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.