I read a headline in the Guardian newspaper online this week, which stated that the French finance minister had warned that if we vote to leave the EU it would result in the “Guernseyfication” of Britain.
Well, I thought, at last! Finally someone has recognised the importance of the gansey-knitting vote, and I read on eagerly to discover more about how circular knitting would replace sports in the national curriculum, with modern languages dropped in favour of teaching three needle bind-offs. Hitherto a staunch member of the Remain camp, but scarred as a child by the physical and mental torture of cross-country running and irregular verbs, I prepared to switch my vote.
Black Guilemot in the harbour
Imagine my disappointment when I realised that all he meant was that Britain would be as important internationally as the island of Guernsey. Quel—as we students of modern languages say—dommage. No wonder people have lost faith in politics.
Oh, well. We rise on stepping-stones of our dead selves to higher things, as the poet said—in this case to a navy gansey with a rather fetching leaf pattern. I have finished the back and am about to embark on the front, which will (probably) be identical, so if you like you can go on holiday for the next fortnight and not feel you’ve missed anything important.
Front garden foxgloves
This is one of those designs that when the light catches it just so the pattern stands out like medieval pillow mounds in a field illuminated by the low winter sun, and what seemed like random bumps in the landscape suddenly reveal themselves as a definite pattern, snapping into clarity like one of those 3D magic eye puzzles. (Of course it means when you wear it you have to keep shifting position through the day so the sun is always coming in over your left shoulder, but that’s a small price to pay, I feel.)
This week we received a lovely visit from Song and Chris of this parish. Unfortunately the weather more closely resembled someone spraying a fire hose into a wind tunnel than the kind of thing you might expect if you looked up “summer” in a dictionary. The wind and rain at John O’Groats came hard from the north—due north, so that any tall straight object (lampposts, a phone booth, and once, when he stopped moving, Chris himself) acquired a curious thin, straight “shadow” of dry ground stretching away southwards.
Wool on the hoof
There’s a scene in the Lord of the Rings where the quest is defeated on the mountain of Caradhras by malign storms of snow and bitter winds—I wonder if Tolkien ever visited Caithness in June…? But if nothing else it reminded us why ganseys were invented; also, of course, why so many people have moved elsewhere.
In parish notices, I’ve been contacted by Tina of the Cornish Gansey Company. Their strapline is “heritage knits to make, wear and share”, and that’s exactly what they offer, traditional and contemporary patterns and kits, as well as designs by Liz Lovick and others. Please check out their website, and pass the word around: and we wish Tina every success.
Finally this week, Lois has sent me pictures of a very elegant lace beaded shawl she’s just completed, whose colours, style and pattern remind me of very expensive things I’ve seen draped over mannequins in Cape Cod boutiques. A doffing of the cap is due to Lois for such a splendid creation, and many congratulations.
It was Wick Lifeboat Day on Saturday so we joined the crowds down at the harbour and braved the bunting and watched the Pipe Band. There’s something about the skirl of the pipes—it always makes me want to take the ancestral claymore down from the mantelpiece and engage in a mild spot of border reiving (though as it’s 300 miles to the English border, then again perhaps not).
It was a cool, grey day, and the strong east wind blowing in off the sea eventually drove us from the quay onto the marina, to visit the Isabella Fortuna, the restored fishing boat belonging to the Wick Society. Now, I’m not much of a lad for boats as a rule—I get seasick in the bath and just looking at choppy water is enough to give me that “elevator going down, lunch coming up” sensation my loved ones have come to dread—but we had to pay our respects to the old girl.
The Highland dancers warm up
While we were admiring the restoration work one of the volunteers came over and engaged us in conversation—recounting tales of sailing her in heavy gales, nine hour journeys that ended up taking over twelve, while I felt my lunchtime croissant rising like mercury in a barometer. Then we got onto the subject of Wick’s “Black Saturday”.
This was 19 August 1848. A sudden overnight storm had caught the fishing fleet unawares and as the boats desperately ran back for the safety of the harbour many were wrecked in the bay, their crews drowned, and all in sight of land while their loved ones looked on helplessly. 37 men died here that day.
It was a terrible event, and I’ll talk more about it another time; but I think about it sometimes when I look at the cheeky grins on the faces of the fishermen in their ganseys, staring back at us down the lens of time in the old photographs. It was because of Black Saturday that more seaworthy vessels like the Isabella were built, with full decks; and it was also the reason Wick got its first lifeboat—beginning a sequence leading all the way to the one we celebrated on Saturday.
Now, you may not have noticed, but there’s a new gansey this week. It’s another Wick pattern from the Johnston Collection (well, it would be rude not to), which also appears in “Fishing For Ganseys” on page 25. I’m using navy yarn from a very old sweater I never liked, which Margaret ripped out for me and de-kinked. It’s 368 stitches in the round (or 46 inches at 8 stitches to the inch.) I’m thinking of doing a traditional non-indented neckline and high collar.
Margaret was also kind enough to chart out the pattern for me and knit a swatch while I was busy finishing her damson gansey. As far as I know this is another pattern that has never been publicly charted before, the leaf effect really effective in navy blue and a nice variant on the more usual herringbone.
Finally this week, I’m going to leave you with a great quote I came across (it’s an old joke, apparently, but was new to me, and has the ring of truth). Question: Why will the sun never set on the British Empire? Answer: Because God doesn’t trust the British in the dark…
And here it is—our homage to Fergus’s gansey, washed and blocked and ready to go, the patterns properly visible at last. (And bearing in mind that the original is even more detailed, and more finely-knit, than this, you really have to doff your cap to the original knitter.) You know, the more old photos of Wick fishermen I see, the more convinced I am that Caithness provides a “missing link” between the Scottish Fleet patterns of the mainland and those of the Hebrides.
I read with sadness this week that Dave Swarbrick, the great English folk fiddler, had died aged 75. Other major cultural icons, from Bowie to Muhammad Ali, sad losses all, have naturally dominated the headlines; but it’s the passing of Swarb, as he was affectionately known, I find, that has touched me most deeply.
His music has been part of the soundtrack of my life for over 40 years. I saw him play live any number of times: in small, intimate folk clubs with Martin Carthy and Simon Nicol, or at the Fairport Convention reunion festivals at Cropredy, near where I grew up. (The abiding image of his playing was, apart from the effortless ability, the way he kept jerking his head around, chin jutting out, as he tried desperately but unsuccessfully to prevent ash from his cigarette falling onto his violin; well, that and the vast round of drinks on a nearby tray…)
Thurso from Holborn Head
Anyway, in honour of his memory, here’s a link to the classic Fairport track Crazy Man Michael which he wrote with Richard Thompson, from their 1969 album Liege and Lief. The fiddle is perfectly understated, accompanying but never dominating, giving the singer (the late, great Sandy Denny) and the lyrics room to breathe. Other tracks demonstrate his skill more flamboyantly, but this shows how delicate and sensitive he could be.
Well; the world is a little bit smaller today. RIP, Swarb.
Finally this week, a historical anecdote that made me smile. It’s from Iain Sutherland’s book on the Caithness fishing industry. He tells of a pompous harbour trustee in the 1920s who used to stand self-importantly down at Wick harbour, as if overseeing all the activity, but really not having a clue. One day a tourist searching for a public convenience came up to him and asked if he knew where the Urinal was. The trustee scanned the crowded docks lined with boats before asking, “Is that a motor boat or a drifter…?
As I look out my window fog is blowing in like cannon smoke, obliterating distance and mercifully blocking the view of Tescos. It’s the sea fret, or haar—a word it’s almost impossible to say aloud without sounding like Ahab on the Pequod, or the Sea Captain from the Simpsons, or some other salty dog (“What’s that dank, chilly mist that rolls in from the sea, Captain Silver?” “Haar, Jim lad”).
Like the balancing mechanism of a clock, this is Caithness’s way of ensuring we don’t all get sunstroke: any time the sun shines for more about 20 minutes, in rolls the haar. Sometimes living up here is the nearest thing to a nuclear winter outside a Stephen King novel—I was going to say, without the cannibalism; but as I don’t go down the meat aisle in Tescos all that often, who knows?
We drove down to look at Sarclet, an abandoned harbour a few miles south of Wick, in the fog. Usually I stand on the cliffs and gaze longingly out to sea as if I was modelling an exotic aftershave, Guano Pour Homme. But the haar was swirling in and so we watched the seabirds instead, wheeling around the cove from their nests below us, appearing out of the mist and disappearing again as though Caithness had evolved a new species of gull, one with its own cloaking device.
Sarclet is a wonderfully atmospheric place, the past almost close enough to touch. The buildings have fallen into ruin but the harbour, known as The Haven, endures. Shards of splintered rock rising from the ocean, churning white foam at the base; nesting gulls, a cliff face dappled with primroses and, if you’re lucky, an occasional passing seal. It’s a haven in more senses than one.
Meanwhile, in gansey news, I’ve finished the first sleeve, and am well embarked on the second. Maybe I’ll finish it this week, if I put in the hard yards, maybe not. Here’s a chart of the sleeve pattern again, a slight simplification from the original, but close enough for jazz.
Incidentally, thinking of Captain Ahab, I wonder if anyone has ever tried turning Moby-Dick into a Christmas pantomime? It’s just that I’ve been reading the book recently and can’t get this image of the ending out of my mind: Ahab calls to the audience, “Hast seen the White Whale?” and the audience cries back, “It’s behind you!”
Funny thing, getting old. I’m observing myself age, like a scientific experiment, monitoring the changes year by year: observing the gradual emergence of my scalp in the barber’s mirror, shining pinkly like a Japanese mountaintop fringed in cloud; not being able to see my toes past my stomach in much the same way that I can’t see Australia owing to the curvature of the Earth; and of course, wondering why no one writes music with really good tunes any more, dammit.
All these symptoms, however disappointing, are hardly unexpected. (As Philip Larkin, contender for Britain’s Least Optimistic Poet, once put it, “This is the first thing / I have understood / Time is the echo of an axe / Within a wood.”) But then there’s the whole mind thing, which is a little unsettling.
Last week I took a bath, towelled myself off and, after footling about a bit in the bedroom, started downstairs. I was vaguely aware that something wasn’t quite right—a sort of airiness around those parts of my anatomy that aren’t normally exposed to playful breezes—until, on looking down, I discovered that I had absent-mindedly neglected to get dressed.
Now, I know I’m not alone here: the great Archimedes, upon discovering the principle of displacement, had a similar bath time experience: and he gets his own Wikipedia page. All the same, when I get to the stage where I have to remember to check I’m wearing pants before leaving the bedroom, I fear a line has been crossed.
Ah, well, I have at least been making progress on the gansey (or “emergency modesty blanket” as I now like to think of it). The pattern on the first sleeve is completed and I’m well underway on the plain section to the cuff, decreasing two stitches every 7th row. This sleeve should be finished by next week’s blog.
In parish notices, the ganseys come thick and fast. This week Karen has sent me a picture of a very natty gansey based on Gladys Thompson’s Whitby patterns, with an elegantly shaped neck and a really pleasing combination of cables and diamonds and moss. (What did I say? Yorkshire ganseys—they’re the cat’s pyjamas, as Bertie Wooster would say.) Many congratulations to her.
And as for aging—well, I’m interested to read that some theoretical physicists have questioned whether time actually exists. (Though, as others have pointed out, they’re still suspiciously punctual for meals.) I like the idea that everything that has ever existed, or will exist, will endure simultaneously as long as the universe does, and that our consciousness just rides the rails of time like a runaway train. But if I have to get old, well, at least it’s better than the alternative; which is, to quote Philip “Mr Chuckles” Larkin again, “the only end of age”…