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Wick (Cordova): Week 5 – 19 April

I woke up this morning with something of a migraine. How can I tell? Apart from the needle spiking my forehead every time my heart beats, my IQ drops like a stone. How far down does it go, you ask? All the way to the basement. An hour ago I wanted to weigh my cone of yarn to see how much was left, so I took it into the kitchen, along with a used coffee mug. After a time I realised something was wrong. Sitting on the kitchen scales was my coffee mug—it weighed 320 grams—but my yarn was nowhere to be seen. Sure enough I eventually found it on top of the dishwasher, ready to be put inside with the dirty dishes. Some days you really shouldn’t get out of bed.

My personal benchmark for migraine-induced dumbassery occurred many years ago. I was walking down Northampton’s Abingdon Street when my attention was caught by a parking sign that read “Waiting limited to 30 minutes. No return within one hour”. And I thought, if you aren’t allowed to come back to your car for an hour, how could you avoid getting a ticket, as you were only allowed to park there for 30 minutes? It seemed like one of those paradoxes Captain Kirk was always putting to evil robots in Star Trek, causing them to blow up; it was Fermat’s Last Theorem on a stick. (Eventually a kind policeman came along and explained it to me, followed by a number of rather embarrassing personal questions which I, er, won’t go into just now.)

Detail of JN02372 from the Johnston Collection. Used with permission.

And yet sometimes it works the other way, and what passes for my brain goes into overdrive, positively fizzing with ideas like yeast. Though instead of coming up with something useful, like nuclear fusion, I tend to wonder what it would be like if the Head of Personnel was a James Bond supervillain, complete with Persian cat and piranha tank (“Number Seven, I am very disappointed in you for failing to overthrow Lybster Parish Council; also, you can only claim expenses for monster munch flavoured pot noodles if you keep the receipt”), or whether the Tibetan Book of the Dead would work as a musical. Such insights are, alas, rare. On migraine days I may in fact be the only person walking around with an “I’m with stupid” T-shirt pointing at myself…



This gansey isn’t an exact replica of a pattern in the Johnston Collection of old photographs of Caithness fishermen—the gauge in the original is just too fine—but it’s pretty close. The centre panel in the original has two columns of four trees and diamonds (tree, diamond, tree, diamond); but that was just too many rows for me, the yoke would have been 3-4 inches longer; so I decided to lose the topmost diamond and keep the rest. I’ve left the actual patterns exactly as they were in the original, just had fewer of them. (I’m nearing the top of the yoke: I’ll soon find out how good my maths is.)

It would also have been a couple of inches too narrow for me widthways. I could have added a stitch either side of some of the patterns to pad it out, but again, I wanted to keep the patterns I was using as close to the original as possible. So I added a couple of six-stitch single cables, on the basis that everything goes better with cables. (The braided double cable is cabled every fourth row, so I’m cabling the single cable every eighth row to keep the counting simple.)

I hope I’ve captured the spirit of the original, at least. It’s another stunning Wick pattern, and reinforces my idea that Wick is a “missing link” between the ganseys of the southern mainland and the spectacular examples from the Hebrides. And the Cordova yarn shows up the intricacy of the yoke every bit as well as I’d hoped. The pattern is falling nicely into place; or at least it is on days when I don’t mistake the dishwasher for the kitchen scales…


Wick (Cordova): Week 4 – 12 April

If March is famous for coming in like a lion and out like a lamb, the first week of April came in like a lion who’s mad as hell because someone keeps stealing his milk from the fridge, and departed irritable as a lion who’s just quit smoking. It’s been horrible. Winds to strip the fillings from your teeth, snow, hail, sleet and then, confusingly, bright sunshine. I’d go for a walk under clear blue skies and return white with snow, looking like the “before” picture in a particularly graphic dandruff commercial. One morning the roads hadn’t been gritted after heavy snow overnight, turning Wick into an exciting dodgem-car-cum-bobsleigh-free-for-all.


Most Caithness roads have now gone two winters without being resurfaced, so not only was the snow treacherously icy, it also concealed the potholes. Though potholes is something of a misnomer at this stage—most of them are more what you’d call chasms; I looked into one and I’m pretty sure I saw Gandalf fighting a balrog somewhere down at the bottom. At this rate the only way anyone will be able to negotiate the North Coast 500 tourist trail come summer will be by dirigible. But then, I thought, perhaps this Indian Winter is actually my fault; perhaps by deciding to knit with a yarn inspired by the waters off Alaska I have unwittingly brought the weather of Prince William Sound to Wick. A bit fanciful, you think? Perhaps. All I’m saying is, if someone wants to come up with a yarn inspired by Córdoba in Spain, give me a call.

Bench at Castletown Harbour

April seems to be the season when all those gansey bulbs that were planted weeks and months ago come up to bloom: and for the second week running we have two new ganseys to share. The first is from Lynne, a Filey pattern out of Gladys Thompson’s book, knit in Frangipani cinder. I’m a big fan of Yorkshire patterns, and this is a cracking one. The cinder yarn shows the pattern up very nicely too for a dark shade. The other gansey is from Judit, a classic pattern from The Lizard in what looks like a bluish-turquoise yarn. (I’ve said before how much I like these simple, almost geometric, textured patterns, and this has been a favourite of mine since I first saw it in Mary Wright’s book; in fact I plan to knit myself a gansey in this pattern next year, if I’m spared.) Many congratulations to Lynne and Judit! Two very splendid examples indeed.

More Snow

My own gansey has reached the yoke/ gusset stage. It’s one of those intricate patterns that requires constant reference to the charts, so it’s been a bit intense so far (yes, I’m already nostalgic for all that ribbing I couldn’t wait to finish). Hopefully I’ll settle into some sort of rhythm as it develops. Anyway, I’ll say more about it next week, and post some charts, as well as say something about how I adapted the pattern.

Finally this week, I’ve always had a lot of sympathy for celebrities who have to deal with inane questions from journalists. Bob Dylan was once asked by a journalist what his songs were about, and he said, “Oh, some are about four minutes, some are about five, and some, believe it or not, are about eleven or twelve.” Last week the Duke of Edinburgh passed away, and among the obituaries I read the following anecdote. The Duke had arrived somewhere after a long flight, and a journalist asked him how his flight had been. “Have you ever been on an aeroplane?” the Duke asked him. “Yes, sir,” the journalist replied. “Well it was just like that,” said the Duke.

Wick (Cordova): Week 3 – 5 April

This week I turned on the radio news to hear an interviewee earnestly declare, “We need to do a full spectrum analysis of the threat landscape”. (I’m afraid I don’t know who the speaker was or what he was talking about, as I was laughing so hard I missed the rest.) But I mean to say: seriously? I now picture two soldiers standing in a field:

Officer: We need to do a full spectrum analysis of the threat landscape, Jenkins.
Soldier: Yes, sir, I did that earlier, sir. It’s green.
Officer: Ah, you mean it’s safe?
Soldier: No, sir, I mean it’s green. It’s a field. With, what’s the word I’m looking for, grass.
Officer: Not the landscape landscape, you idiot! I’m talking about the threat landscape.
Soldier: Threat, sir? It’s a field. Short of slipping on a cowpat I hardly think—
Officer (smugly pointing): Oh, yes? And what do you call those things if they’re not a threat?
Soldier (squinting): Sheep, sir.
Officer: Sheep?
Soldier: Yes, sir. Ovis aries: quadrupedal ruminants, members of the order Artiodactyla. Rather famous, in fact, sir, for not actually posing what you might call a threat.
Officer: But some of them have got horns, man!
Soldier: Still sheep, sir.
Officer: It could be a cunning disguise—wolf in sheep’s clothing, mutton dressed as lamb. You can’t trust the little beggars.
Soldier: I think you’ll find those are idioms, sir. Figures of speech. Not actual behaviour of sheep.
Officer (looking sombrely into the distance): My mother was killed by a sheep.
Soldier: By a sheep?
Officer: Yes, somehow it got behind the wheel of a Land Rover, and—
Soldier: Say no more, sir, targeting the rocket launcher directly, sir…

Fulmar on the cliffs

In parish notices we have two new ganseys to celebrate this week. The first is from Kate, a Hebridean-inspired pattern combination of her own, with cables set against a moss stitch background, trees and zigzags on the sleeves, set above an open diamond border, with another diagonal striped border abutting the ribbing and the cuffs. The other comes courtesy of Ruth, also her own combination of a broad central chevron, and double cables and open diamonds flanked with betty martin, set above a distinctive wavy border. Both of these splendid ganseys show what you can do with the toolbox of patterns handed down to us, how you can adapt and recombine them into something original and unique. Warmest congratulations to Kate and Ruth!

As for my own gansey I’m almost up to the yoke. I’ve settled nicely into the body pattern, after finding it a little counterintuitive at first; though repeating the same stitches 30-plus times per row for ten inches can do that. It’ll soon be time to wrap a damp towel round the temples, dig out the calculator and start charting the yoke, more on which anon.

And so not only have the clocks gone forward—though as a wise man once observed, there’s nothing special about the clocks going forward, it happens all the time, that’s how time works—but now Easter has come and gone. The year’s a quarter over already. Not that you’d know it in Caithness, mind, with gale force winds, sub-zero temperatures and snow forecast this week. Never has the old rhyme seemed more apposite:


The north wind doth blow,
And we shall have snow,
And what will poor robin do then?
Poor thing.

He’ll shiver and cough,
And his legs will drop off,
That’ll teach him to bob-bob-bob outside my window singing his blasted head off Sunday mornings when I’m trying to have a lie in,

Wick (Cordova): Week 2 – 29 March

And now it’s spring, meteorologically and temporally. This weekend the clocks went forward to herald the arrival of summertime (when, incidentally, the living never seems to be as easy as George Gershwin led me to believe). In Wagner’s Die Walküre the hero Siegmund greets the arrival of spring by singing to his sister Sieglinde the aria Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond, which one website translates as “Winter storms gave way to the merry moon”; after which, I’m afraid, it all gets a bit mucky. But I can’t help thinking it’s just as well Siegmund and Sieglinde lived in the primeval forests of German mythology and not, as it were, in Caithness; since here the Winterstürme show no sign of wichen, and instead are rattling the windows as though it were still January.

Bursting buds

Few of the classics, of course, would survive translation to Caithness. How successful would Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness be if it involved a journey up Wick River to reveal the ancestral savagery lurking in the human breast (or Watten, as I like to think of it)? Early drafts of the original script for Star Wars has Obi-wan Kenobi announcing, “Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy… Well, okay, maybe Thurso.” Paddington would still be sitting forlornly at Forsinard station, wondering how on earth he was going to source marmalade in the middle of a peat bog. And if Mary Poppins had tried to visit the Banks family in John O’Groats her feet would never have touched the ground; instead, wafted in the general direction of Scandinavia, she would even now be looking up “a spoonful of sugar” in her Swedish-English dictionary.

High Tide at Full Moon

In gansey news, I am now well embarked on the body. It’s a typical Caithness body pattern, six plain stitches alternating with five purl-and-knit stitches—the purpose being, of course, for the purl stitches to act like ribbing, draw it all together and make for a snug fit. Or failing that, in my case, a built-in corset, as if Captain Kirk had taken up herring fishing after he retired from Starfleet. I’m finding the 6-5-6-5  pattern a hard rhythm to relax into: unless I exercise ceaseless vigilance my fingers keep knitting extra knit stitches, or the five stitches of ribbing become eight or nine. It’s very distinctive; although, because of the drawing-in effect, you won’t really see the pattern to its best advantage till it’s blocked.

Last year’s seedhead

Well, the clocks may have gone forward, but I haven’t. Changes in time always do my head in, and somehow having all of nature fooling about making a rumpus outside your window only seems to make it worse. If Mr Bluebird so much as tried to land on my shoulder this merry morn I’d be reaching for my twelve bore before he was halfway through his first “zip-a-dee-do-dah”. Everything is happening an hour earlier, and I’m just not ready for it. Still, I should focus on the positives: in just six months we all get a proper lie in once again. And let the storms of winter blow then as they might, I think we can all agree an extra hour in bed’s a price worth paying…

Wick (Cordova): Week 1 – 22 March

As I get older, I find myself occasionally thinking about the afterlife; more specifically, whether I would pass the selection panel for admissions. What sort of questions might they ask? After all, like any interview, it’s as well to be prepared. But if they began by asking me what interested me in their particular afterlife I would, I feel, need a better answer than the only one I’ve thought of so far, which is “the hours”. Still, if I’m asked to name one selfless deed that would admit me to heaven, I think I’m covered: as every week at the supermarket checkout I’d drop a token into one of the buckets to select a charity they’d donate to. (No, don’t thank me: sometimes virtue really is its own reward.)

There are many theologies, of course, from the Great Wheel of Buddhism (rebirth until enlightenment and nirvana) to the more linear approach of Christianity (existence, limbo, eternity). Einstein famously said that “God does not play dice with the universe”, but I think he—and every major religion—are wrong: the universe is in reality a massive game of snakes and ladders, and (my philosophy in a nutshell) some days you just land on a snake.

Pussywillows in the sun

Meanwhile it’s the spring equinox, a time of rebirth and renewal across the land, and what better way to celebrate than with chocolate easter eggs a new gansey? So while the Dunbeath one is pinned out to dry in the sun, I’ve cast on the long-awaited Wick gansey using Frangipani Cordova yarn (supplied by Deb Gillanders of Propagansey). The yarn is a fabulous shade of blue-grey which should show the pattern perfectly. I’ll say more about this in the coming weeks, but suffice to note it’s another distinctive Wick gansey taken from the Johnston Collection of old photographs.

Choppy water in the river

And if I dream of an ideal day in paradise I wake up to sunshine, enjoy a leisurely breakfast, stroll over to the celestial library’s manuscripts department where a collection of ancient documents is awaiting my attention, spend a happy morning cataloguing, come home for lunch, then sit in the window listening to Bruckner or Vaughan Williams and knitting a gansey till dinner time—throw in a walk on the cliffs, an evening with family and friends and the Red Sox about to pitch another game, and that doesn’t seem like a bad way to spend eternity. Then, of course, I wake up, only to realise that this is basically my life. (Not that I’m saying living in Wick is exactly paradise—heaven surely involves less wind and fewer migraines.) As for the day of judgment, I’ve mentioned before that I derive great consolation from the words of Lin Yutang: “All I know is that if God loves me only half as much as my mother does, he will not send me to Hell…”