Matthew Scurfield Turning the Stone, all rights reserved.
In my late fifties, still sprinting, I made the dubious decision to drop my career, as a working actor in the UK, and set up home with my family on the island of Gozo.
Seven miles wide and twelve long, Gozo makes up part of the Maltese archipelago, Malta, Gozo, Comino, Comminotto, and Filfla, a combined landmass the size of inner London, one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world. Gozo, with a painter’s light, telling landscapes and ancient, weather hewn, shorelines… biting cold for a few months and warm to baking hot for the remaining year. I’m not complaining… and it’s no big deal... unless...
People, particularly the gallant cohorts I’ve hung with, ask why, “why choose such a cultural backwater?”. Swallowing a flush of resentment, to the polite, I mumble something about a disillusioned actor needing a quiet place to write and the financial equation making sense at the time.
Defensive? Maybe! I found that kind of reasoning abrupt, somewhat offensive, not just to my ear, but to the complexities and intrigues of a significant community, who have lived here forever. Nowadays, I realise the question says more about me and my friends, rather than this tiny island with its thirty-
Turn the byway from any lane, road, or path, to find numerous signs of prehistoric settlments on the Maltese islands. On a clear day it is possible to see Gozo from Sicily... and dated around 5200 BC, Sicilians were the first migrants to cross the strait of Mediterranean Sea to settle and work the land. Older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, the Ġgantija Temple was built as a place of worship, centering the island, in homage to our Mother Earth, thousands of years before a small team of activists founded Greenpeace. These days, Gozo maintains two theatres which, aside from a catalogue of local productions, host world-
I would say the Maltese and Gozitans are shrewd survivors, steeped in culture, with a rich and long lived history to boot.
By force, or marriageable intent, from the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Spanish, French, to the British, Malta’s key position in the Mediterranean, has attracted power hungry empires throughout millenniums. To this day, many Gozitans shudder at the thought of the Ottoman Empire enslaving most of their ancestors, in the great siege of 1551. As a former colony, Malta and Gozo had been used, abused, maimed, scarred, overtaken, pillaged, measured and put in place, by those hell bent on stamping their seal on world. The British Empire, called in at Malta’s behest, to rid them of the French, came to be the most influential, in cultural dominance, governance and in law. The port of Valletta, also known as the Grand Harbour, was a prized asset for the British, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Malta’s proximity to the German, Italian and Japanese shipping lanes in 1942, saw more bombs dropped in two months, on this tiny country, than the entire London Blitz. The Axis resolve to flatten and starve the islands into submission, in World War II, brought the people of Malta and Gozo to the brink of extinction – economically devastated, emotionally and physically starved, they were awarded the George Cross, for their endurance and heart-
Certainly, whichever way I came to be here, I made the choice, the decision to settle. I knew from experience that it didn’t matter where I planked my body, which way the house was built, or how the furniture was spread, those wretched demons were waiting to imbibe their place wherever I laid my head. And, in moving to Gozo, perhaps I fooled myself into thinking I was attuned, mature enough, for what I was letting myself in for.
Increasing the need for speed, our global village is well short of cutting ties with its natural and native habitat… if nothing else, Gozo magnifies and reflects the ecological and personal outcome of that far-
I’m not claiming for one minute that time is not of the essence, or an extraordinary landscape and comfort of a nice home, doesn't make a difference, it obviously does. Nevertheless, the environment, school and work place, often left me with a sense of deep isolation and like the Gozitans, I was overshadowed by the requite to dampen the screams of injustice.
Taking a semiconscious shift, toward this new sphere of island life, the various psychological and physiological mechanisms that went into adjusting and surviving, seemed vague, hard to see coming. With the operative of time on my side, it became apparent that I did lack a connection to some form of cultural exchange. Aside from an actor in chaotic transition, I couldn't for the life of me pinpoint what it was.
I began to let my guard down, unwind among local life and custom, and gradually came to see a theme, something familiar about the people of Gozo that I recognised, fundamentally, as a struggle within myself. Then one fine day, conversing with a neighbour, it hit me between the eyes!
Gozo wasn't a dress rehearsal, it was the main event!
I was in deep, landed a metaphysical prison that can bring the hardiest soul and the toughest spirit, to break. The little I knew of incarceration, I might just as well have been banged up in a bricks and mortar jail.
The imposed ramifications, the process of being locked up, wasn’t apparent until I surrendered, ministered the reprise, the given space to breathe, to befriend the child within, in kind.
Thrown from pillar to post, a stage drawn vagabond, trying to make a living best way he could, pinning his hopes on a dream, humiliated down the exchange, stealing refuge from broken relationships, avoidance, running, with a decent job, in fear of getting caught! I don’t remember a time when he wasn't in the outside lane, sprinting in the opposite direction.
Pigeonholed, as some kind of adversary, consistently trapped by the hunger of a systemic, incessant, need… success at any cost… head down, work hard, for his art, for capital… forging ahead on adrenalin and willpower… following leads… with eyes closed… to the letter of indoctrination… he came within a hair’s breadth of losing the world.