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Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 5: 18 March

Well, first things first: the gansey is finished, washed and blocked and drying in the (intermittent) sunshine. And as always, there’s that moment when it’s stretched into shape and the pattern reveals itself in its right proportions, like one of those origami puzzles that seem at first just a scrunched-up piece of paper but which, with a twist and a slide, turn out to be an elegant paper swan. I’ve said before how much I like the colour; it sets off the pattern perfectly, and this pattern really is one of the best.

Nybster Harbour

As TS Eliot said, these fragments I have shored against my ruins. Here are a couple more fragments I came across this week. The first concerns the D-Day landings and subsequent campaign. Apparently as they pushed inland, Allied ground forces marked their positions with signal flares—smoke canisters that showed their positions so the air forces wouldn’t bomb them by mistake. Well, one of these flares went off accidentally inside a British tank. The crew all scrambled out unhurt, choking and coughing, and no harm was done … except that the commander was so deeply saturated that not only his clothes, but also his skin and hair, eyebrows and moustache were dyed a deep, rich hue, like the Jolly Green Giant; and they stayed that way until the pigment gradually grew out…

Rainbow & St Fergus’ Church

The second is a quote from Somerset Maugham’s downbeat World War One spy novel Ashenden. I may have it inscribed over my bathtub. The hero, dishevelled and dirty from travel, has just lowered himself into a scalding hot bath, in which he luxuriates in a very British way: ‘”Really”, he reflected, “there are moments in life when all this to-do that has led from the primeval slime to myself seems almost worth while…”‘

Next week: another gansey from the Johnston Collection. But which one?


Salvation Army Hall, Wick

Our thoughts inevitably go out this week to all those affected by the horrendous events in Christchurch. I read that a group of expat Kiwis had gathered in London for a vigil the day the news broke, and they sang the hauntingly beautiful Māori song “Pokarekare Ana”. There are many recordings of this song available on the internet, but here’s one to which someone has added a montage of pictures of the Land of the Long White Cloud. I like to think of this as a single candle, lit against the darkness of our times.

E kore te aroha
e maroke i te rā
Mākūkū tonu i
aku roimata e.

(My love will never
be dried by the sun,
it will be forever moistened
by my tears.)

Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 4: 11 March

I mentioned last year that my right eye has developed a condition called myopic macular degeneration. Basically this means that I’m so shortsighted—before I had cataract surgery my eyes were -11.00 and -12.00 dioptres respectively—that my retinas are stretched so thinly they’re liable to become damaged. And what this means is that in my right eye I’ve developed a blind spot right in the centre of my vision.

Now, let me say immediately that (a) there are many people worse off than me, and (b) most of the time I hardly notice it. My left eye is my leading eye, and that’s holding up fine so far. Most of the time I’m only aware of a slight blurring, which you can replicate at home by keeping both eyes open and holding a piece of clear plastic up in front of one eye: you get the peculiar sensation of things being both in and out of focus at the same time, but it’s no big deal.

It’s straight lines that do my head in. Any series of vertical or horizontal lines—park railings, for instance, or a spreadsheet—bend and distort around the blind spot, as my peripheral vision compensates. It’s as if I’m living my life in an Open University lecture on how black holes warp the light from distant stars. There’s a chart called the Amsler Grid that measures this effect; the scientific term for which is, I believe, “bloody weird”.

Amsler Grid

Well. My (left) eyesight might never deteriorate from here, in which case it’s just a minor inconvenience. But it’s hard not to feel on borrowed time, to an extent: which is why I want to make the most of being able to see as well as I do and knit the ganseys I still have on my to-do list. (There’s only about 20 or so…) This current project is for me, and I plan to wear it a lot. I love the colour, which like all ganseys changes with the ambient light, from bright sky blue to something much darker. With a fair wind behind me I might even finish it this week. (Next up: another Caithness gansey from the Johnston Collection.)

Part of Wick on a sunny day

In parish news, Lynne has sent me photos of a stunning jumper she’s made based on the “Buckie” pattern I knitted for my friend George Bethune a few years ago. Lynne modified the sleeve to an inset sleeve, and used Merino yarn, which just goes to show how well gansey patterns and style can be adapted to suit. Many congratulations to Lynne for a splendid result.

Incidentally, when I said above that other people had it worse than me, this wasn’t false modesty (or any kind of modesty, come to that). I met a man last year with age-related macular degeneration who could no longer read text, and he bore his condition admirably. But, he said, that wasn’t the worst part. Oh really, I said innocently, what’s that? Hallucinations, he said. Out of the corner of his eye he keeps seeing a dwarf climbing in through the window. Of course he knows it’s not real, but that doesn’t stop him seeing it. At which point I thought: a blind spot and a few skewed lines? I’ll settle for that…

Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 3: 4 March

Every now and then I’m driven by a desire to try to understand something of the world around me, and so I open my well-thumbed copy of The Big Boys’ Colouring-In Book of Quantum Mechanics, wrap a damp towel around my head, and dive in. This is, of course, as likely to succeed as a dachshund trying to learn to play the banjo, but still I persevere. And then I read something to the effect that a thrown ball will fall to earth in a curved trajectory because time passes more quickly for it the higher it rises, and my only option is to open a box of cheap chocolates and start eating until the pain goes away.

Limpets on the rocks at Sandside

I know that physics teaches us that reality is very different from what we perceive it to be. This table I am leaning on as I type is not a solid thing of hard brown wood, but is instead mostly empty space in which wee particle thingies sort of whizz about, generating an electrical charge at just the right height to support my elbows. The colour is also an illusion, there being no such thing as “brown”, just photons of light of a low frequency falling on my retinas which my brain helpfully converts into colours, probably because it knows I’m rubbish at maths.

Trees & Snowdrops by the river

Buddhists have taught for centuries that the material world is an illusion, an approach that I think of as similar to quantum mechanics, only with fewer equations. And I know I’m not yet ready to break free of the cycle of death and rebirth because I still find this world full of wonders: I have an uncomfortable feeling that if I met the Buddha upon the road I’d hear him out with reverent humility, then try to interest him in this amazing new app I’ve got on my phone.

Late afternoon at Dunnet Beach

Well, Wendy’s Atlantic Blue may be an illusion (particles of light travelling at a wavelength in the region of 380-500 nanometers) but, to misquote Woody Allen, as illusions go it’s definitely one of the best. I’m approaching the endgame of this gansey now, being well on the way to finishing the first sleeve. Confession time: this jumper, like the last one, is also being knit from wool of two separate dye lots; but unlike John Macleod’s gansey, on this one you can see the join. (And does this bother me? Not a photon!)

I guess I’m living proof that a lifetime isn’t enough to fully explore the range of all the gansey patterns out there. Not that I’m especially keen on the idea of reincarnation. In this, as in so much else, I follow the wisdom of Bender, the robot from the cartoon series Futurama: “Afterlife? If I thought I had to live another life, I’d kill myself right now!”

Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 2: 25 February

Spring has come early to the north Highlands of Scotland and so, lured outside by a weather forecast promising sunny intervals and light winds, we ventured out to Noss Head, just north of Wick. Of course, light winds in Caithness mean the sort of arctic gales you could stand up against, like a man leaning on a bar waiting for his pint—and to be fair, Noss Head is rather exposed, a promontory jutting out into the North Sea like a narwhal’s tusk—but when you recall that a year ago Britain was being frozen by the so-called “beast from the east”, it wisnae so bad.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

The fields were absolutely fizzing with larks, the harrier jump jets of the avian kingdom. It always looks like such hard work, being a lark: they seem to be pedalling frantically, like a cyclist going up Ben Nevis in fourth gear, just to get airborne. I’ve always assumed their song is some kind of mating call or territorial claim, but it’s probably just the sound of desperate wheezing, the equivalent of the sort of noise I make going up a flight of stairs. I wonder what normal blood pressure is for a lark? And if any of them ever explode at, say, thirty or forty feet?

Gordon models the latest gansey at Ackergill

Across the promontory to the north lie the rocky cliffs and sea stacks, home of numerous seabirds, fulmars and shags and the like. These birds seem to delight in showing the larks how it’s done, effortlessly riding the wind as though strung on invisible wires. I can watch them for hours as they serenely glide, circle, swoop and dive; it’s as relaxing as stroking a cat, and much less hard work.

In gansey news I’ve finished the front of the pullover, joined the shoulders, knit the collar and picked up the stitches on the first sleeve. This is the stage when it always begins to look like a gansey, and you get a proper feel for the pattern. This pattern is one of my favourites, and this one is for my keep pile. It’s not the first time I’ve knit it: you can see the previous version (for a friend) and pattern chart here. The yarn is Wendy’s atlantic blue, which I happened to have in my stash, second-hand from Ravelry. It’s not only my favourite colour, it’s also the colour of the banger car team I supported in my youth—Daventry—so I’m experiencing disconcerting Proustian flashbacks while I knit.

Cloudy & dull by the river

And now the sunny intervals have gone, but the wind remains. Robert Louis Stevenson, who spent time up here, wrote: “In Wick I have never heard any one greet his neighbour with the usual ‘Fine day’ or ‘Good morning.’ Both come shaking their heads, and both say, ‘Breezy, breezy!’ And such is the atrocious quality of the climate, that the remark is almost invariably justified by the fact.” On the plus side, I always remind myself that this is Scotland; and if it wasn’t for the wind we’d have that other matter to deal with, the far worse plague of midges…

Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 1: 18 February

It’s a strange thing, giving a talk: you sweat for hours getting it just so, tweaking the script and adding a slide here, removing another there, playing around with the structure; and then when you stand up in front of the audience, you ignore everything you were going to say and instead just make it up as you go along. Such, at least, is often the case with me.

Of course, it only works if I’ve done the preparation beforehand and actually know my subject. Ask me to hold forth for half an hour on the battle of Waterloo or the inner workings of a gas-cooled nuclear reactor and before long the hall would be empty and the organiser would be leaving me alone in a room with a bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver, together with a hint that the caretaker will be along shortly to lock up. But when it works—when the spirit moves you, the words come and you seem to soar on a rising thermal of goodwill—then it’s a joy. 

Some off-the-cuff remarks…

I duly gave my talk on ganseys at Wick Museum last week. Most importantly, the audience seemed to enjoy it. Mind you, it helps immeasurably having the Johnston Collection of photographs of Victorian fishermen as your subject; and besides, the finest ganseys in the collection simply speak for themselves. And, for the second time since I moved to Caithness, I had one of these conversations: a lady came up to me, holding a copy of Rae Compton and Henrietta Munro’s booklet on Caithness ganseys, They Lived By The Sea. She showed me the picture of Donald Angus and his pattern and said he was her grandfather; and that her grandmother had knitted the same pattern for her as a little girl. It’s a timely reminder, when we look at these photographs, that it’s not just a record of ganseys and patterns but a catalogue of people’s lives; and that in recreating the patterns, we are honouring the knitters who made it all possible, so many of whose names are sadly lost to us.

Full House – Standing Room Only

Well, it’s time to unmask my batteries and reveal a new gansey. Of course I haven’t knit all this in a week: I started it back in December, over Christmas, and have been knitting it on and off ever since, as a sort of light relief from the intricacies of John Macleod’s gansey. It’s another of my favourite patterns, elements of which are recorded in Scottish Fleet and Yorkshire (it’s a variant of the celebrated Matt Cammish pattern). It’s another gansey in chunky Wendy yarn, Atlantic Blue. I’ll say more about it next week.

Tree Full o’ Birds

In parish news, Judit has sent through some more pictures, this time of a very natty green gansey based on John Northcott’s pattern from Cornwall, for her grandson. This is one of the family of patterns like Vicar of Morwenstow, The Lizard, or the Shackleton ganseys, which rely on basic geometry for effect, and what a striking effect it is. Congratulations once again to Judit. (Hmm. Maybe I should dedicate my retirement to devising a system that organises ganseys, not by place but by grouping together similar patterns? Then again, maybe not.)

Finally, thanks to Margaret for getting some excellent pictures at the talk. I don’t really like having my picture taken: I’ve discovered that photos taken of me when I’m, as it were, smiling, capture a wild, deranged grimace that makes me look like a praying mantis who’s just about to devour its mate, or else like a praying mantis who’s just had a pint of ice cream dumped down his trousers; either way it’s not a good look. In Margaret’s picture of me above I don’t manifest as a homicidal mantodea, and for that I am forever in her debt…