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Fife 25: 10 – 16 May

Every time I complete a gansey these days I play part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle to celebrate. It’s a sort of ritual, a rite of passage. The piece in question comes early in the cycle – before there’s so much as a hint of a horned helmet – in Scene 2 of Das Rheingold, when Wotan, father of the gods, realises that the giants have finally finished building Valhalla. “Vollendet das ewige Werk!”, he sings – the eternal task is finished. And really, what could be more appropriate?

Of course, in this case the cardigan’s not quite finished. I still have to draw my snickersnee and rend the front in twain, after which Margaret can heroically attach the zip; but first it has to be washed, blocked and dried, which is where we are now.

I was beginning to wonder if I’d have to open my third cone of Frangipani yarn as I worked down the cuff. (I find those cones very confusing to judge – they seem to shrink very quickly from fat to thin, then no matter how much you knit they stay the same size for ages. We’re through the looking glass here, people.) But with three inches of cuff to go I finally ran out of Cone 2, and so have only ended up using a tiny amount from Cone 3. Heigh ho. (In fact, if I’d just knitted regular cuffs instead of my adjustable extra-long 6-inch ones I’d probably have got away with just the two cones.)

There are many reasons to use Frangipani, not least the range of colours like this one. But my favourite is the fact that, because you’re using 500g cones instead of 100g balls, you have far fewer ends to darn in at the end. (And given my feelings about sewing-type activities in general, that’s quite an incentive, believe me.) With just a couple of ends to be darned per cone (or more where there’d been a break in the yarn), a job which can take me up to an hour this time lasted less than 30 minutes. (I’m still not saying it’s fun, mind.)

I haven’t had much time for knitting this week as we’ve had an old friend to stay. I’ve known him for over 25 years now – how scary is that? We first met at archive school, which was much like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts except instead of magic we learned how to read old documents, translate Latin charters and take down with minimum force genealogists who tried to use a biro instead of a pencil.

(We took him out to Cramond beach one windy day, where Margaret sneakily held back and took photos of the two of us walking part of the causeway to Cramond Island; I’m the one on the right: my friend is on the left complaining we made him get sand in his shoes.)

He’s moving in with his long-tern partner and is looking to save space. So he’s ripped all his 1,500 cds onto his computer and is giving the hard copies away; and now he has a Kindle he’s planning to get rid of all his books too. As he points out, everything before 1920 is out of copyright and free to download anyway; and if he feels like reading a book he always just buy it again and download it electronically.

Of course, in a sense he’s right – I did an exercise some years back and found out that, with a few exceptions, I tend to read books once every 10 years. So why do I hang on to all my old Hermann Hesse paperbacks and PG Wodehouses? How often am I going to read War and Peace again in the few years remaining to me? How many books on my shelves have I only read once?

One of the principles of records management, the branch of archives that applies to modern and electronic records as opposed to historical ones, is that if something isn’t looked at you get rid of it, as it’s just taking up space. But it seems terribly cold-blooded to apply that to my personal stuff!

For example, I see I have 6 versions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle on cd. This may seem like overkill to a non-Wagnerite. I admit I don’t listen to them all that often these days – and hardly ever all the way through (the cycle comprises 4 operas and 15 hours of music, after all) – and yet somehow 6 versions doesn’t seem nearly enough…

Hmm. Maybe I won’t downsize just yet.

18 comments to Fife 25: 10 – 16 May

  • Leigh

    Oh, it is sooo beautiful. I cant wait to “watch” your steeking process. It took a long time, but it was well worth the wait. Margaret, I am sure, will wear it proudly.

    Now when you talk Der Ring des Nibelungen, you are talking way out of my learning curve. I am more of a La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor (Love, love, love Dame Sutherland as Lucia)and Rigoletto person myself.

  • Lynne

    Kudos to you on your final knitted stitch! The gansey is SO beautiful. I’m wondering how long Margaret has been looking for a zip to match that shade of blue. Decades ago, I did cardys with zips and hand sewed them in with no problem, however it wasn’t through the thickness you might have with the doubled fabric. I’m sure she has this all figured out and I’m anxious to watch the ‘finale’ !

  • Dave

    I’m more of a Verdi/Puccini/Rossini kind of a guy, but Wagner is great for long road trips.

  • Ruth

    It looks wonderful! I’m looking forward to the next photos.

    I must confess to being a lover of old books (not just knitting!) and documents, and even bought an old account book for a long-gone Sunday school. No-one really needs to know how many oranges they bought to give to the children at their “End of the Great War” tea party, but there is something about the fact they recorded how many (and how many they sold to adults as well) which illuminates the past.

    I couldn’t bear the thought of it being thrown away. I’d give it to the local archive if I thought it would ever see the light of day again, what with the trolls guarding the entrance to the cave and all.

    I’m looking forward to your next instalment…

  • Hi guys,

    Margaret has in fact been in denial about the whole steeking thing, hoping the day would never come. But time, with remorseless tread, has all this time been stalking her and now pounces, armed with nothing more than a pair of scissors and a load of expectation… So, no pressure there, then.

    I never really got on with Italian opera, beautiful though some of the music is, especially the big arias. But it’s always been a blind spot for me (not helped by the horrible things that happen to the heroes and heroines!). Whereas the music of Wagner just blows me away. One of the innovations that Wagner introduced was doing away with arias as such, and replacing them with continual streams of melody spread over entire acts – in fact, in some ways it’s opera as symphonic music, which is more my sort of thing. Plus anyone whose operas are effectively representations of the philosophy of Schopenhauer set to music can’t be all bad! (But, er, not to everyone’s taste, I admit…)

    M. has washed & blocked the cardy out to dry, so expect more photos showing the pattern laid out flat soon.

    Cheers all,

  • Gordon

    Hi Ruth,

    I’ve been doing this blog so long I’m probably repeating myself. But when I was county archivist of Powys in mid Wales we ran a digitisation project on the history of some of the towns and villages in the county. My old friend Gavin turned up some great stuff, and gave talks presenting the website to clubs and societies. One night he went to the little village of Ystradgynlais (I think) in south Breconshire, and showed a page from an old school log book from the village school which recorded how, during a miners’ strike in the 1920s, the school had provided the children with “bread and butter for breakfast, bread and butter for lunch, and bread and butter for tea” – because the parents could not afford to feed the children. So that was their diet.

    Now, no one could stand up in front of a room of people and tell a tale like Gavin – he is a born storyteller, and has the gift. So you can imagine how powerfully he told that story. Afterwards, he told me, a woman came up to him in tears, and said that her mother had been one of those children, and she remembered her mother telling her about the strike, and the bread and butter diet.

    That was the most powerful example I heard of the power of archives to bring the past to life, and to show us that history doesn’t happen somewhere else – history is now, and England, as TS Eliot said. (Except then it was Wales) – history happens to us all.

    The trolls guard the entrance to the cave, but they step aside if a prince turns up to kiss the sleeping beauty. (But no funny stuff, mind.)


  • Gordon

    Just checked – it was Caehopkin School in the Upper Swansea Valley. You can see the extract from the document online here: http://history.powys.org.uk/history/ystrad/hopkin10.html

  • =Tamar

    It’s odd how much better the cardy looks to me with the wrists turned back. Are you going to crochet the steek?

    I bought the complete Sherlock Holmes collection because the local library did not have any of them when I wanted to reread them. Since I can’t trust libraries to have the books I want, I buy and keep them. I’d give up furniture first.

  • Gordon

    Hi Tamar,

    Yes, rolling up the cuffs completes the effect, doesn’t it? Knitting 6-inch cuffs is a bit if a drag, but it helps makes the sleeves adjustable and takes some of the pressure off me sweating to get the length just so.

    Libraries only stock books people read most these days, so out go all the classics – Dickens and co. I think the internet, ebooks and the likes of project Gutenburg will help keep many books available which otherwise might disappear.

    I’m warming more and more to ebooks – but there are few pleasures in life to compare with reading a brand new paperback with the type set just right and a good paper weight and the smell of the paper clean and crisp. Mmm. The last book that met all these criteria for me was Neal Stephenson’s SF novel Anathem – in fact I wonder if one of the reasons I enjoyed the book so much was the look & feel?!


  • Lisa Mitchell

    Well done! It’s a beauty to be sure. I’m looking forward to the steeking pictures. I’ll be holding my breath the day it get the scissors taken to it…

  • Gordon

    Thanks, Lisa. I can’t quite believe it’s over.

    To get the feel of how the cutting will go, imagine Margaret and me as little children alone in a haunted house at midnight, it’s winter, the wind is howling – or is wolves? – the shutters are rattling and somewhere a door is creaking – or is it a floorboard shifting under the weight of a bandage-wrapped horror of the undead which has pushed its way out through the damp, clayey soil of its freshly-dug grave and even now is tracking us, drawn by an insatiable hunger for the pulse of our living blood?

    The electricity is out and our solitary candle is guttering in the draught. Slowly we push open the door to the corridor and peer round the frame, and then, hand in sweating hand, we tiptoe barefoot down the hall, holding our breath, hearts beating, hands trembling, aware that any second may bring catastrophe, every breath may be our last, until – Oh my God! (And our dying screams fade on the wind, “Aaaaarrrrgggghhhhh……”)

    I think it will be pretty much like that. Other than that, I’m very confident.


  • Dave

    Funny, I’ve been hearing the theme music to “Jaws” when I think of the cutting of the steek.

  • Lynne

    Above paragraph – great beginning for a new novel, “Steeking of the Cardy”!

  • Lisa Mitchell

    I’ll read any book you write from now on!

  • Gordon

    Now, it’s a little-known fact that the hunting of the steek is a fine old Highland tradition, though these days they’re quite hard to find and the custom has almost died out. In 2007 the steek was officially declared an endangered species under the Geneva Convention.

    It used to be thought that the custom of hunting the steek – an animal described on Wikipedia as “something of a cross between a capybara, a pine marten, a duck-billed platypus and a vampire bat, with wicked, razor-sharp teeth” – was the cause of its near-extinction, but once naturalists discovered that it builds its nests on the roofs of caves (alas, not a tenable long-term survival strategy for a flightless mammal) they realised that it was simply too stupid to survive.

    Steeks were at one time greatly prized for their pelts, which made excellent sporrans, the creatures being just the right size for a handful of loose change and some folding money. The practice died out abruptly in 1889, however, after the incident known as “The Auchteruchter Horror”, in which the short-sighted laird of Auchteruchter accidentally strapped a live steek to the front of his kilt and by the time he realised his mistake he required not only an organ transplant but also a complete blood transfusion. Six women fainted and one swore she could never eat sausages again.

    The last confirmed sighting of an intact steek in the wild was on 17 February 2009, at Buckie near Inverness, innocently heading for an army bomb range. Edinburgh Zoo was thought to contain the last pair in captivity but suspicions arose when they remained for months in a state of hibernation and it was discovered that they were in fact a couple of Star Wars Ewok toys whose batteries had run down.

    The fate of the steek therefore remains a mystery…

  • I’m torn between the ebook and paper book types. I really like that I can read on my phone, and that I can keep hundreds of books with me at any time. On the other hand, I love the heft and feel of a paper book.

    At least now the programs automatically keep one’s place in a book and there are ways to add marginalia, but some books just seem better in “person”, as it were. What they haven’t come up with yet, is a way for me to flip back and forth from one secction to another. Sometimes I want to flip back a few pages, to re-read something, or I wan to check the end (or the beginning) of a story. (Often I’ll check the end of a bad-seeming book to see if it looks like it’ll be worth it at the end. I can’t do this with ebooks, which, interestingly, makes me less willing to read them at all.)

    I’m very torn on how I want my knitting books – I’d LOVE to have all of the knitting books and patterns with me, but at the same time, I like the bigger format of full size magazines/books.

    Anyway, I can’t wait to see the Steeking!


  • Gordon

    Hi SongBird,

    I gave up on modern novels for a time a few years ago after I read 3 on the bounce in which the main character was killed in the very last paragraph, once in the very last sentence. So after that I got into the habit of peeking at the last page before buying.

    I have also been known to read the end of a book, especially mystery or suspense (I know, I know) and then go back and read it all. I find I enjoy it better that way – I really have no interest in being surprised.

    Even as I type Margaret is putting the finishing touches to the pictures of the steeking and cardiganisation. I think you’ll be pleased with the results!


  • Lisa Mitchell

    Glad I’m not the only that reads the end first…