On Meeting a War Hero

On Meeting a War Hero

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As a child of 1960s Malta, with strong family roots in the Three Cities and the Grand Harbour, part of whose coast they line, I was brought up listening to first hand accounts by relatives and acquaintances of incessant air raids, nights spent in bomb-proof shelters, dive-bombing sorties on naval vessels being repaired at the Dockyard and the bravery of supply convoys which ran the gauntlet between Gibraltar and Malta or even Alexandria and Malta to deliver much needed ammunition, fuel and food supplies to extend a lifeline to Malta as it stood alone and besieged by the Axis territories in surrounding Italy, the Balkans, Tunisia and Libya.

Foremost amongst these convoys was the immortal and unforgettable Santa Maria Convoy, officially codenamed Operation Pedestal which went down in history as the biggest ever convoy of the Second World War comprising fourteen merchant ships escorted by a huge group of Royal Navy warships including two battleships, four aircraft carriers, seven light cruisers, thirty two destroyers and seven submarines. Each merchantman carried a similar mix of supplies so that even if only a few made it through, Malta would be replenished with the whole spectrum of necessities relevant to feed its population and arm its defenders.

The fastest of the merchantmen was the Texaco oil tanker the SS Ohio which, as the fastest oil tanker available at the time, generated a sailing speed of 16 knots equivalent to 30 kilometres per hour. The American Government conceded the loan of this tanker to Britain upon Churchill’s own personal request.

The bravery of the convoy and its protagonists as it sailed through hostile seas and constant German and Italian air and sea attacks during the second week of August 1942 is legendary and in the end, by 15th August, the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, and following the loss of one aircraft carrier, two light cruisers, one destroyer and nine merchant ships, with up to 550 men killed, a total of five merchantmen limped one at a time into Malta’s Grand Harbour to the joy of the thousands of jubilant Maltese shouting and waving flags on the Harbour’s battlements.

While each surviving warship and merchantman had its own story to tell, the epic of the Ohio, so badly bombed that it had to be brought into harbour slung between the two destroyers Ledbury and Penn who had to manoeuvre it slowly as it was almost down to its deck and in imminent danger of breaking its back due to a jammed rudder, stands out as the most memorable.   Ohio reached Grand Harbour against all odds and no sooner was her precious cargo pumped off her that her keel settled on the Harbour bottom.

Thus was the story of the Ohio and the Konvoj ta’ Santa Marija told and retold to me within the stupendous backdrop of Grand Harbour itself, so that it became woven into my very fabric and stoked back into my vivid memory each time the historic convoy’s anniversary was commemorated every August 15th.

Fast forward to August 2002, the sixtieth anniversary of Operation Pedestal, when I was one of the hosts at a reception in Valletta in honour of the surviving crewmen of the convoy from sixty years previously. Crewmen who had been invited specifically to Malta to be honoured for their contribution in saving Malta from capitulation in those dark days in 1942.

Of the crew members present, there were only two survivors who had actually served on the SS Ohio, one of whom was Allan Shaw who I had the pleasure to meet, exchange a few words with and pose for a quick photo beside the original Ship’s bell from the Ohio which had been borrowed from Texaco for the occasion.

The Sunday Times of Malta of 13 August 2017 published an article in which it announced that following Allan Shaw’s passing in 2015, his twin children have revisited Malta to scatter some of his ashes in the Grand Harbour on this 75th anniversary of the famous convoy. The full story can be read on https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20170813/local/ohios-final-survivor-returned-to-grand-harbour.655447?utm_source=tom&utm_campaign=top5&utm_medium=widget

As I read the story, I went back to the stories of my childhood and my brief encounter with Allan Shaw in 2002.   I remembered meeting a rather short, humble, unassuming gentleman.  Such is the stuff that real heroes are made of.  And when it came to having our photo taken, I actually had to politely clarify that he was the actual subject of the photo and that I was a but a mere observer from the post-war generation who wanted to immortalise my brief encounter with him, the real hero.

Postscript:

So Grand Harbour’s hallowed waters now also carry within them the combined ashes of SS Ohio’s Allan Shaw and HMS Ledbury’s Commanding Officer Roger Hill, another unassuming war hero linked to Malta through Operation Pedestal. But that will be the subject of another story when the time for it comes……..

 

 

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Where the lentisk thrives

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Where the lentisk thrives.

The place: Tal-Liebru on the small Maltese island of Comino.

The time of year: A dry, hot, windy Sunday afternoon in mid July

To the unappreciative eye, the landscape in this photo may be dismissed as arid scrubland. A dry, soil-poor area of land, devoid of shade: the sorry remains of formerly proud rubble walls standing sentinel over fields that once were. Reminiscent of the drought-ridden scenes from the dust-bowls in the westerns of our childhood: a bit of tumbleweed and the ominous sound of a rattlesnake the only missing items to complete the scene.

But the reality is far from this depressing description. For, upon close observation, one sees nature slowly reclaiming the scarred land and using its amazing powers of regeneration to make a comeback which is nothing short of breathtaking.

For the beauty of this picture comes from the huge number of naturally generated lentisk shrubs (Pistacia lentiscus – Deru in Maltese) which dot the landscape. Former agricultural fields which have lost all their soil to erosion are being slowly repopulated by this hardy indigenous shrub which not only provides sustenance for birds and other native fauna but is also managing to expand into increasing patches of year-round greenery: a luxury not to be taken for granted on a rainfall-dependent parched rock which does not receive any rainfall for five to six months a year.

Those familiar with Comino during the winter and spring know all about the magnificent colours of its rich garigue, but to be able to observe an expanding population of indigenous evergreen shrubs which is making a steady comeback in a tough environment without any human intervention whatsoever is nothing short of breathtakingly fascinating. Fast-forward this a few decades and one can actually dream of an island which does not turn completely into a brown landscape every summer but retains a natural green cover twelve months a year.

I have just spent five happy days on Comino and I count this image as the most inspiring one of the many photos I took. For, above all, it shows the restorative power of nature left to its own devices. No large scale projects and irrigation systems: just remove the humans and the greenery starts to come back, even in the most adverse conditions.

A word of warning for those who might be enticed to drop in for a visit aroused by this short entry: do not go there expecting a woodland. What I have described needs to be appreciated from the camera-eye perspective. Cameras are capable of capturing beauty in a different way from our wide-angle eyes and help us sit back and enjoy still imagery which we would generally tend to ignore when moving unawares though a landscape.

Comino is still far from being the tree-covered Croatian island type which we are all familiar with. Notwithstanding this, the greenery is there. In brave little pockets, or in low lying clumps. Surviving the heat, the thirst, the wind, the sea spray, the dust and human depradations. And that’s what I like most about Comino. Its capacity to remain defiant in spite of all the odds!

Changes in City Gate

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Another piece of Valletta is about to be improved.

The scruffy, shanty-town collection of kiosks and bus ticket offices circling the perimeter of the former bus terminus which converges into the bridge crossing the dry moat to City Gate have already been closed down to be demolished to make space for a pedestrianized, tree lined plaza focused round Vincenzo Apap’s bronze masterpiece, the Tritons Fountain which is also set to be returned to its former operating glory.

Sounds fantastic. Rundown, dilapidated, downright ugly and nondescript structures selling a variety of cheap foodstuffs and convenience goods. With clients to match. To be replaced by a neater, well planned, uniformly designed layout in which the pedestrian is king.

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The demolishing of these eyesores, ugly and unloved as they are, cannot but also raise a tinge of nostalgic regret in me. A nostalgia comprising half a century of memories of a location which is central to the lives of the majority of the Maltese. A location which for decades has served not only as the fulcrum of the Island’s public transport network, but also as the meeting point for friends, students, colleagues, lovers and countless other combinations of humanity.

A nostalgia based on memories of childhood, youth, love, friends, education, work and family.

For within those ugly structures lurked a world which shall not exist any more: some of which already has not existed any more for some years now.

A world comprising establishments such as the Milk Van and the Imqaret Kiosk. Both synonymous with their unique City Gate location. I have early childhood memories of drinking flavoured milk from a pyramidal carton purchased from that Milk Van. I also remember buying milk in glass bottles, fresh ricotta and yogurt from what was probably Malta’s only surviving stand-alone retail outlet exclusively selling dairy products.

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The same Milk Van also served as the area’s ubiquitous Meeting Point. Meeting a girlfriend on a first date, a group of friends for a hike or a day at the beach or a visit to Valletta to go to the cinema or shopping generally involved meeting “near the Milk Van” at a specific date and time.

The Imqaret Kiosk: a ramshackle structure from which the enticing smell of deep-fried dates encased in golden pastry attracted people in droves to buy the ridiculously affordable, if unhealthy, deliciously warm and tasty heartburn bombs. The Kiosk operator would lure people to buy his wares by adding a few drops of anisette to the bubbling oil in which the mqaret were frying, and the resultant aroma had a pull not dissimilar to that of magnetism. Such was the brand value of the humble Imqaret Kiosk that other kiosks have sprouted elsewhere on the Island bearing the reassuring statement, “Imqaret minn tal-Belt” which translates into “same provenance as those of the Valletta kiosk”.

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The Kiosks selling cheap pasti: fake kannoli filled with butter cream, atrociously coloured cakes containing a potentially lethal mix of food colourings and pies composed mostly of dough with the consistency of seasoned hardwood. And, from an age which predates one of the curses of our current age, plastic, the flavoured water dispensers from which orange or almond squash drinks could be purchased in real glasses which were returned to the kiosk for re-use. The same kiosks which remained open until the last bus left at 23:00 and which offered a telephone service for two cents a call when one missed the last bus and needed to do some explaining to one’s irate parents!

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There were other shops too of course. I distinctly remember a news kiosk selling not only newspapers but also stocking a variety of glossy magazines, books and classics such as Marvel and DC comics which we would stop and look at in awe, penniless as we were as students. Carts selling deliciously smelling fresh bread in the morning, lottery ticket sellers and a variety of itinerant, enterprising seasonal sellers selling you umbrellas on a rainy day, vetch seeds for the Christmas crib in November, carob sweets during Lent, sandals and hats in summer.  Apart from the then familiar but now rare sight of matronly ladies selling mulberries, capers, parsley, mint or bunches of stocks (gizi) from ancient prams.   The scene was completed by the cheap souvenirs kiosk aimed at the panicking departing tourist who left it till last or bus passengers seeking a beach towel, a baseball cap or cheap sunshades!

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Apart from all of these shops there were others less frequented. Shops which were attractive and provided sustenance to the bus and taxi drivers, bus conductors and ticket sellers. Burly men on metal chairs hunched on spindly formica tables drinking tea from a glass and eating a greasy pizza slice, a plate of imqarrun il-forn or a steaming qassata. A few rough looking ladies, bleach blonde and bedecked in garish jewellery made the picture complete. And in the narrow passageways behind the kiosks, another little world, not unlike Naples: unsavoury men betting money on card games or playing “morra”, a numbers guessing game which involved opening a number of fingers on one’s hands with the other side trying to guess a number from one to ten. Men who even the forces of law and order gave wide berth to.

The bulldozers shall be moving in soon. The structures will become but a distasteful memory from yesterday. Whatever will replace them will definitely be more visually attractive and appealing. But for nostalgics like me, the memory of what shall be no more shall always cause a small lump in my throat, a slight pressure in my chest whenever I pass from this well trodden patch of land.

A monument to diversity and peaceful co-existence

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In the lowlands of Marsa, Malta, which is so close to sea level that the aquifer often overflows vertically through the rock, lies a beautiful structure: a Moslem cemetery known colloquially as the Cimiterju tat-Torok, or the Turkish Cemetery.  When first built, it was alone amongst the fields but it, and its later neighbour the Jewish Cemetery, have subsequently been almost completely engulfed by the development from the industrial estate nearby.

Dating back to 1873, it was designed by the eminent Maltese architect Emmanuele Luigi Galizia on commission from the Ottoman Sultan Abdűlaziz I.  The cemetery is the resting place of soldiers, sailors, victims of shipwrecks in Maltese waters, residents, refugees and other Moslems who expired while in Malta.

I was recently privileged to visit this superb monument which is currently being restored through the efforts of the Turkish Government to whom the land belongs.  Like all places of rest, it exudes that mixed experience of historic curiosity emanating from the details on the headstones and the stark realisation of the temporary nature of our brief sojourn on this earth.

The purpose of this short entry today is not to describe the monument.  That will be the subject of a future entry, complete with photography.  Rather, it focuses on the strong message forthcoming from the marble plaque commemorating its erection.  A plaque, which to my mind, represents all that is nice and beautiful about diversity and co-existence.

A Moslem Cemetery designed by a Catholic Architect in a Christian Land, by order of an Ottoman Emperor, represented by his Jewish Consul.

So much to ponder from a simple seven lines of text on a marble plaque.

The smell of the rain

The smell of the rain

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When you live in a country where rain is a regular occurrence, it becomes a fact of life, almost an annoyance. Particularly in areas where precipitation is a year round affair and where the prospect of uninterrupted spells of rainfall implies inconvenience, damp and blocked sunlight for long periods of time, the subject of rain becomes a topic of distaste; a phenomenon which necessitates the need to temporarily flee one’s normal abode in search of warmth and sunshine.

Not so in places where rain is not so common. Such as Malta during the long, hot, dry summer season. A place where week after week of warm to hot sunny days prevail almost uninterruptedly between late spring and late summer: around twelve weeks of hot, dry weather which burns the countryside dry and lets you wonder at the resilient patches of green vegetation which defy the furnace-like quality of what they face and survive almost without a drop of soothing water for sustenance, except for the occasional heavy dewfall which is absorbed through their leaves.

Those of us who inhabit such areas are generally sensitive to a particular sensation which is most magnified when it rains after a long dry period. I term this sensation, the smell of the rain. A wonderfully rich and refreshing earthy smell which brings great joy. An indicator of change to come. The first airborne drop of relief in advance of wetter days ahead.

I used to think that this sensation was something that was simply an undefinable feeling. Some primitive switch to which humans in dry places are programmed to respond. Until an architect friend of mine told me that there is actually a word for it! Petrichor. A combination of two distinct words, petra and ichor designed to embrace and encapsulate the feeling that has been arousing my senses since childhood.

Petra stands for stone while ichor stands for the more esoteric fluid that flowed in the veins of the Gods in Greek mythology! So there you have it: a heavenly fluid mixing with the very earth on which we lesser human mortals stand. Producing a sensation of what flows through the Gods’ own veins! No wonder the feeling of euphoric refreshment which the smell of the first rain brings.

Researchers theorise that the smell of the rain, or petrichor is caused by a combination of factors. Part of the smell derives from an oily substance exuded by certain plants during dry periods which is absorbed by clay and rocks on the ground. When it rains after a lengthy dry spell, the oil is released into the air along with another compound, geosmin, a metabolic by-product of certain bacteria which is emitted by wet soil, producing the distinctive scent. The smell can be further compounded by ozone which is generated by lightning during a thunderstorm.

The purpose of the oil is to slow down seed germination and plant growth during the lethal dry season. It is only when the rain dissipates the oil in the ground that the seeds get the go-ahead to germinate. This would indicate that the plants produce the oil in order to safeguard the seeds from germination under duress.

Just imagine what is taking place whenever you feel this exuberant high! As each raindrop lands on the porous surface of the sun-baked ground, air trapped in the pores forms small bubbles, which float to the surface and release spray-like aerosols.  Such aerosols carry the scent, as well as bacteria and viruses from the soil. Gentle rainfall tends to produce more aerosols which explains why petrichor is stronger and more noticeable after light rains.

As to why it excites us so much? Scientists believe that humans react so joyfully to the smell of the rain because our ancestors may have been hard-wired to rely on rainy weather for survival.

Blood of the Gods splashing on dry stones or complex organic chemicals released by plants and bacteria? Whatever the origin, the magic remains for all those who like me are sensitive to its timeless pleasure.

 

A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

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A clothes line amidst the fennel stalks.

A hot August morning on Comino. The rising sun’s heat is tempered by the occasional straggling cloud providing a few overcast seconds of relief and a stiff breeze of Majjistral, Malta’s prevailing north west wind which is nature’s alternative to refreshing air conditioning.

We are on our annual pilgrimage to this desolate little island. Arid, but full of life. Ruggedly beautiful with ever changing scenery. A two and a half square kilometre island. One tiny corner of which, its Blue Lagoon, is over-run by up to five thousand visitors daily. Leaving the rest to people like us. A fair deal, I think. Amazing how even on such a small landmass, you can just climb the small hill overlooking Cominotto Island and all evidence of the crowds dissipates into thin air. No sight, no sound. Nothing.

We have climbed from the inlet of San Niklaw and walked across Comino’s main thoroughfare, Triq Kemmunett. At the location of the old Bakery building we take a sharp right and climb steeply up Triq il-Gvernatur, the road leading to the imposing Santa Maria Tower, part of a network of coastal watchtowers built by the Knights of St. John.

Our final destination today is the small mooring place at Wied Ernu, a tiny cleft in the island’s southern coast which used to serve as the landing for boats from Malta during the time of the twentieth century agricultural colony on Comino.

The colony is long gone, but its remains, mostly in ruins and disrepair are spread all over the island.

On the way back, a small sign of human activity. One of the handful of people which stayed behind when the colony disbanded in the late 1960s. True Comino-born and bred. Hanging clothes to dry on a line. Surrounded by stalks of wild fennel.

A beautiful sight. A sign of humanity’s resilience and adaptability. And oneness with nature.

The fresh breeze, the aromatic smell of ripening fennel seeds and the slight waft of damp, clean laundry hanging out to dry in the wind. Elements which make me return to Comino year after year.

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

Using Nature’s discarded Bounty: making home-made Carob Syrup.

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In most Maltese households one is sure to find the ubiquitous jar of “Gulepp tal-Harrub” or carob syrup, an elixir guaranteed to soothe the cruellest of coughs, whose popularity is passed on from generation to generation.  Like most things traditional, however, the home-made varieties so matter-of-factly produced by our ancestors have made way to commercially produced products so that while most people continue to purchase and use the syrup, they have lost the link with its natural source and with it the skill to produce their own at home.

Following last July’s blog entry in which I pondered on the wonders of carob trees and the pleasure of munching some fresh carob pods cut from an old tree, I decided to carry out some research on making Carob Syrup, and on discovering the relative ease with which it can be made, I decided to give it a try and produce enough to last me through the next twelve month cycle until the next carob pod harvest.

My entry today proposes to enthusiastically share my successful experience at making home-made gulepp tal-harrub in the hope that I might entice some readers to try it for themselves thus using a few more of the hundreds of thousands of carob pods which go to waste year after year.

The first step was to source a decent quantity of pods. I found an old, pod-laden tree in a field adjacent to the University and quickly filled a bagful from just a couple of branches. Each pod weighs around 20 grams so around 50 pods are necessary for a kilogram. The pods are already ripe so early in August and the tree had already shed hundreds on to the ground below. The one hundred-plus pods I collected did not even make a dent on the tree’s bountiful output and I felt good that at least a minuscule fraction of its free and generous produce was being put to use instead of wasting on the ground.

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Once home, I spread the pods on the table, removed loose twigs and leaves, and then took them in handfuls to the kitchen sink for a thorough rinse under running water. After patting them dry, I used kitchen scales to weigh a kilogram of pods and placed the pods onto a baking dish for roasting in the oven. I used a very high oven temperature (just a notch short of full) for around 50 minutes until the pods turned a bit crisp and brittle and started exuding the roasted-woody smell reminiscent of roasted chestnuts.

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After 50 minutes I took the pods out of the oven and let them cool. Meanwhile I filled a sizeable pot with two litres of water and proceeded to break each pod into little pieces by hand and throw it into the water. I covered the pot and let the pods soak for 24 hours to release their flavour and juices into the water. The water started to turn brown almost immediately. The liquid eventually formed the basis of the syrup which was produced on the following day.

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After 24 hours had passed, the mixture was placed on the cooker hob, brought to the boil and simmered gently for one hour to release more juice/flavour from the pods. By the end of the hour the liquid was very dark having absorbed the oils, sugars and flavours of the pods. The smell was divine. The pod fragments were then filtered off by sieving and the remaining liquid was put to the boil again after having 1 kilogram of sugar added. Once it reached boiling point it was left to simmer gently for 90 minutes, receiving a stir every now and then.

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The heating reduces the amount of water in the solution leading to a thickening of the liquid until it reaches a syrupy consistency. Once ready, it is recommended that the syrup is transferred hot to sterilised jars and sealed for eventual use.

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I have already received a number of ideas of variations to the above recipe which is time consuming but ultimately simple to make. Some have suggested using one litre of water with one kilogram of carob pods and using less sugar, preferably brown. The addition of bay leaves, cloves, anisette or brandy have also been suggested, while for better storage, one other suggestion is to pour a layer of scotch on the syrup before sealing the jar to lengthen its storage life.

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What are the benefits of Gulepp tal-harrub? You can either enjoy it as a refreshing year-round drink by diluting a couple of tablespoons of it in water, either cold or warm depending on the season. In terms of health, it serves as an effective expectorant, hence its popularity as an elixir for coughs. It is also a strong antioxidant, slowing down cell degeneration whilst also reputedly reducing levels of “bad” cholesterol. And it tastes good!

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