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Humber 6: 31 October – 6 November

Behold, as Walt Whitman used to say, the sea itself, and on its limitless, heaving breast, the ships. Or in this case – for we are talking about Wick harbour on a crisp, clear, Saturday morning – the ship, singular (a fishing boat, I think, not unlike the one the shark destroyed in Jaws, putting out to sea and bouncing up and down as though the sea was a giant bouncy castle).

It seems hard to imagine now, looking round the peaceful, almost deserted marinas, but at one time Wick was the epicentre of the whirlwind Scottish herring industry. In 1900 some 1,200 boats fished out of Wick, and it’s said that the record catch was some 50 million fish landed over 2 days. (Can this be true? Apparently. Personally I can’t visualise 50 million M&M’s, let alone fish, so it all goes over my head, really. But given that the population of the UK was just 38 million in 1900, that’s really quite impressive.)

I was thinking about this as I picked my way over the slippery stones, seaweed, empty beer cans and plastic bottles along the north shore on Saturday, drawn out of bed by the brilliant sun and the gulls (wearing a gansey, of course, though the old sea dog ensemble was somewhat ruined by the Boston Red Sox baseball cap…), and looking back towards the town. There are old photographs of Wick harbour absolutely crammed with ships – as the old cliché has it, masts thick as a forest – and I was trying to picture what it must have been like, the bustle, the noise, the smell. But it’s too far in the past, in a black and white era, and we live in colour now. Like the First World War, somehow it all happened in monochrome.

Work on Des’s Humber Keel gansey continues apace. The body’s long enough now that it won’t stand upright on its own any more, but collapses gracefully like a punctured soufflé, or an Edwardian lady curtseying, skirts ballooning like a hovercraft coming to rest. It’s a little over 9 inches long now, 3 inches of welt and 6 inches of body. The pattern, as recorded in Michael Pearson’s book, calls for 10 inches of plain knitting in the body before the fun starts, so if things carry on as they are I should reach that point around the start of December.

After all my preparations I didn’t get a single treat-or-treater, or door-kicker-in-er on Halloween. There were stray bangs and pops all through the evening, both then and on Bonfire Night – I assume they were fireworks, unless Wick has a gang problem with drive-by shootings I don’t know about. But other than that, nothing. Removing the shells from my shotgun, I felt curiously let down.

Ah, well. There’s something about the ocean (“the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song”, as Walt Whitman says) that makes you think. Sometimes these thoughts are profound, like Whitman’s thinking “a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future”; other times they merely remind you how much you’d like a Chinese takeaway. Whatever floats, as they say, your boat.
[All black & white photos are from the Johnston Collection – a wonderful collection of old photos of Wick. – admin.]

13 comments to Humber 6: 31 October – 6 November

  • Lynne

    Love the ‘travelog’ narration and photos of your new surroundings – and ‘old’ surroundings, especially the old photo of the fishermen in their ganseys. I’m also in a gansey today as I head to town in -4C weather – with a brisk breeze, definitely a precurser to the dreaded white stuff! The gansey is looking great too, at what measurement do you start the yoke pattern?

  • Sue

    Wow Gordon, the new gansey looks so lovely and obviously coming on apace.

    Re your question in last week’s blog, yes, I do know Kate Rusby’s version of Bold Riley – she has just the sort of voice that suits that sort of song. It’s one of the all time great versions of it. Somewhere, on vinyl so it’s a long time unplayed, I think that have a version by A L Lloyd which was the one that Hughie from the Spinners learnt his version from. It would be interesting to know where KR picked up her’s from.

    By the way, if you ever get the chance at any of the sea/folk festivals up north, try and catch a performance by StormalongJohn. They do travel the coastal circuit most summers. They’re a fairly loose knit collection of singers from the Liverpool/Merseyside area that specialise in shanties and f’c’s’le songs. And were the unwitting inspiration for a friend to write ‘The Housewives Shanty’ when they refused to allow her to join them on the grounds that shanties were about men’s work and, therefore, no women were allowed to join!

    The Chorus goes:

    Cleaning!! Huh!!!
    Ironing!! Huh!!!
    We’re all off to Tescos in the mo-orrning!

    Wonder what a ‘Knitters’ Shanty would be about?


  • So, since you didn’t get any candy-beggars, does this mean you now have loads of delicious candy on hand to help fuel the gansey knitting?

    Those pictures, and the lovely historical views, are very nice. They do make me want to visit Wick, if I ever get the chance.


  • Suzanne

    As delightfully nostalgic as the monochrome documentation of any boom (fish, timber, gold, silver, diamonds, oil) can be – outlying areas that have survived and moved on from these events are, for the most part, more charming for having been returned to their former sleepy state (minus the pop cans, of course). The ghosts of the frantic heyday hover, just perceptible in the gloaming, and enriching the fabric of the place. At least a fishing boom is unlikely to result in the town becoming a superfund site! Our Idaho ghosts all have lead or asbestos poisoning.

  • =Tamar

    Sue, don’t hold out on us! Where can we get the rest of the words to the Housewives’ Shanty? I have friends who sing and I bet they would sing it and pay royalties to your friend.

    The ganseys in that old photo are so plain, it’s clear they are work clothes. They look kind of short waisted to my modern eye.

  • Gordon

    Hi all!

    Lynne, I haven’t finally worked out the numbers yet – sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, is my motto – or, yes, procrastination! This one is rather interesting, because it has an under-yoke design, before you reach the yoke. Good luck with the snow! It’s unusually mild in the UK right now, which is fine with me.

    Sue, thanks for the tip. I don’t know the Housewives’ Shanty (ha, give them the vote and next thing you know they want to sing along too?); Stan Rogers, the Canadian folk singer who died tragically young did a fun work song about computer programmers called The White Collar Holler (“We’re hauling up the data on the Xerox line”), which is fun.

    Song, I’ve – gulp – given up chocolate, butter and crisps (chips to you) after a Serious Talking To from the doctor. So I’ve lost about a stone over the last year and the novel sensation of fitting into old clothes is so rewarding I hate to jeopardise it now! (I’d rather ruin the waistlines of the young…)

    Suzanne, Don’t mention asbestos – I’ve just discovered there is asbestos in the building where I work (“Remember, don’t ever rip that heater off the wall.” “OK, I’ll try to resist the temptation.”) But I know what you mean – there’s a resonance in towns that are filled with ghosts and memories, which a bustling metropolis doesn’t have. Could this be why they are so often deserted by the young as soon as they can move out? You have to be old, like Scrooge, to live in the past, the present and the future – the young can only live in the present…

    Tamar, yes, there aren’t many patterns in the ganseys of the Johnston collection, they’re mostly plain working ganseys. But I recommend you to search it online. We’ve come across at least one pattern I haven’t seen in any of the books, and which my fingers are itching to have a go at! As for the high waists, I assumed that was because of the high-waisted oilskins they wore in those days – but I have no evidence whatsoever for that assumption.

    Have a good day, all,

  • Sue

    Hi Tamar,

    Feels like we’re hijacking Gordon’s blog!

    I’m afraid that whilst I can remember the tune, I can only remember odd snatches of the lyrics. I’ve just dug out the original album in the hope that the lyrics would be on the sleeve but they’re not and I now have nothing that I can play vinyl on in order to remind myself either. If you are interested in trying to chase up, my friend, Pat Wilson, formed a group called the Ranting Sleazos and they recorded it on their album ‘Never Lost for Words’ which she wasn’t! Unfortunately she died a couple of years ago so I can’t just give her a ring to get the lyrics either.

    I’ve done a quick search to see if can find an illegal on-line digital copy but nothing is showing up. Rummaging through the vinyl collection has reminded me of what gems if contains so I really must get purchase something with a turntable and that will allow me to transfer it to CD or MP3 player. Once I do I@ll get back you.

  • =Tamar

    Well, a little piracy on the blog seems appropriate for ganseys. I just checked mudcat.org and found a thread about the Ranting Sleazos! Half the people seem to remember it as the Tesco Shanty, and in Sept 2011 Phil Hare posted that he has revived a slightly revised version of it as the Housewives’ Shanty. So there may be at least a version of it available eventually. The original LP was on John Heydon’s Dragon Records. Lines quoted included:
    “All bound for Tesco’s in the morning”
    and the “scurvy, spotty, idle crew” were her teenagers.

  • =Tamar

    I found a Knittershanty online!

    [also available in pdf with the music]

    And it’s … Click, knit one girls
    Purl one, Drop one, ( sodit pickitup )
    Whoops! cast off me girls, Let’s sing the Knitters shanty

    He says the tune is a derivative of “New York Girls”.

  • Lynne

    Sue and Tamar – love the Knittershanty song – now, if you can find some performers to act it, sing it, and put it on You Tube!

  • =Tamar

    I’ve found two websites that offer the Ranting Sleazos “Never Lost for Words”, both in the UK. One says his website has a clickable contact link but I can’t find it. The other charges more but may actually be contactable. Alas, I don’t do Paypal and nobody wants to cash a postal money order without exorbitant fees. But if someone were to buy it from, say, cannymusic.co.uk, I’d be happy to trade something of equal value from over here.

  • Sarah

    Looking at the picture of all those ships made me wonder how, if you happened to own one of the middle ships, you would get out of the harbor. Maybe they all just left at one time.

  • Gordon

    Hi Sarah, I wondered that too. I guess they put out together as a fleet, or the ones by the dock would be trapped. And the ones further out would have to climb over the decks of the nearer ones to reach the dock, so there wouldn’t be a lot of privacy!