Friday, August 30, 2013

OK, knitting: 1) Princeling's pullover.

The other morning, Tom woke quite tired from a rather busy dream, which went thus.  We were travelling through the world, and were encumbered by a large old fashioned wooden boat, which we had to pull along with us over both land and water.  Then we were in hospital building, I was sitting up in bed looking very happy, and the boat was alongside the bed, filled with straw as it were a Nativity crib.  When he looked inside it, nestled there was a pile of balls of wool.

I’m not entirely sure I should be sharing these rather intimate and bizarre details of the workings of Tom’s night-time imagination, but I cannot help but wonder if it doesn’t say something about the place that yarn is occupying in our life…

Anyway, I’ve been saying I would post something about what I’ve been making, but having started to do so, the post began to run away with me, to get over-long and to become a rather dull catalogue of projects. One of the interesting things about knitting, I’m discovering, is the associations, thoughts and memories that it evokes as I do it, connected, directly or indirectly, with colours, textures and actions, or with what I’m reading or listening to at the time.  These are scarcely intellectually puissant or profound, but sometimes vivid or surprising, and it seems to me including them might give more point to writing about it. So better perhaps to write a series of shorter more frequent posts about individual projects with whatever tangential meanderings come to mind. This may also serve to exercise my atrophying blogging muscles and bring me in sight of the thousand published posts in seven years which I said earlier I was aiming to achieve by the beginning of November.

So here goes.

I finished Princeling's pullover back in early July, even though his birthday isn't till October, since I was concerned it would be a hopelessly bad fit, and I might prefer to make something else in the meanwhile. The sleeves sounded very short in the pattern so I lengthened them, then they seemed very long compared to the body, which I tried to redress a bit with blocking.

I met up with Iso alone and handed it over, suggesting she hold it against another jumper that fitted him and see how it compared, but she said, no she'd try it on him.  OK, I said, it's not like the surprise matters much for something like that, I'll send him a book or something else anyway...

'No no, I'll make him close his eyes while we do it,' she replied.
'He'll peep, surely?'

But she assured me he wouldn't, and later sent me a series of photos of him wearing it, all with eyes tight shut, as I'm told they were throughout, which amused me greatly, as well as making me whimper over what a little shrimp he was and how utterly drowned he looked in the pullover.

I'm still not convinced that he won't outgrow the body before the sleeves ever fit him, but Iso says she'll just roll them up.

The tweedy background wool contained rather a lot of bottle green, a colour I'm never fully content with since it was that of the school uniform I had to wear in my secondary school years.  Does school uniform inevitably predispose us to disliking that colour for ever more, I wonder?  But it also had a rich strand of purple in it, and looked much better in daylight than indoors.  It seemed a little unoriginal to resort to stripes too, even somewhat unusually distributed ones.  One Ravelry group for knitting for boys lamented how it was difficult to find anything other than trucks and stripes.  I know boys often do like things like trucks and tractors, generally more than girls do, though not always, and why not indeed? And if a boy, or anyone else, has a penchant for trucks or tractors, or anything else, why not let him have them in pictures anywhere he wants? I'm sure if I owned a boy I'd find it quite difficult to put him in pink or in flowers, and I really don't worry too much about this kind of thing any more, but I think it would be nice to find some other motifs that weren't quite so gender-skewed.  Animals, I suppose, are a possibility, and houses, and boats and fish and whales and dolphins and watery things in general are often loved by all, and one could try abstract shapes and patterns that were more varied than simple stripes.  I did see one pattern for a dear little baby hat which had a girl's version with pink hearts  and a boy's with skulls on.  Am I alone in finding this slightly depressing, creepy even? Though certainly ripe with possibilities for socio-psychological deconstruction...

Having said that, I notice Princeling, along with tractors and farm animals and a carpet with a town layout on it, has a pirate ship on his wall, complete with skull and cross bones, so I suppose that's where the skull thing comes from.  Though whether we should quite be romanticising pirates is another matter again.  But as I said, I don't worry too much about that kind of thing any more.


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Three sisters

That was the name certain native American peoples gave to companion plantings of beans, squash and sweetcorn. I'm not sure if it was those of South, Central or North, but I understand the combination was used by agrarian cultures all over the Americas.  I've been meaning to set up a bed of them for a while, because I'm curious, I like all three of those vegetables, I'm keen to maximise the space in raised beds, and when I learned they were called the Three Sisters it appealed to me especially as I am one of three sisters myself, though I can't make up my mind which of the three I'd like to be and which most resemble my two sisters.

The virtue of the combination is that the sweetcorn supports the beans, which in turn enrich the soil with nitrogen for the benefit of the corn.  While those two are reaching for the sky, the squash plants use the ground below, and their leaves and vines spread and keep down the weeds and keep it cool and moist.

It's worked to a point, but in fact I overcrowded the bed rather too much; when it looked like this

in June, after the rabbits had nibbled the tops off the sweetcorn, I couldn't believe that a couple of months later it would look like this:

I don't know how many years of observing the actions of nature it will take me fully to grasp the reality of them.

However, it will yield something, and the evening and sometimes morning plod down there bearing watering cans - the hose doesn't reach - is satisfying more than onerous.  I planted Kelvedon sweetcorn, green courgettes ( aka zucchini, I forget which variety), a special kind of butternut squash called 'Sprinter' which is supposed to be better suited to northern climes than the regular one, and pea beans, a flat French-type bean which you allow to dry in the pods to harvest the little round skewbald seeds for winter soups and stews, all from the organic gardening catalogue.  The germination rate for the courgettes was rubbish, but three surviving plants still give us more courgettes than we can use, the Sprinters may not be exactly sprinting but they are growing at their own pace, unfortunately though they are covered in flower buds the vast majority of these are male and won't bear fruit, but their are a few small green gourds coming along. The sweetcorn is bringing forth cobs; they look a bit small but size isn't everything.  The beans seem to be doing their own thing quite happily.

But whatever, I'm enjoying the look of them, the different leaf shapes and splashes of flowering and the emblems of the fruit, so if the only significant harvest is photos, then so be it.

Friday, August 16, 2013

So what have you been doing lately?

I really don't like that question.  It's often asked by the nicest of people, with the kindest of intentions, but also those whose lives seem to be full of meaningful, productive, worldly activity, just hearing about which makes me feel daunted and somewhat tired.  In an instant my existence becomes a void, a slough of idleness, I have nothing to tell them.  Seriously, I often avoid people and let friendships slide because of the widening gaps these moments make evident (I toyed with using 'evidence' as a verb there, and decided against). It's probably not even as though they want an answer anyway, it's just a polite formula, like 'how are you?', to show they are interested and not self-centred, but really, I'd much rather hear all about their busy, active, important lives, and not be required to give an account of myself.

And I suppose blogging is rather the same, though it shouldn't be, since this is the place where the trivial does have value, because it's seen in one's own terms, not in the (perceived) judgement of others, and by and large those who come and comment give me the kindest of affirmation.

So, what have I been doing lately?

Currant confections.  The white currant crop was good but the red currant one poor, a consequence of the cold late spring I think. Both red and white currants are the principal ingredient of Bar-le-Duc jam.  Bar-le-Duc is a village in the Berry region (appropriately), the jam has been made there since 1300.  It is the most expensive jam in the world, because each and every currant has its seeds individually removed by hand while being left intact, then is suspended in the syrup jelly.  This act of fructal evisceration is performed by ladies wielding the sharpened quill of a goose, who rejoice in the job description épépineuse.  

I think it is largely the pips, visibly suspended in the gel inside the translucent skins, like tiny vegetal souls awaiting rebirth into another realm, which make the currants so beautiful.  We decided to grow currants partly with a view to serving them with oysters, having tasted this in a restaurant once.  However, we have never got up the nerve to buy, open and serve our own oysters, fearing injured hands.  But the currants, we find, go well with all kinds of things, scattered on green salad, with chicken or pork, either straight or sautéed (awful Franglais) with a little honey, or with oily fish. We don't mind the pips.  We had about half a kilo, which amounts to quite a few currants.  I froze some and sweet pickled a small jar. Unfortunately, once suspended in pickling syrup they look less like pearly soul-vessels and much more like frogspawn.

Knitting, of course. Just a week after the materials arriving I'm already fifty inches (I had gone almost entirely metric in recent years but find that with taking up the needles I am slipping back into imperial) into Emily's Hufflepuff scarf.  I have also found a source of good quality German felting wool in lovely colours close at hand and am wondering whether if we live out of the garden for a few weeks, I can afford to go and stock up on it, and make felted slippers for everyone. I've requested a basketwork chest for Christmas or birthday to accommodate my growing wool stash, like the one we have for blankets and linen, the kind of thing that used to be called an Ottoman, an instance of the most cosy and banal, possibly feminine, of domestic items being named after a culture conventionally perceived as fairly fierce and butch; the other one that come to mind is calling those sweet old crochet blankets 'Afghans'.  Now how many Pushtun tribesmen do you see wrapping themselves up in granny squares to keep themselves warm in the Tora Bora region, I ask you? I'll probably do a knitting post soon with photos anyway.

Sea swimming, again.  It was as clear as Gordons' gin but much warmer.

Prom watching and listening.  Loved Rachmaninov's 2nd.

Courgette cutting - argh, the marrows are coming! (Despite grating them into Spanish omelette and anything else I can think of, thanks Joe).  I'll post pictures of the bed they grow in later.

Munching mussels; you should photograph that, said Tom.

There's a shortage of other bivalve sea-food with which to make coquillages farcies just now, especially since we're scared to open oysters.  I resorted to buying frozen scallops and putting them into the empty halves of the mussel shells for variety.

Picking up pine cones.  Sometimes when Mol and I are out we do this, we gather quite a few over the summer when they drop, and burn them the following winter.  On one occasion I brought one in and put it down on a pile of renovation materials and forgot it.  When Tom went to use said materials, he lifted the pine cone and, in the words of the old story, it came apart in his hand. This strange Fibonacci marquetry was revealed:

Sadly seeking Cyril. He became quite bold, coming frequently in the day for his hazelnuts,

I would often hear quite a loud sawing noise as he got into them, he clearly knew we were around and that he was being watched.

He always picked the nuts up with his mouth, only using his 'hands' to manoeuvre and manipulate them.

After a while though, only one or two nuts would be taken, and now he comes no more.  I don't know enough about their life cycles, perhaps they are fairly nomadic according to the season, or perhaps he was a she and was only desperate enough for food to come while feeding young.  I hope nothing's happened to him, but one can't protect wild creatures much really.

There he was gone.

I have painted the bathroom extension, on the outside, though not the window surrounds or wall plate.  It's been about fifteen years since I last did it; beige rosé has been re-marketed as ochre de Provence but it looks the same colour, and now it's water-based like almost all paint, which is a vast improvement. While it's satisfying to see it done, and good to feel confident on a ladder again, I'm slightly shocked and disappointed at how my energy levels have waned in that time.  Then, I remember, I undertook to get the whole job - scrubbing it down with the village Karcher, a high pressure water-cleaner that was joint owned by a couple of local households and which was handed round according to need, a situation one couldn't imagine now - applying primer then topcoat (it was bare rendering), and painting the window frames - done in about four days while we were waiting for something else, like a delivery of slates for the roof or something.  I didn't even use a roller, just a wide brush which I thought would be less messy, and a couple of our elder women neighbours stood by making supportive and curious comments: Why not use a roller?  Isn't she hard-working! Well yes but if we were thirty-six again... This time I did it over a much longer time, but was still exhausted almost to tears by the end of the final roller coat.  I did do all of that part of the job in one day, a hot one and working my way round to the hottest side at the end, because I couldn't face the thought of cleaning up the roller and tray then having to get it all out again, and the roller, loaded with masonry paint, is remarkably heavy, but still, I felt too much like beaten.

Coming back to Proust listening at long last, over four years from when I started the project. Having tidied and reclaimed my blue room, and with work in my hands to be done and listening easier really than reading, it's been a good moment to pick it up again. I abandoned it for long periods, boggled by his bizarre and frankly nasty obsessions with same-sex relations, culminating in and made almost worthwhile by the hilarious and surreal flagellation of a disappointed Baron de Charlus by a bored and kind-hearted sailor whose heart just isn't in it, spied upon by a shocked if prurient Marcel through an interior window. The strange episode at the Guermantes' where everyone has turned into white-haired, wrinkled benign old people, in a lapse of time that can't seem to be accounted for, seems to chime with the sense that I have on waking sometimes, that here I am in my fifties, and how has this happened, when I was only back there just then? Or indeed, when the paintwork on the outside wall needs renewing, those neighbours who were in their sixties and seventies then are in their eighties and nineties now, that years and seasons and fruit and vegetable crops and animals and birds, and people, come and go, always changing and always the same, and people ask 'So what have you been doing lately?' and there doesn't seem to be much to say in response.

Otherwise, not a lot of reading, still less writing.  I did, however, enjoy The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel, which also inspires an idea, perhaps.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Family visit, and webs.

Me: 'So is there anything green you do eat?'
Benj: (pause) 'Fruit pastilles...'

We've had the yearly summer visit from Tom's daughter and family, so that's kept us busy, and now I feel like the poor man in the story, who went to the rabbi complaining that his house was unbearably small and crowded and dirty, so the rabbi told him to bring the chickens then the goat then the cow into the house as well, then finally to put them all out again, so the man couldn't believe how much space and luxury he had. And I am finally getting down into the foothills of Mount Laundry.

It was mostly hot; we went to the beach and hugged the shade of the cliffs, got bitten by nasty little sand bugs, but I had a good swim and the others played ball a bit in and out of the water, and we ate peaches, cherries and strawberries from the market. I forgot to take any photos.

The children pass through phases of childhood charm and originality through adolescent strop and obsession (Ice Road Truckers is just about more tolerable to hear about than fantasy football teams I suppose, in moderation, which it isn't...) and, in the older one's case at least, show signs of emerging back into charm and originality again.  I don't fuss about the food in fact; they're only here for a short time, I know what they like and provide it, they eat well, are appreciative and in many ways have quite sophisticated tastes. Emily can still eat moules frîtes at astonishing speed and in astonishing quantities as often as you can put them in front of her.

She looked with interest at the double-self-striped Mille Colori scarf I was knitting. Beautiful, she said, quite genuinely, then, tentatively, 'I'd like a Hufflepuff scarf, but they're terribly expensive...'

We had a look on-line at patterns and photos, and I said no promises but I'd see what I could do. Her sixteenth birthday's next month, so I reckon I can probably get one done by then; it'll be a good opportunity to learn how to do magic loop without worrying about shaping, and things with stripes always grow faster.  I've sought out a yellow that should be fairly soft and gold-ish rather than anything too acid or strident, and it will suit her, with her dark eyes and hair, coloured rather chocolaty as a gift from the hairdresser where she just did some work experience. She says she isn't quite sure she wants to be sixteen yet, she doesn't feel so grown up, so one can understand her hankering for something a bit childish and cosy but also trendy like a big stripy Harry Potter scarf.  I'm well-disposed towards Harry Potter, and as a craze for kids it strikes me as very benign, as well as enduring.  We were then curious to know how she knew she was a Hufflepuff, which prompted us to sign in to the official website and to find out what we were. K, Tom's daughter, who hadn't done it, said she imagined the questionnaire would be rather like magazine ones, with very obvious leading questions so that you could easily reckon on getting the result you wanted, but in fact these seemed surprisingly opaque, and we didn't get the same ones.  Tom's a Ravenclaw, and I'm another Hufflepuff, both of which I'd predicted and we're quite happy with.

As I say I haven't been taking many photos since they came, but on the theme of knitting and connections, here are some dewy webs I took a couple of weeks ago.