fact that his wish to introduce this great sonnet to his readers is exceeded in strength (only just) by his respect for the author's copyright.