On Thursday night the Northern Lights lit up the skies across eastern Britain, as if the Earth had been visited by a giant space cuttlefish that communicated in rippling bands of colour. The whole country was affected, from John O’Groats to Kent, and the internet has been lit up like a tacky 1970s disco with pictures ever since.
John o’Groats from a different angle
We nearly missed it completely, and we didn’t get to see any colours. But we did see something uniquely strange instead: a black-and-white display of shimmering flecks against the clouds. It was pretty faint, like someone shining a torch behind a distant fog bank; at times it looked as though colonies of bats had learned to fly in formation, or as if God was drawing a magnet behind the clouds, arranging the magnetic particles like iron filings.
But next time we’ll hang the expense, pay extra and get the full colour version.
The North Baths and South Head, Wick
By the way, I mentioned last week that my eyes had their annual service and MOT: apparently my dry eye condition hasn’t improved, and so now I have to spend 10 minutes every night with my head over a bowl full of boiling water, draped in a towel to catch the steam (think Lawrence of Arabia with a bad cold).
It’s a very peculiar sensation; the steam prickles my face as though it was being pawed by baby Ewoks, and it’s quite unnerving not being able to see anything under the towel. (I mean, it’s not like I seriously expect a bunch of clowns to burst in through the door behind me armed with custard pies or anything, but still…) On the other hand, it’s doing wonders for my complexion, and my face no longer looks like something a bush ranger would kill and skin and wear to keep his trousers up.
Weathervane, John o’Groats Hotel
On the gansey, I’m freewheelin’ down the sleeve like I was Bob Dylan and it was 1963 all over again. One advantage to plain knitting is that I can do it and watch tv at the same time; if I tried doing that with a pattern I’d end up with something that looked like the Book of Job in Braille. It’s always great when you start to pick up speed down a sleeve—and, of course, when you start the other sleeve, it feels like you’ve stepped on a rake.
And it’s March! Practically spring! I no longer need a torch to find my pyjamas in the morning. The cats next door have started hanging around the drive, giving me hello-big-boy looks, hoping for a scrag on the warm gravel. I even heard a lark today—though to be fair, it was more of a despairing scream than a song as the wind caught it on top of its rise and catapulted it in the direction of the North Pole. Next thing you know I’ll be ready to cut away the bearskin I stitched myself into for winter and maybe even think about having a bath…
There are many things to dread about getting old, the worst of which is probably the delusion that the rest of the world is an idiot, and that everyone from President Obama to JK Rowling could have saved themselves no end of time if only they’d thought of calling you up and asking your advice first. (I mean, it’s just a phone call, Barack; how hard can it be?)
But now I’ve found two more. Top of the list is NHS Scotland’s lifesaving policy of do-it-yourself bowel cancer testing every two years—or, as I like to think of it, for those familiar with the great game of cricket, “slip fielding for poo”. (They’ve even done a delightful little video, with a catchy song called Test Your Poo. My favourite line? “Don’t be snobby, test your jobby”—see http://thepoosong.com.)
The Lifeboat House
But glaucoma tests as part of a trip to the optician aren’t that far behind. It all starts when the optician puts the anaesthetic in your eyes; it doesn’t actually hurt, but really gums them up, like using peanut butter and honey eyedrops. (It doesn’t help either that when you wipe it afterwards the hanky comes away bright yellow, as though you were crying saffron.)
Then they test peripheral vision. This means putting your head up against a machine shaped like a pair of buttocks and staring at a pinprick of light (some people pay good money in private clubs for experiences not dissimilar to this); when other flashes of light appear at random intervals, you have to press a clicker.
Actually, they call it a test for peripheral vision, but its real purpose is obviously a Catatonic Migraine Inducer. And in this it is very successful: I was seeing random flashes of light all the way home, and on into my sleep. Next day the world was at right angles to reality. (You can get the same effect, and much cheaper, by asking a friend to slam your head in the fridge door for a quarter of an hour.)
And what of the gansey? Well, I’ve finished the collar and started on the sleeve and have just decreased the gusset out of existence, which is the knitting equivalent of paying off the mortgage. Now comes the steady haul down the sleeve, which will involve a decrease rate of two stitches every 6 rows.
Turnstones by the river
Purists, look away now: for I have a confession to make. If you look closely, you’ll notice that the centre panel on the body is a chevron; but on the sleeve it’s a purl heapy thingy. I did this deliberately, as the heapy panel was just the right size for the shoulder strap (and whatever pattern is on the shoulder ends up in the centre of the sleeve). But it does mean that the body and the sleeves won’t mirror each other exactly. Do we care? A little, perhaps. But I won’t tell if you don’t.
And now it seems as if spring is almost upon us. The snowdrops are blooming, birds are roosting in the trees, and the temperature in Wick went off the scale at 10ºC on Sunday. If it wasn’t for the wind auditioning to understudy the typhoon in The Wizard of Oz it would be positively tropical. I should go outside and enjoy it—it’s just that I’m waiting for this phone call from Barack Obama…
I’ve reached the fun part of writing my novel—the revision. This is where I go through it line by line, making sure the plot adds up, and smoothing out some of the worst bits of prose and dialogue. (Most of my books go through at least half a dozen of these revisions.)
It’s much easier deleting a thousand words when you’ve got 75,000 to play with; far harder right at the start when you only have, say, 2,000. Now I sit back and nonchalantly send wave after wave of paragraphs to annihilation, like a general in the First World War overseeing a campaign; only yesterday I had an entire chapter shot for cowardice.
It’s quite addictive, and in fact I’ve been spending so much time on it I haven’t been doing a lot of knitting this week—just enough to finish the other shoulder of the gansey and make a start on the collar. There’s a lot more knitting in this kind of shoulder strap than the usual ridge and furrow kind, and the constant flipping of the ensemble at the end of each row takes time, as if a bagpiper had to invert his pipes every six bars or so.
You can flip a coin for our weather at the moment: heads it’s horrid, tails it’s beautiful. Sunday we turned up tails, so we took a short trip down to the abandoned harbour of Latheronwheel, about 17 miles south of Wick.
The coast of Caithness is dotted with these derelict harbours, atmospheric ruins of a lost way of life, as remote now as the days before the internet. To get to Latheronwheel you turn off the main road, pass through the village (basically, a long street lined with houses) and go down a narrow road that drops away steeply to the sea.
Well, it’s lovely. I had no idea, and I’ve driven past the turning dozens of times.
The bay is partially enclosed by sheer cliffs, two piers reaching out like a crab’s pincers defining the harbour itself. In the middle of the bay is one of those stacks of rock that seem to defy the laws of physics, jutting up like a broken tooth. There’s a deep burn and an old stone bridge and a trail for hikers through the woods, and even the remains of a lighthouse high up on the cliffs.
Latheronwheel harbour was built in the 1840s, and it’s said that at one time some 50 boats fished out of it. Now it’s just day trippers like us. (While we were there two 4x4s packed with families and dogs turned up; on reflection we probably shouldn’t have laughed quite so much when one of the teens slipped on the slime of a slipway and slid knee-deep into the ocean like a slow-motion replay of a downhill skier at the Winter Olympics. It was pretty funny, though.)
It’s not as secluded and private as Whaligoe, but it is pretty amazing. Sometimes—just sometimes—I almost don’t mind that the nearest Starbucks is 100 miles away.
Almost. But not quite.
First, a public service announcement. When applying spray-on underarm deodorant, do not, and this is very important, look in the direction of the spray with your mouth open, especially if your aim is bad. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
Moving on. Having reached the stage in life that many men come to, when a visit to the barber’s doesn’t so much reveal a tonsure to rival Brother Cadfael’s as the summit of Mount Etna rising above the cloud layer, and a haircut becomes a sort of inverted shoeshine, I decided to invest in a pair of those do-it-yourself electric clippers.
Well, it’s a lot of fun, though my approach really has more to do with sheep shearing than anything you’d recognise as hairdressing. They cut quite short – 15mm is the longest setting – which leaves me looking rather intense, like someone just returned from penal servitude in Botany Bay. I find that if I’m stuck in a long queue in the Post Office all I have to do is let my eyes bulge, dribble some saliva down my chin and growl in a sort of throaty undertone and the line just melts away.
It also has the benefit that I no longer have to bother with barbers’ small talk, which in Caithness consists of the wind, holidays, rain, existential terror, the wind again and how far a hat will travel in a good easterly. (And why do hairdressers have such cold fingers?)
On the gansey, I’ve completed one of the right-angled shoulder straps and begun the other. No videos this time, sorry, because I’m still feeling my way. (I plan to do this same technique on my next gansey, though, and will hopefully do a proper video then.)
Briefly, the technique I’ve settled on goes like this. First, decrease by 25% on the final row of each shoulder, ready for the shoulder strap. This is because you knit more stitches horizontally than you do rows vertically by a ratio of about 4:3; and as you are knitting the shoulder strap at right angles to the body, if you don’t you’ll end up with too many rows relative to the body and your shoulder will ruck up like a switchback.
Now, you’ll have the two needles (back and front sides) ready, with all the shoulder stitches on them for whichever shoulder you’re knitting. Orientate them so the neckline will be the closest point to you and the armhole will be farthest away. It’s like looking down a gorge.
Cast on about 2 inches’ worth of stitches onto the left-hand needle. These stitches will form the foundation of your shoulder strap (for this pattern, I cast on 20: 18 for the pattern and 1 at each side to join to the body). Now you’re ready to get started. (And remember, you only need 2 needles to do this.)
Knit the first row of your pattern, right to left, transferring the stitches onto your right-hand needle as you go, in the usual way. When you get to the last of your cast-on stitches, knit it together with the first body stitch (they’re both on the same needle so it’s easy to knit the two together). You now have a thin line of stitches bridging the two needles like a rope ladder across a gorge – that’s your first full shoulder row.
Turn the jumper over so the underside, or reverse side, is facing you. (It’s upside down now.) Slip the stitch you just decreased onto your new right-hand needle without any further knitting (each of the end stitches are purely there to join the shoulder with the body). Knit another row of your pattern, but as a purl row this time because it’s inverted – i.e., standard front-and-back knitting. At the end, join the last shoulder stitch and the next shoulder stitch together with a purl two together decrease, as before.
Turn it right way up again. Slip the first stitch onto your right-hand needle. Knit a regular knit row. At the end, decrease/join another two stitches. Turn it over. Slip the first stitch. Knit a purl row. Decrease/join another two stitches, turn it right way up again. And, as they say, so on.
As ever, it’s easier to do than to describe. Which you’d have to say, is lucky for all of us…
And all of a sudden it’s February, and we’re one-twelfth of the way through 2014, the days are getting longer and next Christmas no longer seems quite so far away.
It’s been a wet and windy, dreary winter, with January hanging on a week too long. Even the seagulls down by the harbour have stopped hassling passers-by for scraps, but just wearily stick out a webbed foot at you as you go by like a Edinburgh beggar with a tin cup, and looking for smaller birds to mug.
And then, on Saturday, the sun came out, which was something of a shock—for a minute I thought the bedroom was on fire. So we went up to John O’Groats.
As we drove up the coast road we went through a phenomenon new to me. It looked like a great cloud of smoke, or low cloud, but turned out to be sea spray blown in by the strong east wind coming in off the ocean, so that for a time the air and water seemed equally filled with salt. If only I’d had some chips and vinegar.
It was high tide at John O’Groats, and the waves were churned to a heavy swell, so that there was a good chance that in future the place might end up twinned with Atlantis. The waves poured over the harbour walls and drenched the place so that the women who runs the “most northerly gift shop in the UK” at times seemed to be peering through the window of a submersible in a car wash.
When we got back we took a detour to see what Wick Bay looked like. The police had closed off the North Shore road to traffic—what with it being underwater and all—so we drove up onto cliffs on the south. Well, it was humbling. Wave after wave was rolling in, blown by the wind, filling the width of the bay, crashing over the harbour walls and drenching the lighthouse. The scale looked all wrong, like a model, tiny structures dwarfed by towering breakers.
Down in the inner harbour there are a series of vents that run along the quayside. Now they were putting on their own show, as the waves smashed into the quay, disappeared underneath it and then shot out of the vents like a poor man’s version of the Las Vegas hotel fountains. It was as if a dozen whales had been lured under the quay and then trained to spout in turn, a new sport of synchronised spouting.
I’m still hanging in there with the gansey, doing about 45 minutes each night, or three rows. Which shows how things can mount up even if you’re not in the mood, as I’m just about to divide for the neck. If I’m lucky, and not washed away (“all that we found was this circular needle”) I should finish the front this week, and maybe even join a shoulder or two.
And it’s February. The sun has shone once—it may even do so again. I’ve been sending out a dove every week since winter began. Last night it returned with an olive leaf in its beak. (Today it hasn’t come back—I think the gulls have got him…)
Saturday surf at JoG
Surf’s up . . . and over
Synchronised spouting in Wick
. . . and Sunday’s surf at JoG. Move over Bellagio