Saturday, 1 December 2012


Wil Huygen & Rien Poortvliet Gnomes (1976)
And so we dip a toe into that peculiar netherworld of fiction presented as fact, often an overlooked genre and probably because  whether or not it constitutes any form of storytelling tends to depend on the book in question. The Book of the War or, I suppose, Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men are probably good examples, titles easily identified as literature by the presence of a narrative; Stewart Cowley's Spacecraft 2000 to 2100AD seems more ambiguous, possibly because the writing made for a poor match to the wonderful illustrations of Chris Foss and others, amounting to The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe with much better pictures.

Huygen and Poortvliet's seventies smash is essentially Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady with gnomes, adopting a conversational sketchbook format which works well, maintaining an amiable tone whilst cancelling out the potential for anything too excessively twee with a wealth of anthropological detail - the life expectancy of gnomes, geographical distribution, common illnesses, and so on. It's convincingly thorough, beautifully painted, and very difficult to dislike. Furthermore, whilst there's nothing too smart-arsed here - gnomes taking crystal meth or rocking out to the MC5 - the absolutely familiar folklore is captured with such a fresh approach as to make one forget that these are related to those little plaster guys who sit around in gardens holding fishing rods.

Since reading The Goblin Reservation wherein widely respected author Clifford D. Simak introduces gnomes to the science-fiction landscape for the very good reason that he felt like it, I've come to appreciate the pointy-hatted ones like no other folkloric creature. There's something pleasantly autonomous about our friend, the gnome, something that resists coercion by authors. There were no gnomes in The Lord of the Rings because their presence would have made Tolkien's great work seem ridiculous, spoiling the frowning thrust of its self-important bluster; conversely, any writer peddling ironic gnomes, post-modern gnomes, gnomes with fucking piercings who listen to Skrillex - can be automatically dismissed as an arsehole thus saving us the bother of reading their work.

Unsurprisingly, Gnomes closes with an ecological message; but it's valid, worth repeating, and is entirely in keeping with the theme. This book shouldn't work at all, but it's both a delight and an education. At the risk of sounding like an absolute twat, I can't help but wonder if Gnomes hasn't tapped into something more deeply philosophical than is immediately apparent.

That's me in Pseuds' Corner then.


  1. Actually I was chuffed to find a very early edition of Last and First Men recently and interestingly it was originally published as a blue penguin edition, which is to say it was originally seen as a work of philosophy rather than a novel!

  2. I must give that another shot now you mention it - wasn't really sure what to make of it first time and did a fair bit of skipping.