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Flamborough III: Week 10 – 26th July

I spend a lot of time these days in Zoom meetings, and this last week I’ve derived no little enjoyment from talking to colleagues sweltering in England’s recent heatwave, who gasp and flop like the last fish left in a dried-up mud pool, when suddenly they stop and stare at the screen, and squint, and lean forward, and exclaim indignantly—”Hold on a minute! Are you wearing a… pullover?” Yes, it’s a typical Caithness summer, and while the south of the country—anywhere south of Inverness, basically—has been broiling in temperatures of 28-30ºC, here in the frozen north it’s been a cloudy 14-16ºC (“bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be in Wick was very heaven”, as Wordsworth put it when he was up here caravanning).

Sarclet Harbour

And then on Sunday the clouds parted, the sun came out, the thermometer slammed all the way up to 18º, so we took a trip to Sarclet (my favourite abandoned harbour that’s an anagram of a colour) for a walk along the cliffs. Reader, it was glorious. The sky was unbroken blue from horizon to horizon, and the sea glittered in the sunlight like taffy cooling in the tin (always supposing you like your taffy blue). Fulmars wheeled along the cliff walls or skimmed in formation over the surface of the ocean like those TIE fighters in Star Wars, possibly searching for a rogue seal who’d defected to the rebel alliance. Fledgling seagulls, like teenagers everywhere, were gathered in surly gangs down in the harbour, talking about girls and cadging ciggies off each other.

Thistle & Bee

The gorse has all gone over now, and it’s too early for the heather to be doing much, so in the meantime along the clifftops distinctive Scottish flora is represented by clumps of thistles blooming purple and spiky, each with that curious flat top that looks like the flower equivalent of a buzzcut, or a landing pad for butterflies. There was just enough of an inshore breeze to keep the flies off, but it was still muggy, so all my clothes went in the incinerator when I got back. The forecast for the week ahead is for showers, and a tolerable 15-16º. I know our summers tend to be on the short side, it’s the price we pay for having longer winters, but even so I was hoping for rather more than just a day. Still, if that’s all we get, it was worth it.

Looking north towards Wick from Sarclet

Not even I would wear a gansey in the heat, not even for the pleasure of taunting colleagues, but that doesn’t stop me knitting. I’ve finished the first sleeve, and am well embarked upon the second. Another couple of weeks should see it through. As ever, we won’t be able to properly appreciate the pattern until it’s blocked and unfurled, but it already feels like a classic to me, and helford blue a colour I’m going to revisit.

Finally this week, thanks for all the comments and suggestions about our blowfly infestation. By midweek all the little perishers had, well, perished and been hoovered up. (I like to think my Dostoyevsky readings turned the scale. I came across one expiring and just caught its dying words: “But if there is no God, all our morality and ethics are without foundation…”) Though I’m now starting to wonder if we had a manifestation of the Lord of the Flies, who is now accidentally residing in our vacuum cleaner…

Flamborough III: Week 9 – 19th July

I don’t know if you’ve taken one of those lateral flow tests for coronavirus, the kind that give you a result after about 30 minutes? They’re a sort of cross between a Big Boys’ Home Crime Scene Investigation kit and a junior chemistry set. The bit where you actually take your sample isn’t much fun—I still haven’t developed the knack of swabbing the tonsilly bits at the back of the throat without gagging; and having a swab rammed that far up my nostril makes me feel I’m only a sneeze away from serious brain damage. (On the plus side, though, I do get to go the full Ahab and shout, “Avast, ye swabs!” every time I open the packet.)

Emerging aliens

But I do enjoy dripping the resultant fluid onto the test strip and waiting for the results to emerge. In some ways it’s bit like playing roulette (“everything on Negative, please”), but mostly I feel like Sherlock Holmes: “You come at a crisis, Watson. If this paper remains negative, all is well. If it turns positive, it means a man’s self-isolation for ten days”. So far I’ve tested consistently negative—more proof, if any were needed, of the power of negative thinking.

In parish notices, Judit has sent us a splendid picture of the lucky recipient wearing the gansey we featured last week. Not only is it is cracking pattern, it looks like a perfect fit, and from this evidence deserves be more much better known.

Flat Calm

Meanwhile my own gansey creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to (what certainly feels like) the last syllable of recorded time. But lo! We are already on the sleeves, and the light at the end of the tunnel shines a little brighter. Once past the gussets, I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every five rows. For the technically-minded, I leave the stitches on the needles until that fifth (decrease) row, then I shift them round by about five stitches each time. (Leave the stitches on the same needles all the time and you get a line running down the sleeves at the joins; shift them round each row and you get diagonal stripes; but a shift every five rows becomes invisible after blocking.) Another month should see it finished, if I’m spared.

Grasses blowing in the wind

In other news, we’re suffering from an infestation of blowflies in the lounge. We can’t figure out where on earth they’re coming from: we’ve blocked off the chimney and hoovered every surface, but every hour or so there’s another dozen of the blighters. They just sort of appear as if jumping in from hyperspace; I have an image of God getting more and more exasperated as we keep annihilating them as fast as He creates them. (This, of course, is where my tolerance for living things runs into the buffers: I’m a soft touch, but even I draw a line with exchanging bodily fluids with any Calliphoridae that choose to go swimming in my apple juice.) It’s starting to resemble the kind of plague that so depressed Pharaoh back in the day, to the point where I’m checking the house to see if I’ve locked up any Old Testament prophets by mistake. So far I’ve tried reasoning with them, playing Nirvana and weakening their worldview with readings from Dostoyevsky. I’m starting to think it may not be enough…

Flamborough III: Week 8 – 12th July

“In headaches and in worry/ Vaguely life leaks away”, observed WH (“Laughing Boy”) Auden. And he has a point: not so much about the worry, or at least not since they put me on the medication, but about the headaches. For the second weekend in a row I’m writing this while suffering from a touch of migraine. (According to the NHS weekend migraines are a thing, caused by one’s stress hormones going down: this makes the brain’s neurotransmitters get in a bit of a flap, resulting in the blood vessels constricting and dilating, in turn causing the headache. Mind you, as the only way to avoid this seems to be to remain stressed over the weekend, I’m not sure I’m really any further forward.)

Along the riverside path

I don’t get the crippling pain and flashing lights so much these days—the sensation now is more akin to being gripped by an invisible face hugger from the Alien movies—but I do get the dysfunctionality. My world feels disjointed, as though I’m living in one of those arthouse thrillers where the hero has piece together his life from fragments of memory. I remember years ago seeing a documentary about mummification in Ancient Egypt, how they removed the soft tissue of the brain by shoving something like a long crochet hook up the nose and twiddling it about like an egg whisk until the desired results were achieved—not unlike a coronavirus lateral flow test, in fact—and this is pretty much what one of my migraines feels like from the inside.

The Fountain now works. Intermittently.

I also become very stupid. How stupid, I hear you ask? Well, remember it was during a migraine in Wales that I had the bright idea of sticking a screwdriver into a light fitting without first turning off the electricity. On Saturday, having finished the front of the gansey, I was joining two shoulder straps in a three needle bind-off, and had almost reached the end when I realised that I’d twisted the back around, and was in fact creating a Möbius strip shoulder. For an instant I toyed with the idea of pretending it was deliberate, and just advising the recipient to dislocate the bones in his shoulder to help it fit better, but eventually I had to face facts and rip it out. Grimly I picked up the stitches and cast off again… only to find when I reached the end that I had a stitch left over on one needle. Now it was becoming personal. Again I ripped out the cast-off. Third time’s the charm, I thought, and tried once more. This time it went like a breeze, and I cast the final stitches off with a flourish… only to find that I’d dropped a stitch about halfway along. At which point there was nothing for it but to take it outside and give it a damn good thrashing, like Basil Fawlty with his car. (Or I would’ve done, if only losing one’s temper wasn’t another migraine trigger…)

Fishing in the Fog

Meanwhile, if anyone has any shoulders that need casting off in the next week or two, please ask someone else; I’m done. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just got this light fitting I need to adjust…

Flamborough III: Week 7 – 5th July

So, the battle of Waterloo, 18 June 1815. Sir Frederick Ponsonby, commander of the Twelfth Light Dragoons, was wounded in a cavalry charge, lost control of his horse and careered into the ranks of the French, where he was wounded again and knocked to the ground unconscious. When he woke up he was lying in the mud in a sort of no-man’s-land between the two armies, badly injured and unable to move. A French skirmisher came up and went through his pockets, robbing him. Then another came and made a more thorough search, and left disappointed. Later still, a French officer came past, stopped, gave him a drink of brandy, made him comfortable and put a knapsack under his head, and left. Finally another French skirmisher decided to use him as cover and lay down behind him, loading and firing “many shots” at the British lines, and “chatting gaily” with him all the while. Then he wished him “Bon soir, mon ami” and left. Remarkably, Ponsonby survived.

Flag Iris

That afternoon at Waterloo the French launched mass cavalry attacks on the British, who formed defensive positions called “squares” (basically each regiment forming into a hollow rectangle, and presenting a wall of bayonets on all sides, which horses would naturally shy away from). As the French cuirassiers milled impotently about the squares, unable to break in, they made “fierce gesticulations and angry scowls” at the soldiers below them. To prevent their men being intimidated, and to reciprocate, the officers of one regiment gave my favourite order in entire the history of warfare: “Now men, make faces!”

Meanwhile, in gansey news, I’ve finished the back and made a start on the front—and I’m delighted to say that I managed a complete diamond at the top, before the beginning of the shoulders. All things being equal, I’ll get the front finished this week and the shoulders joined.

St Fergus’ in the fog

In parish notices, Judit has raised the bar by knitting up a replica of a fisherman’s pullover from Hailuoto in Finland, a traditional pattern knit there from the 1800s. It’s a practical combination of ribbing combined with a double moss stitch centre panel on the yoke, and very fetching it looks in light grey lambswool. Many thanks to Judit for sharing this with us, for adding another chapter to the book of ganseys from around the world, and for bringing it to life so splendidly.

Harbour Lighthouse, in the fog

Finally from Waterloo, there was the famous case of Lord Uxbridge’s leg. You probably know that Uxbridge, winner of the British stiff upper lip all-comers championship 1815, was sitting on his horse talking to the Duke of Wellington when a cannon ball struck his leg. “By god, sir, I’ve lost a leg,” Uxbridge observed; Wellington, not willing to be out-sang-froided by a mere subordinate, glanced over and coolly replied, “By god, sir, so you have.” (Honestly, I make more fuss than this when I get a hangnail.) The leg was amputated without anaesthetic, but Uxbridge’s only reaction was to mention to the doctors that the knives appeared “somewhat blunt”. The leg was buried on the battlefield with its own tombstone, where it apparently became something of a tourist attraction. And, as if this wasn’t cool enough, Uxbridge is apparently said to have referred to himself for the rest of his life as having “one foot in the grave…”

Flamborough III: Week 6 – 28 June

I’ve been considering an important question this week, namely, how did people in the Stone Age cut their toenails? True, you can bite your fingernails, but as you get older and your joints start to set like concrete you’d have to be a black belt in yoga to get your toes within comfortable reach of your snappers, even assuming you fancied a wee nibble. (And if you ever want proof that the universe is far stranger than we can imagine, I wrote the above as a joke but it turns out Google’s top follow-up nail-based question is actually, “Is it OK to eat your toenails?”; the answer to which is, of course, yes, but only if you’ve run out of Parmesan.)

Newly renovated North Baths

I don’t really associate personal hygiene and good grooming with prehistory, perhaps unfairly—after all, the British climate being what it is, you only have to stand outside on a typical summer’s morn and that’s your daily shower right there. Mind you, I’ve often felt that the aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey have a lot to answer for. If you remember, they present our simian ancestors with a giant monolith which implants in them the concept of killing other creatures for their meat. If only it’d shown them how to make bubble bath-foam and aloe vera shampoo instead, the course of human history would have been a lot less bloody; or at least smelled a lot better. And as a vegetarian, this always troubled me. How hard can it be for creatures sophisticated enough to cross galaxies to knock up a quick mushroom quiche or aloo gobi when they get here?

Wildflowers on the cliff edge

In gansey news, I’ve finished the half-gussets and divided front and back. This is always the moment where all the hard work pays off and you feel like you’re knitting twice as fast. (It’s also the moment where you hope the pattern works out as you near the shoulder. One reason why I chose this pattern is because the diamonds are small, so the chances of ending up with incomplete ones when I reach the top are hopefully pretty small.)

Waves at North Head

As for my toenail “cavemanicure” conundrum, well, as you’d expect, there isn’t a definitive answer. Most anthropologists seem to feel the keratin would’ve worn away naturally, or else our ancestors filed them down with a stone (so that I shall in future think of this period as the Pumice Stone Age, ahaha). My own personal theory—that they grew them long so as to have something to toast their marshmallows with—is still in the ring. Meanwhile I have another question. If, as my researches suggest, people only started wearing clothes 170,000 years ago, you have to wonder: where did they keep their loose change before then…?