152 characters (Andrew Miller’s Now we shall be entirely free)

Now we shall be entirely free (2018) is set in Portugal and Somerset and Glasgow and the Hebrides in 1809, during the Napoleonic wars. Apart from the ending I liked every thing about it. A thriller’s pace, a novel’s writing.

He had his supper at a chop house. It was cheaper than eating at the inn – a shilling for a plate of brawn and cabbage, a glass of something called claret – his fellow diners mostly men alone, men without the convenience of wives or, like Lacroix, momentarily or chronically without funds. It was not brotherly but it was easy and the man who presided, who came and went from a back kitchen, empty plates one way, plates loaded the other, calmed them, their solitary condition, like a sergeant moving among recruits (the enemy not at hand but not distant either). 

I read somewhere that there are 10000 characters in Dickens. There are 152 characters in this book, soldiers like Lacroix and ship’s boys and shrimp girls and surgeons. Even those that only get a single sentence, like the chop house waiter, are picked out.

Les Flots 314.JPG

I thought of showing a picture of a crowd, perhaps cropped to precisely 152 people. But my crowd pictures didn’t tell the story. Instead this is a picture, from 2014, of the dining room of the Hotel-Restaurant Les Flots on the prom in Châtelaillon-Plage, western France, where we used to go a lot. The head waiter, who must also have been the owner, watched the room, watched his staff, watched the customers who felt they were waiting too long to order, quietly and continuously. Once he came up behind me and massaged my shoulders.

PH Les Flots 414.JPGLes Flots, April 2014

It’s not the same now. The dining room is a modern space in the extension that, in the picture, was being built.  Mackerel on crushed potato is no longer on the menu. The man I admired has gone.

Walking in Flanders: Sint-Lievens-Houtem-Vlierzele-Oosterzele

Yesterday, Saturday, I went walking in Flanders. I started at Vlierzele, east of Ghent, because that’s where I left off in November.* It’s part of a cross-section of Europe which I began in 2008. The line I’ve made now extends from Vienna to Oosterzele, where I finished.

Vlierzele is 216 km from the Petten research site where I work. The journey took 7 hours on Friday night and Saturday morning, broken in Antwerp, because both places are in the middle of nowhere. This included “walking in” 3 km from Sint-Lievens-Houtem because I missed my final bus. Annoying, though it meant I didn’t miss these wheels for sale.

bike wheels for sale walk Sint-Lievens-Houtem-Vlierzele 220.JPG

The cliché of Flanders is that with every citizen having “a brick in their stomach” and with lax planning rules, the countryside (platteland) is strewn with houses. On my previous walks heading west from Brussels that has turned out to be true. The countryside of this walk, though, was more open.

1245 walk Vlierzele-Oosterzele Flanders 220.JPG

Fine. But it meant that my assumption about the ready availability of bars and posh country restaurants was wrong. There wasn’t even anywhere to eat in Bavegem, a small town where I arrived at lunchtime after two hours’ walking.

The next town was Oosterzele. Google maps festooned the town with restaurants. It kept on raining as we walked on, nearly two hours more. Being in practice for cycling doesn’t mean you’re in practice for walking. I limped, Dog shivered, into the “Central” bar (which wasn’t central) at Oosterzele.

This cross-section-of-Europe project has rid me of my fear of locals’ bars. You go in – six men drinking beer look at you and don’t smile – pshaw! When I ordered a second Orval the landlord gave me a secret smile. On the TV we watched women’s cross country cycling.

The problem was that, as such bars often don’t, they didn’t do food. A kilometre on, in the actual centre, there were places that maybe did, but by the time we got there they were closed. I got a sandwich in a supermarket and ate it on a bench outside the town hall in the rain. Dog found she likes lettuce.

In Flanders, as in the Netherlands, you hardly meet anyone who doesn’t speak English, but on this walk I met two – a chicory farmer and a supermarket assistant.

It was warm and dry on the bus back to Ghent and in the hotel.

Jumble towel hotel Ghent 220.JPG

It was warm in the Irish pub where we went to watch the rugby. England were no better than last weekend against France but at least they won. I was the only vocal England supporter; there were plenty of Scots.

Today, Sunday, Dog and I came back to Alkmaar by train. By the tracks, a line of short trees with their leaves on heaved like the flank of an out of breath animal. It wasStorm Ciara, which huffed and puffed and slowed our trip down.

Conversations overheard:

– I’m cutting down on flying, going to Copenhagen by train, twelve and a half hours. We try to balance family life and the environment.

– I’ve bought a Tesla. If it had German quality and service it would be a good car.

– We flew from Schiphol to Paris. I didn’t tell anyone because I was a bit ashamed of it.

Three overpowering buildings that you can see just by changing trains: Cologne cathedral, Frankfurt airport and Antwerp station.

Antwerp 220 station 5.JPG
(Antwerp station)

Our train from Antwerp to Amsterdam got stuck south of Dordrecht. Birds hurtled past in the wind. Neighbours talked. There was an appetite for a siege mentality.

Having lived in Brussels for 24 years, Travelling Companion and I have now been in Holland for a year. I’m getting Dutcher. It was the Belgianness rather than the Dutchness of Flanders that struck me – the later eating times, the better chips, the stopped clock on Ghent town hall.

public chips bus Ghent-Sint-Lievens-Houtem 220.JPG

public chips bus Ghent-Sint-Lievens-Houtem 220 2.JPG(Chip shop photographed from the Ghent-Sint-Lievens-Houtem bus)

Out in the country they have wind turbines that have blades that are longer and thinner.

wind turbine Belgium 220.JPG


* https://wordpress.com/post/paulhhodson.wordpress.com/3533



Brexit day

Yesterday, Friday, was Brexit day. It was odd. The driver closed the doors just as I was climbing the steps of the work bus in the morning, leaving me half in and half out. I joked with my colleagues, at the drink I organised in my office at the research site in the afternoon, that on Monday, probably the driver will close the doors before I even start to get on.

In fact it’s not like that. According to the Staff Regulation my employer, the European Commission, could have sacked those of us who, like me, do not have a second EU nationality. It has chosen, as a matter of principle, not to do so.

The answer to my quiz question, What do the UK, Algeria and Greenland have in common, was guessed.

Then I got the public bus from the research site to Alkmaar and Travelling Companion, Dog and I got the train to Brussels. In the city centre, behind the Ancienne Belgique, a corner of land has been named Place Jo Cox. Forty or sixty British people met there to mark the moment of Brexit.

Brexit day Place Jo Cox Brussels 120 6.JPG

Now it’s Saturday lunchtime and we’re on the train home.

History games 11 – The battle of Amphipolis (422 BC) refought with the Art de la Guerre (AdlG) rules


At the Amsterdam wargames club recently I organised a refight of the battle of Amphipolis, in the Peloponnesian war. Rather than the British De Bellis Antiquitatum (DBA) rules which I know well, we used a French set, Art de la Guerre. These rules treat movement in a more complicated way and combat more simply. They need more model soldiers. I am still deciding if I prefer them.

The Peloponnesian war began in 431. The land power (Sparta) and the sea power (Athens) could do each little to harm the other. In 424, Sparta tried a new approach by sending a small army under the swashbuckling general Brasidas north by land into Thrace, at the head of the Aegean, where Athens was the power holder. Brasidas quickly captured Athens’ main colony, Amphipolis. This could open the way for Sparta to march on Byzantium or the Dardanelles, closing off the Black Sea grain imports which fed the people of Athens.

The Athenian leader who failed to stop this city surrender, Thucydides, was exiled for his fault.

We should be grateful for that, because nearly everything that is known about the first twenty years of this war comes from the history that he went on to write.1

In 422 Athens sent an army under the populist leader Cleon to retake Amphipolis. He landed at the port of Eion, 5 km to the south, and marched up to Amphipolis. Brasidas led his army out of the city and defeated Cleon. Six hundred Athenians were killed, including Cleon; seven Spartans were killed, including Brasidas.

Picture 1.png

Before, I organised a refight of another battle of the Peloponnesian war, Mantinea (https://wordpress.com/post/paulhhodson.wordpress.com/3483). I used secondary sources. For the strange battle of Amphipolis, though, these sources told confusing tales. They put different weight on Thucydides’s putative bias as a beaten or a bitter general. I went to Thucydides’s book itself. There I found four puzzling points.

Puzzling point 1: Which army was stronger?

Brasidas thought Athens was stronger: He lacked confidence in his own force and thought them inferior, not in numbers (they were about equal), but in quality, since the Athenians on this expedition were first-rate troops and with them were the best of the Lemnians and the Imbrians.

When he found out the full size of Brasidas’ force, Cleon seems to have had the opposite opinion: [H]e did not want to risk a general battle until his reinforcements arrived.


It is hard to think that Brasidas was right.

According to Thucydides, his army consisted of 2000 hoplites, 300 Greek cavalry and many Thracians: 2500 plus the whole Edonian army and those [peltasts] in Amphipolis. This gives well over 4800 men.

Cleon’s army consisted of 1200 Athenian hoplites, 300 Athenian cavalry, a still larger force from the allies, and some of the 1000 Athenian hoplites which were besieging Scione in Chalkidiki. Even if still larger means almost double, and some means 90% – both unnatural readings – this gives a maximum of 4300 men, almost certainly fewer than that.

Solution for the refight

Thucydides sometimes seems to think in terms only of heavy spearmen (hoplites) and forget light troops.

There are good reasons to think that the Lemnians and Imbrians were hoplites. It could then be that most of the other allies were hoplites too.

I allotted 2000 hoplites to Sparta and 3000, of better average quality, to Athens.

Athens’ army was still weaker, by the points system used in the rules. But close enough that a hoplite-oriented eye could easily conclude the opposite.

Puzzling point 2: Why didn’t Cleon wait for reinforcements? 

When he landed at Eion, Cleon sent messengers to the king of Macedonia and a Thracian king, asking for reinforcements. He might well have got them. Brasidas, after all, had increased his own initial army of 1700 to more than 4800 by recruiting local troops.

Thucydides says, For some time Cleon made no move, but finally he was forced to do what Brasidas had expected [march towards Amphipolis]. Inactivity made the soldiers discontented, and their thoughts began to turn to the comparison between the daring and skill of Brasidas and the incompetence and weakness of their own commander, whom, they remembered, they had been unwilling enough to follow even when they left home. Cleon was aware of this grumbling and, not wanting the army to get depressed by being constantly in the same position, he broke up his camp and moved forward.


Makes sense. Thucydides shows King Agis of Sparta as being under similar pressure before the battle of Mantinea. The problem is in the wargame, not the history. In the game, if you have a chance of reinforcements, why wouldn’t you take it?

Solution for the refight 

You are Cleon. What do you choose? 

  1. Stay in Eion and wait for reinforcements?
  2. Lead your army up the road towards Amphipolis? 

If you choose 1, it’s not certain that the Macedonians or the Thracians will ever come – though there’s a decent chance that they will. For certain, your reputation as a leader will fall (from brilliant to competent). And it’s possible that while you wait, the Spartans will also get some reinforcements.

In our game, the Athenians chose to head up the road.

Puzzling point 3: How easy would it have been for Cleon to capture Amphipolis by assault?

Setting out up the road from Eion to Amphipolis, Cleon said that [T]he reason he was waiting for reinforcements was… so as to be able to surround the city entirely and then take it by assault.

Going north up the road towards the city, he saw Brasidas, with part of the Spartan army, on the Kerdylion hill to the city’s west. Believing this to be the whole of the Spartan army, it seemed to be a mistake not to have brought siege engines with him, as then he might have taken the city in its defenceless state.

Both these statements imply that Cleon thought that capturing the city by assault would have been quite easy.

By contrast Victor Davis Hanson (a man who is thoughtful about Greek warfare though misguided about history in general) analysed the data “about the besieging of cities in the Peloponnesian War” and concluded that “almost every assaulted city-state eventually capitulated, and yet almost none of them fell through storming the walls… [T]he art of defensive fortifications had far outstripped the science of offensive siegecraft” (A war like no other, 2005).


How did classical Greeks defend cities whose assailants outnumbered them? Did they (i) spread themselves thinly around the circumference of the walls or (ii) keep scouts on the walls and hold the main force ready to reinforce whatever points suffered attack?

How did they assault cities? Did they (i) spread their force thinly all around the wall, close in on all sides simultaneously, and hop over the wall at places where there were no defenders; or (ii) concentrate their force at one point and use weight of numbers to offset the defenders’ advantage?

In Battles and battlefields of ancient Greece (Jacob Butera and Matthew Sears, 2019) there is a map showing Amphipolis’ city walls. The inner wall has a perimeter of more than 3 km.  Last summer Travelling Companion and I visited the excavated city of Messene in the Peloponnese, which was founded a few decades after this battle. Its wall had a perimeter of 9 km.

ancient Messene 819 from Ithome taverna.JPG

It looks as if Greek city walls were long and hard to defend. If hopping over them was possible, it would have been easy.

I think there can’t have been much hopping. Greek city walls, even undefended, were formidable enough to impose long delays on aspirant hoppers.

Solution for the refight

“Fortifications”, in the AdlG rules, means “ditches, embankments, palisades or a wagon laager” – not city walls. If these fortifications are not defended, you can hop over them at the mere cost of half your movement allowance or so. If they are defended, the defenders get a small advantage in combat.

We used these rules – going along not with Hanson’s analysis, but with Cleon’s view that it would have been easy to capture the city by assault.

Puzzling point 4: Did Brasidas win because his tactics were good? 

From Thucydides’ account it seems that Cleon’s force climbed the hill to the east of Amphipolis (the Hill of the Macedonian Tombs) and lined up facing the city. From there, they saw into the city and saw they were outnumbered. Cleon ordered them to go back to Eion and wait for reinforcements. The soldiers turned to their left, thus making a column facing south, and set off.

They had seen the gate on the city’s east side, the Thracian gates, but didn’t know about a hidden gate at the southeast corner. Brasidas sallied out of that gate with 150 hoplites. [H]e fell upon the Athenians, who were at the same time terrified by their own disorganised state and thrown off balance by the audacity of his action. Here he routed the Athenian centre. Clearidas then charged out from the Thracian gates with the rest of the army, fell on the Athenian right and beat them too.


It is difficult to make sense of this. Ordering a line to make a quarter turn to the left and become a column ought not to disorganise regular soldiers. And it ought also to have been easy for the Athenian right wing to make a right turn and turn back into a line when they saw Clearidas coming.

By contrast, the thousands of soldiers under Clearidas’ command would have had to come through the Thracian gates in column. Turning that column into a line, with units from the rear having to be put in place to the right and to the left, would presumably have been more difficult and taken more time.

Perhaps Brasidas won because his army was stronger, not, as Thucydides narrates, because his tactics were better.

Solution for the refight

I depicted the city with roads coming in from the north, east and south, each with a gate. If the pre-game had led to the same situation as historically, I would have told the Spartan commander about the hidden SE gate and let him sally from it if he wished. But in practice:

Historically In the refight
When Brasidas saw Cleon marching his army up the road from Eion towards Amphipolis he gave up his position on the Kerydilion hill and joined Clearidas in Amphipolis When Brasidas saw Cleon marching his army up the road from Eion towards Amphipolis he kept his position on the Kerydilion hill
When Cleon climbed the Hill of the Macedonian tombs and saw how strong the Spartan force in Amphipolis was (Brasidas + Clearidas), he decided to withdraw to Eion When Cleon climbed the Hill of the Macedonian tombs and saw how strong the Spartan force in Amphipolis was (Clearidas only), he decided to assault the city
The Spartan defenders sallied from the city The Spartan defenders stayed in the city

– so we didn’t find out how the “historical” battle would have played out.

The refight

Four of us played: H and M (Cleon), R (Brasidas) and me (Clearidas).

Cleon’s army was united. Brasidas split his. A third of his army, with the best infantry, was in the city with Clearidas. The remainder, with the weaker infantry and all the mounted, was on the Kerdylion hill with Brasidas.

That hill was quite far from Amphipolis: 1½ km by crow’s flight, 2 km by the bridge over the River Strymon. The hill occupied by the Athenian army was only ¾ km from the city’s walls. The Athenians were stronger than Clearidas, though they were weaker than Clearidas and Brasidas combined.

The town of Amphipolis lay inside the walls. Athens could win by occupying it. Their infantry charged down the hill and attacked the city walls. Their cavalry marauded to the north, outside the city.


The AdlG fortification rules worked nicely. After a  couple of rounds of biffing a single Athenian unit, on their left, got over the wall, opening a breach. More Athenians got over the wall on that side, forcing the Spartan garrison to fall back and open a path for the Athenians to get troops into the town and win the game.

Meanwhile the main Spartan force marched, after a delay, from Kerdylion. Luckily the river was dry (a 1 in 5 chance) so they didn’t need to go the long way round by the bridge. They split up: light horse ahead, cavalry, led by Brasidas, some way behind, then the infantry, which never reached the battlefield.

The Spartan light horse attacked the Athenian cavalry. They had the worse of it, but stopped their enemy’s advance.

Now the main Spartan cavalry came on. With the remnants of the light horse they pushed the Athenian mounted back.

A few hundred of them then had room to turn right and hop over the city wall, ready to block the Athenian infantry’s march into Amphipolis.


At this point, under the rules, the Athenians had to give up because they had taken too many casualties. Probably their drive on the town, which would have given them victory, was in any case blocked.

We enjoyed the game. The assault on the city looked good, the Athenian race against time (the Spartan reinforcements) made it exciting. Another time, I would make the sketch map (shown at the beginning of this blog) more to scale. The hills were further from the city walls than the sketch showed. Cleon and Brasidas were both misled by this.

This is the third time I’ve organised a historical battle that includes a pre-game. The others were Pinkie (1547 AD, DBR rules) and Mantinea (418 BC, DBA). With a pre-game, players have choices during their approach to the battlefield. They have to fight – otherwise we would have a boring afternoon – but they don’t have to do it where and when they did historically. I find pre-games satisfying. H, M and R said they liked it too.

Organising a pre-game makes me the game master as well as a player. This didn’t matter at Mantinea. We had small armies on a large battlefield. Our armies started far apart and we moved them freely, as we thought best. It only had a small effect at Pinkie. There was a Q&A cavalry skirmish (the night before the main action) then off we went, again on a large battlefield allowing us to choose our approach moves. It had a bigger effect in this refight of Amphipolis, because there was lots of Q&A. Cleon and Brasidas each had two or three choices, managed in exchanges with me, before we got to the eventually chosen battlefield. And when we got there, questions such as the exact distance from each hill to the fort and the exact criteria for capturing Amphipolis turned out to still need settling.

As I settled them, I knew I was going to play the game as Clearidas, the junior Spartan commander.

I believe I settled them objectively. Next time, though, I will propose that the decision  of who is the junior Spartan commander and who the junior Athenian (mutatis mutandis) be decided only after the table is set up and all questions are answered.


Thucydides is like Shakespeare, Elvis Presley, and Serena Williams. He didn’t do one thing better than those who came before, he did many things differently and many things better.


woman blue razor plug Richmond 515.JPG(Richmond, Yorkshire, 2015)

When I was 15 or 16 I had a small black self-contained electric razor for a birthday present. My father told me how to use it and left the bathroom. I couldn’t make it work (I still couldn’t today), so I didn’t start shaving.

I was embarassed by my father showing me a thing about my body. I have always thought that he must have been embarrassed too. Writing this, I realise I have no evidence for that, but I still believe it to be true.

My embarrassment in front of my father might account for how, when I eventually began shaving – wet; and I can’t remember when – I didn’t want to do it in front of others. On the kibbutz when I was 17, a young Dutch man called Angelo asked another man to shave the back of his neck for him, below his blond curls. I couldn’t imagine doing that or asking for it to be done. At university, when I shared a room with the Archivist, I would wait for him to go out before I shaved.

That’s all gone. I think of getting off the night train from Brussels to Vienna, going to the row of public washbasins in the station toilets to shave before going to a meeting. (The blue Bic razors I bought in the station shop were already blunt.) My friend the Admiral drew on my shaving technique, in refuges, during our Pyrenean walks.

public man shaving Pyrenees 812.JPG(Campsite, Pyrenees, 2012)

Last Saturday morning I shaved at our new house in Barnes. In 35 years of moving house, it’s the first place Travelling Companion and I have bought that’s been left in a clean state. The lady we bought it off did an excellent job. Quite reasonably, though, she took the bathroom mirror.

I shaved blind. I did the same movements I have done every morning for most of my life. It was easier than I expected, though the razor felt blunt. When I shave in the mirror, I rub my face around afterwards with my fingers and find the patches that I have missed.

place with water and a shaving mirror Mamayev Kurgan Volgograd 618.JPG(Water and a shaving mirror, Mamayev Kurgan, Volgograd, 2018)

I thought there was a shaving scene in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The eagle of the ninth and I planned to end up with it. There is one, it turns out, but it isn’t, as I had remembered, a man shaving alone, in a place like the one in this picture.

Cannes – Deal – Sheerness – Vienna

In London, earlier this week, Travelling Companion and I stayed at the Premier Inn at Blackfriars. We went to and fro on foot, by bus and by train. The stones in the photo were part of the façade of the original Victorian station, places you could go.

Antwerp – Ashford – Gravesend – Darmstadt
Bale – Baden Baden – Beckenham – Herne Bay – Florence – Nice
Berlin – Bickley – Maidstone – Frankfort
Genoa – Boulogne – Broadstairs – Margate – Geneva – Paris
Bremen – Bromley – Ramsgate – Lausanne
Milan – Brindisi – Canterbury – Rochester – Leipsic – Rome
Brussels – Chatham – Sevenoaks – Lucerne
Lyons – Calais – Crystal Palace – Sittingbourne – Marseilles – Turin
Cannes – Deal – Sheerness – Vienna
Naples – Cologne – Dover – Westgate on Sea – St Petersburg – Venice
Dresden – Faversham – Walmer – Wiesbaden

Antwerp Ashford Gravesend Darmstadt Basle Baden Baden Beckenham Herne Bay Florence Nice Berlin Bickley Maidstone Frankfurt Genoa Boulogne Broadstairs Margate Geneva Paris Bremen Bromley Ramsgate Lausanne old destination list Blackfriars station 1219 2.JPG 



Time out of time

“And then it was ringing midnight, and they were in the Martian time slip, the thirty-nine and a half minute gap between 12:00:00  and 12:00:01, when all the clocks went blank or stopped moving. This was how the first hundred had decided to reconcile Mars’ slightly longer day with the twenty-four hour clock, and the solution had proved oddly satisfactory. Every night to step for a while out of the flicking numbers, out of the remorseless sweep of the second hand – ”

(Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars – my Christmas present from Daughter.)

I was going to go on to say that the Romans had twelve 30-day months, and added five days of Saturnalia in December to even up the length of the year – but Wikipedia’s rather extensive article on the topic of Saturnalia omits all mention this, so I won’t.

Even so, since a child I’ve thought of the days between Christmas and new year as special. Days out of time. This year, after dropping Dog off at the kennels, Travelling Companion and I spent most of them in London.

We met seven relatives, and eleven friends; we went to the panto with Son, and to the Lucien Freud; and we introduced ourselves to the barman of the nearest pub to the small house that we’re about to buy in Barnes by the river. I like London.

woman coat barnes bridge 1219.JPG

man bicycle helmet London 1219.JPG

rowing boats barnes bridge 1219.JPG

bus London 1219.JPG

taxi Oxford Street London 1219.JPG

union jack bag tube London 1219.JPG

The restaurant we went to on New Year’s Eve, there was a table of a dozen people of all ages, using only sign language. These two are arriving.

sign language cote Brasserie London 1219 2.JPG

I thought about Andrew Solomon’s discussion of sign language in his book Far from the tree.