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Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 3 – 8 April

I came across a great quote this week. Admittedly, I read it in the comments section below an online article on Brexit—I know, I know, I keep promising myself I can quit any time, and yet here I am. To quote the Biblical Proverb: “As a dog returneth to his vomit, so Gordon returneth to articles about Brexit in the Guardian newspaper”.

Anyway, here’s the quote: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Apparently the exact origin of the phrase is disputed, but it was said most famously by Eleanor Roosevelt, which is good enough for me. As a warning against mean-spirited gossip it’s excellent. But it also seems to me that most of the trouble in this world is caused by people with small minds being seized with big ideas, which leads inevitably to bad events. (“That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent”, as Wittgenstein famously said when someone asked him what he thought about Brexit. If only others felt the same.)

Old Lifeboat Shed, Wick Harbour

Well, knitting ganseys is a great idea, and finishing one is always an event, so we probably qualify for the Eleanor Roosevelt seal of approval. The Scarborough gansey in navy is clearly outstripping the Wick gansey in cornish fudge, a reflection of the respective hours I’m working on each. Plain knitting, as in the Scarborough body, is always a breeze; but I must admit I find the Wick body pattern hard to warm to. Don’t get me wrong, it looks great, especially at the end when it’s been blocked. But the pattern of knit 5, purl-knit-purl-knit-purl-knit-purl is like running with shin splints: just when you’re hitting your stride you have to keep stopping for a few halting steps, then you’re off again. But my routine of a couple of rows a night is already reaping rewards; and as we know, people who knit ganseys shouldn’t be in a hurry anyway.

Driftwood on Keiss Beach

Finally this week, I came across a rather delightful mishap from the newsletter of the Dounreay nuclear facility, which is currently being dismantled and decommissioned. Well, the iconic building at Dounreay is the Fast Reactor, which is basically a vast ball or sphere (known, unsurprisingly, as “the Sphere”). Some decades back a worker inside was leaning on the rails, facing towards the walls of the Sphere when “he sneezed energetically and his dentures flew out of his mouth and disappeared down into the bottom Sphere skirt”. Who knew? Nuclear waste with bite…

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray): Week 2 – 1 April

The clocks have just gone forward, which is always a shock to the system. Sure, you get an extra hour of daylight in the evening, but the mornings are the equivalent of nature throwing off the duvet, spraying water in your face and shouting, “Surprise!”. (Actually, to be fair, most of my mornings feel like that anyway, but you get the general idea.)

York Minster, south side

I’ve never fully got my head round daylight savings time. I just assume it’s got something to do with Einstein’s relativity, or possibly cows—or possibly not. When I was younger it was a source of some irritation every six months to manually twiddle every clock in the house forward or back an hour; now I find I only have three clocks that require a manual adjustment, and one of those is in my car. All the others are apparently sentient, and probably have an opinion on Brexit. Even the central heating just “knows” the correct time. I feel that the AI enslavement of humanity is creeping closer, one radiator at a time.

I found myself standing in the lounge this morning adjusting the hands of a carriage clock and feeling like one of those bygone workers of old, a cordwainer perhaps, or a lamplighter, a fish curer, or a knocker up (best not to ask). I imagined myself getting a job in a museum, explaining to parties of enthralled schoolchildren how we used to tell the time before computers were invented, starting with dandelions and working my way up to sundials, and reflected that I have now lived long enough for my life to become its own heritage. I thought with a surge of pride, Ha, I may not know how to use WhatsApp or Twitter, or even be sure what they are, but I can adjust the hands on a carriage clock: take that, technology! And then it dawned on me that I was using the display on my mobile phone to tell me what time to set the hands to…

Stone balls, Edinburgh

In gansey news, it’s been a heads-down just-get-on-with-it kind of week. It’s week two of my perhaps rash attempt to knit two ganseys simultaneously, and already the navy gansey is pulling ahead. The is partly because it’s more of the Wendy chunkier yarn, so there are fewer stitches and rows. But I’m also just knitting it more. The Wick pattern is a long-term project, just a couple of rows a night at the moment.

Rooftop cat sculpture, York

Finally this week, the sad news that Shane Rimmer, the actor who voiced Scott Tracey in Thunderbirds, has died. He was a voice of my childhood, and what a distinctive voice it was. Though even as a child I was troubled by the grammatical implications of the Thunderbirds slogan, “Thunderbirds are go!” Shouldn’t it be, I wondered, “Thunderbirds are going”? Or possibly “Thunderbirds have gone” (or even, in Northamptonshire dialect, “Thunderbirds have went”)? But I looked it up. Turns out, in military jargon, it means “Thunderbirds are now doing something which was previously discussed, and we’re not referring to it by name for reasons of operational security”. Who knew? (Other than the military, obviously.)

Anyway, tune in next week to see how my ganseys are go. Going. Went. Whatever…

Scarborough / Wick (Donald Murray), Week 1: 25 March

March came in like a lion, and it’s going out like a lion too; a bad-tempered lion who’s lost his car keys and has just learned his favourite TV nature documentary series has been cancelled. (And I can’t help thinking that sooner or later evolution is going to produce a lion savvy enough to sign his own contract and demand royalties from David Attenborough; after all, it worked for the Pink Panther.)

It’s been a wild week outdoors, rain and hail and gusts over 50mph, with just enough passages of glorious sunshine to keep you off balance. All the daffodils had come out early, lured by the unseasonable warmth, and now they obviously regret it, hunkered down with an unwilling, miserable air. I took a holiday last week, just to potter about. Pretty much every time I ventured outside I got soaked, no matter how clear the sky looked when I started: it was like living in a Roadrunner cartoon. On Saturday I got rained on horizontally, and the nearest cloud I could see in any direction was about fifty miles away in Sutherland; if I hadn’t got in the way I expect the wind would have carried the rain all the way to Sweden.

Waiting, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

Well, with Margaret being away just now, I’ve had lots of time to myself, which means plenty of knitting and listening to audiobooks. I’ve decided to start two ganseys at once; and no, despite the rumours, I’m not knitting one with my hands and the other with my prehensile toes. The first, in Wendy navy, will be the popular Scarborough pattern (one of my favourites), and I’ll be knitting this one in the hours of daylight (mostly weekends). The other, in Frangipani Cornish Fudge (a new colour to me, and one I’ve always wanted to try), is another pattern from the Johnston Collection of old photographs held by The Wick Society; this one I’ll be knitting in the evenings. I’ll see how I get on.

Scott Monument from Advocates’ Close, Edinburgh

To keep myself company I’ve been listening to an unabridged recording of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, all 45 hours of it. It’s a cheerful little tale of injustice, revenge, suicide and death, but one phrase made me laugh. The Count is impersonating an Englishman: “And he laughed too, but he laughed as the English do, at the end of his teeth.” Isn’t that great? A more perfect way of describing a sort of insincere snicker, a laugh that isn’t really a laugh, I cannot imagine.

Mind you, the French have always trolled the British. And they do it so well. My favourite story this week—in a week not exactly full of good news—concerned the French Europe Minister, who’s decided to call her cat “Brexit”. She said she’s done this because he always miaows loudly to be let out, but when she opens the door he just stands there, and when she puts him out he gives her an evil look…

Doors on Advocates’ Close, Edinburgh

I’m laughing. But I’m laughing as the English do, at the end of my teeth.

Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 5: 18 March

Well, first things first: the gansey is finished, washed and blocked and drying in the (intermittent) sunshine. And as always, there’s that moment when it’s stretched into shape and the pattern reveals itself in its right proportions, like one of those origami puzzles that seem at first just a scrunched-up piece of paper but which, with a twist and a slide, turn out to be an elegant paper swan. I’ve said before how much I like the colour; it sets off the pattern perfectly, and this pattern really is one of the best.

Nybster Harbour

As TS Eliot said, these fragments I have shored against my ruins. Here are a couple more fragments I came across this week. The first concerns the D-Day landings and subsequent campaign. Apparently as they pushed inland, Allied ground forces marked their positions with signal flares—smoke canisters that showed their positions so the air forces wouldn’t bomb them by mistake. Well, one of these flares went off accidentally inside a British tank. The crew all scrambled out unhurt, choking and coughing, and no harm was done … except that the commander was so deeply saturated that not only his clothes, but also his skin and hair, eyebrows and moustache were dyed a deep, rich hue, like the Jolly Green Giant; and they stayed that way until the pigment gradually grew out…

Rainbow & St Fergus’ Church

The second is a quote from Somerset Maugham’s downbeat World War One spy novel Ashenden. I may have it inscribed over my bathtub. The hero, dishevelled and dirty from travel, has just lowered himself into a scalding hot bath, in which he luxuriates in a very British way: ‘”Really”, he reflected, “there are moments in life when all this to-do that has led from the primeval slime to myself seems almost worth while…”‘

Next week: another gansey from the Johnston Collection. But which one?

Salvation Army Hall, Wick

Our thoughts inevitably go out this week to all those affected by the horrendous events in Christchurch. I read that a group of expat Kiwis had gathered in London for a vigil the day the news broke, and they sang the hauntingly beautiful Māori song “Pokarekare Ana”. There are many recordings of this song available on the internet, but here’s one to which someone has added a montage of pictures of the Land of the Long White Cloud. I like to think of this as a single candle, lit against the darkness of our times.

E kore te aroha
e maroke i te rā
Mākūkū tonu i
aku roimata e.

(My love will never
be dried by the sun,
it will be forever moistened
by my tears.)

Scottish Fleet/Yorkshire, Week 4: 11 March

I mentioned last year that my right eye has developed a condition called myopic macular degeneration. Basically this means that I’m so shortsighted—before I had cataract surgery my eyes were -11.00 and -12.00 dioptres respectively—that my retinas are stretched so thinly they’re liable to become damaged. And what this means is that in my right eye I’ve developed a blind spot right in the centre of my vision.

Now, let me say immediately that (a) there are many people worse off than me, and (b) most of the time I hardly notice it. My left eye is my leading eye, and that’s holding up fine so far. Most of the time I’m only aware of a slight blurring, which you can replicate at home by keeping both eyes open and holding a piece of clear plastic up in front of one eye: you get the peculiar sensation of things being both in and out of focus at the same time, but it’s no big deal.

It’s straight lines that do my head in. Any series of vertical or horizontal lines—park railings, for instance, or a spreadsheet—bend and distort around the blind spot, as my peripheral vision compensates. It’s as if I’m living my life in an Open University lecture on how black holes warp the light from distant stars. There’s a chart called the Amsler Grid that measures this effect; the scientific term for which is, I believe, “bloody weird”.

Amsler Grid

Well. My (left) eyesight might never deteriorate from here, in which case it’s just a minor inconvenience. But it’s hard not to feel on borrowed time, to an extent: which is why I want to make the most of being able to see as well as I do and knit the ganseys I still have on my to-do list. (There’s only about 20 or so…) This current project is for me, and I plan to wear it a lot. I love the colour, which like all ganseys changes with the ambient light, from bright sky blue to something much darker. With a fair wind behind me I might even finish it this week. (Next up: another Caithness gansey from the Johnston Collection.)

Part of Wick on a sunny day

In parish news, Lynne has sent me photos of a stunning jumper she’s made based on the “Buckie” pattern I knitted for my friend George Bethune a few years ago. Lynne modified the sleeve to an inset sleeve, and used Merino yarn, which just goes to show how well gansey patterns and style can be adapted to suit. Many congratulations to Lynne for a splendid result.

Incidentally, when I said above that other people had it worse than me, this wasn’t false modesty (or any kind of modesty, come to that). I met a man last year with age-related macular degeneration who could no longer read text, and he bore his condition admirably. But, he said, that wasn’t the worst part. Oh really, I said innocently, what’s that? Hallucinations, he said. Out of the corner of his eye he keeps seeing a dwarf climbing in through the window. Of course he knows it’s not real, but that doesn’t stop him seeing it. At which point I thought: a blind spot and a few skewed lines? I’ll settle for that…