Anyone who has sat through Heavenly Creatures, the harrowing film about two matricidal schoolgirls in the Fifties, will know that the city in which it is set, Christchurch, New Zealand, has a reputation as the epitome of suburban dullness. Now Christchurch is recovering from the shock waves of a visit from the arch-high-priest of suburbia himself, Terry Major-Ball.
He was attending the first-ever International Garden Gnome Convention; Mr Major-Ball, it seems, cannot shake off a sentimental fascination for the plaster midgets, even though he stopped manufacturing them in 1961. He and 10,000 other gnomophiles milled about an exhibition of the things in a vast art gallery. "It was a great affair," he tells me, voice sleepy with jet lag, "And of course it wasn't just tomfoolery. There was an important message behind it." Strewth. Gnomes have a message? "Of course," said Mr Major-Ball with a surely-everyone-knows-that sniff. "Conservation. Gnomes represent the, er, the ethereal spirits close to Mother Earth. I just wish we could have a similar sort of thing to the convention over here." And had he enjoyed meeting the people? "Treated us exceptionally well, the Kiwis. Couldn't have been nicer. And of course they're a very informal lot." For instance? "Oh, they thought nothing of coming up to me and saying, I saw you on television the other night. You're the brother of that ... prime minister ..."
The motoring page of Saturday's Daily Mail is proving to be quite a testing ground for the Lad Element among the nation's clerics. Last year they popped a mild-mannered vicar into a Citron AX estate for a test drive and he was promptly booked for speeding down the M4. Now, with positively spooky timing, they've plunged the Bishop of London down the Queen's highway.
It was, it seems, some weeks before the Rt Rev David Michael Hope was "outed" by Peter Tatchell and his school-sneak myrmidons, and the bishop's tentative apologies about sexual "ambiguity" and "grey areas" hit the headlines, that the paper's Weekend supplement contacted the episcopal wonder. "We'd heard he was interested in cars," a Mail voice tells me. "He used to drive a VW Corrado VR6, a very fast coup, then swapped it for a Mitsubishi Shogun, one of those huge jeepy things. He was obviously a very cool guy when it came to motors." Gosh. And? "We asked him to test- drive a little Nissan sports number, the 100NX. Lovely job, with the lift- out targa panels in the roof ..."
Hastily I changed the subject. What about the motoring page's stipulation that cars must be tested by a couple, with the woman taking a turn at the wheel? "No problem. He turned up with a very nice woman called Joaquina, an American archivist from his office in Church House, and they roared off together." The bishop's review is due to appear any day. Was it true that several potentially ambiguous references to big ends and tight turning circles had to be excised? "I've heard that stupid rumour," said the voice, "and it's complete baloney."
Well, well. Jeeps, coups, targa panels and a feisty co-driver whose name is pronounced "Whackina" ... I look forward to seeing the bishop's appearance, in the midst of the macho-tearaway "Platinum Rogues", in the next issue of Loaded magazine.
In a recent Kaleidoscope programme about the British Library, the novelist AS Byatt was to be heard rhapsodising about the people one meets there. In particular she remembered an encounter, some years earlier, with a voluble rabbi who talked to her about drainage systems and told her that one day there would be an earthquake in London, and it would be named after him because he was the first to predict it. Fairly understandably, she never forgot him. Well, I've discovered who he is. He isn't a rabbi at all. He's the mayor of Barnet.
His name, Antonia, is Ellis Hillman. He's 66, married, one son, lives in Hendon, and lectures in environmental studies at what used to be East London Poly. His knowledge of drains comes from his book, London Under London (1985), but the earthquake stuff owes more to his role as president of the Flat Earth Society, "which I inherited," he tells me, "when I came to do some research in the archives and the founder suddenly dropped dead." The society is still going? "Very much so. Still out to challenge scientific orthodoxy. Still looking for new members." Let me suggest one. She's called Antonia and she lives in Putney. Send a form today.
The Groucho Club, the famously whizzy London establishment where one goes to eat, drink and watch television stars misbehave, celebrates its 10th anniversary this May. From the start I've been a devoted fan of the place's amenities, from the indefatigably smiling beauties in reception to the amusing displays of public yelling by Mr Keith Allen, the pugilistic actor. I've always admired the club's rules against flourishing mobile telephones over dinner, or narcotic substances in the bar. But I fear a subversive element has somehow got past its stringent membership selection process.
Downstairs in the Gents' this week, one of the WC cubicles has sported the management's stern injunction: "Out of order. Please do not enter. Ceiling collapsing. Sorry." An unknown hand has crossed out the word "Ceiling" and substituted the word "Nose". What can it mean?