I have a small (but ever growing) collection of prints and postcard in which knitters, and the activity of knitting, are represented. Some of these are really very interesting, and I thought I’d occasionally share them with you here.
This card, which was posted with an Austrian stamp in 1916, depicts a ‘continental’ knitter working on a long stocking, whilst literally being haunted by thoughts of war. It is undoubtedly a sentimental image: like equivalent representations of industrious female knitters in Britain and America during the First World War, the needles seem to be there to enable this woman to be ‘doing something useful’ for the war effort, producing functional objects that also serve as testimony of her affection. The woman’s face is the very image of serene meditation — her surroundings are quietly and comfortably domestic; but the ghost of the war hangs over her pleasant home in the shape of the uniformed figure by the window. Is this half-present soldier conjured up by the act of knitting itself, as the repetitive action of the needles frees the knitter’s mind to wander among her thoughts and memories? Is knitting, therefore, a soothing activity that allows this woman to be comforted in her solitude by the idea that she is creating something equally comforting for her absent beloved? Or is the transparent figure an actual ghost — the soldier who has returned after death to haunt his faithful partner? If so, then knitting is an activity that transforms the woman into a tragic figure: an image of steadfast affection and domestic industry, steadily turning out socks for a man already dead.
I find this image interesting because it is troubling and because it disturbs those gung-ho ‘knit your bit’ stereotypes that are generally associated with the 1914-18 war effort. The way that the solider’s ghostly presence brings the war into the woman’s domestic environment is deeply suggestive, and the whole image is, in its own way, as unhinged as the narrator of Philadelphia Robertson’s poem, A Woman’s Prayer (1916), who knits on the edge of sanity:
“I am so placid as I sit
In train or tram and knit and knit;
Within the house I give due heed
To every duty, each one’s need,
Sometimes the newsboys hurry by,
And then my needles seem to fly
And when the house has grown quite still
I lean out on my window sill —
And pray to God to see to it
That I keep sane enough to knit”
I’ve scanned the reverse of the postcard, just in case any of you can decipher it.
I encountered many knitting books in 2012, but this was my favourite by far. Unlike so many books that have recently been written about Shetland, and Shetland knitting (my own included) this one has been produced by Shetlanders themselves. And not just by any Shetlanders. I don’t think it is going too far to say that the group of women behind this book are among the best knitters in the world. Their work is certainly the very finest that Britain has to offer. In this wonderful tome, key members of The Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers share their knowledge of the old traditions and contemporary practice of Shetland fine lace knitting. It is a timely publication. I have had cause to complain here several times about the misleading rubbish that is often peddled under the name of knitting ‘history’ and, unfortunately, Shetland textile traditions have suffered more than most in this regard — partly due to bias and poor scholarship, and partly too because Shetland’s knitter-designers tend to focus their talents on their needles rather than on the printed page. But here, we see the beautiful work, hear the articulate voices, and are able to work from the stunning patterns of Shetland’s wonderful knitter-designers. In so many ways, this book is their gift to the rest of us, and a very welcome gift it is too.
The book includes a balanced collection of 21 designs. These range from familiar and simple Shetland openwork patterns (such as those that appear on Zena Thomson’s borders-in Traditional Hap, or Lauretta Robertson’s Shelley Scarf) to dazzling showcases of the finest of fine Shetland lace (such as Susan Johnson’s breathtaking Chapelside Stole, or Mary Kay’s St Ringan’s Scarf). There are also a couple of lovely lace garments to knit. No-one designs a yoked sweater better than Hazel Tindall, and her Gairdins Top is a very fine example. I also found myself drawn to Lauretta Robertson’s Laureya Cardigan , with its neat and pleasingly structural allover stitch pattern.
Photographing fine lace can be very tricky, and Dave Donaldson has done a great job here. Most of the designs have been carefully pictured on blank, dark backgrounds. Close-ups help the reader / knitter to understand the rhythm of the designs, and provide useful visual cues to the accompanying charts.
The charts are large and well laid out, and the patterns clearly written and explained.
One aspect of Shetland knitting that non-Shetlanders are often bamboozled by is its basic equipment. How are long wires and a makkin belt really used? What exactly is a woolly board? One of the many lovely things about this book is that the women involved in it have taken time to illustrate and explain these mystifying objects . . .
Included here are also instructions for different methods of blocking and stretching (careful finishing really is crucial in all kinds of Shetland knitting), and there’s also a useful glossary of Shetland knitting terms unfamiliar to most of us. If you don’t know what “wrang loops” are or what it means to “spret” your knitting, here is the place to find out.
In amongst the designs and patterns, you’ll also find informative and witty anecdotes, together with interesting explanations of other knitting-associated dialect terms, all of which lends the book a distinctive Shetland flavour.
There are many things to love and admire about this book, but one of its most enjoyable aspects for me was reading the brief biographies of each designer. All of these women are truly amazing award-winning knitters, but I know from having met several of them that they can also be modest to the point of total silence about their considerable talents. Through their short biographies, we learn about what knitting has meant to them, about their own aesthetic tastes and predilections, and much more generally about a community in which lace knitting developed its own particular practices and economy, and played (and indeed continues to play) a crucial role in the lives of many women. Shetland knitters should be proud of their legacy, and it is wonderful to see that pride evidenced — albeit quietly — in the hopes that each designer expresses here for the book to which they have contributed. Winne Balfour hopes “that this book may encourage young knitters to take an interest in and enjoy learning, developing and continuing the skills of the legacy we have been left.” Zena Thomson hopes “that the clear patterns and photographs in this book will help people to try out patterns they might otherwise not have tried.” Pearl Johnson “is very glad that this book has been produced by folk living and knitting in Shetland and hopes that it will raise more awareness of Shetland traditional knitting,” and Susan Johnson “hopes this book reaches everyone interested in Shetland, Shetland lace and knitting, and that they receive and appreciate the spirit of quiet enjoyment that produced it.” That quiet enjoyment is evident on every single page of this great book, which should have pride of place on every knitterly bookshelf.
Shetland Guild of Spinners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers, A Legacy of Shetland Lace (Lerwick: Shetland Times LTD, 2012). ISBN 978-1-904746-76-8
*And did you know that the Shetland Guild of Spinnners, Knitters, Weavers and Dyers have their own Ravelry Group?
I am not one for cleaning and tidying, but I rather enjoy preparing the campervan for a trip away. Probably the best part of this ritual is re-stocking the van’s small ‘library’ with appropriate maps, guides, and reading material.
Here’s an interesting read . . .
. . . with wonderful endpapers.
Ursula Venables plays an integral role in one of my current projects, and I’ll say more about her another time . . .
We are, of course, off to Shetland, where Tom will be behind the camera, and I shall be throwing umpteen shapes, wearing the garments from my new collection! I am very pleased with how everything is shaping up, and look forward to telling you all about it in due course.
More on our return!
Say hello and goodbye to about half of today’s ‘to go’ pile.
I had not intended the disposal of my academic books to turn into a wholescale excavation of the existing contents of our bookshelves, but that is what has now happened. When you consider that I have already disposed of over 40 boxes of books; that our shelves are still full to bursting, and that Tom spent much of last weekend building new shelves to house the three-boxes-full that I decided to retain, then the extent of the problem becomes apparent. So, today it was goodbye to Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, and Julian &*(*(&*! Barnes. It struck me, as I flung them onto the ‘to go’ pile, just how much bourgeois shite has been published over the past few decades under the name of ‘British literary fiction’. About the only Booker-winning author that I was genuinely pleased to see was James Kelman (and he doesn’t really count). I also decided, as I culled Paul Auster, and John Updike (shudder), that Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was about my favourite ‘literary’ novel that has been published in my lifetime. (Excluding crime fiction, which I love, and read voraciously).
As well as getting rid of the turkeys, I said hello to some old favourites:
It was particularly nice to rescue Watson’s wonderful Annals from their dusty corner, and place them prominently on a shelf.
I am almost done with the books. Normal business will resume here shortly.
I’ve so enjoyed reading your comments on the last post – that kind of spontaneous and interesting discussion is one of the reasons why I am so very fond of the interwebz. Thankyou. You have made me question my half-baked anglocentric thoughts about that poem, and inspired me to brush up my German. I was particularly intrigued by the different cultural connotations of a planted ‘avenue,’ and was very struck by Stella’s marvelous rendering of ‘treiben’ into a ‘conspiracy of leaves’. Séverine was wondering why I mentioned Rilke in the first place: well, I suppose that he is one of those poets who, like Arthur Clough, or John Ashberry, I have always enjoyed but have never developed any sort of academic interest in. And I suppose, too, that simply sorting through my books has made me reflect on the various continuities and discontinuities in my reading. It seemed curious to me that, while I had no qualms in getting rid of whole boxes of literary theory, and novels of all kinds, I absolutely had to keep all of the poetry.
But I fear that your congratulations on the ‘cleanness’ of my break with the books may be premature. I woke up on Monday night worrying that the Italienische Reise had found its way into one of the disposed-of boxes… Happily, I got up to discover Goethe in his right place in the ‘kept’ pile, and today I also heard the heartening news that my friend Claire has found my missing copy of Sartor Resartus (apparently lent to her some years ago), so all is right with the world. But, inbetween my frequent rests (fatigue hovers around the edges of everything at the moment) the rearranging continues. Yesterday it began to annoy me that, while I had got rid of Eliza Haywood and Amelia Opie, authors such as Brett Easton Ellis, Zadie Smith, and Jeanette bloody Winterson (Art Objects is almost as ridiculous as her views on homeopathic medicine) remained on my shelves. Needless to say, Winterson is now correctly located in the large ‘get rid of’ pile that is developing in the kitchen. And I was just about to dispose of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, but I turned to the flyleaf and disovered a quotation from Rilke that I had written there in 1993. I put it back on the shelf.
Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.
Befiel den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.
Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird Es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1902)
I am fond of this seasonally-appropriate poem by Rilke, but have never found an English translation that I like completely. Stephen Mitchell’s is perhaps one of the most familiar:
Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.
Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Trans. Stephen Mitchell (1982)
Though I like the ‘warm transparent days’, and the sense of the imperative in the second stanza, that ‘huge’ in the first line totally ruins the cadence, and the final stanza has some terrible lines in it (I am thinking particularly of “whoever has no house now, will never have one” – with that comma pointing to nothing but the translator’s own syntactical struggle).
Here is a more recent translation by Mary Kinzie:
After the summer’s yield, Lord, it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.
As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.
Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city’s avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.
Trans. Mary Kinzie (2008)
Probably the only thing I like about this is its stand-out final line. But, even there, the language is too fluid and melodic – there is an irritable melancholy about Rilke’s poem. Perhaps I’m being unfair – my own understanding of German is pretty poor – but I can certainly see how difficult it is for a translator to retain the poise and tone of the original in modern English. Despite its thees and thous, I actually much prefer this version from 1916:
LORD: it is time. The summer was so grand.
Upon sundials now Thy shadow lay,
Set free Thy winds and send them o’er the land.
Command to ripen those last fruits of Thine;
And give them two more southern days of grace
To reach their perfect fullness, and then chase
The final sweetness into heavy wine.
Who now is homeless, ne’er will build a home.
Who now is lonely, long alone will stay,
Will watch and read and write long letters gray,
And in the long lanes to and fro will roam
All restless, as the drifting fall-leaves stray.
Trans. Margarete Münsterberg (1916)
I like the ‘grand’-ness of the summer, and the ‘days of grace’, and yet that hanging ‘gray’ in the tenth line completely ruins it for me.
I still have a certain fondness for Macintyre’s 1956 translation, which was my first encounter with the poem (and which I rediscovered today, among my rescued books):
Lord, it is time. The summer was too long.
Lay now thy shadow over the sundials,
and on the meadows let the winds blow strong.
Bid the last fruit to ripen on the vine;
allow them still two friendly southern days
to bring them to perfection, and to force
the final sweetness in the heavy wine.
Who has no house now will not build him one
Who is alone now will be long alone,
will waken, read, and write long letters
and through the barren pathways up and down
restlessly wander when dead leaves are blown.
Trans. C.F Macintyre (1956)
. . . and yet there’s much that seems wrong here, too. I’m not sure how that ‘groß’ in the first line of the original could suggest that the summer was “too long'” I’m not over-keen on the “friendliness” of the southern days, and though the final stanza is more pleasing to me than either Mitchell’s or Kenzie’s translations, wouldn’t the ‘when’ in the final line be better rendered as ‘while’; and why not just get rid of the “him” in the eighth line? (I rather like the line as “who has no house now will not build one”).
I could show you many more translations (Robert Bly’s is truly appalling), but here’s a final version from Walter Arndt, which seems almost form-perfect.
Lord it is time: Great was the Summer’s feast.
Now lay upon the sun-dials your shadow
And on the meadows have the wind released.
Command the last of fruits to round their shapes;
Grant two more days of south for vines to carry,
To their perfection thrust them on, and harry
The final sweetness into the heavy grapes.
Who has not built his house will not start now
Who now is by himself will long be so,
Be wakeful, read, write lengthy letters, go
In vague disquiet pacing up and down
Denuded lanes, with leaves adrift below.
Trans. Walter Arndt (1989)
I find the second stanza distractingly awful with its ‘thrusting’ perfection, but really rather like the final stanza, which not only makes syntactic sense, but properly captures that self-absorbed unease which sits at the heart of the poem. I also much prefer ‘lanes’ than either ‘boulevards’ or ‘avenues’, though ‘avenue’ does seem a better direct translation of ‘alleen’. I’m not aware of the nuances of ‘avenue’ in German, but the tree-lined approach to a country estate seems far too grand for the poem’s distinctly urban malaise. (But does disquiet really need that ‘vague’?) Anyway. Does anyone have another preferred translation? And what do the German speakers think?
I am looking forward to the Christmas holiday immensely. It seems to be the only time when both of us actually entirely stop working. This year, part of that lovely non-work time will be spent on Islay. Hurrah! There will be walking! Wild, wintry landscapes! Roaring fires! Last time we had a holiday, we really enjoyed reading each other’s books — by which I mean the work of authors one of us hadn’t read, and the other had recommended. I earmarked George Eliot and Josephine Tey for Tom, and he suggested Boris Akunin to me. This was fun. We thought we’d do this again, but this time with the books we’d read as children instead. I am excited about this swap; have been preparing a small selected list, and have begun to order second-hand copies of the books.
Edward Ardizzone, self portrait (1952) © Tate Gallery.
This list needs thought. The selection must be appropriate. For as well as being books one was fond of, one must also be able to imagine the other person being fond of them as well. For example, I devoured the work of Jean Webster, and Pamela Brown, but I unfortunately can’t imagine Tom being gripped by either Daddy Long Legs or The Bridesmaids. (Um, did that come out wrong?) There are other books I loved as a child — Noel Streatfield’s Tennis Shoes, for example — that I think would be very likely to get on my wick if I read them now. I was also a voracious, secret reader of my Ma’s Georgette Heyer novels, but these are emphatically not appropriate Tom-reading, nor do they really count as kids books (however formative they were for me).
I had a granddad who was not only very keen on libraries, but on sales of library books. Many of the books I read as a kid were picked up by him at sales at Rochdale, Heywood, and Bury. I grew up surrounded by wonderful, worn copies of 1950s hardbacks, and loved so many of the books he gave me, with “removed from circulation” stamped inside. Paul Gallico’s Jennie is one of these. In fact, I think Rochdale Central Library must have got rid of all their old Paul Gallicos in one go, as I read and adored most of his books — The Man who Was Magic being another favourite. Jennie‘s feisty, Scottish, feline heroine is the exponent of a very grown-up exploration of autonomy and dependence, and I remember Peter’s fight with the enormous yellow-toothed rat as one of the most thrilling and terrifying things I ever read. Thinking about it now, I am sure there is probably something suspicious about Gallico’s writing about relationships in Jennie, as much as in his deeply disturbing Love of Seven Dolls (which I was also very fond of), but, like many people, I have managed to maintain a largely uncritical take on the books I really loved as a child. I wonder if this will change in Gallico’s case if I read him again . . . hmm.
Philosophising cats appear again in another of my ex-library favourites: Eleanor Estes’ Pinky Pye, which also features ornithology, a Very Small Owl, and the marvelous illustrations of Edward Ardizzone.
Ardizzone’s illustration of Mr Bish reunited with his little owl. Eleanor Estes, Pinky Pye, (1958)
Much of my best childhood reading seems to have been illustrated by Ardizzone: his wonderful drawings really brought my copy of Stig of the Dump to life. I remember being fascinated by the American setting of Pinky Pye, and finding the sandy, summer landscape of Fire Island incredibly exotic.
One kid’s book I can’t imagine ever not liking, and which has to be at the top of Tom’s list, is Michael Ende’s Momo. I was given this book as a gift from my auntie Anne, and I think my copy must have been the 1984 English translation. My memories of Cassiopeia, Beppo, and the grim men in grey are very vivid indeed. Its a quarter of a century since I first came across it (gulp) and I am really looking forward to reading it again as well as to seeing what Tom makes of it.
This process of selection is interesting: I am picking books that I think Tom would like, but also the books that I think I would still like too. These books retain a certain spooky staying power, while the majority of things I read (and loved) then do not. What works of children’s literature have staying power for you? What would be on your list?