Saturday, September 28, 2013

Morlaix - exteriors

The weather was rainy then rather cool and overcast for the first couple of days of our stay in Finistère.  This had its advantages, not least because Molly, with her uncanny knack of scheduling such things just when a trip away is in the offing, went down with another of her ear abscesses the day we were leaving.  I said, sod it, we're going anyway, took everything required, figuring that she could as easily be ill there as here; she knows the place, Yvette and Paul don't fuss about her, the room opens directly to outside, and the floors are all shiny parquet and tiles in the event of any mess occasioned (I'll spare further descriptive details).  In fact she was brilliant, went for gentle little walks, took her painkillers and a reasonable amount of nourishment, was still able to show some interest in sniffs and smells and restaurant chips brought out in napkins, as well as a takeaway container of plain boiled rice that I ordered for her one evening in an Indo-Chinese restaurant where we ate, and otherwise she dozed peacefully either in the car (so cool weather was a blessing) or on her bed in the corner of our room.  The afternoon before we came home she got up, went out to the tiled bathroom and gave her head a good shake and brought the matter to a conclusion, experiencing instant and dramatic relief thereby as always, and picked herself up with a 'right, I'm better now, where we going then?' kind of attitude. This coincided with the sun coming out so we all jumped in the car and drove up the le Diben headland and walked around the little fishing port up there, which I didn't take any photos of but Tom did so I might pinch some of them later.

We also used the opportunity to explore the town of Morlaix a bit more.  It really is quite a treasure of a town, with all its different levels and angles,

and its mixture of architectural styles and periods,

all over-arched by its impressive viaduct.

One of the problems I find with photographing townscapes and buildings, without advanced lenses or editing skills anyway, is the way the camera distorts the angles so it's difficult to find a datum line from which to work.  In Morlaix this doesn't matter so much, since everything is at all different angles, and not much is parallel anyway.

Except for this beautifully coursed stonework. This blue schist type stone is quarried in the region.  It was popular for building in the area of Mont St Michel, where it was presumably shipped by sea.  This is the outside of an important municipal building but there are smaller chunks of it in the walls of the house we stay in at Kerbiriou.  It enlivens the browner colour of the other stone there, and looks crisp and smart when used in larger expanses like this. I'd not really noticed it before, but I was equipped with a guide book this time, Wendy Mewes' Saints' Shore Way, which is full of such interesting details.  Wendy Mewes is a formidable Brittany expert, she lives in Morlaix and, I understand, gives walking tours of the town and the area, and runs the association Brittany Walks. I'm gradually collecting her books; she's not only an excellent and serious historian, thoroughly immersed in the matter of Brittany, she's also very good at making it concise and readable in English.  She blogs at Brittany, the Mirror of Landscape, and she certainly gets about the region.

Morlaix also has a good Indian restaurant and a wool shop, so altogether we were quite happy.

This building is known as la maison dite de la duchesse Anne.  We were able to visit some of the interior of it, but I think that merits a post of its own... 

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Been away...

... to Kerbiriou for a few days.

Came back with these, and cider too.

Probably more anon.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Knitting 4) Angela's drop stitch scarf

Angela is my sister-in-law, the wife of my youngest brother, he who is closest to me in age of all my siblings. To the best of my memory, I have never made her a present before, certainly not since we were kids, as we pretty much were when we first met, I was about seventeen and she only a year or two older.  At that time she was studying maths at Cambridge, where my brother was studying economics.  She always was and still is quietly, doggedly and mind-bogglingly clever, and since the time she left that place and married my brother she has worked in aerospace, sending pioneering satellites into space and who-knows-what, travelling the world to do so.  She and my brother are loyal, devoted and have grown together wondrously, and I respect, admire, like and love them both, yet I really haven't spent much time with them over the years. I generally try to remember her birthday, but this year, with the kids being here and all, it passed me by until a few days later.

I found the couple of balls of this rather odd discontinued yarn in Phildar's basket again, and bought it without a plan, then found the drop stitch scarf pattern and knew they were made for each other, though at the time I didn't know for whom.  The technique is compelling and satisfying, counting up and down and back and forth all the time, but in a way and with a rhythm that quite quickly becomes happily lodged in the mind like a dance, with every third row winding the yarn round the needle, once, then twice, then three times, then twice, then once again, then six straight stitches, and so on, then in the next row you purposely drop all those wound round stitches you've just made, which feels kind of risky and exciting (yes really, well to me anyway, I lead a quiet life...) and the pattern falls out of the yarn in open loops and waves.

Initially, though, it's not all that visible:

so you have to block it quite aggressively:

which I did on the line, with the help of clothes pegs and a bag of onions,

so it finishes up nicely opened out, and the scarf itself is somewhat longer.

Observing I'd missed Angela's birthday, the final serendipitous piece dropped like into place as happily as did the stitches; the yarn with its subtle colours now suggested to me fine wires of complex alloys and rare earth metals, the wave patterns maths and graphs and other arcane things... 

Angela wrote back, a lovely warm e-mail, thanking me graciously: the yarn and pattern, she said, made her think of sea spray (I later learned this particular stitch pattern is sometimes called the sea foam drop stitch). All was well with them, she said, but she didn't know if it was an age thing, but work seemed to take up more of life than she liked; time at home and with family seemed to be more and more important but there seemed to be less and less of it.  

I invited myself to dinner with them next month.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Knitting 3) Tom's waistcoat, from the Charming Ewes of the Monastery of the Transfiguration

As I said, my blue-green waistcoat was a prototype. I persuaded Tom that he wanted me to make him one for his birthday this month.  He had already said quite firmly that he didn't want me knitting him any socks, since he would feel too mortified if they went into holes (or that was the reason he gave anyway...), but he gave in to the waistcoat.  Then I found the site of a Greek Orthodox nunnery in the Dordogne, le Monastère de la Transfiguration, where six sisters and their priest labour to produce glowing icons, fig, walnut and cherry jam, and to raise happy Charmoise ewes whose wool they shear, card and send for dying and spinning, then sell directly from the monastery to a discerning public.  How could we resist?

It only comes in four very classic solid colours, taupe (above, which we chose), a maroon red, chocolate brown and natural cream.  It's rather like knitting brown bread, simple, wholesome and satisfying, but a little rough in texture and perhaps a bit dull as a sole diet. Washing with a drop of fabirc conditioner softened it a bit, but it's as well it won't be worn next to the skin.

On researching these kind of sheep, it turns out that, although their wool is one of the Monastery's prized products, they are in fact a meat breed.  Their fleece is good and serviceable, without egregious black hairs in it, but it's not their reason for being.  I don't know if there are any French breeds of sheep which are primarily raised for their wool, milk and/or meat seem to be the priorities here.  It seems to me that with the craze for varietal wools which has emerged in recent years (wool, I would posit, resembles wine in many ways, except you can't drink it), many of the sheep breeds are of British origin. Though the Merino, I gather, originated in Spain; they must have been bloody hot there under all that wool.  I must find out more, I do like learning about farm animals, and I like wool.  Anyway, I hope the six sisters and their priest also enjoy a nice feast of roast lamb at Easter too.

This time I paid attention to the gauge, and also to details like knitting the moss-stitch waistband on smaller needles and doing an extra row of edging to give it more shape, and starting the neck decreases a little earlier to keep the armholes a bit shorter, and the result is much more successful.  I have finished it but, though I checked some aspects of the fit while I was making it, the final product, and the rather nice buttons I got for it, Tom hasn't yet seen.  He's very good at putting things like that out of his mind so as not to spoil the surprise (for me), so I can't show you much of it just now, but here's a close up,

showing the quite interesting, and for me not unchallenging, pattern of moss stitch rib which comprises the main body of the garment, and which shows up much better with this wool that in the first one.

Again, plenty of wool left for stashing.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Knitting - interlude: on reading and knitting.

Just wondering, about reading.  Yes, I can read and knit, but it isn't all that easy really.  Since I took on so many knitting projects, my reading has diminished drastically, and I suppose I'm also pondering the matter of constructive activity.  My mother grew up with the constant rebuke from her mother of 'Get your nose out of that book and do something useful!'. I think it was similar for my father too, and in my his case this message seemed to be almost cosmically reinforced by an incident in his early teens when he was sitting at the edge of a field with his nose stuck in a book, oblivious of all else around him, while his brothers and some other boys were, as I understand it, playing a game which involved throwing a bar of metal around.  Life was harsh in Hemel Hempstead in the old days.  The bar flew in his direction and before he could disengage his nose from the book in time to avoid it, the two objects, bar and nose, collided, with the effect of fracturing the latter.

They were determined, however, that this anti-reading attitude would not be conveyed to us, and we were encouraged and praised for our love of books, yet still there was a little shadow, of envy perhaps, but also an understandable impatience with sloping off with a book when there were tables to be cleared, washing up to be done, rooms to be tidied and so on, things which my elder siblings were required to do before pleasing themselves but which, by the time we last two came along my parents had grown too old, tired and indulgent to enforce.  And there's the thing; reading was, in the end, a pleasure, a self-indulgence, not a discipline or a study, not homework or really all that purposeful, not, in other words, constructive.  And not very social either; my bachelor uncle Jack, an intelligent, cultured, musical, funny, somewhat petulant and pompous man, whose presence greatly enriched our family life and childhoods, once grew tired of us, his sister's family, fell out mildly (the only possible way one could) with my father about his dog (Uncle Jack's), and estranged himself from us for a time.  One of his gripes was that my brother and I were 'too bookish', not interested in conversation or his company.

But by the time they had us, in late middle age, I'm afraid my parents valued peace and quiet, fewer social demands and requirements to fetch and carry us, and were rather happy for us to be able to amuse ourselves  quietly with a book - or paper and paints or whatever, there wasn't much telly then.  But I don't remember seeing my mum with a book when I was a child, she was always too busy, she said, and the internalised disapproval, the feeling that sitting reading was really rather idle and effete, was still present.  My dad read a little more, but not much when we were growing up, again, there were more important things to be attended too.  Later, in his old age, he was forever with his nose in a book, but less and less the history that had been his earlier love, Trevelyan, Churchill, Arthur Bryant, and more of middle-brow historical romances, Georgette Heyer and Catherine Cookson novels from the library.  Often he'd read the same one several times and barely be aware of it.  Left on their own once we'd all flown, his withdrawal into this passive reading state exasperated my mother.  When she spoke to him about it he agreed that it was fairly pointless, he confessed that it was ' a bit like the kids with their pop music', a background noise he seemed to need.' My mother managed to regain some reading practice, and we shared a few books and writers that we were able to talk about, but tired eyes and ill-health and old-age depression got in the way somewhat for her.

For a short time in my late teens, it seemed to me that I might really be able to make a life from reading, I could study literature forever, that would be what I would do.  I had a very unclear knowledge both of the way the world worked and of my own abilities and character.  I was not cut out to be an academic, and was inclined finally to own one of the aforesaid Uncle Jack's conclusions: that you should never try to make your hobby and your pleasure your living, it will kill all your joy in and love for it.  He had given up a job he was fed up with as a cinema projectionist and set up as a professional photographer, a pastime he loved.  He was insecure and miserable in his work for ever after, and his wedding photos were fairly dreadful.  Many people I've voiced this too, who have successfully made their passions their jobs, refute it as advice, but for him and for me, I think it held good.

My mother was kind and encouraging when I was dreaming of a literary life, but opined that I'd probably end up doing something with my hands.  I was a bit miffed at the time, but she was right really.  In fact I've not done anything properly or in a sustained way as a career, but used hands and language according to what came along, in both paid and unpaid capacities, middlingly, if not brilliantly, well.  I've been lucky.

Many of these reflections on matters mental and manual, and my vacillating between the differing activities which give rise to them, are perhaps to do with my response to losing my sister, whose life was so much in the work of her hands, and then immediately afterwards finding, then later losing Heather, for whom words and ideas and the work of the mind was so important.  Both of them were vivid and full of energy and purpose and beauty and the sense of beauty, both exemplars to me in some wise.  Heather was continually challenging me on my reading, giving me difficult things to read, chiding me about not reading more in French, assuming my knowledge about things way over my head.  It could be tiring, and I sometimes thought she could cut me, and some of the less heavy and intellectual things I was fond of, some slack, but it did present reading as something positive, active, something gained, un bien; a pleasure for sure but not just a pastime, something to amuse when you had nothing more important to do, something of account, and a discipline.

I decided at the beginning of this year to record my reading, if not to review and comment on it at least to make a note of it and hence, perhaps, to do it a bit more purposefully, more constructively, to give something of an account of it.   I've kept up the record, but since the spring, there's not been too much to add to it.  I'm missing reading, but not enough, because when idle on my couch I lie my mind, left to its own devices, is spinning off into coloured threads, making imaginary garments and objects, thinking how and of what and for whom.  Not least for whom, how to make just the right thing, choose just the right texture, colour and style for such and such a person; almost as if there's no tomorrow and I want as many people as possible to have things I've made (I know that sounds a potentially morbid; I don't really have any baleful sense of doom and foreboding or anything...).  I don't quite know what it's all about, or how long it will last, but I'm happy to go along with it for the foreseeable.  I hope I'm producing something useful, that will give pleasure and be used or worn, but it's certainly not necessary; one can buy new things, or just make do and mend, at a fraction of the price, not many people expect gifts of me anyway, but it's the making, and the envisioning and planning to make, that matters, process as much as product. One very obsessed dedicated knitter I read about, away from home over a holiday weekend with nothing new to knit, unravelled the thing she had just finished and made it again just in order to have something in hand.  I wouldn't go that far.

I also think perhaps that working out and working on patterns and sequences, making the linear wool into a plane, and thence by increasing and decreasing, curving pulling, into a three dimensional form, creating  spaces and nodes, charting colour changes etc, all essentially by means of bucket mathematics, is probably good exercise for my brain which hasn't been accustomed to that kind of use.

Get your nose out of that book, do something useful.  Make something, to eat or to wear.  My mum wasn't a knitter, though she knew how and showed me the basics, but we, my mum, my sisters and I, all sewed.  Yes, yes it was all very sexist, etc, we sewed, my brothers made model aeroplanes, my dad did things involving lorries.  Sewing was shared, sociable, I was quite literally at my mother's knee, the one that wasn't operating the vertical lever which powered the Singer electric sewing machine (a strange mechanism I've never seen on any machine since), my sisters came and went, plundered the draws and chests and boxes of fabric and haberdashery, showed me how to do things.  They were very good at it, and both made a living doing it at different times.  I was competent, and clothed myself in my youth cheaply and originally, with satisfaction if not with the utmost elegance.  And while the act of making things precluded reading, it was almost always accompanied by listening; Radio 4, always, speech radio, news, discussion, plays, serialisations and dramatisations of books (and The Archers, of course).  So working with the hands became conducive to absorbing things with the head, and still is.  As I say, I can read and knit, but listening is better, and as well as radio and music cds, there are audio books.

Which is the other question that has been exercising me, and the only thing I really intended to write about here, before I got started.  What in fact is reading? Does having listened to a book mean you've read it?  When there was only tape and vinyl to record on, and it was necessary to abridge texts, one could clearly say no, any more than reading a Reader's Digest condensed book could be said to be reading that book, but now with cds, and MP3s too, full, unabridged texts are available for many things.  The thirty-five discs of Proust I've been listening to are still heavily abridged, and I wouldn't claim to have read Proust on the strength of listening to them, merely to have familiarised myself with a broad outline, and in that instance perhaps abridging is especially to eviscerate the text, since it's not really so much what he said, as how, and at what length, he said it.  But there are other things I've listened to in full of recent times, not while knitting but when painting walls, ironing, cooking etc, which I rather doubt I'd have made the effort to work my way through on the page these days, The Divine Comedy, for example, and Paradise Lost, and if I had, I'm not sure I'd have absorbed as much as by listening.  Many writers in the past, from Homer to Chaucer to Dickens, wrote (or composed in Homer's case I guess) with an intention that their words would be heard rather than read. Nevertheless, I still feel that unless one actively engages, in silence, directly with the text on the page, one can't really be said to be reading it. Listening implies too passive a state.

Which then makes me wonder what is reading for? Is it for accomplishment, to acquire experience and have something to show for it, un bien, to be able to say 'I have read...', in the same way as one can hold up a piece of fabric and say 'I have made...'? Or is it to experience the act of reading for itself, process as much as product?

Just wondering...

Back to posting knitting projects tomorrow, or perhaps the next day.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Knitting 2) My blue-green Fibonacci waistcoat

I found some pleasant soft nubby wool in a clearance basket in Phildar in Loudeac.  The sales lady and other customers smiled benignly as they stepped over me sitting cross-legged on the floor rummaging through it. When I went to pay for it she asked 'Et avez-vous trouvé votre bonheur?' a question which may or may not have been as existential as it sounds; anyway, I affirmed that I had. There were two bluish shades, a dark French blue (marine, but not the same as our navy of course, far richer) and a dark greenish-blue of a shade I can seldom resist, called persan. 

At around this time, I was balancing on my knee whilst wielding my trusty circular needle, with a clothes paeg to hold the page if I were outside ona breezy day, an old copy of Rilke's selected letters.  It is a mustard colour, clothbound edition from 1946, with a strange very thick cellophane jacket trimmed with passepartout tape, and a super heraldic engraved bookplate from Liverpool public libraries and a dour red 'Withdrawn from Stock' stamp.  Paper shortages notwithstanding, the paper is still thick and creamy and the print beautifully clear.  The translation is by R.F.C. Hull, who acknowledges amateur scholars Major Crick and Flight-Lieutenant van Rood for their help, and I find it quite moving to think of Germanophile military men at that time giving their leisure in a labour of love to offer Rilke's words to readers in English. Also thanked and providing the introduction, a fine one, was Professor E M Butler, a towering and controversial Germanist of her time, such as would have been called a blue-stocking, with quite a story of her own.  Her reading of the Faust legend, and other things, led her to an interest in the occult.  Talking of this with Heather, the question was raised as to whether someone with leanings that way could maintain their intellectual, academic, literary whatever credibility.  I pointed out that Yeats did, which she had to concede.

Why did I bring this up, apart from a vain desire to prove that my brain has not simply turned into a woolly mess?  Oh yes, the green-blue colour, dubbed by Phildar persan - Persian. I found a lovely passage in one of RMR's letters to his wife from Naples, which I feel like transcribing:

At the corner of one of the back alleyways which branch off from the Via Roma, I saw yesterday the stall of a lemonade merchant. Posts, roof and backcloth of his little booth were blue - that thrilling blue of certain Turkish and Persian amulets, shading off into green; it was evening and the lamps placed opposite the back wall of the booth made everything else show up very distinctly in front of this colour: the burnt sienna of an earthenware jug continually running over with a thin trickle of water, the yellow of single lemons and finally the smooth, glassified, ever-changing scarlet in some big and little goldfish bowls... Van Gogh would have turned back to it.

Now doesn't that make you feel thirsty?

I decided to knit the wool up into a waistcoat (or vest as Americans say, though for us that conjures up a winter undergarment for the upper body).  I found a nice looking pattern, (I found I could order a second-hand book full of patterns and pictures for less than the price of one pattern to download), decided perhaps I ought to supplement the wool by a couple of balls, which weren't on clearance at another Phildar shop thereby making it rather less of a bargain, and formulated a means of blending the two colours by using a section of the Fibonacci sequence to make graduating stripes. That's to say I used decreasing stripes of the first colour to increasing ones of the second, thus: 13 - 8 - 3 - 5 - 5 - 3 - 8 - 2 - 13 and the rest.  It's not very strict Fibbing; I left out the single row as it means you have one rather thin line of colour floating about untethered, but it's a good way to make a transition.

All very fine, but alas, the wool wasn't really quite right for the pattern, and more importantly, I didn't get the gauge right, and all that the knitting gurus say about that is true, it is the road to perdition.

(I've photographed it hanging on the bookcase as I know some of you like to nose in bookshelves.)

It is enormously wide, the armholes gape like the mouth of Hades, that special circle of it reserved for knitting sinners who do not pay attention to their gauges, it flops and slides about all over the place, is more like a shrug to wear than a waistcoat.

Even so, I find I'm very fond of it, and wear it a lot; in this warm weather it's very comfortable as an extra layer in the coolth of morning or evening, and the colour and texture are very appealing.  I found some funny little dome-shaped, Bakelite buttons in the ancestral button tin which has come down to me which must have been in there from a time before I was born, which matched it perfectly, and that was nice. The Fib sequence as I used it in fact used much more blue and less green-blue, so I have plenty of the latter left to work into things like gloves and mittens later. And in fact it was really very largely a prototype, to try out the pattern for the next project.