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Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 1: 18 February

It’s a strange thing, giving a talk: you sweat for hours getting it just so, tweaking the script and adding a slide here, removing another there, playing around with the structure; and then when you stand up in front of the audience, you ignore everything you were going to say and instead just make it up as you go along. Such, at least, is often the case with me.

Of course, it only works if I’ve done the preparation beforehand and actually know my subject. Ask me to hold forth for half an hour on the battle of Waterloo or the inner workings of a gas-cooled nuclear reactor and before long the hall would be empty and the organiser would be leaving me alone in a room with a bottle of whisky and a loaded revolver, together with a hint that the caretaker will be along shortly to lock up. But when it works—when the spirit moves you, the words come and you seem to soar on a rising thermal of goodwill—then it’s a joy. 

Some off-the-cuff remarks…

I duly gave my talk on ganseys at Wick Museum last week. Most importantly, the audience seemed to enjoy it. Mind you, it helps immeasurably having the Johnston Collection of photographs of Victorian fishermen as your subject; and besides, the finest ganseys in the collection simply speak for themselves. And, for the second time since I moved to Caithness, I had one of these conversations: a lady came up to me, holding a copy of Rae Compton and Henrietta Munro’s booklet on Caithness ganseys, They Lived By The Sea. She showed me the picture of Donald Angus and his pattern and said he was her grandfather; and that her grandmother had knitted the same pattern for her as a little girl. It’s a timely reminder, when we look at these photographs, that it’s not just a record of ganseys and patterns but a catalogue of people’s lives; and that in recreating the patterns, we are honouring the knitters who made it all possible, so many of whose names are sadly lost to us.

Full House – Standing Room Only

Well, it’s time to unmask my batteries and reveal a new gansey. Of course I haven’t knit all this in a week: I started it back in December, over Christmas, and have been knitting it on and off ever since, as a sort of light relief from the intricacies of John Macleod’s gansey. It’s another of my favourite patterns, elements of which are recorded in Scottish Fleet and Yorkshire (it’s a variant of the celebrated Matt Cammish pattern). It’s another gansey in chunky Wendy yarn, Atlantic Blue. I’ll say more about it next week.

Tree Full o’ Birds

In parish news, Judit has sent through some more pictures, this time of a very natty green gansey based on John Northcott’s pattern from Cornwall, for her grandson. This is one of the family of patterns like Vicar of Morwenstow, The Lizard, or the Shackleton ganseys, which rely on basic geometry for effect, and what a striking effect it is. Congratulations once again to Judit. (Hmm. Maybe I should dedicate my retirement to devising a system that organises ganseys, not by place but by grouping together similar patterns? Then again, maybe not.)

Finally, thanks to Margaret for getting some excellent pictures at the talk. I don’t really like having my picture taken: I’ve discovered that photos taken of me when I’m, as it were, smiling, capture a wild, deranged grimace that makes me look like a praying mantis who’s just about to devour its mate, or else like a praying mantis who’s just had a pint of ice cream dumped down his trousers; either way it’s not a good look. In Margaret’s picture of me above I don’t manifest as a homicidal mantodea, and for that I am forever in her debt…

Wick (John Macleod), Week 12: 11 February

Apologies if I’m a little distracted this week—I’m giving a talk on ganseys at the local museum on Thursday…and it’s just sunk in that I’m giving a talk on ganseys on Thursday at the local museum. I’m torn between anxiety that no one will come, and that they will. As things stand, it’s not impossible that the audience will be treated to the spectacle of me standing in blushing, awkward silence while beads of sweat break out across my forehead and my lower jaw slowly sags open like the pod door on Thunderbird 2.

My career is, of course, littered with spectacular failures in public speaking stretching back over 30 years. There was the time when, in the middle of a presentation at an event where recipients of grant funding got together to share how they’d spent the money, my laptop died, taking my slides with it. This was pretty bad in itself, but then the next speaker stood up and got a huge laugh by saying, “Well, I’d thought of preparing a slick Powerpoint presentation, but having seen the previous speaker I’m jolly glad I didn’t!” (That one still gets repeat showings in the television of my conscious mind, usually around 4am on sleepless nights.)

We’ll pass over the time I stood up to speak at a local history society and an elderly gentleman in the front row fell fast asleep during my introductory sentence, snored throughout my talk, woke up again during the applause at the end and started arguing with me based on what I hadn’t said. Even Billy Crystal might struggle to sparkle under these conditions. Or the time everything broke but the projector, and I was reduced to making shadow puppets with my hands to fill in the time. Or when I had a bad migraine, hadn’t realised how bad it was and had to be helped from the stage because I was spouting nonsense words (“boorbeerians” was one, apparently) without realising it.

Oh well. On the bright side, I put in some extra hours this week and finished the Wick gansey, so it could be washed and blocked for Thursday’s talk. And now that I see it whole, I’m blown away. It’s easily one of the top three ganseys I’ve knitted. My admiration for the old knitters who devised it and knit it in a smaller gauge than I can ever hope to emulate knows no bounds. Blooming, to coin a phrase, heck.

Finally, I said at the beginning that I was distracted. This always reminds me of one of my favourite lines in The Simpsons, in an episode when Homer has to force himself to concentrate: “Can’t get distracted. Hmm, distracted, that’s a funny word. Does anyone ever get ‘tracted’? I’m gonna call the suicide hotline and ask them…”

Giving a talk, eh; I mean, what can possibly go wrong…?


TECHNICAL STUFF

Here is the pattern chart for the cuff, promised last week. It’s a simple motif, and one that appears quite a lot in “Scottish Fleet” patterns (as well as in Whitby, which doubtless shows the influence of the Scottish “fisher lassies” on the local knitters). It’s an effective design—but bear in mind that you have you keep your focus at a time when the end is in sight and you’re freewheeling towards the finish line…

Wick (John Macleod), Week 11: 4 February

I’ve been hit by a cold which set up base camp in my chest, so I took a couple of days off work last week while I tried to remember how to breathe. My voice disappeared, my sinuses felt as if they were packed with lead, so that I would slowly lose my balance and topple forwards from a standing position, and I soon learned not to look at the contents of my hankie—some things man is not meant to know—but if they ever need ideas for another Alien movie they know where to come.

Along the path

I suppose I should have gone to the pharmacy, but I must admit I’ve been avoiding them ever since I developed that allergy to chilis a year or so back. I first noticed after a Mexican meal that my lips had puffed up and there were little sores on the inside of my mouth, so I went to the chemists’ and asked their advice. The pharmacist inspected my lips carefully, then gave his verdict: “It’s syphilis,” he said. “What!” I cried, aghast, recoiling like the Blessed Virgin Mary when she found an unexpected angel in her living room. At which the man, evidently supposing my depraved lifestyle had also affected my hearing, cupped his hands and bellowed, “SYPHILIS!”, so loudly that the elderly lady beside me at the counter shied like a startled horse and dropped her cod liver oil pills, and the queue behind me took a cautious couple of paces back. Wick is not a large town and I’ve had the feeling that I am a marked man ever since.

Still, one advantage of staying home with a cold is that you can wrap up warm, prop yourself up with pillows on the sofa, and knit. As a result I have the end of this gansey firmly in my sights, and even though I expect to be back at work this week, I should finish it sometime next weekend. The left sleeve is complete, and note the fancy cuffs: no simple knit two/ purl two ribbing here. It’s a very slick effect, and it’s interesting to see that the knitters of Caithness saw the cuffs as every bit as much of a showcase as the yoke.

Signs of Spring

As for my puffy lips, regular readers will recall that, after months of trial and error—the doctor initially thought it might be a sulphate allergy, causing me to change all my toiletries and diet for several months—we discovered the culprit to be chili peppers. (Which, given that my two favourite cuisines are Mexican and Indian, shows God to have a sense of humour after all.) But I’ve been reluctant to entrust my healthcare to that pharmacist again; fully expecting to rock up presenting symptoms of a mild cold, only to be sent away with a treatment for leprosy, or something even worse…

Wick (John Macleod), Week 10: 28 January

A still from the 1930s classic, “The Maltese Gansey”…


I got into an argument the other day with someone—well, I say it was an argument, but this is Britain so we didn’t actually come to blows and I wasn’t left groping around on the floor for fragments of my teeth; but we definitely raised our eyebrows at each other in a meaningful sort of way—about the literary merits or otherwise of the Harry Potter series. My interlocutor took the position that the books were badly written and would not survive, while I respectfully disagreed.

Clouds over Dunnet Beach

Now, I’m happy to argue the toss with anyone over values; but when people say that a work of art won’t last, what they usually mean is that they can see no value in it and they hope it won’t. Anyway, predicting the tastes of the future is a mug’s game. JS Bach went out of favour for a century after his death, and performances of Mahler’s symphonies were rare as hen’s teeth for 50 years after his; now you can’t turn on the radio without hearing them. Walter Scott was the Stephen King of his day—Waverley Station in Edinburgh still remains the only railway station named after a novel—but who now reads his books?

If I’m ever tempted to get out my crystal and try my hand at a spot of ball-gazing, I remember the British music critic James William Davidson (1843-80). He famously opined that Wagner couldn’t write music; that Berlioz was a “vulgar lunatic”; and (my favourite, and one I’m saving up for a special occasion) Liszt was “talentless funghi”. And I console myself with the wise words of Jean Sibelius: no one ever put up a statue to a critic.

(Look, it’s not really this colour, OK…?)

In gansey news, I’m making good progress down the first sleeve. This sort of pattern band appears in the ganseys in several of the Johnston Collection photographs, so it seems to have been something of a Caithness feature. But for some reason I struggled with it: the endless knit two, purl one sequence stubbornly failed to lodge itself in my brain, and I found that unless I concentrated hard I naturally defaulted to a knit two, purl two rhythm, and had to keep going back, unpicking and knitting bits over. But it’s a striking effect, and no doubt I just need more practice.

Sunset at Sarclet Harbour

Finally, the poet WH Auden summed up the attitude of posterity to literary merit. Writing of the controversial French poet and dramatist Paul Claudel, in his poem In Memory of WB Yeats, Auden quipped:

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

[Apologies for the poor quality/ vivid colours of the photos this week – Margaret’s away just now, and my iPhone seems to be set on either “Humphrey Bogart” or “fluorescent blue” – normal service hopefully resumed next week…]

Wick (John Macleod), Week 9: 21 January

As a keen student of contemporary politics on both sides of the Atlantic, you won’t be surprised to learn that I’ve spent most of this last week sobbing into my handkerchief. And I was surprised to discover that the handkerchief as we know it was first invented in the Middle Ages by King Richard II of England (1377-99). Which raises a fascinating question: what did people do before that? (It also raises another question after a few seconds’ nauseated reflection: what on earth took them so long?)

Luckily there are court documents in the National Archives that capture the exact moment of discovery between Richard II and Isabella, his young French bride:

“Oyez, Richard, mon husband, come-toi back to le bed, c’est freezing. Holdez votres chevaux – ou the hell est ma duvet? Et qu’est-ce que tu fais avec mes scissors?”
“Un moment, ma petite cabbage, je suis almost done.” (He holds up a piece of cloth) “Et voila!”
“Que? C’est un petit square de ma bedsheet. Couleur moi unimpressed.”
“Non, regardez! Je honkais mon hootaire comme ça!”
(Demonstrates by blowing his nose on the square.)
“Eurgh! C’est fort unhygienic! Et très gross aussi.”
“Pas du tout, ma petite brassica de choice. C’est preferable au blowing snot rockets tout over le floor. Remembrez last year quand tout le court had colds, et j’ai dit que nous avons un infestation de slugs?”
“Oui?”
“Ils n’étaient pas slugs.”
“Je voudrais return au maison de ma maman first thing demain. Aussi, je sais that nous vivons dans les Middle Ages, but je voudrais un divorce chop-chop tout de suite.”

Fishing boat in Thurso harbour

Sadly, the fragment ends there. Richard is also credited with insisting that spoons be used at court banquets, thus ending the hilarious custom whereby courtiers had to eat soup with a fork. He’s also supposed to have installed the first royal bathhouse. (On reflection, it’s perhaps not surprising that the English deposed him and put him to death a few year years later.)

Frosty morning

But I digress. Back to the subject of John MacLeod’s gansey that I’m recreating just now. I’ve finished front and back and joined the seed stitch shoulders, and completed the collar. (And while I consider myself a rational being I’ve come to realise that I’m reluctant to make my collars 13 rows; I mean, it’s not like I’m short of bad luck, so who exactly do I think I’m fooling?) Just the relatively plain sleeves to go now.

Incidentally, the word kerchief comes from two French words meaning, literally, a head-cover. So a handkerchief means a head-cover for your hand. This has given me an inordinate amount of pleasure, rivalled only by that moment at school some 45 years ago when I realised that the German for a mitten, Fausthandschuh, meant a hand-shoe for the fist. Aren’t words wonderful?