Friday, 30 September 2016

Malta ~ islands in the sun

It’s been a helluva month, what with the impact of various tasks for completion combined with a sudden emergency which meant everything else had to be dropped.
  Sometimes life does this to you.  It makes you realise what’s really important, though. What really matters.

Just before we departed for Malta, #2 daughter suddenly lost the sight in her left eye.  Major panic stations, a flurry of activity, tearing hither and yon, and worries that impinged on everything else.  Daughter’s consultant ophthalmic surgeon said we could fly off to the Med and he’d postpone the necessary operation until we returned, because afterwards she can’t fly for quite a long time.  We could have cancelled, but she was as desperate for some sun and warmth as I was.
  Anyway, she is home again now, and so far, so good.  To date, the op. appears to have been successful. Now it’s a matter of ‘wait and see,’ – literally. But no working, no swimming (especially not diving) and no bending or carrying.

Malta: back from the sun ... to the gloomy cold wet grey of Scotland. Enervating and exhausting heat, but some lovely times.  Bar one thing ~ my purse was stolen on a crowded bus between Sliema and St Juliens.  (The buses don’t have on-board security cameras.) Major hassles, police reports and so on, which took a couple of days.  The thief or thieves lifted €350-odd; I was devastated, but at least my credit / debit cards or passport weren’t in the purse. 
  It’ll probably be covered by travel insurance, minus an excess of £50 per claim.  And the fact that the Euro is high at present. Sod’s Law.  However, whatever one can obtain from insurance will have to be enough.  Assuming they pay out.  Insurance is proving to be a complex and long-drawn-out process, and as the company’s necessary forms didn’t download in a form my Adobe can decipher, they’re being sent by mail.
   The insurers have said not time-critical, as I logged the claim by email from our hotel. It’ll take a while to gather all the info they want, if I can ~ between here and Malta.  But I do have a crime number, and a bank statement to prove how much was drawn out.  Once assembled, all info has to be scanned into PC and submitted electronically.
  Cousin was fortunately possessed of enough cash to subvent one’s loss.  I’m not sure how much I owe her, until I work out the pre- and post-theft receipts.  It was a horrible experience, and upset me because I wasn’t expecting such.  Malta has the reputation of being a friendly and honest place.  But there are many ‘leave EU’ campaigners, and the Union’s by no means universally popular. However, Malta’s also quite rich, in that it actually produces everything it needs ~ engineering, farming, fisheries, wine etc.  It has a GDP which the UK could envy.  Where the EU is of benefit to the Maltese islands is the protection / upkeep of the ancient remains.
   The Maltese insist it’s Bulgarian and Romanian gangs carrying out these thefts ~ they blame free passage across EU borders.   An elderly couple staying in our hotel were also targets. Maltese police figures state in 2015/16 the gangs have made about 2000+ Euros p.a. for each gang ‘operative’ ~ money they also send back to the Balkans.  The police are extremely kind, and very efficient in dealing with the paper protocols of every theft, but are not enthusiasts for free movement across EU borders, esp. from eastern Europe.
   The Sliema police station is at the top of a steep side street, with Bulgarian food shops frequented by bulky muscled types who don’t shift off the narrow pavements. They glare at people who expect them to be as courteous as the Maltese men invariably are towards women. I figure relations between the police forces and the Balkan immigrants are bad, because Malta is heavily reliant on tourism and the thieves are having a negative impact. Apparently some women have had jewellery torn off their arms and necks. Moral: don’t wear jewellery, and don’t carry a lot of cash, or more than one card, and keep passports in the hotels’ room safes. Perhaps this is the way the world is now. 

Torrid sun notwithstanding, we toured around and about. Gozo is especially attractive, with the famous Azure Window rock, and a charming old-world air which must be very restful in the low season.  We crossed via the ferries which ply between the inhabited islands.
  All the land was very dry and brown ~ they’d had had no rain for months.  I’ll have to return some

time, to see the Tarxien temple site. The 2 days earmarked for Tarxien were taken up with the fall-out of the robbery ~ and it was the one site I really did want to visit. And next time we will travel thence by taxi, methinks ~ not risk public transport. We did get to the Mnajdra temple remains, Qrendi, in the harsh Mediterranean garigue of Ħaġar Qim. The Ġgantija phase was 3600-3200 BC, the early Tarxien phases were shortly after 3000 BC. One of the charms of Mnajdra is that no modern development can be seen from the location, and so the sites still feel ‘prehistoric,’ sheltered in a hollow in the landscape and looking out over the southern coast of Malta.
  Ġgantija’s Gozo UNESCO site didn’t impress, even if it is older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.  The heritage park surrounds a huge stone structure which is, basically, falling down. It’s propped up by permanent steel scaffolding. The ancient architects didn’t provide for a stone ‘sill’ or ‘bench’ around its outer perimeter, to butt up against the walls, and thus the megalithic stones must, eventually, slide to earth under their own weight.
  I was informed the subterranean Ħal-Saflieni Hypogeum was closed for restoration.  It’s a structure dating to the Saflieni phase (3300-3000 BC) but visitors are restricted to a certain number every day because of condensation issues, breathing, etc., although there does appear to be confusion about this. (The Uffizi in Florence has similar regulations – only so many people at a time.) You would normally book online, ahead of even leaving home, as admission tickets sell out far in advance. The environmental project is the beneficiary of a €748,425 grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants 2009 – 2014 scheme, and seeks to ensure the stabilization of the site by the application of current technologies.
  Alas! Stonehenge et al, eat your hearts out.  Such Euro-benefits will no longer apply to UK, come the cut-off.  

Water on Malta is de-salinated, (plants originally built by the Brits) so it was better to make tea and coffee in one’s room with mineral water rather than out of the tap.  Our en suite rooms also had balconies, and very efficient air-con ~ much needed in that climate.
   We were on a B&B deal, and eating out is very cheap.  As are cigarettes: approx £3 ~ £4.50p for a pack, less than half of the price here.  (Twenties, not 19s, as in UK!)  Most Maltese smoke, but you don’t see tobacconist shops; mostly it’s dispensing machines. 

Cousin and #2 daughter both found the sunlight rather too bright; it bounces off the sea and the pale golden limestone and whitewash that constitutes most of the Maltese architecture. I could understand why my father loved Malta: it must have been really attractive in his day, too – before the wholesale advent of tourism and traffic.  The narrow steep streets were never meant for cars, and it seems many Maltese own more than one vehicle.  The population is concentrated in the towns and cities, and land is at a premium. Buildings soar up in multiple narrow storeys, like they do in Holland.    

Malta’s coastline is largely rocky, not very suitable for swimming off.  There are ancient little Roman ‘baths’ excavated in the rocks, to guard against being swept away. The Med may not have much tidal rise and fall but it can still throw surf onshore with considerable force.
  Malta has some strange and beautiful panoramic scenery.  Much of Game of Thrones was filmed here (as it seems to have been everywhere!) ~ along with Troy and other movies.    

Books read / on the go:  Nicholas Monsarrat, The Kapillan of Malta (1973):  this was marketed under Cassell’s ‘military paperbacks,’ but it isn’t military history per se. It’s a novel about a humble priest of Valletta, who, during the siege of Malta, cares for homeless, starving and terrified people sheltering in the catacombs. Stuck like the bait in some enormous fishtrap between Sicily and Tunis, the island could scarcely be reached ... When ships did manage to get through, more often than not they were bombed and sunk before they could unload, (p. 165). One such was the crippled tanker, SS Ohio. Towed in, sandwiched between two destroyers, she did eventually manage to dock in Grand Harbour. In 1942, George VI awarded the island archipelago the George Cross, for its heroism in the face of almost insuperable odds.
  The figure of the kapillan re-tells the history of the Fortress of the Middle Sea, from the earliest forerunners of 1500 BC through the historic centuries, the Knights of Malta et al, to the Pax Britannica et Melitensis of AD 1917. It is one of Monsarrat’s best works, and ranks alongside The Cruel Sea and a previous personal preference, The Time Before This.  The novel also speaks about ‘Faith, Hope and Charity,’ the three little Gloster Sea Gladiator bi-planes that bravely took on the task of defending the skies from Axis bombers.
  Long ago, when I was a wide-eyed young woman living in London, I commissioned a painting from one Peter Greenaway as a Christmas present for my late father.  It depicts an aerial dogfight over Malta during the dark days of the Second World War.  I would photograph it but, as it’s securely packed from an outing at Edinburgh’s Talbot Gallery, I’m loath to disturb it.  I’ve left it in my will to one of the military museums down south, but perhaps it should go to Malta.
  Other books: Rory Stewart’s The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq (2006) – a US edition, thus American spelling.  An eye-opening narrative account of the hopelessness of the Coalition’s efforts in the post-conflict Occupation, it’s funny, humane and makes you angry-sad at the same time. The west can be astonishingly stupid, confronting and not understanding the Iraqi way of life.
  One volume on the Kindle was All the Light We Cannot See – first novel by American author Anthony Doerr, which defies description.  It won the Pulitzer prize for fiction last year, and the Andrew Carnegie medal – both deservedly so.
  En route from Amazon: from my favourite classicist, Peter Green, his book on Kenneth Grahame, Beyond the Wild Wood.  Grahame, born in Edinburgh in 1859, wrote The Wind in the Willows – a book which has never had an equal, nor any sequel.  William Horwoods attempted follow-on volumes, but they are lacking in comparison to their original. 
  I must say, I’m having a great time consuming a catholic (small ‘c’) array of reading matter untouched since the commencement of research some four years ago – and nothing to do with Orpheus!

I’d better get on with the neglected must-do domestics – starting with a supermarket order.  The house is practically empty of food due to a month of almost constant absence.  And there’s a mega-mountain of washing to be done, as well as vacuuming etc.  Plus, feline must be fetched from the cattery.  She won’t be speaking to us for at least a fortnight.  
Thesis is ‘out the window,’ pro tem.  I’ve given up worrying about it. An Edinburgh academic friend contacted me, to ask if I was alright?  She hadn’t heard from me for so long and was concerned. 
  I’m now resigned to end-game taking longer than originally planned.
  Och well, can’t be helped.  
  As Monsarrat’s autobiography says, life is a four-letter word.

Picture credits: Mnajdra temples, and offshore island of Filfla:
© Click Publications, Malta; 
prehistoric temples, excavated 1915-16, Tarxien:;
Roman baths at Sliema, photo Pierre Micaleff-Grimaud,; 

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Getting there ... ?

... the way up being the same as the way down!  However, having slogged up the thesis ‘stairway,’ I spy daylight above. Just another half dozen steps to go.  I trust.  Many a slip and all that.
  The febrile researcher is feeling low. This is always a sad time of year for me – at present augmented and weighted by inner doubts and anxieties about ‘imposter syndrome.’ Along with a singular lack of confidence theres a marked reluctance to let go of my baby.’ Apprehension is also making for rampant dyslexia. Everything coming off the keyboard is some palindromic hybrid or spoonerisms – or worse.      

Academe’s arcane realm: in many respects I’ll be glad to be out of the hothouse and into cooler air. Let alone abandoning my desk. The effects of writing a thesis have been physical: Ive put on over a stone in weight, my sternum feels as if its sunk somewhere low in my ribcage, and Im certain I have rounded shoulders and a scholars stoop. However, while this has been one of the richest and happiest times of my life, the edit and recheck of the thing’s been a nightmare marathon. I could only do it in discrete tranches. The revision’s not 100%, but the whole must be sent now, today, as .doc or .pdf. The word count was way, way over: a consequence of in-filling incomplete shorthand reference sources in footnotes. As Jas. Thurber said, Dont get it right, just get it written, but it took a week to sort that lot out. Plus, the pages kept on weirdly re-numbering themselves. Please let the opus convey itself accurately, and remain stable in the aether.  
  So much is heuristic – from the Greek, eủrísko, ‘discover’ or ‘find.’  I’ve tried to avoid illustrating one thing by means of another, but sometimes needs must, to make ancient models intelligible to a modern audience. Still, Ill miss Orpheus, having lived with him for so long. But hes down on paper now locked into 99,835 words.  And there are bushels of unused material left over.
  ‘The thesis is done. Now you are expected to write some papers from your PhD.’ 
  Postdoc papers entail reviewing other people’s work in return. Doing justice to that task takes a wide field of knowledge, and time, which – in the ordinary way of life – I don’t possess. In addition, I fail to comprehend confusing jargon and modern dense academese. One is merely a hack, not a dyed-in-the-wool academic, and people can be defensive about what they perceive as their personal, reserved, territory. Woe betide neophytes who go near it.  
  I stick to what I know, but I can also be Ms. Awkward. A modus operandi has built up over years, a defence against those who’d rather you said or did what they want you to say or do (or not) rather than what you want to do. Act determined, set and push your agenda and watch them back off, and start as you mean to go on, quoth an early journo mentor. If indeed you do mean to go on. Not everyone plans to do so, especially après le doctorat. Any laurels shall be rested on awhile. Besides, a minor niche interest in Orpheus and the afterlife comes a long, long way down lists of academic preoccupations and priorities. Hes of interest to me, but probably not to many others. Hes not your ordinary hero, and I have been careful not to make him so. 
  The notion that every dead, brave or outstanding man in the ancient Greek past was a hero is erroneous. The status of Heros was semi-divine; cult in respect of their exceptional deeds in life was given to named individuals independently, after they died. But, by the Hellenistic age, the title of Heros was being conferred on the living. A misapplication of the term, and equally abused today.

I’m struck by how much stress academic progress appears to engender (O, ye gods! The grim pursuit of tenure) in comparison with the life-enhancing positives one is supposed to get from the experience.
  I really, really don’t do stress.  It’s bad for you.
  But first, one must get this ball through the goalposts ...

Don’t get me wrong – I love research, when it’s going well, but writing’s my life.  I can no more not write than I can fly. Its all I ever wanted to do; if forced to choose a life, writing would win by a mile.  However, independence of mind is everything. Some of us hear a different drummer.  Irritating, if the marching rank and file feel their own rhythm is the ‘in step’ one.  I’ve never even written a book by the book!  
  I also have concerns about survival in academia. If that bloody Brexit guillotine descends on la Manche, severing us from the body of the Continent, grants and research funds are not only going to have to be competed for but are likely to be tailored by wealthy donors or special interest groups towards useful (e.g, commercial) enterprises. GovUK is assuring academia and science that it will shoulder the burden of Brexit’s financial fallout, but I’m not so sure. 
  ‘You want funding?  This is what we want ...’  
  Evidence can be trumped (and I employ that pun deliberately) by narrow-minded intolerance, persuasive political or commercial pressures that mean more than actual truth, and off-the-peg PC prescriptions that not only defeat thought but also silence free speech.  
  ‘Reason is a very light rider and easily shook off.’ Jonathan Swift, were you with us now!  We need sharper minds.

Parliament’s still on its hols. The Commons adjourned for the summer recess in July, and is due to sit again next week, Monday 5 September, but a scheduled debate about Brexit will take place in Westminster Hall, which doesn’t have any legislative clout.  However, there was a meeting off the tiny historic Pontine island of Isola di Ventotene. The heads of the three most powerful Euro-zone economies got together on the Italian navy’s flagship, MM Giuseppe Garibaldi; it looks like the EU’s getting its own act together rather faster than Britain is. The press was much engaged with Ventotene’s sanguineous history, but the hi-level chat looked like a range-finding shot across our bows.  There’s a EU summit in Bratislava next month; they all need to sing Schiller’s An die Freude from the same Beethoven score.
  However, Matteo Renzi has far more urgent matters on his mind, in the wake of the tragic earthquakes in the Apennine mountains.  All those poor people ...  

Now reading increasingly outside the thesis topic field, my critical faculties have become more critical after their PhD development and exercise.  This may not be a Good Thing. Four years ago said faculties were already well honed, but perhaps one should learn to be kinder, more tolerant, less critical?  (Well, at least try.) 
  One non-Greek volume was Axel Munthe’s Story of San Michele, a book I revisit every so often. I’m aware he’s not everyone’s cup of Earl Grey – the book was published nearly ninety years ago (1929) and the Swedish doctor’s world is no more. The villa is still there, the brilliant sunlight, the quirkiness of Italia and its idiosyncratic way of life – and a cool aperitivo di benvenuto and an antipasto of salata caprese in the shade.  Munthes creation of air and light is far more worthy of pilgrimage than the doubtful charms of La Canzone del Mare.
  The tale was told in Albemarle Street that when Munthe was discussing The Story of San Michele with John Murray, at Wimbledons walled Southside House, the publisher said his namesake (John Murray, 1778-1843) conferred with Lord Byron about the poets works in the shade of that same enchanting garden.  
  The ghost of Caro Lamb is said to haunt the sweeping staircase of JMs Mayfair property. She it was who coined the phrase, re. Byron,Mad, bad and dangerous to know. There are probably a number of ghosts on that curved flight. I can still see Paddy Leigh Fermor, taking the stairs two at a time. And John Betjeman in the hallway below, Kenneth Clark in the Drawing Room English gentlemen all. All gone now.
  I guess Miss J. Austen is too ladylike to undertake haunting. ...

I owe most of my life to books – words. Sad but true. In ancient Greece, words were magical, prophylactic or curative: Gorgias of Leontini declared that ‘By means of words, inspired incantations serve as bringers-on of pleasure and takers-off of pain.’  And Plato’s Phaedrus defined ‘the art of leading the soul by means of words,’ logou dynamistechne psychagogia tis dia logon, i.e., to see the truth. 

Here in the north, my favoured bookshop haunt for over two decades has closed – Waterstone’s, on Edinburgh’s George Street. You could sit there undisturbed, reading or writing, relaxing with the best coffee in Scotland.  During EdFest weeks, well-known faces might be happened-upon, seeking peace over a cappuccino.  I recall Simon Callow (he was giving Dickens performances at the Assembly Rooms). His challenging expression communicated ‘Don’t you dare accost me, darling!’  Being fond of not being accosted myself, one politely forebore to do so.
  I hope the long-haired stalwart of the ‘customer orders’ desk downstairs is still employed, a reliable source of much bookish information and wisdom.  Back in the day, he it was who put me on to Abebooks, when I was hunting for an obscure Greek volume – aeons before the mighty Amazon swallowed up the book trade (inc. Abe and others).
  The familiar black frontage is to disappear – alas, the premises will be a bank.  There are other branches of Waterstone’s in Auld Reekie, but they don’t have easy parking and wide aisles. The West End flagship shop is ‘having a fabulous refit,’ so I assume that’s where author book signings and so on will continue.  It’s on Princes Street, has four floors, and a lovely view of the Castle, but I’ll probably defect to Blackwell’s.  Albeit their coffee shop is a Caffè Nero, not my preferred variety.

I ought to be ploughing on with my reluctant editorial revision of Orpheus. The thing will be sent at one minute to midnight at this rate: Gorgias, aidez-moi!  Im also reconsidering the ‘about me’ bits, on right. I have removed the mugshot, but as the blog’s over six years old now its bio blurb should be updated. This may take a while.  

Autumn is here: the robins song changed last week, and the leaves are turning.
  Roll on, Malta! It was 40C there last week.

Picture credits:  steps, Eltham Palace, © Frozen Time, Graham at;
Southside House,;
Waterstone’s, George Street, Edinburgh;