Well, we survived Storm Gertrude last week, which brought gusts of 60-70 mph to Wick (others had it worse; Shetland recorded gusts of over 100 mph); now we’re battening down the hatches for Storm Henry, expected Monday night into Tuesday, and the forecast is for much the same, or stronger. (The rate these gales are whistling through I expect to have received a visit from Storm Zachariah a week next Tuesday.)
The sea has torn a chunk out of Wick harbour wall, as though a very hungry whale had taken a large bite, for added roughage perhaps. There were trees down on the road to Inverness (Caithness has hardly any trees to speak of, just a few straggly bits of forest that make it feel as though the land was attempting a rather unconvincing combover). The fields are waterlogged, cattle and sheep standing bedraggled and miserable, ankle-deep in water (Caithness now twinned with the Grimpen Mire).
Near the end of the river path
We went to Inverness last week for my final trip to hospital (touch wood), to see the consultant about my mouth sores. After no less than four blood tests (the arm they took the blood from was so emaciated afterwards that I looked like a hermit crab) and a month of fasting and meditation, I finally had my answer: they don’t know what the cause is. (This is actually good news: it means it’s probably nothing serious, or at least nothing with the word “disease” in the title.)
The most likely cause is an allergy, possibly to spice, with cinnamates and benzoates strong candidates. So I’ve got another three months of trial abnegation to look forward to: no spicy food (so Indian, Mexican and Chinese cuisine is out), no tea, no strawberries, and—I can hardly type this for the tears running down my face, blurring my vision and short-circuiting my keyboard—no Easter eggs, no hot cross buns.
Trees by the river
Oh, well, he says bravely; there are always ganseys. I continue my long creep up the body which is now about 15 inches long. Next week, expect some exciting gusset-related news.
Speaking of knitting, many thanks to Judit for sending me this link to a piece on the health benefits of knitting from the New York Times. Unfortunately many of them seem to accrue from socialising with other people in knitting groups, whereas for me, knitting is the equivalent of a 30-year sentence in solitary confinement. Never mind! I’m sure it’s still therapeutic; as I said to Judit, it’s the equivalent of assembling your own cat over a period of weeks, and stroking it as you go.
Snow on the window
Oh, and if anyone was thinking of advising me to look on the bright side during my time of trial, I refer you to this superb piece of dialogue from PG Wodehouse’s The Mating Season. Bertie Wooster is up against it and Jeeves offers him some philosophical comfort:
Jeeves: “‘I wonder if I might draw your attention to an observation of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius? He said “Does anything befall you? It is good. It is part of the destiny of the universe ordained for you from the beginning. All that befalls you is part of the great web.'”
I breathed a bit stertorously. ‘He said that, did he?’
‘Well, you can tell him from me he’s an ass.'”
As winter drags on, with snow shrouding America and rain and gales sweeping across Britain, I find myself returning to one of my favourite folk songs. It’s a traditional song called Awake, Awake, and I know it from the lovely Steeleye Span version. Based on the Old Testament Song of Solomon, it’s filled with longing for spring and, er, certain other things associated with spring.
It resonates with Biblical cadences. The first verse goes, “Awake, awake, oh northern wind, blow on my garden fair / Let my lover come to me and tell me of his care / For now the winter it is past, likewise the drops of rain / Come lie in the valley of lilies, midst the roses of the plain.”
Margaret’s been busy too
After that, of course, it gets a bit mucky (though it’s perfectly all right because it’s Scriptural). But that opening verse is wonderfully evocative, and the line, “For now the winter it is past, likewise the drops of rain” has become something of a mantra with me, a checklist for the changing of the seasons. I keep pulling open the curtains, only to find that the drops of rain most definitely are not past… not yet anyway. But soon.
Meanwhile I’m slowly working my way up the body of the gansey. I’m averaging two rows a night, more at weekends, and seem to be adding some 2.5 inches a week. (We’re in for the long haul here, people.) But, to quote my favourite Welsh saying, many drops wear away the stone; and in some ways this blog is time-lapse evidence I’m making progress.
Gordon’s new Lettlopi
I grew up with a deep and abiding love of folk music, something I’ve never really lost. The gold of traditional music has already been sifted in the pan of time, so that all the dross has been discarded; what’s left is the good stuff, an inexhaustible collection of all the one good tracks on the album.
It was cold last week.
It was folk music that eventually led me to Morris Dancing. Sadly, the Morris has a poor reputation over here, frequently despised by people who at the same time get emotionally involved in two groups of foreign millionaires kicking a ball around a field for 90 minutes. But really, with the Morris, what’s not to like? Great music, moderate exercise, cudgels and beer—you don’t get that down the chess club.
I experienced the equivocal British attitude to Morris dancing personally one time, when I landed awkwardly in a dance and sprained my ankle. I went to Northampton Hospital and was placed in a chair and wheeled off for an X-ray. As we rolled down the corridor the attendant, a friendly young man, enquired over my shoulder, “So, how’d you do it then, mate?” “Morris dancing,” I replied. He chuckled as he parked me in the waiting room. “Dickhead,” he said, without malice, and went away shaking his head.
Here’s a happy thought: we’re halfway through January, or 1/24th of the way to Christmas. The ghastly unseasonal weather of the New Year—with the rain rainething every day, as Shakespeare’s Feste, one of the earliest weather forecasters in literature, so correctly predicted—has given way to a spell of winter as tight as the grip of a miser’s shrivelled fist.
Ice on the river’s edge
Snow has come in the night, dusting the fields and pavements white; the latter are now especially treacherous, and people creep along as cautiously as tightrope walkers. Down by the river the footpaths are sheets of ice, and it’s fun to watch the dog walkers struggle to keep their feet as their excited charges jerk them back and forth in search of fresh scents, as unsteady as people trying on ice skates for the very first time.
I always get Proustian flashbacks to my time at school in this sort of weather, specifically the cross-country runs we had to go on. (Well, I say runs—we made a good show to the first corner, then dropped to a sort of shuffle just in case a teacher happened by, and finally, once we were out of sight of the school grounds, walked the rest of the way.)
Pointless though they were, they were never actually unpleasant, except when the wind from the tannery was blowing the wrong way—though for years I carried an image in my mind of us being harried by teachers with rifles on horseback, herding us into rivers and trapping us in nets, until I realised I was confusing my schooldays with the original Planet of the Apes movie.
There’s lots of parish news to get through this week, as everyone has obviously been very busy. First of all, apologies to Elisabeth for not having the comments on her new gansey open last week—she’s sent through some more pictures, which you can see here.
Lynne has taken inspiration from the herringbone/fish skeleton pattern from Norfolk Museums and has devised this splendid creation in deep ocean blue from Frangipani. And finally Katherine has sent pictures of this rather spiffing gansey based on Mrs Laidlaw’s pattern, with added zigzags.
Many congratulations to everyone concerned—and if your weather is at all like ours, you’ll be needing them right now.
One happy change that the weather has brought with the cold is actual clear blue sky and a low winter sun, our first of the year (my current theory on my allergies is that I’m intolerant of vitamin D). Curiously, the sickle moon is still visible even at noon, hanging there like a (fully operational) Death Star, which is a little unnerving. One of my favourite folk ballads has the line, “when the sun and moon meet in yonder glen, and that shall never be”—if only the writer had visited Caithness in January…
Another week, another trip to Inverness hospital—this time to see if I have glaucoma: apparently I don’t (hurrah!). I did badly in the peripheral vision test, though, because I almost fell asleep—the weather up here has been alarming, gale force winds and rain making it hard to sleep, and the head rest was really very comfortable; until the nurse, who’d been watching me thoughtfully, taped open my eyelids with sticky tape.
The consultant also dilated my pupils, so that for a few hours I wore the surprised look of a nocturnal marsupial being goosed by David Attenborough, and everything seemed to be in blurry soft focus. It takes a few hours to wear off, and bright sunlight can be very painful; luckily, living as we do in the far north of Scotland, this was not a problem.
Sinclair Bay from Nybster
Here’s the pattern chart for the current gansey. As I mentioned last week, it’s based on a Buckie pattern in the Moray Firth Gansey Project book, but amended: I’ve changed the diamonds from moss stitch and made the panels larger, to fit the required number of stitches. (I decided against just having more pattern repeats, as I didn’t want too many cables pulling in the body.) The body is 368 stitches in the round, and I’m cabling every seventh row.
Speaking of ganseys, Elisabeth has sent a picture of a rather splendid one of her own design that’s she’s just finished, and which you can view here. It’s yoked with a full body pattern like the Hebridean ganseys, and it really is most effective combination. Congratulations to her on a sterling piece of work.
Meanwhile I’m still trying to adjust to my new allergen-free lifestyle, at least until the medical profession can establish what, if anything, is provoking the ulcers in my mouth. The food restrictions, even the ban on chocolate and crisps, I can live with; but the difficulty turns out to be avoiding sodium laurel sulphate (SLS): it’s in everything! Or every toiletry item, at least.
If you weren’t aware of it before, it’s the substance that puts the lather in soaps and shampoos, and makes moisturiser feel silky smooth; and it is ubiquitous. As a result, I’ve had to replace everything from bath foam to lip balm, which has proved something of a challenge, not to mention making bath time rather less fun.
I’d read online that the Body Shop make SLS-free bath salts, so I thought I’d buy some while we were on holiday down south. I explained what I was looking for to the assistant, who helpfully located it on the shelf. But after I’d paid I realised she was acting under a misapprehension, for she gave me a very knowing leer and whispered confidentially, “She won’t be disappointed with this, sir” and all but waggled her eyebrows and nudged me in the ribs.
Wick Harbour Light
Obviously middle-aged men in Northampton only buy Body Shop products for their mistresses. I felt like a newly-wed husband buying something with batteries from an Ann Summers shop (not that we have those sorts of emporia up here; instead we’re supposed to rely on the Tesco motoring department and an active imagination). Well, it was all very awkward. I didn’t have the heart to tell her, but as I exited the shop with as much dignity as I could muster I saw her talking to two other girls, both of whom giggled and watched me go with a curious blend of admiration and disbelief. In future I’ll be buying online; it’s safer. In fact, it’s probably best if I never leave the house again…
And we’re back from seeing in the new year at my parents’ house in Northamptonshire. I thought the weather there was wild and windy until we got home: the east Siberian wind is driving the sea against the shore, and the spray over everything, so that we could probably scrape our windows and set up a lucrative sea salt business. The wind’s been attacking our house like the ghosts of a thousand exterior decorators, each armed with a chisel and scraping away the mortar, which we find scattered in the flower beds each morning like gritty dew.
It was nice to get away. Given my newly-restricted diet I spent quite a bit of downtime reimagining popular festivals as celebrations of the Brussels sprout. For instance, the traditional Irish festival of Hunting the Wren became Hunting the Sprout, with a bag of Tesco’s Brussels sprouts tied to a pole instead of a small brown bird; boys then parade through the village singing the traditional song: “The sprout, the sprout, the king of all veg / St Stephen’s Day was caught in the hedge / Although each is little a bagful is great / We pray you good people to lend us a plate”. (I’ve got more.)
Walking the dogs, Delapre Abbey, Northampton
This is of course the first stage of chocolate deprivation symptoms (or going “cold toblerone”, to use the technical term).
Meanwhile, back in the real world, this being New Year and all, I’ve begun my next gansey project. It’s for one of our regular visitors to the archives, who was also a contributor to the Moray Firth Fishing for Ganseys book (see page 37); he’s from Dunbeath, one of the Caithness fishing villages south of Wick, and although he wasn’t a fisherman himself he comes from a long line of local fishermen.
View from one of the bridges over the Grand Union Canal, Northants.
The pattern, which I’ll post next week, is also taken from the Moray Firth book, and will be (loosely) based on the Buckie sample on page 32.
The gentleman in question is a fund of local stories and folklore. To give just one example: we got onto the subject of witches and he told us the story of the Dunbeath need-fire. (I’ve mentioned need-fires before—this was the ancient Highland custom of a fire lit at Easter; all the fires in the village would first be extinguished and a new fire lit by the men in a special ceremony: the smoke from the bonfire was thought to protect against illness and everyone took away a flame from it to light new fires with at home.)
Stormy Wick Harbour
Well, he said, one year in Dunbeath the men couldn’t light the need-fire: no matter what they tried, it wouldn’t catch. In the end they realised that someone hadn’t extinguished their fire so they made a search and sure enough, it turned out the local witch had kept her fire going, just to spite them. They made her put it out, and so the need-fire could finally be lit. (Isn’t that great? As an archivist I love these tales: on the one hand, records and facts; on the other, human imagination—and I know which I prefer, deep down.)
A Happy New Year to all our readers!