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Navy Gansey, Week 5: 15 October

Last night we were woken in the middle of the night. There was a loud pulsing noise coming from overhead, a deep, rumbling wom-wom-wom, and flashing lights. I looked at my bedside alarm to see the time but it was dead, all the power out. And still the deep, throbbing pulse of an engine flattened the air, louder than anything had a right to be at that time of night.

What, I thought, could be hovering over our house with flashing lights? Could whatever it was have caused the power outage? It took a few moments for my inner sheepdog to round up my scattered wits: would an alien mothership really travel thousands of light years, vast interstellar distances, only to settle on Wick for first contact? And would it—my ears finally reporting for duty, dishevelled and faintly embarrassed—travel about when it got here powered by rotor blades?

Milky Way and Moonlight

The helicopter—for helicopter it was, of course—slowly passed us, looped round and headed back to the airport. The power came back on. It was 3.00am. I forgave myself my moment of confusion: anything’s possible at 3.00am. Actually, in my case all it takes is the dark.

Once I was driving the lonely road from Llangurig to Rhayader in Radnorshire, mid Wales. I’d given a talk at a village hall, and was coming home. It was a dark, clear, early spring night, about 10.00pm. I was tired, and was letting my mind wander; anyway, the car knew the way. Suddenly I was aware of a similar wom-wom-wom, loud enough to make my fillings vibrate, and my car and the patch of road around me were illuminated by a bright light. This is it, I thought, it’s the Rapture. Finally! Then I thought: hang on a minute, why me? Before I could think of a good reason the light and the noise moved on. And I saw that a vast Hercules transport plane had crept up on me unawares, following the road, flying so low I could have bounced a tennis ball off its fuselage if I’d had one to hand. My rational mind had a good laugh at my expense: but just for a moment there…

Visiting Hour

Meanwhile in the empirical world of ganseys, I’m well embarked on the yoke of the Vicar of Morwenstow Revisited (which is like Brideshead but with more herring). The Wendy yarn continues to infuriate (my last ball contained four knots, which is a bit much for 100g) and delight by turn. I’m trying to knit a bit tighter now I’ve reached the pattern: this sort of pattern can spread if you’re not careful, making the yoke too wide, so I’m trying to rein it in. So far it seems to be working.

Finally, an update on the seals at Sarclet Haven. We haven’t seen all fifty together again but there’s still a lot of them about, black snouts bobbing in the water and a few slumped up on the beach, plus—excitingly—some young pups. There’s a tiny white seal pup on the beach just now, barely able to drag itself along a few painstaking inches of shingle but growing daily, like a slowly-self-inflating inner tube. Its whole life lies ahead of it, the book of its life unwritten. To misquote Rabelais: Go well, little seal; may your ship sail free...

Navy Gansey, Week 4: 8 October

I wandered lonely as a cod
That plumbs the deeps ‘midst hake and eels,
When all at once I saw a pod,
A herd, of fifty swimming seals;
Silent, save a booming cough,
Waiting patiently for the German tourists to bugger off.

It’s not often I compare myself to Wordsworth, but just as the great poet was moved to pen the most famous poem in the English language when he encountered a wide expanse of daffodils on the shores of Lake Ullswater one windy day, so we were utterly stunned to find no fewer than fifty seals gliding through the shallow waters of Sarclet Harbour, just south of Wick, last weekend.

It had been a grey, wet, blustery autumn day, not the kind of weather to lure you outdoors, but late in the afternoon it cleared enough to make remaining inside seem like the cowards’ option. So we drove down to Sarclet to see how the offshore wind farm was coming along: and the answer was, apace. (Soon the horizon will shrink from the rim of the world to just nine miles; and the Wordsworth in my soul can’t help regretting that.) But it was what was happening inshore that took our breath away.

At first it looked like whitecaps in the harbour, incongruously, or dozens of little black buoys. Then we saw the snouts of some fifty seals bobbing in the water. Fifty! I’ve never seen so many seals in one place. Autumn is the time of year when most seals up here give birth, and Sarclet—a small, abandoned, mostly secluded, sheltered harbourette—is one of the places where they come. The water was shallow enough to let you see them swimming underwater. Every now and again one of them would utter a wailing cry, as of a lost soul in torment; not so very tormented, though—more as if a lost soul had realised he hadn’t put enough money into the parking meter.

Autumnal Puddles

There were a couple of German tourists down on the beach taking photographs, while fifty seals bobbed in position, staring reproachfully at them, hoping they’d take the hint and go away so the seals could come on land for a bit of a breather. They didn’t, of course; and eventually the disappointed herd swam off in dribs and drabs to try their luck elsewhere. How inconsiderate, we thought. DH Lawrence, as so often, said it best, in the ending of his magnificent poem, Snake:  And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords / Of life. / And I have something to expiate: / A pettiness


It’s time to reveal the pattern. After a few weeks toying with this one or that, I’ve decided to revisit the classic Vicar of Morwenstow pattern. There are several reasons for this. First of all, I had to abandon my planned Flamborough gansey, as the yarn is just too thick for the sort of detail it demands—it will have to wait its turn with the rather more reliable Frangipani. (Or as I think of it, Wendy’s really let herself go…) So I’d already resolved to knit a more textured gansey, rather than one with lots of different pattern bands and cables.

Then I was going to knit The Lizard pattern, in three bands. But I had to abandon that as well, because 10 rows to the inch wouldn’t give me all the rows I’d need to do it justice. Now, this Morwenstow pattern isn’t banded—it covers the yoke in a single panel like the classic Scarborough basket stitch (another pattern I have in mind for this yarn)—so I don’t have to worry about the yoke being too long or too short: I can stop when it’s the right length.

Also, as I’ve said before, I have at least another gansey’s worth of this particular yarn and dye lot. So this is a good way for me to establish the row and stitch gauge, so I can plan the next one better, whichever pattern I ultimately choose.

I wasn’t satisfied with my previous attempt at this pattern, either. I did it at a time when I was changing my stitch gauge, and it came out far too saggy. The great, if controversial, composer Richard Wagner was never happy with his opera Tannhäuser, and before he died he said he felt he still owed it to the world. I feel the same way about a Morwenstow gansey. It’s time to set things right!

Oh, and my last reason: I really like the pattern and want one in navy…

Navy Gansey, Week 3: 1 October

I’ve recently discovered the Chinese writer Lin Yutang (1895-1976), who lived most of his life in the USA. He was known chiefly as a translator of classic Chinese texts, and his books helped popularise Chinese philosophy in the West. He seems to be largely forgotten now, though I feel that anyone who could write, “Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is a nobler art of leaving things undone” deserves to be better known. (Lin also invented a toothbrush that dispenses its own toothpaste: honestly, why are there not statues to this man?)

He’s endlessly quotable and you can find many of his quirky sayings online. Some are rather fey (“Human life can be lived like a poem”). But my favourite is this: “Life after all is made up of eating and sleeping, of meeting and saying good-by to friends, of reunions and farewell parties, of tears and laughter, of having a haircut once in two weeks, of watering a potted flower and watching one’s neighbor fall off his roof”. As true today as when it was written.

Autumnal colours by the river

Lin’s attitude to life can be summed up in his observation that, “The world I believe is far too serious, and being far too serious, is it has need of a wise and merry philosophy”—and as soon as I read that I knew I had found my spiritual home. Every time you pick up a book which speaks to you, it’s as if the author him- or herself were sitting in armchair across the fire (as Dickens rather creepily inserts himself into A Christmas Carol: “as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow”). There’s always something new to learn, and new friends to make, especially in the pages of a book.

Top: Frangipani
Bottom: Wendy

In gansey news, I continue to make good progress up the body. Either this ball is less uneven than others in the bag, or I’m just getting used to it, but I hardly notice the variable quality of the yarn now. It’s knitting up at around 7.75 stitches to the inch, so the width (352 stitches in the round) should be about right (22.5 inches across the body). Vertically, I’m averaging around 10 rows to the inch, rather than the 11.25 or so I get using Frangipani. I still haven’t settled on the pattern yet, but it’s going to be one of the simpler ones, I think: there just won’t be enough rows for a fancy one.

Wandered lonely as a cloud . . .

And let’s end with Lin Yutang, as we began. There’s much wisdom to be found in his writings, amid the merriment. For instance, his comment on religion—”All I know is that if God loves me only half as much as my mother does, He will not send me to Hell”—sums up pretty well how I feel about the subject. But it’s another observation of his that I’ve been thinking about recently, especially when applied to the political situation across the globe: “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set…”

Navy Gansey, Week 2: 24 September

Here’s a milestone for you: this is my 500th post on this blog. It’s statistics like this that make me feel that it would—if I were, say, an elderly, hard-working sheepdog—be about time for pa, surreptitiously slipping the family shotgun under his coat, to regretfully announce to ma and the kids that it’s time I took a trip to “sheepdog hospital”. (And à propos of nothing, this raises an interesting question: do insomniac sheepdogs count sheep to relax, or is that too much like work?)

Space Stations

Sheep and dogs have been much on my mind this week, ever since I came across an interesting insult in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Sir Toby Belch—winner of the 1602 BAFTA for Most Subtly Named Character in a Play—exasperated by the uptight steward Malvolio’s arrogant airs and graces, exclaims, “Wouldst thou not be glad to have the niggardly rascally sheep-biter come by some notable shame?” And I thought: you what?

Seaweed and Stones, Nybster

Turns out a sheep-biter refers to a dog that, well, you’re ahead of me already, bites sheep; and by extension, someone who persecutes the innocent. Isn’t that great? For Malvolio is a humourless killjoy, clamping down on the drunken revels of Sir Toby and his cronies; and so “niggardly rascally sheep-biter” manages to be both witty and insulting at the same time. I plan to use it at my next appraisal. English is so versatile, for all that Joseph Conrad once complained that writing in it, compared with French, “was like throwing mud at a wall”. He meant it as an insult; I take it as a compliment.

Noss Head

In gansey news I am well embarked on the body of my navy project. But I’m two balls in and the yarn is still periodically thick and unwieldy, as if someone had misunderstood the idea behind lace knitting and was using the cocoons instead of the thread. Although I cast on my standard number of stitches—336—for the welt, I decided to only increase this by 16 stitches for the body, as I was concerned it would knit up too big. This is starting to look like a good decision; we’re talking seriously chunky here.

And so we leave the world of Shakespearian insults for now. There are so many to chose from: “Would thou wert clean enough to spit upon”; “I’ll beat thee, but I would infect my hands”; and “I scorn you, scurvy companion”, the latter always useful when someone asks for a lift home from work when it’s raining. But that will have to wait for another time.

For now I have a new motto: Gansey Nation: throwing mud at a wall 500 hundred words at a time

Navy Gansey, Week 1: 17 September

It’s been a punishing couple of weeks, all things considered, so this time I thought I’d accentuate the positive. TS Eliot famously alluded to classical literature and civilisation when he wrote, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins”; in my case it’s mostly ganseys, other people and bad jokes.

Wick Lighthouse

Regarding jokes, it’s not just about wordplay and puns—though those are important too; such as They Might be Giants singing that someone’s shoes “are laced with irony”, or “If it wasn’t for disappointment I wouldn’t have any appointments”. But absurdity plays a part: I’ve always loved the moment when Homer Simpson careens the car dangerously towards the railway tracks and Marge cries, “You’ll kill us all!”, to which Homer magnificently replies, “Or die trying!” Or the old Scots joke that if an enemy was ever involved in an accident, you’d be the first person to write for an ambulance.

People, to quote the great Homer Simpson on beer, are both the cause of, and the solution to, all life’s problems. Well, today we’re looking at solutions: and it was with great pleasure that we welcomed Ben and Lisa to Wick last week. Ben’s a fellow gansey knitter (you can follow him on Facebook where you can see us both posing in matching Patrington ganseys). If I learned anything from the visit, it is that (a) I’m morphing into Uncle Albert from Only Fools and Horses more rapidly than I’d hoped, and (b) an evening is nowhere near long enough to say all there is to say about ganseys.

Boats in the Harbour

En route to visiting Wick, Ben and Lisa had met up with Yasmin of Island on the Edge on Skye, and brought with them a skein of her excellent yarn. This of course gives me another excuse to mention her wool, knitting and courses. I may never make it back to Skye in summertime, since there are now more tourists than midges on the west coast and no known cure; but I live in hope.

How to Photograph a Gansey

Meanwhile I have—is anyone honestly surprised?—started another gansey. This is in Wendy navy, of which I recklessly bought a shedload in a sale a few years back. I’m rather dismayed to discover that something seems to have happened to Wendy—her yarn is much fuzzier and thicker than I remember, so it’s a bit like knitting a gansey made from hairy caterpillars. I’m going to see how it knits up before I commit to a pattern, though I’m guessing my stitch gauge will be nearer 7.5 stitches to the inch than 8 stitches. (More on this next week.)

Finally in parish notices, Judit has sent me what is unquestionably the cutest gansey-related photograph I’ve ever received. I won’t spoil the surprise: you’ll just have to follow the link to Judit’s page. But if you’re after inspiration for gansey-related Christmas gifts, look no further.

Oh, and as for my favourite joke right now, try this one for size. A sheepdog tells the farmer he has fifty sheep. “Fifty?” exclaims the farmer, “I’ve only got 47.” “Well,” the sheepdog says, “I rounded them up.”