Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Rage of Islam

Islam is a truly global religion.  It already has a quarter of the world’s population as followers, and is the fastest growing religion in the world.    Wherever I go in the world, I see mosques alongside Christian churches and cathedrals, and even (notably in Almaty) alongside Jewish tabernacles.  I confess to knowing little about the faith, nor ever having read anything from the Koran, but from conversations I’ve had with Muslims on my travels (and a brief read through of Wikipedia’s page on the subject) the central core beliefs of One True God, peaceful co-existence, and helping others less fortunate than yourself, in order to obtain entry into Heaven, Nirvana or (simply) the afterlife do not seem to differ that much from Christianity in all its guises, or Buddhism or pretty much any other faith (I exclude Scientology here).  I understand that in other areas, Muslims are stronger in their insistence that “their” God is the one True God, that Mohammed is the Real Prophet (and that Jesus was merely a prophet rather than the Son of God), and that Sharia Law is the only true law.  There is more fasting in Islam (the Holy Month of Ramadan), women hold a lesser place in society than in Christianity or other faiths, and overall its followers take it much more seriously than any other faith I’ve been exposed too.  I’ve worked in banks in the Middle East where a room on each floor was set aside as a prayer room, and was used each day by people praying to Allah at the designated times – you never get a prayer room at your local NatWest.

I applaud that – there is nothing wrong with taking your religion seriously, even if I don’t do so, and with the followers of Islam that importance seems so much more genuine and of vital importance than the mealy mouthed version of worship that seems common elsewhere.  Whenever I see a US President, whether Bush or Obama, closing a brief tv address with “God Bless you all and God Bless America”, I’m afraid I cringe… never seems sincere to me, nothing more than a soundbite to appease the masses.   By contrast, when the Queen makes a similar “Gawd Bless You All” statement at the end of her annual Christmas message, it seems somehow to be sincere and from the heart, in a way that no President in my memory (that unfortunately stretches all the way back to LBJ) seems able to replicate.  I mean no offence to my American friends and readers – it’s just my perception.

There are, of course, many people across the US who take their religion very seriously indeed, particularly in the South – the Bible Belt – and even to extremes.  I watched a program recently on BBC Entertainment where Louis Theroux re-visited “The Most Hated Family in America”.  Now these guys were the classic example of American religious fanatics.  They run their own church, that has only a handful of believers, its tenets based solely on the grandfather’s personal interpretation on the Bible.  Like all fanatics, they are absolutely resolute in their version being the Truth and every other version a lie: we’re right and the rest of the world is wrong.  We’re on a fast train to Heaven and you’all on a one-way ticket to Hell and Damnation……unless you join Our Church, of course – that’ll be fifty thousand dollars.  Hallelujah!  Anyway, these guys actively travel across the US and stage pickets and demonstrations outside various churches – one that had a female minister, another where the pastor was openly gay – and these pickets invariably featured verbal abuse of the most virulent kind directed at anyone and everyone walking by, whether they were attending the targeted church or not.   The guy running the church even kicked his own daughter out of the family home because she danced with a guy who was not a church member at the end of term school dance – she was 17 at the time.  He was unrepentant, and said she deserved to go to hell…..hallelujah.  It was uncomfortable viewing. 

But one thing about Islam troubles and confuses me.  It is that to be a true follower seems to mean a sense of humour bypass.

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Over the years, there have been many situation comedies on tv or in the cinema that gently (more or less) mock Christianity – All Gas and Gaiters, for instance, or the Vicar of Dibley.  Father Ted, with all its politically incorrect parody of Catholic priests is perhaps the most extreme mockery – but some of the characters in it do bear an uncanny likeness to some priests and their housekeepers of my acquaintance.  In the cinema, The Life of Brian is without doubt the classic example and for its pains was banned in many towns and cities across the UK at its release, before more tolerant times allowed for its acceptance.  I remember seeing a studio discussion on the tv at the time, where John Cleese and Michael Palin, two Python stalwarts, defended the film in a live debate with philosopher Malcolm Muggeridge and some Archbishop (I can’t remember which) and succeeded in making them look complete idiots, old fashioned, bigoted and out of touch with late 20th century reality.  It remains one of my all-time favourite movies, and “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy” the best line in the history of cinema (but perhaps I’m easily pleased….). 

Judaism too has had its comedy moments on tv, especially in Britain I think – Never Mind the Quality Feel the Width in my youth, about an old Jewish tailor was awful and portrayed a stereotypical Jewish tailor.  More recently, Guy Ritchie’s movie Snatch, another personal favourite, featured a good line up of Jewish villains.  But in both, the mockery was more of national characteristics rather than the Jewish faith.  Even Sikhs and Hindus have had their moments of caricature – the Tea Wallah in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is probably the best example: an embarrassing impression of a Sikh man-servant played by an English guy in full make-up including turban and waxed moustache, and an excruciating Indian accent (it makes me chuckle still, I’m afraid….).

But the point is, that in each of these cases, everybody recognized the characters for being parody, there to be laughed at as part of the performance and not meant to denigrate in any way the people or faith portrayed.  Even those Catholics or Jews or whatever that were offended, once they had made their feelings known by letters to the newspapers, interviews on tv or whatever, let things go, accepted the joke and moved on, peaceably, with their lives – and in private I’m sure quietly laughed along with the rest of us.  That surely is how it should be.

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Compare and contrast that with any non-serious (or even serious) view of Islam, portrayed in literature, film or whatever, and the furious reaction of Muslims worldwide.

Case 1: The Satanic Verses, a book released getting on for thirty years ago by Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie.  I read the book and found it turgid and dreadfully dull.  I can’t remember the plot, and certainly not the few paragraphs that apparently were offensive towards Mohammed and caused such outrage throughout the Muslim world.  In any case, the Ayatollah Khomeini, then ruler of Iran after the overthrow of the Shah, was so incensed he announced a Fatwa against Rushdie – essentially an instruction to any good Muslim to guarantee his entry to Heaven by killing Rushdie.  The author spent years in hiding, using an assumed identity and under 24-hour armed guard for his own protection at a cost of millions of pounds. 

Case 2: The rise of al Qaeda and Militant Islam.  This has been an on-going problem for twenty or more years, and has led to the most appalling bloodshed and slaughter from the 9/11 tragedy to the current killing fields in Syria via the London and Bali bombings, the insurgency in Iraq after Saddam’s downfall and the Taliban activities blighting Afghanistan and Pakistan for years.  What the root causes for that little lot are I have no clear idea – I don’t think any one event triggered it all – but despite years of bloodshed and tit-for-tat killings there is no sign of it ending any time soon, despite the killing of bin Laden last year by US Navy SEALS in Pakistan.  Whole books have been written attempting to explain it all, and it is without doubt the biggest issue facing world peace today – and one that neither the UN nor any government seems able to come to grips with, never mind resolve.

Case 3: Most recently, The Innocence of Islam.  This is a quite appalling home movie apparently filmed in the US and placed on You Tube that has offended Muslims worldwide.  I’ve looked at It (or at least a ten minute trailer – it was all I could stomach), and it is the most awful pile of trash I’ve ever seen – I have home movies of my kids on my phone that are better quality.  The acting is dreadful, the script a joke, and I cannot understand how anyone in their right mind can take it seriously.  It is grossly offensive, and there are scenes and dialogue that do indeed poke fun at Islam and Mohammed in the most crude and unamusing way possible.  But here is the thing – the offensive bits have clearly been added in post-production, the dialogue dubbed by somebody else – the actor’s voice is totally different.  Really, it’s laughable – but tragically, instead of treating it (and its mysterious Egyptian -American maker) with the contempt it deserves, there has been an explosion of anti-American outrage across the entire Muslim world.  The American Embassy in Tripoli was stormed and the American Ambassador to Libya killed along with three members of his staff (the fact he played a key role in helping the insurgents topple Gaddafi less than a year ago counting for nothing).  There were other protests across North Africa, the Middle East, and as far as Malaysia.  After initial rioting, the Pakistani government declared last Friday a National Holiday to allow people to demonstrate “peacefully in demonstration of their love of Islam”.  More than 30 people died in the subsequent rioting.  Obama and Clinton apologized to the Muslim world, and condemned the film and its maker, but quite rightly condemned too the violence that has followed.  As they rightly pointed out, the film is the work of a single misguided individual and not in any way condoned or supported by the US government – and in any case under the Freedom of Speech laws in the US there is actually nothing illegal about what he has done, no matter how distasteful it might be.  They have clearly wasted their breath, as the protests continue unabated.

I can understand where they’re coming from – freedom of speech is perhaps the most important benefit of a free and democratic society.  Certainly that was a point Rushdie made during his hidden years – he has remained steadfast in his belief that as a writer, it was his duty to write stories about any subject that occurred to him, even if the tale offended people.  It’s a belief I share, else I would not be writing these words now.  The Python crew used a similar view in defending Life of Brian and pointed out that anyway the film was about Brian Cohen not Jesus Christ…..  Many other comedians and writers have equally defended their art by insisting that no individual or institution – whether the Queen or the Catholic Church, Prime Minister or Pope – should be exempt.  It is a consensus not shared by the church of Islam.  To mock Islam is an offence, against Allah and his followers.  But mocking God and the Pope could be considered a sin too, against God and his followers.  The difference is that with Christianity such things are forgiven.

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The problem I, and most people, have is equating a religion that is supposedly a peaceful one, with the most extreme violent reactions that invariably follow any critical (intentional or otherwise) comment or view on Islam.  For a supposedly forgiving faith to preach Fatwa and jihad against non-believers makes no sense at all to this mystified Englishman.  If the idea is for world domination and the scouring of all non-Islamic faiths, then frankly the methods being employed by Islamic fundamentalists make Hitler’s antics seems like a walk in the park – and should make us all fear for the future.

I wrote on here a few months ago a piece about Anders Behring Breivik, who justified his slaughter of 77 young Norwegians last year as being a reaction to what he perceived as an Islamic invasion of Europe and his homeland that needed to be stopped.  I wrote then that, while his actions could in no way be condoned (and he is as guilty as hell and should spend the rest of his miserable life rotting alone in a cell somewhere) he actually had a point to make there.  I cited a number of e-mails and other communications I had received over the previous couple of years that made his claim about the existence of an extreme right wing anti-Islamic group not as far-fetched as it was made to sound in the court case. 

The events of the past couple of weeks make me worry for the future.  Clearly there is a very militant and violent strain of Islam, acknowledged everywhere I think, that has an open anti-Western agenda.  The militant cleric Abu Hamza and four others, held for several years in British prisons on terrorist charges, have this week lost an appeal at the European Court of Human Rights and will soon be extradited to the US to face more charges and potentially life in a maximum security jail – an event that is bound to cause yet more outrage and violence across the world. 

The belief is that Militant Islam is only a very small minority of Muslims.  That may well be true – but what seems unarguable is that the militant minority is extremely well organized, extremely well-armed, and quite willing to die for its perceived cause.   It therefore is extremely dangerous to the rest of us.  Is it not possible that the peaceful majority of Muslims who do not follow this course, could actually do something about it themselves, from within?   Is it perhaps time for Muslims everywhere to reclaim their faith somehow, take it back to a more peaceful path, before it destroys us all? 

I hope that is case – but I fear it’s gone way too far for that to happen now.  I believe that Islamic militancy is something we are all going to have to live with, and take whatever precautions we need to in order to stay safe.  Please don’t think for one minute I am racist or anti-Islamic – I’m not.  It’s not possible really to be racist in my job, and through that job I have many good friends in other countries and societies, including Muslims.  I strongly believe an individual’s religious beliefs are solely the business of that individual, and nothing to do with me at all – but I do not expect that individual to try and force those beliefs on to me (in the same way that I would never consider trying to force my beliefs on someone else).   I certainly would never expect (or respect) anyone who reacted with anger or violence if I disagreed with their opinion. 

I try to be tolerant.  I condemn all violence, but especially that carried out in the name of religion or politics – whether Catholic against Protestant, Jew against Palestinian or Muslim against the World.  I sincerely hope that someone, somehow, can find a solution to these problems, because I worry about what sort of a world my kids are growing up into, or my grandkids are going to be born into.  I have no faith in the UN to do so, and no faith in the current crop of politicians to do so either – by and large, they’re a poor bunch.

It’s a rum old world, as my mum used to say.  And frankly, mum, not getting any better.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The George Cross Island

I sat in the back of the cab and gazed out at the sandstone and whitewashed buildings, wondering when I would recognize one from my previous visit.  We swept round a bend and down a narrow access road, then picked up a dual carriageway and through a tunnel that I had never seen before.  As we came out the other side, we slowed and joined a queue of traffic at a roundabout, and edged round to take our exit.

And there, finally, was a memory.  The building was typical of this area, built apparently from sandstone blocks but painted in pastel colours – in this case a washed out pale yellow.  It had two storeys below a red tiled roof, and the door and windows were both covered with intricate wrought iron grilles painted black.  On the wall facing the road, also in black, was a wrought iron Gothic script sign that read “The Cottage”.   It was a restaurant we had used a couple of times, that I recall served an excellent dish of local rabbit stew, and another of local sausages.

As we passed, I swung round in my seat and looked up the road leading away from the opposite side of the roundabout, trying to spot another familiar building, a hotel,  that I knew was there but I couldn’t see it.   But at least I was comforted, and had seen something familiar after two weeks vainly trying to do so.  I knew already the country had changed – inevitably, after 10 years – but I had been surprised at just how many differences there were.

The one way system here had been confusing back then, but is infinitely more so now.  There are bridges and tunnels that I have no recollection of at all adding to the confusion.  I remember getting in the wrong lane at a roundabout and missing my exit, forcing me to go round the entire system before I could have another go – it took 5 attempts to eventually catch my exit, and even then I had to carve across three lines of cars and buses to do so, narrowly avoiding collisions and setting off a cacophony of angry car horns.  Now, I’m not even sure I would recognize the roundabout, never mind the correct exit.

It’s another example, like Ireland’s Road to Nowhere and farmer’s trick of herding cows back and forth across the border with Northern Ireland to gain import/export subsidies, of just how much can be achieved by becoming a member state in the European Union.

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I’m writing about Malta, where I’ve been working for a couple of weeks now.

Ania and I came here for two weeks’ vacation, in October 2002.  I remember it well, because while we were here, a terrorist attack in Bali left over 200 people, many  of them Australian tourists, dead and another 240 people injured as a series of bomb blasts devastated a couple of popular nightclubs and the US Consular office.

But we had a lovely holiday, I remember.  The hotel was a private one owned by a relative of a work colleague so we got special rates and used BA Airmiles for the flights, via Gatwick.  So we flew Warsaw – Heathrow, hired a cheap car to drive down to Gatwick (visiting some of Ania’s friends in London en route), then flew to Malta early the next morning.  It was also the last holiday for just the two of us, with no kids or in-laws joining us.  I don’t mean that how it sounds: we ALWAYS have terrific holidays, and taking the kids to new places and showing them new things is one of the great joys in my life……but sometimes the romantic in me feels it would be nice to be just the two of us – and I’m sure every couple with kids has the same passing thought sometimes.   It’s human nature.

While we were here, we decided to try scuba diving.  The waters around the islands are among the clearest in the world, so perfect for snorkeling or diving.  There are also a lot of interesting dive sites scattered around – a wealth of sunken warships and airplanes from the furious battles that took place during World War 2 when the island, a long-standing British sea base, was under siege for three years or so (for which Malta was, uniquely, awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest non-military decoration for bravery), as well as many natural lagoons and underwater caves. Scuba is big business in Malta and there are dive schools everywhere.   We chose one at random and enrolled in the course, three days if I remember correctly, part classroom but mostly practical – in the water - , that led to a PADI Open Water Licence.  There were a couple of other people enrolled, crew from a cruise ship that was visiting the island for a few days.  The guy was so keen he had bought himself a dry-suit, mask and flippers, while the rest of us used the school’s gear.   We had an initial half day or so of classroom stuff, learning all about pressures and how not to contract the Bends by surfacing too quickly, how the dive belts work to maintain your equilibrium under water,  how to breathe properly from the tanks and so forth.  It was all interesting stuff…..but I’ve forgotten most of it.  Then the trainer kitted us all out with wetsuits, flippers, masks, regulators (the breathing hoses) and the weight belts, we piled into the back of an old rusty Transit mini bus and set off for our first dive.

It was at a small harbour along the coast from Sliema, towards Gozo, that enabled us novices to climb down a ladder into the sea, at the bottom of which was a ledge that we were able to stand on, completely submerged (unless you’re more than about 6 foot 6 tall).   From the ledge, you can then step off and sink the remaining six feet or so to the sea bed.  All very simple and straightforward.  The idea on that first dive was to get acclimatized to the equipment, practice breathing, maintaining our buoyancy, and master a couple of important safety manouevres – namely, taking off the mask and putting it back on again, and doing likewise with the air tanks, both under water.    Now I should add at this point that by the time I was 11 years old, I had come very close to drowning on three separate occasions, and been left with a fear of deep water (i.e. deeper than I am tall) that persists to this day.   I hoped that taking this course would help finally conquer that fear – I had complete faith in both the trainer and the equipment, and knew that unless we were unexpectedly attacked by a great white shark or something I was not going to die.  The sea was a flat calm and the water absolutely crystal clear – it was like looking into a swimming pool twelve feet deep with a rocky bottom, and filled with hundreds of fish darting in and out of the rocks and seaweed fronds.  Beautiful.

Only I couldn’t hack it.  I went into the water last, slowly picking my way down the ladder, clutching each rung tightly.  I could feel panic rising as I got deeper into the sea, and by the time I stepped off the ladder onto the shelf, with the top of my head about 6 inches (six inches!!!!  God, this is embarrassing!) under the sea, still clutching the ladder, I was close to panic.  I looked up, briefly, at the surface of the water, gently lapping at the end of my nose, the sun shining brightly overheard – I could even dimly hear the cars driving by.  Then I looked down, beyond the shelf.  I could see the bloke from the cruise ship lying comfortably on his back, maybe a foot above the sea bed, perfectly balanced and arms folded, watching the fish.  I could see his girlfriend swimming clumsily towards him.  I could see Ania watching me, a smile on her face (I could tell from her eyes), loving every minute of it, and the instructor, floating a couple of feet away, clearly aware of my fear, hand held out to help.  And I froze.  I felt sick.  I felt dizzy.  I felt terrified and ashamed, all at once.  I took a deep breath, and stepped off the ledge…..I sank under the influence of the weight belt, panicked, and hit my emergency regulator, flooded the vest with air and shot back to the surface, where I clutched the ladder grimly and tried not to scream.

Believe me, there is no exaggeration there at all.  I have never, ever been so afraid of anything in my entire life, dentists included, either before or since.  Pathetic but true.  I clung to that ladder like life itself while my mask misted up and I breathed canned air instead of the real fresh stuff.  After a moment, Ania and the trainer bobbed up next to me, to see if I was ok.  I couldn’t speak, I just nodded, shook my head, nodded again….I had no bloody idea whether I was ok or not.  Eventually I spat the mouthpiece out, and pantingly told them I was ok, give me a minute and I’ll try again.  Don’t wait for me, you go ahead, I’ll catch you up……  It was all bollocks, of course – I felt terrible, but didn’t want to spoil their fun.

They went back down and continued the lesson.  I spent the next half hour desperately trying to summon the courage to try again.  I put the mask back on, after clearing it, put the mouthpiece back in and once I’d eventually regulated my breathing to something other than terrified panting, went back down the ladder.  I stopped just above the ledge, the top of my head just at surface level, and tried to make myself let go.  But my hands refused absolutely to release their manic grip on the ladder.  I went back up, took another five minutes breathing air, then tried again.  I did that perhaps four or five times before accepting I was never in a million years going to manage this and hauled myself back out onto the harbour.   There I sat miserably, watching everybody having a great time on the seabed.

I quit the course.  Ania carried on, and over the next couple of days mastered all that was needed in another series of dives, each one in water deeper than before, ending with a dive from a boat anchored in the Blue Lagoon at Gozo, one of the best dive sites in the world.  The crystal clear water is deeper here, and an incredible rich blue (giving the place its name), and at the bottom there is a system of caves to swim through.   I sat on the boat, burning in the late summer sun, frankly feeling a bit sorry for myself, while everyone spent the best part of an hour and a half exploring the sea bed and the caves.  Eventually, they came back, and I and the boat’s crew helped them back on board.   I had never seen Ania look so happy before (and rarely since) – she absolutely loved it.  The next day at the school, she and the others sat a written examination.  I was allowed to sit in and act as a translator if needed (since the paper was set in English).  Of course, she passed with flying colours and is now the proud owner of a PADI Open Water Diving Licence, the best qualification of its type.

We hired a car, as usual, and explored the island a little.  It’s very small, only about 40km end to end, and about half that at its widest point, and criss-crossed with a maze of little narrow roads, flanked by low dry stone walls.  There were no motorways, and very few stretches of road that had more than a single carriageway in each direction – notably the airport approach roads, the one way system through Valletta and Sliema (and even then not all of that), and the approach to the port at the island’s northern extremity, called Cirkewwa, from which the Gozo ferries and dive boats sail.  Apart from in the cities and the main east coast road traffic was negligible so we had a good couple of days exploring, getting lost and trying to find a decent sandy beach.  We never did manage that – they are few and far between, a handful of tiny and mostly inaccessible coves.  The islands (Malta, Gozo and the tiny, car-less Comino) are rocky outcrops in the central Mediterranean 80km or so south of Sicily and about 300km north of Libya.  There are plenty of bathing and sunning areas around the island, but invariably they are expanses of rock, mostly sandstone, flattened and smoothed by the waves, and slippery – getting in and out of the water could be interesting.

                                                       This passes for a beach in Malta....

Historically, the islands have been ruled by a succession of powers, going back to Phoenician times, due to their strategic positions, but since 1974 have been an independent state.   St.Paul was shipwrecked here, and the country is constitutionally Catholic.  There are many ancient archaeological sites scattered around, nine of them UNESCO World Heritage sites, including some Megalithic Temples that are among the oldest buildings in the world.  All these different rulers have left their influence on the island’s architecture – there is a rich mixture of building styles from Middle Ages Moorish to modern tower blocks and everything in between.  The place looks very barren, as befits its low rainfall, and relies heavily on tourism and shipping (it’s a major port) in its economy since agriculture is so difficult in this parched earth.   International banking is increasingly important too – which is why I’m back here.

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The island has indeed changed a lot and this is evident on final approach to the much expanded airport. 

When I first came here, there was a very clear rural area between the airport boundary and the edge of the cities – Sliema and St Julians and Valletta and the other urban communities clustered around the bay on the east coast of Malta were all clearly and visibly separate communities.  Now, they all seem to run into each other to form a single urban sprawl that reaches virtually to the airport entrance.   There are new roads and bridges and tunnel systems to help the increased traffic volume get around – and after nearly three weeks I’m no nearer to being able to figure out where I am on our daily commute from hotel to bank and back than I was on the day I arrived.   The driver seems to take a different route every day, and always makes his way through a bewildering succession of narrow and winding back streets to avoid the main traffic arteries.  I’ve given up trying to figure out where I am at any given point. 

                                                              The new urban sprawl

I’ve been staying in some super spa hotels in and around Sliema.  They are being booked and paid for directly by the bank and hence are way above the normal quality my company would use, so it’s made a very pleasant change.  All of them have been minimum four star, and worthy of the rating (unlike some I’ve used before in London and elsewhere), with very comfortable rooms, plenty of food and drink choices (at least four restaurants and bars available at each), super waterfront locations and great facilities like infinity pools on the roof and fitness centres.  Last week’s choice really took the biscuit however – we were placed in a 5 star spa hotel (it has an adjoining 4 star section) that gave me the most ridiculous room.  I had a Jacuzzi in the bathroom, a walk-in shower that doubled as a sauna, a thing like a coffin that is apparently used for all kinds of hydrotherapy treatments (not that I could figure out how to use it…), and another two-person spa bath in an elevated platform immediately behind the glass headboard of the most enormous (and comfortable) bed I’ve ever slept in.  A sliding door led onto a big balcony with seats and a table overlooking the central tropical gardens and pool area.  In one corner it had a wrought iron spiral staircase – I climbed it and came out onto my own private sun terrace, with barbecue and toilet areas and a small swimming pool.  You can order a selection of barbecue foods (steaks, sausages, kebabs and so on) from room service for about EUR40 for two people and cook it yourself – or pay an additional EUR50 and have your own chef do it for you.   Surreal…….after cockroaches in Bucharest and a closet in London (amongst other treats in This Travelling Life), this suite was quite superb.  The hotel is right on Sliema harbour, and a tunnel under the road from the adjoining 4 star annex leads through to a bigger pool and sun terrace right on the sea, with its own bar and snack bar and fabulous views across the bay to Valletta.  I hope to stay there again…..



                                                           ....and my own little pool. 

There is much more traffic on the roads than previously, so delays are not unheard of on our relatively short journey to and from work.  On Monday last week we had torrential rain, the first for a while it seems, and the drainage systems just couldn’t cope…..there was widespread flooding in and around the towns, and this caused traffic chaos as roads and tunnels were closed off for safety reasons.  Our 15 minute drive back to the hotel took nearly two hours.  By the end of the week, the storm and flood damage was still clearly evident in some parts, but this week all seems to be back to normal.  It reminded me of the tropical storms we had in Trinidad a couple of years ago…..the difference being that in Trinidad it happens every day, and here once in a blue moon – Malta is apparently one of the driest places in the world.

There used to be the most wonderful buses running here.  They were old fashioned things painted a bright yellow and red, with big sun-visors on the outside of the windscreen so they looked a bit like those classic American school buses, and were much loved by locals and tourists alike – all the souvenir shops sold little cast iron models of them (in the same way that in London everywhere sells models of black taxi cabs and red double-decker buses).   They ran all over the island and were a magnet for tourists looking to get around cheaply and efficiently.  Alas, they’ve all been retired now, replaced by no doubt more reliable and bigger, but somehow soulless, modern Arriva buses the same as you would see in Gravesend or Great Yarmouth, or indeed in any British town these days – even the livery is the same.  They even have the bendy buses that caused traffic chaos in London when they were first introduced – and indeed caused traffic chaos here initially, as the operator sent them into roads too small for them.  Apparently the whole timetable and route map had to be re-written to ensure the right sized bus was in the right place at the right time, and using the right-sized road.  This is called progress apparently.

The place does seem more prosperous these days, with a greater number of new cars on the crowded streets than previously.  Our hire car 10 years ago was a little rust-bucket of a Fiat 127, small and ill-equipped, but it got us around just fine.  I haven’t seen any cars in such condition this time, and the hire car fleets at the airport – the usual suspects: Avis and Hertz and EuropCar – look brand new (or at least recent) Toyotas and BMWs and Ford Focus, plus the ubiquitous holiday 4x4 Jeeps.   Drive into town and the air of prosperity dissipates a bit: most of the houses and apartment blocks look tatty and in need of some repair – it reminds me very much of parts of Beirut and Cairo and (especially) Limassol, where the buildings seem made of the same sandstone materials, whitewashed or pastel painted, faded by the dry climate and dusty atmosphere.  The maze of narrow and largely winding streets is similar too.  Here and there new developments have sprung up, including one next to my 5 star hotel of last week that as well as a handful of apartment blocks (that boasting a lovely sea-view are undoubtedly ridiculously expensive) contains “the biggest shopping mall in Malta”.  It’s ok, but small in comparison with say Bluewater in the UK, or Galeria Mokotow back home in Warsaw.  The usual suspects are there, too – Nike, Adidas, Max Mara, Bennetton – plus more local stores and food outlets.  I had a wander round and found a very good bookshop (I bought a spoof autobiography by Alan Partridge…ah-haaah!....that looks hilarious – Steve Coogan’s finest creation in my opinion) and a Marks and Spencer Food Court that sold God’s Biscuits (ummm….custard creams – I bought two packs: no pork pies or scotch eggs, though).
Looks like Limassol....

McDonalds is of course here, and nearby Burger King and Pizza Hut vie with it for the passing junk food trade.  There are plenty of restaurants selling local cuisine, Indian and Chinese restaurants, and many Italian restaurants (I’m talking about outside the hotels now).  I also found an English pub that surprisingly didn’t sell food and was out of English beer, and an Irish pub that was out of Kilkenny and had disappointingly changed its menu the week before and stopped selling cottage pie (mind you, the chilli con carne and Guinness were excellent).   I’ve not gone hungry.

It’s the end of the summer season now, and I’ve noticed a subtle change in the profile of visitors.  The first week I came, there were a majority of young tourists (in their 20s say, and mainly couples) especially on the outbound flights.  Last week seemed to be a mix, with older people in the majority.  This was also true of the guests at my spa hotel – most of them seemed to be old, as in past retirement age.  This week there were hardly any youngsters on the flight down, and of those under about 60 most were carrying laptops like myself, clearly here on business of one form or another.  This fits in with the perception of Malta being a favoured destination for the blue rinse brigade, coming here from northern Europe for some winter sunshine to ease rheumy joints – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll do it myself eventually, I’m sure.