The Time I Liberated A Garden Gnome

Sundays were the best days back then. We no longer considered ourselves work colleagues, we were friends. Friends that had gone from a friendly kickabout after work to forming an actual football team that played in the Chester & District Sunday League Division 10. Which meant Sunday mornings were spent comparing hangovers and shenanigans from Saturday night, playing football (badly) and retreating to the pub for the afternoon. Usually the pub in question was the Red Lion on Northgate Street but often we would crawl around various others in Chester city centre. Sustenance was provided by Burger King or the all you can eat Indian buffet nearby. Ordinarily if we were out on a day drinking session we would observe the ‘eating is cheating’ rule but not on match days. We were athletes and we needed to refuel our athletic bodies. In those days I was to sports nutrition what Diana Ross is to spot welding so can’t have been the only member of the team to gain about a stone over the course of the season. We were terrible on the pitch; we didn’t win a single game and conceded an average eight goals each game, which would have been more had our goalkeeper not been the league’s Player of The Year. Yet we were the envy of many other teams in the league due to the way we approached the games. Win or lose, always booze! The boozy afternoons would become equally boozy evenings, putting the previous nights of the weekend to shame. It was entirely normal for the craic to be so convivial that the last bus back to Deeside had to be sacrificed (or was missed) which meant a taxi had to be summoned.


I like taxi rides, mainly because I enjoy chatting with the drivers. If you ask the right questions you can have a great conversation. I had some notable taxi chats back then that I can still remember all these years later. I remember one driver telling me about the biggest fare he’d ever had with great enthusiasm. “Glasgow and back from Liverpool,” he said. That’s quite the journey! But his story had an added bonus in that it featured a celebrity. “It was Duncan Ferguson,” he went on, “going back to have a night out with his mates. We got on well during the journey and he asked if I fancied joining them. Then he suggested putting me up in a hotel for the night so I could drive him back the next day. He paid for some clothes for me to go out in, too. I had one of the best nights of my life and didn’t pay for a thing all night then got paid the biggest fare I’ll probably ever have.” As if I didn’t have enough respect for Big Dunc after hearing the tale of him accosting a burglar at his house, sitting on him until the police arrived and then denying any knowledge of how the burglar got the bruises and broken arm he had when the police arrived, this heartwarming tale of the taxi driver showed that not all Premier League footballers are narcissistic idiots with more money than scruples.


Another taxi driver once asked where my sporting allegiance lay. “Wigan Warriors rugby league team,” was my response, which led to the inevitable query of “are they still as good as they were back when Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah played?” Amazingly, that question is still asked by non-rugby league fans over a quarter of a century since either played for the club. The driver then informed me of his reason for respecting Wigan rugby fans. “I’d been watching a game down south and it was a day Wigan had been at Wembley. We pulled up to the services and were told that we couldn’t go in because Chelsea fans were inside kicking off. Next thing, a bus load of Wigan fans pulled up and were told the same thing. ‘Chelsea fans kicking off’ they muttered. Then they just strolled in there. Next thing you know there’s Chelsea fans being chucked through the windows and scurrying out with cuts and bruises looking like they were running for their lives. They soon scarpered, the Wigan fans came out dead casual, eating their butties and stuff and just went off as if nothing had happened. By the time the police arrived the were greeted with what looked like the falling of Saigon and no trace of anyone involved!” Seldom have I ever been as proud of my club!


There have been a couple of really odd taxi rides I’ve had, most notably in the country with planet Earth’s highest ratio of oddballs – the United States of America. When I was in Las Vegas, for example, I had to endure a taxi driver telling me the graphic details of a video he’d seen of a man getting intimate with a live chicken. He was actually frustrated that he couldn’t find it on his phone to show us as he drove around, despite our protestations that we actually didn’t want or need to see it. Then in another incident a few years later in San Antonio, Texas, I got an Uber to a rodeo with a man called Lynus who asked if I wanted to hear a song he’d written. “Sure thing!” I replied, being something of a music fan and eager to hear what was about to come out of the car speakers. Only he didn’t have a tape or a CD of the song, so he started singing a capella in a country style, complete with yodelling that was probably inspired by the Hank Williams version of Lovesick Blues. You can only imagine how it feels to be serenaded in such a style at such close proximity for the entire duration of the song (about 4 minutes, which felt like hours) which included commentary of what musical instruments were being played at various points during the song. Despite how uncomfortable it was to endure a yodelling a capella rendition of The Ocean Is Potion, Lynus must have been grateful for the audience as, after we’d reached our destination about an hour later, he joined me at the rodeo’s restaurant and insisted on paying for my steak tea.


There is one taxi driver that will remain head and shoulders over all others, though. It happened on a Sunday night as I made my way home after playing football. I’d enjoyed the chat with the driver and so asked him a question that I doubted he could resist. “Would you like to go on an adventure?”


For some time I’d gone past a house not far from where my parents lived that was entirely pink. It looked like something out of the Barbie movie but was probably decorated before Margot Robbie was born, let alone before she’d had the inspiration for her blockbuster. The house was pink, the driveway was pink, the ornaments (flamingos, a fountain) in the garden were pink, the car in the driveway was pink and all of the garden gnomes were pink. With one exception. There was one gnome that was grey and I worried that he was being neglected every time I passed. My idea was to ‘liberate’ him, take him on some adventures and then return him with photos of everywhere he’d been. The owners would probably be upset that he’d gone but in my mind, their upset would be fleeting and would be more than compensated for by the joy of getting him back. I thought the photos of him on his travels in exotic locations might even make the news. In my mind it was a fine plan and this taxi driver was key to making it happen. Under the cover of darkness, tonight would be the night I would attempt to free the gnome.


The taxi driver loved the plan. The way I’d set the scene made him beat the steering wheel with excitement with such force I feared he’d make the airbags go off. As we neared the garden on the single track lane outside it, he actually switched off his headlights and turned off the engine. I took off my seatbelt as we rolled silently to a standstill . I opened the door quietly and hurdled over the garden wall with all the fleet footed athleticism of a drunken Sunday league footballer that had one too many onion bhajis at an earlier buffet. Somehow I made it over the wall in one piece and didn’t arouse any guard dogs, security systems or residents. I grabbed the gnome, placed him on the wall and miraculously got over it again, bruising myself in several places as I did so. I got back in the getaway vehicle, hit the dashboard three times while shouting, “GO! GO!! GO!!!” to the driver who screeched away like he was escaping a bank job in a Guy Ritchie film.


The taxi driver and I were laughing uproariously. “What a rush!” he shouted. “Oh my God, nobody’s going to believe this when I tell them!” By the time we reached my parents house we had decided that the gnome should be given the name of Nobby.



Now that I had him I had to make ensure I kept my side of the bargain. In those days I was working for a travel agency and was able to get free ferry tickets from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire, which meant I could get from Shotton to Dublin for £20 return. In my mind that had to be taken advantage of and so I frequently headed to the Emerald Isle at weekends. As I had a trip to Dublin with my mate Fred planned before I took custody of Nobby I decided he should accompany us on the trip. And so it was that Nobby had his photo taken at all the landmarks of Dublin we could find – Croke Park, O’Connell Statue, Lansdowne Road, the Ha’Penny Bridge etc. When the amazing weekend had come to its conclusion we left my usual amount of time to get from Tara Street station to Dun Laoghaire for the ferry, which meant we had about 15 minutes to spare before the ferry departed. The DART trains were reliable enough to cut it so fine and as we got off the DART we noted how perfectly we’d timed things as we headed for the ferry. Spotting one final photo opportunity I asked Fred to pass Nobby to me.


If you’ve ever received the words “I thought you had him” you may know the sinking feeling you get in your stomach upon hearing them. In this case, we looked aghast and gazed at the train as it departed for Bray. We’d had Nobby a matter of days and had now lost him. Unless….


“Hello, is that Bray Station?” I asked.


This was the days before mobile phones were common and long before you could use a mobile phone outside of your home country. Fortunately I had some change and had found a phone box to make a call. If Bray Station had a lost property office, maybe I could ask if there was anyone that could go onto the train and retrieve Nobby and put him in lost property until I could return the following month. All I needed to do was convince them this wasn’t a wind up.


“It’s a garden gnome,” I explained, “in the third carriage, about half…..yes I did say garden gnome…, that isn’t a code word….no, I’m not representing any organisation, I’m just over here for the craic and brought a garden gnome with me….well, he fancied a trip to Dublin as he’s never been….about 12 inches…..grey, he’s made out of concrete. Anyway, like I said he’s in the third carriage, about half way down and next to the window.”


I called back about 30 minutes later from the now departed ferry and the feeling of absolute joy and relief when I got told that Nobby had been lifted from the train and was waiting for me in the lost property office was absolutely palpable. I cheered, Fred cheered, passers by who had no idea what was happening cheered. As I ended the conversation with the lady at Bray Station that I now wanted to marry, I saw Fred chatting with strangers and heard him mention the word gnome and saw perplexed looks on the faces of those strangers as Fred tried to elaborate. All was now back in place to continue Nobby’s travels around the globe. Or, they would be once he’d been retrieved from Bray.


The next trip was duly arranged and when my brother, football teammate Wilson and me arrived we got the DART from Dun Laoghaire to Bray. Upon arrival at the drizzly, desolate and deserted station we found the lost property office and I asked, with great excitement, if they had my garden gnome there waiting for me as I’d been told.


“What’s it look like?” I was asked.


“Why, how many garden gnomes have you got in there?!” I had to reply.


“Good point!”


There can’t have been many garden gnomes for the attendant to rummage through and he duly found Nobby and we were reunited. It should have been a scene similar to when Nelson Mandela was released from prison with jubilant people lining the streets until we got to Dublin but was a little more subdued than that, though everyone that witnessed the moment had a beaming smile, some of us punching the air. That the rest of the trip was a bit of a disaster as I was struck down with some sort of food poisoning mattered little. The main thing was that I had Nobby back.


Over the course of that year Nobby went all around the UK and Europe having his picture taken in front of landmarks or notable people wherever he went. I say ‘notable people’, basically anyone that would hold him. In front of the Forth rail bridge a couple were holding him by their naval and I had to instruct them they were doing it all wrong. “Hold him aloft like he’s the World Cup!” I insisted. Happily the couple obliged. The people in Ayia Napa weren’t particularly notable either but they were aesthetically pleasing females in bikinis, which kept a smile on Nobby’s face.


With a year of photos to choose from it was time to return Nobby. Fred had even gone to the trouble of making a suitcase for him so that he could be on the doorstep looking like a returning holiday maker when his owners were reunited with him. Putting Nobby back was much more straightforward than liberating him but still had to be carried out with the utmost stealth. A ‘knock on the door and then scarper’ approach was out of the question as we had to preserve our anonymity, so we left him on the doorstep to be discovered by his delighted owners. It was a wrench to leave him after we’d got so attached to him but it was the right thing to do. We’d catch up with him via the newspapers or the TV news.


What followed was a period of silence. One week, two weeks, a month then two. Disappointingly there was no press coverage of Nobby. Fred called me to report that he had passed the house and seen that he was back in the garden. I demanded further details. Where in the garden? Had they put him in pride of place? Was he looking like he was being cared for?


Fred’s response revealed that he’d gone rogue and taken matters into his own hands. “They’d put him under a bush in the corner of the garden and it looked like they were neglecting him again. So I swiped him back!” Fred delivered this information with all the pride and enthusiasm of a hardened bank robber bragging about his latest heist. For all I knew, he could have been on the other end of the phone wearing a balaclava.


We hadn’t planned for this and basically had very little use for Nobby, other than foreign excursions. After all, he was quite heavy. In fact, he was so heavy that when I took him to Las Vegas with work colleagues the lady at the Virgin Atlantic desk suggested he be put in my suitcase instead of my hand luggage.


“Do I have to?” I asked, “I don’t think he’ll like it in there.”


The Virgin Lady (I’m calling her that because that’s who she worked for) looked at me, puzzled. I could see she was going to insist on him being put in the suitcase for some reason.


“Well, I don’t think he’s allowed in the cabin,” she said.


“Really?” was my surprised response, “because the poster of prohibited items doesn’t mention garden gnomes, it’s mainly guns, knives and explosives. Have gnomes caused you much trouble in the past?”


My boss was behind me in the queue and could see where this was heading so suggested I put Nobby in the suitcase to keep the peace. Reluctantly I agreed and met up with Nobby in Las Vegas. I was the only person carrying a garden gnome around Sin City that weekend and probably one of the few people to ever take one there. This, I believe, is because gnome fans know about the historic influence of the Mafia on establishing Las Vegas as the city it is today. And as I had previously found out in Sicily, it seems the Mafia have a fascination with garden gnomes.



My brother’s wife was unable to travel to Siracusa in Sicily for the wedding of my brother’s friend, Tony, and his fiancee Anarita, a Sicilian native. Tony was a captain in the US Air Force at the time and had travelled to be present at my brother’s wedding, staying at my Grandma’s house. He and I got on well and spent several nights propping up bars in Chester and Manchester as well as at the wedding venue. We therefore became friends and I was invited to Tony’s wedding where I would take the place of my brother’s wife. I was delighted to accept the kind invitation and so made my way to Sicily. As did Nobby. In light of his previous excursions, it seemed natural to take a garden gnome to Sicily for some sightseeing, even if he was unlikely to attend the actual wedding.


I only ever travel with hand luggage when heading to Europe as I’m reluctant to pay any more than necessary to whichever budget airline I’m travelling with. The bag was quite heavy and when it landed on the conveyor belt it made quite a clunk so the security lady asked, naturally enough, if I had a laptop in the bag.


“No,” I responded, “but there is quite a hefty garden gnome in there.”


Evidently this wasn’t a usual response. The lady scrunched up her face and tilted her head in the internationally recognised way of silently asking if I was being honest. I raised my eyebrows and nodded, the internationally recognised way of silently saying, “Yes, really.” This caused her great excitement. She leapt to her feet with a massive smile on her face and clapped her hands before summoning a couple of colleagues to point and stare at the monitor showing the contents of my bag. The way the three of them stood, pointing and laughing, would be enough made me thankful this wasn’t happening on a flight returning from Amsterdam.


Once we got to Sicily, Nobby was introduced to Tony who hadn’t been expecting to see him but seemed genuinely thrilled that he was there. “He has to come to the wedding!” he insisted. We agreed that it probably wouldn’t be best for Nobby to be in the actual ceremony as I had been promoted to the role of groomsman (the UK equivalent would be ‘usher’) due to one of Tony’s friends being unable to escape active military service to attend. I didn’t fancy greeting guests at the entrance to the Basilica of the Madonna delle Lacrime while holding a garden gnome. Mainly because he wasn’t dressed for the occasion like the rest of us. So when I got to the Basilica I found a place in the grounds outside where I could hide Nobby. Somewhere he wouldn’t be disturbed or removed. I hid him behind a tourist bus, in some quite long grass and by a little wall. He’d be fine for the couple of hours or so that the wedding ceremony would take.



The ceremony was beautiful and took longer than most weddings I’ve been fortunate enough to attend. After completing all of the photographic posing required of a groomsman I went back to the grounds of the Basilica to collect Nobby. He’d been left alone for around 3 hours, which with my memory is ample time for me to forget where I’d placed him. I surveyed the surroundings, searching the area twice, and could see no sign of him. My confusion was similar to a dog that’s farted itself awake from a nap. Where the hell had he gone?! The only conclusion I could draw was that this was an act of wanton larceny and someone had kidnapped the garden gnome that I myself had kidnapped a few years earlier. This was not good. In fact, this was a nightmare.


I needed to find him, but how could I do so in a country unfamiliar with the concept of garden gnomes? I knew the Italian word for gnome was ‘gnomo’ and it was pronounced ‘nyom’. However, if I asked someone about Nobby and they didn’t know what a gnome was they might think I was childishly asking about food in my pidgin Italian. The only person I could see was a chain smoking toilet attendant that had earlier taken great pride in charging me 20 cents to use a toilet without a seat. Not that I needed a seat for the business I was attending to but it struck me as an unreasonable amount to charge if you did need to ‘drop the kids off at the pool’. He was quite elderly and I got the feeling he was treating me with suspicion as I approached. I asked if he’d seen a garden gnome, doing my best to make my arm look like the gnome I was describing. I then used the phrase ‘piccolo statue’ (small statue) just in case he thought I was asking if he’d make me a panini the size of my forearm. Without removing the cigarette from his lips he said no, but directed me to a hut on the other side of the car park. I didn’t know why and before I could ask him he’d turned his back and gone back to his toilet attending, muttering something as he did so (probably the Italian for “this buffoon expects me to make him a panini?”).


I was greeted at the hut by a young man wearing a t-shirt so thick with muck it looked like he’d burrowed his way to the Basilica like Bugs Bunny and the hut was covering the hole from which he emerged. Weirdly, he himself seemed freshly washed, he was impeccably groomed, wore distinctive Cologne and an expensive looking watch. I took off my sunglasses, squinting in the glare as I asked him in Italian if he’d seen a little statue. He shrugged, the Italian sign for “bear with me one moment while I ask someone else”. He then opened the door to the ramshackle hut that, from the outside, looked like an aged garden shed with woodworm. Inside the hut was a man in a suit sitting behind what appeared to be a lavish mahogany desk. I was quite surprised he wasn’t stroking a cat. As the mid afternoon sun beat down the heat was beginning to get oppressive. Nobody other than wedding guests would have been wearing a suit in this weather and yet here he was in a stuffy wooden shed without any air conditioning looking like he was off to trade freshly cut diamonds in Bruges. He looked as out of place as a whoopee cushion at a state funeral. As soon as I saw him I knew that he was Capo di Capi, a phrase I learned while reading The Godfather, meaning that he was the boss. The two men conversed in Italian that was being uttered so quickly it was completely indecipherable. In spite of my best efforts to learn as much of the language as I could before heading there it just sounded like noise to me. Noise with increasingly theatrical gestures. Something was afoot.


Capo di Capi came out to greet me. “Scusi,” I began but could say no more before he interrupted. “Bibba di boppa di boobity, bobbity bibbity boobity ba di boo?” I think he said. I had no idea what that meant and felt well out of my depth. And yet, because I wasn’t the sole custodian of Nobby I had to persevere. After all, how could I break it to Fred if Nobby wasn’t returned? So I started to speak again, in the best Italian I could muster. “Scusi, mi Italiano no bene. Ha un gnomo? Uno piccolo statue? Mi piccolo statue?” again using my arm to illustrate what a gnome looked like.


What I intended to say was, “Excuse me and forgive my lack of Italian linguistic ability but have you seen a gnome? A small statue? My small statue?” Whether that’s what I said or if I’d told him, “Excuse me, I’m a gnome. I’m a little statue, I am” while using my arm in a way usually accompanied with the words ‘I’m a little teapot, short and stout’ remains unclear. Without uttering another word he returned to the hut and spoke loudly at his mucky t-shirted henchman. They appeared to be arguing and the gestures made it compelling viewing. It was like they were performing. And then, after around a full minute of loud, animated discussion, they stopped suddenly and Capo di Capi turned to me and said, “statue?” I nodded slowly, doing my best to look stern in a way that I’d learned from Paddington Bear. Capo di Capi nodded back. I was now on nodding terms with the local branch of the Sicilian Mafia.


He then turned to Mucky T-Shirt and shouted, “Bibba di boppa di boobity, bobbity bibbity boobity!!!!” He was frequently pointing up at the ceiling of the hut and then to me, pointing at his own chest, throwing his head back and opening his arms wide with his palms upturned. At one stage he almost did a pirouette in a performance so balletic that fans of Margot Fonteyn would have been happy to pay to witness. After around another full minute of this, Mucky T-Shirt turned to me and shrugged. I shrugged back, genuinely having no idea why he was shrugging at me. And then, from somewhere in the ceiling area of the hut, the unmistakable figure of Nobby was retrieved. Mucky T-Shirt approached me and, with obvious reluctance and a guilty look reminiscent of a child that’s accidentally painted the side of their parents house bright blue, handed him over. I thanked him and nodded a ‘grazie’ to Capo di Capi. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was and whether I was expected to approach him and kiss his ring but if there’s one thing I know it’s that you never kiss the ring of another man without invitation, especially not on holy ground. We were, after all, in the grounds of the Basilica.


My negotiations with the Mafia complete, I was able to rejoin the wedding party. At one point of the wedding reception Nobby joined all the single males who had been cajoled onto the dancefloor. The garter of the bride was tossed into them and tradition has it that whoever caught it is the next one to find a wife. Nobby caught the garter.


If only the taxi driver knew what became of the gnome he helped to rescue.