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Flamborough III: Week 4 – 14 June

In an idle moment this week—and as I get older I find these moments rarer and to be savoured—while Keats may have opined that a thing of beauty is a joy forever, I find my joy these days in the chance to put my feet up, let my jaw go slack and my mind go wander—”idle” being my favourite answer as a child to the perennial question of adults, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Where was I? Oh yes, idling—I found myself wondering about the origins of the word skinflint. It means, as you’d expect, someone who’s so mean they’d skin a flint, though exactly what that would achieve rather escapes me. (The websites that tell one this also refer to the French expression “to shave an egg”; but honestly that just raises more questions.)

Silene flos-cuculi

Apparently Americans, who do these things so much better, used to describe a mean person as someone who’d skin a louse, or skin a flea for its tallow, which at least feels like a sort of benchmark of miserliness. My favourite, though, is the 1785 word “nipcheese”. Originally used for ships’ pursers, who would trim the viands for profit, it conjures up visions of someone with an illicit passion for cheese that had, like Conrad’s “Mistah Kurtz”, beguiled his unlawful soul beyond the bounds of permitted aspirations somewhere in the dairy aisle of Tesco’s. (Sadly my idea for a book based on a tour of cheese-producing regions of Spain, Fromage to Catalonia, never caught on.)

Sea Thrift on the cliffs

Meanwhile, one knits. It still surprises me how each day I seem to be making next to no progress, only to find at the end of the week that the gansey has grown by another three-and-a-bit inches. It’s the kind of pattern where I have to pay attention, and it’s fatal for my mind to wander—as it might, on the origin of words—or else I find myself in Queer Street, unpicking stitches with all the relish of a Victorian convict picking oakum. Still, so far so good, and it feels like a perfect match of pattern and colour.

Finally this week, it was a great pleasure to be invited back to speak with Dotty Widman’s Cordova Gansey Project web kitting group on Thursday. When I first started knitting ganseys back in the 1980s it seemed as though the tradition was, if not actually at an end, at least close to it; and that the handful of reference books had captured the last embers of a vanished world. But over time it’s become clear that the tradition hasn’t died—it’s just evolved, and many knitters have not only kept it alive, but enabled it to grow and change into something rich and strange. So it’s great to engage with so many enthusiastic knitters from all over the world, and here’s to Dotty, and Deb Gillanders, Liz Lovick, Penelope Hemingway, Beth Brown-Reinsel, the good people at the Scottish Fisheries Museum and Sheringham Museum, and so many others, not just preserving the sacred fire, but kindling torches to pass onto a new generation.

9 comments to Flamborough III: Week 4 – 14 June

  • Strange … ah yes I resemble that statement. Like putting a film strip motif into my skiff man son’s fishing gansey, or a DNA cable for a strap and down his arm… SO great to have you back and sharing all those wonderful photos. I remember in the 80’s savoring those books and connecting so closely with the faces in the photos. No internet in sight back then, and now, we are so wonderfully connected and able to share stories so easily across oceans and around the world. Thank you and Margaret for your commitment to share. It is so appreciated by all of us. They are fishing today. Let’s hope here they are able to continue to do so, and meanwhile, and least for my family of harvesters, there will be ganseys all around. Take care with kind regards,
    Dotty & the Cordova Gansey Project.

    • Gordon

      Hi Dotty, it was a great pleasure, as ever, though I could see the fairy godmother tapping her foot towards the end, as it was past my bedtime and she had to return the coach-cum-pumpkin before the clock struck midnight…

  • =Tamar

    Never having looked it up before, I always thought skinflint came from the idea that someone was so miserly that they were entirely un-tender, had flint-hard skin. I suppose it could come from flint-knapping, taking off slivers of stone to create a sharp edge, hence a sharp person, including the sense of sharping as cheating. The gunnery association also seems likely.

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, the thing with skinning a flint is, it seems to me, the sheer effort of getting the skin off; something that would, to mix metaphors, hardly make it worth the candle…

      • =Tamar

        I have a book on how to do flint-knapping. It seems that one of the helpful secrets is having a correctly shaped piece of wood to apply pressure to the stone. I have never tried it, as flint is not found in the wild anywhere I have lived.

  • Eve

    It’s not unpicking it’s working backwards! Think of it as a crafty three point turn, a skilled manoeuvre taking you back to a good place.

    • Gordon

      Hi Eve, and full marks for your optimism! Unfortunately my three point turns, far from being crafty or skilful, end up being stress-filled 10-20 point turns that never finish up with me in a good place…

      Maybe those nice people at Apple, instead of fooling about with driverless cars, could dedicate some of their time to something useful, like a stitch-unpicking robot?

  • Lia

    I’m one of those who tune into Dotty’s Cordova Gansey group zoom, and it is always so nice when you’re our “guest speaker”! I loved your slide show of various ganseys new and old, and hearing about who wore them and where the motifs likely came from and changed. Thank you so much, Gordon (and Margaret, in the background)!

    • Gordon

      Hi Lia, ah, that’s very kind of you! It’s always a pleasure joining the group, though I’m usually running in fumes by the end, I’m so tired after a long day’s archiving. But I always have fun, and only realise after how late it’s got..

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