Re-reading The Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price:  SF meets historical, when 21st century R&D plants an experimental time travel portal into the lawless border country of the north in the 16th century, a couple of dimensions removed from their own world.  The handshake of the title is proverbial, the Sterkarms being mainly left handed and therefore in a sound position to shake hands with an enemy and simultaneously knife him in the guts.

A strong point of the story is the convincing rendering not only of historical details but of a truly different mindset:  the Sterkarms’ psychology may not be really like 16th century reivers (how would we know?) but they are not modern people dressed in funny clothes.  Characters are good too, all complex and interesting bar one – the villain of the piece.  Windsor is disappointing, but then one has met people whose humanity seems to have been swallowed up in vanity and self-deception, so perhaps this can pass.  The plot allows us to see the 21st side through 16th century eyes as well as the 16th through 21st eyes and the power between the sides wobbles interestingly.

I think my favourite moment is a segment almost in the middle when Young Per, the 16th century protagonist, is trying to find his way back to the time portal from the 21st side, escaping from Andrea, the young translator from the 21st whom he loves but has ceased to trust.  On his journey he meets a 21st-side Sterkarm, who casts back to his dialect and roots, and begins to talk to Per.  Andrea is trying to protect and help Per, but there is a delicious black comedy in her outrage that she has lost her monopoly over their communication, and that a total stranger can oust her in Per’s confidence merely because he is a Sterkarm and therefore family.

The ending too is satisfyingly ambivalent.  Are we pleased with what happens?  Did Andrea do right?  Is it the best for Per and Andrea?  Does anyone get justice?

I’ll be holding on to this for a few years and then I’ll start to think, “I must read that bit about Joe Sterkarm again…”

Hidden treasure


Today we turned out a neglected box and found the following items: 1 tools From top:  an ivory needle case; a trowel three inches long; a heavy brass spinner from a long-forgotten game; a ferocious hat pin; and a button hook, which judging by the eyelet at the top may once have been part of a woman’s chatelaine.  In the centre is a Mystery Object. 2 settee A message to Dolly from Bert:  Please look behind the settee … She must have liked what she found, because she kept the note forever. 3 flint And a flint point, most delicately serrated, about an inch and a quarter long.

Re-inventing the placket


After the megasort:  salvaging a length of fabric which had spent untold years under the stairs.  I wanted a long skirt for winter lolling, but had no pattern, so I made something up.  The first scrunch of the shears is a nerve-racking sound at the best of times.

1 scrunch

Elasticate the waist? but no elastic.  Of course a fitted waist is neater and often more comfortable so I re-designed, but no zipper either.  Then again, zippers make nasty noises:  chalk squeaking on blackboards is nothing to it.  Dredging around in the past, a memory stirred:  the placket.

I was nine when I made my first and last placket, and I was baffled by both the construction and the purpose, as I sewed awkwardly (and bloodily) away under my teacher’s despairing eye.  However, trying not to think but to visualise,  I made a prototype, tweaking and fiddling and trying to remember the trick of turning the corner at the end of the slit.

2 pilot

Preparing to insert the real thing required all the food groups, plus drugs, stimulants and fluids.  Not to mention chocolate.  Thus fortified, I jigged the placket in quite neatly in the end, unlike the facings, which were awkward as I had changed my mind so much when cutting the skirt, and had run out of fabric to cut a second set.

3 food groups

The buttonholes are the letdown.  My technique was never great, and with this soft fraying fabric I made a pig’s breakfast. But they are disguised slightly under the buttons.

Surprisingly, the skirt fits and feels friendly.  Pity I can never tell Mrs Walsby that she didn’t waste all her time.

4 disguise

It’s no wonder psychiatrists don’t like him

madness explained

I, on the other hand, do.

Richard Bentall’s book approaches the mysteries of psychosis from a psychological rather than a psychiatric angle, believing there are fundamental flaws in the whole psychiatric approach. It’s a solid read for a non-specialist, and I am not qualified to adjudicate in his spat with psychiatry, but there is much to enjoy: Bentall is witty and humane, if you don’t mind the sense of someone going into battle, and the research he summarises is fascinating and important.

One strand of his argument is that the definitions of psychotic conditions (schizophrenia, mania etc.) found in DSM-V, widely used to diagnose patients, are ineffective and unscientific, because they draw imaginary lines around non-existent medical conditions, and that psychosis is better explained by symptom clusters which do not coincide with the existing boundaries.  A diagnosis in DSM-V terms may well, therefore, be meaningless.  Bentall summarises this with a slightly sardonic zest:

At the beginning of this chapter I suggested that astrological predictions provide a fool’s-gold standard against which to evaluate the predictions achieved by psychiatric diagnoses.  We are now in a position to apply this standard.  While diagnoses clearly are superior to star signs, this superiority is not striking …   (p.87)

Another strand is that psychiatrists have used a medical disease template to model their approach to mental illnesses.  Biological and anatomical explanations are sought, and drug therapy is the first and perhaps only option considered for treatment.  Bentall argues that the actions of the mind literally shape the brain and its chemical cascades, creating a feedback mechanism in which physical aspect of the brain affect the mind and the mind modifies the brain.  He suggests that psychiatrists have neglected to consider psychology and how it can give insights into the symptoms of psychosis.

We should abandon psychiatric diagnoses altogether and instead try to explain and understand the actual experiences and behaviours of psychotic people … I will argue that, once these complaints have been explained, there is no ghostly disease remaining that also requires an explanation.  Complaints are all there is.     (p.141)

Bentall works through symptoms such as paranoia, hearing voices and hallucinations and considers how these relate to moderately-well-understood ‘normal’ psychological processes.  He also suggests that these symptoms are widely distributed in ‘normal’ populations, and that it is symptom frequency/intensity, personal distress, and cultural interpretation which determine when they are regarded as abnormal or marks of insanity.

The current state of knowledge about the influence of biology, genetics and environment on the development of psychosis is presented in summary form, and areas of continuing ignorance are noted.  There’s far too much here for me to describe, but the detail is intriguing, and some of the research is disturbing – I felt considerable doubt about the ethics being applied by ethics committees, to be honest.

Most importantly, Bentall is advocating for a population which he feels has been failed by current psychiatric regimes.

It also places patients in a terrible double bind, in which their objections to unsatisfactory aspects of psychiatric care are seen by the clinician as further evidence that treatment is imperative.  Indeed, the notion that patients lack insight is routinely used to justify cajoling, threatening or misleading patients about their rights …   (p. 496)

This title, published in 2004, now has a companion piece:  Doctoring the Mind, 2010, which tackles the question of treatment.  Definitely on my reading list.  You never know when the information might come in useful.

A hecatomb of innocents?


What has it got in its pocketses?


No doubt I should have been doing something else:  paperwork, ironing, tidying the kitchen.  But I stole an hour or two.


This particular job has been overdue for about quarter of a century.  I used the felt stash to make accommodation for the needle stash.  The prototype holds short, the second model the long ones.


The rolls are a bit rough at the edges, but maybe now I’ll be able to find my favourite 11s without ten minutes of muttering and rattling.