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.]