Guilty pleasures

The trials and tribulations of knitting a gansey

Okay, so I gave in to temptation. I admit it. But what’s wrong with that, tell me? What shame in that? After all, it’s only a jumper.

Yes, after some days of deliberation, hesitation and procrastination, I finally sat down at the knitting machine and made myself a jumper. And I have to say, I’m rather pleased with myself. And it.

I had forgotten how much work was involved in the creation of a garment. All that measuring, counting, reducing, grafting, making mistakes, fixing mistakes, taking long rests; I was quite worn out by the end of it.

I admit that I did have some help with the more difficult bits. In fact I had quite a lot of help with quite a lot of the bits. Actually, it is probably stretching the truth somewhat to say that I really made the jumper myself. But I was certainly involved in the making of it. And more so than I am involved in the making of most jumpers.

I have been proudly sporting this new jumper (gansey is the Shetland word) all around the isle, showing it off to anyone who is interested. Which unfortunately is nobody. But still, my pride is undimmed, and I have not taken it off in 12 days. I just can’t wait to get the chance to show it off to a wider public. There, I am sure, it will find an appreciative audience.

The more observant and knowledgeable amongst you will have noticed from the picture that I have been very sensible in choosing to use only two colours, instead of the standard plethora of tones. This was partly for reasons of fashion and good taste, and partly because it made my job a huge amount easier. Mainly it was the second reason. The constant changing of wool colours is what makes Fair Isle knitting so much more time-consuming than a plain or two-tone pattern. It also vastly increases your chances of making mistakes. So two colours was plenty for me.

In the course of this task I have discovered that there is something very satisfying about making a piece of clothing for yourself. Like catching your own fish or growing your own vegetables, an involvement with the process increases enormously the pleasure in the result. And believe me, I am very pleased.

Not that I’m thinking of taking up knitting more regularly of course. I certainly am not. This will undoubtedly be the first, last and only jumper I ever make for myself. The knitting machine has been packed up and given back to its rightful owner now, and I shall not be allowing it back in the house again. Even if it asks very nicely. One jumper is quite enough for any man, after all.

I have been wondering about crochet though.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt