nthposition online magazine

The Gnome Liberation Front

by Rob Irving

[ strangeness - may 02 ]

Once upon a time, all was as it should be in the Gilberts' garden. The grass was a lush green, and spring had sprung a sea of yellow gently bobbing in the breeze. Amongst the daffodils, more colour; flashes of blue tunic here, orange breeches there - a kaleidoscope of garish paint, pink flesh and white beards of a busy workforce of gnomes. A plastic tableau of Snow White and Seven Dwarves trailed across the lawn.

Garden gnome, by Rob Irving

But this picture of parochial tranquillity was spoiled early one Saturday morning when pensioners Gladys and Thomas Gilbert looked out of their Thetford, Norfolk, bungalow to find Snow White and her entourage had gone - hey hoe, hey-hoed off into the depths of unresolved crime. The thieves returned the following night, and what was once a collection of over 20 ornaments was reduced to the four largest gnomes, each 20-inches tall in its Phrygian cap and secured by a sturdy metal stake.

The police's response didn't offer much hope for the gnomes' return. "The owners were obviously upset" said a local officer. He logged the first theft as 'garden furniture: Snow White + 7', and was unmoved by any suggestion for motive other than profit. "All we can wish for", he said grumpily, "is that the goods turn up at a car boot sale".

This was no isolated exodus, however. The story of the garden gnome that gallivanted off to remote, exotic locations, sending postcards home from his travels, is embedded in contemporary folklore. Sometimes the owner receives snapshots of the gnome, or the gnome returns home with a boot-polish suntan. Another version, reported in the Guardian sports pages, has a footballing gnome from Newcastle 'poached' by West Ham Utd, his black and& white strip repainted claret and blue - he's more settled in London, the postcard read, and his form has vastly improved. Then there's the story, volunteered to me by two police officers independently - one involved his own Chief Inspector - about the kidnapped gnome returned piecemeal to its owner after ransom notes were ignored. And, in his collection of urban legends, Curses, broiled again, folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand tells of a mass disappearance of gnomes from a neighbourhood in Austria. They were found months later in a forest, grouped around the largest as if having a meeting.

Traditionally, mythology symbolises society's relationship with itself through its heroes and idols. We fashion these after our own aspirations. Just as some of us take pets to beauty salons, dress them up and psychoanalyse them, we imbue inanimate idols with a sentience of our hopes and dreams, consciously striving towards happiness, away from pain. There is no better indicator of cultural values than myth, and modern-day garden gnome stories are no exception. However, as cultural icons the gnomes themselves have suffered an ungodly fall from grace. In England, these once proud residents of grand Victorian mansions, introduced by batty Spiritualist landowners, are now generally considered the epitome of kitsch, rightly banished to suburbia.

Like Chinese whispers, folklore is often based on a seed of truth, but in this case the facts are particularly bizarre. For example, last summer in north-eastern France, 11 garden gnomes were found hanged from a bridge in what appeared to be a mass suicide. Police found a note in which the gnomes said they wanted to quit this world and join a sect of The Temple of Submissive Dwarves. "By the time you read these few words," it continued, "we will no longer be part of your selfish world, which it has been our unhappy task to decorate." Two years earlier, life imitated Brunvand's tale when 119 gnomes were discovered in a forest near Aix-en-Provence, miles from the town where they had mysteriously vanished.

Garden gnome, by Rob Irving

In certain Papuan societies, the forest is the traditional resting place of effigies of the dead, left to rot as the spirit embodied within is set free and converted into memorised image. Much of this artifice has found its way en mass into European collections - to the locals, what is important is that it is elsewhere. Could the movement of 'civilised' gnomic idols represent an equivalent object sacrifice?

Single gatherings of this size are comparatively rare, though. More often the itinerants are rounded up in groups of seven, sometimes accompanied by Snow White. And sometimes they are repainted, usually blue and green, the colours of the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin (FLNJ) - the Garden Gnome Liberation Front.

Like most revolutions, the one that mobilised European gnomes in the mid-90s was fuelled by a mix of big business and elitism. It began in a climate of stiff competition amongst German gnome manufacturers. Typically, they prided themselves in a high-quality product, and the nearly 30 million gnomes in Germany's gardens alone are a testament to this. Inevitably, however, this spawned a proliferation of cheaper copies from neighbouring countries, leading the Bundestag to curb imports.

In 1994, customs officials confiscated 300 gnomes at the Polish border on the River Oder, which runs from the Czech Republic, a well-known conduit for the black market. Three years later they seized a consignment of 11,000 gnomes. Such is the scale of incursion into Germany that Czech-made gnomes were recently identified as targets in a spate of garden desecration.

The FLNJ originally fashioned itself on the eco-minded German Grüne Party, fitting the gnome's traditional relationship with nature. Besides this, during the more famous French Revolution, the red Phrygian cap was the recognised symbol of liberation. But behind their open dislike of hyper-protectionism was a thinly-veiled hatred of kitsch. "They are ugly, and we have eradicated them from Alençon!" announced the first FLNJ release, claiming responsibility for the disappearance of 200 gnomes from the Normandy town.

Following a tip-off - or perhaps, by now, intuition - police found the haul in a nearby forest. Curiously, the statues were apparently subjected to some kind of ritual: not only repainted, but they were wearing painted spectacles ("to see in the dark," claimed the FLNJ), and adorned with pasta ("so they don't go hungry"). Alençon gnome-owners were unamused. The following year, their gardens duly replenished, residents responded to the FLNJ's announcement of a spring offensive by complaining to police.

By this time unofficial, independent cells of the FLNJ were spreading across Europe, linked via the Internet. One Italian late-night radio host even formed a 'Brigate Pisolo' (Sleepy Brigade), inviting listeners to call in with addresses where gnomes could be found and liberated. In Belgium, the self-styled 'Gnome Protection Squad' reportedly numbered 300 irate gardeners.

Public outrage eventually paid off when, in April 1997, four men were arrested in Bethune, France, after being caught in possession of gnomes and FLNJ literature. Police recovered a further 184 gnomes from their homes.

After this it can probably be assumed that the seven original FLNJ members tired of their nocturnal antics and moved on. Or so it appeared until, in early 2000, several dozen gnomes went missing from an exhibition at the Bagatelle gardens in Paris. The FLNJ again claimed responsibility, demanding that "this odious exhibition must be closed immediately. Or we will strike again!" Forty-three gnomes were later found in the grounds of the public library at Lingolsheim, a suburb of Strasbourg. Strasbourg police were soon on the case: "This is a national problem and our force is working with others throughout the country" said a spokesman. "There is clearly some degree of organisation behind these incidents." In Rouen, 68 gnomes were recovered from a house after a week-long police surveillance operation. On a broader front, last summer Professor Patrick Boumard, an anthropologist at the University of Rennes, hosted a three-day conference examining what he described as the "socio-cultural-economic" implications of gnome-napping. "We need to find answers before it's too late", he told participants.

The Garden Gnome Emancipation Movement's (MENJ) website serves as a pool of information on world-wide gnome-napping activity, by now as widespread as Australia, Japan and the UK. Ostensibly they are less militant that the FLNJ, claiming to oppose liberation as such. Gnomes are happiest in gardens, they say... but then, at night, "by the light of the moon they are naughty". Naturally they have no evidence of this, and welcome photographs of gnomes, say, frolicking in the woods, or any first-hand witness accounts.

The apparent paradox, of course, is that this encourages others to do exactly what the MENJ says it is against. But like their claim that Scotland Yard has a telephone gnome-crime hotline (it doesn't), and whether, despite their denial, the MENJ and FLNJ are really one and the same, or if the Gnome Protection Squad really was 300-strong, or, indeed, whether it existed at all, truth is ultimately irrelevant.

This playful interchange of myth and reality typifies 'Neoist' art activity. As Stewart Home writes in his introduction to Mind Invaders: a reader in psychic warfare, cultural sabotage and semiotic terrorism, the general principle is defined in "dissolving categories by pushing their internal contradictions to their 'logical' extreme", much like crop circle-makers who openly profess to believe that aliens make crop circles. The point is that myth and mystery have a stimulating impact on society and should be encouraged, in keeping with long traditions - in England, in particular - of cultural satire; mimicry invites us to see the folly in mainstream acceptance and to subvert it.

I met 'Alex' through an email list dedicated to covert mischief - www.hoax.org. His interest in garden gnomes began when he was working as a milkman, the perfect disguise for would-be gnome liberators. His undercover role began when he took two antique gnomes from a garden to decorate his own. Poor taste turned to irresistible impulse and the excitement level of his 4am shift soared. Suddenly every garden on his milk-round blossomed with artistic potential. Often he would simply swap one gnome with another elsewhere, enjoying the satisfaction of not knowing if the owners notice that the gnome fishing yesterday is now digging, and, next door, vice-versa. Alternatively he would provide gnomes for the gnomeless, much to the latter's surprise when they collected their milk from the doorstep that morning. There is nothing like a little social engineering to extend the margins of our interaction with the world.

Of course, none of this is of much interest to Gladys Gilbert. Her husband, she told me, has now taken to scouring car boot sales hoping to spot their gnomes and finger the culprits. No luck so far. And on their meagre pension they won't be buying any more. "It's a shame," says Gladys ruefully. "The gnomes gave entertainment, some fantasy for the local kids". For others, somewhere, possibly in a neighbourhood near you, they may still do.