Welcome back to another trip, not so much down memory lane as paragliding off the cliffs of senility; memory off-roading, if you will.
Riffling through the rolodex of memory we find Lowestoft, where I had my first job as an archivist. Lowestoft is an east coast fishing port fallen on hard times, and even when we lived there it was broadly shabby-genteel, only without the genteel part. But I loved it, much as I love Wick, for the gansey-wearing ghosts; and for the days when I would walk to work along the beach and see the sunrise far beyond the horizon and the boats dwarfed to insignificance by the flat perspective.
Well, one day we learned that a collection of rate books dating back to c.1900 had been stored in a disused gaol in the town, and so we went to have a look.
The cells had been abandoned for over a decade and the dirty old volumes were piled up any old how—huge great things, the sort of books Bilbo Baggins wrote his laundry lists in. We only had enough room in the archive to take a sample, one book for every five years, so we had to open each one to find out the date.
Now, this was back in the 1980s, before health and safety had been invented, so we wore no gloves, no overalls and no facemasks. I picked up a volume that had been resting on the toilet, and made the mistake of glancing in the bowl—and you know those nature documentaries that take you down a mole-rat’s burrow? This was worse, and apparently hadn’t been cleaned since Gladstone learned to shave.
Supporting the book with one hand, I opened it with the other. And as I did so I realised too late that edges were covered with a furry sort of mustard-coloured mould; and that strands of the mould were extending even as I pulled the covers open, stretching like elastic until they suddenly snapped and I was enveloped in a cloud of spores, like a sneeze in a talcum powder factory.
The dust settled in my hair, on my glasses, on my jumper. I tried to hold my breath but my timing was wrong and all at once I had to take a great gulp of air, sucking in millions of spores like a vacuum cleaner. I could taste it in my mouth, a sharp, bitter taste, like rancid sourdough yeast.
I had an urge to go and shave my tongue, but I can’t remember suffering any ill effects afterwards—though, come to think of it, I suspect the reason I get so many colds these days is because I used up all my antibodies in one go…
The front of the gansey is now complete, and I’ve started on the back. I won’t quite get the body finished next week, but almost; and I’m finally settling into the pattern so that I don’t have to look at the chart every row. I must admit, I’m getting curious to see how it turns out.
And finally this week, in parish notices Judit of the Busy Needles has completed a v-necked sleeveless jumper, or slipover, with the traditional tree motif up the centre and the rest of the body plain—a very elegant pattern. (I have to admit that, living in the far north of Scotland, a jumper without sleeves seems to me reckless to the point of madness and an invitation to hypothermia; but apparently they organise these things better in Finland…)
Someone asked me this week about my worst experiences in archives during my 30 years or so in the profession; and I didn’t have to think very hard before coming up with a short list of about 100 instances. Maybe more.
Of course, an honourable mention goes to that ceilidh I attended at the end of one discouraging Society of Archivists’ conference in the 1990s. The whole thing was like a scene from one of Bosch’s visions of hell—discarded cardigans, naked bodies, demons and flames and pitchforks—only much worse, because this involved archivists and folk music. (Even now, when a stranger sees me drinking alone in a bar and asks me what’s the matter, I can only stare into space and whisper brokenly, You weren’t there, man; you weren’t there.)
Then there was the time I was examining a dirty, mould-encrusted 18th century ledger and looked down to see my hand completely black with filth, all of it except for the shiny pink tip of my index finger, and I realised I’d been unconsciously licking it as I turned the pages. When I looked in the mirror my tongue was liquorice black.
Moon above St Peter’s Church, Wick
Detail of side pattern
But perhaps pride of place belongs to the time I was cataloguing coroner’s records in Wales. The papers had got all mixed up in the trunk of the coroner’s car, and I was sorting them into order. There was this small envelope, and something in it clinked when I picked it up. I tipped the contents into my palm and realised too late that they were two blood-covered bullets—you see, one day in the 1930s a man had come home and found his wife in bed with another man, and had shot them both. I was holding the actual bullets in my hand. In a sense I’m holding them still.
With Margaret being away my evenings are no longer devoted to reciting modernist verse or eurhythmic dancing, so I’ve been progressing the gansey along nicely. I’m about 2/3 of the way up the back, and should finish it this week. I’m glad to say that the central panel is starting to make sense—it’s one of those patterns that you really need to see large.
One thing, though— the anchor’s diagonal rope is asymmetrical, which means that I have to be careful when I read the pattern to count from the left, or the right, depending on whether I’m knitting the row from the front or the back. This requires a level of concentration that does not, you will not be surprised to learn, come naturally to me.
Some other rainy Sunday I’ll drunkenly stagger down memory lane with more Tales From The Strong Room—such as the time I was stranded in the basement of Lowestoft library in a power cut the night before the hurricane of 1987; being called out by the police on New Year’s Eve when the security alarm went off; and of course who could forget the case of the Abandoned Police Cell Toilet?
Ice on Wick River
But for now I’m going to play my CD of archivists’ folk songs and get drunk to such timeless classics as, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Archivist, Thomas The Cataloguer, All Around My Pencil and (my favourite) I’ll Go And List For A Records Manager.
Some archivists have all the luck: I see a hitherto-unknown copy of Magna Carta dating from 1300 has been found in Kent archives and the media have gone wild. Meanwhile, by way of contrast, I’ve been cataloguing planning applications from the 1930s; and you can bet the BBC isn’t going to turn up to film that anytime soon—unless the king decided to build a garage at Runymede or add an en-suite bathroom to a bijou dungeonette.
Noss Head Light from Keiss beach
Still, now that we’ve outsourced our winter to America we had a first, tentative glimpse of spring last week—blue skies, temperatures above freezing, and England being humiliated at cricket; but now it’s back to business as usual, with arctic winds gusting up to 60mph.
We went to look at the ocean, and the wind was so strong at one point it was like being in the Dead Sea; I could lean back and let the force of the wind hold me up (unless a troupe of kindly sheep acrobats had snuck up behind me and formed an ovine pyramid without me noticing—always a risk up here). The wind blew spray from the waves inland, coating us with salt, so that our faces crackled when we smiled. I think if we’d stood there another ten minutes it would have moulded a perfect saline mask of our faces.
As promised, here are the pattern charts for the Wick gansey, which I found in Michael Pearson’s Fisher Gansey Patterns of Scotland and the Scottish Fishing Fleet.
It’s a very busy pattern, heavily textured, and I think it’s one of those that won’t become entirely clear until the gansey is finished and washed and blocked; till then it looks disconcertingly like I’m knitting a navy blue species of pearl coral. Mind you, because I’m knitting this as an example, I don’t have to worry about shaping a neckline and will make this one the traditional way, front and back exactly the same.
Thanks to everyone last week for your suggestions for using leftover yarn. Once again, Judit has come up trumps with her suggestions and we’ve posted some of her photos which can be seen on her gallery page (which also includes a new image of her last gansey).
Finally, a word of warning: Margaret’s worked out how to remove her electronic tag and is escaping to London and Edinburgh for a week, so next time I’ll be flying solo and formatting the blog myself. The only problem is, WordPress has been upgraded—and I haven’t…
There’s an inlet just south of Wick on the old maps with the wonderful name of Dog’s Haven. Legend has it the place got its name when a ship was wrecked there ages back—all the crew were lost, but the dog alone survived.
I was trying to think what this reminded me of, and then it struck me—when Dracula reached England he came by ship, to Whitby. In the story the ship ran aground, all the crew were dead, the captain’s body lashed to the helm, and a great dog (i.e., Dracula) sprang ashore and disappeared towards the ruined abbey.
And just for a moment I wondered… Suppose there had been another vampire on a second vessel, one who was hard of hearing, and who’d misheard Whitby as Wick. I like to imagine this vampire—Eric, I think his name was—stranded, wandering disconsolately round Caithness, doing odd jobs, unable to fly south to rejoin Dracula in bat form because of the winds.
He tried his hand at the fishing but kept getting sacked when they found he could only kill herring one at a time (and then they came back to life, vampire herring escaping the barrels by dead of night to go and bite other fish). In the end he married a local girl and settled down, but perished on the morning after his wedding when she innocently flung open the curtains to let the sun in and he crumbled to dust.
Meanwhile on the gansey I’ve started the yoke pattern and the gussets, always a red-letter day. (I’ll post the pattern next week when I’m a little further on, so you can compare the theory with the practice.)
Half the shawl. Photographing the whole thing means getting the stepladder out.
I had to re-do a couple of rows when I discovered I’d miscalculated the number of stitches I needed (something that happens more often than my biographers let on). But here’s the strange thing: I only found out in the second pattern row. Somehow I’d made two separate mistakes on the first row, each of which made it seem as though I’d the requisite number of stitches by the half-row end, so I never noticed.
Margaret’s been busy too, finishing another of her lacy-shawly things, the kind of garment I imagine an elf superhero would wear for a cape while keeping the branches of Lothlorien safe for decent people to walk (“down these mean twigs an elf must go…”).
Julie’s been in touch to ask what I do with my leftover gansey yarn stash (mittens, scarves, etc.). I’ve mentioned before that I’m saving mine up till I have enough to knit a multi-coloured gansey, the kind of thing a clown fisherman might wear. I know Judit’s knitted some dashing cellphone covers; but what do you use yours for? Any examples, ideas, please let us know.
Finally this week, Jan and Russ of Frangipani have sent me samples of two new colours in their already impressive range, both shades of grey, viz. pewter and cinder. Grey is my favourite colour (it matches my hair), and I’m particularly taken with the lighter shade, pewter: it has the same sort of sheen I associate with some of the old Scots ganseys, and I think I know just the pattern for it…
Like most people I remember very few of my dreams, waking with little more than a vague sense of disquiet and unable to put my finger on exactly why. But sometimes the dream is so vivid I’m jerked out of sleep breathless and shocked and sweating, like the time I decided to change a light fitting without turning off the electricity first. It’s so realistic that for a time I think it actually happened.
Well, I had a dream like that a couple of months ago, and the impression it made on me hasn’t faded yet, it was so bizarre and disturbing; and as there’s nothing so tedious as someone recounting their dreams to you, er, I thought I’d share it with you.
I’m running through a forest, somewhere in Indonesia or Malaysia, and there are two or three of us, chased by small vicious creatures that move like ferrets or weasels, but larger, about the size of small dogs, with ferocious teeth. We can’t permanently kill them, because every time we do a sort of flickering light plays over them, and they flop about like landed fish and then come back to life—but smaller, shrunk to the size of mice or rats. They jump up and immediately start chasing us again, steadily growing in size as they run.
Looking towards Norway
One of them, still just rat-sized, is closing in on us. I turn and prepare to sacrifice myself to buy the others time, knowing I won’t be able to stop it. I’m terrified, knowing I’m about to die. The others keep running and I hear the sound of them grow fainter. The creature is a small, black shape in the undergrowth, closing impossibly fast for its size. I stoop and pick up a sharp piece of rock.
As I straighten the rat-sized thing springs, it’s a just a black blur launching itself at me. I turn away instinctively and feel it hit my upper right arm. But its teeth are caught in the folds of my shirt; it missed the skin and I can feel it thrashing on my arm as it tries to free itself. There is a shallow puddle nearby, filled with muddy brown water perhaps an inch deep. I throw myself down and roll over so that the creature is pinned beneath my arm, and I try to drown it in the puddle: even if the creature won’t stay dead, it will buy me valuable seconds to escape while it comes back to life.
It struggles frantically, and I can feel it getting larger. I can’t see it, it’s out of my line of vision. I realise there isn’t enough water in the puddle to drown it. A few yards away there is another, deeper puddle. I’m going to have to get up and make a dash to the other puddle if I want to drown the creature—it’s my only chance. But I know that as soon as I get up it will be freed and will go for my throat, and I don’t think I’ll be quick enough.
Coghill Bridge and St Fergus’
I’m screwing my courage up to go for it, and the creature is flailing beneath me—and I wake up.
Back in the real world, the gansey continues to grow on my needles. It’s just under a foot in length, and it’s going to be about 26 inches from cast-on to shoulder, so in another inch or so I’m going to start the pattern.
Two pieces of parish news to end with. First of all, Judit has been busy, knitting another of her splendid “ganslings”, a banded blue gansey that shows once again that you don’t need cables to create a stunning effect. Warmest congratulations, as ever, to her.
Secondly, I hear from Michael Pearson that his book Traditional Knitting is expected to be republished by Dover books in March, in a revised and expanded edition. It’s been a long wait, but hopefully we’re near the end. Such a great book should never be out of print, I think.
So there we are. All that remains is for me to wish you all happy knitting—and, of course, sweet dreams…