Thursday, 23 February 2017

Hastings Battleaxe does Malta

Our first visit to Malta.  Very interesting and enjoyable four/ five days. Weather fab. Sorry, this is a long post, but there's lots to say.

View from our hotel room, Fort St Angelo across the Harbour

We stayed in Valetta, in the old city. There are very few hotels right in the centre, partly because much of the place is still unrestored and ungentrified – just what Battleaxe and Philosopher enjoy.   We chose the little Grand Harbour Hotel, with unrivalled views over the historic Grand Harbour towards the Three Cities and out to the sea. Our room was on the 4th floor, ideal for the fantastic view. Battleaxe would totally recommend the place. It is quite basic, but spotlessly clean, comfy bed, free WiFi, very pleasant staff, handy for sights, buses, ferry etc. Choose a harbour view room, though.
Looking across to the hotel from the ferry. It is above towards the left with white balconies
     Old Valetta is totally fascinating, built by the Knights of St John around 1600. It's a tightly-knit grid of narrow streets covering a small peninsula. The architecture is very distinctive – Grand baroque palazzos, houses with ornate covered balconies – Italian meets Moorish meets Ottoman. While much of it is in a sad state of disrepair, conversions and restorations are underway – new boutique hotels and up-market holiday apartments, so I guess in a few years the place will be unrecognisable.

     We enjoyed looking at, and photographing old shop signs, most dating from the British era. Some little hole-in-the-wall shops reminded us of India, and some were like England in the 50s. The Maltese also have the most amazing names. Every little street was worth exploring, every faded sign was worth reading.
      There are many British remnants – post boxes, phone boxes, driving on the left and of course they all speak English.  Just as well, the Maltese language is totally incomprehensible and unpronounceable, a sort of Italianate Arabic
      I liked Renzo Piano’s new Parliament building.
Valetta Parliament building
      Because of Malta’s martial history, the city is surrounded with monumental, towering fortifications. From our bed, we could look across the harbour to Fort St Angelo, a massive pile on the end of the Vittorioso peninsula, the headquarters of the Order of St John.
      There are many, many interesting churches, all ornate baroque. Their bells ding loudly and unpredictably, starting around 6am. The massive, ornate church of St Paul's Shipwreck was just round the corner from the hotel.
      However, nothing, ever, could beat St John’s Co-Cathedral for OTT ornamentation. It is a totally migraine-inducing gold-embossed, painted, blinging, glittery riot. The floor is entirely covered in inlaid marble memorials to individual Knights of St John.It is an absolute must-see sight just for its appearance, but I can't imagine anyone finding it helpful for attaining spiritual calm.
St John's Co-Cathedral - a glitter palace

The floor


More bling
      We could have spent days looking round museums, visiting forts, War Rooms etc., but we didn’t actually visit any in Valetta itself, apart from a strange little gallery of Victor Pasmore’s paintings, tucked away in an old ammunition store in the middle of the city  walls.
      We climbed up to the Saluting Battery, just up up the road from the hotel.They fire a gun up there every day at noon and 4pm – one day we arrived just when the firing was in progress.

Saluting Battery

        We spent the whole of our first day wandering round Valetta, and walked more every evening. There were plenty of little restaurants and cafes to choose from, lots of Italian food as well as Maltese. Masses of rabbit….
        Next day we took a bus out to the ancient temples. I’d wanted to see them for years, ever since my Goddess phase a good few years ago.
         We were struck by how built up the island  is. It is only supposed to have a population of about 420,000, yet the wider Valletta conurbation sprawls on for miles before petering out into scrubby countryside. I read there is very little open space in Malta. I also read that many homes have been abandoned, not just in the old city.  A combination of arcane inheritance laws, strict development regulations, outward migration and the lure of new modern housing have left whole streets of lovely old buildings empty. 
         To make matters worse, even though the roads are quite good, the traffic is very heavy.
         On our return the bus crawled through St Julian’s and Sliema, which, despite our guidebook’s descriptions of upmarket hangouts for the cool and hip, were horrible over-developed mass tourism hell-holes.  Bored of the traffic, we got off at Sliema’s packed seafront, lined with high-rise apartments and hotels. Forced down lunch in vile crowded caff full of screaming Brits and then got the ferry back to peace of Valetta.
         Back to the temples. They are very ancient, around 3600BC, and are some of the oldest free-standing structures in the world. We saw two, Hagar Qim andMnajdra. Sadly, I was disappointed. They have been very heavily restored and cleaned, and are protected from the elements by big canopies. The result is empty and meaningless. I felt nothing.
Sterile temple....

          We know virtually nothing about the people who built them, or what their purpose was. Various little figures were found at the sites, but there is now doubt if many of them are female.  They could be man-boob male sumo wrestler types. For old times sake I bought a little model that is clearly female, the Venus of Malta.
           The best bit was walking between the two temples across a rocky wild-flower landscape. Lots of brilliant yellow, set off by blue. 

            On Day Three we took the ferry from the waterfront far below the hotel to Vittoriosa, the most scenic of the Three Cities.
Gateway to Vittoriosa

         Here, we visited the old Inquisitor’s Palace, one of the very few such places remaining intact in the Catholic world. I can only find one other, in Colombia.  Not surprisingly, the Inquisition has been largely air-brushed out of church history. We sensed the information in the Malta museum downplayed the frequency and nature of the tortures used, and the grim conditions in the dank prison below the palace... A light, invigorating little stretch on the Strappado - bit like going to the gym.
         Apparently the post of Inquisitor was a plum job for up-and-coming young Italian churchmen from noble families, and several went on from Malta to become Pope. The private apartments, on the gracious ‘piano nobile’ floor of the palace, gave no hint of the true purpose of the building.
         We saw how the whole process worked from Denunciation through to Sentence, including the Tribunal Room, where the accused stood before the Inquisitor, the Torture Chamber, with equipment in situ, and the prison cells. Plenty of historical redolence here.
This is a 'magical hat' used in evidence against some poor devil - it was a spell to cure migraine
The Tribunal Room

Torture chamber..
         Had lunch in a pleasant collonaded cafe on the Vittoriosa water-front, surrounded by the mega-yachts of the super rich.
         Returning to Valetta, we took the amazing Upper Barakka Lift from the ferry up the side of the fortified walls to the town at the top.
         On our last day we went by bus to the old capital city of Mdina.

         Brief digression here: Battleaxe collects vintage art glass, including Mdina Glass. My pieces were mostly designed by Michael Harris in the 70s, and very lovely they are too, with their strange shapes and vibrant undersea colours. Despite there being numerous Mdina shops all over Malta selling new glass, there is nowhere to buy old glass, and apparently no museum or display showing the history of Mdina glass, or the original designs. The new stuff is not as nice - thinner, lighter, and more garish. Still, as a glass collector I had to have a piece of Mdina from Mdina, so chose a modest little flask.
Examples of old Mdina glass (at back) with new Mdina.... no contest
       What did we think of Mdina?  Not that much, I’m afraid. It was nice to wander round for a morning, it’s attractive, and the buildings are impressive, but the place has been cleansed, purged and sandblasted into sterility. It is an empty stage set, traversed by hordes of gawping tourists. No shops but gew-gaw shops, no life. It’s no good, Battleaxe has to feel the past as well as see it. I know these old sites have to be preserved for the future, but at what cost?

       We had coffee in the Xara Palace, a 5 star hotel which old friend Sue has fancied staying in. Would we recommend it to her? No. Boredom would soon set in.
        By far the best thing was the Cathedral, St Paul’s. Baroque again, but a much lighter, far more elegant job than the one in Valetta.
Cathedral, Mdina

        Many interesting memorials on the floor, including one mentioning a Sackville/de la Warr. All in Latin though.
Memorial tablets - interesting symbolism

         So, how would I sum up what we saw of Malta? Old Valetta and the Three Cities – excellent, 100 percent recommended, loads to see, redolent with history. Mdina – nice outing and worth it for the Cathedral. Temples – meugh. Sure, there were lots of things we didn’t see, catacombs, domes, more temples, palaces, hypogeums, blue grottos, which may be fabulous, and I'm sure people will say 'well, up in the north of the island there are unspoilt....' but we only had a few days.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Loo latest and quick update

Ok, I promise this is the last bit about loos you will see. This is just a quick update before we set off for a few days in Malta. It'll be good to escape this extra-grey February.  Yesterday we went on a grey sort of stroll at Pett Level....

Pett Level

Pett Level
     In the last post I mentioned that I was going to the Council Cabinet meeting to present our loo petition and have our five minutes to talk about the issue.  Well, I went, accompanied by Philosopher and three stalwart WI chums.
     It was in the Council Chamber in the newly named Muriel Matters House. Eh? you might say. The building, a thoroughly unappealing 70s block right in the middle of the seafront was called Aquila House until a few weeks ago. One may wonder why Hastings BC, more strapped for cash than any local authority has a right to be, should be spending money changing the name of its offices. I remember from my time with Birmingham City Council, working for what started off as the Central Personnel Department, then became Personnel and Equal Opportunities, then Human Resources and Equalities, then.... the cost of the stationery alone for each rebranding was phenomenal, and that was only one department.
     For anyone who might be interested,  Muriel Matters was a suffragette. She is best known for chaining herself to a grille in the Ladies Gallery of the House of Commons. She also, I see, set out to fly over the Houses of Parliament in a dirigible (another lovely word - it's a sort of powered balloon) on the occasion of the state opening of Parliament in 1909. However, ensconced in her dirigible, she was blown off course and ended up in Tooting. She lived out her final years in Hastings, like some other bonkers women I know.
     Was I nervous about addressing the Council? No. Hell-fire, back in Birmingham again, I used to 'train' elected members in horrible things like equality awareness and right-on recruitment. Urgh, I can't tell you how bad that was. I could scarcely get them to stub their fags out (it was the late 80s) never mind think about the difference between positive action and positive discrimination.
     Anyway, the Hastings elected members were very pleasant.
     So I had my five minutes - I ran out of time actually, then engaged in merry question and answer repartee. One bloke asked if as a community group, the WI would be willing to get more involved in the running of the toilets. 'What,' I snorted derisively, 'Us? Cleaning bogs?'
     I did sense that the members had already made up their minds to save the Ore loos and close the Harold Place ones, so the case did not have to be argued very hard. Indeed, at the end of my time Peter Chowney, the Leader of the Council said that was what they intended to do. Well, it's good anyway.
      So, weather very grey indeed. At Pett Level, our spirits were raised by this lovely dog, who obviously thought a run on the beach was utterly, completely and totally the best thing that had ever happened in his life.  Dogs are brilliant for that. That's partly why we like our cat Digby so much. He has a great passion for life and the pleasures thereof, and does not hesitate to show it, unlike so many cats who just sit round looking disdainful and shirty.

     Off to Malta tomorrow then. We have never been. Will report back next week.
     Here's the greyest photo I can find. It's not Pett level, but by the Hastings Garden Centre in Bulverhythe, photographed on Sunday. Let's hope we get a bit of brightness ovet the next few days....
Trees against grey sky


Friday, 10 February 2017

Toilet protests and music at Fairlight Hall. A day in the life of Battleaxe....

Well, social/local media has been so full of the toilet protest I scarcely want to write about it further, but I'll sum it up here, and it did make a great contrast with a very civilised musical luncheon at Fairlight Hall straight afterwards.

Loo protest
     All this was last Saturday. The loo protest seems so teeny tiny in comparison with the stuff going on in the wider world, but hey, it makes a change from Brexit and Trump. Toiletgate is still very much alive because on Monday evening I will be speaking for five minutes about loos to the Hastings Borough Council Cabinet meeting. I'll report back on that later.
     Like most local authorities, and especially those, apparently, who serve the most deprived areas (why, you may ask...), Hastings BC is facing savage government cuts to its funding. In the current year, the Council has to make up a a £1.2 million shortfall. One proposal to save money is to close public toilets, most notably those in Ore Village, and in Harold Place in the town centre. Our WI members were collectively incensed about the plan, and it seemed a good idea to harness this energy into a campaign - excellent profile raising material.
     However, if I am totally honest, I'd rather see toilets close than further cuts to social care etc.  I think the Harold Place loos are particularly difficult to justify. Not only is the building utterly hideous - a strange, over-large Grecian temple-style eyesore slapped right in the middle of the view from the town centre to the sea front, it is very expensive to maintain, prone to anti-social behaviour and there are alternatives. Battleaxe has to be absolutely desperate to even consider going in there. I think I've only been once in the five years we've lived in Hastings.
Harold Place loos - totally hideous
     On the other hand, Hastings is a resort town, anxious to attract more visitors. The nearest public loos are quite a walk away. Why doesn't the Council charge for the things?  They'd stay in better condition and raise some revenue.
     The Ore loos are eminently more saveable. They are in a deprived neighbourhood which needs all the help it can get, have recently been refurbished and are cheap to run and maintain. Once again, Battleaxe has never actually used them. Have popped in twice, once with friend Jan to ensure we were not inadvertently campaigning to save a vile smelly pit, and once to stick a poster on the wall.
     So, I/we organised a protest. It was a horrible wet morning, but loads of people turned out, including plenty of our WI members, and our two local councillors. Philosopher made some placards and other people brought their own products as well - all very jolly.  We had excellent coverage from the local press, and I was also on Radio Sussex. Would you believe they phoned me up at 7.10 in the morning - good thing I was conscious.  Here is a link to the Hastngs Observer article.
     We got a bit of a petition signed - some of the sheets nearly dissolved in the rain. That's the reason I've got the speaking slot on Monday. If you hand in a petition, you get your five minutes. Again, if I'm honest I can think of things I'd rather be addressing the Council about, but there you go.
      Battleaxe quite enjoyed the protest business - plenty of opportunity to shout at people. However, as with all protests I suppose, what do you do with the masses once you have assembled them, fired them up, shouted, waved the placards, taken lots of photos etc? I now realise this is why so many protests end up with people setting fire to cars, smashing shop windows etc. What else is there to do? All wound up and nowhere to go... that sounds like a placard.... Fortunately, in our case, no cars were torched and the windows of the Co-op stayed intact. We had a 'loo queue' for photos.

The loo queue

Loo queue...
Folk lined up along the road shouting at passing traffic for a bit, and drivers hooted at them in a friendly manner. Then, fortunately, the rain came down harder, and we all went home.
     A good thing too, because at 12 noon me and Philosopher were due at Fairlight Hall for the annual Patrons and Members recital and lunch for the Hastings International Piano Concerto Competition. Had to throw off sopping wet woman of the people kit and struggle into frock...
     Talking of woman of the people, I noticed that on my video interview with the reporter from the Hastings Observer, I look alarmingly like my mum, but have adopted a woman of the people voice.
This link might play the video
      Then, something completely different.....
We'll be at both nights of the final.
     The Fairlight Hall do was a complete and utter contrast to what had gone before. There we all were, ensconced (I love that word)... ensconced in comfy chairs in the elegant sitting room, in front of a log fire and admiring the fabulous art works, while listening to Frank Wibaut playing the grand piano. It was lovely. No photos of course, but I've written about the Hall plenty of times.
    He played some Debussy, and a four-handed Mozart piano sonata with a young woman whose name escapes me. I wonder how many of  my fellow listeners have ever been in a public toilet in their lives? Probably never been on a bus, either. Mind you, my mother would never use public toilets. One always had to stop at a hotel - a 'Trust House dear'. What happened to Trust Houses? They were always old hotels in the middle of provincial towns with chintzy lounges and retired Squadron Leaders propping up the bar.
    After the music we had a very good lunch. We sat with some WEA mates of Philosopher's. He is Chair of the Hastings, St Leonards and Bexhill branch of the WEA (Workers Educational Association). Sadly, not many workers in his bit of the organisation.  There is another bit that runs access courses for educationally disadvantaged adults - but they aren't exactly workers either.  The courses Philosopher is involved with are things like art appreciation and film studies, mostly attended by earnest ladies. The ladies would love him to do a Philosophy course, and he'd have them eating out of his hand, but he doesn't want to do it....


Thursday, 2 February 2017

Keith Tyson exhibition at the Jerwood, plenty to look at

The latest exhibition at the Jerwood, Keith Tyson's 'Turn Back Now' started at the weekend.  Hastings Battleaxe made her obligatory visit. Here's what she thought. It might have actually provided an uncomfortable insight into my own motivation....

Keith Tyson Studio Drawings - a nice change from empty wall

More of the same
    My first thought: Oh good, masses to look at. The space is full. The walls of the big Foreshore Gallery are totally covered with his Studio Wall drawings, in fact there is so much material it would take several visits to view/read it all.
    Second thing, see photos above, you are allowed to take pictures of Tyson's stuff, which makes a blogger's life much easier.
     But what actually is it?  The closely packed images are a sort of visual diary, or as Tyson says 'a kind of emotional headline of the day'. The items are on a vast, random range of topics, some of them are stark graffiti-like agitproppy things, some are much more gentle, some are rude.
Yes. And....?
     Is it any good? How do I know?
     The man clearly has a very busy brain, but then so does Battleaxe, and at least I confine my grandiose ramblings to a low-profile weekly blog post.  It felt as if Tyson is bombarding us with all this stuff to show off the incredibly versatile, complex, hard-edged yet incredibly sensitive yada yada breadth of his amazing mind to us mere mortals. Keith, mate, I know - see this Battleaxe post. In hindsight, I'm not proud of this. But then, why do any artists produce art? Why do Battleaxes blog? Why do I try to write poems? 
    The other rooms were better. There is a large model of a circuit board, quite tactile and cheerful, but again, what is it about? Keith, if it is just for fun, why not add buttons to press and flashing lights like in the Science Museum?
Circuit board. Where are the buttons and lights?

I liked this....
    Then came this big shiny ball studded with bits of meteorite, with a big picture of the artist reflected in it, taking a photo on his phone. Battleaxe, also wishing to showcase her superior creative mind, naturally took this one step further...
Battleaxe versus Tyson
    Upstairs in the gallery they have done a nice rehang of some of the permanent collection. No photos allowed up here as usual, but good views from the window.
View from gallery window
    So who is Keith Tyson? I know he won the Turner Prize in 2002, and apparently he lives in Sussex. Let's do a bit of Googling. What else?  Oh look, his girlfriend is Elizabeth Murdoch. Oh look, here's an account of her Chipping Norton set New Year's Party.  Think Clarkson, Camerons, Osborne, Rebekah Brooks, Alex James.....
    Here are Keith and Elizabeth, pictured at dad Rupert's wedding to Jerry Hall.

    Phew, at least we are safe from these people in our tucked-away little Hastings backwater. Or are we? Anyone know anything they'd like to tell me?
    I also now see Battleaxe is not alone in her thoughts about the Studio Wall Drawings. See this review from the Independent!
     However, all in all, if you are the type of person that enjoy's reading other people's diaries, you'll be quite happy poring over Keith's stuff on a wet Hastings afternoon. It'll pass the time nicely.