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Flamborough, Week 7: 18 June

There’s a memorable scene in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas where Hunter S. Thompson is in a hotel room with his attorney, both of them off their heads, as they are for most of the book, on drugs. The attorney is soaking in the bath, and demands Thompson play Jefferson Airplane’s song White Rabbit at full volume; and, when the song peaks, throw the player into the bathtub, electrocuting him.

Thompson, surprisingly, has just enough sense not to go along with this. Instead, at the key moment, with the attorney lying in the tub, eyes closed, expectant, he throws the biggest grapefruit in the fruit bowl into the bath. For a few seconds the attorney actually believes he’s being electrocuted. “My attorney screamed crazily, thrashing around in the tub like a shark after meat, churning water all over the floor as he struggled to get hold of something.”

Yes, it’s the (football/soccer) World Cup, and this sort of frenzied ecstasy exactly describes the BBC’s relentless coverage. Every journalist seems as excited as a five year-old who’s been given a surprise birthday party and a whoopee cushion. It’s exhausting.

So instead, let us avert our gaze and turn to a story that’s had the archives world shaking its collective head: the White House’s records. Did you know that the Presidential Records Act requires every document the President of the United States handles to be preserved in the National Archives? No, me neither; but as an archivist, I heartily approve—it’s just the way the world should be.

View towards Wick from upriver

And then along comes President Trump. Apparently he can’t be persuaded not to rip up papers of all kinds when he’s done with them—some of them just torn in half, others into “hundreds of minute pieces”. But you can’t outwit archivists like that: we have special training. So it’s the job of White House staff to go through Trump’s waste paper bins and retrieve the shreds of paper and stick them back together. (Now I think of it, I’m pretty sure I saw the Penguin do this in the 1992 movie Batman Returns, so you’d think someone might have invested in a decent shredder by now.) Still, so long as they’re using special archival non-acidic preservation tape, there’s no harm done, eh? “We got Scotch tape, the clear kind,” an aide said. Oh.

The steps to Dunnet Beach

In gansey news I have put in a few hard yards this week. As a result I’ve finished the front and both shoulders, joined them with a standard three-needle bind-off, and started on the collar. Several of my recent ganseys have featured traditional non-shaped necklines (partly because I have a mind to offer them to a local museum if they’ll have them); but I prefer a bit of freedom around the old larynx myself, so this time I’ve gone for a shaped collar. I made it quite deep, i.e., one diamond, or 30 rows. (This equals 15 decreases, if I decrease every other row.)

Gordon contemplates braces

The shoulders at the shoulder strap are each 63 stitches wide, with another 63 for the neck. So I put 63 + 15 = 78 stitches on each needle and worked up the shoulder, decreasing every second row, until after 30 rows I had 63 stitches left for the shoulder strap. I then knit 12 rows of standard rig ‘n fur’ for the shoulder strap, and then bound off (is that right, “bound”? Seems a bit sprightly for someone with my knees, but there we are). It makes for a nice wide neckline and a sweeping, gentle curve.

I just had an awful thought. If the BBC’s coverage of the World Cup is this bad now, what will it be like if England actually go on to win it? I might have to emigrate. Either that, or take desperate measures. (Now, where did I leave that copy of White Rabbit…?)

Flamborough, Week 6: 11 June

Middle age affects us all differently. Some people develop a hitherto unexpected interest in radio programmes about gardening; while others, usually of the chappish persuasion, splurge out on sports cars or motorcycles. In my own case, however, I find I am afflicted with braces.

A word on terminology. I’m talking about those elasticky thingies that go over your shoulders and hold your trousers up, not the metal attachments to straighten teeth, nor the lacy bits that enable young ladies (in old films and on websites dedicated to particular tastes, or so I’m told, not that I’d know from personal experience of course, especially during work time after the unpleasantness) to keep their stockings up.

A dull day at John o’Groats

I first started wearing braces a year or so back when my various mental health issues saw my weight fluctuate by over half a stone in a few months. My profile resembled an animation of the phases of the moon, waxing and waning with the pull of the tides. At my heaviest you could have lain me on my stomach, put a magnet in my socks, given me a hearty spin and used me for a compass; at my lightest someone from work, when I refused a piece of cake on the grounds that it was full of calories, glanced at my waistline and said disgustedly, “I’ve seen more fat on a chip!” No belt could stand the strain.

Yellow Flag Iris, Iris pseudacorus

Along the way I discovered that braces used to be considered underwear, and were discreetly hidden under the waistcoat; only when waistcoats went out of fashion was it acceptable for braces to be visible (a sensible development, I feel, given the alternative was the potentially more shocking sight of men shuffling about with their trousers round their ankles). The belt didn’t really take over until World War Two, when it was used in army uniforms, and then in the low-slung jeans look of the 1950s and 60s.

Great Hall, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

All other considerations aside, I prefer to model my style on that of the Soggy Bottom Boys in the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? The height of sartorial perfection, one feels.

Now, every now and again, when knitting a gansey, the gansey fairies (another web search I don’t recommend you to make at work) smile on you and things just click. I decided when I started this gansey that I wouldn’t try to calculate the number of diamonds I could exactly fit on a side: I’ve tried this before and it never works out. This time I thought I’d take it as it comes, and if that meant I was left with a half- or quarter-diamond, then so be it. But lo! Imagine my pleasure when I reached the top of the back and found that, give or take a quarter of an inch or so, I have exactly eight diamonds. So my heartfelt thanks to the gansey fairies (Cable, Purl and Gusset, good names for cats now I think of it) and it’s on to the front.

Finally this week, the phrase “belt and braces” of course refers to a safety-first approach, leaving nothing to chance. Leaving aside the fact that, in braces etiquette (who knew?), one should never wear a belt with braces, the last word on this was surely said by Henry Ford: “How can you trust a man that wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can’t even trust his own pants.”

Flamborough, Week 5: 4 June

What’s your favourite scientific theory? At the moment I’m torn between two. One is that black holes are stars that have collapsed in on themselves and are now exploding back into stars but, owing to relativity, too slowly for us to be able to detect it yet. The other is that time is just a way of measuring the exchange of heat from hotter to colder objects (e.g., from a hot water bottle to my feet); and that where there is no friction, no heat exchange—the orbit of the planets round the sun, for example—the whole notion of time becomes irrelevant.

Sarclet harbour

I don’t remotely pretend to understand this, of course—I just like the sheer mind-boggling wonderment of it all. Modern physics seems to be mostly equations on a blackboard, where forgetting to carry the 1 can profoundly alter our understanding of the universe; and equations and I have never really been friends. I remember being quite energised by medieval philosophy at university, right up to the point when the professor said, “If we represent the goodness of God with the symbol a, and the nature of evil with b, then we have ab equal to…” And my tentative understanding collapsed in a heap of jumbled logic, never to recover.

When I did my archive training there was a nun on the course. Her attitude to medieval philosophy was rather refreshing, dismissing it as an argument over “how many pins you could stick in the head of an angel”. (Mind you, her attitude to most things was refreshing: one day she came into the common room carrying a bunch of flowers. One of the students asked her, “Do you want something to put them in?” She eyed him appraisingly for a moment, then said, “All right, then. Bend over!”)

Dredging in Wick harbour

In gansey news I have divided for front and back, half-finished the gussets, put them on holders, and am now embarked on the back. My respect for the pattern grows apace—it’s as easy to knit backwards as forwards. (Apologies for the quality of the photos this week; as you’ll have guessed, Margaret is away just now. Normal service should be resumed next week, but it’s tricky to get the colour right on an iPhone.)

Gorse at Helmsdale

Finally this week, I’d like to share with you one of my favourite poems by Matsuo Bashō, the great Japanese poet who could say more in three brief lines than most of us manage in a lifetime. We’ve had a taste of summer in Caithness, an explosion of light and colour and, of course, birdsong. This summer poem always lifts my spirits—physicists and poets, each bringing us closer to a kind of truth:

sings all day,
and day not long enough.

Flamborough, Week 4: 28 May

Summer has come even to Caithness, with blue skies, sunshine and temperatures in the high teens. It’s so gorgeous that a walrus decided to check us out, turning up on the shingle by the old lifeboat station on the south shore of the bay. (This even made the news on BBC Scotland; which either says a lot about them, I feel, or about us.)

The next day it was gone, off on another walrus adventure. Of course this didn’t stop us, and a lot of other people, going to stare at the place where it had been, like so many cats who stare fixedly at a spot on the kitchen floor where a saucer of tuna had once stood; and continue to stare at it today, because, you never know, it might reappear…

Wally has a kip

So we went inland to Forsinard, the great bird reserve on the border with Sutherland. It’s a vast area of peat bog, a flat bowl ringed by hills, which always reminds me of photographs of the grassy uplands of Montana where Custer led his men of the Seventh Cavalry to disaster; though if Custer had ever tried riding through Forsinard he’d have found himself up to his knees in watery peat in about three squelchy strides. There was a Highland breeze to keep the midges off, and it so was so quiet we could hear a cuckoo calling from the woodland a mile or so away, as though someone was tuning the reeds in an old-fashioned pipe organ.

Distant mountains and lochan, RSPB Forsinard

There’s a visitor centre, where the helpful young lady behind the desk tried to engage me in conversation. I could see the light dying in her eyes as I explained that I could just about distinguish a robin from a duck, but that was as far as my ornithology went; and while I conceded that golden plovers existed, I wouldn’t recognise one if it wandered over and pecked me on the ankle. Gamely she rallied and tried to interest me in bogbean, a flowering plant in the family Menyanthaceae, but beyond regretting I hadn’t had a firstborn child to name after it, it held no charms for me. Instead we walked the path over the bog to the viewing tower, the kind of thing Sauron might have constructed if he’d been into birdwatching, and basked like lizards in the stillness and the heat and watched the dragonflies skimming erratically over the ponds.


In gansey news I’ve started the gussets, am about halfway up them in fact, and should get them finished this week; and then it’s onto the back. The pattern and the colour continues to please (I like the idea that I’ll finish this one in time for autumn, which seems like the ideal season to wear it). It’s a very intuitive pattern to knit, essentially alternating pattern rows, so you always know exactly where you are.

Finally, few things have given me as much pleasure recently as the story, possibly apocryphal, that the Flat Earth Society is arranging a round-the-world cruise for its members. And leaving aside the mindset—surely as inconceivable as refusing to believe in gravity, or the greatness of Bob Dylan—I recently came across the best argument yet to refute it: if the world really was flat, cats would already have pushed everything off the edge…

Flamborough, Week 3: 21 May

We’re back in Caithness, after a gentle 600-mile drive. We did it all in a day—it was either that or watch the royal wedding—8.00am to 8.00pm. And it was like travelling back in time. We left Northamptonshire in early summer and arrived back to find Caithness in early spring. (This is probably something to do with relativity, e=mc²: where “e” equals the number of roadworks on the M6 motorway; “m” is the number of bikers who overtook us; and “c” is equal to the curse words we used when other drivers cut us up, squared because this happened rather a lot.)

The Lake, Delapré

It’s 11ºC in Wick today, grey skies and a cool breeze, and that fine drizzly rain the Scots call smirr. (This always makes me imagine the baby Jesus being born in the Highlands by some cosmological error, and three wise men turning up in Celtic football shirts, saying, “We bring you gifts of gold, frankincense and smirr. And an umbrella”.) It’s only a couple of days since we were strolling round the lake at Delapre Abbey in our shirtsleeves, dodging the goslings and illegal campers, everyone basking in the sun like lizards on a rock. Now the world outside is blurred as the smirr coats my glasses in fine droplets of Scotch mist and I wonder if I packed away my winter clothes too soon.

Non-whomping willows at Delapré

I took the gansey with me and managed a bit of knitting around work commitments, which mostly consisted of sitting stationery in traffic jams wondering how people could live like this. The pattern’s starting to develop nicely: I’ve always liked the Flamborough patterns, and one of the things I particularly like about this one is the way the narrow columns flank the cables and moss stitch, like the slender pillars in a Gothic cathedral, great weight supported on delicate flutes of stone.

Gorse at Helmsdale

One sight to gladden the heart on returning to the Highlands is all the gorse, just coming into full flower. It covers the hillsides in a glorious display of yellow, as though the Martians had decided to try to conquer the earth again, only this time with yellow, instead of red weed. In places where it appears in patches I was reminded of blooms of lichen dappling an ancient church wall. The village of Helmsdale, just over the border in Sutherland, sits beneath a  great dome of a hill which is wall-to-wall in gorse, so much that it’s probably visible from space. It’s just gorgeous, and it really is worth paying the price of losing a few degrees in temperature and gaining a raincoat just to be here to witness it.