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Filey Pattern IX: Week 4 – 18 January

A long time ago—1981—in a galaxy far, far away—Manchester—I was a student at the university. I took my degree in medieval studies, with hilarious consequences for my career prospects: I was unemployed for over a year afterwards. In those days, to qualify for the dole one had to present oneself for a certain number of job interviews every month. I still remember, usually around four in the morning, an excruciating interview with Eagle Star Insurance in Northampton, that began, “So, Mr Reid, perhaps you could begin by explaining how a degree in, what was it, let me see, ah yes, medieval history, qualifies you for a career in the field of modern, ahaha, insurance?”.

But a career isn’t everything, and some experiences are beyond price. One late winter afternoon we medieval studiesists were taken down to the basement of the John Rylands Library, where they housed the rare books collection. It was a horrible, bleak midwinter day, rain and sleet and blustery wind. We entered the reading room—it was closed to readers just then—a cavernous, echoing space in semi-darkness. The overhead lights were turned off, but the curators had lit—I want to say candles, but it must have been spot lights—to shine on the central tables, which gleamed like the treasure in Aladdin’s cave. When we got closer, we saw that arranged on the tables, and weighted to lie open, was a collection of books of medieval illuminated manuscripts.

Sign of Spring: Burgeoning snowdrops

To qualify as “illuminated”, the decoration must be real gold or silver. The lights reflected off the gold leaf, filling the room with a shimmering golden glow. I’d only ever seen reproductions before, I had no idea they were contoured like that (the gold leaf sits on a slightly raised foundation of plaster, called gesso, to better catch the light). I’d never seen anything so beautiful, possibly still haven’t: these were books that existed in four dimensions (length, width and depth, plus time); but for me they also had a fifth dimension, that of wonder. I was utterly captivated, hypnotised. In the end, it took three porters and a policeman to finally drag me away. Back outside, the streets felt a lot darker and colder.

Patterns in Ice

There’s an obvious connection with ganseys here: the rich, fine detail, the sheer three-dimensional tactile texture that pictures can’t ever quite capture. Sooner or later I’m going to get delusions of grandeur and decorate one with gold leaf, as if Goldfinger had swapped international villainy for the quieter life of a herring fisherman. Meanwhile, I’m nearing the end of my current project, and have reached the cuff on the first sleeve. You’ll observe that I’m patterning the sleeve all the way down, not just on the upper arm. I don’t usually do this because (a) traditionally it wasn’t the norm, and (b) typically by this stage I’m all patterned out, and a splash of plain knitting feels like a treat. But this is a much smaller gansey than I usually knit, and I’m not confident about the sleeve measurements: by extending the pattern all the way to the cuff, with the pulling-in effect created by the cables etc., we should have an element of flexibility when we block it, expanding or contracting the sleeve to get a better fit (I hope!).

Interference on the Line

Life’s a funny old game, isn’t it? After a year or so of unemployment, I applied for a cataloguing temp job with the local Record Office. At my job interview the head archivist said, “Were you aware that your degree in medieval studies—all that medieval Latin, palaeography, and land law—gives you half the qualifications you need to be an archivist…?” Reader, I was not. The rest is—literally—history. I’ve not encountered any more medieval illuminations in my work, though there’ve been plenty of other manuscripts, some of them indeed medieval—but it’s not been altogether without illumination, for all that…

Filey Pattern IX: Week 3 – 11 January

I was reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire this week—call me a pessimist, but I’m beginning to suspect it doesn’t have a happy ending—and I was interested to learn in chapter nine that women’s fidelity is frequently undermined by “licentious spectacles”. That sounds fun, I thought; I wonder if I can persuade the optician to prescribe me a pair at my next appointment? (*Ba-dum, tish!*) Yes, it’s another lockdown, remarkably similar to all the other lockdowns only this time with added ice, and we’re just going to have to get through it the best we can.

Cable on the quay

Last year there was a meme doing the rounds, a quote from the movie Men in Black. Will Smith (Agent J) has declared that people are smart and Tommy Lee Jones (Agent K) corrects him: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” But, you know what? Persons can be pretty dumb too. Let me offer myself as Exhibit—or Agent—A. Before Christmas I went to fill up at the gas station. I carefully put on disposable gloves before I went, to ensure I didn’t directly touch any surface that might be contaminated. I drove up to the pump, got out and inserted my bank card into the slot. But I couldn’t type my PIN with the glove on. So—and I want you to follow me closely here—I removed my glove, entered my PIN, licked my finger to better replace my card in my wallet, filled up with petrol, and only then realised I still had my glove in my other hand, and the tip of my index finger looking suspiciously clean and pink. Sigh. I expect the CCTV footage of that incident is on Facebook by now, along with that tragic guy at the convenience store who takes his glove off and holds it in his mouth while fishing for his wallet…

Stranded pancakes

In gansey news, the rapid progress continues. I’ve finished the front and back, joined the shoulders, completed the collar and picked up stitches around the armhole of the first sleeve. I know it’s a smaller gansey than I usually knit, but the pictures are deceptive: the cables and all the purl stitches actually make it some four inches narrower than it will be once it’s been washed and blocked. (I’m sure it’ll be fine, so long as the recipient doesn’t want to, as it were, breathe.) I’ll say more about the sleeves next time, but it’s the exact same pattern as the body, just inverted.

Turnstones on the harbour wall

Finally this week, I’d like to share with you a quote, which is sort of a riposte to Agent K above. It’s from the movie Harvey, the one where the amiable Elwood P Dowd, marvellously played by James Stewart, is accompanied everywhere by a giant invisible rabbit. At one point Dowd explains his philosophy: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’—she always called me Elwood—’In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” And to be honest, especially after my gas station experience, so do I…

Filey Pattern IX: Week 2 – 4 January

And so here’s the new year, all unwrapped and shiny and ready to go—or it would be, only this year the batteries don’t seem to’ve been included. (To misquote St Jethro of Tull, it was a new year yesterday but it’s an old year now…) But then, I’ve never been much of a lad for Hogmanay. This may of course stem from a bout of food poisoning I contracted one memorable New Year’s Eve in my childhood, after which I was a little surprised not so much to find I still had a stomach lining, but that I still had lungs. (If I’m ever visited by three spirits to teach me the error of my ways, the Ghost of Hogmanay Past had better bring a mop and a couple of buckets.) Besides, given I was born eleven thousand miles away, I can’t help remembering each year that technically my New Year already happened twelve hours ago.

Pancake ice in the river

The origins of Hogmanay, like those of most traditions, are lost in the mists of time. No one even knows where the name comes from, though the most likely bet derives from the French hoginane, meaning a gala day (and not a rather fatuous pig, as I’d first thought). After the Reformation the Scots didn’t really observe Christmas until about 1950, and instead put all their energies into making drinking an olympic sport every New Year’s Eve. Most of the old Hogmanay customs have since gone the way of the horseless carriage and the VHS tape, and it’s not hard to see why: for example in places where the traditional New Year ceremony “would involve people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village whilst being hit by sticks”, presumably the supply of sticks gave out, or possibly the supply of people. You can see how staying in and watching television instead might appeal.

Ice on the path

In gansey news, I’ve made spectacular progress: in fact I’ve completed the lower body as far as the half-gussets, and am well advanced up the back. (Not bad for a fortnight!) It helps of course that this is so much smaller than the ganseys I usually knit. I return to work this week, so my knitting time will be considerably reduced (as will the number of hours I can devote to listening to Bruckner symphonies, alas and alack and Alaska). And now you can see more of the pattern I think you’ll agree this is one of the very best.

Calm day at the riverside

And speaking as someone who’s never gone in for new year’s resolutions—resolution not being something I’m usually associated with, along with speed over distance or a waistline—this year I made one: to do whatever it takes to make it to next New Year’s Eve (God willing). We’ve made it through this far; let’s not do anything foolish now. So here’s to a happy and safe 2021; at the end of which even I might raise a dram to celebrate Hogmanay in style…

Filey Pattern IX: Week 1 – 28 December

It’s the last post of the year, a time when traditionally we take stock of the previous twelvemonth and look forward to what the future might bring. But, I say—given how ghastly 2020 proved to be, and how uncertain 2021 looks just now, what say you we all just avert our gazes from current affairs and save the haruspicy to another, more fitting occasion? Instead, let us turn our attention to my favourite nature story of the year: octopuses randomly punching fish, apparently just out of spite.

Until I read this my highlight from the natural world in 2020 was the discovery of a new species of fungus that infects flies, turning them into “zombies”, until at a certain point the spores explode out of a hole in the insects’ abdomens “like rockets“, a fact which is going to liven up my reboot of the Alien franchise no end. But I must admit, the thought of bad-tempered octopuses patrolling the seabed looking for inoffensive fish to punch is way more fun. (Fun for the octopus, that is; less so, one feels, for the fish.)

Frosty Path Ahead

Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that an octopus has a separate brain in each of its eight arms, thus making hangovers so much worse; or maybe one arm just wakes up in a particularly foul mood. (This is even better than my previous fun fact about octopuses, that they sometimes eat their own arms when they get bored; which always takes me back to a stunningly tedious lecture on the history of land law during my archive training in the winter of 1985, when gnawing my own arm off seemed like the only sensible alternative.) Anyway, I shall be disappointed if the coming year doesn’t bring us footage of two octopuses holding down a clown fish while a third beats it up for its lunch money.

St Fergus’ and hawthorn

In parish notices, and just in case you missed it last week, I was invited by the Scottish Fisheries Museum’s important Knitting the Herring project to write a short article on how I got into gansey knitting and where it has led me (spoiler alert: it led me to Wick). You can find the post here, as well as lots more information on the project.

Now it only remains for Margaret and me to wish all our readers a very happy—and safe—New Year. See you in 2021!

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TECHNICAL STUFF

My new project is another of the superb patterns from Yorkshire, this time in Frangipani Denim yarn. The pattern is recorded in both Gladys Thompson as “Filey Pattern IX”, and in Rae Compton (pp.58-59) under Flamborough, but knit by Carol Walkington of Bridlington for her husband Fred, coxswain of the Bridlington lifeboat.

You can tell it’s a good pattern because the cable rows, falling every sixth row, coincide with the plain rows of the chevrons, so you scarcely need to keep count. I’m following the pattern exactly, so instead of cabling every seventh row as I usually do, I’m cabling every sixth. In a certain light, the slant of the cables seems like an extension of the chevron.

It’s a pattern I’ve always wanted to try, but have in the past been put off—in a weak and feeble sort of way—by the sheer number of cables involved. (Of course, it’s the cables that help make it special.) Anyway, the chance to knit it has come at last, as this is a gansey for a work colleague who is, I suppose you’d say, fashionably svelte (the gansey will measure a trim nineteen inches across the body).

This also explains how much I’ve managed to get done in a week; well, that and the fact I’ve eaten so many chocolates over Christmas it currently takes a rope and pulley to get me out of the couch, like Henry VIII being winched onto horseback. I average three rows per hour, so I set myself a target of twelve rows, or two cables per day, the equivalent of four hours’ knitting spread through the day.

Seed Panel Gansey: Week 9 – 21 December

It’s the winter solstice, that ancient festival devised by our pagan ancestors to celebrate the fact that there’s only four more sleeps till Christmas. (Sunrise in Wick, 9.01; sunset 15.21.) Normally Margaret and I’d be heading south around now to spend the holidays with family in England; but this year, like everyone else, we’ll be hunkering down and having a quiet Christmas at home. I’m on leave until the New Year, with plans for a little reading, a little writing and a lot of knitting as I listen to all my Christmas CDs.

Captured Christmas Baubles

My navy gansey project ended just before the year did, and I must say adding cables to the yoke worked a treat. Next up—but that would be telling. We’ll just have to wait till next week.

In the meantime, we’d like to wish all our readers a very merry, very safe Christmas, and we’ll see you next week for the turning of the year.

Now it’s that time absolutely no one  everyone’s been waiting for, the traditional Gansey Nation Christmas singalong. All together now…

 

We three kings at John o’Groats are
Wishing we hadn’t stopped for a jar,
Did too much drinking,
Now we are thinking,
Where did we park our car?

We tried to follow the star through the rain,
The sat nav packed up somewhere near Tain,
Now it’s increasingly clear,
Bethlehem’s nowhere near,
And Balthazar’s drunk the champagne.

Oh, star of wonder, star of light,
It’s far too cloudy to see you tonight,
So Caspar eats a
Takeaway pizza
While Melchior hopes for a bite.

We lost the frankincense and myrrh,
And spent the gold on some hookers* at Bower,
Moving at speed,
We stocked up on weed,
Now everything’s just a blur.

The evening quickly got in full swing,
Ended up in a mass Highland fling,
We got too merry
And missed the ferry,
Now we’re stuck here till spring.

Oh, star of wonder, star of light,
Star that’s always just out of sight,
Oh we of little faith,
Here in the Ness of Caith,
Grant us our wish tonight…

 

  • Look, we signed up a couple of chaps to play in the number 2 position in the Nazareth and Judea Combined Rugby Union Team, all right…?