We did a day-trip to Malta yesterday. Ignoramus that I am, I knew little to nothing of Malta beyond John Huston’s movie The Maltese Falcon and the existence of a group called the Knights of Malta. I now know that it’s a small island with an even smaller one, Gozo, tagged onto it, and that the population totals under half a million. From the brief contact I had with them, the people seem similar to the Sicilians, who live a 90-minute ferry-ride away (although that could be my ignorance working again, since Belfast and Cairnryan are separated by about the same amount of time but the Irish and the Scots, are quite distinct).
Our guide was a small, craggy-faced bundle of energy who peppered us with information about his country, of which he was clearly proud. What struck me was the way in which the island had been used by a succession of superior forces down the centuries. The Arabs, the Holy Roman Empire/Knights of Malta, the French, the British - again and again outsiders overran it and used it for their own purposes. Each invader left benefits in terms of architecture and trade while essentially using the island for their ends, not that of the Maltese. Napoleon for example during his short stay there reformed finance and education and abolished slavery, but he also seized the island in the first instance by pretending he wanted to resupply his ships on their way to Egypt, but once in port, turned his guns on the hospitable Maltese. The start of the nineteenth century saw Malta become part of the British Empire, used as a stop-over point on the way to India. During the Second World War the British made sure that it wasn’t overrun by Mussolini’s Italy, not for its own sake but rather because its loss would have dented British morale. Today it’s a tiny republic and regularly gets thumped in international football.
Three things stand out for me from our brief day. There’s a massive painting by Caravaggio in the Co-Cathedral, showing the beheading of John the Baptist. As with all Caravaggio paintings there’s a brilliant sense of the fleshiness of the figures - light reflecting off muscles as the executioner, having already killed John, reaches behind him for a knife with which to slice off the head. It catches wonderfully the brutal ghastliness of killing; my wife tells me the killer’s pose, leaning forward on one leg while arching his body back to select the knife, is almost identical to a pose she is asked to take and hold in yoga class. It hurts, she says.
The second was the mark which the invaders left. Everywhere there are huge honey-coloured walls, with a giant dry moat making it near impossible to storm the ramparts. Even the little streets are built with a series of curves, so that any attackers wouldn’t know what awaited them round the next corner. There are busts of Churchill, monuments to the sacrifice of the Maltese on the Allied side during the Second World War, a memorial flanked by two eternal flames.
The third was the pride our guide took in pointing out the island’s state-of-the-art hospital, recently constructed. Its modern design and purpose - saving lives- contrasted nicely with the countless buildings and ramparts constructed down the centuries to help the inhabitants kill as many invaders as possible before being overrun.
And the Loo of Malta? That was in the restaurant where we stopped for a mid-day meal. It was small, smelly and didn’t flush. I could have been back in Ireland.