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Flamborough, Week 11: 16 July

Strange how the mind works, isn’t it? Last week’s blog on Camster Cairns and the human remains found inside them put me in mind of something, and someone, I haven’t thought about for twenty years or more, a true story I thought I’d share with you.

Many years ago, when I worked in an archive in Mid Wales, I had a—how shall I put it?—rather impressionable young lady for a colleague. County Hall was brand new, built on the site of a former hotel. The archive was off to one side, behind a high stone wall and a fringe of trees where the old stable block had stood. It was a single-storey modern building: the strongrooms formed an extension to the rear, covered by a flat corrugated tin roof.

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The point is, there was nothing unusual about the archive itself, except possibly the exaggerated sense of isolation provided by that high stone wall; and the musty, weighty drag of history that several hundreds of years’ worth of records provides. Certainly when things were quiet sounds became queerly amplified.

Every now and again a crow would flutter down from one of the trees onto the roof, to do whatever it is crows do, and as it strutted about its claws made a high-pitched scraping noise on the metal. Well, one winter’s afternoon, when the sun had already set and the wind was making the trees creak in an ominous sort of way, and there was only the two of us in the building, the crow paid us another visit. As soon as she heard the high, thin, skreek-skreek of its claws my colleague jumped to her feet. “What’s that noise?” she cried, her hand actually to her mouth.

“Well,” I said without thinking, “you do know that the archive was built on the site of an old Indian burial ground, don’t you?”

The next thing I knew she’d grabbed her coat and was running for the door. In vain I tried to explain that I’d been joking; that this was Wales where, to the best of my knowledge, there was a notable absence of Native American burial grounds; or that it was just a bird and probably not the spawn of Satan come to claim her soul. It wasn’t until the following morning that she’d even consent to set foot in the building again. Not long after she changed her name to Esmeralda and left to study drama at Aberystwyth University, and I like to think I played some small part in her decision…

Meanwhile, back in the wonderful world of ganseys, the Flamborough is finished; and very splendid it looks too. It was blocked to 23 inches across, but given all the cables and purl columns it has relaxed to a comfortable 22 inches. (The concertina effect means it has room to expand with my waistline, should occasion demand, an important consideration.) I have, of course, already cast on my next project: more about that next week.

Finally this week I had some very sad news. It’s the nature of my line of work that I meet a lot of people who visit the archive to research their ancestors, who stay in Caithness for a brief time and move on. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely couple, Arlene Raeburn and her husband, Professor Sandy Raeburn. We spent some time talking, and then, as ever, went our separate ways. Last week I learned that Sandy had died suddenly. I can’t honestly say that I knew him at all well, but in a our few conversations together he made a strong impression on me as an erudite man who wore his erudition lightly, thoughtful, self-deprecating, with a keenly developed sense of humour. Every such loss diminishes us a little more. My condolences to Arlene and their family.

Flamborough, Week 10: 9 July

It’s only July and already I’m longing for autumn. It’s weeks since it rained. Caithness ground is usually as waterlogged as a sponge, and I’m used to that mossy, springy feel you get as your boot sinks through the surface grass into the squelching, sucky embrace of the underlying peat; now I keep jarring my spine on literal terra firma. Very strange. The other day I thought I saw several sheep busy contracting an archimedes screw to get at underground water, but as soon as they saw me they broke up and started sauntering about eating grass and bleating innocently. I wan’t fooled, though.

It’s hot, too—well, hot for Caithness. Temperatures keep sneaking up into the low twenties (what is this, California?). So on Saturday, driven half-mad by the unforgiving heat of 23º, and determined to avoid England winning the football on TV, we took a trip to the Grey Cairns of Camster.

Summer Shadows

As regular readers will know, this is one of my favourite places in Caithness (and the world). It consists of two great stone cairns erected some 5,000 years ago on a hillside a few miles south of Wick. They’ve been reconstructed—unless Neolithic Caithnesians were ahead of their time in glass skylight technology—and you can crawl inside and stand in the central chambers. The cairns were disturbed long before modern archaeology, but burnt bones and the remains of skeletons were found inside. Why were they built? What did people do here? Whose bones are they? We’ll never know.

Sweetly-scented Philadelphus

Inside a Cairn

All of which is fine by me: in fact, these are the wrong questions. Modern archaeologists have decided that Neolithic beliefs centred around a form of ancestor worship, but you only have to substitute the word “relative” for “ancestor”, and think back to that last Christmas party, with great-uncle Albert dad-dancing to Slade and great-aunt Phoebe necking Baileys from the bottle, to see how misguided this idea is. No, the past is wonderfully undiscoverable. All we leave is physical remains; the bit between our ears—the bit that really matters—we take with us when we go.

In parish news, Lois has come up on the inside track with a stunner, another Flamborough gansey (different pattern) in cheerful cherry red. You can read more about it on her gallery page—and note the saddle shoulder strap with the cable running down the sleeve. Many congratulations to Lois!

My own Flamborough is nearly finished—I’m on the final cuff and should finish it in a day or so. (The weather’s so hot, mind you, I can’t promise I’ll be modelling it anytime soon.) I still can’t recall a gansey I’ve enjoyed so much to knit. The colour seems to suit the pattern perfectly, too. In fact my only concern now is that all the cables and purl rows continue to pull it in after blocking, so I end up inadvertently inventing the world’s first gansey surgical bodystocking…

Flamborough, Week 9: 2 July

I don’t usually remember my dreams, but when I do, they’re always weird and vivid. How weird? I’m glad you asked.

Last week I dreamed I was driving down the main street of a small town. On my left was a large white house, a hotel, and standing outside or leaning out of the windows were men dressed in ape costumes, pretending to be apes. They chattered and shrieked and swung their arms like the apes at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and were throwing items of furniture and carpets out of the windows. There was a sign advertising a yard sale, and as I drove past a large rug came sailing out of the window, narrowly missing me. (It was as if the monolith from 2001 had inspired the apes to invent capitalism and trash the place and, well, now I come to think of it, let’s not go there.)

I half-awoke and then went back to sleep. This time I was in the same car, but every time I sounded the horn there was this strange bleating noise from under the bonnet. I stopped the car and opened the boot first, where I found the engine. I then popped the latch on the bonnet and opened that, and inside I found a large sheep, curled up and looking at me reproachfully. There was a sharp spike attached to the steering column just touching its back, and every time I pressed the horn the spike gave the sheep a jab, causing it to bleat.

Cottongrass on the cliffs, Sarclet

Probably my most powerful dream came about 20 years ago, when we lived in Wales. We had one of those garage doors that swing up, with a handle by your ankles. In my dream I bent over, grasped the handle, and then straightened, lifting the door as I rose. Just when I was fully extended, my arm high above my head, I looked down into the darkness of the garage and saw a great black dog sitting inside, quivering, tense, with wide, mad, ivory eyes staring at me. Then it leaped straight for my throat—and I woke up.

This is one of the reasons why drugs have never held the slightest interest for me: I’ve always felt that reality is too precarious to be messed around with. (And why aren’t my dreams happier?)

Cling-ons on the bridge, Wick

In gansey news, it’s amazing the progress you make when you’re sent on a training course and spend cheerless evenings in a b&b. I have finished the first sleeve and made a start on the second. Another fortnight should see it finished, and I can’t work out why it hasn’t taken longer. But it’s been an utter joy to knit: everything’s just clicked without my trying, the pattern fits the size, even the sleeves decreased down to the right width for the cuff without my even bothering with the maths. Sometimes the angel of knitting just sits by your shoulder and smiles. (And sometimes she’s nursing a mean hangover and wants to make other people suffer too; it’s just luck.)

In parish news, Judit has been busy again, knitting a jumper in pink using a design of chevrons and purl stitches. It’s a nice, clean design, and the pastel colour lets you see the elegance of the pattern clearly (always helpful with gansey patterns).

Finally, I think I passed a milestone today (Sunday). Britain is basking in a heatwave like a turkey in the oven so we went up to Dunnet Head, the northernmost tip of the mainland. There were blue skies, warm winds, temperatures of 26ºC, and an elderly couple sitting up at the viewpoint having lunch. The man nodded a greeting, then looked me up and down. “Well, you’re obviously retired, of course,” he said. I turned my head quickly: sure enough, I was just in time to catch the last remaining shred of my self-esteem vanishing like confetti on the breeze, disappearing somewhere in the direction of Norway…

Flamborough, Week 8: 24 June

Well, that’s midsummer over with. The spinning top of time has passed its zenith and already a wobble, imperceptible but there all the same, has crept into the rotation of the Earth. The nights draw in and the sun rises a minute or two later every couple of days. Meanwhile summer continues to frolic innocently, like a child playing in the park whose mother’s just snuck a first glance at her watch. My phone tells me there are only 184 sleeps till Christmas.

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Time’s been on my mind recently, prompted by the news that Who Framed Roger Rabbit is 30 years old. 30 years! Sleeping Beauty must have felt like this when she woke up from her long slumber. (“Wait—Sergeant Pepper was how many years ago now? Seriously? What about Dark Side of the Moon? No way! By the way, honestly, I’d love to stop for another kiss but does this castle have a bathroom?”) I find myself trying to see if I’ve overlooked a decade of my life somewhere, maybe in my forties when I wasn’t paying close enough attention. But they all seem to be accounted for: it’s just the years and months and days that’re a bit hazy.

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I was on a training course last week. There was a stunned silence when I revealed that not only had personal computers not been invented when I was at university, I can remember when pocket calculators came in. The first portable cassette players appeared at our school in 1971, and I can remember sitting hunched by the radio, fingers hovering over the “play” and “record” keys, to pirate songs off the Sunday night Top 20 countdown; listening as carefully as a safecracker for the infinitesimal pause when the DJ stopped talking before the music began. Now I can hear a song, look it up on my phone, download a copy, then stream it through my hifi, all by just flexing one thumb.

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[/caption]In gansey news I’ve finished the collar and started on the first sleeve. There are 151 stitches in the sleeve, slightly more than I usually have, to compensate for the way the pattern pulls in. (This is a result both of the cables, and all the purl columns.) After the gusset, I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every 5th row. The more eagle-eyed among you will already have spotted that the diamonds are two stitches narrower than on the body (an aesthetic choice—but it was also not unusual for sleeve patterns to be smaller than body patterns).

And so I carry a jumble of memories inside me, a certain mindset, invisible as tree rings, but which date me just as certainly: such as looking at the track listing on an album and instinctively breaking the songs into Side A and Side B. On the plus side, I’m old enough not to feel the need to understand hip-hop, or modern opera. On the down side (or Side B, as I like to think of it), I fear I shall carry the lyrics of “Donald Where’s Your Troosers” with me to the grave…

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…?)