Denim 3: 14 – 20 April

D140420aThere’s a seal in the river, and if you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of its sleek head bobbing among the waves like a black rubber duck. It spends most of its time down by the harbour, but when the tide’s high it coolly swims upriver; it was there on Thursday lunchtime as I was walking back to work, and we regarded each other for a while until it remembered it’d left the gas on and swam away.

There’s a wealth of reproachful sadness in a seal’s eyes, like a dog who’s just watched you eat the last digestive biscuit, and there was something doglike about the way it seemed to be trying to understand what I said. (Talking to a dog always feels like trying to start a conversation with a friendly alien; whereas cats act like they’ve already enslaved humanity and the only words you’ll need in future are “tin opener” and “tummy rub”.)

D140420bSeals look so intelligent it’s not hard to see where the Scottish legends of the selkie, the seal-man or seal-woman, come from; but if the souls of the dead are ever reincarnated as seals, from the look of polite disappointment on their faces I presume in life they must have been English cricket fans.

The gansey’s about 7 inches long now, or a quarter of the length. Hopefully you can see the pattern beginning to take shape: the diamond panels stand out quite nicely against the background of cables, moss stitch and ladder. The colour matches a cloudy day at John O’Groats—I’m hoping I’ve patented the “stealth gansey”, which effectively turns you invisible if the sea and the sky are exactly the right shade…


Dunnet Head

Meanwhile, the plumber has almost finished installing the new boiler and shower. We’re going from a shower that was about as effective as holding your face over a fresh cup of tea to something so lethal it’s probably illegal under the Geneva Convention. In fact it reminds me of a Star Trek transporter pad; I keep expecting to find a confused Klingon standing in the bathtub, brandishing a cake of scented soap instead of a phaser.


Batten down the RSBP shed

We were without hot water and heating for a few days last week, so imagine our delight when the boiler was finally connected on Wednesday afternoon. Then imagine our dismay when the northern third of Scotland was plunged into darkness three hours later, over 200,000 homes suddenly without power. As we sat all evening huddled around our two feeble candles, too dark to knit or read by, no tv and a radio with a flat battery, I gradually realised that the entirety of human civilisation is really just a way to keep yourself occupied till bedtime…

Finally, as it’s Easter—Christus resurrexit, apparently—we’ll be taking a short break while we go to visit my parents in furthest Northamptonshire, a journey not unlike that described in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, albeit with fewer Belgians.

All things being equal we’ll be back on Monday 5th May 2014. Till then, Happy Easter!

Denim 2: 7 – 13 April

D140413a We’re getting a new water heater and boiler installed just now, and from the state of the kitchen I imagine the builder decided to take out the old one with hand grenades. It looks like a set from Saving Private Ryan, in fact I had to dislodge three German soldiers from the utility room this morning just to do a load of laundry.


There used ta be a cupboard here . . .

Ours is an old stone house, and although built near the turn of the twentieth century seems to have been designed to repel a medieval army (well, you can never tell when the trebuchet is going to come back into fashion). The walls are surprisingly thick, and the builder kept having to fetch a longer drill to get through, until finally settling on something which was last used to find oil on the North Sea seabed.

Denim-GanseyEvery surface in the house is now coated with a layer of fine dust, and so, I find, is my morning toast. Sometimes the dust gets up my nose, and the resulting sneeze resembles nothing so much as an explosion in a talcum powder factory.


And the boiler was here

At least we’ll hopefully get an efficient hot water system out of it; that, and a shower which is more effective than a plant misting spray. (If you want to know what our current shower is like, take a baked bean tin, make some holes in the bottom, fill it with lukewarm water and hold it over your head. It’s a bit like being baptised on the instalment plan.)

Still, if the kitchen is a no-go area, the lounge is so far unscathed, and I’ve retreated there and got quite a lot of knitting done this last week.

D140413cAs you’ll see from the pictures the welt is but a distant memory, and the body is fairly begun. I’m not sure whether to call the pattern “Flambraser” or “Fraserflamb”, as it’s a cross between elements of Flamborough (the seed stitch and cables) and a Fraserburgh pattern recorded in Michael Pearson’s “Fisher Gansey Patterns of Scotland and the Scottish Fleet” (the diamonds and ladder).

I’m cabling every 7th round. I won’t really know till it’s finished, but as the pattern is going to run the full length of the body, welt to shoulder, it should be quite distinctive. I like the colour, too—it’s Frangipani’s Denim yarn, and like so many gansey yarns seems to change hue depending on the light, from warm sky blue to a sort of steely grey (this being the far north of Scotland, mind you, I’m expecting rather more grey than blue).

Meanwhile, spring continues to edge its way into Caithness. How can I tell it’s spring? Because the rain actually stops every now and then…

Denim 1: 31 March – 6 April

WK140405bThe neighbours have a new dog, a big, boisterous, friendly pointer, and their cats are not amused. One of them coolly dealt with the situation in much the same way my brother handled my arrival as the newest member of the Reid family, by swatting it on the nose and then slamming its head repeatedly in the fridge door until it accepted who was boss.

The other feline, however, obviously abhors violence and prefers simply to keep out of the way. In other words, it haunts us much like the three spirits haunted Scrooge. It lurks in the bushes for you to open the front door and then all you see is a grey streak, like the starship Enterprise going into warp, as it shoots past you and whizzes up the stairs, and you have to go find it—as if life was one long game of hide-and-seek.

0402b Or else it rolls around on its back on the warm gravel, waving its legs in the air like antennae, as though the other cat had stuck a rude notice on its back, and it was trying to get it off. It knows a soft touch when it sees one, and it’s obviously seen one in me; it collapses as soon as it sees me now, like one of those bendy toys held up by elastic, and waits.

I have to be careful though: I got the two cats mixed up once, and tried to pat the bully in an absent-minded moment. It wrapped itself around my fist like the creature from Alien attaching itself to John Hurt’s face and began to flay my hand like someone going for the world record parmesan-grating championship. I shook it off eventually—my last sight of it was a flying ball of spitting teeth and claws sailing over the neighbours’ hedge with a long-drawn-out r-r-r-o-o-o-w-w-w-l-l-l, like an ambulance siren vanishing in the distance—and ever since then I’ve carried an oven glove, just in case.

D140406aMeanwhile, I realise I’ve become a sort of chain-smoking gansey knitter: I start a new one from the embers of the old. (Am I addicted? Could I really, as I tell myself and my counsellor, give it up any time I liked? Of course I can—I just don’t choose to, that’s all.)

So, yes, I’ve already started the next one. It’s in Frangipani denim-coloured yarn, but we won’t fall out if you call it sky blue. It’s going to be for me, and will hopefully be ready for the autumn, where I have a feeling I’m going to need it. I’ve cast on 388 stitches for the welt, and have just increased by 32 stitches to 420 for the body. I’ll reveal the pattern next week.

And it’s really spring! Or nearly. Yesterday I almost loosened my scarf, which is as good a sign as hearing the first cuckoo. Before you know it I’ll be down to just the one pair of long johns…

Wick 15: 24 – 30 March

WK140330a My blood pressure has been creeping up, apparently, so on Monday I was fitted with one of those hi-tech ambulatory measuring devices. It consists of a cuff that goes around your bicep, and a tube that runs up your arm, round the back of your neck and down to a battery pack and monitor that sits on your opposite hip. By the time I was wired up I looked and felt like a member of the Borg collective, assuming of course that the Borg have archivists, or even paperwork to file.

WK140330bEvery 20 minutes or so for eight hours it emitted a series of electronic beeps, like C-3P0 trying to fart discreetly, and then the device on my hip began to buzz and vibrate. The bladder on the cuff would inflate with air, tightening the cuff for about 10 seconds, then after another beep or two deflate with a heavy sigh, as if it had other plans for the day involving banana daiquiris and girls in skimpy beach costumes, and here it was, stuck with me.


Tank traps at Dunnet

I’m told that whenever this happened I stopped talking, my eyes glazed over and my left arm straightened like a very slow party blowout, as though I had briefly been possessed by the ghost of a long-dead soldier and I was fighting to stop my arm from giving a Nazi salute.

Knitting was rather tricky, too. However, despite fate’s best endeavours, as you’ll see from the pictures, I have finished the gansey, and darned in all the ends. All in all, I’d say it took about 900g of five-ply. And, as ever, I’m amazed how much looser I seem to knit when cables aren’t involved.

I was consciously making an effort to knit a little looser this time anyway, but even so I cast on about 400 stitches and it ended up the same size as one of my standard 432-stich ganseys. (It fits me pretty well, in fact.)


Ribes sanguineum

So there we are. I have (another rotten) cold, so it’s just a short blog this week. But as spring is almost upon us I thought I’d share with you one of my favourite poems from the great Ted Hughes, about daffodils and the coming of spring, from his collection for children, Season Songs. It’s very short, and is part of a sequence called Spring Nature Notes:


Daffodils at the Bleaching Ground


A spurt of daffodils, stiff, quivering—
Plumes, blades, creases, Guardsmen
At attention.

Like sentinels at the tomb of a great queen.
(Not like what they are—the advance guard
Of a drunken slovenly army

Which will leave this whole place wrecked.)

Wick 14: 17 – 23 March

WK140323a There are many things that have brought joy to my life—well, not that many, in fact if you take away chocolate-related stuff the list becomes vanishingly small—but one of them is the annual Bookseller/Diagram prize for the oddest book title.

This year’s prize was won by “How To Poo On A Date” (though personally I would have voted for “The Origin of Feces”, but that’s just me). One of the runners-up was a book called “Working Class Cats”.

WK140323bThe prize was started back in 1978, inspired by “Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice”. I first became aware of it in 1995 when it was won by “How To Reuse Old Graves”—if I remember rightly, one of the runners-up that year was “The Baby Jesus Touch and Feel Book”—and I knew I had found my spiritual home.

Of course, some of the titles are deliberately wacky because the books are meant to be humorous or parodies. I don’t really think these should be eligible (we’re talking “Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality” or “Managing a Dental Practice the Genghis Khan Way”, winners in 1986 and 2010 respectively).

No, for maximum impact I think the title should be utterly straight. “Versailles: the View From Sweden” (1988) definitely counts, as does “How To Avoid Large Ships” (1992), and “American Bottom Archaeology” (1993).

0318aBut my absolute favourites? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you “The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories” (2003)—and “Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop” (2012). After which, like Hamlet, the rest really should be silence, I feel.

I am a paltry few inches of plain knitting and a cuff away from finishing the Wick gansey I started in November. I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every 6 rows, but even so the sleeves are a trifle baggy. (Hmm, I seem to have a knit a gansey for the “bingo wings” generation…)


Orkney and Stroma from near John o’Groats

Speaking of ganseys, Margaret has come across an interesting painting in Orkney museum, “Rest After Toil”, painted in 1885 and showing a weary paterfamilias in his Orkney croft, wearing what appears to be a greenish gansey. Viewing it online you get a suggestion of a pattern, but nothing definite. (If I had a time machine I’d be tempted to go back in time and give the lazy painter a clip round the ear.)

So there we are. March so far has come in like a lion, and looks like it’s going out like a lion that’s been eating plenty of gazelles and working out down the gym. The spring equinox has officially sprung, so yesterday we had sunshine, snow, sleet, hail and rain, then more sun, all accompanied by a generous dose of wind.

Still, if it’s too wild to stray outside, you can always relax with a good book—such as “Crocheting Adventures With Hyperbolic Planes”. Or if that doesn’t appeal, there’s always the timeless classic, “Bombproof Your Horse”…