Wednesday 23 February 2011

Knitting to Wolf Hall

I found a copy of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel on CD at the library (2009 Booker Prize winner), I had not been tempted to read it, and it is such heavy going I would probably have abandoned it after a chapter or so, but listening to it I am getting engaged with the events and characters. You have to admire it purely on the grounds of the incredible research it must have taken, to take real historical events and work them so skilfully into what is a reinterpretation of the personalities involved. It is over 24 hours long so it will be next week before I am done with it but I am rather enjoying the less than sympathetic portrayal of the Boleyn sisters. History so often portrays such women as weak victims of circumstance, they are presented here as much more scheming and manipulative, and politically astute.

The baby tights were finished the other day, and there was so much yarn left that I have done a cute little hat to match. It has been a slightly depressing experience to find that the fine yarn was so hard to work with that at one point I resorted to wearing Dunk's reading glasses. We are both vehemently resisting the ravages of age on our eyes, I think I will remain in denial for a while longer:-)

Sunday 20 February 2011

Knitting in progress

I have been knitting like mad for the last week, inspired by being so pleased with my baby cardigan. I did a very silly frilly dress for the Babe, there is a cute photo of her over on Julie's Blog, but not a good photo of the dress.
Quite some time ago I bought some fabulous Rowan Tapestry in shades of pink and grey at Sew-In in Didsbury and it sat in the stash for quite some time, then I started a waistcoat last year, and it sat for quite some time partly knitted. I got it out the other day, unravelled and re-knitted a mistake, unravelled and re-knitted the shaping, and then decided I no longer liked the pattern at all. I am re-knitting it now as a Cables and Eyelet Hoodie, knitting it directly by unravelling it from the bits I had completed.
I started another baby cardigan that was supposed to take a single 100g ball, but it didn't, so now I have to unravel this and try something else.
Then last night I borrowed needles from Jules and started on some baby leggings, also for Kim's baby, they are very cute and I will probably have enough for a hat too from this ball of King Cole Zig Zag sock yarn.
This last project was done from the last bit of home-spun, home-dyed yarn. It is a book cover, knitted on the diagonal, it seemed like an excellent pattern as you can make it was wide and long as you need just by increasing more (sorry, can't link the pattern as it is only a download from Ravelry), here it is partly knitted:
and finished and machine felted. It is a bit big for a novel ... but fits M's iPad perfectly.

Sunday 13 February 2011

Knitting Needle Box

My knitting needle collection has been languishing in a plastic bag since the move and it was getting a little irritating trying to find anything. Inspiration struck this morning while searching the 'craft room' for a box to put them in. So here is a quick tutorial on making a knitting needle box. First find yourself an old box file:
Carefully remove the plastic clippy thing and then cut some card dividers. I used the bottom of an old folder, the card was exactly the right size and the gusset gave me ready made flaps to glue it into place. I made one of the sections smaller to hold DPNs leaving a little section for other bits and bobs.
I paired up all the needles using tiny elastic bands, there is a strange little mis-matched pair of number 12's and only one 3 3/4mm needle, but I'm sure it will turn up somewhere. Also home to random crochet hooks, a couple of rug hooks and the felting needles. I had two pairs that were too long to fit so they will be relegated to one of the stash boxes.
And added a little something on the cover, cut from an old silver gift bag. Now feeling very smug and have to go and organise the stash.

Friday 11 February 2011

Baby Cardigan

I received a letter at Christmas from my friend Linda announcing that her daughter Kim is expecting a baby. Tish and I jumped up and down with excitement and she sat down and knitted some baby socks. It felt kind of momentous because Linda and I were pregnant together; I was expecting Tish and Jacob and was like a beached whale, she was a few weeks less pregnant with this neat little bump that hardly showed, and now she is an expectant grandma. We were good friends for some years when the children were little but had drifted out of touch.
It is nice to have an excuse to knit baby stuff again so I have made this cardigan, and am very pleased with it. It is a simple top down raglan knitted to this pattern, but it is quite plain so I added some simple snowflake designs to the front, back and sleeves. It is supposed to be newborn size but whatever, the baby can grow into it:-)

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Catch 22

Hi Mum, I finally read your favourite book. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is probably one of the most surreal books I have ever encountered. I have been listening to it over the last fortnight while decorating. I had to borrow a copy of the book when we returned the tape so I could give you a few choice quotes, though in fact the whole book is pretty quotable.

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
'That's some catch, that catch-22,' he observed.
'It's the best there is,' Doc Daneeka agreed."

So Catch 22 is mainly the story of Yossarian, a bombardier in the US air force, who is stationed at a base on Pianosa in the Mediterranean, some time during the latter part of the Second World War. That's the simplest way to start an explanation, where to go from here is the problem. The book is populated with a cast of outrageous characters who are described in minute detail and whose comings and goings, thoughts, attitudes and motivations are explained in minute detail. It didn't seem to matter if I popped for a cup of tea and missed a chunk of the story because the events are repeated repeatedly, each time adding further details and a slightly different perspective. In fact very little happens, even the war seems relegated to a minor disturbance to their real concerns, and the majority of the book is taken up with endless convoluted conversations that just leave you flabbergasted. And just when you think you could not be more infuriated he makes you laugh out loud. Heller has a tendency to use at least five adjectives when one would do, and yet this is part of what gives this book its very distinctive style; you really feel you can see the person the way the author wants you to see them, and to understand their motivations and intentions the way the author wants.

"Colonel Cathcart was a slick, successful, slipshod, unhappy man of thirty-six who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general. He was dashing and dejected, poised and chagrined. He was complacent and insecure, daring in the administrative stratagems he employed to bring himself to the attention of his superiors and craven in his concerns that his schemes might all backfire. He was handsome and unattractive, a swashbuckling, beefy, conceited man who was putting on fat and was tormented chronically by prolonged seizures of apprehension. Colonel Cathcart was conceited because he was a full colonel with a combat command at the age of only thirty-six; and Colonel Cathcart was dejected because although he was already thirty-six he was still only a full colonel." (p.215, beginning chapter 19)

This is just one of dozens of personal descriptions. What I like is the juxtaposition of contrasts, telling you of course that people are far more complex that it might appear. But also that lovely neat "who lumbered when he walked and wanted to be a general", an incidental physical detail followed by what turns out to be his defining characteristic.

What I came to enjoy more and more as the book went on was the pure craziness of the whole scenario and everything that happened within it. I stopped expecting anything to make any sense, because it was all explained so clearly and logically to you just why thing were the way they were, and why it made perfect sense that they were utterly nonsensical.

"Actually, no one was around when Yossarian returned from the hospital but Orr and the dead man in Yossarian's tent. The dead man in Yossarian's tent was a pest, and Yossarian didn't like him, even though he had never seen him. Having him lying around all day annoyed Yossarian so much that he had gone to the orderly room several times to complain to Sergeant Towser, who refused to admit that the dead man even existed, which, of course, he no longer did. It was still more frustrating to try to appeal directly to Major Major, the long and bony squadron commander, who looked a little bit like Henry Fonda in distress and went jumping out the window of his office each time Yossarian bullied his way past Sergeant Towser to speak to him about it. The dead man in Yossarian's tent was simply not easy to live with. He even disturbed Orr, who was not easy to live with either, and who, on the day Yossarian came back, was tinkering with the faucet that fed gasoline into the stove he had started building while Yossarian was in the hospital." (p.25, beginning chapter 3)

In some ways you have to pay attention because people who you think are just appearing in passing turn out to be significant. In fact everyone is there for a reason and rather than some kind of chaotic jumble the book is actually very carefully constructed, circling round on itself, making a point, and then making it again, and then subverting it, and drawing you in to their story and then hitting you over the head with the reality of war. Some of it is so ridiculous and then at other moments it is so poignant and atmospheric; the scene where Yossarian struggles to help a wounded friend in the aeroplane only to discover a far worse wound than the one he had bandaged so carefully, and how he is haunted by the man's insistent moaning about being so cold. The writing is completely in your face and yet what he says is often subtle and very clever. The description of the themes and ideas over on the Catch 22 Wikipedia page are far better written than I could manage, though I don't think you would read it for the philosophy. In essence to me it felt like a book about the absurdity and pointlessness of existence, how much of your life is controlled by the choices and actions of others, and constrained by your responsibilities towards others. It is a book about morality, and partly about the suspension of morality during wartime.

The only thing that I didn't like about it was the lack of any female characters. There are plenty of women in the book, but they have no real character, there are merely physical descriptions of them and their only function was sexual, either the whores in Rome or the nurses or the occasional officer's wife. Yossarian rather demurely 'falls in love' with any woman he finds himself attracted to, as if the immediacy and genuineness of his affection somehow mitigates the speed with which he disposes of them afterwards. I guess it speaks volumes about the era it was written and the attitudes of the time.

What a brilliant book, first published back in 1961, so you'll have no trouble finding a copy at the library, though, on reflection I think that the tape was a good idea and having it read to me added something to my appreciation. It certainly is quite unique and rightly an absolute classic. I keep finding that the better a book is the more difficult I find it to put my reactions into articulate sentences. It is described primarily as a satire, but it is not just about war or the military or the nature of faceless authority, it is far more clever than that. And Yossarian is not much of a hero, he is shamelessly egotistical, and yet it is his irreverence and dogged self-preservation instinct that makes him to appealing,
"You have no respect for excessive authority or obsolete traditions. You're dangerous and depraved, and you ought to be taken outside and shot!"

Dr Seuss Hobo Bag

I have been working on this bag project for quite a while now, making slow progress firstly because I needed the circular needles and then because it was just not very interesting to knit. The whole thing perked up when I decided to add a quote around the bag, and after spending quite some time browsing poetry books I decided instead to go for some Dr Seuss, and then spent even longer drawing out this knitting chart on graph paper to create the letters in stitches:

Then as I started to do the decreases for the handles I decided it needed some further embellishment and added some random bits of design to make it more personalised. It is knitted in Rowan Luxury Cotton DK, bought from Kemps Wool Shop (a great source of bargain wools so it is not as extravagant as it sounds). Once the knitting was done I have lined it with some recycled black faux suede fabric: I just cut around the bag to get the shape and machine sewed the two halves together and hand sewed the whole thing around the opening edges

Sunday 6 February 2011

Decorating to Joseph Heller

The house that we moved into about 3 months ago is painted entirely in this dull sandy colour, every room the same. As with most rented housed it is designed to be inoffensive to temporary tenants, and boring as shit. We were however told that since we took the house in a depressing state we could have free rein with the decorating:-) It is such a big chore that I was not sure where to start, so I decided to begin at the front door and work my way through the house from there. The first stage of the job started during my week off and finished (sort of, bar a bit of touching up) today, with the accompaniment of Joseph Heller's 'Catch 22' on tape.

Before pictures (though I had started on the skirting boards when I realised I had forgotten to take any)

I chose (I could say 'we' but Dunk just agrees with anything I suggest) a sea green colour with duck egg blue for the woodwork. I usually do woodwork white in keeping with family tradition but decided to do something a bit more adventurous.
This is the landing. The doors are all white, partly because I ran out of the duck egg and partly so it was not too overwhelming. Downstairs the doors covered beautifully because they are solid wood, these ones upstairs only look ok on close inspection, they are *very* cheap doors consisting of a frame with two sheets of hardboard nailed on.
Downstairs looking towards the front door:
Started taking a couple of photos the other evening down the stairs and realised I was getting an interesting shadow effect from the bannister. The trouble with freshly painted walls is that it has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting how awful the carpet is ... but that will have to wait.

Saturday 5 February 2011

A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore was the first winner of the Orange Fiction Prize back in 1996. Looking at the list in the sidebar I realised that this mini challenge has been the source of a lot of excellent books. They have all left a strong impression on me and I would definitely recommend the Orange Prize shortlists to anyone seeking out some really good writing.

It is interesting to read the reviews on the back cover: the broadsheets, Sunday Times, Observer and Guardian all comment on her wonderful writing, "lyrical, dreamy intensity", where the Daily Mail describes it as a story of "forbidden passions" with "terrible consequences". This book is not really a tale of forbidden passion, Cathy was well and truly messed up long before the story begins. It is the story of Cathy, and Rob, siblings, whose mother has abandoned them and whose father has had a breakdown, is institutionalised and then dies, leaving them in the care of their grandfather and the rather insidious Miss Gallagher. It is Cathy who tells the story of their growing up in an affluent but declining household, it seems to be Scotland, or at least the North, set at the beginning of the 20th century. They have grown up with only each other for support and companionship and in a moment of utter confusion their relationship becomes physical, something they understand to be unacceptable but they are both unable and unwilling to stop. In spite of Rob's attachment to the beautiful Livvy and Mr Bullivant's unspoken courting of Cathy they continue to seek solace in each other. Yes, lots of both foreseeable and unexpected consequences ensue, but it is not the crux of the tale. The First World War intervenes in all their lives but it seems to remain somewhat distant. After Cathy is abandoned for a second time she is left to fend for herself and her grandfather though the privations of the war and the even further decline of their fortunes.

It is partly a portrait of mental illness, since she is plainly suffering from a mixture of depression and a sense of total dislocation, and her terror of being institutionalised like her father; a veiled threat made by Miss Gallagher after she has discovered Cathy and Rob's secret. The book is dominated by her sense of abandonment. She dwells frequently on flashbacks to incidents of her childhood, both memories of her father in hospital and older ones of her mother. She clings desperately to the few people that give her a sense of reality. The story comes from a time when people told children nothing, mental illness was hidden and shameful, so Rob and Cathy are left with so many unanswered questions. She is aware of the fact that she drifts aimlessly though life but seems careless of this. She has lived such a narrow confined existence that mostly I felt pity for her, but then when she was thrust into a situation of having to take charge she does so with strength and courage. There is an incident where she sees the mess of the stables and begins to clean them and scrub the yard and you can see her realising that it is her indolence that is her biggest problem and she relishes the challenge of hard work.

The book is very atmospheric, taking place much of the time inside Cathy's head, hearing her confused thoughts and feelings. Sometimes she is a grown young woman but often she reverts back to a little child, desperately needing to be loved and taken care of, craving the unconditional love that only a mother is supposed to give. It is hard, as usual, to put your finger on what makes it so good. So a few quotes: these ones about Cathy and what makes her tick:

"Walking had become dreamlike, one foot after another. Mr Bullivant was in my mind. George Bullivant. I saw him reaching up to sweep a layer of snow off Diana's arm, then I saw him pouring out for me a thin golden stream of tea, and buttering a muffin to put on my plate. He had seen my mother, stood beside her and talked to her. I could have gone on walking all night, not feeling cold, letting pictures rise in my mind. I have always loved journeys, because they absolve me from action." (p.94)

"But I also know that two people don't always need to tell things to one another. Secrets can cross from one person to the other without words, and suddenly you find that you've always known them. If a child was born from those two people, I wonder if it would be born knowing all their secrets, somewhere within. Perhaps that's why I was born with such heaviness inside me." (p.240)

Then lovely sentences like this:

"I didn't want to go back inside the house, and I waited there in the yard until the trace of his horse's hoofs had become quieter than dust falling." (p.198)

or this, describing her relationship with her grandfather:

"And yet Grandfather and I had swum into focus for one another, when for years we'd been shadows to one another, feared or ignored." (p.275)

And wonderful, understated descriptions; the army returns Rob's coat after he is declared 'missing, presumed dead':

"There was only the coat, because he hadn't been wearing it. It was sent back to me muddy, smelling of wool that has been packed while damp, and of wood smoke. There was nothing in the pockets. I shut my eyes the first time I felt deep into his pockets. When we used to walk side by side I would put my hand into his pocket and our fingers would meet and twine there. I felt the ridge of the seam, and the silky, expensive lining fabric. They had given me my money's-worth with that coat. There wasn't even the tiniest hole through which something might have fallen." (p.288)

The story has so much in it. Very strong characters: the wonderful, irreverent maid servant Kate; the creepy Miss Gallagher, Cathy's tutor who develops an obsessive, overbearing love for her; and more minor players like Mrs Blazer the cook, are all drawn with exquisite care. The political and social history, the war and the rise of the nouveau riche in the person of Mr Bullivant, while the 'old money' withers. The fact of the relationship between Cathy and Rob is only a consequence, a reaction to their situation, not some kind of sensationalised titillation, it comes and then passes and leaves only sadness in it's wake. A lovely book that, for all it was quite cold and dark much of the time, left me feeling light and hopeful.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Work Perk of the Week: new pouch

The trouble with working for Royal Mail is that most of the equipment we have is getting old and worn out. My trolley has FIVE old locks attached to it that no-one has keys for, and I can only use one of the brakes as the other just sticks on and has to be forced open. I had the week off last week (more about week off activities soon) and left my delivery pouch in the trolley so whoever covered my duty could use it. Unfortunately for them they decided to acquire it. It was old and battered and had holes; I couldn't use the outside pocket at all and you had to be careful with anything small in the main part of the bag. So this morning I asked if I could get a replacement ... and was given a lovely new one, with no holes.