Here’s an interesting thought. Human civilisation has existed for perhaps 6,000 years. We think of this time as impossibly remote, but some people live for 100 years or more; and while modern medicine has made this more common, it’s always been the case. So, if you think of it in those terms, human civilisation is only 60 lifetimes old. Jesus was walking the earth within the lifetimes of just twenty people.
I read this idea in a book called Ultimate Questions, by my favourite philosophical writer Bryan Magee. He was using it to make the point that the human race is really just at the start of its journey in time and space. But the message I took from it, as an archivist, is how close the past actually is—the distant past not so distant after all.
Roe deer by the river
Time, and lifetimes, have been rather in my thoughts lately. I gave a talk recently in which I mentioned that I’d been an archivist for 30 years. Afterwards a charming young lady came up to me and said, “You know, you’ve been an archivist for longer than I’ve been alive.” (I smiled obligingly to show there were no hard feelings, then snuck out during coffee and let the air out of her tires.)
Then I watched a programme on the recording of Paul Simon’s Graceland in 1986 and realised that growing old has a new terror, worse even than infirmity and hair loss: yes, I’ve now lived long enough to see my own memories repackaged into anniversary editions and turned into television retrospectives. (But looking on the bright side, wasn’t the music so much better back then?)
Rocks near Sarclet
I’ve been laid low with a cold which has been lurking in the wings for a few weeks and has finally made its move, leaving me pretty wiped out. I have enough energy to lie flat on my back, which I vary by sitting up and knitting, but not much else at the moment; this is why the body of this gansey has grown so fast. The Wendy’s yarn is definitely more uneven than silky smooth Frangipani—lots of joins and bobbles and fluffy bits—but I am enjoying the change. At this rate I shall start the yoke pattern in the next few days, which is a bit scary.
Path to the river
In parish news, Lois has sent me pictures of this cracking gansey using a combination of classic Flamborough patterns (and more). The yarn is a cotton and wool blend, and the colour shows up the patterns superbly; more evidence if any were needed that you don’t need 5-ply to knit a splendid gansey. Many congratulations to her!
And touching on where we started, it occurs to me that just two long human lifetimes encompass all the great advances in civilisation since the Battle of Waterloo: the industrial revolution, universal suffrage, cricket, the music of Bob Dylan, etc. Wick harbour was being built while Napoleon was still emperor; 200 years later all that remains of that way of life are ruined buildings and old photographs—and ganseys, of course. The archaeologist uncovers the past with a trowel; but every time we knit a gansey we’re doing experimental archaeology in wool. And bringing the past just that little bit closer with every stitch.
With less than a month till Christmas, Caithness is sliding inexorably into midwinter darkness: already the sun is rising at 8.30am and setting at 3.30pm. Mind you, the sunrises and sunsets have been stunning, enough red skies at both ends of the day to alarm and then delight any bipolar shepherds or sailors.
We’ve had a week of sharp frosts, the pavements slick with ice, so that I’ve been going out each morning dressed like a member of the Captain Scott Re-enactment Society who’s just discovered that walking on thin ice isn’t only a metaphor. If we have a really bad winter my current plan is to set up a dog-walking business and sneakily train the canines to pull a sled, so I can still get to work.
Sheep at sunrise, near Clyth
There was something of a thaw on Saturday—judging by the forecasts this will be known as the 2016 Caithness Interglacial Warm Period—so we went for a stroll out to the south head of Wick Bay, past the old quarry, which I remembered as a lovely spot with picnic benches and artistically recreated standing stones. Well, we were in for a shock.
The scene is now a store yard for the council apparently, a muddy basin filled with muddy pools and dirty mounds of tarmac, grit and builders’ supplies. It reminded me of the Scouring of the Shire, the epilogue to the Lord of the Rings when the hobbits return home to find it transformed into an ugly industrialised wasteland. I expected any minute to be beset by marauding orcs with whips and forced to go work in the salt mines (or, as I think of it, “Monday morning”).
Oh, well: we could still turn our faces to the clean horizons of the ocean, which has yet to be tarmacked. And I daresay people a hundred years ago felt much the same as we when the quarry was being worked. But that passed, in time, allowing nature to reclaim it; and so, I guess, will this.
Where’s the next gansey at?
The Matt Cammish gansey has now, as you can see, been taken for a test drive and it holds up pretty well. The body has settled back to a comfortable 47 inches in the round, but the purl stitches act like ribbing so it can stretch a bit if it has to. All in all, a modest success.
Sunset, Coghill Bridge, Wick
The new gansey will be another Wick pattern inspired by a photograph in the marvellous Johnston Collection. We haven’t charted it out fully yet—there’s still a fortnight at least before I have to worry about the yoke—but it resembles Fergus Ferguson’s in general style, without being quite so ornate (what I’m coming to think of as a typical Wick pattern, in fact). By way of a change I’m knitting it in Wendy’s aran Guernsey 5-ply yarn (they had a sale). I cast on 336 stitches and increased to 372 stitches after a welt of 3.75 inches.
Meanwhile Judit has sent me this nifty idea for a Christmas gift which she’s devised. The patterns are tree of life, Betty Martin panelling and diamonds and the overall effect is rather splendid. (It looks like it could also be adapted into stylish knitwear for the dalek in your life…) It should serve as inspiration, too, if any is needed—so what are you waiting for?
Well, we’re back in Wick after our 1200-mile round trip for my father’s 90th birthday. Cold weather descended on the Highlands for our return: all the moisture was frozen out of the air, the moon rose like the pale ghost of itself and the sky had the thin, clear look a balloonist might observe round about the point when he wished he’d brought more ballast, or failing that an oxygen mask. The A9 twists among the Cairngorm mountains and the peaks had a light dusting of snow through which patches of soil showed brown, so that they looked like the cracked crusts of so many artisan loaves.
It’s still rather cold here, at or below freezing. We had to evict several spiders and a nervous starling when we got home, driving them out into the icy night like villains in a Victorian melodrama foreclosing a mortgage (the reproachful look one spider gave me as I shut the door behind it lies heavily on my conscience still). Now all we have to do is find a way to make the house warmer on the inside than the outside…
We stopped off in Edinburgh en route for a little light shopping and a concert of music by Dvorak and Shostakovich. Alas, the concert was marred, on the one hand, by a man sitting on my right who breathed through his nose with an audible whistling, like someone trying to pump up a bicycle tire with a hole in it.
Then there was the woman diagonally to my left who kept switching on her mobile phone to check emails and take photos of the concert, causing the darkened hall to be illuminated with a sudden brilliance as though she was signalling to an alien spaceship. (I am a man of peace, which is why I merely had a quiet word with her during the interval, and why her midriff does not now light up like a flashlight every time she receives an incoming call.)
With just the cuff to go I laid the Matt Cammish gansey aside and started a new project on the trip (another Wick gansey in cream, about which more next week). I finished the cuff on the Sunday after we got back and darned in the ends. Now the gansey is washed and blocked and drying on its frame. As you can see, the pattern opens out amazingly—it’s no surprise this pattern is so popular, is it? And the Frangipani pewter yarn really shows it off.
By the way, another highlight of our brief stop in Edinburgh was bagging the last unreserved seats at our favourite Mexican restaurant, on Rose Street. The food was, as ever, excellent; and the experience was made all the sweeter as we watched twenty other people being turned away over the next hour and a half—providing a perfect illustration of the truth of Gore Vidal’s celebrated epigram: “It is not enough to succeed—others must fail…”
As I said last week, by the time this appears we will be in Northampton. So this bloguette is something of a message from the Other Side—though in this case I mean the other side of Hadrian’s Wall, as opposed to joining the choir invisible, as it were.
The tower of St Fergus’, Wick
By way of some light relief in turbulent times, I thought I’d share with you my favourite Religious Scotsman joke, from a pretty wide field. (I’ve seen it applied to other peoples, such as the Welsh or Jews, but given the fractal nature of Scottish religious denominations it feels particularly suited to the north Highlands.)
A Scotsman is shipwrecked on a desert island. After many years a passing ship sees his distress signal and stops to rescue him. Before they leave he shows the captain of the ship round his island, the garden he cultivates, the irrigation system he’s put in, and the house he lives in. The captain points to a hill where two buildings stand and asks him what they are. “The one on the left’s the church I built to worship in.” “And the other?” asks the captain. “Oh,’ he says, “that’s the church I don’t go to…”
Margaret’s been busy too
OK. I guess you had to be there.
Now, we’ve always striven to keep politics out of this blog—my father’s house has many mansions, and all that, even if some of the doors are boarded up. So I forebear to comment on the outcome of US presidential election, just as I did on the British Brexit vote, especially as I see there have been calls on all sides for reconciliation and a coming together. It is, therefore, in that same spirit of tolerance and forgiveness that I respectfully offer this linked video clip.
Normal service will be resumed on Monday 21st November. See you then!
We went up to John O’Groats on Saturday, as we often do, for to view the fields and to take the air, as my favourite folk song says. There weren’t many fields but there was a lot of air, barrelling down at us at about 45 mph straight from the arctic circle, so we didn’t linger.
We did stay long enough to see the seal in the harbour, or rather its snout poking up from the icy water like a little whiskery buoy. There were a couple of fishing boats moored there, rocking to the waves and the wind, and the seal kept vanishing underwater to see what it could find beneath them; either that, or it was playing hide-and-seek with the other seals out in the Pentland Firth.
I like seals. Their whiskers give them the air of an elderly geography teacher, a sleek aquatic Einstein. They’re like sensible, grown-up dolphins; you can’t imagine dolphins listening to Radio 4 and appreciating Pink Floyd or test cricket, for example—they haven’t the patience and just want to party. Seals, on the other flipper, always look like they’ve just mislaid their pipe tobacco and slippers. If reincarnation is a thing, then dolphins are a good place to start; but seals are born with old souls.
As for the gansey, I’ve finished the first sleeve and am now embarked on the second. I’m amazed at how small it all looks, how shrivelled, like a dehydrated starfish. This is because of all the purl stitches running the length of the body and sleeves, which draws it in. It actually has more stitches in the round than the green Scarborough gansey I knit recently, but at present is at least six inches narrower round the chest. Blocking will sort this, of course; or if not I just have to find a very thin supermodel in need of chunky knitwear.
In parish news, Judit has sent me pictures of a gansey-inspired project, a slipover or sleeveless jumper with a tasteful Scottish fleet half-flag pattern running up the centre. Many congratulations to Judit once again on the project, and for reminding us just how versatile gansey patterns can be.
Looking towards Duncansby Head
I’ve always loved the Scottish legends of the selkie, the seals who take human form. They say that if you find a selkie’s sealskin you can compel them to marry you (I thought I was in luck the other day down on the beach, but no—it was just a bin liner). But how can you tell if your partner is really a selkie—other than the strong smell of fish, of course? Well, the best way is to throw them a herring: if they catch it on the tip of their nose, toss it up in the air and then swallow it whole, the balance of probabilities is they’re a selkie.
N.B., we’ll be away all next week on a trip down to Northampton to celebrate my father’s birthday, so it’ll just be a short bloguette on Monday. (I won’t quite have finished the gansey, as we’ll be travelling most of next weekend.) Normal service will be resumed in a fortnight. See you then!