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Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 2 – 24 February

“… and storms beat these rocky cliffs,
falling frost fetters the earth,
the harbinger of winter; then dark comes,
night-shadows deepen, from the north there comes
a rough hailstorm in malice against men.”

These lines have been in my mind recently—not because they’re the latest weather report for Caithness, though they might as well be, given how generally grim and end-of-the-world-ish things have been up here lately; no, these lines are from the Old English poem The Wanderer (and yes, that’s about as cheerful as it gets). The poem is splendid in its own right, of course, but it’s also fascinating to me how Tolkien incorporated elements of it into The Lord of the Rings.

Down to Earth

For example, there’s a line in the poem about the eald enta geweorc, which translates as “the old work of giants”, i.e., the prehistoric remains in the English landscape. But Tolkien took the word enta, giants, as his inspiration for the Ents, the wise old sentient tree creatures that are the moral heart of his ecology. Or take these lines: Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago?/ Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa? (which translates as, “Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?/ Where the giver of treasure?”). He adapted these for the moving poem of the Riders of Rohan: “Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?” Of course, it’s this level of detail that gives Tolkien’s universe such a feeling of authenticity, and makes it so hard to imitate: the roots of his fiction go deeper than his imitators can hope to follow.

Spring Snowdrops

This, of course, is a familiar feeling to anyone who’s attempted to recreate the more complex ganseys of the past, which brings us to my latest project, the Hebridean gansey. One advantage of horrible weather is that you don’t feel the need to get up and do something more energetic instead. So I’ve been cranking up the heating and beavering away, making good progress up the body: alternating starfish and tree panels, divided by narrow two-stitch cables. I’m using cables rather than seed stitch (which I used last time I knit this) to delineate the pattern panels for a couple of reasons: firstly, because they fit the number of stitches better; secondly because I like them; and thirdly because this is a new batch of yarn, and I won’t know my exact stitch gauge until I’ve knit a bigger sample. (This is important, because it’s intended as a gift, and I don’t want it to be too big or too small. A small variation in stitch gauge can make a big difference over 300+ stitches: but the purl stitches either side of the cables act rather like pleats, and give a degree of flexibility to the ultimate width of the garment.)

Rare Creature

In parish news, while we’ve all been talking Judit has quietly finished another gansey: this one in blue (darker than the photos suggest, but not navy; which is not a colour ideally suited to fine knitting over long winter evenings). The pattern, a fetching diamond and ladder combination, is based on one from Rae Compton’s book, Mrs Mainprize’s pattern on page 56. Many congratulations once again to Judit! (And when is someone going to reprint Rae’s excellent book?)

Finally this week, in my Anglo-Saxon reading I came across the concept of a holmgang, which was literally an “island-going”, viz., a way of going to a special place (usually an island, or holm) to settle your differences “though formalised and circumscribed violence”. I don’t know why this should come into my mind as I prepare to settle down to watch another rugby international. My team usually loses, too: but as the poet of The Wanderer philosophically observed after a particularly disappointing England vs France game: Wyrd bið ful aræd! or, “Events always go as they must…”

Hebrides II (Revisited): Week 1 – 17 February

Another week, another storm system sweeps across the British Isles, depositing a month’s rainfall in a day, gale force winds bringing down everything from power lines to trees: now we know how a ninepin feels when the next bowling ball comes smashing down the lane. At least here in Caithness we’ve been getting off relatively lightly. Partly because we hardly have any trees to begin with, of course; but mostly because we’re sheltered by a chain of mountains to west and south which seem to soak up most of the rain and snow before it can reach us. And though the fields here are now so waterlogged that I expect the farmers to switch to planting rice, the county is in effect a promontory and excess water drains off via the cliffs like waves in a heavy sea breaking over the prow of a ship.

Late afternoon snowdrops

We can’t escape the wind, though. It’s been relentless, gusting up to 60 mph for days on end. We went down to Sarclet Harbour to look at the waves. The whole sea was a churning, heaving cauldron of foam and spray, as though God had dropped a giant bath bomb into the water and then sneezed. We only stayed a few uncomfortable minutes before we groped our way back to the car, feeling like blind men who’d wandered onto the field of Twickenham in the middle of a particularly brutal rugby match. Any seagull who ventured out of shelter was whisked away in an instant: there was only time for it to swear briefly before it vanished out of existence like a spaceship in a Star Wars movie going into hyperspace.

Sea at Sarclet

In such circumstances the only thing to do is brew up some hot, strong coffee, draw the curtains against the draught, and knit a gansey. As heavily trailed last week, this is another Hebridean pattern. It’s one I’ve knit before; but that was in another country, and besides, the yarn is different. This time I’m using Frangipani Breton, a glorious coppery-red, and what a relief it is to be working with such smooth, consistent yarn again. It’s sort of a commission, for a friend-of-a-friend, and it’s going to be interesting seeing how the pattern scales down for a smaller original (42″ in the round, as opposed to my usual 46″) and with my current stitch gauge of 8 stitches to the inch. We’ll talk patterns another time, but so far I have cast on 320 stitches for the welt, increasing to 340 for the body. So far, it’s a joy to knit. (Hang on to that thought: Ed.)

Sheep on a hillside

Finally this week, more random fun with words. The Hobbit is one of my favourite books, and it’s been pointed out that—unlike in Lord of the Rings— almost all the place names in it are just nouns and adjectives (The Shire, The Lonely Mountain, The Misty Mountains, Lake Town, Dale, etc.). One exception to this is a rock called The Carrock, on the border of the skin-changer Beorn’s lands. Bilbo asks Gandalf what it means, and is crushingly put down: “[Beorn] called it the Carrock, because carrock is his word for it. He calls things like that carrocks, and this one is the Carrock because it is the only one near his home.” But this is really an in-joke on Tolkien’s part. Words and their meanings were his passion and his life; and “carrock” is his made-up amalgamation of carr [the Anglo-Saxon word for rock] and rock (as well as an echo of the Welsh word for rock, carreg). So when Bilbo asks the derivation of one of the few names in the book with a meaning, Tolkien deliberately points out the ultimate folly of derivations: names only mean what things are.

Oh, and my favourite fact of the week? In past times, sailors called penguins “arse-feet” because their feet are set so far back on their bodies… Stay dry and stay safe.

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 11 – 10 February

After last week’s media triumph I’ve alerted my agent, and the offers are pouring in. I’m already signed up for the sequel to 1917 (“1918”), where I play a gansey-knitting soldier in the trenches; a hired goon in the new Martin Scorsese project, knitting a gansey in the background while Robert de Niro pops a mafia stool-pigeon; and a wookie knitting a gansey comforter in the new Star Wars project. I almost got a part playing a knitting superhero in the new Marvel blockbuster (“it’s not the jumper we need right now, but it’s the one we deserve”) but they decided they could do me better with CGI, something I feel myself every time I look in the mirror. I asked my agent if I could get away with knitting the same gansey in each movie, but he thought not: he didn’t want me to become typecast.

So while I wait for my three o’clock makeup call—nothing to do with movies, I just believe in good grooming—here’s a fun bit of word trivia I came across this week. We’ve been listening to an audiobook by Anthony Trollope as we knit, one of his Barsetshire novels, the definition of comfort listening, and in which the expression “tuft-hunter” occurs. Of course we all know what it means: a toady, a hanger-on to the nobility. But I didn’t know its origin. Apparently for hundreds of years ordinary students at university wore a black ribbon on their mortarboards, while members of the aristocracy had a gold one. These gold tassels were called tufts, and so those who sucked up to their wearers were called… Well; you’re ahead of me, I find. But now we come to the real point of the story. Tufts had fallen out of use by the 1870s, but by then the word had shifted into slang that we still use today for a swell, well-to-do person: a toff. Isn’t that great? Word archaeology in action.

Shadows on the Bridge

Meanwhile I’ve finished the Wick gansey (as TS Eliot said on finally finishing a troublesome gansey of his own, “Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over”). It’s such a simple pattern, but when you see it washed and blocked in all its glory it’s really rather splendid. It knit up a wee bit bigger than I’d expected: maybe the chunky Wendy yarn blew me off course, maybe my cold clouded my wits, but it will serve as a spare tent for a small family when the zombie apocalypse comes so it’s not all loss. Next week we focus our minds and up our game, as we revisit a pattern from the Western Isles.

Impending Spring

Speaking of which, we just want to wish everyone well as Storm Ciara batters the UK. Hurricane-strength winds and pouring rain are forecast, turning to sleet and snow through the week as it gets colder. I joke a lot about the weather in Caithness, and we are getting gusts around 55 mph just now. But the south and west of Britain are really bearing the brunt this time, winds over 80 mph and flooding, and that’s no laughing matter. So if you can, stay home, stay safe, download an audiobook about toffs, and crank up the knitting. As for me, I’m rehearsing for a new Disney animation, in which I play a reindeer who knits a gansey for an irritating singing snowman; it’s a lot of work, though: maybe I should just, ahem, ‘let it go…’?

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 10 – 3 February

When it comes to immortality, I’m firmly in the Woody Allen camp. He once said, you may remember, that he wished to achieve it not through his works, but through not dying (“I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment”). However, as this year marks my sixtieth under Heaven, I think it’s time to compromise. So when Wick Voices, the Caithness oral history project, finally tracked me down, instead of setting off the fire alarm and escaping through the window, the natural reaction of every right-thinking Britisher when faced with a microphone, I decided instead to submit to my fate.

‘Perfect’ Reflections

I don’t know if you’ve ever given an interview where you knew you were being recorded for posterity? Take it from me, it’s a tough gig. Even if you start off well, there comes a point when your brain starts listening to what your mouth is saying and the whole thing falls apart. You become self-conscious, and try to correct what you’re saying as you say it. (Imagine riding a unicycle backwards on a tightrope over Niagara Falls while juggling half a dozen oranges; you’re halfway across when your cellphone rings—like Wile E. Coyote, you have a second or so to contemplate your ruin, and then you plummet to your ruin. It’s rather like that, only with fewer oranges.) Anyway, the subject of the interview was ganseys, with particular reference to those of Caithness. You can find it on the Wick Voices website and don’t say you haven’t been warned; and yes, I’m afraid I really do sound like that.

Fairy Glen, Latheronwheel

Turning with some relief to an actual gansey, I’m delighted to say that we’re almost there. I’m past the pattern band on the second sleeve, and can take my feet off the pedals and freewheel all the way down to the cuff. I might finish it this week, or I might not: we’ll see. One curiosity about this gansey, it’s used up more yarn than I’d expected, nine balls already—there’ll be enough to finish it, but only just. We think the chunky Wendy yarn means that there is less yardage by weight than there used to be, so it doesn’t go as far.

Harbour Reflections

I read somewhere that there is a lovely Jewish conceit that you’re never truly dead until the last person who remembers you is no longer alive. In my case it seems I am destined to live on in a boatload of ganseys, and as a disembodied voice with a floating accent and an unhealthy obsession with gussets. (We met a dog walker down by Latheronwheel Harbour last weekend. He asked where I was from. When I told him New Zealand he expressed surprise: “Oh really? I had you down as posh southern”, before adding “Well, I was sort of right.”) These days, I’ll take my immortality where I can.

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 9 – 27 January

Wait—you mean it’s still only January? Boy, this year’s off to a slow start, huh?

TS Eliot famously summed up the burden of human consciousness and the yearning for a simpler kind of existence in two of the most perfect lines in English poetry: “I should have been a pair of ragged claws/ Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”. And never have I felt more like a quick scuttle than this week, upon reading two science stories in the news—each of which have gone a fair way to boggling what sometimes passes in a dim light for my mind.

Leaf of Grass – double exposure of a hillside

The first of them concerns our old friend, low-level nuclear waste. Apparently scientists are experimenting with extracting carbon-14, a radioactive isotope, from the waste being cleaned from Britain’s nuclear power stations. If you combine this isotope with a special type of diamond that generates an electrical field in the presence of radioactive material, you create a “nuclear powered battery” offering “near infinite power”. And if you encase radioactive material in a diamond there’s no risk of it escaping. It’s early days, so who knows: but wouldn’t it be great if we could turn a problem like nuclear waste into a solution?

To be frank, I don’t really understand this, any more than I understand how a biro works or why ocean liners float—some things man is just not meant to know—so as we now turn to particle physics you should probably have some big pinches of salt ready. Anyway, there’s this big question in physics, namely: why does the universe seem to be expanding faster over time instead of slowing down? The concept of “dark energy” has been suggested to explain this, a mysterious force we haven’t discovered yet. But there is another theory, which is that gravity itself might be driving the expansion of the universe. (No, me neither.) But the bit that stopped me cold was this throwaway comment: The physicist developing the theory “is interested in the speed of gravity, which has never been directly measured and which the theory predicts could in some circumstances be faster than light…” At which point all I can do is take a deep breath, get up, go outside and look at the stars, assuming it’s night, and not cloudy, which is actually pretty rare up here, and wonder how I dare have any opinions at all given how vanishingly small my experience and comprehension of the universe really is.

First snowdrop of Spring

Well, let us avert our gaze from the heavens to something closer to home: a gansey, to keep us warm when stargazing. I’m pushing to get it done now and am making good progress down the first sleeve, helped by my cold finally beginning to shift properly. (No longer do my handkerchiefs resemble what I like to think of as primordial soup and my cough is no more that of an asthmatic sheep being goosed on a frosty morning.) This next week should see the second sleeve begun, and then we really are on the home straight.

Finally this week, just because we can, here are some more British gritter names to cheer us all up. Ready? Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, Gritsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machiney, Sir Salter Scott, Spready Mercury andwait for it – David Plowie. Makes me prouder than a blue passport, honestly…