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Wick II: 23 February

Full BodySomeone asked me this week about my worst experiences in archives during my 30 years or so in the profession; and I didn’t have to think very hard before coming up with a short list of about 100 instances. Maybe more.

Of course, an honourable mention goes to that ceilidh I attended at the end of one discouraging Society of Archivists’ conference in the 1990s. The whole thing was like a scene from one of Bosch’s visions of hell—discarded cardigans, naked bodies, demons and flames and pitchforks—only much worse, because this involved archivists and folk music. (Even now, when a stranger sees me drinking alone in a bar and asks me what’s the matter, I can only stare into space and whisper brokenly, You weren’t there, man; you weren’t there.)

Then there was the time I was examining a dirty, mould-encrusted 18th century ledger and looked down to see my hand completely black with filth, all of it except for the shiny pink tip of my index finger, and I realised I’d been unconsciously licking it as I turned the pages. When I looked in the mirror my tongue was liquorice black.

Moon above St Peter's Church, Wick

Moon above St Peter’s Church, Wick

Detail of side pattern

Detail of side pattern

But perhaps pride of place belongs to the time I was cataloguing coroner’s records in Wales. The papers had got all mixed up in the trunk of the coroner’s car, and I was sorting them into order. There was this small envelope, and something in it clinked when I picked it up. I tipped the contents into my palm and realised too late that they were two blood-covered bullets—you see, one day in the 1930s a man had come home and found his wife in bed with another man, and had shot them both. I was holding the actual bullets in my hand. In a sense I’m holding them still.

With Margaret being away my evenings are no longer devoted to reciting modernist verse or eurhythmic dancing, so I’ve been progressing the gansey along nicely. I’m about 2/3 of the way up the back, and should finish it this week. I’m glad to say that the central panel is starting to make sense—it’s one of those patterns that you really need to see large.

One thing, though— the anchor’s diagonal rope is asymmetrical, which means that I have to be careful when I read the pattern to count from the left, or the right, depending on whether I’m knitting the row from the front or the back. This requires a level of concentration that does not, you will not be surprised to learn, come naturally to me.IMG_2498

Some other rainy Sunday I’ll drunkenly stagger down memory lane with more Tales From The Strong Room—such as the time I was stranded in the basement of Lowestoft library in a power cut the night before the hurricane of 1987; being called out by the police on New Year’s Eve when the security alarm went off; and of course who could forget the case of the Abandoned Police Cell Toilet?

Ice on Wick River

Ice on Wick River

But for now I’m going to play my CD of archivists’ folk songs and get drunk to such timeless classics as, What Shall We Do With the Drunken Archivist, Thomas The Cataloguer, All Around My Pencil and (my favourite) I’ll Go And List For A Records Manager.

20 comments to Wick II: 23 February

  • Lynne

    That central pattern is really interesting, I needed to go back a week to see the graph, but I think it will be more defined once blocked.
    Some years ago, when I found your blog, your first two rows of the ribbing were done in purl, but it doesn’t appear like you are doing that anymore, did you abandon that practice?

    • Gordon

      Hi Lynne,

      Darnation—I would have got away with it, too, if it wasn’t for those pesky blog readers!

      Yes, well spotted: i’m going through a phase of jumping straight in with the ribbing after the cast on row. I think what started out as a whim has ossified into a habit, but it’s not one I’m wedded to. No doubt I shall revert in due course.

      I must admit. the first couple of inches of the pattern i was thinking, I’m recreating a map of the Andromeda Galaxy in knit and purl stitches! (Well, that and, Trust me to make my mistakes to a weekly readership of upwards of a thousand people from all over the world…) But now that it’s grown, I can see it starting to take shape. I still don’t think there’ll be a strong pattern—other than the diamonds and anchors—but I think its strength will lie in the overall impression of fine detail. It’s certainly different.

  • Linda Abraham

    More tales from the archives, please! I already know we’ll have more about knitting, so I happily don’t need to request those….Mondays are a delight – a new blog!!

    • Gordon

      Hi Linda,

      Happy to oblige. People tend to assume archives is a refined profession where you spend your time poring over medieval manuscripts while a string quartet plays Mozart in the background. Whereas in reality you end up doing manual work like a stevedore, heaving heavy boxes of filth-bedappled records—while, yes, I admit it, a string quartet plays Mozart (some things are just too important to give up…)

  • Peter In Alice Springs

    The central panel will look fantastic once blocked. Currently it looks like braille from one of my last scientific papers.

    You must not have read Name of the Rose when you were examining that mouldy ledger, otherwise you would NEVER lick your fingers ever again. I’m a great hand washer here at work: the interesting colour the water turns once I have dealt with a lot of specimens stored in newspaper makes me pleased I haven’t licked my fingers.

    • Gordon

      Hi Peter,

      Ha, if I lived in Name of the Rose Land, my last words as I stared in puzzlement at my sticky finger would be, “Oh, right—the poison. It all comes back to me.” Before toppling like a felled oak. Blame it on my short term wossname.

      I have actually encoded the identity of Jack the Ripper in binary in the centre panel. Posterity will thank me one day.

  • Marilyn

    Hi Gordon, (typed God first- and while I think you’re swell…)
    My friend from earliest childhood maintains that you have to eat a pint of dirt for your immune system to function well later. Hmm, seems a bit much, but a fingertip? You’ll probably live to cast off this gansey, anyway. Good knitting!

    • Gordon

      Hello Marilyn,

      I sign my emails “Godron” with depressing regularly, but at least I’ve so far escaped the clutches of my evil birth-twin, Nodrog. I know he’s out there, though; lurking in the shadows in wait.

      I had a cousin in New Zealand who licked earthworms, or so my parents tell me. I don’t remember doing that myself, but I grew very thoughtful when my colleague at work brought in her young son and he cheerfully decided to suck on a filthy doorstop like a pacifier. I blame all my health problems on the fact that my immune system was perfectly tailored to the southern hemisphere, but instead I find myself stranded in the frozen north. (As the Levellers put it in one of my favourite songs, “Oh we’re so far from home/ no means of return/ there’s so much that we have taught/ and so much we have learned…’)

      Come to think of it, I had to eat a ton of dirt in my last job, but I don’t think that did much for my life expectancy – !

  • Jane

    Lovely work Gordon, I particularly like the anchor part of the pattern. The colour is wonderful. Love the stories from the depths of the archives! Please do carry on.

    I am still enjoying the stories of Gladys Thompson’s “guernsey hunting”, and I have shared them with the entire family! I have taken to calling her Gladys or even Glad in relaxed moments, and I have learned an awful lot!

    The South is awful cold and windy, a certain amount of roaring in the tree tops. Wild life bearing up well, despite being ankle deep in the mud! Stay dry!

    • Gordon

      Hi Jane,

      I find the detail of the centre so intense it’s quite relaxing to have something tangible like an anchor to relate to, i think!

      I found the travelogue elements of both Gladys and Michael, if I may be so familiar, one of the reasons their books are so endlessly re-readable. It’s not just about the patterns, it’s the people behind them too, and a way of life that’s gone. In my mind there’s a great book no-one wrote about the land and the people, and the ganseys.

      -1ºC here today, and frost so hard I had to scrape my car windscreen with a chisel and blowtorch. Then it got sunny. Then it rained and sleeted. Now it’s blowing a gale. I am, to be frank, looking forward to summer!

  • Oh but DO keep going on telling stories from the archives!

  • Dave

    Hello Gordon, I wonder just how many licked fingers it takes to make a really mature 18th century ledger – Tasty!

    Nice knitting, even a philistine like me can appreciate it.

    • Peter In Alice Springs


      everything tastes good once you add Heinz Ketchup

    • Gordon

      Hi Dave, well, I think of it as having the tang of a good worcestershire sauce, so next time you’re up we can experiment with marinating a chicken in a few old cash books and see if that helps!

      Oh, and Peter—you have much to teach us…

      • Peter In Alice Springs

        I have crass friends – you have to be in biology.

        Tomato sauce/ ketchup is known in their house as tucker f@@ker. They also defined meals as “food that moves” for when they were allowed to eat meat because the regular Vegan was either away, or there were multiple dishes.

        I think the Worcestershire Sauce would be a better condiment to 18thC ledgers. The tangy, smoky flavour would just fit that bill.

  • Tina Hopley

    I also just wanted to request more tales from the archive and thank you for my weekly gansey fix

    • Gordon

      Hi Tina, happy to oblige! Not least because as i get older remembering the past is far easier than remembering what I did yesterday…

  • =Tamar

    You can remember yesterday? There’s a thing. I’m doing well if I remember where I set down my coffee.

    Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested…

    • Gordon

      Hi Tamar, I never could understand why the Society of Archivist rejected my idea for a campaign slogan: “Archives—they’re finger-lickin’ good”…

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