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Cedar Gansey, Week 5: 13 August

Last Monday was a holiday in Scotland; so we went up to Sannick Bay, just south of John O’Groats (“A holiday, a holiday, and the last one of the year/ So Gordon and Margaret went to John O’Groats, the cobwebs for to clear”, as the old folk song says). The ocean was flat calm under leaden skies, though every now and then the sun would break through and make the water glitter like a tray of congealing taffy.

It was low tide and long shelves of rock were exposed, stretching down into the water like the remains of Neolithic piers. The same rock was visible in the cliffs that shelter the beach, great slabs of stone that always remind me of the ruins of a lost civilisation, or Charlton Heston discovering the buried remains of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes. (Though Margaret has politely asked me in future to wait until the other tourists have gone before falling on my knees, pounding the sand theatrically with my fists and shouting, “You maniacs! You blew it up!”)

Three seals appeared in the offing, their black snouts bobbing like buoys in the swell. One of them swam closer to stare at us, then disappeared underwater for a time only to reappear and stare at us some more, as if to say, “Look guys, what’s wrong with you? I keep turning my back and counting to 50, and yet you keep refusing to go and hide”. Everything goes better with seals.

In parish news Judit has been celebrating summer by preparing for winter, and has knit this very dashing gansey in fireman red as a Christmas present. Note the way the pattern is made up of different bands. It’s something I almost never do, my imagination not working that way, but it just shows how effective it can be to combine several different patterns; and this is a splendid example.

My own gansey is proceeding apace: the back is finished and I’m halfway up the front. I plan to give it a shaped neckline. (I know that traditional ganseys didn’t have them—though as Gustav Mahler told one orchestra who’d always played a piece of music one way, “tradition is just another word for laziness”—and this sort of banded pattern looks best with the horizontal lines unbroken by an inset collar. But in this case comfort wins out over aesthetics, and I’m sure tradition will forgive me just this once.)

Felled tree, Dunnet Forest

And if reincarnation really is a thing, I think I’d like to come back as a seal; they always seem be having more fun than me. (Though this also appears to be the case for most of creation from earwigs upwards, so maybe I should scratch that.) It’s the lifestyle that appeals—loafing around on your back all day, eating when you feel like it, and basically pleasing yourself. But now I come to think of it, I’ve already been there: leaving aside the occasional concert by Barclay James Harvest or Alberto y Lost Trios Paranoias, it’s uncannily similar to the life I led as a student in Manchester back in the late 1970s…

Cedar Gansey, Week 4: 6 August

Well, that’s summer over for another year. The Gala’s ended; the fireworks are all snapped, crackled and popped; the funfair’s packed up and departed. All that’s left are the smouldering embers of a bonfire on the little island in the river, as though some rather confused vikings had turned up late, sacked a garden shed just for the look of the thing, and sailed off back into history. (While walking down by the river on Friday I passed three council workmen on the island, standing by the crane they’d used to erect the towering mound of wood. One noticed me and shouted proudly across the water, “Is that a bonfire or is that no’ a bonfire?” Well, I was glad to put an end to his confusion: it was a bonfire.)

It’s funny the way the calendar seems to determine seasons, isn’t it? When I lived in England and Wales summer lasted all the way through August: it only ended with the bank holiday, and with schools going back the first week of September. Now I live in the far north of Scotland and autumn is already flicking the lights on and off in the public bar of Time, urging summer to finish its pint and get off home. There was condensation on the inside of the window the other day. So it begins.

Smoking remains

Still, autumn is perfect weather for wearing, and indeed knitting, ganseys. It’s time to reveal the design: it’s the classic Henry Freeman pattern, identified with Staithes in all the books but actually ubiquitous wherever ganseys were knitted. It’s part of my farewell tour of favourite gansey patterns; this was the first I ever knitted (though sizing was something of a problem back in those days; it might perhaps have fitted John Goodman, or possibly John Goodman and a couple of friends).

Spots of colour at Asda, Woking

I do love these simple, textured patterns; they always make me think of the elegant geometric designs of Islamic art, always supposing the Caliphate had had a flourishing herring industry. Plus, this one has the added attraction that it can double as a cheese grater in times of need. The atonal composer Arnold Schoenberg once famously said that despite all his theories there was still plenty of good music to be written in C Major. That’s how I feel about these patterns: there are still plenty of good ganseys to be knit in moss stitch (or double seed stitch, or whatever the hell it’s called). Besides, if it’s good enough for Daniel Day-Lewis, it’s good enough for me.

240-year-old handbells

Ah, well. Enjoy the rest of your summer, guys. Here the plums are already swelling on the tree and an autumnal dankness suffuses the woods with the piquant fragrance of locker-room socks. I’ll leave you with some of Tennyson’s most beautiful lines which, although not about autumn exactly, always come to my mind with the arrival of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.

Cedar Gansey, Week 3: 30 July

There’s an old saying that an English summer consists of three fine days and a thunderstorm, and it’s usually a similar story here in the north of Scotland, apart from the three fine days. But this has been a golden summer in which the Earth, to use one of my favourite analogies, has baked like an apple in its skin. Only after weeks of hot, unforgiving sunshine are things finally dissolving into heavy thundery showers.

Evidence of Circus

I was delighted to discover that there’s a word for the smell of fresh rain on dry ground: petrichor. It’s a made-up word—well, of course, all words are. But this one was coined in 1964 and comprises two parts: petro (relating to rocks—hence the Apostle Simon “The Rock” Peter and possibly, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or then again possibly not); and ichor (the fluid that runs in the veins of the gods in place of blood). In other words, it means a heavenly scent associated with rocks. Though I don’t know if it will catch on: it feels more like the answer to a crossword puzzle than something you’d actually use in conversation (“I say dear, the petrichor’s unusually strong this morning”; “Well, you should rub on that cream you got from the chemist’s”; etc.).

Duncansby Stacks

But I do like the idea that this is an experience that has somehow slipped through the linguistic net: we don’t really need a name for it, any more than we need a precise medical term for the back of the knee (something which I read years ago doesn’t exist and I’ve never wanted to pursue just in case it’s not actually true). There are other concepts I’d rather have a word for: e.g., the feeling of crashing disappointment you get when England, about to win a cricket match after five days of desperate struggle, suddenly throw it all away and lose with half an hour to go. Or the wave of pure joy that washes over you when you discover that, contrary to expectations, there’s another layer of chocolates under the cardboard insert.

Thistles at Nybster

In gansey news, it’s make-my-mind-up time: the end of the plain knitting on the body and the start of the gussets and the pattern. But which pattern? I can’t decide—as the old joke goes, I used to be undecided, but now I’m not so sure. The ball can only bounce around the roulette wheel of fate for so long however, and sooner or later it has to drop into a slot; the wheel is slowing even as I type.

By the way, French and German have both adopted petrichor, which is rather pleasing. I’m surprised at the Germans, mind you: they have so many words for which there isn’t an English equivalent you’d think they’d have their own for this. Still, my favourite such German word is Kummerspeck, literally “grief bacon”. This charming phrase means the extra weight you put on by emotional overeating—though as a vegetarian, maybe in my case it should be “grief tofu”…?

Cedar Gansey, Weeks 1-2: 23 July

This is going to be one of those good news/ bad news sorts of things; though which is which will of course depend on how one feels about it all.

First news first: this blog has just passed its tenth anniversary—on Friday last, in fact. Ten years! It’s practically a whole decade. We’ve all passed a lot of water under the bridge since it started; for example, I used to have enough hair to justify a haircut at the barber’s. And in that decade I’ve knitted—well, I refuse to go back and count them, but it must be in excess of thirty ganseys; and Margaret and I have published almost 500 blog posts.

Bird-laden rocks near the Castle of Old Wick

Now, supposing each post contains on average some 500 words: that’s getting on for 250,000 words. To help put this in perspective, scientists around the turn of the last century developed a scale for measuring verbosity, the Proust Scale. Marcel’s great work À la recherche du temps perdu famously contains some 1.5 million words, which gives it a perfect score of 100. My mere quarter of a million gives me a score of 16 on the scale, or one-sixth of a Proust. (Ten thousand thunders! as Proust’s Baron de Charlus is fond of exclaiming, unless I’ve got him mixed up with someone else.)

Lines and Curves

To celebrate the dawn of our eleventh year a-blogging I’ve started a gansey in a colour I haven’t knit before, Frangipani cedar. In what is possibly the gansey equivalent of Stockholm syndrome I always end up thinking whatever colour I’m working on is the best, and it’s happening again. I’ve always liked green—though I recognise it was considered an unlucky colour by many fishermen; I’m hoping to escape the curse however by avoiding any body of water deeper than a puddle while wearing it—and as so often there’s an iridescent thread running through the predominately matt strands which gives it the sort of electric shimmer I associate with tropical beetles, or the helpful sort of radiation that gives you superpowers.

I don’t know what the pattern will be yet. It was going to be one taken from the Johnston Collection of photographs of Caithness fishermen; but a closer inspection showed that to be rather less straightforward that had appeared at first sight, so I’ve decided to postpone it for future consideration. After all the cables and diamonds of Flamborough this will probably be one of the simpler geometric patterns, such as The Lizard or Staithes.

The circus comes to town. Again.

Finally, a big thank you to everyone who checks in each week to read the blog, look at the pictures and watch the ganseys grow in real time, like a time-lapse of trees in a forest. Now, when I started the blog I made a promise with myself I’d keep it going for ten years, or till I reached sixty, depending how it went. Currently over a hundred people a day on average visit this site; which is about a hundred more than I expected back in 2008! So of course I’m going to carry on. But it seems only fair to point out that I am now in my 58th year.

All the same, “Man proposes, God disposes”, as they say; or to put it another way, If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans. So who knows? For now, let’s all just take it one stitch at a time…

Flamborough, Week 11: 16 July

Strange how the mind works, isn’t it? Last week’s blog on Camster Cairns and the human remains found inside them put me in mind of something, and someone, I haven’t thought about for twenty years or more, a true story I thought I’d share with you.

Many years ago, when I worked in an archive in Mid Wales, I had a—how shall I put it?—rather impressionable young lady for a colleague. County Hall was brand new, built on the site of a former hotel. The archive was off to one side, behind a high stone wall and a fringe of trees where the old stable block had stood. It was a single-storey modern building: the strongrooms formed an extension to the rear, covered by a flat corrugated tin roof.

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The point is, there was nothing unusual about the archive itself, except possibly the exaggerated sense of isolation provided by that high stone wall; and the musty, weighty drag of history that several hundreds of years’ worth of records provides. Certainly when things were quiet sounds became queerly amplified.

Every now and again a crow would flutter down from one of the trees onto the roof, to do whatever it is crows do, and as it strutted about its claws made a high-pitched scraping noise on the metal. Well, one winter’s afternoon, when the sun had already set and the wind was making the trees creak in an ominous sort of way, and there was only the two of us in the building, the crow paid us another visit. As soon as she heard the high, thin, skreek-skreek of its claws my colleague jumped to her feet. “What’s that noise?” she cried, her hand actually to her mouth.

“Well,” I said without thinking, “you do know that the archive was built on the site of an old Indian burial ground, don’t you?”

The next thing I knew she’d grabbed her coat and was running for the door. In vain I tried to explain that I’d been joking; that this was Wales where, to the best of my knowledge, there was a notable absence of Native American burial grounds; or that it was just a bird and probably not the spawn of Satan come to claim her soul. It wasn’t until the following morning that she’d even consent to set foot in the building again. Not long after she changed her name to Esmeralda and left to study drama at Aberystwyth University, and I like to think I played some small part in her decision…

Meanwhile, back in the wonderful world of ganseys, the Flamborough is finished; and very splendid it looks too. It was blocked to 23 inches across, but given all the cables and purl columns it has relaxed to a comfortable 22 inches. (The concertina effect means it has room to expand with my waistline, should occasion demand, an important consideration.) I have, of course, already cast on my next project: more about that next week.

Finally this week I had some very sad news. It’s the nature of my line of work that I meet a lot of people who visit the archive to research their ancestors, who stay in Caithness for a brief time and move on. Recently I had the pleasure of meeting a lovely couple, Arlene Raeburn and her husband, Professor Sandy Raeburn. We spent some time talking, and then, as ever, went our separate ways. Last week I learned that Sandy had died suddenly. I can’t honestly say that I knew him at all well, but in a our few conversations together he made a strong impression on me as an erudite man who wore his erudition lightly, thoughtful, self-deprecating, with a keenly developed sense of humour. Every such loss diminishes us a little more. My condolences to Arlene and their family.