For the record, I have had two really ‘bad’ days this week, during which I’ve been unable to do much because of fatigue. (Will it ever just fook off?) At times when brain and body refuse to do anything strenous, knitting and the BBC can often save me from getting too crotchety. But it is hard not to feel crotchety when the Archers has turned into the everyday story of royal folk, with shameless plugs for HRH’s Tory Originals, and the peasants gleefully doffing their caps at the titled visitor. Also, how could the BBC allow this woeful sixth-form gubbins into its so-called ‘arts’ programming? Yentob, you numpty, for shame. And then there is this otherwise laudable project, spoilt by Neil Oliver’s irritating habit of addressing the viewer over his shoulder with-furrowed-brow-and-manly-mane, spouting inane speculations on the psyche of the Mesolithic. Tom refuses to watch anything with Oliver in it, but I do find him good for the occasional laugh. (I recommend fast-forwarding the iplayer to about 45 minutes in, and observing the absurd slo-mo gurn.)
When not feeling bloody rotten, I have been enjoying:
1) . . re-reading Our Mutual Friend. I had forgotten how good it is.
2) . . the output of different smokehouses. Really, is there any breakfast better than this? I also find the aesthetics of kipperskin quite compelling. Call me pecu, I do not care . .
. . though I am concerned that my neighbours may not share my obsession.
3) . . . being out and about with Bruce
The days are rather grey, and the weekend forecast is for snow, but the birds are going ape in the hedges, and there are flashes of early Spring everywhere you look.
4) . . . indoor colour
. . . who isn’t a sucker for yellow and purple at this time of year? On the subject of which . .
5) . . . purple knitting.
Now, this is curious, since I am not in the least a purple person (there is not a single purple item in my wardrobe, for example). This yarn has been sitting in my stash for an aeon – I bought it several years ago in a place with very poor lighting, thinking it was indigo blue. But it is most definitely purple – one of the purplest purples I have seen, in fact – and the more one knits it, the purpler it becomes. I rather like it. What am I knitting? Well, I am reformatting and updating a few of my patterns with a view to their forthcoming wholesale availability in Canada and the US, and I thought I’d make a fresh sample of one of my sweaters that only takes a few days to knit up. I am sure you can guess what it is. There may be a purple appearance soon.
Have a lovely weekend, however you are spending it!
It has been a curious few days. It was lovely to see my parents, partake of a marvellous feast (cooked by Tom), and play some silly games. But my festive spirit has been somewhat curtailed by the combined effects of a chest infection and a particularly grim bout of fatigue. It is fair to say that I am not feeling my best. And yesterday, my bank called to tell me that some festive fraudsters had just purchased two outlandishly expensive El Al air tickets using my debit card. This will all be sorted out, so I won’t be out of pocket, but it is all rather disturbing, not to say annoying. Then, later, I had the genius idea of beginning a new knitting project with some yarn which lies hidden somewhere in the depths of my stash. Tom was out with Bruce, and I foolishly chose that moment to go and look for it. I assumed the yarn was in a box on one of the upper shelves of my work-pod, so I climbed onto a chair, and from thence onto a table. It was the first time in ten months that I’d attempted such acrobatics. “This is brilliant,” I thought, “I can get up here, just like I could before.” I’m sure you can guess what happened next.
I can laugh about it now, but really, it was no laughing matter. I landed awkwardly on my left side, and realised immediately I had done something nasty to my ‘bad’ foot. There are no bones broken, and I can just about walk on it – but ‘just about’ is the operative phrase – I have a green balloon where my foot once was and am in quite a bit of pain. There will be no outdoor activities for a few days at least. The fact that it is all my own fault makes me feel even more abject – I had promised Tom faithfully that I would never attempt such manoeuvres while he was out, and clearly this is why. I have had my comeuppance. And I’ve still not found that yarn.
In other news
1. I have a feature in issue 27 of The Knitter, which has just come out.
As well as airing a few of my own bugbears about the way some knitting ‘traditions’ have been invented, there is also discussion of the Suffolk Herring Festival and the work of the brilliant Deirdre Nelson.
2. My Ma loved the cushion.
3. Like most Archers‘ listeners I am agog to discover what the BBC have planned for the soap’s 60th anniversary, in a week’s time. There has been talk of “Ambridge never being the same again” and I am hopeful of a small disaster which somehow involves the terminally irritating Pip and egomaniacal Hellin, but should remember the lesson of the Christmas storyline of a few years ago. . . there had been talk of Terrible Events befalling the divided Archer’s clan, and I was looking forward to Shula’s untimely demise, but all that happened was that a cow sat on Dayvidd, and the family’s tedious arguments about their “inheritance” came to an end.
After a rubbish couple of weeks, some very nice things have been happening here recently. I was stupidly thrilled to see my name (in connection with this post) on page 7 of the current issue of The Ambridge Voice. What? You’ve not heard of this esteemed publication? It is, of course, the newsletter of the Archers Addicts fan club. I’m more of an anarchist myself, but it was still damned exciting.
Then I had a fun day with Mel, who came round to help me sort out my yarn stash, which is considerable. . .
Mel is super-organised, and produced a spreadsheet and everything. When the yardage section is complete, I will be able to terrify Tom with how many miles of wool I own! On the same day, Mel and I were driving up Broughton St, when we spotted the Queen pootling along in the opposite direction. There was no public engagement going on or anything, Brenda was just driving along past Crombie’s Sausage shop. (Well, obviously she wasn’t driving herself, but you know what I mean). I’m really not sure why I, who have no time at all for the monarchy, am telling you this, except that it was a moment surreal in its ordinariness.
. . .more of which anon.
But I’m sure you are all dying to know about the doggy hat that Tom is sporting above. Well, that is BRUCE, and Bruce is my new buddy! He is a black labrador, is almost 8 weeks old, and is just lovely. His mother’s name is Islay, (so we knew things were meant to be) and we were able to give Bruce his pedigree name – Finlaggan. And before you ask: yes, Bruce and Jesus have met, and things were just fine. Bruce did not go ape. Jesus was composed, but skeptical. Both continued on with their respective canine / feline activities, and that was that. Hurrah! I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to going for long walks with Bruce as he gets older, and I get stronger. At the moment we are both pretty much indoor dogs, but I am thankfully housetrained. Bruce is doing his best.
Lambs are seasonal, in more ways than one. I am not just thinking of cribs and mangers and nativity plays, but of the obligatory lambing-shed scenes on the Archers (ahem). Here is a sign in the Pentlands that always amuses us. Those speedy lambs are clearly out of control! (and intriguingly literate).
By request, another treat from The Archers pattern book. Here is the fragrant Caroline Bone / Pemberton / Sterling resplendent in a knitted suit of lemon hue. In this frothy confection, she may well run the risk of being mistaken for one of Ian’s more outlandish Grey Gables deserts. . . and yes – it is floor length! Check out the saucy glimpse of 1980s ankle.
And imagine the never-ending horror of actually knitting it.
Curiously, 1970s and 80s knitting has been preoccupying me this week. The other day, my good friend Matthew sent me a copy of the January 1982 edition of Spare Rib, in which this amazing sweater featured:
I have to say that I love this — not only does it make me nostalgic for a certain kind of politics, its a reminder that knitting has always been associated with feminism, despite some claims about its more recent integration. The pattern is described as “a luknitics exclusive” and it seems that “Luknitics” was a business registered in in Perth in the early ’80s. I am wondering whether any of you know anything about Luknitics or their patterns? I really want to find out more . . .
Also, while on a trip to the butchers in Stockbridge yesterday, I nipped into a charity shop and scored 10 early 1970s copies of Golden Hands Monthly. A few of the craft activities are very much of their time (pasta art? aigh!), but there are lots of diverting, amusing, and indeed inspiring articles and tips, patterns and designs. I was pleased to find that all of the pull-out sewing and embroidery patterns were still intact, and that I actually really liked many of the skirts and dresses. I also found the Golden Hands knitting and crochet patterns so interesting that I’m starting to question my own taste. For example, there is something in me that really likes this crocheted bonnet-with-integrated-ear-muff:
. . . and I am fascinated by this vest:
The pattern also includes proud photographs of the back of the work, with all of the different coloured ends neatly sewn in, and claims the extra effort involved as a sort of victory for thrift: “with no weaving, you save yarn!” A writer for Spare Rib might have seen the costs of this garment rather differently, once the extra hours of labour were factored in. This really seems to be 1970s knitting at its most crazily time consuming. And yet . . . there’s just something really pleasing about all those tiny, different coloured hexagons . . . no . . . I. . .must . . . resist. . . intarsia. . .
Finally, here is an example of domestic time very well-spent — this is our Christmas cake, and that is Tom’s hand feeding it the first of many glasses of whisky. We had our stir-up Saturday yesterday (I believe Jill Archer’s stirring-up is actually today?). Tom uses the recipe in Jane Grigson’s fruit book, with the quantities of everything increased by 25%. I like a nice, big cake. Hope you have had a lovely weekend, too.
Warning! this post may seem both tedious and incomprehensible to anyone who is not an Archers fan . . .
I arrived home from work yesterday to find that a thrilling package had turned up in the post. On opening the envelope, the mere words “Ambridge DK and chunky,” were enough to send me into hysteric raptures. Tom could get no sense out of me for quite some time. “Look!” I shrieked, “check out Christine Barford in her horse-themed intarsia!” Ravelry really is an amazing thing. Last week, on the lively Archers’ discussion board, Woolhemina mentioned that she had six copies of a booklet of patterns featuring the characters of everyone’s favourite long-running BBC radio soap clad in delightful ’80s knitwear. I was lucky enough to score the last one. Life may never be the same again.
I am not ashamed to say that I am a long-time Archers listener. I became obsessed with it while completing my first University degree. I well recall preparing for exams while being gripped by Clive Horrobin’s notorious raid on the village post office and Susan Carter’s subsequent imprisonment (oh, that she might have stayed inside!). I didn’t own a TV until 1999, and till then, my sole source of frothy-narrative-pleasure came courtesy of Brookfield and Grange Farm. A decade passed by to the sounds of Mark and Caroline’s car crash, Nelson’s disappearance, the destruction of GM crops, the doings of the evil Simon Pemberton. Oh, happy days!
What’s interesting about my Archers fascination – both then and now — is that, with a very few exceptions (Ed, Fallon, Jill) I despise, or am annoyed by every single character. But perhaps being irritated (or, in the case of Kenton, perpetually embarrassed) is part of the pleasure of The Archers. I love to shout at the radio whenever whingeing, needy Emma appears (will she ever get her comeuppance?), bawl expletives at Shula (I think I hate her most of all) or berate the script writers for representing Lynda’s concerns about the preservation of ancient rights of way as unnecessarily absurd. And clearly The Archers has this effect on others as well. My Dad, who is a very mild, easy-going sort of man, professes a violent dislike for Dayvidd Archer. “Its something about his voice,” he told me, “he’s just so bloody smug.” Indeed, its in the exchanges between Dayvidd and the vile Pipsqueak (his firstborn) that my Archers affection finds its limits. If they start discussing another earthworm survey, or reinforcing their father-daughter bond over the intricacies of bovine parturition, I just have to turn the radio off.
For those of you who don’t know, The Archers is Britain’s longest-running soap opera: set in a small rural community in the Midlands, and developed under consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, it was originally designed to inform as well as entertain. The first episode was broadcast in the Spring of 1950–when post-war rationing was still in force–and the narrative provided a context for the dramatisation of themes that might improve productivity and accelerate the modernisation of British farming. The rural setting still remains the occasion for much issue-led drama, and the short lapse between recording and transmisssion often allows the programme to respond to urgent and pressing events in the British farming world (such as foot and mouth, or Bovine TB). So while I despise most of the characters, and though I think the show’s script writing is often pretty poor, I do enjoy its country context. Indeed, perhaps the most pleasing thing about The Archers is its pace and rhythm. Unlike other soaps, events unfold in real time. In this sense, the choices of the show’s writers and editors are often brave and important. Compare, for example, the different ways in which Coronation Street and The Archers have dealt with dementia-related storylines: in Coronation Street, a character was diagnosed and whisked off screen within a matter of weeks, while in The Archers, the condition is unfolding, slowly and painfully, over months and years, highlighting many life-changing, distressing and difficult decisions. Things take time, on The Archers, and they are also reassuringly regular, predictable. My life is neither regular or predictable, and for me, it is sad but true that each year’s diurnal round can be measured by familiar Archers events: the village panto, the single wicket contest, the flower and produce show, the happy reappearance of the Grundy World of Christmas. “When shall I make the Christmas cake?” Tom asked me, just a few days ago. “Not sure,” I said, “just wait until Jill Archer mentions Stir-up-Sunday . . . ”
Now: to the patterns. The booklet makes reference to the death of Polly Perks, and Nelson’s wine bar: I reckon that dates it to 1982 or 3. As one might imagine, it is peppered with ’80s attrocities (the thing that Caroline is wearing is just too horrendous to show), but there are actually some interesting patterns in here. One in particular caught my eye. . . . I have stared at this garment sported by prejudiced Brummy landlord, Sid Perks, many times, and am still not sure whether its pint-pot-and-dart motifs are a work of design genius, or a source of knitting horror. You must decide for yourselves.
As you can see at the top of this post, in addition to the patterns, Argyll Wools (still listed as a going business concern in Guiseley) also issued an Ambridge yarn range. Ambridge Yarn! Amazing! The fibre-composition is very much of its time, combining “the softness of machine washable wool enhanced with the durability of nylon”, but it did come in 33 shades, of which just 5 would enable you to knit a Sid Perks pint pot sweater! I am beginning to dream of unused skeins of Ambridge yarn lurking around the nation’s charity shops. Imagine!
As well as the more outlandish ’80s designs, I actually think many of the men’s garments in the booklet are rather pleasing — in particular this pair of sweaters sported by Phil and Jethro. I felt quite moved to see this happy picture of Norman Painting, sans beard. Archers listeners will know that Painting — who is depicted on the left, and who played Phil Archer — died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 85. His voice was heard in the first episode of the programme in May 1950, and will last be heard in one to be broadcast on November 22nd. A successful script writer as well as an actor, Painting also wrote over a thousand Archers‘ episodes in the 60s, 70s and early 80s — often attempting to write Phil out of the narrative to give himself a rest. I actually own a copy of Painting’s Archers memoir, Forever Ambridge (ahem), and I’ll remember Phil most for his love of pigs (which I share). I was very pleased to see him included in my now-to-be-treasured Archers pattern booklet.
*PS Those who have not yet experienced the delights of The Archers may be interested to note that you can download each episode as a podcast. Hurrah!*
**PPS I am feeling better**
Phase 1. Here are myself, and my sister (Helen), circa 1979. Back then, family tents were gigantic bungalow-ranch-style constructions, with separate sleeping pods, living/ kitchen areas, faux glazing, and obligatory orange curtains. Putting up one of these babies was a process quite close to building an actual bungalow. To expedite matters, my mother devised a system involving several different coloured stickers — unfortunately, this code was so precise and so complex that it was it unknowable to anyone else but her. While she, dad, and the tent poles battled it out, Helen and I amused ourselves at the far reaches of the campsite. . . if we were really lucky, our canvas bungalow would be up by nightfall.
Camping is cheap, and we went away several times a year, to North Wales, to Devon, to the Isle of Man, or far, far afield to Yorkshire. Helen and I played and walked and swam in many different British landscapes. My overwhelming recollection of these familial trips is that 1) they involved a lot of laughs (we are all as daft as each other) and 2) they allowed me to taste the pleasures of independence. When one is seven, it is marvellous to pootle about the campsite or the beach, just doing your thing.
Phase 2: I am second from right, sporting the first of many terrible perms. Helen is under the umbrella. You will note that one tent has become many — less giant bungalow, more village settlement. I am not sure at what point we made this radical architectural shift, but for my parents, any small degree of privacy must have been a bonus. To my right is my good friend Julia and I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the girl on my left. We had met her on this Anglesey campsite: she was slightly older, slightly glamorous, and therefore intriguing. During this era, we tended to camp on large family sites like this one — the sort that extend to several hundred acres, with a range of ‘luxury’ accommodation options for the mums, on site ‘country club’ for the dads, and a camp shop the size of a supermarket in which to spend one’s money on ice cream and shandy. The best thing about these places is that they are designed for – and full of – kids, and it is good for kids to knock around with lots of other kids. We formed large gangs, whose petty rivalries and attachments shifted with the passage of our stay. Camping is a transient activity, and there is something about this transience that enables possibilities. Camp friendships were quite unlike the rigid rules of association that one observed at school.
Phase 3: You will note that a lot of dye has been added to the perm, and that I am up a hill in inappropriate footwear. I still loved the camping, though. When one is a student and spends most of one’s time in libraries, it is very good to get outdoors.
Phase 4: I moved to Scotland with Tom. We began camping a lot. We enjoyed it a lot. I am pictured above in a transitional phase, when we still camped on sites, and before I realised I could just leave the cosmetics and jewelery at home.
Phase 5: The happy era of wild camping. You may recall that I wrote about the pleasures of wild camping just over a year ago, and I feel I must extol its benefits once more. If you are the sort of person who drives 200 metres to the toilet block in your 4×4; if you like to play Chaz n Dave’s ‘snooker loopy’ for everyone else’s benefit from your camper van; if you can’t leave home without your hairdryer (how depressing was the recent camping episode on the Archers? I ask you! ); or if you are one of those eejits who calls out mountain rescue when you are feeling a wee bit tired half way up Helvellyn, then wild camping is probably not for you. However, if you prefer solitude over a shower, don’t mind walking with your gear, enjoy genuine proximity to wild flora and fauna, and are capable of developing resourceful hygiene habits, then it really can’t be beaten.
Thanks to some very progressive outdoor access legislation, wild camping is tolerated all over Scotland. This does not mean that you can just camp where you like, or do what you like while camping. But it does mean that you can enjoy the marvelous landscapes of the highlands and islands as public spaces, rather than worrying about their status as private property. While urban Britain witnesses the rise of gated communities and private gardens; when our common land is daily eroded, degraded, and privatised; and when creative, productive, and community-oriented uses of wasted space are prosecuted as trespass, public access is something to be strongly championed. And, when one gets off one’s soapbox, one can enjoy glorious sights, in glorious spaces like this: from the cosy comfort of one’s tent, and completely alone.
Here are my top tips for enjoyable wild camping:
1. Do not build fires. I know there are good ways and there are bad ways, but burnt ground takes a long time to recover, and I feel profoundly depressed when I see blackened patches on the rare and beautiful Hebridean machair. We carry a lightweight stove everywhere, and it is excellent.
2. Be particularly careful about choosing your spot in Spring: do not camp near nesting birds.
3. Keep away from crops, and (I have to say after our only bad experience) conurbations, cliffs or outcrops.
4. Sheep very good. Cows not so good. Keep away from cows.
5. A bit of exposure is fine. Personally, I would rather camp in a gusty spot than in a damp valley — just as I would rather be buffeted by wind than attacked by swarming midgies. Secure your guy ropes and enjoy the blast.
6. Avoid other people. If you spot camper vans or tents steadily gathering in a likely location, then find another place. This is a matter of environmental sustainability as well as probable misanthropy.
7. Hygiene resourcefulness. Tissues and cleanser are an absolute necessity. And when all else fails (ie, you are on a three day walking trip, miles from any conveniences), you must, I am sorry to say it, face the evil rigours of the trowel (groan). Read this guidance issued by the lovely people at the Scottish Mountaineering Council.
8. Take as little as possible, and take the best stuff you possibly can. My essentials include: good boots, good 2 litre waterhose thingy; good down sleeping bag; wool socks, wool base layer, thick wool sweater, light wool shawl, wool hat, wool gloves. Oh yes, and (non wool) lightweight waterproofs. Obviously, I like wool. But, from close personal experience I can assure you that, quite unlike its much-touted man made counterparts (synthetic fleece and base layer) wool does not reek after several days of repeated wear. Tom thinks this may be a wool too far, but I do have serious plans to fashion myself a fully woollen and eminently serviceable winter walking outfit. More of this anon.
9. Leave no trace at all. Don’t camp in the same spot for more than a couple of nights, and remove all litter (including that of others, if you spot it). Yes, I am one of those people who gathers up other people’s sweet wrappers on mountain tops.
10. Enjoy the view.