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Scottish Fleet, Week 4: 30 August

SF150831-1 I’ve been suffering from a small migraine, more of a migrainette, today. This isn’t one of the really bad ones—I can tell because the walls aren’t melting and I haven’t tried to gouge my eyeballs out with a teaspoon—but I feel as if a small, invisible baboon is sitting on my chest and, with each heartbeat, inserting a needle into my temple.

When a migraine’s really bad nothing makes sense; I even lose my ability to understand simple English. I remember once standing for about fifteen minutes in Northampton town centre trying to grasp the meaning of a sign which read: “Parking limited to 30 minutes. No return for 1 hour.” (In all seriousness, I couldn’t work out how the car could only be parked for 30 minutes but I couldn’t come back to it for twice that long before I could drive it away—if I’d been an evil robot in Star Trek I’d have exploded in a puff of logical paradox.)

SF150831-2Eventually a policeman happened along and I asked him to explain it to me. He did so, though he gave me a very dubious look and asked, “Do you know where you live, sir?”

Still, I’ve made good progress on the gansey this week, which now stands at 14 inches long (or it would do, if it didn’t collapse under its own weight like an imploding blue-green star). Another inch or two and I’ll start the yoke and the pattern, which I’ll post next week.

In parish news, Suzanne has sent pictures of this superb gansey-inspired jumper, knit in New Zealand merino-possum yarn, and showing once again the versatility of the gansey concept. (Though I must admit, I’m troubled at the thought of just how they got the merinos and possums to mate…)

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John o’Groats: All in one view

Finally this week, I came across this great anecdote from World War Two. It’s from the book “Operation Mincemeat” about the British plans to deceive the Germans over the invasion of Sicily. Apparently the submarine and crew which took part in the operation had previously smuggled US general Mark Clark to Algeria for a secret meeting. At one point after midnight the whole party had to hide in the cellar when the gendarmes happened to call, and one of the British commandos developed a cough he couldn’t control.

Obviously, discovery would have meant disaster but Clark hastily passed the man some chewing gum, and the danger passed. Afterwards the commando thanked him, but observed, “Your American chewing gum has so little taste.”

“Yes,” Clark agreed. “I’ve already used it.”

Scottish Fleet, Week 3: 24 August

Body 2On Saturday I was walking along the south cliffs overlooking the harbour when I passed two women, and as I walked by I overheard what they were saying.

The younger said, ‘It was in the bar. This guy walked over to me and said, you don’t sweat much for a fat girl, do you?’

‘That’s what he said?’

‘That was his chat-up line.’

‘Ooh, what a charmer.’

And then they were out of earshot, but the sound of their raucous laughter followed me all the way along the cliffs. I’m not sure why, but it cheered me up enormously.

Meanwhile, Margaret’s off on her travels again; this week, she’s slipped the surly bonds of Wick and gone to Romania on laughter-silvered wings, unless I’m thinking of a different airline, so I apologise for the sudden drop in quality of pictures.Body 1

The gansey is nearly ten inches long already, and because it’s a narrower chest than the last few I’ve knitted I can just about manage three rows an hour instead of my usual two. At this rate I’ll be able to start thinking about the yoke pattern in a week or two. (N.B., the photos are making it look blue—it’s really not, it’s seaspray.)

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Someone at Forsinard Nature Reserve has a sense of humour…

Do people still write poetry? I don’t mean the professionals, I mean ordinary coves like you and me; back in the 1980s and 1990s it seemed that everyone I met wrote terribly serious poems about Life in their spare time—as a friend of mine once remarked, more people were writing it than ever found time to actually read it.

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Wick Harbour on a sunny day

But you don’t come across it so much anymore outside of schools. Maybe the growth of self-publishing ebooks has killed off the amateur poet – seems everyone’s writing novels and fanfiction nowadays. (Or maybe the poets just got fed up with trying to find a rhyme for “width” or “orange”?)

Anyway, I’ve been going through my old papers and the other day I came across some poems I wrote in my university days (I also found an old photo of me with hair down to my shoulders, but I don’t think the world is quite ready for that yet). Here’s my favourite, a cheerful piece of nonsense written over 30 years ago in Manchester’s Marie Louise Gardens, when I should have been revising:

Upon the grass before me / A springing squirrel bounds, / His furry feet are quite petite, / He’s making squirrel sounds.

With flashing grace he leaps his haste, / His billowed tail trailing; / He’s flexed his knee and climbed a tree / And hopped over the railing.

Scottish Fleet, Week 2: 16 August

SF150817-1It’s been such a poor summer up here in the Highlands, the worst for 30 years, that meteorologists have struggled to find an adequate standard of measurement—after all, the euphemism “disappointing” has been used so often in forecasts it’s finally worn out and had to be replaced by the more truthful “bloody awful”.

In a spirit of helpfulness, therefore, I offer here the GSI, or “Gordon’s Sweater Index”, the ultimate measure of the warmth of a summer day. Really, it couldn’t be simpler: if the temperature reaches a certain point, I take my sweater off; if it doesn’t, I don’t. (The system can be modified to take account of wind speed, scarf and thermal underwear interplay, horizontal sleet, that sort of thing, but it’s not really necessary—a jumper and a breezy lack of modesty are all that’s required.)

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View from the base of the tower

Today had a positive GSI (only the fifth time this summer), so we took a trip to the Forsinard nature reserve across the border in Sutherland. It’s an hour and half’s drive from Wick, and is situated on a 39-mile single-track road with virtually no turnings off (the road sign says “Forsinard—Um, Are You, Like, Really Sure?”).

The nature reserve basically consists of an unmanned railway station and a vast peat bog, the kind of place that in Middle Earth would be packed to bursting with the preserved corpses of elven warriors, but here is a home to occasional lizards, dragonflies and swarms of flies, the latter behaving much like piranha fish that have taken to the air and developed a passion for earwax.

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Massed starlings at John o’Groats

But it is beautiful, in a desolate, bleak, soggy kind of way, especially on a summer’s day like today. The RSPB have built a viewing tower in the middle; it seems a little incongruous at first, like something that survived the destruction of the Death Star’s pre-school crèche, but after a while it feels as if it belongs in the landscape, and the views it offers are rather stunning. If you want to watch dragonflies skimming across stagnant ponds while flies probe your inner ear in relays, I can definitely recommend it.

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What fishermen wear today

In gansey news, I am off the welt and onto the body. I cast on 312 stitches for the ribbing; after 4 inches I increased by 32 stitches to 344. So now it’s just a question of knitting away until I start the yoke, in about a months time.

In parish news, both Den and Judit have sent me pictures of completed ganseys, and both, as it happens, Filey patterns. Den’s is in navy and has zigzags and seed stitch and ladders; Judit’s is in heather and has diamonds and moss stitch. Congratulations to both on some very fine knitting!

Not before time, too—there’s been a nip in the air which means that autumn will soon be upon us, ganseys will be in demand and—the horror—the cricket season will soon be over. Then it will be time to switch to my other temperature measure, the GLJI, or “Gordon’s Long-John Index”. As the old joke goes, send me money and I’ll post some pictures; send me even more money, and I won’t…

Scottish Fleet, Week 1: 10 August

IMG_2933‘Yet man,’ as Eliphaz the Temanite observes in the Book of Job, speaking of things that are inevitable, ‘is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward’; and in much the same way, no sooner has the Thurso gansey been completed than another has appeared on my needles to take its place. (I’m not entirely sure how it happens: basically, I go to bed and when I come down next morning there they are, apparently cast on by the gansey fairies in the night. Or else it’s the woodlice.)

This is going to be another of those generic Scottish Fleet patterns that can’t be pinned down to a particular place – it appears in Sabine Domnick’s book as “between Hull and Edinburgh”, and a variant was also recorded in Whitby. (N.B. – not much hope of identifying a drowned fisherman wearing this pattern, hmm?)

I’ll post the pattern when I get to it, but this is going to be another plain body / patterned yoke design, like the Thurso one. (It’s being knitted in Frangipani seaspray; but my iPhone seems to think it would look better in light blue, so that’s how the photo came out, god rot its shrivelled metal soul.)

Dunes beach and Dunnet Head (archive photograph - your summer may vary)

Dunnet Beach and Dunnet Head (archive photograph – your summer may vary)

Now, I’ve been threatening for a while to post some archive pictures of myself Morris dancing, and this seems as good a time as any. They were taken about 25 years ago when I was with the Brackley Morris Men—a time when I could still see my toes, let alone touch them, and waists weren’t just something that happened to other people. Morris dancing is a ritual folk dance dating back to who knows when (“time whereof memory of man runneth not to the contrary”, as my favourite legal saying puts it) and somehow it’s survived the industrial revolution, the First World War and the supplanting of Christianity by football as the national religion of these islands.

Gordon (right, front) leads formation surrendering

Gordon (right, front) leads formation surrendering

Why is that important? I don’t know, but it is. It’s like knowing that Wednesday was Woden’s Day, or that Thurso was the town on Thor’s River; that Caithness derives its name from being the headland (ness) of the Catt People, a Pictish tribe. The echoes resonate down the centuries even if the meaning is lost.

Gordon & Margaret at festival

Some enchanted evening… Gordon dances a solo jig while Margaret plays pipe and tabor

Well. It’s many a year since I last shook a bell in anger and my hair, unlike Mr Eliphaz’s sparks, has fallen like the autumn leaves; but I could probably manage a step or two yet. What’s that? Well, if you insist…

There’s one thing more needing mention / The dances we’ve danced all in fun / So now that you’ve heard our intention / We’ll play on to the beat of the drum…

Thurso: 3 August

ThTh150730-1I discovered an article in the paper today about famous last words. Of course all the usual stories and jokes were there, and I thought I’d share with you two of my favourites.

The first was Rabelais on his deathbed. When a priest called on him to renounce Satan and all his works the great man allegedly replied, “Come now, my good man, this is hardly the time to start making enemies.”

The second was a prisoner condemned to be hanged, and I love it for the sheer cheek of the thing. When he stepped onto the rickety scaffold, he’s said to have looked down and asked, “Is this thing safe?”

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Portrait of an archivist realising he’ll either have to  breathe in soon or expire…

Well, I have this week finished the Thurso gansey, which has been washed and expertly blocked by Margaret and, as you’ll see from the pictures, has already been taken for a test drive. It’s deliberately a slightly closer fit than some of my recent ganseys, as I went for a traditional chest-size-plus-four-inches width, thus showing off my manly physique and probably risking cutting off circulation to the extremities if I don’t give Tesco’s doughnuts a wide berth in future.

This really is a great pattern, almost an archetypical gansey design—very simple to knit, easily adjusted to any size, aesthetically attractive and very strong, with all those clean lines standing out boldly as they catch the light.

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Attack of the Giant Invertebrates From Mars!

The gansey photos were taken down by the Riverside, not long before the fireworks display that closed Wick Gala each year. There had been a few downpours earlier in the evening, soaking the ground and drenching the bonfire, so that even when lit it just smouldered a bit, lying there like a great beached sperm whale enjoying a quiet cigarette.

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John O’Groats Hotel in the… what is that? Sunshine or something?

Then the skies cleared for the fireworks which were, as usual, rather splendid. We stood on the lane leading down to the river and watched them being fired behind the trees on the other side, so that they seemed to be exploding directly overhead, arching over us as though we were about to be devoured by giant space jellyfish. And once it was over both the town of Wick and the funfair were obscured by drifting clouds of gunpowder smoke—which I couldn’t help feeling was something of a win-win, in retrospect.

Right. I’m off now to compose my own last words. At the moment I’m torn between, “What are you looking at?” and “But I got this remedy off the internet…”