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Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 7 – 30 March

In troubled times they say it is better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. (To which I always think, hey, I can multitask: surely I can do both?) But the current darkness goes well beyond my abilities to curse—old man shouts at cloud, as The Simpsons neatly put it—and while calling anyone who comes within six feet a “whoreson caterpillar, a bacon-fed knave” has its attractions, it is less effective against a virus, I find. So instead let us focus our attention on lighting candles.

The Winds of Change

I’m working from home now. Amazingly, it turns out I can write reports and videoconference just as effectively in my slippers—who knew? It takes a bit of getting used to, though. I dialled into one conference last week only to hear someone say, “Just a minute—we seem to have our wires crossed with a nature documentary. What is that? It looks like a naked mole rat’s burrow. No, wait: it’s Gordon’s nostril. Gordon, can you adjust your camera? We can all see right up your nose…” Too late I also realised that the bookcase facing the camera holds our DVD collection, which prompted the following exchange: “Is that the complete Peppa Pig I can see behind you?” “Hey, don’t tell me how it ends.” “Usually ends in a bacon sandwich, in my experience.”

I get up at the same time as I used to, but now I start each day on the sofa with a Haydn symphony, which is about as long as my commute to work used to be, and which is enough time for me to knit a standard row. But I’m so busy with work stuff that I don’t have a lot of free time in the day, so my knitting is still mostly confined to evenings and weekends. I’m making good progress, though, and am about halfway down the first sleeve (in length; obviously it gets narrower as you work down the sleeve, so you do speed up as you go). I usually knit Hebridean patterns in cream or natural white; it’s fascinating to see how well this one knits up in another colour. (Hmm. It’s lucky this gansey is being knit for someone rather smaller than I am; otherwise I don’t think I’d have found it easy to let it go at the end…)

The Winding Path Ahead

So now we all adjust to the new normal: staying in, going for one walk a day, the odd trip to the shops. (Very odd: my only consolation is that the world can’t currently go to hell in a handcart because all the carts have already been nabbed by people panic buying toilet rolls.) Town is so empty it feels like the zombie apocalypse has been and gone (in other words, much like a typical Sunday from my youth). In my walks up the riverside path I pass people stopping to chat; they each carefully observe the six-foot distancing rules, but of course you have to walk between them at a distance of less than three feet either side. My only consolation is, the wind is so strong they’re more in danger of infecting someone in Norway if they cough, than me.

Oh, well. That’s one week down. To all our readers, stay inside, stay safe, keep well and happy knitting. Now where did that dratted mole rat get to…?

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 6 – 23 March

Like John Lennon, I read the news today; but “oh boy” hardly seems an adequate response under the circumstances. As regular readers will know, anxiety sits on my shoulder like Jiminy Cricket’s manic depressive cousin (but being Scottish his advice is to “give a little thistle”, instead of a whistle, and I’m not sure that I should “always let pure nonsense” be my guide). But as the loose thread that binds the modern world unravels, I’m beginning to suspect anxiety may be the least of my problems.

Misery, they say, loves company; and so, taking a line from the late, great Ian Drury and the Blockheads, let’s cast it aside and focus instead on some random reasons to be cheerful. First up is the wonderful Star Wars/ Withnail and I mashup, in which some genius has synched Richard E Grant’s drunken, expletive-filled dialogue onto C-3PO, and it’s one of the most joyous things I’ve ever seen. The prissy robot swaggering into the cantina bar and demanding the finest wines known to humanity, then screaming abuse when he’s refused, keeps me warm during the long winter evenings.

What else? Oh, yes. There are millions of animal videos on the internet, but this is one of my favourites. It’s only 10 seconds long, and if your mood isn’t better by at least the third of them I guarantee your money back (and it’s free).

Statue at Nybster – a gansey in stone?

And thirdly—you’re way ahead of me, I collect—the joy of having something to do, in this case knitting. The way I deal with anxiety is to get my head down and knit. I listen to music or audiobooks—Wagner and Dorothy Dunnett’s novel of Macbeth at the moment—more or less obsessively, and just focus on getting the rows done. It may not get rid of the underlying causes, but I do at least finish a lot of jumpers. Speaking of which, there have been significant developments this week: the front and back are now complete, and joined at the shoulders. With the collar almost finished, that just leaves the sleeves; we’re two-thirds of the way there, and another month should see it pinned and formulated, as TS Eliot described his own completed knitting projects.

Signs of Spring

Finally this week, one of the chief bonuses to living in Caithness is that it almost comprises social distancing in itself: it’s easy to find a stretch of beach, a cliffside path, an abandoned harbour, or a river strath to explore, away from other people. (In fact, that’s pretty much the only bonus—Ed.) Happiness after all is where you find it, and I find it there, among other places. To return to John Lennon—one of the few people to write an ode to a takeaway curry in his classic song Instant Korma: he once said: “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” Reasons to be cheerful, part four…

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 5 – 16 March

I turned on the television the other day, to catch the latest news about the coronavirus. Imagine my shock to find a stern-faced leader addressing his people from a podium: “Some of you may die,” he said, “but that is a sacrifice I’m willing to make”. Blimey, I thought: that’s a bit stark for Boris. Then I realised I’d put on Shrek by mistake.

Handrail at the North Baths pool

So here we are, watching the needle on the anxiety-o-meter creeping all the way up to critical. Football and other sports are cancelled, travel suspended, and the media apparently have no other news. I blew my nose at work on Friday. When I looked up, everyone in the room was staring at the tissue in my hands. I felt like a strange gunslinger walking into the Malemute saloon: the piano player stopped playing, the dealer paused as he dealt the cards. Patiently I explained that this is the same condition I’ve had for a year now, you’ve all seen it, it’s nothing new. Gradually everyone relaxed; but just for a minute there…

Seaweed & Driftwood

The Simpsons captured this mood perfectly many years ago, when a reporter asks a pundit, “Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?” And the pundit earnestly replies, “Yes I would.”

Well, we all know knitting is one way to alleviate stress and anxiety, so let’s have at it. I’ve almost finished the back of the gansey so it’s possible now to get an idea of the overall look of the thing. It’s always something of a risk, knitting a yoke with a specified number of rows, as every cone of yarn knits up a little differently. But, touch wood, this time it seems to have worked out. The coppery tones of the Frangipani Breton yarn really suit the pattern, too.

As for the virus, we know that things will get worse before they get better. But get better they will. So let’s all wash our hands, be safe, and look out for each other. At times like this I fall back on a phrase from James Joyce’s Ulysses, on the importance of remembering that bad things are only temporary, and will pass: “Life is many days. This will end.”

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 4 – 9 March

Hamlet once said that he could be “bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”. And I feel much the same. Not that I could necessarily be bounded in a nutshell—I think there’d be quite a lot left over, not to mention something of a mess to clean up—but about the dreams. Why is it that when I remember my dreams, they’re always disturbing?

Stacks of Duncansby

Anxiety has been a constant companion throughout my life. A few days before I took my driving test, aged 18, I dreamt I’d taken it and failed. So powerful was the dream that it took most of the following morning before I realised that the actual test was still in the future, the failure as yet only hypothetical. (I passed first time, by the way: as Linus from Peanuts would say, “I wasted a good worry”.) Just last night I dreamt that I was lying on the floor, helpless and dying after some unspecified disaster, possibly a heart attack. This was actually an improvement on another dream a few months ago, when I dreamt I had just died, and my spirit was detached from my body, occupying the space in the room, wondering what came next. Another time I dreamt that half my face was missing. Every time I read that one of the most commonly reported dreams is turning up to work naked, I think, hey, that sounds interesting; as if even in my subconscious I’m missing all the fun.

Friendly Fenceposts

I don’t dream about ganseys, and given how the rest of my dreams work out that’s probably a good thing. Excitingly, I’ve just reached the point where front and back divides: the semi-gussets are ready to go on their holders, and the foundations of the yoke pattern have been laid. There’s just a narrow diamond border to separate the body from the yoke; I had to condense the band because the body is slightly shorter than the ganseys I knit for myself. It’s fun to be knitting a Hebridean pattern again—they’re such a riot of patterns the whole fabric seems to come alive, like a knitted Book of Kells.

Swan on the Grand Union Canal

And in other news, spring seems to have finally, tentatively, arrived even in Caithness. (As King Solomon once observed, the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; though after watching Finding Nemo I presume the voice of the turtle mostly says, “Woaaah, dude”.) So here’s one of my favourite Japanese poems to celebrate. It’s by Ome Shushiki (1668-1725), on the hope that spring brings, even to dry dreamers such as I:

Dead my old fine hopes
And dry my dreaming, but still…
Iris, blue each spring.

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 3 – 2 March

It’s the first day of March, St David’s Day, a date which has always felt like spring to me ever since we lived in Wales; a harbinger of hope with the snowdrops and daffodils coming out, and—in a particularly good year—Wales absolutely stuffing England at rugby. Alas for our times, I duly went for a walk along the river today; and yes, the snowdrops are out, though they look rather as if they wished they’d waited; but as for spring—well, not so much. In the space of thirty minutes I encountered drizzle, rain, sleet and hail, with the sorts of winds that make you look like you’re pulling an invisible sled; indeed, all I needed was some snowshoes and a sense of British pluck and I could have fitted into Captain Scott’s expedition, no questions asked.

I did see an otter, though, and that made up for much. The recent heavy rains have swollen the river to the fullest level I can remember, and maybe that’s made them bold. I was aware of a sleek, dark, whiskery head with a bright black eye bobbing in the swell, looking alertly round. Then it was gone with a *glop! *, only a few silently expanding ripples to show where it’d been. A few minutes later it was up again, twenty metres further off, and seemed to be munching something. It’s always a privilege, seeing an otter; even the ones that don’t look like Matt Damon (honestly, look it up: it’s a thing). They’re another creature who seem to have the meaning of life sorted out—sheep always look anxious, but you never see an otter having an existential crisis—as if the moment your back is turned they’ll be round the back of the bike sheds with the other cool kids, smoking something illegal.

Meanwhile, I’ve almost finished the lower body of the gansey. When I’ve finished the current round of trees and starfish, it’ll be time to start the gussets and the diamond strip separating the body pattern from the yoke. This is the business end of the gansey, so I have to commit to a row and stitch gauge in order to work out how to fit the patterns in the horizontal and vertical planes—and then hope for the best. I’ll say more about patterns as I come to them; for now, let’s just say I wish I’d paid more attention in maths class.

And speaking of St David’s Day, I came across this bizarre fact in my extensive researches (viz., Wikipedia): “by the 18th century the custom had arisen of confectioners producing “taffies”—gingerbread figures baked in the shape of a Welshman riding a goat—on Saint David’s Day”. I mean—what? From the context it’s obviously not supposed to be complimentary; though part of me wonders if we’d dealt with the EU in the same way—a particularly pointed pastry of Michel Barnier, say—would Brexit ever have come to pass? Alas, we’ll never know. Still , we can at least console ourselves with the thought that spring will soon be here—one way or, ahem, anotter

[N.B., Margaret is off on her travels this week, which is why the photos are below our usual standard; smartphones are wonderful things, but they can’t capture the true shade of a gansey. The other photos are recycled from my phone’s library; I was going to add captions, but I think they’re pretty self-explanatory…]