Thursday, 28 October 2010

It gets better

Blessed with a robust constitution and enough genial optimism to make Pollyanna seem the grouchiest of cynics, Mr Gnome nevertheless knows a thing or two about dealing with the personal consequences of being just that little bit different from the majority.

For some it's about the beard. Others, unaccountably, feel threatened by the hat: so red, so pointy, so there. And for a tiny, but vocal, minority it's simply that he's 'not one of us'.

And though you'd hardly credit it from his jaunty demeanour, he's no stranger to the cold drench of name-calling and the harsh slap of rejection. Not nice.

Of course Mr G is also extremely (don't even think of mentioning numbers) well struck in years, and such foolishness is as water off a duck's dorsals. He shrugs and moves on, his self-esteem intact.

But he's keenly aware that things can be very different for a young gnome, taking his first faltering steps in a world so overpoweringly dominated by Human Beings.

Consequently, he's endlessly sympathetic to younger members of his 'community', who view him (to his modest abashment) as something of a role model.

No surprise then, that Mr Gnome is dismayed by all forms of taunting, bullying and persecution - whether subtly disguised, or shamelessly overt. Not fair, Not good. Not acceptable.

With all of this in mind, he is heartened by President Barack Obama's outspoken support for the 'It Gets Better' project, a response to the recent series of suicides of young people bullied and taunted by their peers for a perceived 'difference'.

The President may be having his difficulties, but when it comes to plain-speaking, heartfelt eloquence, he has (in my view) few equals.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Basket case

For some years one has been a two-bike family, with two intimate rider/machine relationships  co-existing happily.

My doughty 23-year-old Dawes Galaxy had a fair amount of exposure throughout this year's Summer Cycling Saga.

Time, I guess, for a nod towards my fab stay-at-home steed: a stalwart Pashley, British to its core, on which I ride to work, potter around town, run errands, and never, ever break sweat.

The sensible chain guard ensures office clothes remain grime-free - and the sit-up-and-beg riding position provides excellent vision and visibility.

Gears? Sturmey Archer three-speed. What else?

The capacious basket (supplemented by trap-grip rear bracket) provides ample stowage for the post-shopping journey home.

And while on the subject of the basket...

In town with the Pash some years ago, I ran in to an acquaintance. As our brief conversation ended she commented on the bike - with gratifying admiration. And then she moved on to, er,  admiring me.

'You must be very confident in your masculinity - riding a bicycle with that big basket on the front.'

I was at a loss for an appropriate response - until about twenty minutes later, by which time I was at home, when I remembered the name under which said baskets are marketed. The moniker harks back to the days when our towns where a-whizz with cycling delivery boys. 

So my reply should have been: 'Oh really? Well, that must be why it's called a butcher basket...'

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


An autumnal sadness envelopes Mr Gnome (and me) as Radio 4's A History of the World in 100 Objects comes to an end.

I love the slightly wonky optimism of the project: to tell the story-so-far of humanity through a selection of 100 items in the collection of the British Museum. Each object to be the focus of its own programme. A radio programme.

What next? Mime hour on Radio 3?

As it turns out the series of 15-minute programmes has been revelatory, intriguing, entertaining, often deeply moving - and totally addictive.

My impression is that the series is very much the brain-child of its presenter and script-writer: Neil MacGregor, the Director of the BM.

Wisely, I think, there was no advance list of the objects chosen: just the basic fact that they were to be presented in roughly chronological order from flint cutting implement (2) to solar-powered battery (100).

And unfolding all the way was the intriguing paradox of our relationship with the things we create: mastery and dependence.

Egyptian mummy case, Roman silver cup, fabric fragment from ancient Peru, defaced penny, jade bead: each item was fascinating in itself.

But the revelatory aspect (and for me the series' triumph) was MacGregor's gradual, step-by-step, drawing out of the interconnections between the objects: through trade, through conquest, through the impulse to worship - and the simple wish to make life better.

All of which makes one powerfully aware of how much human beings have in common with one another: across the gulfs of time, and the divisions of culture, ideology and belief systems. And for anyone contemplating the 'image of God' aspect of humanity - well, in terms of food for thought, MacGrgeor serves up a feast.

Any university could do worse than require all students to listen to the series before beginning formal studies.

And, as with all good radio, I've felt that the programmes were planned with me in mind - and that each evening I've had the opportunity to drop in at the BM for fifteen minutes with a brainy, funny, unpatronising friend.

The whole series is available for download in podcast format. If you've not tried it, why not give it a go?

Saturday, 23 October 2010


With its parks, monuments and gloriously sinuous river, London is a city of sensational views and vistas.

Incomparable among them (in my opinion) is the vast southern panorama to be seen from Parliament Hill on Hampstead Heath.

I've been going here for years, but the sudden opening out of the landscape, from this not exactly vertiginous hilltop, never fails to surprise and delight. Take an overseas visitor with you, and I guarantee that they will subsequently refer to the experience as one of the highlights of their time in the capital.

This picture (snapped today) shows the latest addition to the skyline - directly to the right of the central figure.

It's The Shard, a skyscraper under construction near London Bridge. When completed in 2012 it will be the tallest building in the European Union.

Not surprisingly Parliament Hill has featured in innumerable movies.

If you've seen Notes on a Scandal, the seat to the right of the picture may prompt an involuntary frisson.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Falling upwards

It is a truth (almost) universally acknowledged that the city of Birmingham's network of canals is larger than that of Venice.


What is beyond dispute is the spell cast over this no-nonsense city by today's crystalline autumnal sunshine.

I've been a regular city stroller (Brummagem boulevardier?) since my move to the Midlands some two decades ago - and have witnessed its central area moving through change after change, all of them, from my point of view, for the better.


Friday, 15 October 2010

For the L of it

Succumbing to a frenzy of self-reference, Mr Gnome celebrated a friend's fiftieth birthday with a selection from his ludicrously varied back catalogue.

Double click on the image to enlarge - should you wish to, of course.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Write turn

Down to literary Bloomsbury for a day learning about writing at The School of Life, London's quirky 'social enterprise offering good ideas for everyday living'.

Tutors Rob and Molly cajoled, guided and inspired us through a long, active day of buffing up our everyday writing - hence the title 'Words for Life'.

So forget the novel, the slim volume of poems and the angst-driven autobiography.

Instead we learned how to zhoosh up such ordinary-but-often-essential writing tasks as the CV self-description, the holiday postcard, the letter of sympathy, the dating profile, the Ebay advertisement...

With lightning speed, Rob and Molly got us scribbling, reading our efforts aloud - and marvelling at the variety of our responses to the challenges set.

For example: write a 'welcome to your new home' in the style of a fairy tale', 'write a holiday postcard in the form of a list', 'sum up you experience of the day as if writing a recipe'...

Again and again, the tack was: approach the familiar from an unfamiliar angle. It worked - as, among the twenty participants, confidence grew and creativity crackled.

Rob and Milly emphasised that there were no 'wrong answers' - and their only rule was a gently enforced 'apology embargo': we were forbidden the luxury of making excuses for any of our efforts before reading them aloud. Inner critics were banished, as Molly counselled: 'Don't get it right, get it written.'

In between sessions, we were fed and watered in style, with the tip-top lunch proving an opportunity for some impromptu, unpretentious menu writing.

(And, so useful, I learned a new salad item: 'quinoa', pronounced 'keen-wah', a tip speedily taken after bumpkin moi uttered 'kwin-o-ah'.)

I particularly appreciated the tranquil pause when Molly read aloud Michael Rosen's mini-masterpiece Sad Book.

The hours whizzed by and I left dizzy, exhausted and, not a word I use every day, empowered.


Want to know what Rob and Milly do Monday to Friday? Check their business We All Need Words.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Ring a ding ding

What was he thinking? Welsh opera superstar Bryn Terfel looks loopily divine in his gloriously OTT get-up as king of the gods Wotan in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Das Rheingold.

And that, Mr Gnome and I confess, is precisely what we love about opera: its unique ability to create a co-existence of the insane and the inspirational, the nutty and the numinous, barking madness and heart-piercing magnificence.

I guess I caught the opera thing at a very early age - and from a bizarre source: a childhood viewing of the Marx Brothers' classic A Night at the Opera, though it was to be years before I felt the visceral impact of a live performance.

Stage 2 infection (the Wagner thing) came in my mid-thirties. Welsh National Opera was performing its Ring Cycle in Bristol. I coughed up for all four shows, and turned up with minimal expectations.

What happened over the course of one short and three very long evenings?

Very, very hard to explain.

Something to do with the coming together of a powerful storyline (earthily human and wildly archetypal) with the music...

The music. Wagner's music. Describing the 'Wagner difference' would take a cleverer pen than mine: soaring, surging, most of the time far quieter than many imagine, earthy, airy, fiery - an irresistible river of sound.

Let's just say that it gets into the bloodstream. And you're never quite the same again.

Like a vampire? Er, I hope not.  Hyper-irritating Tristan and Islode, for example, and dreary old Parsifal leave me cold.

It's a Ring thing. Tragic, strange, funny, complicated, intensely human...

I'll be at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, this weekend, to start the journey all over again. Hello Wotan, hello gods, dwarfs, dragons and wild, whooping valkyries....

(All via the magic of HD digital broadcast to UK cinema screens.)