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Wick VI – Scottish Flag, Week 4: 6 February

I read the other day that back in 1979 Mrs Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister, attended the premiere of the play “Amadeus” which shows Mozart as both potty-mouthed and immature, and was not amused. Afterwards she roundly upbraided the director of the National Theatre, Sir Peter Hall, for portraying the composer of such beautiful and profound music in this way. But Prime Minister, he replied, Mozart really did behave like that—he used obscenities. His own letters confirm it. But Mrs Thatcher was unmoved: “Mr Hall, I don’t think you heard what I said. It could not be!

Seaweed & Driftwood, Dunnet Beach

Now, given that Mozart’s catalogue includes the piece, “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” (K.231—look it up), I think Mrs Thatcher was talking out her—that is to say, I think she was mistaken. But the interesting thing is the way we can get an impression of an artist from their work that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story.

When I listen to Wagner’s music, for instance, the long, ponderous operas about gods and legends, I can’t help remembering they were written by a man who used to slide down the banisters when he was happy, and do handstands, and climb the trees in his friends’ gardens for fun. Dvorak was a keen trainspotter. Beethoven used to count out exactly 60 beans every time he had a cup of coffee. Brahms was a notoriously shabby dresser and allegedly once had to use his tie to stop his trousers falling down. I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except that it seems to make their music more human, somehow.

Meanwhile in gansey news, while I’m still off work I’m continuing to make rapid progress. So I’ve finished the body, joined the shoulders with a standard rig ‘n’ fur shoulder strap, completed the collar and am a long way down the first sleeve. I may even get it finished by next time, but there’s a lot of knitting in a sleeve, so we’ll see. (As I’m knitting at approximately 8 stitches to the inch I picked up 144 stitches round the armhole, and am decreasing at 4 stitches every 11 rows.)

Waves at John o’Groats

In parish news, Mariah has sent me pictures of a splendid gansey knit for (and stylishly modelled by) her father, a striking combination of ladders, double moss stitch and cables; the colour really brings out the pattern very effectively. Many congratulations to Mariah, and apologies to her too for having to wait for Margaret’s return before we could post them.

And now I think I’ll go and listen to some Mozart. And imagine that, somewhere up in composer heaven, Margaret Thatcher is paying Mozart a visit and hasn’t yet realised that he’s put a whoopee cushion on her chair as he politely holds it out for her…

Wick VI – Scottish Flag, Week 3: 30 January

Sunday was a beautiful day, cold and crisp and clear, so I went for a walk up the river. There was a hazy sun reflecting on the water, high tide flooding the marshes which were crammed with wildfowl lazily sleeping off their Sunday dinners.

I’d stopped about half a mile up the path to take some pictures when a man came by walking his dog. “If you want some really good photos,” he said, with what seemed to me a rather questionable enthusiasm, “there’s a wounded deer further on. You can’t miss it! Great photo op!”

Well, I resumed my walk and soon encountered a couple with a pushchair. The man was carrying the deer in his arms: it was about the size and weight of a rolled-up duvet cast in lead, and when he was a few feet away he stopped and laid it down carefully in the grass, then stood panting to recover his breath. The woman was on her phone, trying to reach some organisation which might help. The deer had an open wound just behind the shoulder, wide and deep enough that you could see some of the internal workings, but clean and not bleeding.

The man explained that they’d found the deer—they run wild in the fields nearby—being worried by the other man’s dog, which wouldn’t leave it alone. It was well enough to stand, and was obviously eating all right, but was exhausted after fending off the dog. I looked at it: the poor thing sat there apparently quite unconcerned, until you noticed the quivering skin, the rapid breathing. The man said they hadn’t been able to leave it at the mercy of every loose dog that passed; they’d phoned a vet, but he’d declined to help on the grounds that they never bandage a wild animal.

Wick Riverside

The woman was now close enough for me to hear her conversation. “Yes,” she was saying. “On the north bank of the river, near the viewing platform. You know, there’s a couple of trees and—what? Riverside it’s called. By the river. Sorry? Oh, Wick.” There was a pause, then she said acidly, “Caithness. What? Yes, John O’Groats—near there.” She put her phone away and shook her head. “It was a central number. Someone in Glasgow.”

The man’s evident fatigue and the presence of the pushchair exerted considerable moral pressure, so I offered to help carry the wounded deer back to town. But the man would have none of it: “It’s minging,” he said—and indeed, I could smell the wild animal reek from several feet away. “You don’t need that all over you,” the woman agreed, gesturing ruefully at her stained jeans. “We were going to Tesco’s,” she sighed. “Not smelling like this we’re not!” She hefted the deer gently up in her arms and off they went.

This is a story without a punchline—I don’t know what happened afterwards. But I like to think that even now it’s lying in bed in deer hospital, flicking through the channels on the tv remote, and arguing with the nurses over the dinner menu (“What do you mean, roast beef or chicken? I’m a bleedin’ herbivore, me”). The wound on its back looked nasty but not serious; I’m choosing to believe this is a story with a happy ending—as opposed to the alternative… (Veal cutlet, anyone?)

Boats in the Marina, with added spray

Gansey Technical Notes:

Flag pattern, 10 stitches wide by 9 rows high

I’m signed off work, and Margaret is still away—which I guess explains the rather startling progress.

The design is taken from Rae Compton and Henrietta Munro’s book on Caithness ganseys, They Lived By The Sea, and it’s one of the more common patterns in Wick Museum’s Johnston Collection photographs too. Rae Compton calls it “the Scottish Flag Pattern, sometimes known as the kilt pleat pattern”. In her examples each repeat is 7 stitches wide and 6 rows tall (the equivalent of 1 inch wide using 3mm needles).

First question: how big should I make my pattern repeats—how many should I have? I zoomed in on one of the examples in the Johnston photographs and counted 18 repeats across the yoke. That seemed like a good proportion to aim for here.

I’d already worked out that my yoke would have approximately 180 stitches, so if I wanted to have 18 repeats in my gansey the maths was relatively simple, even for me: each yoke is therefore 18 x 10 = 180; i.e., 18 panels of 10 stitches each, plus an extra 2 stitches for the fake seams, and another stitch each side of the yoke to serve as pick-up stitches for the armholes. All in all it’s 366 stitches in the round.

You can see at once why it’s known as a pleated pattern: it knits up full of texture. I feel that really complex patterns get lost in the dark hue of navy yarn, but it comes into its own for this sort of simple pattern that relies on light and shade and repetition to make its effect. And this is just the sort of simple pattern I love, though I may have to iron it to keep it flat.

Rae (I feel we know each other well enough to be on first name terms by now, don’t you?) describes this as a “perfect starter pattern”, and I know what she means. It’s simple to plan out and simple to knit—and so long as you don’t lose concentration (*cough*) or lose count (who me?) you can’t go wrong. It’s also one of those patterns which is as easy to knit on the reverse side as the front.

Wick VI – Scottish Flag Weeks 1-2: 23 January

Guess what I’ve been doing…

Picture the scene: it’s 2.30am, and I’ve been jolted out of a restless sleep. I’ve heard a sound (but what?). I’m a light sleeper and a moth stropping its antennae is usually enough to wake me, but this is different. I lie staring in the darkness, listening to the beating of my heart. I am alone—Margaret is still 600 miles away.

There it is again. The ceiling creaks above my head, footsteps moving from left to right. There is someone in the attic. A burglar? But wouldn’t a burglar start at the bottom and work up? And he’d need a pretty long ladder to reach the attic windows, unless he brought his own cherry-picker, which, on reflection, seems unlikely. A fireman, then? Was the house on fire and I’d failed to notice? But firemen usually come through the door with axes. If not a ninja fireman, then what?

Wick Harbour

The steps move again, from right to left. In the dark it’s like listening to a Pink Floyd album on headphones. The attic is Margaret’s workroom, where she keeps her yarn and fabric stash. Maybe the burglar is making himself a stylish mask out of old curtain remnants before ransacking the house? This, I decide, shall not stand. I turn on the light and get out of bed. I go out into the hall. Out here all is silent. There are no lights upstairs. I retrieve my old Morris dancing cudgel from the spare room and think bitter thoughts about the doctor’s advice to get some rest. I grit my teeth and climb the stairs, cloaked in the armour of righteousness and a rather natty blue dressing gown, brandishing my cudgel like a Wee Willie Winkie who’s let himself go.

Well, reader, I went from room to room; I checked the closets and behind the curtains but intruder found I none. In the end I turned out the lights and went back down, not without a few nervous backward glances and, it now being 3.00am, returned to bed. Whereupon the noises began again. A poltergeist? I was just commending my soul to God when there was a rapid scrabbling, and all became clear: some wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie had managed to get into the floorboards between my room and the attic, and was noisily exploring.

Sunrise over the river… at 8.45 am (sigh)

It worked its way leisurely through all the lessons in “Tap-dancing For Rodents in Ten Easy Steps” and finally buggered off around 5.00am. Some time later I fell asleep. But I’d forgotten to turn off the alarm, and the shock when it went off an hour or so later left me thrashing around like someone who’s just dropped their hair drier in the bath. (At this point I felt an actual burglar would have been an improvement.)

Some sort of bird in the Marina

Och, weel—it’s not like I need to sleep or anything. Meanwhile, I have been knitting. A lot. And when I say a lot—well, you can see for yourselves. I started this gansey ten days ago, and am almost up to the gussets. It’s Wendy navy yarn this time, and I set myself the challenge of knitting the body in a week. I haven’t quite managed it, and will in any case slow down now—not least because knitting’s supposed to be fun and this makes it too much like work. (And at least I know I couldn’t knit ganseys for a living; though I can do miniature karate with the calluses on my index finger.)

Tune in next week for maybe even a bit of pattern…if I’m awake enough to write it.

[Apologies again for the quality of some of the photos this week in Margaret’s absence—normal service will hopefully be resumed next time]

Wick V – Donald Murray 8: 16 January

Winter came to Caithness this week. I don’t mean the usual 60-70 mph winds, leaden skies and rain—though we had those too—but genuine snow and ice, skating-on-the-Thames kind of weather. It’s melting even as I type this, rain and dank fog turning the crisp, white snow to grey slush, but it was fun while it lasted.

Wick River

The snow arrived borne on a hyperborean wind, straight from the Arctic; it didn’t settle at first because it was blowing horizontally, just passing through, you might say. I went out for a walk and when I turned into the wind my glasses rapidly became coated, everything whited out until I was effectively blind; it was like a time-lapse of developing cataracts all over again. In a very few minutes I was transformed into a sort of walking snowman, and I had to dodge swiftly to prevent some children from sticking a carrot and some lumps of coal in me—at least I think it was a carrot.

In other news, I’m sorry to say that I’m signed off work for another month. A friend who’s been through something similar told me that it’s like being a battery that’s gone flat—you think you’re recharged, but you go flat again very quickly—and I think that sums it up pretty well. (Of course, it doesn’t help that both my parents are currently in hospital away down south in England, and Margaret’s gone to help out.) Anyway, the doctor felt I just need more time.

Miller Avenue, Wick, now apparently twinned with Narnia.

So, looking positively, time is what I have plenty of right now; and you’re never bored if you have some 2.25mm needles, a woolsack of Guernsey 5-ply and a box set of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, as any fule kno*. So I’ve completed the somewhat-too-large cream Wick gansey this week and darned in the ends—though it won’t be blocked till Margaret gets back, which, also on the plus side, means no photos of me wearing it and looking like a 12 year-old trying on daddy’s clothes; albeit a bald, bearded, chubby 12 year-old (what can I say? I was a precocious child).

Casting on the new gansey—the loops are stitch markers every 50 stitches to make counting easier

I’ve also cast on my next project, another Wick gansey inspired by the wonderful photographs of the Johnston Collection, this time in Wendy navy yarn. This one will feature a Scottish flag patterned yoke, the same design of half-flag that appears in the classic Mrs Laidler pattern. More on this next week, but be warned: I’m already 3 inches up the welt.

By the way, the fact that Margaret’s away just now means that (a) the quality of the photographs will necessarily nosedive, and (b) I won’t be able to post any pictures of ganseys people send me; you see, in the absence of Tech Support I’m not entrusted with the website’s command codes (at my own request—as otherwise it’d be like putting Mr Bean in charge of engineering in the Starship Enterprise…)

Normal service will resume, well, eventually.

[*Down With Skool by Willans and Searle reference—what do you mean, you haven’t read it?!]

Wick V – Donald Murray 7: 9 January

So there we are: 6 January is past, the Feast of Epiphany and Twelfth Night, and all the decorations and tinsel are packed away; Christmas is officially over, departing like a  travelling funfair, and we’re left to wonder if that packet of magic beans was really worth blowing the kids’ college fund on after all.

Rainbow at Dunnet Beach

Epiphany is also the day that traditionally marks the visit of the three wise men to the nativity of the baby Jesus. The wise men were Zoroastrian magi, which is of course where we get our word magicians from. Their names, if I remember correctly, were Caspar, Melchior and the Great Zucchini, and they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and a selection of comedy noses and some pigeons tucked up their sleeves.

Joking aside, I always feel there’s a genuine poignancy in the story of the visit of the magi: for the Zoroastrian religion was one of many that got swept aside by the new faith of Christianity. So the story of the nativity not only represents the manifestation of divinity in the affairs of men: but it also shows the old order giving way to the new. These wise men would be among the last of their kind.

Walking the dog

Also coming to an end is the current gansey: I have finished the first sleeve and am almost halfway down the second. With a fair wind I should finish it this week, then will just have need another week or two to darn in all the loose ends (serves me right for using 100g balls). You’ll have to wait a bit to see it blocked, I’m afraid: Margaret’s going to be away for a couple of weeks.

The ghost of ganseys present…

Meanwhile, and bear with me here, I wonder if you’ve ever bought any wool that was possessed? It seems to have happened to me. I was cheerfully working my way through one of the balls of yarn on its holder the other day when I happened to turn round and saw a face leering back at me. It gave me quite a shock, I can tell you.

Well, few things are more disconcerting than being sneered at by your yarn. It was rather hard to concentrate: I kept wondering if I was going to be visited by three ghosts and told to mend my ways. But I kept working away, invoking the protection of St Blaise, the patron saint of wool combers, and with every length of yarn I drew from the ball the more worried the face became; until it finally dissolved into a shapeless tangle and the spirit was released with a low despairing moan, probably to haunt some polyester sweaters in Marks and Spencer.


Anyway, in commemoration of Epiphany I leave you with the traditional carol as I learned it as a schoolboy in Northampton in the 1970s (in fact there were other versions: this is one of those best suited to mixed company):

We three kings of orient are,

One in a taxi, one in a car,

One on a scooter blowing his hooter,

Smoking a fat cigar…