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Wick (Cordova): Week 7 – 10 May

The Water Rat was sitting by the window, watching the rain fall on the river and writing what he liked to think of as poetry. He was just trying to come up with a rhyme for ‘bulb’ when the Mole burst in, clutching wildly at the fur on his head.
“Why, old chap,” the Rat said, startled, “whatever is the matter?”
“Quick! What’s my name?”
“Your what, my dear fellow?”
“My name! What is it?”
“Why, it’s Mole, of course.”
“No it’s not! That’s my family. What’s my name? What’s yours? And don’t say ‘Ratty’.”
The Rat opened his mouth and shut it again.
“You see? Why aren’t you called something like Gerald? Or Brian? Or Penhaligon? Why aren’t I?”
“And another thing,” said the Mole. “Why is there only one of each of us—one toad, one rat, one badger? Where are all the women? How do we reproduce?”


The Rat laid down his pen with an austere look. “I’d have thought someone might’ve explained this before now. Still, better it comes from me than one of those low weasels with dirty minds. You see, it’s like this: when a daddy mole and a mummy mole love each other very much they give each other a special kind of hug, and—“
The Mole interrupted him coldly. “Mummy mole? Have you ever seen one? Or a mummy badger?”
“Hmm, well, now you come to mention it…” The Rat brightened. “What about the barge woman who gave Toad a lift? Or the gaoler’s daughter? They were women.”
The Mole sighed. “You know perfectly well they never existed. Toad imagined the whole thing after eating those mushrooms we found in that field last year, remember? The ones that upset his tummy.”
“Oh yes.” The Rat chuckled. “Poop-poop.”
“I tell you, Rat, none of our lives makes sense. We’re living in the Matrix.”
The Rat frowned. “Matrix?”
“I took the red pill, the one that opens your eyes to the truth. I found it on the kitchen table this morning.”
“Red pill? Did it have a white M on it, by any chance?”
“Yes! I assumed it was M for Matrix.”
“That was an M&M, you wazzock. Look, why don’t I make some tea and you can help me find a rhyme for ‘circus’. Then if the weather clears we can fetch Toad and go for a walk in the Wild Wood: there’s nothing like lording it over a bunch of working class stoats for curing an existential crisis.”

Breaking waves

“Oh all right. But there’s still one thing bothering me.”
“Fire away, old chap.”
“You know we’re animals, right?”
“Of course.”
“Well, why do we wear clothes?”


In gansey news, I’ve finished the first sleeve and expect to finish the other this week. A word on the cuff, which is unique in my experience. It alternates knit 2/ purl 2 ribbing with a six-stitch pattern band involving yarn overs. The overall effect reminds me of shoes threaded with laces, very distinctive, the sort of cuff Galadriel might have added to his gansey if Celeborn had switched elvenkinging for herring fishing. Again, the Cordova yarn shade shows the pattern very nicely.

Wick (Cordova): Week 7 – 3 May

Protagoras of Abdera, the Ancient Greek sophist, claimed that “Of all things, man is the measure”. But, of course, the question is: which man? There’s obviously a difference if you’re measuring by the actor Danny de Vito (1.47m tall) or basketball player Michael Jordan (1.98m). Tell you what, let’s compromise with George Clooney, who’s often held up as a model sort of chap; he clocks in at 1.8m tall, which I shall in future adopt as my official measure. That makes the Eiffel Tower, at 324m, 180 clooneys. The Empire State Building, 443m, equals just over 246 clooneys. Fewer if he’s wearing shoes.

Primrose (not Primula scotica)

Now you may think this is fanciful, but I used to wonder about this sort of thing when I was a kid reading about ancient units of measurement. I remember being particularly annoyed by the vagueness of cubits*, which were defined as the length of the pharaoh’s arm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger. And I thought, OK, fine, but what happens when the pharaoh dies and you get a new one—one who’s shorter? Or what if, like Tutankhamun, he takes the throne as a nine year-old child? Did they have to change the length of a cubit every year as he grew? Or, using their mummification skills, simply preserve the relevant limb of the old pharaoh? So many questions: there’s a lucrative tv series and book deal in this for an open-minded academic, I feel.

Creels on the quayside

Ah well, sticking with good old inches for now, I’ve finished the collar and started on the sleeve. I’ve so far knit about 10 inches of sleeve (or 14.2% of a clooney). You’ll notice the distinctive Caithness stripes running around the upper arm, a feature common to several of the ganseys in the Johnston Collection photographs. I really like the finished effect, but it’s surprisingly challenging to knit—whenever my mind goes blank I revert to a knit 2/ purl 2 rhythm, instead of knit 3/ purl 1. If I make a mistake I often don’t spot it for several rows, and Margaret’s had to bail me out a few times already. Still, it’s plain sailing for a while now until we reach (*ominous music*) the cuff…

Path to the top: steps leading up to the Bremner monument

I’m on leave all this week, with no plans other than trying to break the world record for the most Ring Cycles listened to. The forecast looks grim, with sleet showers—sleet showers!—expected midweek, so plenty of knitting will doubtless feature. If we’re feeling brave we might go for the odd drive, though bearing in mind the state of the roads up here it’s advisable to pack climbing gear, the potholes are so deep—last time I looked into one I swear I heard some dwarves at the bottom singing the Hi-Ho song. Maybe this year we’ll get to see the gorse in bloom at Helmsdale—we couldn’t go last year, because of the lockdown—which is a mere 36 miles south of here; or, as I now like to think of it, 32 kiloclooneys…

(*The Vagueness of Cubits sounds like the title of a lost Pink Floyd album c.1971…)

Wick (Cordova): Week 6 – 26 April

It’s my birthday, and I’ve treated myself to some cds of Bob Dylan performing live during his born-again Christian phase (because nothing says “happy birthday” like two and a half hours of hellfire and damnation set to a jaunty rhythm and blues). My only regret is that they’ve edited out the sermons he used to deliver between songs—sermons apparently so excoriating they made Savonarola, and I quote, look like a big girl’s blouse. Dylan once said that music attracts the angels in the universe, but after listening to these tracks I assume they turned up here to ask him to play the likes of “Blowing in the Wind” instead of “Gotta Serve Somebody”.

Daffodils by the Old Library

Actually, as I get older, of all the religions I don’t believe in it’s probably Taoism that appeals to me most. Tao—alternatively spelled Dao and pronounced as though it should have the words “Jones Index” after it, which opens up an intriguing parallel universe where America embraced meditation rather than capitalism—means “the Way”. And while I like to pretend I admire it for its message of humility and compassion, and its principle of wu wei, or doing through not-doing, I suspect the real reason is that it’s the only major religion founded by an archivist: the “old master” Lao Tzu, keeper of the archives of the royal court of Zhou. (Did he keep them in a Zhou box? History, alas, is silent.)

Nets on the harbour quay

Meanwhile in gansey news, I’ve almost finished the front and reached the joining-the-shoulder stage. This is an important psychological moment, with the jumper two-thirds done. But as Robert Frost said, or would have done if he’d been a knitter, which he wasn’t, instead of the traveller stopping by woods on a snowy evening which he claimed to be, I still have many rows before I sleep. Next comes a brief flirtation with the collar, and then it’s on to the sleeves.

St Fergus & Hawthorn

Lao Tzu is of course credited with the Tao Te Ching, the classic Book of Virtue and of the Way. Its famous opening is, “The Dao that can be spoken of is not the true Dao”, which at least means no one can tell you you’re doing it wrong. And after years of struggling with the tangled philosophies of Wittgenstein and Kant, as soon as I read, “That which is, is, and that which is not, is not” in the Book of Chuang Tzu I knew I’d found my personal spirit level. But is any of this stuff actually true? Ah, the answer to that, my friend, is blowing in the wind…

Wick (Cordova): Week 5 – 19 April

I woke up this morning with something of a migraine. How can I tell? Apart from the needle spiking my forehead every time my heart beats, my IQ drops like a stone. How far down does it go, you ask? All the way to the basement. An hour ago I wanted to weigh my cone of yarn to see how much was left, so I took it into the kitchen, along with a used coffee mug. After a time I realised something was wrong. Sitting on the kitchen scales was my coffee mug—it weighed 320 grams—but my yarn was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough I eventually found it on top of the dishwasher, ready to be put inside with the dirty dishes. Some days you really shouldn’t get out of bed.

My personal benchmark for migraine-induced dumbassery occurred many years ago. I was walking down Northampton’s Abingdon Street when my attention was caught by a parking sign that read “Waiting limited to 30 minutes. No return within one hour”. And I thought, if you aren’t allowed to come back to your car for an hour, how could you avoid getting a ticket, as you were only allowed to park there for 30 minutes? It seemed like one of those paradoxes Captain Kirk was always putting to evil robots in Star Trek, causing them to blow up; it was Fermat’s Last Theorem on a stick. (Eventually a kind policeman came along and explained it to me, followed by a number of rather embarrassing personal questions which I, er, won’t go into just now.)

Detail of JN02372 from the Johnston Collection. Used with permission.

And yet sometimes it works the other way, and what passes for my brain goes into overdrive, positively fizzing with ideas like yeast. Though instead of coming up with something useful, like nuclear fusion, I tend to wonder what it would be like if the Head of Personnel was a James Bond supervillain, complete with Persian cat and piranha tank (“Number Seven, I am very disappointed in you for failing to overthrow Lybster Parish Council; also, you can only claim expenses for monster munch flavoured pot noodles if you keep the receipt”), or whether the Tibetan Book of the Dead would work as a musical. Such insights are, alas, rare. On migraine days I may in fact be the only person walking around with an “I’m with stupid” T-shirt pointing at myself…



This gansey isn’t an exact replica of a pattern in the Johnston Collection of old photographs of Caithness fishermen—the gauge in the original is just too fine—but it’s pretty close. The centre panel in the original has two columns of four trees and diamonds (tree, diamond, tree, diamond); but that was just too many rows for me, the yoke would have been 3-4 inches longer; so I decided to lose the topmost diamond and keep the rest. I’ve left the actual patterns exactly as they were in the original, just had fewer of them. (I’m nearing the top of the yoke: I’ll soon find out how good my maths is.)

It would also have been a couple of inches too narrow for me widthways. I could have added a stitch either side of some of the patterns to pad it out, but again, I wanted to keep the patterns I was using as close to the original as possible. So I added a couple of six-stitch single cables, on the basis that everything goes better with cables. (The braided double cable is cabled every fourth row, so I’m cabling the single cable every eighth row to keep the counting simple.)

I hope I’ve captured the spirit of the original, at least. It’s another stunning Wick pattern, and reinforces my idea that Wick is a “missing link” between the ganseys of the southern mainland and the spectacular examples from the Hebrides. And the Cordova yarn shows up the intricacy of the yoke every bit as well as I’d hoped. The pattern is falling nicely into place; or at least it is on days when I don’t mistake the dishwasher for the kitchen scales…


Wick (Cordova): Week 4 – 12 April

If March is famous for coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, the first week of April came in like a lion who’s mad as hell because someone keeps stealing his milk from the fridge, and departed irritable as a lion who’s just quit smoking. It’s been horrible. Winds to strip the fillings from your teeth, snow, hail, sleet and then, confusingly, bright sunshine. I’d go for a walk under clear blue skies and return white with snow, looking like the “before” picture in a particularly graphic dandruff commercial. One morning the roads hadn’t been gritted after heavy snow overnight, turning Wick into an exciting dodgem-car-cum-bobsleigh-free-for-all.


Most Caithness roads have now gone two winters without being resurfaced, so not only was the snow treacherously icy, it also concealed the potholes. Though potholes is something of a misnomer at this stage—most of them are more what you’d call chasms; I looked into one and I’m pretty sure I saw Gandalf fighting a balrog somewhere down at the bottom. At this rate the only way anyone will be able to negotiate the North Coast 500 tourist trail come summer will be by dirigible. But then, I thought, perhaps this Indian Winter is actually my fault; perhaps by deciding to knit with a yarn inspired by the waters off Alaska I have unwittingly brought the weather of Prince William Sound to Wick. A bit fanciful, you think? Perhaps. All I’m saying is, if someone wants to come up with a yarn inspired by Córdoba in Spain, give me a call.

Bench at Castletown Harbour

April seems to be the season when all those gansey bulbs that were planted weeks and months ago come up to bloom: and for the second week running we have two new ganseys to share. The first is from Lynne, a Filey pattern out of Gladys Thompson’s book, knit in Frangipani cinder. I’m a big fan of Yorkshire patterns, and this is a cracking one. The cinder yarn shows the pattern up very nicely too for a dark shade. The other gansey is from Judit, a classic pattern from The Lizard in what looks like a bluish-turquoise yarn. (I’ve said before how much I like these simple, almost geometric, textured patterns, and this has been a favourite of mine since I first saw it in Mary Wright’s book; in fact I plan to knit myself a gansey in this pattern next year, if I’m spared.) Many congratulations to Lynne and Judit! Two very splendid examples indeed.

More Snow

My own gansey has reached the yoke/ gusset stage. It’s one of those intricate patterns that requires constant reference to the charts, so it’s been a bit intense so far (yes, I’m already nostalgic for all that ribbing I couldn’t wait to finish). Hopefully I’ll settle into some sort of rhythm as it develops. Anyway, I’ll say more about it next week, and post some charts, as well as say something about how I adapted the pattern.

Finally this week, I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for celebrities who have to deal with inane questions from journalists. Bob Dylan was once asked by a journalist what his songs were about, and he said, “Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.” Last week the Duke of Edinburgh passed away, and among the obituaries I read the following anecdote. The Duke had arrived somewhere after a long flight, and a journalist asked him how his flight had been. “Have you ever been on an aeroplane?” the Duke asked him. “Yes, sir,” the journalist replied. “Well it was just like that,” said the Duke.