I was able to finish everything I had to do in London in three days, and still had five days before I had to be in Oxford for the celebrations for my Tutor, which began on October 31st. So I went to Malta, largely I should note in pursuit of my quest to visit 100 countries. But the place turned out to be fascinating, both a cradle and a crossroads of civilization. There are remains of temples dating back nearly 6000 years, and the place has been ruled by Phoenicians and Romans and Arabs, until it was handed over in the 16th century to the Knights of the Order of St. John.
They flourished until Napoleon took the place over, only to be replaced by the British. British sovereignty was formally recognized in 1814, but the year before that they had sent Sir Thomas Maitland to govern the place, as they had done some years previously in Ceylon, another possession which passed to the British because of the changes brought about by the French Resolution. Incidentally, two years later, in Corfu, I realized that while Governor of Malta Maitland had also been Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands – yet another British acquisition in Napoleonic times, after that less durable emperor had got rid of the Venetians who had governed the area for centuries.
I stayed throughout my time in Malta in a delightful hotel in the capital Valletta. It overlooked the harbour, providing wonderful views at sunrise, and of glimmering lights at night, and I much enjoyed too breakfast each morning on the open terrace .
On the first day I walked for hours, to explore much of what there was to see in Valletta, including the magnificient Grand Master’s Palace with its fabuous gardens. The Fine Arts museum proved to have some unexpected delights, including two superb contrasting depictions of Cain and Abel. The archaeology museum had unexpectedly delicate primitive sculptures, while the splendid Cathedral of St. John included amongst its treasures the renowned Caravaggio depiction of the beheading of St. John the Baptist.The next day I went, by ferry, to the smaller island of Gozo, and headed first to the 4th century BC temples of Gjantija – a giant woman, who is supposed to have put the massive stones in place. From there I went to a site of great scenic beauty, the Azure Window, a giant stone archway that seems to arise from the sea. One visits it by boat, and at certain angles the arch seems shaped like Sri Lanka, which is why I have used a picture of it on @RajivaW, my twitter page. Back then to Victoria, the capital of Gozo, for the Citadel which the Arabs had built back in the 8th century, and St. Mary’s Cathedral with its rich museum. And I was allowed a quick glimpse of the archaeological museum with unusual Neolithic female figurines, before dusk fell and I took the ferry back to Malta, the lights of Victoria beginning to sparkle as we left.
I went inland the next day to Mdina, the former Arab capital. The old walls still stand, enclosing a charming city, but the main sights are Christian. St. Paul’s Cathedral, though often rebuilt, is supposed to go back to a church built in the 4th century, and it also boasts a splendid museum, housed in the old seminary. Lovely too was the 15th century Palazzo Falcon, with a cosy courtyard and a rooftop café where I had lunch. After a couple more churches within the city, I saw the old Roman house outside, with delicate mosaics, and the catacombs where over 1000 people were buried from the 5th century on.
From Mdina I went south to two Neolithic temples set spectacularly above the sea. There are plenty of shrines at Hagar Qim, but most impressive was Mnajdra which is half a kilometer down the cliff and offered wonderful views too of the setting sun. And the next day I went to the other old site at Tarxien, with three well restored temples. There, as elsewhere in Malta, the signing was extremely informative. That day, in addition to the Anglican Cathedral in Valletta (the canon, whom I knew slightly was sadly away) and a couple more churches, I also saw something very different, Ghar Dhalam where a cave runs into the limestone for nearly a mile. It was a wonderfully tranquil place, and made up for my not being able, because of crowds who had booked in advance, to go down into the Hypogeum, a cave that was extended to provide burial space for over 7000 people.
On my last afternoon I went to the tourist resort of St. Julians, just north of Valletta, for a lavish lunch overlooking the sea. And I felt I had to do a little paddling, since it would not have done to have been on the Mediterranean and not even got one’s feet wet. Quite sated then, I went back to England the next day, and to Oxford, which as always felt like coming home.
I stay now however outside the town itself, in a guestroom at the Retirement Home where my former Dean took a small flat a few years back. He has been unfailingly hospitable over the thirty years and more since I finally left Oxford, initially booking guest rooms and getting me Senior Common Room privileges, later putting me up in his set in College, which he hardly used after buying a house in North Oxford. The College it seemed had put guest room charges up, and he told me that these were far too much for someone from the third world.
That evening there was a Choral Concert in the College Chapel in honour of my old tutor, followed by drinks and a celebratory dinner in Hall. An astonishing number of his former students had turned up, including several from America, to honour George, who was clearly pleased at the reception he received. And the festivities continued the next day, with a lecture and drinks and another lavish lunch in Hall.
Next morning I had a visitor up at the Retirement Home in the form of the legal adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury. We were having enormous problems in Sri Lanka with the Principal of Trinity and, worse, the Bishop of Kurunagala, who seemed determined to keep him on despite clear evidence of deceit and worse. Canon Rees however seemed to have the measure of the men, and I gathered that, though there had been some delay, the Archbishop would soon be taking action.
I went back to Colombo the next day, landing on the 4th, after which I had to take wing again on the 5th. This was for two commitments, one a seminar in Calcutta at which I delivered a paper on ‘An Appraisal of India’s Neighbourhood Policy: Way Forward’ and the other a meeting of Liberal International in Hong Kong. Unfortunately, following a massive spat in Colombo between the government and the Friedrich Neumann Stiftung (arising from resentments between Ravi Karunanayake and Buddhika Pathirana initially, into which I too was dragged), the FNS no longer supported the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka, so I could not stay in the grand hotel in which the other delegates were housed. This had not mattered the previous time, in the Philippines, which has comfortable low cost hotels, but in Hong Kong it meant staying in a little box in Tsim Tsa Shui, an interesting experience but not one that one wants to repeat.
I travelled through Bangkok as being the easiest way to cover both sets of meetings, and after Hong Kong I was able to spend some time in Thailand with old friends. Some had retired there while others have pleasant beachside flats, while I was also able to get some bridge in. In addition I managed to do a great deal of work on the two books I had been laboring over, one a collection of essays on English poets, the other an assessment of what had gone wrong with the Rajapaksa government.
I had called this latter book, or rather this collection of essays, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, based on the fact that I was often accused of whitewashing Mahinda Rajapaksa. This was despite the fact that I was the most critical in public of his government of the members on the government side, but perhaps there was some truth in the claim since I continued fond of him and still thought he had much to offer. To me the tragedy was that he had not fulfilled his promise after 2010, even though in his first term in office he had done much more for Sri Lanka than any of his predecessors as President.
For this sad situation I blamed those on whom he relied, whom I called the Seven Dwarfs, since most of those closest to him displayed the characteristics associated with the merry band. I had started from his two influential brothers, Gotabhaya who was thought to be hard, and Basil whom initially the West had fallen over backwards to please since they were obsessed with their dislike of the Secretary of Defence.
Though I called Gotabhaya Grumpy, I think he came out best of the dwarfs in my description, with the exception of Lalith Weeratunge whom I characterized as Doc. What distinguished these two, in my mind, was that they were both devoted to the President, and thought they were acting in his interests, whereas the others I felt were selfish individuals, concerned only with what they could get out of the President. But I also felt that both Lalith and Gotabhaya, who were both able individuals, could have done more to advise the President sensibly.
Later I was to find that Gotabhaya had indeed made some positive suggestions, but he had not been forceful enough, and Lalith told me that he had felt isolated and so had not been able to push. But the result, as was clear from how the President reacted to the fracas between Sajin and Chris Nonis, was the impression that those with nothing positive to contribute to the country had taken control.
This was certainly the impression in Colombo, where it seemed the President was on the verge of declaring, as J R’s preposterous third amendment to the Constitution allowed him to do, that he was offering himself early to the people for re-election. Nimal Siripala de Silva, Leader of the House, who was in theory the next most senior member of the SLFP after the President, told me at Raja Gunasekara’s funeral house that he was not consulted about anything, and he was clearly not very happy about what was going on.
That was on November 18th, my mother’s birthday as also that of the President. On the 19th, while I was at COPE, I had a message from Rajitha Senaratne, asking me to come to his rooms. He told me then that Maithripala Sirisena had decided to stand as a common opposition candidate, and he had been asked by Chandrika Kumaratunga to sound out three people about supporting Maithri. One of them was Reginald Cooray, the other I cannot now remember, but needless to say neither of the others had the courage to come out openly in favour of Maithri on the day he declared his candidacy.
This was on Friday the 21st, after the election had been announced. Only Vasantha Senanayake and I were there of those who had not been involved in the discussions previously, the other two government members apart from Rajitha who were present being Duminda Dissanayake and M K D S Gunawardena, both of whom had personal reasons to dislike Mahinda Rajapaksa. Interestingly, Gotabhaya told me later that he had advised the President against removing Duminda’s father, Birty Premalal Dissanayake, as Chief Minister of the North Central Province, but Basil had insisted. Clearly he wanted someone he could control, as he had shown previously in promoting Rishard Bathiudeen. The consequence in this case, as Gotabhaya said ruefully, was that the President lost favour in that whole Province.
Ceylon Today 20 Dec 2016 – https://ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=11453