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In Melbourne recently we came across one of those stores that sell stuff like Star Trek figurines, Tin Tin T-shirts, and comics about ridiculously buxom superheroes. I didn’t really want to go down the stairs and into the store, but they say that compromise is a good thing, so down the stairs I went. Within minutes I was staring at a certain hard-back picture book. According to the strip of red across the top it was the thirtieth anniversary edition. My heart stopped, partly because I was seeing this book for the first time in years, and partly because the number of those years really must be thirty.

And the book? Gnomes by Wil Huygen and Rien Portviliet.

Yes, that’s right. Gnomes.

Back home I went over to my mother’s house and found the family copy. As expected it was a little worse for wear and the pages smelled dusty. But it was the book, my book (although strangely my brother’s initials are in the front). Feeling like I’d rediscovered the most useful instruction manual in the whole wide world, I returned to my place as quickly as I could. It was a cold and blustery day, which seemed apt somehow. So with a coffee brewing nicely I started turning the pages my innocent little fingers would have excitedly leafed through all those years ago.

Every page I recognised, every illustration. Here’s a male gnome on a pair of scales, a caption noting that the adult male gnome weighs 300 grams. Here’s a winter scene: ‘If snow has fallen he straps on long-distance skis [which] are absolutely necessary, otherwise he would sink right into the snow, especially when it’s fresh!’ And here is a gnome family’s underground house – how I’d loved this illustration, especially the basket for the pet mice.

Goodness knows why I had adored all this. For some reason it was very important I knew that a gnome wedding is a simple ceremony except among the nobility. That gnomes ‘indulge in pipe-smoking and do not shun mildly alcoholic drinks’ – is that the sort of information a young boy should have in his head? And how about this: ‘to cure depression and general listlessness (doesn’t happen very often) they use St John’s Wort tea or the tea drawn from the white fibres of a walnut’. Huh?

But maybe it wasn’t useless at all. In the pages of this magically illustrated book was a world that I could understand, a world that made perfect sense. It made perfect sense to learn that spiders are not especially friendly to gnomes ‘but a gnome will never destroy a web, because that might bring bad luck’. It made perfect sense to be told that gnome children use the winged seeds of the maple to play at being dragonflies. However, I was never (and still am not) that thrilled to learn a favourite troll pastime is to hold a captured gnome against a revolving grindstone. Quick, turn the page!

Perhaps what I really wanted all those years ago was a magically illustrated book called Humans so I could learn about how the world fitted together. Coming to think about it, I still wouldn’t mind that particular book.

Maybe I should write it.

Then again, why bother when I’ve just rediscovered Gnomes.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, June 21 2008)

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