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Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 7 – 11 November

Now that summer is past and autumn is passing, Caithness, like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, has fallen not into the melting, but rather into the freezing mood. It has been bitterly cold, temperatures 0º-5ºc, and while other parts of the kingdom have been horribly submerged in rain, Caithness has been afflicted with showers of sleet and hail, the sort of Biblical plagues that Egypt might have had if it was on the same latitude as Vladivostok. One feels that locusts and boils can’t be far away. (The plague of darkness lasting three days we’ve already got, only ours lasts six months). The east wind is raw and unforgiving, and you can’t pass a tree without hearing a rook cough pathetically before expiring of cold; collected each morning by the street sweepers, along with all the other fallen leaves.

Rainbow near Noss Head, from Reiss

What with us being in this mini-Ice Age, the hills of Caithness that ring the far horizon are already capped with snow. This always puts me in mind of the traditional folk song, The Weaver and the Factory Maid: “O pleasant thoughts come to my mind/ As I turn down the sheets so fine/ And I see her two breasts standing so/ Like two white hills all covered with snow.” Looking across at the jagged crests and peaks of distant Morven and Scaraben, I can’t help suspecting that the weaver is in for something of a shock come his wedding night. (The moral in the story being, of course, never put your trust in folk songs; or so at least my old friends Black Jack Davey and Long Lankin always tell me…)

Sunset by the river

One advantage to knitting a gansey, especially when you’ve reached the sleeves, is that you have in effect a blanket to insulate you as you knit, thus staving off hypothermia for a few more hours. The first sleeve is finished, and we’re onto the second: just another couple of weeks to go. One curiosity is that this particular batch of Frangipani yarn is knitting up thicker than usual, which means that I’m getting fewer rows per inch than I usually expect (10 instead of the usual 11). Whatever the reason, and it could be me, I’m glad I’d decided to aim for a narrower cuff this time; since (with the chunkier gauge) it has luckily ended up roughly the same width as usual.

Finally this week, one advantage of the cold weather is that we had a beautiful starry, starry night for the Wick fireworks display and funfair, which always happen the Saturday after Bonfire Night and, perhaps incongruously, before Remembrance Sunday. I’m always struck on these occasions by how loud the big fireworks are when you see them live, how you feel as though you’ve been punched lightly in the chest when one goes off. And I remember that there were 653 cannon on the field at Gettysburg; that 1.5 million artillery shells were fired in the run-up to the Battle of the Somme; that 900 British guns at El Alamein fired up to 600 rounds each in the initial bombardment; and I feel incredibly lucky to be alive today, watching a firework exploding harmlessly in the air in a shower of bright sparks, simply for my entertainment.

Lest we forget.

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 6 – 4 November

And so November is upon us, gales and rain slamming into the British Isles like a Springbok forward crashing into an England flanker (oh, sorry England rugby union fans: too soon?). Let us therefore instead turn our attention to one of the highlights of the year. I allude not to Bonfire Night, nor even to Thanksgiving; neither the Black Friday Sales, nor the terminal awkwardness of socialising with one’s work colleagues at the office Christmas party. No, I refer to the annual Diagram Prize for the Oddest Book Title of the Year.

Riverside trees

Past winners have of course included the wonderful Reusing Old Graves (1995), and Living With Crazy Buttocks (2002), titles strangely absent from the Wick town library. Perhaps the definitive example would be Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers (1996), while my own second favourite is How To Avoid Huge Ships (1992), something I now manage to achieve almost daily. (Some titles I discount as they’re obviously trying too hard, leering as they nudge you rather obviously in the ribs; such as Noah Gets Naked (2019), Nipples On My Knee (2017), about sheep farming, or especially—ahem—Love Your Lady Garden.) No, I prefer my odd titles straight. Highlights this year include How To Drink Without Drinking, and Ending The War On Artisan Cheese, which quite frankly can’t happen soon enough: so many needless deaths.

Dunnet Beach on a grey day

Meanwhile in gansey news, I’ve been making progress down the first (left) sleeve. I’ve finished the pattern of the upper arm, and am now freewheeling down the plain knitting in the direction of the cuff. Now I’m past the gusset I’m decreasing at a rate of 2 stitches every 5th row, and keeping my fingers crossed that it works out. Another week’s work and it’s onto sleeve two.

A walk by the river

The Diagram Prize was famously started in 1978 when publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair spotted Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice; needless to say it won the inaugural prize. Call me a sentimentalist if you will, but at a time when humanity isn’t exactly showing itself to its best advantage I take an obscure pride in belonging to a species that can come up with something like that. There are books I feel I don’t have to read, the titles are enough: such as Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (2009), People Who Don’t Know They’re Dead (2005), and The Stray Shopping Carts of Eastern North America: A Guide to Field Identification (2006). Oh, and my favourite title of all? Drum roll, maestro, please, and let’s hear it for: The Big Book of Lesbian Horse Stories (2000)… 

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 5 – 28 October

The clocks went back last night. Now, I don’t mean to complain—not that I’m going to let that stop me—but summer time is like getting state administered jet lag twice a year. You’d think a lie-in would be a bonus every autumn, but in reality it wipes me out. I feel as though the goblin that lives under my bed used the extra hour to hit me repeatedly over the head with a shovel, leaving me with one of those headaches that sends a lance of pain through my temple every time my heart beats. At times like these doctors have no need to hold my wrist to take my pulse, they just sit back and count the number of times a minute I grimace.

Double exposure of a distant view of St Fergus, and the riverside path St Fergus’ from a distance

I’m no stranger to aches and pains, of course. I have a sort of sciatica that flares up every year or so; at such times my attempts to rise from a sitting posture have all the grace of a gooney bird attempting takeoff after a few too many gin and tonics. Simple daily activities become surprisingly difficult when you need one hand to hold yourself upright. About 20 years ago I attended a convention hosted by our then software supplier, quite a formal affair, like those ambassador’s ball TV adverts where butlers hand round ziggurats of cheap chocolates on silver trays. I ran into an old acquaintance there, and as I was obviously in some discomfort from my back he naturally quizzed me about it. “So, what’s the worst thing?” he asked. Just as I opened my mouth to answer, the room, which had been loud with chatter, experienced one of those weird moments when everyone falls silent at the same moment. Into that silence I cheerfully bellowed, our voices having been raised against the din, “Honestly? Wiping my arse!” Well. Imagine flights of birds scattering in alarm, monocles dropping, and shock waves like those following the destruction of the Death Star. There was no way back from that: to avoid disgrace I was offered a stark choice between a decanter of whisky and loaded revolver, or missionary work in the colonies.

A stream cuts through the sand at Reiss Beach

But enough of how I came to live in Wick. In gansey news, I am once more entering the endgame. I’ve finished the shoulders, joined them, and knit the collar (you can see the gently indented neckline, which is the delayed punchline to last week’s tortuous explanation). I’ve started the first sleeve, the pattern of which will extend for five or six flags before switching to plain knitting to the cuff. This is always the point where the hard work pays off and it starts to look like a gansey; another month should see it finished.

Reflection and raindrops at the harbour

Finally this week, a historical curiosity. I was reading a book on Winston Churchill’s visit to Washington in December 1941 to meet with President Roosevelt, and to discuss strategy in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack two weeks earlier. On Christmas Day, Roosevelt took Churchill to a Methodist church service (“I like to sing hymns with the Methodys” as he disarmingly put it). And it was there that Churchill heard the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem for the first time. Now, that carol’s been such an integral part of Christmas all my life, the thought that a British Prime Minister in 1941 had never even heard it is something of a stunner. I assumed at first that Churchill hadn’t known the tune – it was written in c.1868 in Philadelphia, but was published with a different melody in the U.K. But no, apparently it was all new to him. The waters of tradition are often shallower than we might think.

Oh, and speaking of Churchill, when asked on the visit about his attitude to religion, he rather wonderfully replied that he was “like a flying buttress: he supported the church from the outside…”

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 4 – 21 October

Last Friday it rained; and when I say it rained, I mean it rained. The heavens opened as if the clouds were vast, black rubber sheets filled with millions of gallons of water and, as if on a signal, God had simply let go one end and the whole lot just spilled out. It felt like He’d got bored the last time he tried this, having to wait 40 days and 40 nights to obliterate the unrighteous, and decided this time to get it over in a morning. Returning to work after lunch, sitting in my car listening to the raindrops drumming on the roof, watching an inland lake spread where the car park used to be, and aware that I had an uncomfortable five hundred yard dash to reach the safety of the front door, I felt a bit like Frodo on the foothills of a watery Mount Doom, the hardest part of my quest still before me.

Well, like Frodo, I hobbitted-up, and went for it; and got duly soaked. Sock-squelchingly soaked, my every step thereafter making a weech-weech noise as water seeped up out of my shoes. I spent the afternoon enveloped in a miasma of musty steam as my clothes slowly dried; and the sensation of donning my flat cap at the end of the day to discover it was still sopping wet, but now also very cold, like being clutched in the amorous embrace of a desperately lonely octopus, still haunts my dreams, usually around four o’clock in the morning.

Bass Rock from North Berwick

Two days on, the rains have abated and the land has absorbed the surplus water like a sponge. At least when we leave the EU and can no longer twin with exotic foreign towns, Caithness can always twin with somewhere closer to home: such as the Grimpen Mire.

Berwick Law

In gansey news I haven’t quite finished the front, but I’ve divided for the shaped neckline, and have finished the first shoulder. I’m not sorry about this, as this at least gives me a chance to share how I go about it. So, with my normal row gauge I tend to start the neckline on the front with about 24 rows still to go. I adopt quite a severe rate of decrease, which I find works well, of one stitch every second row. So at this rate, 24 rows equals 12 decreases. Now, there are 187 stitches across the front of this gansey (same as the back, of course). When I divided the back for the shoulders, this gave me 62 stitches for each shoulder and 63 for the neck. To end up with the right number of stitches on each shoulder I have to take 12 stitches each from the centre neck needle and add them to the shoulder needles: this gives me a division of 74 – 39 – 74 stitches. (By decreasing every other row for 24 rows I end up with 62 stitches for each shoulder.) There’s a few more stitches to pick up around the neck afterwards by shaping the collar like this, and I know it’s not traditional, but it’s worth it for me i.e., it makes for a nicely rounded shape that doesn’t squeeze my Adam’s apple.

Circus Lane, Edinburgh

Finally this week, Elton John has an autobiography out. I doubt I’ll ever read it, though there’s a brilliant review in the Guardian which makes it sound awfully tempting. I came to love his songs in the seventies, when he was just a singer-songwriter (before he became “Elton John”), and indeed the first single I ever bought as an adult—assuming Puff the Magic Dragon doesn’t count—was Someone Saved My Life Tonight. (In retrospect, a song about a failed suicide attempt may have some significance for my biographers.) Anyway, that review made me laugh out loud, not least for this anecdote from the book, which is just the perfect Yoko Ono story. Elton once asked Yoko what happened to a herd of cattle she and John Lennon had bought: “Yoko shrugged and said, ‘Oh, I got rid of them. All that mooing.'”

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 3 – 14 October

On Sunday, the sun shone—actually, you know what, this has been such a rare occurrence lately that we should all probably just stop here a minute while we take this in—anyway, as I was saying, the sun shone and so, like the opposite of those Saharan flowers that bloom for an hour once every few years when it rains, we dusted off our shades and got in the car and headed off to Latheronwheel. It would have been rude not to.

Latheronwheel Harbour, looking northeast

I’ve mentioned Latheronwheel before: it’s one of those beautiful abandoned harbours on the east Caithness coast, about half an hour’s drive south of Wick, a relic of the herring fishing boom of c.1830-c.1930. You turn off the main road and drive through the village before taking a narrow road road that zigzags down to the harbour itself. It was a still day, just a light sea breeze (the Caithness wind machine having been turned down from “jet engine test facility” to “motorway service station rest stop hand dryer”, it was not unlike being breathed on by an asthmatic sheep who’d recently been eating seaweed). We crossed the burn by the beautiful old stone bridge and climbed up to the top of the south cliffs. Here the ruins of a small stone lighthouse give you a superb view of the entire harbour, as well as, on this occasion, the snout of an inquisitive seal bobbing in the swell like a buoy. We walked along the clifftop path for a spell, the sea a flat calm below us, as though it had been painted on, until we reached the place where the edge of the cliff is only a short metre or so away from the path. My rule on whether to follow a path is quite simple: if an incautious sneeze could send me plunging to my death, on the whole I prefer not to. So we turned back, honour satisfied, the shades safely back in storage until next spring.

Rook on a fence

This week in Parish Notices: speaking of zigzag tracks and cliffs, Judit has done it again. It’s another very effective yet simple design, single line zigzags also known as waves, and the lighter coloured yarn shows it off to perfection. The pattern comes from Rae Compton’s book, page 83, and it’s a pattern that features in Scotland and Northumberland. The book notes that this pattern “is called the multitude on the Northumberland coast, but more commonly known in a two-line version which is called marriage lines, and a single line which is likened to cliff paths, or else the plunging value of the pound since Britain voted for Brexit in 2016”. Warmest congratulations once more to Judit!

Finally this week I’d like to share a couple of quotes with you. One’s by Woody Allen, and its obvious absurdity sums up our situation as a species and a nation better than anything else I’ve read: “”More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” (I use this a lot in work presentations and then wonder why other people get promoted.)

I like this other quote because it reminds us that perspective is everything; and because I’d like it to be true. It’s by the celebrated historian of the twentieth century, AJP Taylor: “When, and if, the grubby history of the twentieth century is remembered in five thousand years it will be for one man and one man only, and his name is Armstrong. Well, perhaps two, and they are both named Armstrong.”