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Month: October 2013

7 Maltese (K)nights

in Orta reducedNormally early October brings the delights of the Poetry on the Lake Festival at Orta in Italy. Like a number of others, I first attended this festival when I was successful in one of their competitions – and then became addicted. This year, because of other potential arrangements, I wasn’t able to commit to Orta in advance, so decided to take a break from my normal pattern of revising my rudimentary Italian and heading south in the camper van as soon as the first whiff of autumn blew in my direction.

The expected appointments didn’t materialise, so at the last minute we made a booking to join our grandchildren and their parents for a half-term holiday week in Malta, which we had never visited before. The weather was perfect all week with temperatures in the mid-30s, and the sea was deliciously warm, so we enjoyed the luxury of swimming several times a day as well as visiting some of the interesting sites on the islands. And, of course, we had lots of fun with the lovely family. We had also made some new friends earlier this year, and it turned out that they are Maltese and spend quite a bit of time back there; so we were able to spend two happy days with them as well.

Museum reduced

One of the striking features of Malta is the pale honey-coloured limestone which is quarried on the island, and from which everything, from ornate cathedral to humble dwelling, is built. It gives a gentle relaxed feel to the towns, and looks beautiful from the air. Like our sandstone in places like Lindisfarne, the stone is soft enough to be sculpted by the elements, and takes on fascinating decorative patterns as parts are worn away.

Of course, much of the history of Malta revolves round the Knights of St John. Like so much other history this tends to be rather macho and it’s sometimes tempting to think that the islands were uninhabited by women. However, the knights have left behind some beautiful cathedrals and churches. Like so much from this Baroque era, the insides of these buildings are incredibly ornate, and on entering Valetta Cathedral one is almost dazzled by the extensive gold. But most of it is not as over-the-top as one might have expected. I’ve seen far more excessive Baroque buildings in other countries, especially in Spain, Austria and Brazil. My taste in ecclesiastical architecture normally tends towards the simplicity and grace of the Romanesque; but on this occasion to my surprise, I actually liked much of what I saw, especially in Valetta Cathedral.

Mdina cathedral reduced

The picture on the right is of Mdina Cathedral. Mdina is a beautiful city, surrounded by walls and is so much of a piece that it feels extremely harmonious. It is, of course, highly preserved for tourists, but also seems to operate as a real place as well.

Another impressive church building was in Mosta, which has a huge dome, said to be either the third or the fourth largest in the world. Mosta dome reduced


Apparently the inhabitants of the town were all sheltering in this church in the war, when a bomb was dropped and fell straight through the dome and down to where all the people were. By an amazing stroke of good fortune, or what many would call a miracle, the bomb did not explode and nobody was hurt. A replica of that bomb is now on display in the church. Malta suffered terribly during the war, and the whole island was awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

The friend we spent some time with was a child in the war and remembers it quite clearly. The experiences of the Maltese people came alive so vividly for us as he talked: in particular his stories of how his family spent the nights down a large well for safety, and how one uncle who decided he’d had enough of that left the well one night and was killed.

Moving further back in history, St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta, and we passed St Paul’s Island when we took the boat to Comino and Gozo on what turned out to be the only day when the wind got up. It was still sunny and warm, but the seas became pretty rough, and gave us a taste of what St Paul might have experienced a couple of thousand years ago. The story goes that when St Paul landed, he had an unfortunate encounter with a viper, so the locals all expected him to keel over and die. Instead of that, however, he simply shook the viper off into the fire.
Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.” But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god. (Acts of the Apostles chapter 28).

St Paul reducedThere’s a large statue of St Paul and the viper outside the church in Mellieha (see right).


The other treatment of this theme, which I’ve always loved, can be found in St Anselm’s Chapel in Canterbury Cathedral, where the twelfth century artist captures so much of the movement and drama and of the story.

Travelling even further back into history, Malta has some rather impressive pre-historic temples, which are far older than Stonehenge. As with many such early structures in Britain and France, they appear to be aligned in such a way that the sun striking certain stones marks the solstices and equinoxes, thus giving shape to the year and guiding the timing of agricultural activities.

A in templetemple stones


Winchester blog 4: October


I’ve now made my last visit to Winchester before the Festival starts in earnest at the end of this month. This visit was to finalise the venues and formats for all my poems that form the Poetry Trail through the Cathedral, and then to meet Stephen Boyce to make plans for my Poetry Reading on the evening of November 1st.

My next blog will probably be on something completely unconnected with the Winchester Festival, but after that I hope to be able to post a final Winchester blog with lots of pictures of the various artworks in situ. The Cathedral is going to be bursting with new and interesting art in the festival, as is the whole city of Winchester. If you can possibly get there between 26th October and 3rd November, I highly recommend a visit.

Festival map

As on all the other days I’ve made preparatory visits to Winchester over the last few months, the weather was beautiful and I was able to sit on a bench in the peaceful Cathedral Green to eat my sandwich. I then wandered round the side of the cathedral, to visit the Barbara Hepworth sculpture of the Crucifixion. I’ve always loved this piece: it’s one of three casts, and was originally situated against a backdrop of the sea in St Ives, down in Cornwall. The autumn leaves were drifting gently down, there was no sound of traffic and the great ancient cathedral formed a fitting backdrop to the colour and quiet drama of Hepworth’s sculpture.


It has been a very stimulating and enjoyable process working with the artists who will be represented in the Cathedral during the 10 days Festival, including Sue Wood, Lisa Earley, Michael Weller, Lucy Cass, Penny Burnfield and Anna Sikorska. It was easier when I could meet the artists, particularly if I could see something of what they were working on for the Festival. The two poems that came most easily were Listen, for Sue Wood’s sound installation in the Triforium and Sitting for a Portrait to go with Michael Weller’s paintings in the Morley Library. It’s not so very surprising that this latter poem came quite easily, given that I had hours to think about little else as I sat while he painted my portrait.

The most difficult poems to write were those for which I hadn’t met the artist and didn’t have a very clear idea of what the finished artwork was going to look like. The last poem I was asked to produce for the Trail was in response to a huge polystyrene float that will be suspended above the nave. The work is to be called ‘You are very near to us’; and the artist Anna Sikorska sent the following guidance:

The title of the swimming float, lowered through the roof, hovering and waiting, was overheard at the Cathedral as a response to intercessions. It is part of a body of work describing and playing with surfaces and substance, particularly in this case the chalk of the surrounding land, thinking about directness, cleanliness and simply the desire to reach and bubble upwards.
Mark 2.4  (also Acts 10.11 although this is just a coincidence and was not inspiration for the work).
The chalk lands of Winchester and surrounding areas.
Being underwater, and looking/rising up
He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  (Acts 10 v 11).

All that presented something of a challenge, but I’m glad to say that after several attempts I did manage to reflect most of these themes in the poem, though with its final focus on music, it turned out to be about something very different from what I first anticipated. One strange result is that this piece is the only one of the poems that has a recognisably religious theme, as it reflects on some of the difficulties of prayer. I am told that this particular artwork is likely to be the most controversial, so it’s rather fun that it should turn out this way. I’d like to include a picture of the float here, but as it’s not finished yet, that will have to wait until my next Winchester blog in November.

There will be maps showing the positions of my poems in the Poetry Trail just inside the Cathedral, and Lucy Cass has produced a series of postcards of some of my poems alongside photographs of her artworks. I shall be doing a couple of ‘walk-abouts’ in the Cathedral in the second week, and running a poetry reading and writing workshop at 2.00pm on Thursday 31st October. You need to book for this workshop, but it is free.

Then on Friday 1st November I shall be giving a Poetry Reading in the Epiphany Chapel at 7.00pm. At this event, the musician/performer June-Boyce-Tillman will give a short performance before I read, and afterwards Stephen Boyce will chair a conversation with me and some of the artists with whom I’ve been working. We will talk about our collaboration, and invite comments and discussion with the audience. Do join us if you can.

There is going to be SO much going on during this 10 Days Festival. You certainly won’t be able to get to everything, but I do urge you to try to visit Winchester at least once during the ten days.

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