Monday, 19 October 2009

The Information Officer

Information Officer, The

I saw this book when I was visiting Valletta last month. It was the number one best seller in one of the shops we visited and so I had a look at the synopsis and was intrigued. I didn't buy it because of luggage restrictions but made a note of it.

I eventually got it from our local library and once I started to read it I couldn't put it down.

It’s a murder mystery, a love story and a historic novel all rolled into one. The first and last chapters are set one evening in a London restaurant in 1951, but the main story evolves over 9 days in Malta in the summer of 1942, at the height of the terrible German and Italian bombing raids.

The story plays out against the background of Malta, the island fortress, during that great siege of 1942 providing extensive information about its geography and history. It is well written and researched with maps to help you identify the scenes of the action.

The author Mark Mills captures the feelings of a whole range of characters, British officers, other ranks, their wives, girlfriends as well as the occupied local people. They have to deal with a whole spectrum of issues, good and evil, life and death, truth and mendacity, love and hatred, joy and grief.

The central character, Max Chadwick is the Information Officer whose role is to keep up the morale of the islanders. When he finds out that a British Officer is murdering local women he has to cope with the conflict between his patriotic duty of keeping the information under wraps and his personal honour, finding the truth and the murder.

I found the characters interesting and believable with insight into the feelings of the occupied and their occupiers during this traumatic time.

The plot twists and turns as the author moves between the main story and glimpses into the motivations of the murderer keeping you guessing about the identity of the villain right to bitter end. If I have a criticism it’s that the murderer seemed the last person you would have expected, maybe that’s why the author picked them, but for me it made it a little less believable.

I really enjoyed this book the setting for me was wonderful, I loved the atmosphere, the characters with their touches of black humour and the fact it had quite a happy ending. It's not quite in the class of Captain Corelli's Mandolin but it is a very good read.

Post 125

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Valleta, Malta - World Heritage City - Wednesday 9 September

Valletta view from Senglea

Valletta (Wiki Commons)

Valletta is a wonderful port of call. I'll say now it's my favourite, even though I do love Rhodes.

We went on holiday to Malta for a couple of weeks about twelve years ago and whilst we were there we visited Valletta a couple of times. We always said we'd go back but never had until the cruise.

I've written some brief information about Valletta, apologies if I've made mistakes, maybe Loree will correct them. She knows much more about it than I do naturally as it's her homeland! Take a look at her website Snapshots of Malta. She has some lovely photographs.

The city has many titles, The Fortress City, City Umilissima, “a city built by gentleman for gentlemen”, and apparently it's known colloquially as Il-Belt, The City. All these titles recall its great historical past.

The city was built by The Knights of St John and was named after its founder The Grand Master of The Order of St John, Jean Parisot de Valette. However the city really owes its birth to his arch enemy, Grand Turk, Suleiman the Magnificent. The Knights had been driven out of Rhodes and they were given the island of Malta by Charles V to help protect Rome from invasion. Serious assaults occurred between 1551 and 1664, the most famous, The Great Siege took place in 1565. A Turkish force of about 30,000 men was repelled by 600 knights and 6,000 soldiers and volunteers. Only about 15,000 attackers survived and very few of the defenders went uninjured.

For the next 275 years these “Knights of Malta” made the island their domain. They built towns, palaces, churches, gardens and fortifications as well as embellishing the island with works of art and enhanced cultural heritage. Valletta with its impressive bastions, forts and cathedral was completed in 15 years. By the turn of the 16 Century it was a sizeable city and people from across the islands came to live within the safety of its bastions.

The Knights' reign ended when Napoleon Bonaparte's fleet arrived in 1798. Within months the French were closing convents and seizing church treasures. The Maltese people rebelled, and the French garrison of General Claude-Henri Belgrand de Vaubois retreated into Valletta. After several failed attempts by the local people to retake Valletta, they asked the British for assistance. Rear Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson decided on a total blockade, and in 1800 the French garrison surrendered. British rule began in 1800.

The Second World War proved another testing time for Malta when the city came under siege yet again. It was a crucial British post in the Mediterranean, the last line of defence against the Nazis. The island received heavy aerial bombardment from the Italian and German air forces which reached its peak in 1942. The island was the most bombed place on earth during World War 11. It was awarded the George Cross for its people's valour.

The Royal Opera House constructed at the city entrance in the 19 th Century, was one of the buildings lost to the raids. Here you can see what it looked like before the War.

Royal Opera House

Grand Opera House

The site has never been cleared or rebuilt. Maybe it's a permanent memorial of the damage caused by war. Here's how it looks today with people walking over and around it. It certainly does make you think.

bombed opera house

Site of Royal Opera House

I didn't see any signs around to let you know what the site was but it was quite crowded, maybe I missed them. I researched it later and discovered what it was.

On 15 April 1942, King George V1 awarded the George Cross (the highest civilian award for gallantry) "to the island fortress of Malta — its people and defenders”. The original George Cross and the letter from King George V1 are framed and now housed in the National War Museum.

George cross

George Cross

The plaque commemorating the award is on the wall of the Grand Master's Palace which houses the President's office and the Parliament also meets there.

George Cross plaque cropped

President Franklin Roosevelt, describing the wartime period, called Malta "one tiny bright flame in the darkness." There is another plaque commemorating this alongside the previous one. Unfortunately the Roosevelt one was covered by scaffolding when we were there.

After World War 11, the islands achieved self-rule and on 21 September 1964, Malta became an independent state and a republic on 13 December 1974. Malta joined the EU in May 2004.

Despite so much bombing, the handsome limestone buildings and fortifications that the wealthy knights left behind are still all around the city and the islands. Many of these, in particular the Forts, were used by British Forces before, during and after World War 11.

My Dad was in the Royal Navy during the war and I know he was in Valletta. He didn't talk about the War and I'm ashamed to admit I didn't ask him about it. Now it's too late. I know he loved Malta as he revisited it in the 'seventies with my step mother, she has told me a little about their visit and how much he enjoyed it.

Fort St Angelo

Fort St Angelo

Fort Ricasoli and Harbour walls

Fort Ricasoli and Harbour Walls

Fort St Elmo walls

Fort St Elmo Walls

Fort St Michael

Fort St Michael

I read somewhere that sailing into Malta Grand Harbour would be like sailing into a film set and it's true, the architecture is wonderful. It's really like sailing back in time. It's not the only harbour in Valletta however, there's also Marsamxett Harbour.

We were advised to get up early to see the ship dock and it was well worth it. I was disappointed with my photographs especially the ones taken in the early morning, a lot were very poor. This one was taken later just before we sailed.

Here you can see the Saint Lazarus Bastion and the Great Siege Bell.

Great Siege Bell

Saint Lazarus Bastion and Great Siege Bell

The Great Siege Bell was inaugurated in 1992 by Queen Elizabeth 11 to commemorate the dead of World War 11.

Great Siege Bell

Great Siege Bell

We found it very safe and quite easy to walk about the city although there are a few streets which are a bit steep. It’s a bit cooler and quieter in the early evening if you just want to explore the city streets. We visited in September and a huge MSC cruise ship docked just after us and seemed to swamp the city with tours of Italians everywhere we went during the day. I think these ships carry about 3,000 people. I wonder what the people of Valletta think about their lovely city being swamped with tourists.

There’s been a long connection between the British and Malta and World War 11 certainly cemented that connection. The people of Malta certainly showed great courage during that terrible time.

Malta is a very popular tourist destination for British people, they still have a great admiration and affection for it. Now it’s also a popular cruise port. There are lots of things that remind you of home in Britain. Look familiar?

Looks familiar

I've seen these two before. No not the people!

Mind you at home they've changed our lovely red telephone boxes into nondescript supposedly unbreakable aluminium and plastic things. Horrible! Bring back the lovely old red ones like this!

There are also lots of British and international shops like M&S, British Home Stores, Tommy Hilfiger, Colours of Benetton etc. This shop is in a much more interesting building than many of its UK counterparts.

Interesting shop buildings

Most tourists seem to visit the Baroque St John’s Co-Cathedral and the queues we saw proved that. It apparently contains incredible memorials to the Knights of St John as well as Caravaggio’s ‘Beheading of St John the Baptist’. We opted out of the queue as I really dislike going into churches full of tourists and have an objection to paying to go into churches. I refuse to pay to go into Westminster Cathedral too. So we visited the church of St Paul’s Shipwreck. This church is known as The Hidden Gem and has a magnificent altarpiece and other fine artistic works. It also houses a relic of St Paul’s wrist bone and a piece of the column on which he was beheaded in Rome! No charge just a voluntary contribution and absolute peace and quiet. Definitely a little gem.

There’s a number of gardens in Valletta worth visiting. The Lower and Upper Barrakka Gardens have wonderful views of the Grand Harbour.

View from Upper Barrack Gardens

Upper Barrakka Gardens Looking onto Grand Harbour

The Upper Gardens contain lots of statues and monuments including those of Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. There is also a very poignant monument to a young British Army doctor who died whilst treating people during the terrible cholera outbreak of 1865.

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Cruise 326

Memorial to Albert Einsten

However my favourite place to visit in Valletta is the National War Museum down at Fort St Elmo. I enjoyed it so much I’ve decided to do a separate posting on it.

There are some lovely coffee shops in Valletta and we were pleased to find one, Caffe Cordina, that we had visited about 12 years ago. Reminded me of the Lyons Corner House cafes my Nanna took me to when I was little. Fabulous coffee and sumptuous cakes. Nice to see some things don’t change.

My shopping habits don’t change much even on holiday. I was having a quick browse in a book shop and I came across a book which was number 1 in the Malta book sales charts called The Information Officer. Now I was drawn to the book title because that was my job title when I worked in the Careers Service. The book was by Mark Mills and needless to say it had nothing to do with the Careers Service! It was set in Malta during the Second World War and tells the tale of a very different type of information officer. Here’s a summary:

For the people of Malta, suffering daily bombing raids, the British are the last line of defence against the Nazis. And it is Max Chadwick's job as the information officer to ensure the news the islanders receive maintains morale. So when Max is given proof suggesting a British officer is murdering local women, he knows the consequences of discovery are dire. With the violence on the war-ravaged island escalating daily, he embarks on a private investigation, hidden from the eyes of superiors, friends and the woman he loves. But Max finds himself torn between patriotic duty and personal honour in his efforts to track down the killer! An elusive figure always one step ahead of his hunter.

I’ve checked on it in our local library. It’s out on loan at the moment but I've ordered it! If it's any good I'll do a post on it.

Update - Here's the review

Back to the present, we saw a huge amount of renovation and new building work going on in the area around Valletta. There’s no doubt Valetta will benefit greatly from it. One thing that impressed me is that many of the new buildings we saw are totally in keeping with the traditional architectural style and materials of Valletta.

New Buildings 3

New Buildings Around Valletta

Many beautiful old cities in the UK have been ruined by the planners total disregard for their city’s heritage and we have to bear some of the blame for our apathy. However I've read on some Maltese websites that there seems to be some criticism and disagreements about the current development of Valletta. One development that caused disagreement a number of years ago, was when the original city gate was removed to improve the traffic flow. Sadly it was replaced by a very mundane looking gate and I have to say it does seem out of place in this very beautiful old city.

I mentioned earlier there was more than one harbour, here's a view looking over Marsamxett Harbour, you can see the difference between Valletta and the tourist resort of Sliema opposite Valletta. I've never been to that part and have to say I've no fancy for it. Give me the traditional buildings any day.

And now for something completely different - Sliema

Looking out over Marsamxett Harbour to Sliema

As long as people continue to voice their feelings, hopefully Valletta will be developed with consideration for its World Heritage status. It would be sad if it lost this.

Now I just have to try and book a holiday in Malta, I really need to see more of lovely Valletta and this beautiful island.

Post 124

Friday, 16 October 2009

A Sudden Fearful Death - Anne Perry

A Sudden, Fearful Death

I've not read any of Anne Perry's books before so it was good to find something a little different to my usual choice of reading.

I really enjoyed this historical murder story, part of the William Monk detective series.
The setting is Victorian England 1857 and when Prudence Barrymore, a Crimean nurse is murdered in London's Royal Free Hospital, William Monk, a private investigator is called in to help find the murderer.

It's a complex plot with interesting and memorable characters. I really enjoyed the story as well as finding out more about aspects of Victorian England including the medical scene and women's lives.

Look forward to reading more in this series.

Post 123

My Singer 338!

Well here it is my very first sewing machine, the one I got for my 21st birthday in 1966! I know it cost my Mam  a lot to buy it for me...