The Spirit Level — Can we just get on with greater equality already?

The Spirit LevelThe Spirit Level marshals all the evidence — for those who needed such evidence — that inequality has a huge negative impact on everyone in a society, the rich as well as the poor. But especially the poor.  There is of course, a minimum level of security and income which human beings require. Many do not enjoy such a level. But for those who do, it still isn’t enough to guarantee a full and happy life:

Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich counties, largely finished its work. Not only have measures of wellbeing and happiness ceased to rise with economic growth but, as affluent societies have grown richer, there have been long-term rises in rates of anxiety, depression and numerous other social problems. (5-6)

This is good book full of evidence that it is the degree of equality in a  country which leads to longer, happier lives and a stronger society.

Poverty itself is a bit of a slippery concept if you think too hard, I liked this quote from Marshall Sahlins:

Poverty is not a certain small amount of goods, nor is it just a relation between means and ends; above all it is a relation between people. Poverty is a social status . . . It has grown . . . as an invidious distinction between class . . . (Stone Age Economics, quoted p 15)

Poverty as a relationship — it makes sense that this relationship is what matters above the bare minimum required for life.

Their graphs are simple, direct — only as good as their data of course, but that is well documented…This one is from p 20 and p 174, so good they showed it twice!

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The best indicator for the whole gamut of health and social problems in rich countries is not poverty, but the difference between rich and poor. Reduce inequality, and you should see marked improvements in all of them.

How Inequality Gets Under the Skin

I read this over the summer, but it’s weird going back over my notes after Trump’s victory, especially reading things like this:

The growing rates of anxiety in the U.S. are very depressing indeed, yet they correlate to more aggressive declarations of self worth.

The answer turns out to be a picture of increasing anxieties about how we are seen and what others think of us which has, in turn, produced a kind of self-promoting, insecure egotism which is easily mistaken for high self esteem (36).

I’m always a little skeptical how we ascertain how society is changing us more broadly, but this rings true. Still, it is hard to analyze the water in which you’ve grown up in. They connect these kinds of psychological anxieties with inequality, and then tend to almost conflate the two in trying to explain the correlation between inequality and many of the social ills and illnesses examined as the multiple indicators of health and wellbeing.

Part 2 — The Costs of Inequality:

So for the great list of indicators:

  • Mental health and drug use
p 67. reproduced at http://thestandard.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/spirit-level-5-620x465.jpg
p 67. reproduced at http://thestandard.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/spirit-level-5-620×465.jpg

One of the things they cite is Oliver James on the

‘affluenza’ virus…is a “set of values which increase out vulnerability to emotional distress”, which he believes is more common in affluent societies. It entails placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. (69)

Interesting, depressing, you can see how hard this would be to live up to.

  • Physical Health and life expectancy

They cite more than 40 papers on the links between health and social capital have now been published. (See M.K. Islam, J. Merlo, I Kawachi, M. Lindstrom and U.G. Gerdtham, ‘Social Capital and health: does egalitarianism matter? A literature review’, International Journal for Equity in Health (2006) 5:3.)

Increasing social capital and reducing inequality improve health across the society, just throwing more money at it doesn’t. Probably because most of that money doesn’t actually go towards health, as in the US, but towards corporate profits, but that’s another story I suppose. Looking at this chart and realising that of all these countries the US is the one that doesn’t actually provide universal healthcare despite the obscene of money going into healthcare makes some sense of the outcomes, and makes you feel sick at the same time. Sadly, there’s no cure for that other than some serious structural changes. Like all of this really.

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  • Obesity: Wider income gaps, wider waists — correlates to inequality.
  • Educational performance — correlates to inequality.
  • Teenage births: recycling deprivation — correlates to inequality.
  • Violence: gaining respect — correlates to inequality.

They note that inequality is ‘structural’ violence, and statistically it matches up with…inequality. Again, they connect this inequality with the anxieties that emerge from our unequal society:

…increased inequality ups the stakes in the competition for status: status matters even more. The impact of inequality on violence is even better established and accepted than the other effects of inequality. (134)

  • Imprisonment and punishment — inequality

I’ve read lots about the crazy amounts of incarceration in the US, The New Jim Crow is miles and away better than this summary. But one fun fact

In California in 2004, there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting. (147)

Jesus wept. And of course, there is this on p 148:

homicides

I have to note that in many of these charts I couldn’t initially find the US because it is so often alone up at the top…This chart makes me sick too.

Another brief note they make, there is so much to dig into here but it’s interesting:

In societies with greater inequality, where the social distances between people are greater, where attitudes of ‘us and them’ are more entrenched and where lack of trust and fear of crime are rife, public and policy makers alike are more willing to imprison people and adopt punitive attitudes… (155)

  • Social mobility: unequal opportunities — inequality

This is so geared towards statistics and policies, digging through data more than into experience, but every now and then they drop into higher theory, like Bourdieu writing about ‘the actions by which the elite maintain their distinction symbolic violence…’ (164) I had forgotten he wrote about this, this book underlined for me the very strong connection between inequality and violence, inequality as violence, and how that underpins everything else.

Part 3 — a better society

I appreciated that they ended The Spirit Level with some thoughts bringing everything back together, and from there thinking through what change is possible. There was some interesting things on the racial divides in the US, and again and again this book underlines that while the poor suffer from inequality most, really it is everyone who suffers. Maybe that will have some impact? Though it doesn’t seem to have had yet…

in the USA, state income equality is closely related to the proportion of African-Americasn in the state’s population. The states with wider income differences tende to be those with larger African American populations. The same states also tend to have worse outcomes…among both the black and the white population. The ethnic divide increases prejudice and so widens income differences. the result is that both communities suffer…

So the answer to the question as to whether what appear to be the effects of inequality may actually be the result of ethnic divisions is that the two involve most of the same processes and should not be seen a alternative explanations. The prejudice which often attaches to ethnic divisions may increase inequality and its effects. Where ethnic differences have become strongly associated with social status divisions, ethnic divisions may provide almost as good an indicator of the scale of social status differentiation as income inequality. (179)

It is interesting to look at how the numbers brought Pickett and Wilkinson to these findings that are more often found elsewhere. Again and again the message — inequality hurts the poorest most, but it negatively impacts everyone. Reducing inequality benefits everyone. Evidence also suggests it should make rich countries care more about reducing the terrible inequalities between countries — little sign of that despite how desperately — perhaps even more desperately — that is needing recognition, but the more arguments made the better. This is just a building block in working towards ensuring equality remains on the agenda.

 

There’s a whole section on ‘can this be done?’, can we create more equal societies, but honestly. They themselves make the point that some countries have done it already.

Another truth;

systems of material or economic relations are systems of social relations. (199)

So what is their solution? They look to worker owned business, cooperatives, give example of Tower Colliery, where miners successfully took over pit operation, combining redundancy money to buy the pit in 1995, for 15 years until seam was mined out. They also, in the bigger picture, argue for what they call a steadd health: does egalitarianism d by economist Herman Daly. (220) I’ll have to look more into this and always prefer to start with the source, so to just finish up with some of their final findings.

Evaluations of even some of the most important services, such as police and medical care, suggest that they are not among the most powerful determinants of crime levels or standards of population health. Other services, such as social work or drug rehabilitation, exist to treat — or process — their various client groups, rather than to diminish the prevalence of social problems. (233)

even more damning, this is my personal favourite sentence:

Rather than reducing inequality itself, the initiatives aimed at tackling health or social problems are nearly always attempts to break the links between socio-economic disadvantage and the problems it produces. The unstated hope is that people — particularly the poor — can carry on in the same circumstances, but will somehow no longer succumb to mental illness, teenage pregnancy, educational failure, obesity or drugs. (234)

So really this is an economic and a political problem, they write

The historical evidence confirms the primacy of political will. (238)

Behind this lack of political will? Multiple reasons of course, one being the decline of the trade unions — their decline in power has itself made possible a great deal of this growing inequality. There’s also the fact that many corporations have bigger economies than many a nation state. They quote the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD):

Twenty-nine of the world’s 100 largest economic entities are transnational corporations (TNCs)… On the 200 TNCs with the highest assets abroad in 2000, Exxon is the biggest in terms of value added ($63 billion). It ranks 45th on the new list, making it comparable in economic size to the economies of Chile or Pakistan. Nigeria comes in just between DaimlerChrylser and General Electric, while Philip Morris is on a par with Tunisia, Slovakia and Guatemala. (244)

Small wonder they walk with such big sticks. Small wonder higher levels of equality should be so hard to achieve, despite the improvements it makes to everyone’s quality of life.

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Coming to Salford (and Manchester)

I love this place, love my new position at the Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford. It’s been crazy though. Moving two suitcases of things up from Bristol on the Friday, first two days of work on Monday, Wednesday off to Malta for the Cities as Community Spaces Conference, a week of work, been to London yesterday to remove almost all my worldly belongings from a dear friend’s East London attic and to meet the man and van this morning who I met this evening back here (on the train I beat him here by hours) — it has been six months since I have seen everything I own. I can’t wait to place it where it belongs. Tomorrow off to the Snowdonia region of Wales to conduct some interviews, back two days, Sunday off to Merthyr Tydfil for more interviews. Arizona the 16th.

I am tired.

But look at how beautiful Manchester is. From the days I stayed in Stockton to scout out flats, complete with beautiful dog:

Flickr Album Gallery Powered By: Weblizar

I’ve already had some time to wander through the city, visit the Working Class Movement Library

Working Class Movement Library

Working Class Movement Library

Visit Engels’ beard

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I’ve been here a couple of times before, and written about Salford itself as it’s portrayed in Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, and of course Engels’ account of Manchester — The Conditions of the Working Class in EnglandIts early suburbs were a model for further development, so a little about them can be found in Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois Utopias. When I walk to or from work (a long long walk to take on everyday I am finding, even for me) I pass Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, Mary Barton has been on my list of things to read forever…

But now a bit more unpacking, now that I am finally reunited with all f my things after over six months. If you don’t count the absurd number of books I have very little, but what I have I love very much and I have missed it…Just as I have missed having somewhere that is really home. That I can afford some graciousness here in this amazing city just makes everything that much better.

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Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

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These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

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Creatures of Valletta

In a city so beautiful — I know I have already waxed poetic about the stonework — I didn’t immediately focus on some of the details, like the wonderful door handles. Not since Prague have I seen such beauty bestowed on what is usually relegated to the mundane — as though all the artistry and craftsmanship establishing the sacredness and mystery of the doorway between spaces in prehistoric Malta have been transferred to the method of opening such a door.

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The same kind of curve, the triton tail…I saw a number of these around the city, but this one was my favourite.

Then there were the seahorses.

Valletta

A kind of demon, I think of protective spirits but have no context to know what this means to those who live within — only that this is one of the few that is not immediately and obviously of the sea:

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Nor is this one perhaps, yet it has the feel of shipwreck and ancient sea waters.

Valletta

I know this isn’t a creature, but I just liked it, the shape of the kinght’s cross and it seemed possibly carved of bone. Or bakelite. But the second seems impossible.

Valletta

Fish:

Valletta

Possibly even cooler fish, and the cross of the knights:

Valletta

On the narrow stairway street where I was staying, this beautiful turtle:

Valletta

The creatures were not simply on the doors, I have already posted the picture of the cat who also lived on my stairs, who disappeared into its own private renaissance cat door, but cats were ubiquitous. Especially as I wandered at night. There was the well-fed and I believe well-housed cat of Ħaġar Qim. Wild, but also loved, this one (I know it is hard to see) sits on a rough box of recycled wood made to purpose as a home beside a dish of food.

Valleta

I often walked past handfuls of food, bowls of water in doorways. Only one allowed me to come near enough to touch it, and it wound itself around my legs for some way down the street. He did not desire a photo taken.

Dogs I only saw being walked by their owners (though like East London, avoiding dog shit required some intense concentration at times). Well-fed, well cared for. Until I stood at the edge of the city along the great defensive walls staring out towards Sliema. From the corner of my eye I saw a shadow, turned my head and found nothing. Until luck brought this little dog into view. Darting with quick movements it sought and sniffed for food, never have I met a dog so little interested in my existence. I rather loved it.

Valletta

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Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra, Malta’s Ancient Temples

Ħaġar Qim… there is beauty just in the letters, these unique Maltese forms that I love. The temple sits on cliffs just above the temple of Mnajdra, unique and ancient I had never heard of them until I knew I was coming to Valletta. I had never read of the civilization that existed here. 5,500 years ago. Older than Stonehenge, than the great pyramid, I read so much and yet I never stumbled across these wonders. Ħaġar Qim before the covering was built over it:

530-hagar-qim-temple-aerial-3100-bcI missed this sense of the whole and the way that it fits into the landscape, the natural light on stone, but I am glad it is being protected.  In the visitor’s centre I had my first experience of 4D, with a 3D screening and scents and watery mist being pumped into the theatre, along with lightening flashes and wind. Noisily. But I rather loved it. This is what it looks like now:

Ħaġar Qim

The carvings have been removed to be kept safe in the museum in Valletta — it occupies the old Auberge of the langue of Provence, quite beautiful in itself:

Museum of Archaeology

I had seen it the day before in the company of new friend from the conference who had written part of his thesis on this figure, found in one of the first apses of the main building — I was jealous he had come across it before:

29888b928a471511b15ffb7dee2fbeb1The back of it is so lovely. More intriguing, though, are the enormous figures also found there, which I did not take a picture of. This lapse astonishes me. This more official one is undoubtedly better however.

museoarcheologico_04_bigThese too are from the first apse, they left me without words. I could never have imagined them and I love coming across such things. They are strangely beautiful, impossible for me to understand. They are massive, an immense presence. The heads were almost certainly carved separately from the bodies, we can only guess why.

Perhaps my favourite is the ‘sleeping lady’, she was found in the Hypogeum (underground prehistoric temple carved into the stone, my god, everything I love in one place) — words cannot convey my sadness at this being closed during my visit, but it ensures my return.

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But the temples I did manage to see — this is the first apse, a strange doorway

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Replicas of some of the carvings, these pitted stones, and more curves

Ħaġar Qim

On the opposing side more stonework — everywhere on this island beautiful stonework:

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Ħaġar Qim stands highly visible and highly exposed, unlike all of the others. It has the largest piece of rock I have ever seen as part of a building, much less an ancient one like this. It has multiple entrances, an openness that is also unique, like this outside niche:

Ħaġar Qim

A carved hole in one of the apses marks the summer solstice. It was built on and added to over time, a sprawling, slightly untidy nature that you can feel walking through it, as though it were always open to possibility, even as the wind and rain were melting the limestone slowly away.

Mnajdra has a more satisfying perfection, indeed an almost perfect form. A complement to openness I think. This is the walk down to it from Ħaġar Qim alongside fields of beautiful soil.

Ħaġar Qim

The museum’s model gives a sense of its completeness:

mnajdraplanPerhaps even more beautiful stonework, these wonderful square doorways and pitted decorations:

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Mnajdra

Everywhere these doorways. They reminded me strangely of the Chaco culture in New Mexico with its unique T-shaped doorways, it makes me think how important doorways always are as you step from one place to another, one world to another, and how much meaning lies encoded in these. They are all amazing given the levels of technology — though their tools were also beautiful, look at this two-person hammer:

Museum of Archaeology

And this people’s own architectural model

Museum of Archaeology

Their graceful carvings and decorations:

Museum of Archaeology

The museum holds great round stones as well, and one theory is that these were used to transport the great slabs of limestone.

From the trail connecting the temples you can branch off along a nature trail — I was alone while there in choosing to explore the longer one that took me uphill. Happiness, yet also a certain disappointment in people really. Because they couldn’t be bothered to see more of this place.

To be out in the countryside — joy. Nopales flourish:

Ħaġar Qim

Grapes — though these are struggling:

Ħaġar Qim

Figs, this one alongside one of the small stone huts scattering the hillside, built as hides for the trapping of birds:

Ħaġar Qim

Another of them, the most picturesque:

Ħaġar Qim

Unexpectedly here (I must have blinked at some point in the museum) I found the Misqa water tanks — carved by the temple builders into the limestone to collect fresh water, and still used to irrigate nearby fields.

Ħaġar Qim

There are curious remains carved deeply here into the rock

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

The island of Filfla in the distance — probably sacred to the temple builders, the British used it for target practice, and now it has returned to being a bird sanctuary.

They are deeper than I thought, like the one here on the left:

Ħaġar Qim

I admired so much the curves of the beautiful wall there in the background, and as I backtracked down the path a head popped up, scaring me it is true, but thus I met Tony. For many years he had lived part of the year in the Bay area and part of it there alongside the temples, growing figs, olives, and grapes. We talked about nopales, how we cook them along the border. His favourite way to eat them is to pick the young leaves (late July and August) and peel them, then put them in the fridge and eat them very cold. I might try it. We talked about Trump, of course. Trump is bad for everyone. I continue to have those conversations. I love these chance meetings, I hate that it should be shaped by such a man in any way. We ended as friends though, and I continued on my way.

The path curves down alongside an old quarry, on the other side of the road, somewhere hidden in that canyon — part of a large fault system — are the Tal-Maghlaq catacombs. I think perhaps I saw the overgrown entrances, but I am far from sure.

img_5245Walking back, the sound of the sea, and the limestone cliffs grooved from the quarrying of stone:

Blue Grotto

More views of the narrow stone-walled fields terraced across the hillsides

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

I walked a little of the way down towards the Blue Grotto but the afternoon was lengthening so headed back for the bus. My final views

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim

There is a wonderful fragrance here also, more of herbs than of flowers though I could be wrong about its source.

If I were to do it again I would have more time, have started at the blue grotto and walked up, and then walked into Qrendi I think, I longed to spend a little time in these villages. They are tightly defined, ending where the fields begin. They all have large beautiful churches with a square in front, long rows of terraced houses, they are beautiful and sit well upon the land. Many have oranges and other citrus and figs growing in front of them.

To end with a mystery which I was not able to see, but which I discovered in the museum — that of Clapham Junction (! – but oh yes, this was a British colony and they named some things) and of the deep ruts in the limestone whose causes are mysterious and as yet unknown — variants of them are found all over the island…

clapham-junction-malta-guide-cart-ruts

I don’t know that I have been anywhere in a landscape that felt so ‘natural’ as it were, but also carried so deeply the craft and mark of human beings. I haven’t even gotten started on the Phoenicians, the Romans…newcomers. Though interestingly, they believe that the temple builders left and there was a period when no one lived here… Still, there is thousands of years of history scored into the limestone, the same limestone that has been built in a myriad of different configurations across five thousand years, that unifies it all in a way I haven’t seen before. England feels a crazed jumble of materials in comparison. Malta is an incredible place, and I haven’t even started on the door handles. I have shared a little about the cats, so really now to end, the great hunter of Ħaġar Qim:

Ħaġar Qim

Death in St John’s Co-Cathedral

Never have I seen so many momento mori, strange and yet not strange in this enormous almost unbelievable place.

Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-Cathedral Death - St John's Co-CathedralThese are knights pledged to give their lives willingly in battle — while running hospitals and protecting travellers they also pledged themselves to the fight against the Arabs, the Christian presence in the Holy Land, the stand against the Ottoman Empire. They enriched themselves through piracy against the enemy trading in the rich waters of the Mediterranean.

This is what Christianity — turn the other cheek, love your neighbour as yourself — this is what it really meant to them. It took me a while to find the enemies that they trampled underfoot, but they are hardly forgotten:

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The slaves upon which much of their wealth was built — and who built this city — are here as well:

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The wealth is staggering. Still, so many ruthless and wealthy men meditating on their own deaths — I suppose it’s not all bad. I confess it gives a sense of awe.

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The highlights were Caravaggio, of course. A massive painting, the Beheading of John the Baptist, simple, the great dark spaces of dingy and shadowy wall are even more immense staring at it from afar, framed by gold leaf and pomp. It fits, somehow, while also overshadowing its surroundings. These details of architecture and frame are hardly visible as you look at it, they fade into the background and the skin, the sorrow, stand out above all.

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Opposite is St Jerome, elderly, simple. A skull, to match the hundreds of skulls in this place, but an honesty and decay that sits oddly here.

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The other wonder that I never knew was here are the choral books, especially those of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. They are wondrous indeed, with miniatures of surpassing beauty (and I promise I am not using that word lightly despite my many enthusiasms), and along the margins the most wonderful grostesques, creatures of bark, creatures with horns and eyes in their stomachs — and there is nothing written of them in the cathedral or postcards for sale. I shall have to hunt for them further. Later. Now, more wandering through the evening and some wine. What I did find, to end:

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Arriving in Malta

I landed in Malta today, Malta! I jumped on the bus from the airport to Valletta — public transport defines all nations, doesn’t it? And you learn so much. The bus was full as it wound through the dusty spaces between the airport and Valletta, it seemed to me to be one third privileged (but not so privileged as to be in a taxi) tourists like me, one third migrants — a few Bangladeshi (?) and more African speaking in languages I had never heard, and one third (perhaps less of these) Maltese who almost all alighted at the park and ride. A strange English and very modern title for a stop amidst the Maltese names of places.

Ruins everywhere. Every. Where. Honey coloured, cream coloured stone, piles of rubble and a feeling of dust, of crumbling, of life now gone. A feeling of ages, of history — beautiful walls of stone blocks, cut beautifully, fit beautifully in dry construction, and that wonderful feeling of time passing in that there is a sense in driving along the road of the same blocks being used in different ways across the centuries. Miles of them, from farm buildings and walls to medieval and defensive-feeling buildings to more recent but still old buildings…I cannot explain how strange that feels to me. At the same time new buildings going up here and there, concrete frames, empty and often feeling as though they had been put on pause. This construction I remember from Greece, but that also reminds me of Rio’s favelas, concrete frames and apartments built to fit them in many different ways, often floor by floor differences that I love so much. So many old rows of houses with beautiful cut out and enclosed balconies, so many spaces empty and boarded up. The same colour of dark green against the light stone over and over again.

I have never seen so many ruins, so much history piled carelessly as though by a child alongside the road, waiting to be put away.

Nopales grew everywhere too, prickly pears.  I wondered when they arrived here from America.

The bus was full of languages, but the languages of everyone but tourists had disappeared by the time we  finally arrived at the final station outside the walled city of Valletta, a chaotic wheel of green and white buses. The triton in the middle, a great fountain, young men hovering around it the way day laborers might hover around an L.A. corner and I wondered how work and migration are managed here. Wondered if things are similar, or if it is just the limitations of my sight.

I walked through the entrance of this walled Renaissance city, over a walkway with a startling drop to either side that I did not expect and that construction fencing masked and no one wondered at. A gate that must once have been immense and impressive. I remembered this was once a closed place, inaccessible to those without permission.

Then the dread of a conference where I don’t know anyone, a couple of good keynotes and some words about justice and equality but not enough for the mood I am in. A reception and new friends and suddenly tomorrow is much more something to look forward to.

A wander back to my apartment through the night. I can only think of Caravaggio for some reason, wandering these streets full of swagger and insecurity, but my mind is also full of Abulafia’s history of the Mediterranean which has transformed how I think about things really and I am still processing, particularly the rise and fall of ages and their rules and understandings and how now I think we are in the middle of a great change…all of it wrapped up together and perfumed by wine in this warm beautiful night. I think about my luck, and how happy I am to be here.

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Where I am staying:

Valleta

Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.