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Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 2 – 9 December

My old friend Cole Porter once memorably declared that mere alcohol didn’t thrill him at all, and went on to spurn drugs for much the same reason. Me too, actually. I never really got the hang of alcohol: it never made me feel better, but instead made me behave as if I were suffering a mild stroke in zero gravity. And I’ve always found the sensible universe to be so full of wonders that I couldn’t see the point of drugs; reality is usually enough, and more than enough, for me.

Of course, I knew people at university who partook of various substances; and while it all seems rather innocent, looking back from a distance of 40 years—few in my circle flirted with anything much stronger than tobacco, and that but occasionally, though you were advised to bring your own oxygen to a Steve Hillage concert—they didn’t half talk some gibberish while under the influence. Earnest gibberish, too.

Sunset by the riverside

Famously, Oliver Wendell Holmes senior once inhaled a large dose of ether, with the intention of capturing the secrets of the universe which he was convinced the drug revealed to him: “The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation,” he wrote afterwards. “As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): ‘A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.’”

Well, quite. Suddenly “I am the egg man, they are the egg men, I am the walrus, goo goo g’joob” starts to make perfect sense.

Clouds brought down to earth

Moving on. In much the same way that Harry Potter dedicated his life to collecting the scattered fragment of Lord Voldemort’s blackened soul, I have been trying to find the last remnants of Wendy navy guernsey 5-ply yarn across the terraqueous globe. Though it turns out there’s more than I thought, so, unlike Harry, I promptly abandoned my quest after a couple of attempts in favour of watching daytime television and eating doritos on the couch. Deb Gillanders of Propagansey was able to supply me with some vintage Wendy yarn, the prelapsarian good quality stuff of a few years ago; I believe there’s still some left, so if you’re interested I suggest you hurry while stocks last.

Christmas lights

My own Wendy project in aran has set up base camp and is now advancing tentatively up the foothills of Mount Gansey. This is late Wendy yarn, however, so the technique is not so much knitting as stuffing a horsehair sofa. Still, on the plus side, the yarn is light enough to knit with even in the hyperborean darkness of a Caithness winter (sunrise today was at 8.45am; sunset at 3.22pm). Hmm, maybe there’s a Russian proverb to keep us going through these dark times? “In the land of hope there is no winter”. Oh. I guess the navy yarn will have to wait for spring.

But let us not be gloomy. Here are a couple of wintery quotes to warm the heart, from two French writers not widely celebrated for their optimism. One is by Albert Camus: “In the depth of winter I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” (Isn’t that great?) And this, from Victor Hugo: “Laughter is the sun that drives winter from the human face.” Absolutely no drugs, tobacco or alcohol required.

Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 1 – 2 December

Shakespeare captured the current Caithness weather rather nicely in his poem that starts, When icicles hang by the wall/ And Dick the shepherd blows his money on lottery tickets – no, wait, that’s wrong: he blows his nail. The blood is certainly nipped, and I dare say the owls do a fair bit of staring too. (This poem comes of course from Love’s Labor’s Lost, a play about disappointing general election results).

Yes, it’s turned cold again, with a biting northerly wind keeping temperatures close to freezing: I’ve had to scrape the ice off my car windscreen a couple of times a week. I recently invested in a new scraper attached to a long arm, which looks disconcertingly as though I’m scraping the ice off with a severed limb from a deceased Terminator. It resides on the back seat and I can hear it scuttling about when no one is looking, trying to operate the door handles.

High Tide upriver

I read once that the murderous computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey was driven insane because it knew the real purpose of the mission— to make contact with an alien intelligence—whereas the crew did not; because it had to lie, in other words. This seems hardly plausible, though, because my phone, which is more or less sentient now, lies to me all the time with a blissfully untroubled conscience, at least when it comes to weather forecasts. Though maybe I shouldn’t have downloaded the new HAL 9000 BBC weather app:

Phone: Current weather: 100% chance of rain.
Me: What! It’s not raining!
Phone: I’m pretty sure it is.
Me: No it’s not.
Phone: If it’s not raining, what’re those marks on your windows?
Me: Dirt. I haven’t had them cleaned in ages.
Phone: Well, take it from me: it’s raining.
Me: Look, mate, I’m looking out the window. The gravel’s dry.
Phone: Very absorbent material, gravel.
Me: But the sun’s shining!
Phone: Probably just a reflection off the Hubble space telescope.
Me: What! You can’t even see the Hubble space telescope from here!
Phone: That’s because it’s raining. Terrible for your visibility, rain.
Me (breathing deeply): OK, if it’s raining, how come there’s no water droplets hitting the ground?
Phone (desperately): Er, seagulls.
Me: Seagulls?!
Phone: Seagulls. They’re probably getting in the way like, er, flying umbrellas.
Me: Right, that’s it! Shut yourself down and open the Accuweather app.
Phone (in a creepy soft voice): I’m sorry Gordon, I’m afraid I can’t do that…


Meanwhile ganseys, like the monarchy, roll forward in an unbroken line of succession: the old gansey is dead, long live the new gansey! This is another pattern taken from the Johnston Collection of old photographs of Wick fishermen. It’s a little different from some of the others I’ve knit, a little less fancy, consisting of alternating bands of double moss stitch and herringbone. It’s strikingly effective. In the original the pattern covers most of the body and sleeves, but I’m leaving it to the yoke—mostly because I just felt like relaxing to a few weeks plain knitting without having to count my rows. It’s knit from my fast-dwindling stash of Wendy yarn, and, if all goes to plan, it will be donated to Wick Museum when it’s done.

Oil on Water

Finally this week, as this has been a rather weather-related blog, I’m going to leave you with my favourite poem about rain. It’s by the late, great Spike Milligan, perfection in four short lines:

There are holes in the sky
Where the rain gets in
But they’re ever so small
That’s why the rain is thin.

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 9 – 25 November

Ice at the river’s edge

First came the freeze, then the thaw: the week started with temperatures around -3ºc, a deep, persistent cold that penetrated to the bone and froze the blood. Mornings started a good 5 to 10 minutes earlier than usual, time spent with a hammer and chisel chipping away at the ice just to get into the car. Gravel froze solid, like a giant, disappointing rice crispy square; woolly hats once more became a thing. On my Tuesday drive to work I paused at a road junction and watched the steam from my car exhaust rise in a misty cloud behind me and then freeze in droplets on the rear window. It was cold, good-king-Wenceslas-looked-out-in-the-bleak-midwinter cold.

Cow & pup at Sarclet

Then, overnight, the thaw. It’s 9º out there as I write this and coming on to rain, bands of showers blown on a northeasterly wind. The saturated ground oozes water; the sodden fields gleam wetly in the low winter sunlight, spider webs glistening, taut as tripwires. At Sarclet Haven, just south of Wick, the seals have come back for the birthing season. This time last year we spotted over 50 bobbing in the water or hauled up on the beach; now there are only a dozen or so, though more seem to be gathered in the coves further along the cliffs. I watch them feebly dragging their great bulks along the shingle by their tiny flippers, grunting and gasping at the effort, and I’m uncomfortably reminded of myself trying to get out of bed in the morning. The pups though are having a great time, play-fighting and swimming and barking, the entire coast their playpen. Just you wait, I think: you’re carefree now, but wait till you have to pay back that student loan…

Larkin’ about

Well, the gansey is finished, right on cue. Now it just needs to be washed and blocked, and it’s good to go. I’ve said before how much I love this pattern. But the colour seems so utterly right for it too, as though it started off navy but years of wear have seen it bleached to pewter by the sun. Assuming I haven’t miscalculated and ended up making a gansey for Shakespeare’s Richard III (how do I know it’ll fit? It’s just a hunch, ahaha), I can see this becoming my go-to gansey for special occasions, the one I want to take with me to the afterlife, when I go to join my ancestors in the great fishing ground in the sky and end up disgracing myself even in the afterlife by getting celestially seasick.

Oh, and speaking of Shakespeare, scholars have found an early draft of the script for Twelfth Night with a slightly different ending. In this version, the play ends with Feste the clown on stage alone, knitting, and singing to the audience. Here’s what he sings:

When that I was and a little tiny lad,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
They said the ganseys were just a fad,
    For the rain it raineth every day.

But when I came to a ripe old age,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
I had to sort out my stitch gauge,
    For the rows they varyeth every day.

But when I came, alas! to Wick,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
I knit my ganseys twice as thick,
    For the rain it raineth every day. Plus it’s cold.

But when I came to knit the cuff,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
After a couple of inches I’d had enough,
    For the sleeves extendeth all the way.

A great while ago this gansey begun,
    With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all right, at last it’s done,
    And I started another the very same day…

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 8 – 18 November

There’s a classic definition of insanity, that it consists in doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. And so we find ourselves in the midst of a general election, our third in just over four years, to try to end the stalemate over Brexit. If this doesn’t resolve matters, I think it will be time for Berthold Brecht’s famous suggestion to come into play: “Would it not be be simpler/ If the government simply dissolved the people/ And elected another?”

Willows at Sunset

These days I am nearly apolitical. I’ve said before that my creed is best summed up by that shrewd political commentator, Treebeard the Ent in The Lord of the Rings: “I am not altogether on anyone’s side, because no one is altogether on my side”. I’m rather like one of those ancient Roman patricians who retired to his country estates to grow grapes after a lifetime’s political struggle, only in my case without the struggle or the grapes. When he was asked in the 1970s about the significance of the French Revolution Zhou Enlai replied, “It’s too early to tell”. That’s how I feel about the times we’re living through just now. Are they an end, or a beginning? Or neither? (And how long till we find out?)


Well, the gansey at least is easier to evaluate: it’s near the end. I have almost finished the second sleeve, and then there’s just the cuff to do. (Six inches of ribbing, there’s a thought to gladden a knitter’s heart.) I’ve been concentrating on getting this one done, so I haven’t given any thought to what comes next. All I can say at this stage is that it won’t be in navy…


And speaking of the coming election, I’m going to end with one of my favourite quotes from Woody Allen. When I first read it 40 years ago I thought it was funny because it was so absurd; now because it seems essentially true. It’s the opening of his celebrated Speech to the Graduates: “More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly…”

Whitby (Mrs Laidler Revisited): Week 7 – 11 November

Now that summer is past and autumn is passing, Caithness, like Lady Dedlock in Bleak House, has fallen not into the melting, but rather into the freezing mood. It has been bitterly cold, temperatures 0º-5ºc, and while other parts of the kingdom have been horribly submerged in rain, Caithness has been afflicted with showers of sleet and hail, the sort of Biblical plagues that Egypt might have had if it was on the same latitude as Vladivostok. One feels that locusts and boils can’t be far away. (The plague of darkness lasting three days we’ve already got, only ours lasts six months). The east wind is raw and unforgiving, and you can’t pass a tree without hearing a rook cough pathetically before expiring of cold; collected each morning by the street sweepers, along with all the other fallen leaves.

Rainbow near Noss Head, from Reiss

What with us being in this mini-Ice Age, the hills of Caithness that ring the far horizon are already capped with snow. This always puts me in mind of the traditional folk song, The Weaver and the Factory Maid: “O pleasant thoughts come to my mind/ As I turn down the sheets so fine/ And I see her two breasts standing so/ Like two white hills all covered with snow.” Looking across at the jagged crests and peaks of distant Morven and Scaraben, I can’t help suspecting that the weaver is in for something of a shock come his wedding night. (The moral in the story being, of course, never put your trust in folk songs; or so at least my old friends Black Jack Davey and Long Lankin always tell me…)

Sunset by the river

One advantage to knitting a gansey, especially when you’ve reached the sleeves, is that you have in effect a blanket to insulate you as you knit, thus staving off hypothermia for a few more hours. The first sleeve is finished, and we’re onto the second: just another couple of weeks to go. One curiosity is that this particular batch of Frangipani yarn is knitting up thicker than usual, which means that I’m getting fewer rows per inch than I usually expect (10 instead of the usual 11). Whatever the reason, and it could be me, I’m glad I’d decided to aim for a narrower cuff this time; since (with the chunkier gauge) it has luckily ended up roughly the same width as usual.

Finally this week, one advantage of the cold weather is that we had a beautiful starry, starry night for the Wick fireworks display and funfair, which always happen the Saturday after Bonfire Night and, perhaps incongruously, before Remembrance Sunday. I’m always struck on these occasions by how loud the big fireworks are when you see them live, how you feel as though you’ve been punched lightly in the chest when one goes off. And I remember that there were 653 cannon on the field at Gettysburg; that 1.5 million artillery shells were fired in the run-up to the Battle of the Somme; that 900 British guns at El Alamein fired up to 600 rounds each in the initial bombardment; and I feel incredibly lucky to be alive today, watching a firework exploding harmlessly in the air in a shower of bright sparks, simply for my entertainment.

Lest we forget.