Sunday, 29 August 2010

Our fateful feasts

Let me start with a confession. I don’t particularly like feasts and I hate with quite a bit of energy the useless noise, the just-noise no-colour fireworks produce. So you have been warned. If this article will cause you offence please admire my ugly mug next to the article, fire some swear-words at me, move on and ponder on some less annoying stuff.

The poor dead man from the Mosta fireworks factory hasn’t been buried long so I will honour his memory with as much mirthless solemnity as is possible to me. Laughing and smiling and accepting and expecting to be amused even in the most solemn of occasions has always been a fault of mine so again please be patient with me and accept my flippancy. Or move on. This flaw has shadowed me from infancy. I find fun and laughter even in the worst of occasions. I have always thought that even in funerals one should see and emphasise the first three letters of the word funeral.

But I, as is my wont, digress and jabber on. What’s with feasts and their mortal accompaniment -- the infamous murtali (petards)? That I don’t like them is not what I want to talk about. I can see why they are enjoyed: after all I did say I like fun so feasts should be my great big love. What I utterly detest are the useless noisy bangs that go on from morning till late at night with no thought or care of the sick, the infirm or those who do not like such fare. The colourful ones, I grudgingly admit, are fun. The kaxxa infernali, although quite diabolically insane in its proximity to houses, is lovely to see. But is all this fun, colour and religious mania worth all the human and material loss? In fact is the terrifying din we all heard on that fateful Friday the 13th when the Santa Marija fireworks factory blew up, worth it at all? And is it in any way connected to religion? Or is it connected to Our Lord Jesus Christ? Because I imagine the glorification of patron saints is, in some ways, intended to glorify Jesus Christ himself, otherwise it would be idolatry. So by simple deduction we should arrive at the great conclusion that Jesus Christ quite loves and admires feasts and fireworks.

My heart bleeds for all the men who have died or suffered some firework-related accident. Is there a strange correlation to a macho thing here? I’ve never heard of a female being involved in any firework-related accident. Is that pure chance or are only males interested in producing the fiery stuff? Or maybe women are more averse to taking risks? Other countries produce fireworks but we rarely hear of factories being blown off. Is it our heat? Is it our Mediterranean bravado? Maybe we in Malta produce our fireworks as a sign of respect for the panoply of saints and angels and the Holy Trinity; maybe in producing the fireworks we feel we have to be more daring in showing how devourt our religion is.

The latest in our string of national accidents in the fireworks field saw a known enthusiast and expert die. So the usual excuse that amateurs who dabble in explosive stuff were involved is not much of an excuse here. I fear that the full reason for the explosion that rocked the whole island will never be found. But even if it is found I doubt whether any action will be taken. We witnessed these accidents so often that we are becoming immune to them. We react in horror when a fireworks factory blows up but then after a few days or weeks we are back to normal. In fact although Mosta did cancel all outdoor festivities, none of the other villages thought of playing their own feast down. Maybe it would have been apt to play down their own feast as a sign of solidarity or respect?

Unfortunately I would say the solution to this is a complete ban of fireworks of all type, colourful, noisy or whatever. Sorry dear tourist and dear Maltese lover of mayhem - that would be my draconian answer to this loss of life. As many among my friends and foes would say: thank God I am no law-giver. I know a total ban would meet with loads of protests. Besides the rapt onlookers and festa visitors there would be a plethora of protests from the Malta Tourism Authority, the firework manufacturers, the church, the band players’ union and a few other groups.

It might seem strange to think that just because fireworks are banned there would be no festa. But the main fun that feasts afford is the noise that reverberates all around the village square and which illuminates the sky with all sorts of colour. I doubt if the patron saint would want to get off her cosy niche if he/she is not greeted with fireworks once he/she comes out of the church. Can anyone imagine a feast which will not have the saint fĂȘted with some sort of colourful cacophony when he/she is being hauled in all his/her glory all around the village? The noise, the fun is needed and without it the feast as we have always known it would change drastically and it would be no more. And if it’s not a normal feast with frolicky fun the would-be revellers would not help much to make the feast a success. If the feast becomes just a deeply religious one, with just solemn services and serious rites and quiet observance of liturgy all organised in the patron saint’s memory, the attendance would fall dramatically. Would the church authorities love or tolerate such a change?

Feasts and fireworks make the village rock so even the local council loves festi. Feasts, after all, help the economic cycle. Bars and other shops love festi and the colour and noise because they sell so many more beers and all sorts of calorific colourful stuff. So besides the barmen and the brassy barmaids selling their wares and hotdogs, feasts help the beer importers, the beer manufacturers, the vintners of Malta and also ultimately the farmers who sell more grapes to the vintners who sell most of their stuff during the feasts. Feats of drinking prowess might not be organised around Malta too often but they sure seem to be held regularly every time a saint is honoured. So with every bang the Maltese economic cycle gets a really grand boost.

So my dream of a total ban will definitely never be attained. Malta needs feasts and therefore it needs fireworks to keep it going. Feasts and fireworks are ingrained in our psyche: some years ago we even had incoming and outgoing flights banned for a few hours to allow fireworks to be let off close to the airport. We also used to have an arterial road like the B’kara bypass closed off to traffic to let the village revellers get on with their noisy mirth to show off their love of some saint in heaven. Doesn’t this show our love of feasts and fireworks? Can anyone imagine closing Heathrow airport so that some English protestants can show their disdain of that horrid Catholic, Guy Fawkes?

If the ban is implemented we would have no fireworks festival in Grand Harbour. So we would lose another occasion to show off our bastions and cities.

I know that fireworks, however lethal, will never be banned. And although we keep saying we will legislate to make the manufacture of fireworks less dangerous all we ever do is talk, talk and then talk a bit more. Then finally after another period of soul-searching and gut-wrenching we end up passing some tough draconian measures that make us, on paper, the least likely to suffer any casualties in firework-related accidents. But such measures need enforcement and I’m not convinced we are the best enforcers of tough measures. So whatever happens and whatever is discussed and decided all will remain exactly the same with the same results and loss of lives or limbs.

Even if you love feasts and their din I cannot imagine anyone loving, or easily living with, the disasters that are regularly witnessed in the firework field. If faith is in any way involved in festive fireworks the horrid fate of so many enthusiasts should make us stop and think very hard. Is it all worthwhile to see so much effort and human life go up in useless but colourful smoke?

This article first appeared in the Malta Independent on Sunday on August 29 2010

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Spinning out of control

Some wit once came out with the maxim “publish and be damned”. Interesting thought that: I have to learn how to take on a toughened skin so that when I’m damned by people I won’t suffer much, and I won’t wish to go and hide.
Have I been assailed by the pro-divorce brigade for calling them slightly illiberal and maybe more fundamentalist than the church? Have the anti-divorce-forces, led by an erstwhile Mons. Anton Gouder, and fed brainwashed fodder by the Maltese fundamentalists decided to shut me up? Or has the Archbishop decreed that I’ll be damned for all time?
Nothing of the above scenarios has happened as far as I know. What I do know is that, since I started tapping away my Sunday homily, I’ve been accused of the last, lasting damnation. I have been asked, on various occasions, whether I’m going to contest the next general elections. Some didn’t ask: they accused me of harbouring these thoughts.
I know I should be eternally grateful for such feelings of others about me. Striving to join the elite of the land is quite enticing. At least in an ideal world this should be enticing. If people, especially some of the bigger guns of the island, think I am smart enough to contest, this should be a compliment. But it came closer to damning me. I don’t know if I should or shouldn’t put in a bias disclaimer which might end up damning me more than I have already been damned.
After much deliberation, held in democratic fashion at the upper chamber of my mind, I have decided to come clean: I declare most solemnly that I will not contest the national, the local or the parish elections.
So that is disclaimer one, which by the double-speak spinning of today’s surreal politics I presume will be understood that I intend to contest. This is all rubbish. I just assure all readers (the few who have remained, up to now, un-comatosed by my sermon) and especially the ones who asked me if entering politics interests me: I am not contesting.
This disclaimer needs another addendum which I had hoped would never be needed as I thought it would be obvious in my writing or would not be of any importance. Seeing that even writing about innocuous subjects like divorce, festas, football and gold (some of my previous Sunday homily subjects) can be termed arch-political in this country, I need to uncover another of my biases. I wear specs and have worn them ever since I was a little, young nerd. I still wear them now that I have developed into the old big nerd of today. The lenses of my specs have always been tinted (or as others would have it, tainted) blue. So I am biased in that department.
I would like to think that I made the choice of colour after a thorough examination of what there was on offer. Will the reds now boil me in green ooze? Does that mean I will contest with the blues? Not at all.
Or would I do what a renowned lawyer in Malta did? This lawyer once told an interviewer that he had been a die-hard nationalist all his life. The lawyer boasted he had even occupied some high places in the blues’ party. Once these naughty blues didn’t ask him to contest he turned tail, did a somersault, and changed parties because the reds asked him to contest. The reds also gave him the high, now hardly ever mentioned, post of business forum coordinator or some such stuff. That is a man of strong principles with no cares about his adulation of self. Insignificant me will never try emulating such high morals.
Why won’t I contest? Is it because I think all parliamentary members are dishonourable? Far from it: I think honour and prestige abound in the House of Representatives.
The powers that be need to be a bit more careful about what to print on their cars. There is a car, usually parked in Archbishop Street, with the words ‘HOR’ stamped on its side. I’ll grant it that the spelling isn’t spot on, but that word does, worryingly, sound like “whore”. And HOR on the side of said car, stands for House of Representatives. I kid you not. Might the House itself be the HOR of Babylon?
Back to why I won’t contest. My main reason is because I do not think I could get enough votes to beat Emmy Bezzina and Narcy Calamatta. Now these gentlemen are two erstwhile candidates of each and every election and hardly get a dozen votes each. The spectre of not being elected would not worry me. The fear of not even totting up a few hundred votes would send me into hiding for a long time. My shame would be palpable for years.
Back in the sixties, when the smaller parties were still a force to be reckoned with, a leading journalist had contested and garnered only 1 measly vote. Now imagine the same happens to me and I only get that solitary vote. Would that mean that I didn’t vote for myself to prove my impartiality and magnanimity? Would it mean that my wife, in her perspicacity, didn’t even vote for me? Oh the utter, uber, mega shame of it all.
It is remarkable how we come to confusing conclusions in Malta. I never thought writing a few articles would give me any notoriety. It’s not as if I was critical of anyone: I’ve hardly mentioned the honourable Doctors Gonzi and Muscat.
Someone thought that once I’m being critical of the roads and the driving then I must be super-critical of our present government. His reasoning was that as I was blue I must have turned traitor and joined the despicable greens. Or are they yellows here in Malta? Anyway what if I am critical of the government? Why are we so tied to a siege mentality where you can never have independent, intelligent, dull or dumb views which are not tainted by party politics? Why can’t we all (this includes me) grow up and laugh at ourselves and our politics, politicians and at our idea that we are the belly button of the world?
If anyone organises a jesters’ party, where the only electoral platform is fun, then count me in. I’m sure Narcy and Emmy would join too. We would have fun and never be serious. What a time we would have. We’d borrow the emblem of the Greens which is a smiling sun. Unlike the emblems of the other parties this emblem has fun in it. It’s quite a pity that the greens do not laugh more and are hardly like their symbol.
There used to be a time when there were some loose balls contesting the elections. There was the Partit tal-Iljun, Tal-Farfett and the inimitable Spiru Sant. All these added some colour to our drab, boring politicos who take everything and everyone way too seriously. These parties never got more than a handful of votes but who cared? They just wanted to have some fun and provide us with a touch of much-needed comic relief.
My articles were meant to be just a few jottings of a liberal, anti-fundamentalist. Nothing great, and certainly no idea of shaking the fundamentals of anyone’s fundament.
Come to think of it the articles were meant to attack this “us and them” attitude which is so pathetic and boring. I can’t believe I have ended up writing a whole article about why I write. I did what all politicians do and which they are always warned against: don’t defend yourself or people will end up thinking you have something to hide.
Now that I have made my little foray into the public arena I have to accept and live with the roaring lions. I had hoped the only roaring I’d ever hear would be of readers roaring with laughter. My spin has spun out of control.

This article first appeared in The Malta Independent on Sunday on September 26, 2010

Sunday, 15 August 2010

The guardians of the mind

As the old chestnut has it, silence is golden. And while commendable in most cases, in this case I find it condemnable that no one seems to have been talking more about what The Guardian said about Malta in a recent article.

Lately our fish bowl hit the news again. The Guardian had a terribly stupid article about us Maltese needing to be investigated, and expelled by the EU because of all our lapses in modernity (see All the usual stuff is mentioned about illiberal us: divorce and abortion or lack of these, censorship and a whole array of stuff which we have lately been doing. Some months ago we hit the world news with all sorts of weird stuff. It was either a phallic, Smurfy (or would the Smurfs be better known in Malta by their Italian name, i Puffi?) blue monument needing to be dressed up for a papal visit, or some moronic judgement about dramatic blasphemy, or one of the myriad stories that only we in Malta can concoct.

That The Guardian talks about us is no great shakes. The Guardian, after all, is a newspaper which tries hard to be arch-liberal-leftie so it does go round the world vacuuming anything that might sound slightly anti-liberal. So they picked on us tiny Malta. And we either disregarded the article or like little goldfishes in our bowl pouted away and stamped our little fins and screamed that we were offended. How dare they look at us cute little things and insult us?

Do we really live in a goldfish bowl? I do think we Maltese are like little fishes in a bowl. We, like most fatted goldfish in their bowls, live a great life, we communicate grandly with all the rest of the fishes in the bowl, we are well fed, we keep the bowl relatively clean and we see the world from our bowl perspective. And we also think we communicate quite strongly with all the people out of the bowl. We might know we are small in size but we feel we are so cute that we think without us the world might stop breathing. Or some such horrid thing could happen to the EU or the world if deprived of us.

And when anyone says anything which we think is a bit critical of us we hit the ceiling. Not sure if gold fish hit any ceilings or, for that matter, if bowls have any ceilings. But we get ever so cross whenever anyone says anything untoward about us and Malta in general. Or else we disregard whatever is said in an act of defiance that smacks of someone who doesn’t think we should or could be criticised, even if we know they are right or that there might be a smidgeon of truth in what they say.

When those horrid foreigners were talking about us indiscriminately killing all the birds that flew above us we ended up getting annoyed. Even the best bird-lover got slightly miffed that Malta was boycotted by a few foreigners as a holiday destination because they thought we were callous in our destruction of all birds including the goldfinch. See even here we are faced with more golden stuff.

From our bowl we accused all foreigners of their own type of barbarity: abortion, bullfights, divorce and fox hunting were all bandied about and thrown at our detractors. Haven’t we, in fact, always been incredibly critical of adultery, abortion and, lord save us from such depravity, divorce? Haven’t we always said that countries that allow these terrible things are heathen and not civilized like ours? So if we are allowed to criticise and damn, can’t they?

Now I too am very Maltese and I admit to living in my own bowl of bigotry. I also admit I get incredibly offended when visitors laugh at the state of our misshapen streetscape or the state of our driving or the complete lack of such oddities as road-signs and road-markings. But don’t we need to learn how to accept such criticism? After all we did have a police contingent descending on a hapless shop-owner who thought it would be quite savvy to have undraped, anatomically correct dummies in his shop window. Some thought this incident was funny, some thought the police action was even more effective marketing. But worryingly some seriously thought that these nude mannequins could deprave us innocent dwellers of Malta (or is that the fishbowl?). Could anyone really defend such police actions or not expect the foreign press, which sorely needs copy to fill space, to talk about these antics of ours? Just as the shopkeeper’s nudes were unreal, this incident made our life on the island sound like an unreal, surrealistic dream with touches of Alice’s Wonderland.

While it is all good and proper and arch-catholic to defend the sanctity of marriage according to our Papal viewpoint, we should let the other goldfish get on with their heathen ways of getting divorced and getting married again if that is what they want. I presume no one will force all Catholic goldfish couples to divorce. Some of those goldfish living in Malta still want to do what, to some of us, might be reprehensible. With abortion we do claim the moral right of saying another creature is suffering but with divorce it is the consensual decision of two people; their children are not going to suffer anything more earth-shattering than what a normal legal separation would have wrought in their lives. After all, to defend children born in wedlock no one has called for the immediate revocation of all virtual or legal separations.

So let’s not kick the bowl and break it, but let’s live a life where we can let others breathe in their own way, even if to some of us such living seems heathen or diabolical. Now isn’t that a golden rule?

This article first appeared in The Independent on Sunday on August 15 2010