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Navy Gansey, Week 1: 17 September

It’s been a punishing couple of weeks, all things considered, so this time I thought I’d accentuate the positive. TS Eliot famously alluded to classical literature and civilisation when he wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”; in my case it’s mostly ganseys, other people and bad jokes.

Wick Lighthouse

Regarding jokes, it’s not just about wordplay and puns—though those are important too; such as They Might be Giants singing that someone’s shoes “are laced with irony”, or “If it wasn’t for disappointment I wouldn’t have any appointments”. But absurdity plays a part: I’ve always loved the moment when Homer Simpson careens the car dangerously towards the railway tracks and Marge cries, “You’ll kill us all!”, to which Homer magnificently replies, “Or die trying!” Or the old Scots joke that if an enemy was ever involved in an accident, you’d be the first person to write for an ambulance.

People, to quote the great Homer Simpson on beer, are both the cause of, and the solution to, all life’s problems. Well, today we’re looking at solutions: and it was with great pleasure that we welcomed Ben and Lisa to Wick last week. Ben’s a fellow gansey knitter (you can follow him on Facebook where you can see us both posing in matching Patrington ganseys). If I learned anything from the visit, it is that (a) I’m morphing into Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses more rapidly than I’d hoped, and (b) an evening is nowhere near long enough to say all there is to say about ganseys.

Boats in the Harbour

En route to visiting Wick, Ben and Lisa had met up with Yasmin of Island on the Edge on Skye, and brought with them a skein of her excellent yarn. This of course gives me another excuse to mention her wool, knitting and courses. I may never make it back to Skye in summertime, since there are now more tourists than midges on the west coast and no known cure; but I live in hope.

How to Photograph a Gansey

Meanwhile I have—is anyone honestly surprised?—started another gansey. This is in Wendy navy, of which I recklessly bought a shedload in a sale a few years back. I’m rather dismayed to discover that something seems to have happened to Wendy—her yarn is much fuzzier and thicker than I remember, so it’s a bit like knitting a gansey made from hairy caterpillars. I’m going to see how it knits up before I commit to a pattern, though I’m guessing my stitch gauge will be nearer 7.5 stitches to the inch than 8 stitches. (More on this next week.)

Finally in parish notices, Judit has sent me what is unquestionably the cutest gansey-related photograph I’ve ever received. I won’t spoil the surprise: you’ll just have to follow the link to Judit’s page. But if you’re after inspiration for gansey-related Christmas gifts, look no further.

Oh, and as for my favourite joke right now, try this one for size. A sheepdog tells the farmer he has fifty sheep. “Fifty?” exclaims the farmer, “I’ve only got 47.” “Well,” the sheepdog says, “I rounded them up.”

Cedar Gansey, Week 9: 10 September

It’s never a good sign when a doctor hesitates before replying, and weighs his words as deliberately as Roger Federer contemplating a serve. In my experience doctors can’t wait to tell you good news; but a judicious pause in a hospital never ends well.

Interesting rocks at Nybster

I’d been referred for glaucoma (which it seems I don’t have; small mercies, etc.). But while I was there I asked about this blind spot in the middle of my right eye, a tiny shimmering point of light that warps the spacetime continuum around it. If I shut my left eye I only have peripheral vision in my right. (Next time you’re driving up the freeway, try reading the licence plate of the car in front of you when the sun’s glinting off it; the effect is much like that.) Most of the time I hardly notice it, since my left eye is the dominant.

Nybster Broch and Mervyn’s Tower, view from the shore

I’ve been aware of it for about 18 months, so this seemed like the moment to ask. Then came the pause. At last he said, It’s wear and tear on the pigment that feeds the retina; and it’s a known risk for people as shortsighted as I (before cataract surgery my eyes were -11). The good news is, it’s not because of anything I’ve done, it’s just genetic bad luck; the bad news is that there’s no cure. It may not get any worse; or then again it may; but it definitely won’t get better. “Should I be worried?” I asked, worriedly. Again he hesitated. “In the sense that there’s nothing you can do about it, no,” he said (this was the point I realised that, owing to Brexit, the NHS was recruiting its consultants from the planet Vulcan).

Bathing au plein air – the Trinkie, Wick

He advised me to eat lots of leafy green vegetables, carrots and oily fish (tuna, salmon, etc.), as these are proven to be healthy for the eyes. Fear is a powerful motivator, as my line managers can confirm: over 30 years of vegetarianism went out the window at a stroke. Of course, I appreciate that this is no more than superstition, burning incense to propitiate the god. But right now I’ll take all the propitiation that’s going.

Meanwhile we keep on keeping on: and the cedar gansey, she is finished! In record time, too, though this is a result of my being on holiday (and, let’s face it, bone idle) this last fortnight. I’m still not convinced by the sleeves: but it seems to fit well enough, and it was fun to knit, so we’ll see. Next project, something in navy (possibly a reckless choice, given the way the seasons are inexorably sliding us into darker evenings, but what the hell): more on this next week.

As for my eyesight, well—as the Bible says (Mathew 6:34) “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof”; or, in Doris Day’s controversial modern translation, “Que será, será.” And she’s spot on: whatever will be, will be. Right now I’ve got this new Flamborough gansey to chart…

Cedar Gansey, Week 8: 3 September

“Well, I’m back”, exclaims Sam Gamgee at the very end of The Lord of the Rings. And so are we. But whereas Sam went on an epic quest to defeat evil, then saw his injured master finally depart in a mystical allegory of death and eternal life, we went to Northampton and back. (Though there were times—while searching for something to eat in Charnock Richard motorway services, for example, a sort of cross between Dante’s Inferno and Tolkien’s Desolation of Smaug—when I thought I knew just how Sam felt.)

Sunset over Edinburgh

It was lovely to spend time with family and friends, and to experience the joys of 21st century civilisation. The latter included ordering something online and have it arrive the very next day. This was a special treat for us: usually when Amazon invites us to track a package it involves checking in to find out if the courier has harnessed all the huskies to his sled; as though Lewis and Clark, on eventually reaching as far as the Snake River, had asked one of the Blackfoot Indians they encountered to sign for delivery.

Trees by the lake, Delapre Abbey, Northampton

I had a strange experience last week, almost certainly a migraine. But it was a new type for me. One night I realised I was having difficulty seeing out of my left eye, and then I noticed a curious phenomenon: there was a shimmering strip of light, jagged like the blade of a saw but with more pronounced triangles, just to the left of wherever I looked. It rippled and I had the sensation of light cascading over it, like a brilliant migraine Niagara Falls. I shut my eyes, then blinked rapidly, and after some minutes the effect went away, to be replaced with a splitting headache and a disconcerting feeling of vertigo. The lights and the headache haven’t recurred, but the ground seems further away than I remember.

The Avenue, Delapre Abbey, Northampton

On the plus side, knitting is a fun activity that doesn’t involve standing up; and I’ve made good progress. I’ve finished the first sleeve and am fairly embarked on the second. If I apply myself (I have another week’s holiday ahead of me) I might even finish it this week. I usually err on the loose side of sleeves and cuffs, so that I can roll them up past the elbows if I feel like it. This time—remembering what it’s like to go outside in a Caithness wind—I’ve opted for a close-fitting cuff.

Meanwhile I keep looking out of the corner of my eye, hoping to see again whatever it was I saw last week. But I can’t help feeling short-changed, somehow: other people have life-changing visions of angels or UFOs, and what do I get? Still, the next time Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door I can tell them that no, I haven’t seen God or any of his angels; but on the other hand I think one of them might have left his saw behind…

Cedar Gansey, Week 7: 27 August

It’s been a pretty gruelling week, albeit one surprisingly lacking in actual gruel, so we went out to Noss Head to look at the ocean and recharge the spiritual batteries. Imagine our chagrin when we reached the car park to find cars, actual cars, parked there. (I’ve checked in my Caithness dictionary and yes, up here this constitutes a crowd, viz.: Crowd, n., At least two camper vans and a hatchback rental car in the same parking lot, plus one person faintly visible anywhere within a radius of two miles; see also Throng, Mob, etc.)

So instead of following the teeming hordes (both of them) to Castle Sinclair, for a change we took a path less travelled over the headland to the nearby cliffs. After a quarter of a mile the ground sloped away quite dramatically and we soon found ourselves at the foot of a narrow cleft flanked by high rocky walls, standing on a sandy beach with the sweep of Sinclair’s Bay before us. This is Sandy Goe; a goe (or geo) being Old Norse for this kind of inlet. (I’m wondering if this is the right moment for my celebrated “A hod’s as good as a sink to a blind Norse” joke, and I’m thinking, on reflection, probably not.)

You’d never know it was there; hundreds of people every year must, like us, pass it by on the way to the crumbling castle ruins. But it’s completely lovely, a tiny strip of sand surrounded by slabs of stone at crazy angles, as though God had decided to experiment with Escher geology on somewhere out of the way, and then draped it with seaweed. As we’re discovering, this is the fractal nature of the Caithness coastline: the closer you look the more you see.

In gansey news, well, there’s not a lot. I’m progressing nicely down the first sleeve. I decided to make the sleeve’s pattern band the same depth as the ones on the yoke: it’s slightly narrower than I usually do—4 inches instead of 5 or 6 inches—but it seemed to fit somehow. I should finish this sleeve over the next week if I’m lucky.

And now we’re off on our holidays (starting today), off down to Edinburgh and Northampton to see family and friends, chasing the sun in a desperate race to make summer last. Did you know, John Lennon originally wrote his classic psychedelic nostalgia trip Strawberry Fields about Northampton, before Paul McCartney thankfully persuaded him to change the lyrics?

Let me take you down
Cause I’m going to Northampton town
You’re unlikely to drown
Unless you accidentally fall in the canal
Abington Street forever.

Mind you, McCartney’s original opening to Penny Lane wasn’t much better:

Milton Keynes is in my ears and in my eyes,
There’s lots of shops, it’s where I go to buy my pies.”

Ah, what might have been… See you all next week!

Cedar Gansey, Week 6: 20 August

There are ten parishes in Caithness, and of these Olrig is the odd one out. All the others have a settlement—a village or town—from which the parish takes its name. So there’s a Wick in Wick parish, a Thurso in Thurso, and so on. But there’s no settlement in Caithness called Olrig; it’s just lines on a map. Not only that, but the principal village is called Castletown, which is something of a misnomer as it’s not really a town and has never had a castle.

What it does have is a stunningly beautiful harbour, called Castlehill, albeit one noticeably short on castles or hills. Castletown and Castlehill were once home to the celebrated Caithness flagstone industry, shipping stone all over the world. It’s mostly abandoned now, the Caithness landscape a palimpsest of lost industries, ecologies and people. (Maybe it’s time we borrowed the slogan from that military academy in the Simpsons: “A tradition of heritage”).

“Take a seat . . .”

Castlehill lies on the north coast, in the glorious sweep of Dunnet Bay. It’s bounded on the east by Dunnet Head and on the west by Holborn Head, with Orkney off somewhere to the north. The harbour is unusual, much of it built using rows of flagstones laid on their ends, like stacks of mahjong tiles stood upright (flagga, in old norse, means a “slice”, or of course a flag). We went up there on Saturday and it was deserted, apart from a family of ducks out for a swim, so we just stood for a time and watched the waves. The motion of the tides is as relaxing as stroking a cat; with the added advantage that you don’t have to clean out its litter tray later.

Looking towards Dunnet Beach

Meanwhile we enter the gansey endgame, also known as the sleeves. The yoke suffered a sort of elephantiasis—it’s a risk with this sort of pattern—and expanded to almost an inch wider than the body. Usually I’m on top of this, and decrease by a few stitches at the yoke (or increase by a few when there are cables to pull it in). But even Homer nods, and this time I just didn’t think of it. To compensate I shall make each sleeve half an inch shorter and will decrease by two stitches every fourth row, instead of every fifth. No, as they say, biggie.

Olrig is thought to derive from “the son of Erik” in old norse, and to date from the time of the Vikings. It contains one of my favourite place names, Murkle, which always sounds to me like the sort of place an heiress in a Victorian novel would go to live with her murderous uncle; or possibly one of the lesser-known Muppets with a troubled past. In fact it’s even cooler than that and derives from “Morthill”, meaning field of death, supposedly the site of an ancient battle. Come to think of it, I’m not surprised they named the village Castletown. Imagine the meeting with the marketing department: “We can’t call it Castletown, there isn’t a castle. Now, I like this other idea, what was it, Mortown? Reminds me of Detroit, somehow. What’s it mean?” “Let me see: Town of Death.” “Ah, right. Castletown it is, then…”