To This Sweet Land – A Brief History of Malta

 

When my grandmother got married in the 1950’s she got married in the local church and then the wedding party preceded to her mother’s home for the reception. The food was prepared by her father, who was a cook with the Royal Navy, with the help of his daughters. At the house for the reception there was the immediate family, some close extended relatives, and neighbours.

Why am I telling you this? Yesterday I wrote a blog about new world literature – read it here: https://justinfenech.wordpress.com/2016/07/26/third-world-first-rate/ – in which I extolled the virtues of postcolonial writers and how they’re the new good-thing in literature. After I finished the blog I went for a walk. Despite the hot summer there was a nice northern wind out yesterday so it made it tolerable. As I walked, around the streets I was raised in, dead quiet in the afternoon haze, I suddenly realised: I’m a postcolonial writer myself!

There I was writing about Haitians, Indians, Nicaraguans and Cubans, stupidly forgetting that my country, Malta, was also a colony. And until fairly recently. Malta’s long 7, 000 year history has belonged as much to the Maltese as it has to the foreign powers that have routinely occupied it. The British Empire was invited here in the year 1800 and they stayed on until 1964. After Independence in 1964 (along with Cyprus we were the last European state to rid ourselves of colonialism) the British lingered on. The press was controlled by them, we had no-go areas reserved for British military, the police and army was controlled by the British governor and of course our head of state was still Liz. This lasted until 1974 when Malta became a Republic and finally 1979 when the British military base was shut down once and for all.

Most of the older generations, and even the not-so-older generations, were raised in a British colony. Malta used the pound sterling and most employment on the island was to be found with the British naval forces. Malta was a rather bleak garrison island, “a floating battleship” as Churchill had described it. There was little industry, limited educational opportunities, and the only way of travelling was emigration to a larger Commonwealth compatriot like Canada or Australia. This was the period when my grandparents got married.

My cousin got married last year. After the ceremony at the local church the bride and groom didn’t go to their parent’s house. They went to a villa. A large one, with a pool, labyrinthine gardens, terraces and uninterrupted views of the surrounding countryside. Their family were at the villa. And so were 500 other guests. Not just neighbours but, I guess, every single person my cousin and his wife had ever known in their lives… plus guest. Neither of their parents prepared the food. That was done by a catering company that served constant trays of hot dogs, canapes, seafood, mini-burgers and sushi. There was also a buffet table loaded with pasta, meats, fish, and rice. Beside it was an ice-cream stand. And of course a large, flowing open bar that could service a nightclub in New York.

Quite a different affair than my grandparents’ do, I would say.

And this is all to do with Malta, for the first time in its long history, having ceased being a colony and taking charge of its own affairs. In the 1970’s Malta had to make a large re-adjustment. The Labour Party who negotiated the terms of Britain’s departure from Malta was begged by many of its own supporters: “don’t get rid of them, how will we ever find work?” The charismatic, bullish Mintoff, leader of the Labour Party, would smile menacingly, hold out his index finger and say, “this we keep to ourselves.”

The Maltese had less than a decade to change a centuries old fortress economy into a thriving, self-sufficient one. We began investing in industry. Opened scores of local factories, established our own airline, Air Malta, our dockyard company, Sea Malta, built free ports, power stations, invested in tourism, built a national football stadium… and all this with foreign investment accrued from all over the civilised and not-so-civilised world. Britain, America, Italy, France, China… Gaddafi’s Libya, the Soviet Union, North Korea; they all helped us find our feet so that now, if the Britain sneezed, the Maltese economy didn’t have to catch a cold.

The Labour Party was old-news in the 1980’s. The 80’s in Malta were nothing like the glitzy, kitsch capitalist-fest there was in the States. A recession in oil prices hit us hard. The Labour Party’s response was a severe tightening of the belt. It is something everyone in Malta remembers – even those who weren’t even born then – how foreign imports of chocolates such as Mars and Lion were banned, all so local industry could be given a boost. And the people, the people who only a decade before had been used to living meagre lives, living on a diet of soups, vegetables and fish, for whom splurging meant going out to the cinema, or for a family swim, now, in the 1980’s, rebelled against the Labour Party and its oppressive economic policies.

And this is important: the Maltese rebelled and voted the Labour Party out of government in 1987 because they wanted to spend! We had colour television now, we were connected to the rest of the world; we knew how good the Americans and the British had it! We’d seen Wall Street, we saw Madonna singing I’m A Material Girl; and if America could be enjoying such gluttonous success, why shouldn’t we? We’re a nation now, aren’t we, why should we be told what to eat when we are self-sufficient?

Add to this the centuries of religious conservatism the Maltese faced, where women dressed in black clothes and hoods called ghonellas – I remember a quote from Christopher Hitchens: “the Catholic Church, which here makes its Nicaraguan counterpart appear enlightened…” – and the hard years Malta faced during the Second World War when Malta was the most heavily bombed piece of land in the world, forcing the population into a life of strife and starvation.

Cut to the present. To an article, written in the New York Times with the title no single Maltese person (there’s only half a million of us) could ignore: On a Mediterranean Island, but Far From a Mediterranean Diet. This well-researched article talks about how the Maltese are now the most obese in the EU, how diabetes and heart-diseases are more prevalent here than elsewhere, how our traditionally exceptional life-expectancy is going down. This is because we gorge on pastizzi, restaurants flaunting jumbo burgers are popping up everywhere, our food portions are 50% larger than elsewhere. The article argues that this is because good, healthy food is expensive in Malta. Our waters are over-fished and most of the local catch we export so fish, traditionally a cheap staple, is now expensive. Agriculture is in decline so we import most of our fruit and veg making greasy, lard-filled snacks like pastizzi and pizza cheaper than apples and oranges. So having a healthy Mediterranean diet, argues the reporter for the New York Times, isn’t cheap.

And that’s true. But the article misses out on the historical angle. It’s not just that we can’t afford the food of our grandparents, the soups, the broths, the salads, the fruit fresh from our gardens – it’s more that we don’t want to.

We’re all suffering from this, around the world. We are designed to be gluttonous because our primeval environments were frugal, you better eat what you can while you can. And this innate instinct is making Jerry-Springer-fodder out of all of us. There is an abundance in food now in the developed world and no shortage of consumers. In Malta it’s twice as bad because this abundance is only around three-decades old.

There is a very high density of restaurants in Malta, all of them mostly generic, carbon-copies of each other, but on the whole the culinary scene is good, exciting, and inventive. We’ve had a recent influx of Italian cooks who’ve influence a lot of local chefs and the gastronomy of the island is being raised to near-elite levels. Is it any wonder?

And food isn’t the only arena where we like to binge. Alcohol is another. Maltese teenagers are among the biggest binge drinkers in Europe. The car population is about half the size of the human population. Home ownership rate is 80% – the 15th highest in the world. As I’ve already said the average Maltese Joe hosts probably the largest weddings in the world – I don’t need statistics for this. And not just big weddings, but big baptism, holy communion and confirmation parties too. There’s even a growing trend for naming-parties, as in parties were parents unveil the name of their newborn!

No, we don’t do things small here in Malta! Can you blame us?

No – but. There is a big but (there are lots of big butts in this story). Here is where my literary interests enter the fold. When I wrote yesterday about a lot of third-world countries and their authors, like Haiti and Nicaragua, I realised the obvious fact that most of these novels, most of these books deal with strife, political turmoil, a suppression of freedom, a desire for freedom! Malta is a postcolonial nation just like the others. And, for all intents and purposes we should be far worse off than we are.

Malta is the smallest country in the EU and also the most densely populated. We have no natural resources whatsoever except human resources and good beaches. We have had nothing but a fortress economy except for the last forty years. We are forced to import most of our resources. And yet,  despite all these obstacles, Malta is among the most prosperous nations in Europe if not the world. We are certainly among the safest. Murders and thefts are remarkably low. Walking around alone at night is about as safe as it can be here. And also, and more importantly, we have a relatively small rich-poor divide. There is wealth on the island, we have millionaires and self-made industrialists, and yet poverty rates are relatively (though not exceptionally) low, and Malta is a full welfare state guaranteeing pensions, unemployment benefits, children’s allowance, free child-care, maternity leave, free public health and not only free education but also stipends for post-secondary and upwards students.

We are extremely lucky here in Malta. And it’s a luck that we’ve largely deserved. So, if I were going to write a Maltese novel, the themes and issues would be wildly different from those you would find in a Nicaraguan, Cuban, or a Kenyan novel. Our troubles, and what most piques the national interest, thankfully, isn’t to do with war, political oppression, poverty and great raving crises. Which might sound boring right, I mean, what else is a writer supposed to write about?

For me, the answer, largely supplied by Malta, is obvious: happiness. And its pitfalls. In recent times the Maltese have known what it’s like to be bereft of the good stuff and, conversely, how to be well-off. Which of the two makes us happier? We don’t realise how lucky we are to have the basic freedoms that we have. You don’t have to look far, just at our own households, ask our parents and grandparents. Their childhoods were so different than mine and people of a younger generation; when they talk of the Malta they remember it sounds to us like a different country. And yet, they sound happy about it, too.

I am grateful for the boom and affluence Malta’s experiencing but I also think that we are going a bit too far with it. Yes it’s good to enjoy life, but, how? The Maltese Islands are renowned for their laid-back, frugal, Epicurean lifestyle. You’d be hard-pressed to find it now. We’re all of us as busy as a Londoner and New Yorker, determined to multi-task as if history depended on it. We work, we study, we open businesses, we take on volunteer work, work some more, travel, get married, do new courses and of course we eat, party, shop, binge, consume – bloody hell!

Malta has the potential to be a hedonist’s paradise. I don’t mean hedonism in the excess-fraught way it’s come to be understood today. I mean a lifestyle of putting pleasure-first. Relaxing, enjoying our climate, our beaches, the old quiet towns, our whale of a capital, enjoying the simple pleasures like swimming, eating good food, summer night get-togethers with friends and family, discussion (oh that most national of blood-sports!), the festas, the lot. We have an exceptionally good lifestyle here in Malta. You just need to slow down, and you’ll find it.

But so many of us miss out. We have to keep up with the Jones’ (or the Borg’s in our case); this is the downfall of living in a small place – when everyone knows everyone you tend to get a bit self-conscious. Possibly conceited. Definitely competitive. My wedding is bigger than yours. I have more cars than you. My son’s private school is more expensive than your son’s. My summer holidays were more exotic than yours. And this is ridiculously un-Maltese.

I’d rather spend my days with the best amongst us. Those who, yes, know the value of a hard day’s work, do it proudly without complaint, and who know how to relax just as much, know the value of a barbecue, a wine-tasting, a game of football between friends. And who yes, enjoy the good stuff too, we don’t need to be frugal. But let’s not look for happiness in superficial places. Let’s not take it too far.

And that is our equivalent, or should be, of a Haitian writer’s obsession with the Duvalier, or a Nicaraguan’s with the Sandinistas. For us it is the pitfalls of a plastic happiness, of throwing away freedoms just because we can. The struggle we face with our hard-fought vanity.

 

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. Eveline says:

    This is a cool post! I love the way you write!

    Like

    1. justinfenech says:

      Much appreciated Eveline!

      Like

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