Dirty!

Oink

The Maltese (we) are a dirty race.

Here I’m using that word in its most basic lexical meaning. I’m talking about dirt, rubbish, trash… all that the Maltese leave behind them anywhere and everywhere they go. Untidiness is ingrained in our nature and, it seems, no amount of education can wean us of the urge to dump things wherever and whenever we please.

When a cigarette packet is empty, it is thrown out of an open car window onto the road. When a packet of crisps is eaten, it’s crumpled and dropped. Right there and then. As are cigarette stubs. Wrappers. Sticky, disgusting chewing gum.

Our streets are pig styes. And, yes, the local councils can do more by engaging sweepers to clean up the mess once in a while, but it really is not the Councils that are making the streets dirty, and giving our island the veneer of a third world country in the eyes of its residents and visitors.

No, it’s us. We are the culprits. The son who dropped that crisp bag probably saw his dad throw out that cigarette packet. The level of negative modelling in this is horrendous.

And those who throw out a cigarette pack are probably also to blame for the mattress dumped in a field, just beyond a scenic rubble wall. For the large, broken shelf resting against the facade of a house. Not the house of the one who threw out the shelf of course. No, logically not. NIMBY lives and is well, but anywhere outside the back yard is fair game.

And there really is no reason for this. There are few countries in which trash collection is as frequent as in ours. In which bulky items are collected by appointment by councils. And for free. We have no reason to litter. No reason to dump things where they shouldn’t be dumped. It’s actually more of a chore to do so than to abide by the laws of the land and use dustbins and the services provided for us.

Not that there are enough public dustbins, nor are they emptied and cleaned regularly and efficiently where they do exist, resulting in much more of a mess than if they hadn’t been used at all. But even where dustbins exist, they’re not used.

Why? Because that’s what we’ve always done. That’s what we’ve always been like. Because, in public, we are dirty by nature. Privately, however, we’re not dirty by any stretch of the imagination. Just check out our own homes (in the main). But when it comes to public spaces, we just don’t care enough to learn to hold onto what needs dumping till we find the right place to do so.

I also have the most intense, vehement hatred for those dog walkers who do not clean up after their pets poop. The street where I live in Msida and those surrounding it have become an obstacle course for residents. Circumnavigating turds has become an acquired skill, even while holding one’s breath as the stench of excrement radiates in the extensive summer heat.

And, to pre-empt the obvious comment, no, we’re not the only race that’s this dirty! There are others, sure, but are they the ones we want to emulate in this? Or those countries where even little side-roads are pristine in cleanliness? Or those in whose streets walking is a pleasure and not a chore?

I get very jealous when I’m in those countries whose citizens love their land enough to want it to be as clean as their own houses are. Because I know that even if local councils were to make much (MUCH) more of an effort than they are making at the moment, the streets in which we live will remain overwhelmed by trash thrown out by those who do not care.

I find it hard to believe that all the Maltese don’t care, but given the amount of rubbish that surrounds us, suffocating any pleasure there might be at who we are, I tend to believe that that is indeed the case.

The reading on the wall

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A lot is being written about the dearth of reading in Malta and, separately but associated with this, about the state of our libraries. The facts are very hard to deny. The Maltese as a people are not the most avid readers in the world; quite the opposite. A Misco study a few years back showed that they do read but very few do so regularly and even fewer prefer to read books.

Another fact is that the state of our lending library, in spite of all the work being poured into it by a dedicated group of minders, is poor, in every aspect. The volume of borrowing pretty much reflects this and the lack of reading, which all research indicates to be a fact.

I will try not to belabour the point here and look forward rather than backwards. Enough research has been carried out for us to have, at least, an inkling as to what the causes are for this but perhaps a few ideas need to be put in place, rather than in perennial discussion, as to how this national malaise can be handled with long-term solutions in mind.

Let’s start with the libraries.

There are a number of positive elements already in place. There is a visionary team made up of a CEO and two librarians working hard to implement change against all odds.

There is a University department and a library council led by a person who knows her stuff and an association that is constantly proffering positive suggestions.

But they do not have the money, nor do they have the political clout to make the changes that need to be made to turn our libraries into points of socialisation, built around information and entertainment with books of the print and ‘e’ categories at the centre of the operations.

Nor do we have an attractive, cosy venue for our central lending library. We have perpetually endorsed Dom Mintoff’s mistake in placing the library in an inaccessible, quite horrible building, with gorgeous views but little else. Complete with metal, warehouse-style bookcases and no comfort in the reading rooms. This is a mistake that needs to be rectified.

A central, appealing location has to be identified and given over to the people who know what to do, so they can turn it into what needs doing.

Then, of course, there is the persistent problem of reading, or the lack of it. There is no panacea here. Do not believe anyone who tells you that a mentality stuck in concrete can be turned round in a few years. The thinking needs to be long term. And it needs to be far-reaching and consistent.

Piecemeal solutions that appeal to the camera are risible political ploys that leave no lasting effect. Planning and a vision are needed here. One hopes that there are people in power who can do both. But, in any case, here are a few suggestions.

Catch them when they are young or even before they are born. Work with midwives in antenatal classes to infuse the concept of bedtime reading in the minds of parents-to-be.

Make sure they understand that having enough books around the house will surely leave some sort of effect on the offspring. There is enough research to support this. This might also, eventually, eat away at the ignorant mentality that some parents have of tyrannically imposing books on their children, counter productively making them hate books.

If the next generation, not born yet, reads, then we are on the way.

But children actually do read, in spite of the tantalising allure of so many electronic distractions. Studies in Sweden are even showing that the new generations are being re-awed by printed books, having gone full circle from the fascination with the alternative.

We lose them in teenage. If there are enough good books for teenagers out there and if there are programmes in schools that foster reading in ways that promote it as fun rather than letting the ‘learn-by-heart’ brigade ruin their perceptions, then there is hope.

Let local councils come on board too. Have this corroborated by visionary local council culture plans, including reading clubs, discussions, multimedia spanning of what stems from reading. Get youth clubs on board. Work on a national strategy that includes goodwill and people with a mission rather than political imposition, and we might get there.

Help the publishers. We have precious few of them as it is. They work hard and against the odds. They have done miracles and it has all been on their own. They have little to no help from the authorities and European programmes that are supposed to help culture more often than not do not fit the demands of our tiny market and are therefore not viable options.

Create a needs analysis to see what is missing and help them diversify, promote and be a force to be reckoned with rather than let them struggle to keep their noses above water. They are commercial entities that are keeping a market alive that contributes massively to our national culture. Find out what they need and help them get it, for our sakes as well as theirs.

Help the booksellers too, if you can. Give them back their book fair and then create a festival another time and another place. They need their once-a-year outlet to see some returns on their outlays.

Put books within the reach of those who have no books at all. Work with social workers, parish priests, local councils. Find the depressed areas and slowly introduce the concept of reading to the people there. They might laugh you out of the house to begin with but leaving a book behind will eventually lead to a trickle of interest that might, with time, turn into a torrent.

Flood the media with talk about books. Do not hide culture on television in the slots nobody watches because they are asleep. Make the programmes interesting and watchable. Put drama in there and documentaries that do not involve just one talking head. Pump the social media for all it is worth.

Put very short story collections in waiting rooms. Subsidise these if need be. Make sure there is something that can be read in 15 minutes. Nobody will pick up a book in the doctor’s waiting room if all that can be read is a chapter.

And also fill our beaches with libraries. Make deals with hotels to have book exchange programmes. Give them the bookcases and a crate of books to begin with, help them with expertise, then let them take it from there.

And so on.

I am just an individual and these are only some of the ideas that I have. There is no place here to list all of them. Imagine what a think-tank of like-minded individuals can come up with, just how many other practical visions can fuel the list.

This list is just the tip of what can be done. All ideas here are practical, though they need finances and goodwill to be implemented.

We cannot go on just talking and doomsaying. We cannot keep on dreaming of bringing back what has been lost, thinking that the whole situation can be solved if only we can go back to a different time. The friendly bookseller seer has gone the way of the manifk and Wenzu tat-Titotla.

We need to be proactive and get on with the job at hand. The minds of our people deserve no less.

(From THE TIMES, March 28, 2014)

 

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.

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.

Confessions of a Maltese in Sweden

Sadly, I am close to finishing my full sabbatical year in Sweden. I did have a few breaks in Malta along the way, and one in Greece, but most of the time I was here, living in Malmö, at the southern tip of Sweden, becoming a very real part of it, though at the same time, almost contradictorily, still viewing it with the eyes of a man from another country.

This was not my first time in Malmö. Far from it. Because of guest lectures I’ve delivered in Malmö itself and in its neighbouring city of Lund, I have been coming up to Sweden quite regularly for many years. But this was the longest by far I’ve ever been here, meaning I got to experience everyday residential life, and also got to know Sweden and the Swedes a little better.

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Sweden is a gorgeous country that is much too cold many months a year, and Swedes will never tire of pointing this out. The latter, not the former. I happen not to mind the cold too much, though I have to admit that feeling your ears about to fall off as the temperatures hit the minuses and a brisk, almost ever-present breeze whips up the razor blades, does tend to underscore their point of view. But I still think of Sweden’s wonderful, green rolling hills, and impressive woodscapes, not to mention the brilliantly ordered Swedish cities, as by far the winners when contending with the cold for superiority.

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Come to think of it, in spite of walking like a doddering cripple in the slippery slush on the roads that is the down side of snow, I most definitely also love the landscapes in winter, carpeted by a thick covering of white that replaces summer and spring scenes with others that are so incredibly different as to make one think they are completely new.

The Swedes also complain of the dark, and here they have a point. Light switching slowly on at nine thirty in the morning and the darkness falling heavily around three thirty  in the afternoon does tend to make one believe he is living in a stygian reality, but that is why the wiley Swedes have winter lights. Small lamps are omnipresent on window sills. And they also shroud awnings and interlace the foliage of bushes with tiny white lights, not unlike Christmas ones. Nothing garish. Indeeded, there are very few bright and colored lights at Christmas time itself. Just the ubiquitous triangle in each window, the occasional star, and the steady, shining pin-pricks of festooned lights. Understated. Like all that the Swedes do. Nothing shouts out loud. Everything talks at a gentlemanly level, whispering when needed, but hardly ever raising the decibels to cacophony.

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I have to admit that for this and for many other reasons, I like the Swedes as much as I like Sweden. They are intelligent, entrapreunereal, pro-active, hardworking, and yet humble people. A little bit too humble, perhaps. Though times have changed, it is amazing how the famous Jante Lagen (or Jante’s Law) has retained its grip on most of them, dictating they do not stand out; that they should never trumpet their successes; that they should keep a low profile.

And that is amazing, because I’ve known very few other peoples who have as much to trumpet about as the Swedes. Sweden is a rich country. Rich not just in money (though that too, and an expensive place to live in!), but also rich with innovation and creativity. This is, for example, manifested in the way that Swedes love art. It is everywhere in the streets and they buy art for their homes, and have allocations for art for their factories and other places of work. The Swedes excell in scholarship, invention and research, which is why I feel so proud to have been accepted as a guest lecturer in a few of their universities. And I love their students. I note very little of the arrogance I tend to (alas!) expect from young people. Instead there is attention, intelligent questioning and hard work. Not a lot of humour, too, unfortunately. I suppose that is the result of the other things, though they do laugh on cue in my lectures…

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There is a bit of passion missing. That passion that makes us Maltese and most Mediterraneans quite chaotic and erratic, but very much alive. The passion that, unfortunately, also makes fools of us whenever politics, football or a village feast raise an ugly head. That passion that makes us scream and swear so much does not seem to be there at face value in Sweden. Instead there is a calm that is almost unnatural. Oh, the Swedes (especially the young ones) drink too much. That’s were all restraint stops and loud voices in the middle of the night under my bedroom window, make me want to show Mediterranean passion at its worst. But in the main, I find them to be restrained. Nordic, I suppose. With a touch of the Germanic. But once you dig into the light shell … no more than a veneer, actually … you find warmth and the most incredible friendliness. A genuine interest in what you do and what you are. A wide-eyed acceptance that is almost too good to live.

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Whenever I try to describe Swedes and Sweden, the totally inept and inaccuarate word “simplicity” keeps popping into my mind. Because it is not the simplicity that indicates lack of intelligence … the very opposite, in fact, if that were at all possible. No, the “simplicity” I mean refers to a simplification of life … a scaling down to the essentials. Leaving out the cobwebs and the other clutter and going for the symbolic jugular. Calmly, of course, and accurately.

Even design is scaled down. Minimalism is king! Less is more is the mantra that dominates. But oh what they can do with the bare minimum. And they do it democratically. I noted that “för alla” (for everyone) seems to be the catch phrase most used in advertising campaigns. And there is a bit of a crux of it there. Sweden is built on a model that owes a lot to the predominantly socialist politics that have dominated it over the years … though it’s not the socialism the Maltese have come to regard with severe mixed feelings. It’s an everyday socialism that dictates that everyone can (and should) have a “good” life. As good a life as can be had, in any case.

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Take IKEA, for example. This is probably Sweden’s biggest export (though someone cynical among you might disagree and point at Absolut Vodka!). The whole IKEA concept is based on incredibly well engineered and often nicely designed, flat-packed furniture that is of a reasonably high quality and that anyone can afford. Meaning, even at a bare minimum, one can furnish a house and live in a luxury of sorts.

That is the philosophy. Invisible, but there. Along with an orderliness that is impossible for any Maltese who has not lived in Sweden even to begin to conceptualise. From the general cleanliness of the streets, to the well-oiled machine that takes care of snow and the vagaries of the weather in winter … that allows the country to function almost normally in spite of nature dumping tons of white stuff on it every year. Within hours of a major snowstorm, all the main roads are cleaned, all the pavements salted, and the world goes on. Amazing.

Yes, trains and buses do not always run on time (and then you never hear an end to it), and bureaucracy exists like everywhere else, but here with no corners cut. The law is the law in Sweden. No two ways about it. And it is an open society and an information one. Maybe just too much so. I can find out everything about anyone online. Literally everything. From birthdays to who he or she lives with, to the make and year of production of his or her car (and how much it can be sold for this week), and if he or she owes anybody any money. I suppose the philosophy of  “för alla” dictates that. And another thing: you are as valid as your “personnummer” in Sweden. Roughly equivalent to the Maltese ID card number, or the social security number elsewhere. It is the key to existance. Without it, you don’t! Exist, that is. Potentially the negative side of orderliness. Realistically a clean way of running a well-oiled machine. But I don’t have to like it.

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There are lots of other things to like. The language, for example, is a melodious mixture of germanic voices, wonderful to listen to, though not extremely easy to learn. I have struggled to learn it for a while now, but will write off my partial failure to dwindling cognitive capabilities as opposed to its actual difficulty. Not understanding it totally has its pluses. I notice things. The word “precis” (roughly, “precisely”) is repeated often to indicate agreement. And isn’t this just typical of the way the Swedes like everything ordered and in its place? Wonderful how the lifestyle is reflected in the language. But I suppose that goes for any language and not just Swedish. Still, I don’t know of any other language within my very limited scope that has the word “lagom”, which, again very very roughly, means “just right” – a fitting tribute to what every Swede aspires to in life.

That and the wonderful word “mysig”, that cannot really be translated, though the closest is “cosy” (I suppose). It refers to a feeling. A warmth. An enclosed cocoon of love and closeness away from the overpowering chill of the outiside. The aloofness of the Swedes is only apparent at face value. They crave closeness. It is little wonder that their preferred method of greeting a friend or aquaintance is with a single hug – not too close, but full bodied.

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Sweden is now my second home, and not just because I have a residence and half of my life here, but more because I FEEL at home. A green one that turns white many months a year, and that is ordered, but lively and alive; politically correct, but liberal and open-minded. Gorgeous. And missed.

A philistine talking about art

You can call me a philistine if you like, but I like art I can feel.

I like it to talk to me, and tell me things that might not have been in the artist’s mind and hands as he or she made it. But then again, might have been. I like art to stimulate me and make me think thoughts I would not have felt had I not experienced it.

I like art that I can understand. No, not necessarily with my mind, but with some part of my being or my field of experience. It needs to touch me with a subtle, rough or explosive tactility that leaves an effect. And I need it to please me. Or not, come to think of it. It can disturb me, too, like a Francis Bacon or a Edward Munch. It does not have to be a Degas, with its delicious pastels to get under my skin. It can be a towering smoothness by Henry Moore, or a brilliantly emotional Rodin.

What worries me is Conceptual Art. So, yes, call me a philistine. The Concept seems to have taken over. Our modern art museums are full of it and very little else; our galleries, if they want to be reviewed, need to be full to brimming with art that nobody understands, but nods knowledgably at and looks sombre in front of and is able to make intelligent sounding noises of assent as some person with an art degree describes the intricate qualities of what makes that art what it is.

And by “our” I do not mean just Maltese. I am living in Sweden at the moment, a country that loves art, that buys art, that has whole sections of newspapers dedicated to art, that often has companies allocating part of their budget to buy art … to generalise, a country whose people are not philistines, to say the least. But here too, the Concept seems to get the formal nod from those critics who refuse to even look at something that has a popular aesthetic. They need to be able to EXPLAIN the art to me, so I can say how bright they are that they can see things in the concept that I cannot even begin to think about, and how important it is that they (knowledgably, with nods and sombre looks) ignore every single other artistic expression to chase conceptual art alone. Because that is what the academies teach. That is how students get in, and, on the other hand, how students who do not push a Concept, but are good with their hands and their hearts, are left out. How you can only be a GOOD art teacher in higher education if you tout the Concept to the detriment of all else.

I am not saying no to concepts. Heaven forbid. They are at the heart of art and the artist must have them to exploit. But NOT when they take over and push everything else out. It’s like stripping the soul out of the body, or, inversely, just floating the invisible soul for all the world like the Emperor’s new clothes.

This was brought about by an article in the Swedish daily Sydsvenskan this morning, that spoke in a language I could understand and share about a Banksy exhibition here, and went on to talk about street art. The wonderful, free, expression of people who want to say something, rather than conceptualise it, obfuscate it, then call it art that people nod and look sombre at. And it made me realise how much I miss solid, communicable articles about art – ones that show the knowledge of the writer in ways that do not include wordplay and the defined hocus-pocus jargon of the critic who struggles to signify without bothering to feel.

So call me a philistine, if you like. You have a right to.

But I have a right to my art, because I cannot live without it.