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Wick (Cumming Bros): Week 3 – 16 December

“The greatest luxury I know,” Eleanor Roosevelt said once, “is sitting up reading in bed.” I couldn’t agree more, though I’d add that it’s even more luxurious to sit there snugly, warm as toast, while outside the blizzard rages. With that in mind, and because this blog is being written ahead of time as we head south for an extended Christmas break, I’d like to change the format this week and share with you ten of my favourite books set in the bleak midwinter. Every year I take down one or more from the shelves, and I’m transported back to a Christmas some 40-odd years ago, when I was nobbut a bairn: when the fields were white, the skies were dark and heavy with snow, rooks nested in the bare branches and I was safe indoors, a log fire blazing in the inglenook; and I read on oblivious while the wind rattled the doors, darkness fell and fractals of ice frosted over the windows, and somewhere in the distance a wolf began to howl…

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight*. A classic medieval poem that’s very readable in a modern translation. It’s Christmas at King Arthur’s court, and the decadent knights in white satin sit around carousing instead of knightly knighting. Suddenly a green giant (why do I immediately think of sweetcorn?) rides into the hall and challenges any one of the knights to cut off his head with his great axe, on condition they will take a return blow at his castle in a year and a day. Only one dares accept, and he finds he’s let himself in for more than he bargained for. An inspiration for Tolkien and Alan Garner and one of the wellsprings of English fantasy.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The original and best Christmas story. It’s hard not to think of it in terms of the Muppets, so wonderful is their version, but when the book contains such lines as this you know it will endure: “They were a gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had so little business to be, that one could scarcely help fancying it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and have forgotten the way out again. ”

Frosty Morning

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Not altogether a Christmas book, but included for Mole getting out of his depth in the Wild Wood in the snow, and the chapter where Mole comes upon his abandoned burrow at Christmas, is overcome with homesickness and remorse, and Ratty gives him the best gifts of all, friendship and understanding.

Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson. The world of the Moomins is utterly original, full of warmth and love but, like the best children’s books, strange and not altogether safe. The Moomins usually hibernate, but one winter Moomintroll unexpectedly wakes up. He finds himself in a frozen, otherworldly landscape, and meets creatures he had no idea coexisted with his kind. Haunting, funny and unsettling by turns.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper. The archetypal midwinter children’s fantasy book. “It will be a bad night,” said Mr Dawson. “The Walker is abroad, and this night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” Wow. It’s a classic for a reason.

Fairy Dust and Fenceposts

The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon. A neglected children’s fantasy. It’s Christmas in Norfolk, and some teens on a school trip find an ancient buckle. But they’re pursued into their everyday lives by a terrifying black hound and its blank-faced master, and the sinister Leathermen, and under the snow the Giant is waking up… (Seriously, British young adult fiction in the 1970s was weird.)

The Sword in the Stone by TH White. I can’t read the rest of the series, it’s just too sad altogether, but the first book in White’s Arthurian sequence is simply wonderful. He makes few concessions to a younger readership, and the adventures of the young Wart as he learns how to be a good king from birds and beastly beasts are a delight. (White’s good-hearted but irascible Merlin was surely second cousin to Gandalf, too.) Not really a Christmas book, but it spans a year and you learn what it was like to live through a medieval winter, with a boar hunt that shows the author had read his Sir Gawain.

I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. Not strictly speaking a winter book either, as it covers all the seasons, but it reaches its climax in winter so I’m claiming it. A young Canadian vicar is diagnosed with a terminal illness. His bishop sends him to a remote First Nations village so he can learn enough of life to be ready to die. A beautiful and wise book, and the end, when it comes, is right (sorry, I seem to have something in my eye). If God ever felt like destroying the world again because humanity wasn’t worth the trouble—and let’s face it, He’d have a point—this is the book I would offer as Exhibit A in the case for the defence.

Dunes at Reiss

The Stone Book Quartet by Alan Garner. Four short stories, each one a different moment in the history the author’s family living on Alderley Edge in Cheshire, culminating in the building of a sledge in which all the skills of the generations combine and the author is just the latest in a line of craftsmen stretching back down the generations. Garner is a masterful writer of dark fantasy but for me this is his masterpiece. If I was Minister of Education I’d stop schools teaching Lord of the Flies tomorrow and replace it with this, a much more rewarding experience.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. The Discworld equivalent of Father Christmas has disappeared, so Death decides to fill in for him, to keep the tradition alive. Very funny, of course (the scene where Death turns up in a department store and starts actually giving the children whatever they ask for is worth the admission price alone), but, as ever with Pratchett, learned too and with important things to say about traditions and their pagan origins.

Oh, and speaking of Eleanor Roosevelt, here’s my favourite quote of hers: “I once had a rose named after me and I was very flattered. But I was not pleased to read the description in the catalogue: no good in a bed, but fine up against a wall…”

*This post contains Amazon Affiliate links, which help support the site.

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…”