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Fife 10: 25 – 31 January

And what if eternity is nothing but spiders?

That’s the question I’ve been mulling over recently. As regular readers will know, I have a bit of a thing for the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I’ve been reading Crime and Punishment. One of the characters, a depraved, immoral landowner, who is also curiously (sym)pathetic, speculates about the afterlife, not as a traditional view of heaven, but as something much more mundane and limited:

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.”

I don’t know why I find this idea so disturbing. But I do. Perhaps because its very mundanity is sinister, like something out of a David Lynch movie, or the Red Room from Twin Peaks, where the evil Black Lodge was portrayed as a simple room with chairs and a red curtain, and the inhabitants just sit around, strangely disconnected (still makes me uneasy just thinking about it).

All in all, it’s been a strange sort of week. On Tuesday I met my business partner who has withdrawn from the business due to health reasons, which is a bit of a blow, though not unexpected. And on Wednesday I fulfilled a long-standing commitment by giving a talk to the archive students at Glasgow University on the state of archives in the UK (short version: “We’re doomed!”, preferably said in the voice of Pte. Frazer from Dad’s Army).

The talk went surprisingly well. Perhaps my happiest inspiration was ending with a slide from the James Bond film “You Only Live Twice”, showing the super-villain in characteristic pose stroking a white Persian cat. Warming to my theme, I suggested that the villain represented local government (bear with me here) and the cat, archives – and when things are going well, the world is being held to ransom, etc., then we are cosseted and protected. But when things go wrong – the ninjas are abseiling into the volcano and the grenades are going off, and the villain is escaping in his personal monorail car – then the cat is nowhere to be seen, it’s been jettisoned. So, in the good times, archives – like the cat – are cosseted and fed titbits; but when the money runs out… Well, you get the picture. At least the students had the grace to laugh at the jokes.

I am suffering from the sin of pride, even now, in fact, because afterwards several of the students told me it was the best talk they’d ever witnessed, and asked me how I’d gotten so good at it. (Time for a new hat – my swollen head won’t fit in the old ones now.)

So, the social whirl – together with the constant migraines – have slowed my gansey progress down, but as you will see, perseverance is slowly paying off… I think. Sometimes it’s hard to tell!

Part of my trouble is that the operation has left me with a daily migraine, until the congestion clears, so it’s sometimes hard to focus on a complex pattern. (As my daily prayer goes, “Give us this day our daily headache, and forgive us our petulance, as we plan revenge against those who take our parking spaces…”)

Another sourdough success this week. This time it’s a pain de campagne, French country bread, made with plain flour and a higher ratio of wholemeal and rye than usual. (It’s usually made with 10-15% wholemeal/rye blend, but this time I made it with 25% for a slightly rougher texture.) And a stollen, made as a swiss roll for a change. (The bread tends to separate as it rises, but you do get a swirl of marzipan with each mouthful, it’s not just a lump in the middle.)

I’ve also been experimenting with the Piadini, the Italian flatbread I made last week. They take 500g flour, but as an experiment I tried them with 250g flour and 250g mashed potatoes, to see if I could replicate my father’s wonderful potato (“tattie”) scones in a yeasted bread. It’s not as potato-y as I’d hoped, though it’s pretty good, so I may up the potato quotient next time. Meanwhile, for those of you old enough to remember hit songs of the 60s, it’s also given me the phrase “Itsy bitsy teenie weenie mashed potato Piadini.”

And what if eternity isn’t spiders after all? What if it’s knitting, but the needles keep breaking and the yarn is full of knots? And no matter how much you knit you never seem to make any progress? Oh. Hang on. Wait a minute…

17 comments to Fife 10: 25 – 31 January

  • Lynne

    The bread looks gorgeous!
    As an arachnophobe, your first version of eternity would be my personal hell, the second version of the broken needles on ganseys – well, disastrous, and, believe me, I think about it every 18 stitches as I shift the knitting hoping these inexpensive Knitpicks circulars are a better quality than their price!

  • Gordon

    Hi there Lynne,

    I’m not a big fan of spiders, myself – I grew up in the country, and waking up one morning to a little spider scuttling over my face was a character-forming experience! Spiders seem to have two modes – slow and menacing, or just a blur of speed. You can’t trust the little blighters.

    I tend to split a circular needle every two or three ganseys, depending. As the packed stitches spring off the broken edge of the needle I imagine a “poing poing poing” cartoon noise. Perhaps with a comedy “waah waah” trombone accompaniment.

    Gordon

  • Leigh

    I am not sure I understand your usage of archive. When I think of archive, I think of terabytes of information that, like that the old handbag you threw out because you never thought you would have occasion to use it, the next day wail, but you dont have it or cant locate it. Could you please explain in what context archive?

  • Spiders? Hmm. If so, I’d want my cat as my companion – she loves them.

    Archives – a sore subject in this house as my Other Half nears the end of his Phd and he has stories to tell! Some archivists really don’t help themselves with their unhelpful, grumpy ways (sure you’re not one of these). One university recently parted company with their head archivist who had taken it upon him/herself to decide what students should and should not have access to, refusing point blank to provide the documents to said students instructed by their professor. But you make a good point, perhaps they should start charging all the stupid people who walk into archives expecting the archivists to do their family research for them…

    Back to the ganseys, I’m just about to order the yarn, have a vague feeling somewhere you indicated the amount for a man’s sweater but can’t find it. So am I right that for a 6 foot something man built like the proverbial s house, 2 cones of yarn would be appropriate? Many thanks.

  • Leigh

    Now, I dont really have a problem with spiders. To me, other than black widow (and I actually saw 2 personally male and female. That red hourglass is unmistakable and they are shinny black like a marble) and recluse spiders. To me they are greatly needed in the garden to keep down insects. I love the end of summer into early fall when they start spinning their webs all over the place and the morning dew catches on the strands causing them to twinkle like Christmas lights, perhaps not so bright, but they do bring that lovely nostalgic summer-autumn feeling to the garden. They also keep the moth population under control (spiders as well as the bats) which is good for all things made wool.

  • Gordon

    Hi All,

    It’s past my bedtime, so I’ll save a more detailed response till tomorrow. Just a couple of quick points.

    Ruth – I’m 5’10”, and a gansey for me (27 inches long) is about 12-13 balls of 100g yarn, or 2.5 cones of Frangipani’s 500g cones. If that’s any guide!

    Leigh – “archives” usually means a repository of handwritten documents which is deemed worthy of permanent preservation. (Museums look after historical objects, and libraries look after printed books and periodicals, whereas archives look after original manuscripts.) In the UK these are typically county record offices, university archives, or what used to be called the “Public Record Office” but is now known as “The National Archives”. A typical county archive – of the kind I used to work in – will be built around records of baptism, marriage and burial, as well as the records of local councils and magistrates courts, etc.

    But in uncertain times, when cultural services in the UK are facing 30% cuts over the next 3 years, there is a real chance that local Councils will just decide that they’re a luxury they can’t afford any more.

    Anyway – bedtime!
    Cheers all,
    Gordon

  • =Tamar

    While I’m not fond of spiders, I can deal with them as long as they’re not poisonous. The never-ending knitting… well, it means you’ll never run out of yarn, and never have to weave in the ends, right? And since it’ll never be tried on, there’s no problem with whether or not it fits. It sounds better all the time. By the way, that’s a fine-looking steek on that gansey.
    I hope your migraines go away soon.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar,

    As I view knitting as more of a process than a product I guess it wouldn’t be so bad after all. Spiders are furry and hairy and, well, ugly, and those long legs are just creepy. But, as they say, they’re more frightened of you than you are of them. (Mind you, I thought the Lord of the Rings movies missed a trick with Shelob – she was so fast in the fights that there was very little menace, especially in the tunnel – it was only when she crept up on Frodo at the end that you squirmed in your seat.)

    The migraines are a drag. I wake up with a splitting headache, which evaporates quite quickly, but it leaves me with a washed out-post migraine general feebleness. But I’m sure it will wear off as things settle down. Thanks for the good wishes.

    Gordon

  • Gordon

    Couple of other thoughts. Archivists sometimes get very cross because the IT industry has taken our jargon and, as we see it, misappropriated it. So in our world “archives” means “worthy of permanent preservation”, i.e., kept for ever – but in IT it just means “backed up”. I’ve argued for years that as there are more users of IT than archives we should probably just let it go and stop getting huffy – we’ll never win that argument!

    The twin roles of an archivist are (a) preserve items worthy of permanent preservation, and (b) make them available to researchers. But (a) takes precedence over (b) – our first duty is to the documents. So we can come across as a bit precious and anti-public, sometimes. (Like museum curators and librarians, we tend to feel that in a perfect world there would be no users to compromise our perfect collections!)

    Spider webs are beautiful, aren’t they, Leigh? The autumn is the time I really miss the countryside. Like you, I look for dew-heavy webs, especially in the early morning or evening sunshine. (And if they keep down moths, we could do with a few in our flat!)

    Cheers,
    Gordon

  • Gordon

    Thanks for the advice on the yarn.

    re archivists – I do admire the archivists in local studies who bear more than admirably with people monopolising their time on family history research (don’t know why they don’t produce a paper guide to stop that). Having said that, my nearest local studies recently reorganised and upgraded, putting everything behind locked doors with the exception of microfiches, no wonder they’re worked to death! Don’t know what kind of archives you work in, but I will tell you my best day in archives was in a county office (very efficient) where I got my hands on the will of a distant relative from 1841. Rather wonderful. I have started a small collection of archives of my own – little things I find in secondhand bookshops such as the account book of a primitive methodist sunday school pre-first world war, which details how much they spent on oranges for the children. Marvellous stuff.

  • Shelley

    Sorry about your migraines, Gordon, but glad to note your energy’s up. My husband, a botanist concerned with plant taxonomy, shares your views about IT and information management. Where he works, those folks are making crazy decisions about how information on millions of specimens collected globally over centuries will be accessed. It’s odd how non-scientist, nonusers have gained such control. As for me, I’d like to know how you made your tattie scones, and which translation of Crime and Punishment you’re reading. I’ve got Richard Pevear’s on my nightstand, under the cheesy magazines, waiting for me to get serious. Your sweater’s looking swell, but I’m getting anxious about the steek. Cheers.

  • Gordon

    Ruth,

    Alas, I don’t work in any kind of archives at the moment after my difference of opinion with the Scottish Council on Archives! But I have a varied CV, both in local government record offices and national bodies. (I’m rewriting the folk song “Hard Times of Old England” so it starts, “Come all fellow archivists/ who travel along/ oh pray come and tell me/ where the local authority archives jobs have all gone…” Needs a little work.)

    But I don’t miss the days someone would come in and say, “I’m trying to trace my family tree. My great-great-grandfather moved from Upper Whittling to Lower Scrotum sometime around 1823, he worked as a gardener but later turns up as a rocket scientist, and he married my great-great-grandmother in 1832, she came from Much Coughing though her father, who married seven times, three times to mermaids, though those marriages were later annulled, was a whippet trainer, and whippet training had pretty much died out by 1800 after the great whippet epidemic of 1784, anyway, my great-great-grandparents had 14 children, the second eldest, Sacheverel, appears in the 1841 census as a grave digger, which is ironic as he was struck by lightning in 1844 and was buried in the grave he was digging, where was I oh yes, the 14 children…” By this time I usually drifted away, and it was always a shock to find the person standing expectantly in front of me some 15 minutes later, waiting for an answer to a question I hadn’t heard…

    By the way, I’ve had a look at your own blog, very impressive. I shall add it to my links forthwith.

    Cheers,
    Gordon

  • Gordon

    Hi Shelley,

    Did you know that the nuclear industry is storing some of its key data on parchment – since we know that parchment lasts for thousands of years, but digital data is still unproven? (There’s an archive joke that a man decides to avoid death taxes for his descendants so he buries the money and burns the location onto a CD. Many decades later his great-grandchildren are exploring the attic and find the CD. “Hey!” they say, “what a nice coaster!’)

    I have a couple of Crime and Punishments on the shelves, but the version I find myself going back to is the old Penguin Classics translation by David Magarshack, not because I think it is better, but probably just because that’s the one I know. Reading the others is like listening to a cover version of a favourite song!

    Tattie scones. The traditional recipe is 100g flour, 500g mashed potato, 50g butter, dash of milk, pinch of salt. Mix together and roll thin on a floured counter with a rolling pin. Cut and cook on hot griddle in triangular slices. Delicious with butter, hot or cold!

    My experimental recipe is 250g bread flour, 250g mashed potato, 1 tsp instant yeast, 1 tsp salt, 1 tbsp olive oil and enough lukewarm water to make a soft dough (about 120g). Mix together all the ingredients. Knead for 10-12 minutes. (It will form a soft, sticky, moist dough.) Place in an oiled bowl to rise, about an hour and a half/hour and three-quarters. After that time it will have risen slightly, but not a whole lot, because there isn’t much gluten in potato. Tip out onto the floured counter, divide into 8 pieces. Shape the pieces into rounds and, with a rolling pin, roll them out until they are 5-6 inches across. Heat a griddle or heavy frying pan, and cook them one at a time for 5 minutes each, turning frequently, and pricking with a fork to stop them swelling up in the pan. Can be frozen, and a sort of cross between tattie scones and bread. (The later ones to go in will rise a bit on the counter by the time you get to them – you can either roll them thin again before cooking or just cook them fatter.)

    Next time, I may try it with, say, 150g flour to 350g potato; I may also experiment with frying the mashed potato first!

    Now I’m salivating. Time for dinner, I think,
    Gordon

  • Gordon

    By the way, the Piadini recipe (without potato) is very similar:
    500g flour
    1 tsp instant yeast
    60 ml water
    1 tsp salt (or more if required)
    1 tbsp olive oil
    250 ml carbonated water

    Mix, knead for 10-12 minutes, leave to rise 1.5 hours, knock back and divide into 8, roll out and cook in griddle.

    Cheers,
    Gordon

  • Shelley

    Thanks! So much for my yellow polka dot bikini, though.

  • Gordon

    Thanks for the laugh out loud when I read your last comment! I could see myself there…

    And thanks for your kind words on my blog. I’ve already had my first visitor via your site, most kind.

  • Leigh

    This is off topic, but I would like to know if any of you knitters out there have knit with Irish Heather yarn produced by Donegal Yarns in Kilcarra or any of their other Donegal yarns for that matter?

    Thanks.