A possible origin story for a phenomenon for which an explanation is difficult to conceive (cycling tour of Friesland)


A woman (she will later drive the truck) and a man (he will later drive the boat) are having a drink in the pub one evening.

– I think there’s a gap in the market for a ferry service between Texel and Vlieland, says one. There’s any number of cyclists who’d love to make use of such an island-hopping option.

– Oh yes you’re right, says the other. We could run it between the harbour of De Cocksdorp, the main port at the north end of the island of Texel, and the harbour of Oost Vleland, the only town on the island of Vlieland, where all the people live.

– Well that’s an option, of course; but actually I have a better idea. Why don’t we, instead, run our ferry between the open beach, a couple of km outside De Cocksdorp, and the other end of Vlieland – you know, at the far end of the deserted 9-kilometre stretch of sand known as the Sahara of the north, which our Dutch army uses for its exercises? After all, all we’d need is a boat,


a rickety planked structure on Texel,


a rickety planked structure on Vlieland,


and an enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film.


– Oh, I see where you’re coming from. And you know what we could do, we could get people to position their bikes in a tight loop around our boat’s gunwhales to enable us to fill it absolutely as full as possible.


Then, when we get to Vlieland, we could get all the passengers to weave their way past the bikes down to the stern, so as to make it feasible for us to ram our raised bow firmly up onto the beach…

– Yes, yes, and then when we’re beached, we’ll ask if there are any strong guys (sterke jongens) among the passengers, to help us get the gang plank across to the rickety planked structure – because you know, we won’t be able to do it on our own.


– Yes, and after that, we’ll get the passengers on the boat to cram themselves onto the right hand side. We’ll get the passengers on the enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film to file down the rickety planked structure, down the gang plank and onto the left hand side of the boat, where they too will cram themselves. Then, we’ll get the passengers on the boat to push their loaded bicycles up the gang plank, along the rickety planked structure and onto the enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film.


– We’ll interleave the bicycles in a herringbone pattern and they will exactly fill the back of the truck. As for the passengers, they will sit around the sides and we will tell them to be careful of their knees against the bicycles as we bump across the sand.

P6200237 2.JPG

And off we’ll go.

– Exactly! But one more thing. It seems to me essential that the tread of the enormous tyres of the enormous sand truck from an early Star Wars film should be composed of letters that spell out a poem.


As we drive across the sand, we will leave our poem spelt out across it.

– Sounds like a plan.


(Of course, this is fiction. If you can think of a better explanation for this wonderful thing – or even if you know the truth – please let me know.)

Moving to Holland 12/12

bike racks in car rear view mirror dune beach Sint Martenzee 619.JPG

Jan Morris writes in The Venetian Empire that on Naxos in the Aegean, even in the 1950s, there used to be at least one family of the Kastro [a Catholic enclave in an orthodox comity] which, loading the necessary comforts upon strings of mules, set out each spring beneath parasols, attended by servants and household pets, seigneurially through the dusty suburbs for the annual migration to its summer estates in the interior of the island.

The distance from the town of Naxos to the interior of the island, to Apano Kastro for example, is 11 km.

We’ve done a comparable thing.

Emigrating Companion and I loaded our family (Daughter, Son-in-Law and Grandson), the household pet (Emigrating Dog) and the necessary comforts onto my bike and a rented Audi, left our home in Alkmaar and migrated for a week to a summer estate, a comfortable house in the next town, Bergen, 7 km away.

holiday house Breelaan Bergen 619.JPG

Emigrating Dog escaped from the comfortable house four times.

The first time we came back from a trip to the beach and she was not there, having been left in the garden. I walked up and down the road shaking her bag of food and shouting her name. A boy told me that a dog by that name had walked about in the forest and streets for some time and was now to be found penned in by a kind family up a side road.

The medal on Dog’s collar has her name and our phone number. The second time we got a call in the night. Neighbours had found her barking in the street in the night and taken her in.

The third time we got a call on behalf of the same neighbours. Dog had been found on their back lawn, traumatising the chickens.

The fourth time when she shimmied out the front door she ran directly to the neighbours’ chicken house. Luckily the chickens were shut up inside. Luckily the neighbours were out as I noisily pinned her down on the rainy lawn.

On Friday evening we went to the restaurant up the road. Those neighbours were there. They greeted us and Dog with bonhomie that we didn’t deserve. What about living here?, said Emigrating Companion. We are treated well and the houses have gardens.

What else is there to say about our holiday in Bergen?

Instead of pigeons picking up scraps at cafés Bergen has jackdaws, which seem preferable.

jackdaw Bergen 619.JPG

I took my bike to the bike shop and got them to give it Dutch characteristics.


I now have a natty handlebar bag (top left) to increase my bike’s freight capacity and a sturdy stand (bottom right) so I can leave it where I want.


I’ve left my heavy German lock at home because I now have a convenient Dutch one.  Most of the time, the key lives in the lock. When you stop you block the back wheel and remove the key with an easy gesture that makes cycling even more like it should be, even more like breathing. Of course your bike’s easier to nick than if you’d chained it carefully to a street sign as I used to do in Brussels. But a) the bike to street sign ratio is different here; b) no-one else bothers to do that, so your bike is no more vulnerable than any of the other thousands; c) while I love it dearly, my bike’s worthiness to be a prime target for theft is not apparent on its outside.

Although there’s been a fair bit of rain, Grandson and Dog love the beach. We’ve been to the beaches at Bergen-aan-Zee, Camperduin (our favourite) and Sint Maartenszee.

Jumble Camperduin 619.JPG(Dog, Camperduin)

To get into the car park at Camperduin a machine said druk blauwe knop. Press the blue button, I told Son-in-law, our driver. Are you deducing, he said, or do you know what the words mean? I realised that I knew.

bike racks in car rear view mirror dune beach Sint Martenzee 619.JPG(Bike stands in the rear view mirror of the rented car, Sint Maartenszee)

This is the last “moving to Holland”. Once you’ve taken a holiday within a country you’re no longer moving there, I think.

Soon I’ll take another holiday here. Friends from my university days are coming to cycle around watery parts of North Holland and Friesland.

Why do writers compare themselves to plumbers? (Giles Coren, Klaus Ove Knausgaard, Sathnam Sanghera)

In April (https://wordpress.com/post/paulhhodson.wordpress.com/3080) I remarked on how the writers Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sathnam Sanghera set what they do alongside what plumbers do. Now the journalist Giles Coren, in last Tuesday’s Times, is up to the same thing:

Coren: As columnists, we have to sit down week after week and go, “what do I believe very strongly today?” And usually the answer is “nothing, I wish I was a plumber”. 

Knausgaard: What I said was vague and not very good, but it was about literature and that in itself felt cathartic. I imagined it was a bit like how a shy plumber might feel after having to speak all day to the media about himself and his feelings, his family and friends, when at long last, late in the afternoon, he was able to talk about pipes and washers.

Sanghera: My own family don’t read my books! I’m not going to test you! You wouldn’t apologise to a plumber for not having appreciated their work!

postcode plumbers East Lothian 1216.JPG(I took the picture in East Lothian in 2016)

“I had muttered about moving to England when I was bigger as they had an ‘r’ I could pronounce” (Moving to Holland 11)

alphabet Barberosso (?) restaurant archimede 217.JPG

Where I work now, at Petten, you can take Dutch lessons. I decided to do it. I didn’t want to but thought I should. It’s meant giving up Russian, at which I’ve worked almost fruitlessly but with some pleasure for six years. I thought it would be a long language like German.

(In my first job at the European Commission I commissioned publications. When the graphic designer does the layout of the English version of the text, my boss told me, don’t forget that when we get to the other language versions, French will need 10-15% more space on the page, German 20-30%).

It turns out that I was wrong about Dutch.

In the list of words and phrases that I am currently working to learn (I am crazy about sprouts – ik ben gek op spruitjes, etc), the English column has 234 words where the Dutch has 209; 1065 characters where the Dutch has 1009.

sprout roulette Christmas day 1215.JPG(This is a game of sprout roulette that we played one Christmas. Eleven of the sprout-shaped chocolates taste of chocolate. The twelth tastes of sprout.)

I find I like Dutch’s economy of words. Een flesje bier is a bottle of beer (no “of” and no inflexion). Mag pinnen means you can pay with a card. (Extra) mag pinnen means you can pay with a card and take out cash at the same time.

My friend the Sheriff says that all languages are equally complicated. What a language saves on the inflexional swings, he says, it spends on the prepositional roundabouts. The thing on which Dutch makes its splurge is word order. The second space in a sentence must always be filled by a verb. Other concepts that appear in the sentence must appear in a set sequence: time – place – manner. A Dutch Cluedo player would have to say Colonel Mustard in the library with the lead piping. They could not say Colonel Mustard with the lead piping in the library. And as for the auxiliary verbs that must cluster in a certain way at the end of the sentence…

In Brussels where I used to live, a bilingual city (French-Dutch), the disadvantage of learning Dutch was held to be that virtually all Flemish people speak good English. The same is true of people in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, I find, you are indeed not allowed clumsily to try to speak Dutch; but in Alkmaar where we live, and at the beach cafes at Petten, if you have a go, people may indulge you.

For British people, the pronunciation of Dutch is also a bit of a bummer. My book says that “r is always pronounced”, either by trilling the tongue against the top teeth or with friction at back of the mouth. I can make a pass at the second – doing what I do when I speak French – but in these parts it seems that it is the first that is required. I feel like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s Swedish-speaking five-year old daughter Vanja in The End:

One afternoon when she had been singing a song with all the letters in the alphabet, she paused just before the ‘r’, snorted with annoyance and started throwing things around… I remembered I had muttered about moving to England when I was bigger as they had an ‘r’ I could pronounce…

Vanja gets it just before she starts school – Dad! Dad! I can say “r”, she shouted.. Knausgaard got it at 16. Will I ever get it?


History games 6 – History of the world


History of the world has a lovely map that starts empty.

Sumer is the first “empire” to appear, in Ur on the Euphrates.

Gradually the map fills up, as forty-one more empires, ending, just before WWI, with Germany, enter play. Some expand at others’ expense. Others sail to new areas that previously, presumably, were populated by hunter gatherers.


At the end the board is a mess. I like this.

It took a long time (an hour and a quarter) to set up. This was because I had to sort out the counters, which, the last time I played, I’d left mixed up. Sorting them was satisfying.


It also took a long time (5 hours and 40 minutes) to play. Playing solo as usual, it would have been quicker if I’d acted, as usual, for three players, but that would have meant only half as many historical empires appearing on the map, which felt wrong.

One player (dark red) beat the other five by a margin, scoring 199 points where the others got between 145 and 159.

What’s it like? It’s like Risk, but with history, and with armies that can’t move after they are placed.

It’s like Britannia (a better game), but with nations that lack national objectives (occupying a particular space has the same value to one empire as to another*), and with armies that can’t move after they are placed.

The game’s designers, Ragnar Brothers (Gary Dicken, Steve Kendall and Phil Kendall) are British. I’m finding it interesting, as I write these blogs, to think about how countries have different game design cultures. A game that tries hard to be a simulation is often designed by an American. A game that aims to be brilliant purely as a game, whose subject may feel like it was decided after the design was nearly done, is often German. British games, including this one and including the Shakespeare of board games, Angola (also by Ragnar Brothers) often fall between the two.

History of the world is well engineered. I enjoyed the empires ticking by, to and fro, like an animation, the map filling up, the pink square monuments (accrued signs of civilisation) building up, in my game, especially in India and China.

The game convinces as history in the weak sense of the word – each empire’s parcours feels like something that might have happened.

In the strong sense of the word, though (who am I representing in this game?), I don’t think it works at all. Each epoch each player receives a new empire, more or less at random, to add to their existing ones. There’s no sense that the player represents anyone or anything. (There’s a suggestion against this on Boardgamegeek: the players might represent the machinations of a secret society pursuing its subterranean goals through the ages. Doesn’t work for me.)

Finally, as a game, it seemed middling. When it’s your turn you put a stack of armies in your left hand and play them out one by one onto lines of spaces that start from the space that is designated as your capital. In a way it feels like Mancala. You’re attacking all the time, so there is some player interaction – but it’s more because the empire you attack is in your way than because you are striving against the player that controls it. Perhaps it would feel different with live opponents – I cannot say how viable a “bring down the leader” strategy would be.

It’s a game that has good memories for me. Before 1995, when we moved to Brussels, my family rarely went on holiday “abroad”. But once we went, half in, half out of season, to a little hotel at Cannero on Lake Maggiore, travelling up the lake by steamer. I played this game there in the afternoons, letting Daughter move some of the pieces.

Nevertheless,  I can only give it 4 points. It doesn’t have the astringency of the games I’ve rated higher, Evolution and Origins.

Game Subject Designer Date Blog post Score/10
History of the world Civilisation Ragnar Brothers 1993 History games 6 4
Origins Evolution (human) and civilisation Phil Eklund 2007 History games 5 6
American Megafauna Evolution (animals) Phil Eklund 1997 History games 4 4
Evolution Evolution (animals) Dominic Crapuchettes, Dmitri Knorre, Sergei Machin 2014 History games 3 5
Эволюцияи Evolution (animals) Dmitri Knorre 2010 History games 2 1
Primordial Soup Evolution (amoebas) Doris and Frank 1997 History games 1 3


*Scoring is by region. An empire gets points at one of three levels – presence, dominance or control – depending on how many “lands” it controls within the region. Now I know where Twilight Struggle found its scoring system.

Moving to Holland 10 – sitting in a sunny square in Brussels on an evening last week, talking about the rain

man caddy umbrella ch de waterloo 717.JPG
(Man with umbrella and shopping trolley, Brussels, 2017)

What I noticed when I came to Belgium from Germany, said my old colleague A.W., is that people don’t raise an umbrella as soon as there’s a drop of rain. They toss up their hands and carry on.

Well, said R.N., in Dutch we don’t even have a word for umbrella. We use a foreign word, paraplu. [From the French parapluie, against rain.]

Well, said M.P., in Polish we don’t even use the right foreign word. We say parasol.

(Does anyone remember the Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen sketch?)

Moving to Holland 9 – our house


We’re renting a canalside house in Alkmaar. Yesterday afternoon I was loading the dishwasher. I heard It’s Raining Men through the front windows. Sailing past our house, for Alkmaar Pride, was a 20-vessel armada. The pink balloons tethered to the shopping street pavements that morning were explained. I sat at the low window and enjoyed the parade.

On the top floor of our house are two bedrooms. On the first floor we have a kitchen/living room and a north-facing terrace. At ground level there’s a three-car garage and no car. That’s where lots of the boxes are.

A month after we moved in, as I was emptying boxes, I found some plastic flowers in a dry pot at the back. A few days later, Emigrating Companion struggled the pot up the stairs. It contained, in fact, the hostas she’d brought from Brussels for the north-facing terrace. Pale, leggy (Where, O where, can we seek out the light?) and shiny, here they are, liberated:

hostas our balcony 419.JPG