Relaxation

There are crickets in a massively loud symphony of ear-piercing buzz-sawing outside as I write this, and there’s glaring sun over palm trees and slowly undulating red flowers in the garden in front of the glass-framed door of the flat where the AC fights a losing battle against the heat.

Across the way there is a dreamscape of rolling mountains, framing an incredibly blue sea, dotted with sculpted rocks of different sizes, as if some ancient giant artist felt like creating a whimsical installation with nature’s own building blocks. And whitewashed houses with red, slanted roofs, like little, gorgeous dollhouses, dot the lower landscape, leading to a beach on which people lie toasting and frying, ignoring advice and going for the general consensus instead, that tanning is beauty.

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And I’m relaxed, for the first time in months. An incredible feeling of ebbed energy, almost debilitating and draining thoughts like a siphoning of infected fluid, leaving a healthy emptiness that struggles to remain infection free. A struggle, as strong, and eventually as ineffectual as that of the AC against the heat, to keep work away from mind. A fight for renewed sanity and the pushing-back of a breakdown that seemed imminent, sensed as unavoidable to the staunch workaholic brain that knows it is sick but resists the medicine that is suggested at every turn by well-wishers.

The unease that creeps under the skin at work not done cannot be entirely eliminated, so I am making do with not working, and with the difficulty to think forced onto me by actually relaxing … a word I know only semantically and lexically.

And the crickets raise their voices once more, underscoring the exotic sounds of a land and soundscape that is quite similar to ours (the Maltese), but yet so incredibly different as to make it almost alien.

As is my head right now. Identity-less and quiet, seeking words that sound of silence and the barrenness of thought, even as my hands voraciously seek the online newspapers, Facebook and my e-mail client, as if the relaxation has not yet travelled that far.

But it must, for work, another of the loves of my life, kills, and a person who has a type one psychological profile, and who works the way I do, is headed for an early grave.

So maybe this is practice – the dearth of thoughts and draining of energy, the lethargic existence as in a slow-motion movie, the skies pristine and so blue the sun fights the hue with haziness – practice for when the time comes.

But also a postponement, a refuelling, a much needed engine service as the world hums around me and wonderfully forgets I am in it.

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I hate the sound of jackhammers!

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I hate the sound of jackhammers. I cannot stand it. It is as obnoxious as it is loud, and it hits my brain in waves of disruption. It confuses my ideas and stops me thinking, making me want to scream so loud that I drown it out, even if just for a few seconds.

I live in an area that is being built up. That is to say, I live in Malta!

As I write this, a huge tower crane drowns out the landscape to the left of my flat, as a massive apartment block has, since last summer, been pandemoniously on its way up to kill yet another bit of the very limited view we have left. And since yesterday, to my right, workers with a jackhammer are tearing up the roof of another old house, possibly to replace it with yet another hulking block, which will remain empty for many years, in much the same way that so many other flats brought into existence by the artificial building boom that has ruined the lives of so many quite streets, have remained empty and will continue to do so.

The sound of the jackhammer is not just horrendous per se, it is also symbolic of the doom of yet another slice of what we were, all to be replaced by what we have recklessly striven to be for years now. I am not massively nostalgic, and do believe that some of the old houses are better off leveled to the ground. But it’s what we do with the space that’s left that really kills me.

We are pretty much going down an incredibly steep hill very fast and the brakes shattered quite a bit back. Few realise that there always seems to be the word “bust” after the word “boom”, and when “building” precedes that word, then we really are in deep trouble. Just ask the Irish.

Selfishly, I just hate the noise. I cannot work in it, and I just cannot conceptualise that it will go on for months and years, and that the moment it eases (for it never ceases), another one, possibly right next door, will start.

We live in dust and grit and we do it because we know no better. And there is so much infernal noise we should all be deaf.

And right this minute, I wish I was.

Oh hell, it’s election time!

Oh whoopie, oh how wonderful
this really got my goat!
It seems to be that time again
when we all have to vote.

Dig deep inside the storage space
for dusty flags and scarves;
electoral commissioner
the islands he just carves

in districts green and blue and red
and gerrymandered too,
how else can those who f****d us up
the voters grab and woo?

This is of course a voice that yells
from Labour’s vast expanse,
who live on comment boards @Times,
on PN graves to dance.

Were this to be a calm, blue voice
adoring the PM,
whose only massive mortal sin
was to be nice to “them”

it would no doubt be wondering
how could that JPO
not stay with joy in paradise?
He dealt us all a blow!

How could the rest of Malta
not realise how rich
we’ve all become in these last years,
how all’s without a glitch.

We’ll all ignore that little voice
tinged Green and sore as hell;
it’s not as if there’s anyone
who wants to hear them yell.

And so, with friends and colleagues
we’ll start a Facebook page
and scream and rant and splutter
and vent on it our rage.

We’ll say how all’s a total mess
and how the time has come
for all good men and women too
to shout and sound the drum.

How there can be no doubt this time
the scum will lose the race
and how their kids and nephews
won’t dare to show their face.

Let’s face it, after twenty six
unholy, stinking years
we’d rather have in government
a pack of savage bears!

Not that we’d be a lot far off
with Muscat’s lot in there!
say voices from the other side
raised high in fear and prayer.

No jobs, no plans, not even brains
just monsters from the past
who’re ready to devour us whole
and find it all a blast.

Is that a tinny voice we hear
from underneath a rock,
just clamouring for attention,
but spouting useless schlock?

It cannot have been important
no matter how frank, oh
well, it will soon disappear
and we’ll forget the show.

All experts we’ll become at once
on social network sites.
We’ll all be in our own dear eyes
as bright as shining lights.

And our great wisdom we’ll regale
to those from our own stock
and call all sorts of names and things
those others, dumb as blocks

who do not see how right we are
to think we know it all,
how when our side gets into goal
we’ll all just have a ball.

And on and on this can go on
forever and a day
because on this election farce
there’s just too much to say.

We can but hope for better times
before Election’s here!
One savage storm from way up north,
we’ll sink and disappear!

We impose

Humanity does not seem to believe in the live and let live concept. It seems to be against its very nature. Humanity insists on imposing. Its views. Its ideas. Its ideologies. And heaven help any of those who disagree with the imposition.

Oh, did I just use a religious aphorism to make my point? Little wonder, I suppose … imposition of the values that others value has become an integral part of what we “think”. From the blatant revisionist reconstruction of history to the slow, insidious, subliminal change-induction incurred through over-subscription to opinion-maker and/or blogger persuasive argumentation, we seem to be really messed up as to whether our own thoughts are really our own.

I have no clue if the thoughts I’m actually putting into words right now are mine, or if they’ve been instilled in me over the years, slowly edging their way into my cognition through subtle suggestion, or just hard-wired into the way I think by the socio-political culture of my upbringing.

Conspiracy theory? Who, moi? Perhaps. But there’s nothing to say that that has not also been imposed on me by my government. Or the opposition. Or the twists and turns of an eternity spent in the employ of others, who have their agendas and want “the best for me”. And put their arms around my shoulder and smirk and say that (emphatically) as they do their damndest to make sure I say “yes”.

The fact that I’ve often said “no” has been a tragedy in my life that I do not regret. But I do suppose that there are some people in Syria right now who might very well be regretting that they said no. Or those poor sods in Afghanistan who enjoyed a song and dance and got decapitated by the Taliban for their troubles.

The Taliban impose their very conservative, incredibly fundamentalist ideologies on everybody that is within their destructive reach.

So do we. We insist that what we believe is right is, in fact, the ONLY right. We believe with not a hint of ever thinking we’re wrong, that we have a monopoly on what is right or wrong.

And, no, I’m not talking about broad right or wrong. I’m not talking about pedophilia, for god’s sakes (oh, another one of those!), nor about murder … I’m not talking about black and white, that is universally accepted (except by a few perverts) AS right and wrong, I’m talking about the shades of grey in society.

I’m talking (for example) about gays not being able to form a family, because the government we have voted for (or against) must tow a certain very conservative line, and as a result impose. We saw this happening during the divorce debate. We’re seeing it happen (in mindless droves) in the in-vitro fertilisation argumentations. And now we have to insist that gays should not have a chance at happiness in life.

Why? Because we do not want them to have it. Because what they are disagrees with what we think.

Because we know we are right. And they? They are wrong! They have to be.

Because we can’t possible be.

An essay on Design

I live and breathe Design. I see Design all around me. I touch it everywhere. There’s a sensual feeling of almost taking in Design through every pore of my being. I love it most times, hate it at other times, but respect it always.

We are, admittedly, at the mercy of Design. It leads us by the nose, or the eyes, or the heart. It is a persuader and a coaxer. It cajoles and gets its way. The brands we like (or are softly lulled into liking), the names we understand from among those that gently fly around the ether, the air, and the radio waves, are all carefully crafted by Design. All given an identity so unique it startles, or so pliable it lingers in the depth of our subconscious, or so shocking it shocks.

The visual gymnastics that are Design’s own domain, created skillfully by designers trained in colour compatibility and association, visual balance, font significance and creation, image manipulation, and, quintessentially, the use of space (be it white, black or coloured), ply their trade in every sphere of society. They are the gurus leading our eyes as we drive up busy thoroughfares; they are the ones that determine the decor of the shops we visit; they craft the chairs we sit on; they manage the looks of the magazines we read. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. They sit backstage, directing the orchestra of our senses, playing music of seduction and thriving on our pleasure … that which makes what they do worthwhile. Because pleasure, at icons that signify products, sells. Or buys. The designer is a mercenary on the side, a pen for hire. Fighting somebody else’s war with shapes and colours.

The designer’s job is to problematise communication. He or she must understand the needs of what is to be communicated, the needs (in the best tradition of Maslow) of those who will eventually see the design product, and the needs of the visual. They tie together the aesthetic with the intellectual, because the best Design has both, in an invisible bond that carries the essential message and pleases (at time pleasures) and communicates ideas, or thoughts, or just basic information.

Design is also culturally significant and brands countries with a brush that generalises, but is often an accurate interpreter of mood. The cleanliness of the Swiss, the cacophonous, crowded colour of the Mediterraneans, the minimalism of the Scandinavians. And so many others in between. The history of Design is rich in national treasures and iconic moments that stay with us as persistently as the best art.  From the French Belle Epoque’s Toulouse-Lautrec’s exotic dancers, to Milton Glaser’s American heart. From Tatlin’s Russian tower, constructed with the need to indoctrinate patriotism, to the Dadaist Duchamp’s urinal, not constructed and meaning nothing at all.

The logos that are stuck to facades in meters high cutouts, and which adorn in miniscule visuals the face of our watch, identify and decorate. Because Design has become a totally integral part of life … a visual underpinning of society. It burns with the fires of screaming and dances with the pastels of dreams. It shouts and whispers, and cries and laughs and beckons. As invisible as breathing. And, it tells us persistently, just as indispensable.

The island-juggling clown…

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The clown is a tragic creature, often portrayed as such in literature and films – the heart–torn man who must laugh out loud and make laugh as he seethes inside with the burning flames of anguish as water is poured over his head, never reaching the fire within.

The clown is a grotesque creature – a caricature of humanity that is intended for ridicule, but often horrifies instead, when the altruistic becomes self–serving. It is little wonder that the clown has become the main character in so many horror movies. The make–up that supposedly creates laughter, only slightly twisted to provoke the most abject terror instead. The perversity is in the irony. The symbol of merriment that doubles back on itself, creating the antithesis… the hero’s anti–hero or villain.

The clown can be a literary creation – the buffoon to be pitied, or the intelligent man to be feared. A Shakespearean Feste who invoked that the cowl does not the monk make. A man whose appearance belies what lies beneath.

The clown is an artistic creation – unique in configuration of visual presentation, the design stored on eggs in guarded vaults, copyrighted and padlocked to a name, immutable as a slapstick Bozo or a sad Pierrot. A part of individual cultures that craft the very nature of the clown – the head–hitting Punch, the tricky Arlecchino, the waddling Hobo, all signify something special to their countrymen. A creation for the people.

The clown destroys a lot of what he touches. He breaks heads – to the joy of an audience that likes comic violence … not a far cry from their Roman forbears, I would imagine, with only the deletion of “comic” separating them. He squashes cakes and pies in people’s faces. He falls disastrously and gets up, only to fall again. He is the eternal gymnast, landing on his feet, but tripping easily and falling heavily. An illusion that is real to those who see him.

Imagine if the clown had a whole island to play with. The tragic clown, the grotesque clown, the ridiculous clown, the destructive clown who always plays to the audience – the self–serving clown who still screams and struts and makes his audience laugh, or cower with terror, depending on their perception of him.

We have him, of course – the Maltese clown – an unstable clown in an undeserved position of power, hurling metaphorical, all too solidly destructive cream–pies at the very base of a country’s stability.

The whole country is in his hands, played with and juggled. Heaven help us if he drops the juggling balls, as the clown is supposed to do. Ham-handedly, too used to living in a fantasy world to be aware of the breakage that will not be undone. Or actually aware, as the literary clown is, two-faced, but uncaring.

Cole Porter famously said that all the world loves a clown. The danger is in when the clown does not love the world.

On World Book Day

This was my message as the chairman of the Maltese National Book Council to commemorate World Book and Copyright day, celebrated (almost) world wide on April 23 (2012).

The celebration of World Book Day on April 23 is much more than just a marker that by far the majority of people still love books. It is quite a bit more.

It is a reminder that books have been an integral part of our lives since we were young. They were part of our childhood, possibly in both good and bad ways. Bad as in having had to read them because the teacher said so – the often counter-productive forcing of reading by parents and educators that results in so many keeping well away from books they do not have to read. Good as in wonderful days lost in the worlds created by children’s writers, wrapped round in wonders and life that was not as we knew it.

World Book Day is an indicator that the book in its traditional form is alive and well. That e-books, that are also books and should be respected as such, have not managed to eradicate the paper book. The e-book has not so far proved to be a replacement for the traditional book, but an add-on – possibly getting people who have not been avid readers to read more, and helping bookworms get a higher dosage of their daily fix. The traditional book is unique in its tactility and its form. No electronic paper can replace the rough feel of the yellowing pages of an old paperback, nor can it replace its utility and warmth. Researchers are even finding that the story is slowly going full circle. Children are falling in love all over again with printed books, finding in them an escape from the electronic dominance in their young lives.

World Book Day is a celebration of that communications medium that has changed the life of so many.  The coming of the book so many centuries ago, changed the insular lives of individuals into ones that became aware of the thoughts and ideas of others. The learning that has been imparted by the book is second to none. For many centuries it was the repository of all the wisdom of humanity, and the library became the sanctum of knowledge – the sacred space for the scholar to thrive and the reader to imbibe of life outside life. It is little wonder that book burning became the sign of the tyrant despot who wanted to control minds. It is even less of a wonder that all those who want to impose their own opinions, politics and dogmas on others are afraid of books that might give a clear idea of the other hand. The autocrat will tell you what not to read. The freedom to read with no ban has become another indicator of democracy. The book is linked in this way directly to the autonomy of thought.

World Book Day draws our attention to our own country and the books it produces. It underscores how far the Maltese produced book has come over the years. One quick look at the wares available at the November Malta Book Fair is enough to show that the distinction between foreign and Maltese productions is seamless … unnoticeable. The hundreds of books published each year indicate a readership that thrives and can be cultivated. Unfortunately this day also draws our attention to the fact that our miniscule market cannot but leave many battles in the way of our publishers. They prosper in spite of the circumstances and who must therefore be helped at every turn, if we are not to lose the advantage we have gained through such hard work by so many.

Hopefully, the celebration of World Book Day also helps those among us who have strayed away from the beauty that can be afforded by reading, to pick up a book and relive times when our reality dimmed for a while, and the world of words transported us to magic places lived through stimulated imagination.