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Tag: Orta

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


Poetry in public

This is the day when I should have arrived in New Zealand; and the first of my readings there was to be this evening at the charmingly named ‘Thirsty Dog’. Because disaster struck us half-way over the world, I can’t do this reading, or any of the others I was due to give in the next couple of weeks. Charles Hadfield and Hilary Elfick will be reading at most of the events I was going to, and they are kindly going to present some of my work to those audiences. So, instead of standing up and sharing my poetry, I thought I’d reflect on poetry readings in general in this blog.

All through my adult life I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the burden) of giving countless lectures, talks and sermons. In recent years, however, I have far, far preferred to give poetry readings – and I’ve been extremely fortunate to be invited to read all over Britain and in several other countries as well. If by any chance you’re interested in where all these readings have been, you can find them on the Poetry page of my website ( I get a tremendous kick out of giving readings: writing can be a rather solitary occupation, and suddenly, at a public reading, one has the opportunity to engage with other people, to make them laugh or sigh, and to feel the energy of a common delight in poetry flowing back and forth between reader and audience. It really is a wonderful feeling when other people share and enjoy one’s poetry.

I’ll pick out just a few of my favourites to give a flavour of the range of opportunities for poets to share their work.

I was stunned and excited to be invited to read for a whole evening at Little Gidding a few years ago. The thrill this event gave me, obviously, was because of my life-long love of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The reading took place in a large and crowded, but cosy drawing room; and I was encouraged to go on reading for over two hours.

With Orta San Giulio in background

Poetry on the Lake in northern Italy is one of the highlights of the year for quite a number of poets. Like others, I first went because I was successful in their annual poetry competition – and then I was drawn back year after year. The readings are not so much large public events as good poets getting together to share their work with others who are on the same wavelength.

A & CA


The list of participants is star-studded, and in a beautiful venue in the sunshine (well, mostly in the sunshine), friendships develop and inspiration flows.

A reading on Sacro Monte

One morning at the festival is spent reading at the various shrines on the Sacro Monte. Then, at the end of the weekend we are also treated to a wonderful piano recital in the Casa Tallone, a thousand year old building on the island, where Tallone pianos used to be made.

There are dozens of excellent poetry and/or literature festivals in Britain. Sadly I haven’t yet been invited to read at Aldeburgh, Ledbury or Stanza, but I’ve read at most of the others. I’ve been fortunate enough to read at Ways with Words at Dartington for several years running; and I read at The Space in another part of the Dartington Estate at the end of my poetry residency with dancers and choreographers from the Ballet Rambert. For a poet who is crazy about dance, this was a wonderful opportunity to indulge in some of the best things in life.

Freiburg reading

Venues at the festivals vary, and one of the more interesting ones at which I read was the Freiburg City Festival in Germany. The challenge was to read on a podium in the city square, and although seats were put out, I doubted if anyone would come to sit on them to hear a poet reading in English. However, I was mistaken, and before long all the seats were taken and there was a crowd of onlookers standing as well.

Audiences for poetry readings range from the polite to the wildly enthusiastic. There was a nice example of the latter, when Carol Ann Duffy read at the Torbay Poetry Festival this last autumn and she received a well-deserved standing ovation. I had a particularly warm and enthusiastic audience at this last year’s Guildford Book Festival, when I read and Peter Terry sang a selection of lieder and English songs. Music can work well with poetry readings, and when I read with a couple of other poets in the Lewes Linklater Pavilion recently, our readings were interspersed with guitar pieces.

A reading at WalpoleAs well as festivals, there are many other opportunities for readings. I’ve read in a number of bookshops, at the launch of magazines and anthologies that include poems by me, the launch of my books, prizewinners’ events, as the entertainment at parties, and regular poetry events such as the Troubadour in London, the Uncut readings in Exeter and pub gigs such as Tradewinds on Dartmoor. Other great venues have been the Edinburgh Fringe, the Walpole Old Chapel in Suffolk, the Dower House at Morville Hall in Shropshire, Slimbridge and Leighton Moss bird reserves and at university venues. There’s also usually an opportunity to read after giving a workshop or judging a competition. If you’re looking for readings, the possibilities are endless..

* Sea sandals

And yes, as every poet knows, giving readings is the best way to sell one’s books. In general, the major gatherings of poets do not lead to large sales, as most of the audience have plenty of poetry books already and are probably more interested in selling their own than in adding to their groaning bookshelves. Other audiences will snap up the books and delight in having them signed by the poet.

Then there is the issue of payment. Most poetry events are fairly cash-strapped, and some others have no compunction in exploiting writers if they can get away with it. It is unusual not to receive at least one’s expenses, and there are some shining examples of organisers who value and reward their poets. Among these, Patricia Oxley, the Editor of Acumen and organiser of the Torbay Festival, is one of the best. Of course one writes, and reads in public, for love. But it is amazing how much more valued one feels when someone like Patricia shows her genuine respect and appreciation by paying a proper fee. And several more of the events at which I’ve read have been kind enough to reward me quite generously.

After so many readings this last year, and the fact that I expected to be away now, I rather feared there may not have been so many in 2013. However, the invitations continue to flow in, and between now and the summer I have already been booked to appear at the Wenlock Poetry Festival, Cheltenham Poetry Festival, the Bath Week of Good Poetry, the launch of a magazine in Swindon and at Ways with Words.

Pity about New Zealand, though!

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