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Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 7 – 13 January

Right, deep breath: it’s confession time. Here we go. Ready? All right: we treated ourselves to a robot vacuum cleaner in the New Year sales, one of those black discs that randomly trundles across your carpets, hoovering. There, I feel better already. And let’s be honest, anything that can turn vacuuming into a spectator sport has to be a good thing.

It takes a bit of getting used to: it’s quite big, with brushes that behave disconcertingly like feelers, so it’s not unlike having a robot trilobite patrolling your carpets searching for prey. It has sensors that stop it banging into chairs or tumbling down stairs. It seems to have a grudge against net curtains and trailing wires, though, and tries to hoover them up, leaving it gorged and choked and paralysed, like the last time I tried to eat a whole naan bread at an Indian restaurant. It beeps when in distress, and it’s rather touching to watch it limp brokenly back to its charging base when low on power, like a student crawling home to bed after a particularly rough night.

Rising Moon

It’s surprisingly quiet, though I’m starting to worry that not only is it smarter than I am—I don’t have sensors that stop me walking into table legs or falling down stairs—but that all the vacuuming is a blind while it secretly cases the house for hidden jewels, or failing that, loose change. (On the plus side, our house has never been cleaner; on the downside, we just received an unexpected Amazon delivery of bags with “swag” embroidered on the sides; honestly, this could go either way.) Now we just need one with a built in jetpack so it can take care of all the dusting and change the duvet cover. Hmm. Every day I learn a little more about myself. A few years ago, faced with a robot enslavement of humanity I’d definitely have joined the resistance; now I think, vacuuming you say? Dusting you say? Let’s talk.

Sunset on the river

In gansey news I still have my cold, so I still haven’t really made the progress I’d have liked to. I’m definitely miles better, unrecognisable from the horizontal me of New Year’s Eve, but it’s still been a bit of a slog. It’s easy to make mistakes when most of your energy is devoted to closing your mouth instead of letting it hang open like the exit ramp of a landing craft; so unpicking and redoing has been rather a thing lately. All the same, I’m halfway up the front and expect to join the shoulders sometime this week. I will post the charts soon, I promise: it’s just that my vacuum cleaner says it now wants weekends off plus sick pay, and I’ve got a meeting with its union rep at three.

Finally, it’s very easy these days to take a gloomy view of my country for reasons that hardly need to be stated. However, Manchester Council recently held a competition to name the council’s new fleet of winter road salt spreaders. The best names (as reported on national news)? Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, Snowbi-Gone Kenobi, and the fantastic—are you ready?—Gritter Thunberg. You know, I think there may be hope for us yet…

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 6 – 6 January

It’s Twelfth Night, so I guess Christmas is officially over for another year. Christmas traditionally ends with the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the visit of “we three kings of orient are” to the Nativity; my own personal moment of epiphany comes from the realisation that the sun will rise here at 8.59am on Monday, the first time in over a fortnight that it’s risen before 9.00am. (Time to nip to the chemist’s for some sun cream, then.)

Riverside at Dusk

But alas, within a day of returning home after our travels I came down with a cold which has afflicted me all week: it’s just a cold, not flu, but a bad one all the same. It’s knocked me sideways, and there are times when even holding a knitting needle feels like too much effort. I read once that we all produce about a pint and a half of mucus every day, which we just swallow without noticing. Well, I seem to be producing about a gallon and, trust me, I notice. The best way to visualise my handkerchiefs after use would be to round up about twenty garden slugs and pop them in a blender, and—OK, OK, you get the idea, I’ll stop there. My only consolation is that I’m probably immune to vampires while it lasts, as mucus is so much part of my constitution I bet it’s gradually displacing my blood.

All this means I haven’t done as much knitting as I’d hoped this week, though the back is almost complete. But I have, ahahaha, somewhat miscalculated the number of rows I’ll need to get an even distribution of patterns. My initial plan of three bands (two zigzags and a herringbone) has left me about an inch short of the shoulder. I’d like to be able to blame this on the cold, but no: it’s just a combination of stupidity, poor maths and a sort of breezy insouciance that everything would work out in the end. (Which it will, of course: it’s really very hard to irretrievably screw up a gansey.) I should be able to fix it by adding another herringbone and turning it into the shoulder straps: viz., half a herringbone on the back and half on the front with the cast-off row and a bit of rig’ and fur’ as the centre of the pattern. If it works I can pretend it was a deliberate strategy all along and no one will ever be able to tell. (So long as no one ever reads this. What? Oh.)

Five of the ganseys on display in the Wick Heritage Museum’s Fishing Hall

By the way, I donated eight of my completed ganseys to Wick Museum before Christmas, including the ones replicating those in old photographs from the Johnston Collection. The Museum had an open day on 2 January (a public holiday in Scotland, on the sensible principle that everyone will be too hungover from celebrating Hogmanay to be expected to work) and they were kind enough to make a feature of the ganseys. You can read more about the day here, including the ganseys, along with all the other fun things they organised to welcome in the New Year.

Meanwhile we wish all our readers a very happy 2020, and remember: there’s only 354 sleeps to Christmas…

Apologies for the delay in posting; there were technical problems over which we had no control.

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 5 – 30 December

And so that’s Christmas over for another year; all that remains is to put the wrapping paper in the recycling, plan next year’s vendettas on the basis of who didn’t send us a Christmas card, and wonder where another year has gone. As I get older I’m coming to the realisation that Christmas is a pretty good metaphor for my life, in that every morning is like waking up to discover the batteries weren’t included and all the shops are closed.

We spent Christmas in Northamptonshire, where the weather was unseasonably warm and wet. The land had clearly absorbed as much rain as it could hold: the fields were saturated, and a number of rivers overflowed, turning low-lying roads into impassable, muddy pools. Country walks became grim slogs through mud, and the evenings were spent looking up synonyms for “clag” in the dictionary. On the plus side, there was an hour and half’s extra daylight compared with Caithness; a fire blazing in the hearth on demand; and Christmas seeing family and friends. What’s not to like?

I didn’t spend as much time knitting as I’d expected, largely because I seemed to lapse into a sort of coma in my downtime, but I’ve still made progress and am about to divide for front and back. The original of this gansey was evidently knit on narrower needles than mine, and with yarn of a finer gauge than this particular lot of Wendy’s, which resembles the sort of rope used to rig a man o’ war in Nelson’s navy. We’ll see how it works out, but the plan is for the yoke to consist of three pattern bands (two zigzags either side of a herringbone), of which the first band is almost complete. (I’ll hopefully post pattern charts next week, once the jet lag wears off.)

Christmas by the Canal

Fire in the Inglenook

One memorable evening last week my brother took us for a drive to look at the Christmas lights in some nearby towns (Daventry, Towcester and Brackley). The civic illuminations were really rather lovely, but it was also fun to drive through some of the backstreets and estates. Most people hadn’t gone overboard on their houses, but suddenly one would flash vividly out of the darkness, as tasteful as a Las Vegas casino offering Santa stripteases. We felt like deep-sea divers encountering new and exotic forms of life, dancing with bioluminescence, and it was all rather wonderful.

Next stop: New Year, or possibly Hogmanay. However you choose to welcome in 2020, may your year be joyful and full of good things, always remembering to be, in the words of the Ghost of Christmas Present, most excellent to each other.

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 4 – 23 December

It’s almost Christmas, which means it’s time for the now-traditional Gansey Nation Christmas singalong:

Rudolph the blue-cheeked reindeer
Had icicles upon his nose,
So bad was his circulation
He could no longer feel his toes.

All of the other reindeer
Bought him thermal underwear,
But none of it made any difference,
He was frozen everywhere.

Then he knit himself a gansey,
And suddenly was warm as toast,
Though it was hard to hold the needles
With his best hoof uppermost.

Trees Reflecting at Delapre Abbey, Northampton

All of the other reindeer
Made fun of him behind his back,
And said if he wasn’t careful
Santa would give him the sack.

They said it looked too tricky,
But Rudolf laughed into the night,
He said, the yoke is easy,
And as for the burden, it’s light.

Then one frosty Christmas Eve,
Santa came to plead,
“Rudolf with your gansey grey
Won’t you pull my sled today?

“All of the other reindeer
Are frozen solid in the snow,
I’ve tried oxyacetyline,
But nothing seems to make them go.”

Inside the Christmas Tree, Southport

So Rudolf went with Santa
And off they soared into the sky
And Rudolf was warm and toasty,
For all that they flew so high.

They delivered all the presents,
And shared the sherry in the sled,
Till Rudolf got so tipsy,
Even his nose was red.

All of the other reindeer
Were sorry then and had the blues,
But none was as sorry as Dancer
‘Cos Rudolf threw up on his shoes.

Now all the reindeer are knitting,
And a gansey’s what everyone wears,
While Rudolf’s hungover and grumpy
But Christmas was saved, so who cares!

A merry Christmas to all our readers from Margaret and Gordon. Let’s do it all again next year!

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 3 – 16 December

“The greatest luxury I know,” Eleanor Roosevelt said once, “is sitting up reading in bed.” I couldn’t agree more, though I’d add that it’s even more luxurious to sit there snugly, warm as toast, while outside the blizzard rages. With that in mind, and because this blog is being written ahead of time as we head south for an extended Christmas break, I’d like to change the format this week and share with you ten of my favourite books set in the bleak midwinter. Every year I take down one or more from the shelves, and I’m transported back to a Christmas some 40-odd years ago, when I was nobbut a bairn: when the fields were white, the skies were dark and heavy with snow, rooks nested in the bare branches and I was safe indoors, a log fire blazing in the inglenook; and I read on oblivious while the wind rattled the doors, darkness fell and fractals of ice frosted over the windows, and somewhere in the distance a wolf began to howl…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight*. A classic medieval poem that’s very readable in a modern translation. It’s Christmas at King Arthur’s court, and the decadent knights in white satin sit around carousing instead of knightly knighting. Suddenly a green giant (why do I immediately think of sweetcorn?) rides into the hall and challenges any one of the knights to cut off his head with his great axe, on condition they will take a return blow at his castle in a year and a day. Only one dares accept, and he finds he’s let himself in for more than he bargained for. An inspiration for Tolkien and Alan Garner and one of the wellsprings of English fantasy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The original and best Christmas story. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of the Muppets, so wonderful is their version, but when the book contains such lines as this you know it will endure: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. ”

Frosty Morning

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Not altogether a Christmas book, but included for Mole getting out of his depth in the Wild Wood in the snow, and the chapter where Mole comes upon his abandoned burrow at Christmas, is overcome with homesickness and remorse, and Ratty gives him the best gifts of all, friendship and understanding.

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson. The world of the Moomins is utterly original, full of warmth and love but, like the best children’s books, strange and not altogether safe. The Moomins usually hibernate, but one winter Moomintroll unexpectedly wakes up. He finds himself in a frozen, otherworldly landscape, and meets creatures he had no idea coexisted with his kind. Haunting, funny and unsettling by turns.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The archetypal midwinter children’s fantasy book. “It will be a bad night,” said Mr Dawson. “The Walker is abroad, and this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” Wow. It’s a classic for a reason.

Fairy Dust and Fenceposts

The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon. A neglected children’s fantasy. It’s Christmas in Norfolk, and some teens on a school trip find an ancient buckle. But they’re pursued into their everyday lives by a terrifying black hound and its blank-faced master, and the sinister Leathermen, and under the snow the Giant is waking up… (Seriously, British young adult fiction in the 1970s was weird.)

The Sword in the Stone by TH White. I can’t read the rest of the series, it’s just too sad altogether, but the first book in White’s Arthurian sequence is simply wonderful. He makes few concessions to a younger readership, and the adventures of the young Wart as he learns how to be a good king from birds and beastly beasts are a delight. (White’s good-hearted but irascible Merlin was surely second cousin to Gandalf, too.) Not really a Christmas book, but it spans a year and you learn what it was like to live through a medieval winter, with a boar hunt that shows the author had read his Sir Gawain.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. Not strictly speaking a winter book either, as it covers all the seasons, but it reaches its climax in winter so I’m claiming it. A young Canadian vicar is diagnosed with a terminal illness. His bishop sends him to a remote First Nations village so he can learn enough of life to be ready to die. A beautiful and wise book, and the end, when it comes, is right (sorry, I seem to have something in my eye). If God ever felt like destroying the world again because humanity wasn’t worth the trouble—and let’s face it, He’d have a point—this is the book I would offer as Exhibit A in the case for the defence.

Dunes at Reiss

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner. Four short stories, each one a different moment in the history the author’s family living on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, culminating in the building of a sledge in which all the skills of the generations combine and the author is just the latest in a line of craftsmen stretching back down the generations. Garner is a masterful writer of dark fantasy but for me this is his masterpiece. If I was Minister of Education I’d stop schools teaching Lord of the Flies tomorrow and replace it with this, a much more rewarding experience.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. The Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas has disappeared, so Death decides to fill in for him, to keep the tradition alive. Very funny, of course (the scene where Death turns up in a department store and starts actually giving the children whatever they ask for is worth the admission price alone), but, as ever with Pratchett, learned too and with important things to say about traditions and their pagan origins.

Oh, and speaking of Eleanor Roosevelt, here’s my favourite quote of hers: “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall…”

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