Author of a highly unconventional wildlife gardening book, former Goodie Bill Oddie shares his love of gnomes
03 August, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman
Bill Oddie in his garden
BILL Oddie has always been something of a joker – a serious joker as laughter-makers often are. That is undoubtedly why he has called his new book Tales of a Ludicrous Bird Gardener, subtitled “Definitely Not Just Another Book About Wildlife Gardening”.
Indeed, it is a hoot, as you might expect from the former Goodie-turned-ornithologist/conservationist/author/musician/Springwatch TV presenter, who loves garden birds, gnomes, buddhas, fake dinosaurs and spiders too.
He presents their colourful story – and that of his totally nutty backyard garden a short flight from Hampstead Heath – with droll delight, certainly most welcome in these dour uncertain times.
“Yes, I suppose it is an antidote to our troubled times, offering some fun and laughter,” he says with a giggle. “We certainly need that, don’t we? I’ve always regarded things that way, make a silly joke about something – and then I get serious.”
But, he insists, it is not a gardening book or even one about gardening to attract birds.
“It’s all about transforming your garden, creating a distraction, a challenge,” he explains in what is a remarkable autobiographical saga. “And if people want to have a go and introduce some of the daft things that I’ve put in my garden… well, fine and good luck. They are just my own whimsy.”
The “Ludicrous” in the title comes from his second wife, Laura, when she saw the final results of his own crazy brand of creativity – he describes as a kind of therapy – at their home in Heath Hurst Road, which has evolved since their Camden register office nuptials.
“We had been together for ages,” he says. “So we had all the canteens of cutlery and duvet covers we needed. So – and I don’t know why – I asked everyone to bring a garden gnome. But some people just couldn’t do it and brought us yet another canteen of cutlery instead.”
The result, however, is that surrounding a pond he created by smashing up a sunless patio, there is one section with almost 100 gnomes. And since then Bill has added a sprayed-white Spooky Corner with two skulls on juju sticks traditionally used in black magic plus a tropical area nicknamed Borneo following his visit there to see orangutans in the wild. Even rats make a dramatic entry.
And guarding the entrance to the mini-jungle with its strangely-shaped tree branches picked up from the Heath, an old nest box for tree bees and random models of horses and cows, is, unbelievably, a gorilla – “But he’s only a little one,” he insists.
Bill Oddie’s collection of gnomes
A native of Rochdale where he had a lonely, wartime upbringing, Bill came to London via Pembroke College, Cambridge, in 1964, lived first in Paddington, then Belsize Park, followed by South Hill Park, where he overlooked the first of the Heath ponds and could birdwatch from his bed. Finally, after a decade there, to Heath Hurst Road some time after he and his first wife, Jean, agreed to part.
Today, at 76, he has mixed feelings about not being seen performing any longer. He recalls that he was “appallingly paid” by the BBC both with The Goodies, where he also co-wrote the scripts, and as a natural history presenter, which was why, like Morecambe and Wise, he moved to ITV.
“I can promise you that we got paid more in one year there than the whole 10-year period we were with the BBC,” he says.
And while he is undoubtedly proud of own his fantasy garden, he has his own not always totally coherent views about the 21st century world dominated by advertising.
“When you reach my age you can be dismissed as being a Luddite and not up with things because you’re past it now,” he says. “I am perfectly capable of saying that to myself too in many ways.
“But there is a lot wrong about our way life, the way it is run, the priorities people have and the atmosphere of it all.
“Advertising has got more and more elaborate. There is a slickness and smarminess about it all, a kind of brainwashing that just gives me the creeps. And some days the technical stuff too really gets me down when things jump into your computer when you’re tip-tapping away. I hate it all.
“It may be called getting older but when my granny got older she didn’t have to cope with all this. She only had to learn how to lick a stamp or something.”
Nevertheless, living in NW3 remains a heaven-sent antidote.
“Both me and my wife and my family feel we couldn’t have lived in a better place than Hampstead,” he says. “We still live near the Heath and everything else but it’s not that which is so magic.
“It’s a great community here. I love the fact that it is as ethnically mixed as you can get. You go down to South End Road and if we didn’t have our native language then you would have to learn a couple of dozen. It’s a wonderful place to live.”
• Tales of a Ludicrous Bird Gardener. By Bill Oddie, Reed New Holland, £16.99