Tooth test

Basel, 2019

You know those health things that aren’t urgent, that you dally over and don’t go to the doctor? I’m trying to get them all sorted out before I retire. I’ve made progress; I’ve been for an eye test; but I hadn’t got round to going to a dentist before I got toothache last week. Then I found one as quick as I could and went for a 20 minute appointment yesterday. The dentist took an x-ray. The tooth has to come out, she said. I was there for two hours.

After a little while the dentist said, could you use raising your left hand to show that you feel pain? I cannot tell from the noises you make.

When he was two, Son had to go to Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport to get a cut above his eye stitched. He got a certificate saying Son was very brave today. I did not receive such a certificate.

Why hadn’t I got round to going to the dentist before? Well, some health procedures, like eye tests, are simply interesting to undergo. Others, like the MRI scan I also had last week, are, in addition, a bit frightening. And others again, like visits to the dentist, are, in addition to being interesting and frightening, painful. I now see that that’s why I left going to the dentists till last.

(The M in MRI stands for magnetic. My toothache came on soon after the scan. I thought the magnets in the scanner could have shifted a metal filling around in my tooth. The dentist said not. I remember learning the word iatrogenic in 1981; here’s another opportunity not to use it.)

Why is dentistry a separate profession from medicine? Is it because our teeth are so badly designed, so vulnerable, that they require people who specialise in them? (Finger and toenails serve a similar purpose but you don’t get the same troubles with them.)

All health workers help people. Not all cause fear and pain while doing so – as dentists do. What’s more, dentists must reproach us. If you hadn’t neglected your teeth for three years, Mr Hodson, said the dentist, we’d have picked it up before it became painful. Who would choose to do such a job?, I asked myself. And yet thanked goodness that some people – including our friend Ms S.A. – have done.

Perhaps to counteract their aura of fear and pain, dental practices often seem to advertise. They display jolly teeth which bear little resemblance to yesterday’s bloody stumps.

Vienna, 2018

Volgograd, 2018

Nafpaktos, Greece, 2019

Isleworth, London, 2021

Alkmaar, 2022

I am in an employer-based health insurance system. Except for big things, we pay first and claim it back. So, unlike in the UK, we are aware of what is charged for different health services. Seeing the cost of this treatment, I was struck by how cheap it was to get this pain removed. €70. In Brussels I would’ve expected the price to be more than €200.

Other health providers here send a bill. The dentist insisted that I pay, however groggily, before leaving.

Book recommendation: The Bear’s Toothache (David McPhail, 1975).

Breaded mussels

Travelling Companion and I came back to Alkmaar from London on 2 January. In London we’d been able to go to pubs and knick-knack shops; not in the Netherlands. There’s been a “harde lockdown” here since 18 December.

(Dutch has two genders: m/f (de words) and neuter (het words). If lockdown was neuter, this would be a hard rather than a harde one. I wonder what decides which gender gets assigned to loan words.)

When I went shopping the following Saturday the streets were quiet. Jumbo (the supermarket) was allowed to be open but check-out staff sat there with little to do. On the other hand, on the reasonably bright Sunday morning, when I rode my bike through the Schoorl dunes, it felt like the whole world and its three-year-old was there.

Last Friday the government softened the rules. Non-essential shops could open again; Travelling Companion will be able to go back to her sculpture class.

On Saturday the streets were animated.

A barrel organ played on Lange Straat. A man shook a tin, in time with the music, for cash, but after all this time using only cards I had no cash to give, so thought it wrong to take a photo.

Jumbo was busy.

Travelling Companion and I, out shopping separately, each came home with a bunch of flowers.

This Sunday morning was colder. There were less people out in the dunes as we cycled through them to Bergen aan Zee, our nearest seaside, and less people, too, than you often see on that beach.

Though the rules have changed for shops, they haven’t for bars and restaurants. They can only do takeaways. What is not clear is how far you have to take your food and drink away; whether you can use a seat or table that you then find there; and whether the seat or table should have existed before, or may have been placed there by the bar or restaurant. At any rate, we had a takeaway from a fish and chip shop. Travelling Companion had a mulled wine and I had a beer. The chips were good, my breaded mussels less so.

I am trying to lose weight. I thought I wouldn’t find a calorie value for breaded mussels online, but I was wrong. They are 2.4 calories/gram.

Eye test

I went for an eye test in Amstelveen, a modern district south of Amsterdam. The trip, by bike, train, metro and tram, was a tonic. I liked the modern buildings I saw from the windows. Noticing how fast people walk on the platforms, skittering down the stairs, I sped up myself.

At the eye clinic a jolly young man got me ready for the doctor, took my history, put drops in my eyes.

– Anything change in the past few months?

– I decided to retire.

– My father retired a month ago.

– How is he finding it?

– He’s bored. He’s fed up with my mother. Go and play golf, she tells him. You have a small cataract, by the way. Everyone gets them if they get old enough. It’s too soon to do anything about it.

At school, at university, in the years just after, you are at one with your contemporaries. Then, though you stay in touch, your lives diverge.

The friends I made in those years, the late 70s and early 80s, were British. Most of us – though not Travelling Companion – were “provincial” (that is, not from London). We’ve lived in Oman, Kerry, Berlin, Silicon Valley, Alkmaar… We’ve married or not, had kids or not, divorced or not. One’s a carpenter, another’s a star in local government* (and a mathematician’s wife).

But we are contemporaries. We’re all the same age. As we come up to retirement we seem to be converging again. When shall I go?, we ask each other. What shall I do? And it seems that our medical histories will also converge. The question is when, not whether, we will get cataracts or need that knee operation.


*  Unlike Tangled up in blue, the Modern Lovers’ Government center is the only song I can think of which pays attention to people who work in local government. It would be hard to call that attention sympathetic.

Well we’ve got a lot a lot of hard work today
We got to rock at the Government Center
To make the secretaries feel better
When they put the stamps on the letter

They got a lot a lot a lot of great desks and chairs now
At the Government Center
Where they put the stamps on the letter
And then they write it down in the ledger…

The regional make-up of the top division of English football

Over the Christmas, Son and I went to see Brentford play Chelsea in the League Cup. It was a joy, though if they are going to play that way Brentford need a striker who can run.

Seeing Brentford in the premier league got me hypothesising that in English football, shifts in the economy may be being reflected in clubs from the south, including unfancied ones like Brentford, pushing out the fabled “big clubs” of the towns and cities of the midlands and the north.

This theory turns out to be tosh.

I looked at the data for the Premier League’s thirty seasons since 1992-93, and then for the First Division every ten years before that to 1901-02.

There were no London clubs in the First Division in 1901-02, it is true, and only two or three for the next few decades. But there were five, already, in 1951-52, and since then (with a blip in 1981-82) the number seems to have oscillated between five and seven. The clubs change (Brentford in, Charlton out) but the numbers stay the same. Today, with London’s population at 15% of the England/Wales total, London clubs account for 30% of the premier league (Spurs, Arsenal, West Ham, Crystal Palace, Chelsea and Brentford: six out of twenty).

As for the rest of the southeast, it is once again true that there were no clubs from there in the early days of the First Division. But Portsmouth were there from the thirties; Ipswich won the league in 1962; and since 1971-72 there seem typically to have been two or three of them. The present season goes one better (with Brighton, Norwich, Southampton and Watford) – but tonight, among these clubs, Norwich and Watford look like good candidates for relegation while Luton, the best placed to replace them, stand sixteenth in the next league down (the Championship).

The real regional story of the English top division, I now think, is the enduring dominance of clubs from the northwest. In 1888 they made up six of the original twelve (Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Burnley, Everton and Preston North End). Since then, in the years I looked at, there were never less than four clubs from the region in the top division. This season, with 12% of the England/Wales population, the northwest’s five clubs (Liverpool, Everton, City, United and Burnley) make up 25% of the Premier League’s twenty clubs.

Despite the current travails of Newcastle United and absence from the premier league of Sunderland and Middlesbrough, the northeast is the other region that has consistently punched above its weight in terms of representation in the top division.

What has made the northwest, the northeast and (since the war) London the most successful regions in English football? Ideas welcome.

The button

I work for the European Commission. In the Commission’s intranet there is a section called Staff Matters. In Staff Matters is to be found the button shown below.

Last month, on 30 November with a sense of occasion, champagne ready, I pressed the button. It had taken some effort, and repetitive conversations with kind friends, to get myself to this point. At one stage it looked as though Travelling Companion might have to cut off my finger, like Sam Gamgee did to Frodo at Mount Doom, and use it to press the button herself. So it was a disappointment to find out what lay behind that button.

Over the next weeks there was more mucking around. The Kalamari Catcher had warned me of this. I had to update my address, for example, yet the site did not recognise Dutch place names or post codes. On Christmas eve, in London, I managed to tiptoe through the site all the way to the real retirement button

and did the deed. (I’m sorry the photo is out of focus. By its nature, I don’t think I can go back to that page to take a better one.)

Son, Travelling Companion and I then drank the champagne we’d bought for Christmas day.

Delightfully in this process, our IT system doesn’t ask you to fill in the date of your retirement (30 June 2022, in my case). Instead you must insert your “first day of inactivity” (the following day).* None of that tosh about retirement as a new beginning!

In our work culture at the Commission we often avoid letting our colleagues know how old we are. I think that’s because if people know how close you are to retirement, you lose power. Now I’ve pressed the button I can say it loud, I am 62½ (and a bit).

Other retirement stories welcome.


* Inactive oldie is not the only identity I have recently preferred not to claim.

Person on twitter: Seriously people, it’s almost 2022. You’d think by now everyone would know that 1 in 12 men & 1 in 50 women are colour blind, with red/green deficiency being the most common, so why are people still using red/green combos, esp for Christmas things?

PH on twitter: I’m colourblind; I don’t think it’s a problem if people who aren’t choose colours that appeal to and work for them. I really wouldn’t want to change the colours traditionally used for Christmas.

Person on twitter: I’m so happy YOU are fine. Apparently, YOU are all that matters to you

I’ve been thinking that when I stop being a civil servant I’ll be able to say what I think about a wider range of topics. This exchange suggests that twitter may not always be the best place to do this.

Happy Christmas!

Parties (II)

My sympathy with the British prime minister has increased considerably since I realised that when I wrote my piece on parties ( I unaccountably omitted to include the third retirement party I went to this autumn – celebrating the retirement of Oldest Friend (we went to playgroup together). It was a weekend of bramble uprooting (shown above) and fell walking

(Coniston in the background) – but also of an excellent party.


My team held its 2019 Christmas party in early January 2020. We went for lunch at the Strandpaviljoen Zee en Zo in Petten village.

On 31 January I took part in two events to mark Britain’s departure from the European Union. The first was in my office in Petten. It included a one-question quiz: what do Algeria, Greenland and the United Kingdom have in common? The second, which Travelling Companion and I went to together, took place in Place Jo Cox in Brussels. I wouldn’t call these events parties – still, dozens gathered.

That was it for twenty months. Then, suddenly, this early autumn, the Tram Fancier and the Kalamari Catcher held retirement parties. Then, as suddenly, it was over.

This line of thought was triggered by Julian Barnes’ The man in the red coat (a book whose general point I don’t get). He quotes the Count de Montesquiou-Fezensac as saying, ‘I prefer the parties I give to the guests who attend them’.

Me, I miss parties and party-goers both.

Brussels, 2006

Brussels, 2015

Vienna, 2018

A border – walking in the Meetjesland (Belgium) and the Land of Cadzand (Netherlands)


In the sixteenth century modern-day Belgium and the modern-day Netherlands were part of a single entity, the (Burgundian/Hapsburg/Spanish) Netherlands, made up of seventeen provinces. This entity’s principal port was Antwerp, on the river Scheldt; it was one of the richest cities of Europe.

In 1568 a Protestant rebellion began against Catholic/Spanish rule of the Netherlands. In 1579 the seven northern provinces came together to form the Dutch Republic. In 1648 the treaty of Münster fixed a frontier between that Republic and the Spanish Netherlands (today, more or less, Belgium). As well as the original seven provinces, the treaty allocated to the Republic certain extra lands, including a piece of territory south of the Scheldt estuary.

During the wars, Amsterdam had taken over Antwerp’s mercantile position. The treaty cemented this by closing the river Scheldt to navigation. Owning these southerly lands put the Republic in a position to enforce this.

Many frontiers lie along a river, or the crest of a line of hills. Others, like the frontier between Scotland and England, are ancient, following the divisions of medieval fiefs or older ownerships. This frontier between the Netherlands and Belgium does not fall into these categories. The Republic’s original territory lay on one bank of the estuary; to dominate it, the Republic took control of the opposite bank; the precise extension inland of that control was arbitrary.

(The Kattegat is the channel between the Baltic and North seas. From the ninth century to 1658, Denmark controlled its tolls, ruling to that end both the modern-day Danish bank and Skåne, to the east in modern-day Sweden. It would be interesting to know more about Skåne’s extension inland.)


Continuing on from my walk of late September (, which ended at Wondelgem in the northern suburbs of Ghent, at the beginning of November I walked into these lands. I wanted to find out if I can walk for three days in succession.

I travelled there by train from Alkmaar, where I live, on a Thursday night. Changing trains in Antwerp, I knew I was back in Belgium from the smell. It was a waffle stand.

On the Friday I walked in Belgium from the tram stop at Wondelgem

to Lembeke, where I’d booked for lunch, and from there to the art nouveau Hotel Shamon in Eeklo. First along roads that cars and rain dominated,

then on calm roads through sunny bourgeois woods. After a two-hour lunch break I walked west into a low sun. Echt wandelweer (real walking weather), said a woman walking a black dog with a bandaged leg.

A man with a leaf blower asked me what I was doing photographing his vehicle.

The hotel didn’t have a restaurant, so I painfully walked up the road to an Italian place. There they only took credit cards and I only had a debit card. It was nicely fixed up that the bill was added to my hotel bill the next morning.

My big plan with this walk is to walk to Breskens, get the ferry to Vlissingen and walk east along the north coast of the Scheldt. On that Friday night, then, I plotted a course from Eeklo to Oostburg in the Netherlands: 17 km in a straight line; and booked a hotel there. Google seemed to know of no hotels closer along that route, and nowhere for lunch, so the hotel couple made me a packed lunch. The hotel lady, Windy, said I could call if I needed help on the way.

Saturday morning was grey and cold. Eeklo is a long town. I set off through it up the wide non-beautiful car-charged road.

The plan to walk to Oostburg was foolish. Friday’s walk equated to less than 14 km in a straight line. There was no reason to think I could manage much more today. It became an impossible plan when, keen to get off the loud N9, I turned right up Sint-Jansdreef.

What looked on the map like this:

turned out on the ground like this:

with cars passing in each direction at 120 kph. A 1.4 km dead end.

Back on the N9, I slogged on northwest. It is a hateful road to walk beside. It is made of concrete slabs that make an extra noise each time a car’s wheels go over the join between them.

An unexpected lunch in a Polish restaurant beside the road – pirogis and meringue.

The shiny wrapping of the chocolate that came with my coffee reminded me of the bagful of sweets that Travelling Companion and I bought in the Moscow metro before we set off on the trans-Siberian in 2012.

Then a side road to Balgerhoeke which started off grim but become town-like and interesting. A Canadian Sherman tank stood by the bridge over the canal. I had forgotten how small tanks are, give their mightiness. It is hard to see how the five crew fitted in.

This road rejoined the N9 soon after three. I could have walked another hour and got the bus to Bruges further up the road. I didn’t. I stood and took the first one that came. From Bruges I got the cross-border no. 42 bus to Oostburg and had dinner in the hotel there. At breakfast I saw that a building opposite was flying some Canadian flags.

On my last morning I walked north and east from Oostburg, past an exuberant water tower, to the large village of Schoondijke.

It was a country walk on dikes above fields in sunshine. On Krabbedijk a column of jeeps flying the Canadian flag came past.

In the centre of Schoondijke I ate cheese sandwiches in a brand new café called Boone. Because of the poppy in my buttonhole the waiter/owner sussed I was British. Where are you from? – Manchester – I’ve been there; I’m sorry to tell you it was on my way to Liverpool.

On the walls of the spruce café were football shirts.

Litmanen played for Stockport County at one point, didn’t he, I said. No actually, said the waiter/owner. Apart from Liverpool, of course, he played for Ajax, Barcelona, Rostock and Malmö.

I’d been thinking of Jarkko Wiss.

The bus from Schoondijke to Breskens goes once an hour. It had been diverted because of roadworks; unclear where to. I missed it twice. A young man eventually showed me where to go. He was a student in Tilburg, home as always for the weekend, walking his family’s fattish beagle.

After the bus I got the ferry across to Vlissingen

and from there, perfectly timetabled (just enough time to go to the station shop before it goes) the train home. On the train the cold I’d been brewing surged out. Glasses off, mask off, sneeze or honkingly blow nose, mask back on, wipe glasses, glasses back on. Repeat. For four hours. Every single time, people turned round and gave me a look. You’ve obviously got Covid. What are you doing, infecting us, on this train?

It was a relief to get home and poke one of those nice little lateral flows, so beautifully designed, up my nose and find I hadn’t. Next time I’ll take some with me.

III What I learned

  • I found the walking hard; I didn’t do many hours (5 on the first day, 3¾ on the second, 3½ on the third); but I can walk for three days running. These distances are less than I used to do (six hours when the admiral and the professor and I started out walking in the Pyrenees, later rising to seven or eight, nine at a pinch) – but it is a pleasure in its own right to walk, and I think it means I can do more, and will get stronger. I felt better physically than the last time I walked for 5 hours, into Ghent in September. If this is a sport then it is my sport.
  • This is a walk through ordinary places. I need a café for lunch, a hotel for the night and a bus to get there if I can’t make it on foot. That means walking between decent-sized settlements. I was daft to plan to do this, across the desert

rather than something like this

as my route. For what reason did I not plan to take my time?

  • The maps I need: Google maps on a laptop to plan the next day’s walk and spy out possible cafés, hotels and public transport. A paper map when walking to (a) give an overview and (b) seek out routes that may have fewer or no cars. From a few km north of Wondelgem I could use a 1:66666 Dutch map, the ANWB Fietskaart of Zeeland zuid. Perfect for my needs, though it misled me on the morning of the second day, and lightly plastified against the rain. Finally, a smartphone for when you’re not sure where you are.

(After my last walk report my friend P.A. recommended Route You. I looked into it. It gives you a nice tailor made route, but seems not to have much susceptibility to you varying it.)

  • Keep your temper. On the second day, when I found that Sint Jansdreef in Eeklo was nothing but a long dead end, I plodded equably back. On the third day, though, when I missed buses in Schoonedijk because of the bus company’s failure to clearly tell me where to go

I got angry. I forgot that the world is not required to organise itself for people doing this kind of travel. Luckily the young man who came along insisted on talking to me despite my being grumpy, showed me where to go and told me about the town.

  • The First Canadian Army, made up of Canadian, Polish and British troops, fought the German Fifteenth Army in these lands in October and November 1944. The Allies had captured Antwerp – the port they needed, But they could not use it while the Germans held the downstream banks of the Scheldt.


I saw few cars with Dutch number-plates in Belgium and vice versa.

Once I gave up on the idea of walking across the border, I had to go twenty kilometres west (to Bruges) in order to go across by bus. When that bus, the 42, gets to Sluis, just across the border, you are told that you have to buy a new ticket – the payment you make in Bruges takes you no further than there. On the service I took this didn’t matter. The other half dozen people on board got off at that point. A new half dozen got on. I was the only person who went all the way through.

(Fifteen years ago Luxembourg incorporated Thionville, in France, into its national ticketing system. I wonder if this still holds.)

Eeklo buzzed. Big cars and big houses. The land of Cadzand, mostly agricultural, is in decline. The young man told me that the population of Schoondijke is 1000, down from 1500 when he was born.

64 years after the treaty of Rome, and with no evident reason in physical geography, this is still a border.


Drudgery came up in things I was reading recently.

In 2017 [computer scientist Andrew] Ng summarized his vision… “The industrial revolution freed humanity from much repetitive physical drudgery… I now want AI to free humanity from repetitive mental drudgery, such as driving in traffic.” [quoted by Sue Halpern in the New York Review of Books, 21 October]

(The photo shows traffic in the Val Pusteria in Italy in August 2015)

Sir, Christopher Wilson’s timely assessment of the qualities required to be a good doctor is perhaps best summed up by Logan Pearsall Smith’s observation that the test of a vocation is the love of the drudgery it involves. [letter to the Times by Jonathan Frappell, FRCS, FRCOG, Ret’d consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician, Yelverton, Devon, 28 October]

In my job I have to check and approve peoples’ requests to go on holiday; sign small and medium but not high value contracts; take phone calls from security if a contractor for our labs turns up at the gate unannounced.

I don’t drive, but if driving in traffic is drudgery then I’d think these things are too, and I’d I think that Dr Frappell would agree.

It’s interesting to ask whether there’s friction between the two quotes. That depends on whether Pearsall Smith means that someone with a vocation will put up with this sort of stuff if they must – or whether he means that if there’s no drudgery there’s no valid claim of a vocation.

Last weekend Travelling Companion and I went to London. Going to England, you have to do a “day 2” covid test and report the results on line. As she described doing this I said I hate the word portal. She said I never thought you’d turn out like this. A grumpy old man.

Grumpily, then, I’ll say that I believe that Pearsall Smith means that if there’s no drudgery there’s no vocation. If he does mean that, I believe I agree with him. I like it that these practical things are part of my job, even though they take time from other, more creative things I do.

Tech makes things easier. In doing so, it changes them. It’s interesting to think, grumpily, about those changes.

Interested in others’ views.

History games 24 – Pandemic: Fall of Rome

Great little game. Starting from scratch with the rules, it took me two hours to play. Five barbarian powers invade from the big circles on the map. As Rome, you win if you repulse or ally with each of them. They win if they’re still alive and kicking at the end of the game, or by sacking Rome. It looks quite nice and the map is clear. The rules work smoothly, the product of a lot of work. (It draws on the original Pandemic, which is selling well these days.) You represent an individual leader and it feels like it. You scramble from one front to another to hold back the different invasions. You have to do this because you can only make things happen where you are, not at a distance. It played out consistently with the little I know about this period (from Peter Heather’s book The fall of the Roman empire). That’s partly because the invasion routes for each faction are scripted – fine in a light game like this.

I played the solo version, in which you manage three leaders. I can see how it would work as a cooperative game, though I don’t like those much, or, with a couple of tweeks, as one of those competitive games in which everyone loses if they don’t show a minimum of cooperation (like Republic of Rome).