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Inverallochy, Week 3: 15 January

Since last week I’ve been thinking about fountain pens—specifically, what they represent, what they tell us about us as a species. They were of course designed as a basic tool, a means to an end, but have gradually evolved into things of beauty and elegance. The next time God, dismayed by the moral turpitude of humanity, ever considers destroying the world—accidentally stumbling across the Twitter feed of the President of the United States, perhaps—I think I should, on the off chance I am asked for my opinion, propose the fountain pen as exhibit A in the case for the defence.

Ye Pens

I have a dozen fountain pens which I’ve accumulated down the years. Most were bought as new, though as time has passed they have, like my taste in popular music, acquired a distinctly vintage air (as Grandpa Simpson says, “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was; now what I’m with isn’t it anymore and what’s it seems weird and scary. It’ll happen to you!”). I buy pens to write with, not to look at, and my favourites are a vintage Parker 51, a Parker Sonnet, and a Waterman Phileas, all with fine nibs to suit my spidery archivist’s handwriting.

Ye Book

And this is the curious thing: although I’m no calligrapher it gives me real pleasure to write with them, beyond the satisfaction of the thing I am writing. Just as it gives me pleasure to check the time on the scuffed old pocket watch attached on a loop to my belt—and to knit ganseys. Others may take pleasure in driving an old car that has character and style, or cooking a meal with the best utensils, or making things out of pieces of wood with fine chisels—but it’s all one. Carlyle described man as a tool-using animal, and he was right; but we’re also animals that delight in our tools.

A breezy day at Sarclet

Meanwhile in gansey news I’m still knitting my way up the body. Sometimes it’s hard to feel I’m making any progress, other than doing a time-lapse with the photos on the blog. But even with just a couple of rows a night it soon adds up: I’m probably a fortnight away from starting the pattern. I’ve never knit a pullover this size before, so I’m going to have to research armholes and sleeves—if anyone has any standard measurements for a drop-shoulder jumper that measures 56 inches in the round, please let me know!

Incidentally, I wonder if other animals get the same sense of pleasure in using well-made tools as we humans do? Probably not apes: I’ve seen film of them using stone tools, but they always seem a bit preoccupied and out of their depth, like I do when I’m parallel parking. Dolphins, maybe—if scientists ever get footage of them hastily screwing the top onto a Mont Blanc Meisterstück fountain pen and hiding it out of sight under a rock, then I think the writing may, quite literally, be on the wall…

Inverallochy, Week 2: 8 January

I fell into conversation this week with one of the young persons at work, who’d noticed that I use a fountain pen and wondered why. I explained that fountains pens were easier to write with than ballpoints, and cheaper (after the initial outlay—the cost being all in the nib) than felt-tips; and that this was just a cheap pen for work. What, she then asked, was the most expensive fountain pen I owned? “About £350,” I told her. Seeing her stunned look of disbelief, I told her with a smile that I’d once owned a hifi that cost more than my car. She stared at me for a long moment, then said, “What’s a hifi?”

Sometimes I think there should be a law against young people.

Castle Sinclair Girnigoe

The gloom lifted on Sunday so we went for a walk round the castle of Sinclair Girnigoe on Noss Head, just north of Wick. Temperatures had dropped below freezing overnight, so all the puddles were glittering with ice and even the muddy track was rock-hard, as though Elsa from Frozen had thought, Oh, the hell with it, and just gone back to bed with a mug of hot chocolate and a trashy novel, leaving the kingdom half-frozen. (Speaking of Frozen, you know you’re not the target audience for a movie when you find yourself wondering about the kingdom’s lack of a proper regency council and system of government instead of joining in the songs. I know: I really should “let it go…”)

Into the castle

Like all the best castles, Sinclair Girnigoe has a splendidly bloody history. The most famous story tells that George, the 4th Earl, had his son imprisoned there in 1577: after seven years he decided to have this son killed, which he managed by feeding him salt beef but not letting him have any water; after a few days, not surprisingly, he died of thirst. (I’m not aware that there is any actual evidence to support this story which, as an archivist, makes me a little suspicious. But it says something about the earls of Caithness that it was the 5th Earl, not the 4th, who managed to earn the title “Wicked Earl George”…)

In gansey news I’m advancing resolutely up the body, though returning to work after the Christmas break has slowed me down. (Abraham Lincoln once described one of his generals after a heavy defeat as being “confused and stunned, like a duck hit on the head”—a pretty exact description of me last week.) Still, even with just a few rows each night, it all adds up to tangible progress.

Finally just a word of sympathy to all our readers on the eastern seaboard of the United States, currently experiencing extremes of cold and snow and ice; and in Australia, at the other extreme of soaring temperatures. To all those affected by adverse weather conditions, we hope you can stay temperate; and, above all, stay safe.

Local wildlife – a blackbird

Inverallochy, Week 1: 1 January

First of all, a very happy New Year to all our readers. 2018 is an anniversary year for us, as it’ll be a rather astonishing ten years since we started the blog in its present form. (Ten years: mon dieu! As the saying goes, we’ve all passed a lot of water under the bridge since then…)

Right now we’re back in Wick after an extended Christmas break at the ancestral home, and as ever a journey of 600 miles has left me wiped out with something suspiciously like jet lag. There’s a poem by the great Japanese poet Matsuo Basho which, allowing for the shift in seasons, pretty much sums up how I feel: “Journey’s end – / still alive, / this autumn evening“.

Snow on the Hills

I do love Christmas, if only because it’s the one time of year when just about everyone behaves as if they’ve read the good bits of the New Testament and think it’s worth giving it a try, even if only for a few days. What does Christmas mean to me? Open fires, snow on the hills, carols on the radio, decorations, tinsel and a tree; The Muppet Christmas Carol on TV and Vaughan Williams’s Hodie playing through the speakers; something hot and spiced from the oven diffusing a scent of cinnamon and nutmeg all through the house; and of course the chance to meet up with friends and family. Which, as it happens, is as good a summary of the last couple of weeks as I can think of.


I’m starting 2018 with a new project: an extra-extra-large gansey in Wendy’s aran/ natural yarn. It’s going to be 56 inches in the round, so at a stitch gauge of 7.75 stitches to the inch this comes to 434 stitches. The light-coloured yarn is a more sensible choice than navy for the long winter evenings. It’s a big project in every sense—those of you with a short attention span are advised to check back in, oh, sometime around Easter. (The pattern is Mrs Edwards’s Pattern No. 2: you’ll find it on page 135 of Michael Pearson’s revised edition. No cables, but simple and very effective, and hopefully suitable for a broad chest; assuming I don’t change my mind—again—by the time I reach the yoke.)

In parish news, I owe Judit an apology: just after we left on our Christmas break she sent me a picture of a very splendid gansey she’s knitted, with Christmas greetings to all our readers; the pattern combinations are of her own devising, and very effective they are: we weren’t able to include it before, so I hope it will serve as a New Year greeting instead. Many congratulations once more to Judit.


Finally, our statistics show that about 100 people a day visit the website. I’m not much of a lad for New Year’s resolutions, having next to no willpower (as Bender says to the Robot Devil in Futurama, “Oh wait—I forgot you could tempt me with things I want”); so no promises. But we would like to thank everyone who reads and comments and contributes and makes Gansey Nation the walled garden of niceness that it is.

And so, here we are. Still alive this winter evening; still blogging. Happy New Year!

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 11: 25 December

It being Christmas Morning I went to see my old friend Ebenezer Scrooge and wish him the compliments of the season. I found him in his chambers eating a thin stew before a meagre fire. He was still in his nightclothes, and the tassel of his cap as he bent his head to the bowl dangled like the light of a pilot fish.

“Sit down, my friend, sit down,” he cried on seeing me and gestured to an armchair. “Just move all those out of the way.”

I placed an untidy heap of correspondence on the floor and took my seat.

“Letters from the poor,” he explained with a grimace. “Philanthropy never stops. Why, I had two gentlemen come to see me only yesterday asking for donations: they’re getting up a fund to send the poor on holiday to Florida this Christmas.”

“And did you give anything?”

“Advice. I told them, if people would rather go to Disneyland Railroad Mickey’s Toontown, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population at Tesco’s checkouts—the self-service checkouts too, mind you, not just the ones in the aisles.”

“But what’s this?” I asked, nodding at his meal. “Alone on Christmas Day?”

“Oh, I’m not invited to my nephew Fred’s any more. Not after the Unpleasantness involving the whoopee cushion, Tiny Tim and the cat. After all, how was I to know the cat was pregnant?”

“What happened?”

“Let’s just say Mrs Fred wasn’t the only one who had kittens and leave it at that,” he said darkly.

I had noticed that he kept glancing anxiously at the clock.

“Are you expecting someone?” I asked.

“The Spirit of Christmas Yet To Be,” he said. “I’ve already had the other two.”

“What, again?” I exclaimed in surprise. “Are you still being haunted?”

“Oh, yes. Every year. It’s not that I’m ungrateful: but the Spirit of Christmas Past always insists on watching The Muppet Christmas Carol and joining in the songs, and as for the Spirit of Christmas Present—” He broke off darkly. “He eats all the best candy, leaving me with the nougat and, yes, see here!”

Scrooge produced a tub of sweets and rattled it to show how few were left. Prising off the lid he squinted inside, then threw the box on the floor in disgust. “Bah!” he said. “Humbugs!”

Just then there was a knock on the door, “Oh, Lord,” Scrooge cried, “here he is! He always wants to play board games and listen to the news. I wouldn’t mind, but he sniggers when they preview the football since he already knows who wins.”

“Well,” I said, “I’d better be going.”

I got up and opened the door. A dark shape stood without, shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand which clutched a half-empty bottle of Bailey’s. A box of Monopoly was just visible beneath its robe.

“He’s mucked about with the tokens, you know,” Scrooge was grumbling behind me. “A top hat, yes; a thimble, fair enough; a dog, why not—but honestly, have you ever seen a Monopoly set with a miniature grim reaper? I mean, it’s hardly seasonal, is it?”

I glanced at the spirit. For the first time the hand appeared to shake; but, it seemed to me, with silent laughter.

Behind me Scrooge murmured sadly, as if to himself, “And he builds graveyards on his properties, not hotels.”

I closed the door behind me and left them to it.

And so, as Tiny Tim once observed, God Bless Us, Every One!

Patrington & Withernsea, Week 10: 18 December

‘Tis the week before Christmas and all through the house not a creature is stirring, except a woodlouse. At this time of year the land is shrouded in darkness. By Thursday, the winter solstice, the sun will rise at 9.00am, if you can call the lazy arc it describes across the sky rising—honestly, I’ve seen rainbows with more ambition—and set at 3.20pm. You know the bit in between is daytime because your employers expect you to be at work, but it’s so dark it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Last week’s snow has clung on stubbornly, packed down to ice and topped up daily, partially melting and then freezing over again, so that every step is like playing Russian roulette with gravity. All in all, weather like this makes you wish someone had invented the time machine, so you could go back to 1934 and punch the composers of “Winter Wonderland” on the nose.

Snowman, sort of

Many cultures have rites of passage to mark the transition from childhood to adulthood, including donning a toga, getting one’s teeth filed, or even (in Shinto) a new haircut. In my case I realised I was no longer a child when I first looked out on a wintry scene of snow and ice and thought, “But I’ve got to go out in that…”


In gansey news I have finished the Patrington and Withernsea jumper, and very nice it looks too. All that remains is to wash and block it, and we’ll post a picture of the blocked garment next week. Curiously, and rather to my chagrin, the finished gansey weighs 1028 grams, some 50 grams more than my ganseys usually weigh. I don’t know why this should be—some quirk of the (Wendy’s) yarn, perhaps, or else the blood and sweat I expended on it soaked into the fabric somehow. Something to keep an eye on, perhaps.

Trees by the river

And now all that remains is for us to wish everyone a very happy Christmas. We’ll wrap the old year up next week in tinsel and wrapping paper. But there’s just time for me to wheel out my favourite Christmas joke one last time:

Q—How did good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
A—Deep pan, crisp and even


Finally, here are two meditations on snow. The first, River Snow, is by Liu Zongyuan: 

A thousand hills, but no birds in flight,
Ten thousand paths, with no person’s tracks.
A lonely boat, a straw-hatted old man,
Fishing alone in the cold river snow.

The second is the conclusion to Wallace Stevens’s poem, The Snow Man:

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Happy Christmas!