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Lopi Interlude I: 22 November

SF151123-1Apologies for the short blog this week—it’s another semi-migraine day, I’m afraid. (Nothing very serious—I just feel like I aged about 30 years overnight.)

Anyway, I’m taking my traditional Christmas break from ganseys to experiment again with Icelandic Lopi Alafoss wool jumpers. In many ways these are anti-ganseys, being big and chunky and soft, as well as very quick to knit—well, you can see how far I’ve got in a week; if I’d been knitting a gansey I’d barely have finished the welt by now. (Also, wearing a Lopi jumper is so warm and cosy it’s like being intimate with an Ewok.)


Lopi & Gansey

Now, you may remember that the last time I tried this it played merry hell with my stitch gauge when I eventually went back to ganseys. So this time I’ve come up with a cunning plan: I’ve also cast on the stitches for another gansey, and every night I knit a row, just to keep the memory in my fingers of what a 2.25mm needle feels like. So far so good: the transition is always strange, but the stitches look about right.


Sunset by the river

In parish notices Judit has been busy again, this time knitting a cap using the classic Betty Martin pattern as a Christmas present. Congratulations again to Judit for creatively using gansey patterns in new ways and for producing such a natty garment.


A grey afternoon near the castle of Old Wick

Meanwhile winter has arrived at Caithness, coming via the Arctic Circle. In the last week we’ve had sunshine, rain, gales, sleet and snow—sometimes all on the same day. The Met Office temperature today had the cheerful message, “feels like -1ºC”. Even the seals in the harbour look mournful (or more mournful than normal; they usually just look at me with a sort of hopeless disappointment, like my old classics master waiting for me to give the plural of “domus” in Latin class—though there the similarity ends, for to the best of my recollection I never saw Mr Pennycook dive for fish…).

Scottish Fleet, Week 15: 15 November

SF151116-3I was thinking this week how the main characters in fantasy literature tend to be larger-than-life figures: warriors and wizards, kings and queens—or Cinderella types like Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, orphans ignorant of their birthrights. But no one writes fantasy novels about bureaucrats; the filing clerks, or those greybeards in the Gondor archives who are so casual about where they put their candles. (It’s much the same in Star Trek, of course: when did you last see a Klingon accountant?)

SF151110-1Imagine how much more exciting the Lord of the Rings would have been if JRR Tolkien had made it a heroic tale of admin, paperwork and financial probity. Sauron might have been arrested for cheating on his income tax returns (hatching orcs in slime pits not being a recognised tax-deductible expense). Aragorn might have achieved his destiny by becoming President of the Society of Archivists, thus fulfilling the prophecy (From the drawer a sharpener is taken / The waste-paper basket’s not missed / Renewed shall be point that was broken / The archivist once more shall list).

In this version the Riders of Rohan could be a nomadic tribe of document cataloguers, roaming the land in search of records they can sort in exchange for food and a good conditioning shampoo. Here is their moving lament for the old days (my translation):

SF151116-2Where now are the archivist and the pencil? Where is the acid-free box for stowing?

Where is the brass paper clip and the eraser, and the bald patch showing?

They have passed like mould on a log book, like rusty paper clips in a file,

The parchment deeds have all been eaten away by insects into piles.

Who shall gather the shavings of the pencil sharpening,

Or behold the arteries after the cream cakes hardening?

Well. I’ve finished the gansey, and it’s been washed and blocked by Margaret, and you can finally see the pattern in all its glory. I must say, this really is a pattern that should be better known—nice clean lines and a regular eye-pleasing design, I think it’s a classic; and remarkably easy to knit withal.

SF151116-1My next gansey project will start with the new year; as once again I shall be taking short break from ganseys—though not from the blog—and knitting a sweater or two in Icelandic Lopi wool. (Two colours at once! Who’d have thought? It’s like entering the fourth dimension, as though Doctor Who had taken up knitting…)

[Postscript. The above was drafted before news broke of the appalling atrocity in Paris last Friday—otherwise I doubt I should have head the heart for jokes. As it was written I decided to let it stand; but I should like to add my voice to the rest of the civilised world, and say: Nous sommes tous Français.]

Scottish Fleet, Week 14: 8 November

SF151109-1One of the advantages of being an archivist—apart from the afternoon naps, and the respect and adulation of apple-cheeked teenagers (at least I think “top ranker” was what they were shouting) is that you see days of yore as they really were. If you only view the past from the point of view of the novels of the time you’d never know that anyone used bad language. But they really did. Rather a lot.

Take the case of Charlotte Bronte. She of course swore like a navvy and used to sneak out of the vicarage to go bare-knuckle fighting in country fairs to earn a little extra pin money. Indeed, the original manuscript of Jane Eyre is so full of swearing that it had to be heavily censored by her sister Emily before it could be published—and the famous sentence at the end of the novel, “Reader, I married him”, was originally so shocking—the verb describing what Jane did to Mr Rochester (and his dog, Pilot), so explicit—that the manuscript remains under guard in a locked vault beneath the British Library to this day.


The Girnel, Staxigoe

Well, I was reminded of this by a manuscript in the archives at Wick that we came across last week. It dates from 1753 and describes an encounter between a merchant called John Shand and the Excise. In short, Shand landed a cargo of French brandy and tobacco at Staxigoe harbour a couple of miles up the coast from here, and it was impounded. The Excise men hired boats to take the goods to Wick, and Shand, evidently a man of strong passions, at once hired a boat of his own to intercept them in the bay.


Pigeons on the harbour wall

Shouting abuse he got on board one boat and attacked a member of the crew with a cudgel, then threatened to shoot him with a loaded pistol. Luckily no one was hurt (and Shand, with a persistence that’s really rather admirable, went on to break into the Tollbooth at midnight to rescue his cargo).

But I was intrigued by a deposition by the crewman who’d been assaulted: he said Shand came on board calling him a “scoundrel son of a bitch”. (Isn’t that great? I plan to use it in my next appraisal.) I’ve never heard of anyone being called an SOB that early—it’s something I associate with Chicago gangsters or, at a pinch, my dentist under her breath whenever I break another tooth—but this dates from a generation before American Independence.

SF151109-2I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. Sooner or later the unexpurgated Pride and Prejudice will be published (“Petticoats of Fury” by Jane Austen: Cage Fighter), with its famous opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife who can suck the pips out of an orange without peeling it first.”

What’s that you say? Ganseys? Oh, yes. Well, as you will see, I am rapidly advancing down the second sleeve and expect to finish it sometime this week. Then it’s just a question of darning in the ends, blocking, and then I’ve got a few days pencilled in for panicking that it’s not going to fit…

Finally, thanks to everyone for your solicitude and suggestions regarding my various ailments. I now have no fewer than three referrals to Inverness Hospital—I had already been thinking of leaving my body to medical science; it’s just that I’d planned to do this after I was dead…

[P.S. You can read more about the adventures of potty-mouth John Shand on the Caithness Archives website.]

Scottish Fleet, Week 13: 1 November

SF151102-2Apart from a whole bunch of memories, I brought back from the States last week a broken tooth, which just sheared away like a cliff face exposed to coastal erosion. (This happened in an excellent Mexican restaurant in upstate New York while we were eating tortilla chips; and few things can be more disconcerting than crunching your way through your own teeth under the mistaken assumption they go nicely with guacamole.) Well, the tooth is now sorted, thanks to some nifty reconstruction work by my dentist.


Creels at Lybster harbour

But I’ve also had a recurrence of the mouth infection (ulcers and swollen lips) I suffered some months ago; it’s slowly wearing off, though it did prompt said dentist—rather unfeelingly, I thought—to ask me if I’d had cosmetic surgery to make my lips plumper, before howling with laughter and then pretending she’d got something in her eye until she sobered up. (I let it pass—my mouth was by then so numb I sounded like I was eating a mouthful of taffy; and she was the one holding the drill, after all.)

SF151102-1Well. Back to business. I’ve finished the first sleeve, including the turned-back cuff to allow the wearer to adjust the length (this is my insurance policy when I’m knitting a gansey for someone too far away for me to get up close and personal with a tape measure; or someone adroit enough to obtain a court order). And I’ve started the second.

This is where my cunning wheeze of using the little bit of leftover yarn from the first cone to start the sleeve really pays off—having done all the hard work weeks ago, rather than have to pick up the stitches around the armhole (the knitting equivalent of doing quadratic equations), now all I have to do is slip them off the holding yarn and Robert is your mother’s sister’s husband, as the saying goes.


Autumn colour in the churchyard

In other news, Judit of this parish has been busy again, finding new things to do with gansey patterns and a bit of yarn—in this case, collars with hearts and mini-cables. And speaking as someone who keeps warm indoors in winter by wrapping a scarf so thick around my neck strangers assume I’ve been treated for whiplash, this seems like a rather brilliant idea. You can see the splendid results here – it’s on the third page of Judit’s gallery.

Oh, and neither doctor nor dentist could offer an explanation as to why the infection, if such it is, should have recurred. It may be dietary, they said, an allergic reaction to something I ate. My blood ran cold—quelle horreur—what if I’m allergic to coffee and doughnuts? Then there would be nothing for it but to compose my death haiku and open my veins. But then a happier thought occurred—maybe I’m just allergic to Wick…

Scottish Fleet, Week 12: 25 October

SF151026-1Well, here we are, back in dear old Caithness after our recent holiday in the States. The temperature is a brisk 8ºC, compared with the 23ºC we left behind us on Cape Cod. And now the clocks have gone back (words to be spoken in the tone of weary dismay of Gandalf recognising he’s up against a balrog). Can woolly socks be far away? I think not.

But, Lord, I’d forgotten just how ghastly travel is. Heathrow Terminal 5 seems to’ve been remodelled using a CIA manual for breaking the resistance of terrorists by bombarding them with bright lights and noise; while the legroom on aircraft has been reduced to such an extent that when I got off the plane at Boston I was so bent and hunched a travelling party of anthropologists excitedly tried to claim me as a hitherto undiscovered species of hominid.


The line for Jenny the Potter

While we were there we spent part of a day at the Sheep and Wool Festival at Rhinebeck, New York. The site appeared relatively empty until you went inside one of the craft vendors’ sheds, where crowds of people heaved and jostled and struggled to get near the stalls and samples. (Imagine the Tokyo underground at rush hour, with craft stalls along both sides of the carriage and a game of rugby being played up the middle, and you’ll get the idea.)

SF151017-3It was obviously a place to be seen as much as to see, and everyone was dressed in their finest knittery. Forget the stands, you could spend all day just watching people in fancy jumpers, and if there had been seating for fainthearted spouses I probably would’ve. (Special mention goes to the guy with the orange knitted shorts, a stark challenge to the view that humanity represents nature’s last word; in fact, I’ll never look at a chocolate orange in the same way again…)


Gordon & Ginny

A highlight for me was meeting Ginny, who recognised us from the blog pictures and came over and introduced herself. As many of you will know, I occasionally wrestle with existential dilemmas about continuing this blog, and it’s always gratifying to be told that it’s worthwhile. So, Ginny, thank you for taking the trouble to say hello, it was a pleasure to meet you and apologies that you found me still jet lagged and (more) incoherent (than usual). I hope I got your name right!


We also stayed with Annie.

Anyway, sincere thanks to Bill and Gail for everything. If, as Benjamin Franklin said, house guests are like fish and begin to smell after three days, then you deserve some sort of medal for putting up with us for ten—it was much appreciated.

I didn’t take my knitting with me, so not there’s not much progress to report this week. But in between bouts of jet lag I’ve done a little more knitting down the sleeve, and with luck will finish the rest of the jumper well before Christmas.

Christmas? It’ll be here soon enough – and this weekend it’s Halloween (time to oil the traps and freshen the leaves concealing the tiger pit in the driveway). I was going to say that now the nights are drawing in—but since this is Caithness, it’s the afternoons that are getting shorter, dagnabbit. Oh, well—I tell myself to hang in there; after all, it’ll soon be March…