It was evening when we made our way back to the cove. The sun was setting fire to the headlands west of us, and the sea had become absolutely still. Not even a cat’s-paw trailed across the purple water. The sea was truly like wine to look at. The professors who had decried Homer’s adjective and invented other meanings for it, had never been sailors.
In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?
There are authors who captivate you. With their choice of words, their temperament, their ideas, their life story, their way of looking at the world, their… spirit. It’s been a long time since I last had been so captivated as I’ve been this winter; and it’s a good thing that my husband doesn’t read this blog for I’m positively in love. (With a man who’s been dead for some thirty years. Ouch!)
“For me… the sound of the pleasant place is in the waves of the sea. And the smell of it is damp cordage and wood, on a fair morning when the off-shore breeze just carries the scent off the land. And the sight of it is a dolphin breaking clean and shining out of a foam crest – or the curve of a wind-washed sail, at evening, when the sea’s line shines.” (The Journeying Moon: Sailing into History by Ernle Bradford)
Recently I wrote about how a young Royal Navy sailor in 1941 sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out with his head full of the Odyssey. Well, those of you who haven’t read that piece, go and read it now, but I’m willing to remind the rest who have merely forgotten who this sailor was: Ernle Bradford.
Travelling leads to strange encounters. Especially if you’re committed to speak the language of your destination.
In World War II a young Royal Navy sailor by the name of Ernle Bradford sauntered into a Greek bar in Alexandria and came out brainwashed because he had been imprudent enough to say “Kalimera” to the man behind the counter. A few years ago I went to Delphi and was imprudent enough not only to say “Kalimera” but to follow it up with saying that I hoped to read Herodotus in the original someday.
I’m sitting on a rooftop terrace in Valletta, the town founded by and named after Jean Parisot de la Valette, Grand Master of the Knights of St John some 500 years ago. The terrace overlooks the Grand Harbour, and the solid walls of Fort St Angelo across the water are lit up tonight. Beyond it, sprinkled with lights, the towns of Vittoriosa and Invitta, originally called Birgu and Senglea, but renamed “Victorious” and “Unconquered” by the Knights after the Turks failed to take them in 1565. I can see the marina in Dockyard Creek whose entrance the Knights closed with a huge chain during the siege. Somewhere to my left, out of sight on the tip of the peninsula that is Valletta, beyond the rooftops, stands Fort St Elmo, whose defenders sacrificed themselves so gallantly in defence of Malta.
I’m on holiday in Valletta, and I’ve just read The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford, starting it on the plane to Malta and finishing it on this terrace, opposite Fort St Angelo.