The Old Manse.  19/06/05
Holidays first. Mid May. Malta
I first heard of Malta in a series of war stories in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, published in what were called trash-mags.  Tales of heroism and daring deeds by the allied troops during the Second World War.  Being an impressionable youth, I learned a fair bit of German in the process. Sadly this proved of little use later in life, since most of the phrases were inappropriate to most conversations off the battlefield and outside the POW camp.  I think ja, nien, and das ist zehr gut [that’s very good, (unlike the spelling)] were the only ones I ever used, there being little call for the more complex “Gott in Himmell, der Englander ist aaaagh,!!”  The questions of how the actual participants in such stories felt about them, and whether they held any truth at all, never entered my head, and I now know that it makes little difference, since no two accounts would have matched dates, numbers or victors.
Having seen Crete and various other Mediterranean islands, it came as no great surprise that once the sun came up, Malta looked similar, if dryer. I know that my mental image was still a big block of rock, covered in bomb craters, in the middle of the sea studded with the wreckage of WW2 aircraft, it’s difficult correcting a childhood image unless you have one to replace it with. Actually I had imagined a huge mid-ocean concrete block, since I really hadn’t seen much rock in Hampshire, except chalk, and the pictures were largely of airfields and bunkers.
Well the wreckage is largely tidied up now, and they’ve filled in most of the craters.  Curiously the Hampshire chalk image would have been more accurate than I could have imagined, there are large strata of chalk and limestone, some eroding, and leaving sizeable caves.  The Maltese have been using the caves since the dawn of time, and have extended some considerably, often as burial sites, there being precious little soil and you wouldn’t want to unearth your ancestors every time you planted a row of radishes.
Most of the landscape is rock, and seems fairly solid. I could not sense the cavities below.  If you find a natural looking gully however, it will often lead to a large cave and can walk back under the rock that seemed so secure.  In some we found that the roof has small holes here (and there) proving that it’s only a foot thick in places, sometimes less.
You’d think it was all quite stable, on account of the lack of rain and therefore the lack of recent erosion.  I did.  Then we went to the top left-hand corner of the island, near Gozo. In the far corner, as the road ends there are a few military buildings and blast-walls, keep heading carelessly out onto the peninsular on foot and you will probably fall into a seemingly bottomless crevasse about a yard wide and quite new.  The scary bit is that the ground is at the same height on both sides, so it isn’t just a collapsed cave roof, the entire peninsular has folded like a hinge at the crevasse, the slab must have made a bit of a bang when it dropped.
The geology is still fairly active and gets the occasional earthquake now and then, though the size of the caves suggests that it isn’t too violent too often. Perhaps the geology lets the rainwater run away, quite easily, into the deeper layers because there are no rivers.  The shortage of water and the regular invasions has made for a very co-operative population, everybody seemed well mannered and peaceful.  We found the people there to be extremely helpful, obviously as tourists we were a source of income, but they were always going out of there way to help, even when there was no way that the individual concerned would profit from it.  A typical example was the chap who delivered our car (Budget) to the airport at 2am in the morning, (having been told by the UK Travel Company we were arriving at 5pm.) He could see we were having difficulty with the directions at that time of night, and led us to the hotel himself, at least 8 miles out of his way.
Added to that, they drive on the left, all speak English (as well as their own Arab based Maltese), do multi-national cuisine including a number of their own dishes, don’t always have a hand stuck out for a tip, and drive quite good naturedly around bemused tourists.  Incidentally, its worth mentioning that some of what look like roundabouts aren’t, and the rather faint white lines on the road indicate that you are at a T junction.
The islanders have a staunch faith, it seemed to me 
close to Coptic, though my understanding of the finer points
 might be a bit weak. They would be seen as a bit 
strait laced in the UK, it was not obtrusive, but they do like
 a bit of decorum in their amazingly decorated Churches. 
Some of the teenage girls however have taken to the 
disco life with enthusiasm, and the mini-skirt is not just alive 
but thriving.  Startlingly so in some cases.  Given the history
 and geography it’s not surprising that the racial types vary 
from Nordic to Sicilian to African and nobody seems to 
take much notice.
We had a good look round the islands and there’s a fair
 bit to see, especially if you like Churches, Castles, big stones 
and caves. A car was vital for anybody who doesn’t understand 
bus routes, and petrol cheap by our standards. 
I think we spent ten pounds in a week and drove a lot.
Incidentally the currency is the Maltese Lira, 
about £1.50 (or about 2 Euros) but they call them pounds because they changed from the British pound about 10 years ago and kept the value the same.  They will probably keep calling them pounds till they go over to Euros in a few years.
To me most peculiar characteristic of the islands was the stone blocks, there is a standardised block of pale yellow sandstone, about 9 inches square and 18 long. They use it for everything, especially in place of wood. It’s used instead of garden fences, hedges around fields, all buildings, no matter how small, parking restrictions, stiles, everything, and of course any building repair, but since that’s what the building are made of anyway, the repairs look really neat and are usually invisible. The effect is that the buildings all have the original look, and the same colour, rather than the standardising effect of mono-blocks, concrete, sheet glass and steel joists.
The Islanders have, in the proverbial nick of time, decided to restrict the otherwise uncontrollable building of hotels to those areas where there is already a hotel. They must have fairly strict laws on the building of new apartment blocks, certainly the coastal towns and villages would be compromised by now if they hadn’t.  We were in the Intercontinental, not cheap if you have to pay for it, which we didn’t, but very nice.
There’s not a huge amount of animal wild life, since the ground is fairly dry and barren, but it’s great for dry tolerant wild flowers and lizards especially Geckos. We also saw a very relaxed Salamander that might have been a Skink. The Hal Saflieni Hypogeum was the only place we couldn’t get into, though this was not a high season visit, a multi level man made cave complex it is apparently usually booked well in advance usually over the internet.
Popeye Village, or Fairhaven where Robin Williams’ film was produced is well worth a visit, you will probably find that you are part of the entertainment, 
and it’s more fun if you join in. Set three or four hours aside for it.
Happily, though it was back to work for a while after that, we did 
squeeze in a caravan trip to Oban at the end of May, and tried out
 our new sea going Kayaks. Fun, though harder work than I had 
anticipated, mainly because of a swell that tried to get us into the 
troughs, making it difficult to paddle at 45 degrees to the sea. 
Practice will no doubt improve our skills there. A three-hour round
 trip seemed a good start.  Rain stopped play.
On the projects front, the garage has a nice new and rather large 
concrete hardstanding in front. No more mud.  Work on the second 
conservatory progresses slowly as we wait for the Building Control 
permissions. I’m collecting resources like sand, bricks and timber. 
 It’s a real pain having to put in detailed plans, I much prefer to 
wing it, thereby developing something unusual, but it will look more
 professional and, more to the point, be legal.

The hospital has, in it’s wisdom, decided that computers are the way forward and so I’m doing the European Computer Driving Licence. Peculiar title, I wonder if the government is thinking of taxing it. Anyway so far so good, and quite useful, though the tests aren’t written by the same people who write the lessons, so they don’t often match up. Fortunately it’s not too difficult so far, and the examiners aren’t too bright (don’t tell them I said so) and you can often work out the answers from clues in the question, or other factors. For example 
Question: Should the monitor be 
1. in artificial dimmed light with the window to the side?
2. facing the window?
3. facing away from the window?
Clue; the exam is taken in the computer-training department, set up by computer people well trained in the subject and the windows are to the side.
After that, you’ll be ok if you know that the World Wide Web is part of the Internet rather than vice versa, a point that fascinates examiners to such an extent that they can’t resist putting it in most tests irrespective of the field of study.
The oddity is that the IT department is so under funded that I’ve been waiting six months to have a computer installed to allow me to use this new found wisdom. To prevent SEPA from closing the department through inadequate Radioactive Waste Tracking I have had to supply an old one myself. Now I take the records home on floppy disc so that I can email them to the hospital mainframe. Go figure.
I was thinking of replacing the little Peugeot as it’s getting a bit old, so I went and had a look at a roadster version of the Smart car. The town car is just too ugly to be seen in. (My apologies to anybody who has one and loves it) they are a bit more than I want to spend. It was an eye opener, I know about ABS, air bags and GPS, but this thing had gadgets coming out of its air-vents. 6 speed automatic/semi-automatic fingertip gearbox, traction control, and a really neat automatic roof. Pity really, if they had kept it simple I could have afforded it, but then it would have been a Triumph Spitfire. I liked them. Cheap, fast, fun and handled like a pig in a wheelbarrow. Happy days.
See ya.