In my late fifties, still running fast, I dropped my career as a working actor in the UK and set up home with my family on the island of Gozo. Over many years of highs and lows, in relationships and work, I continued, as ever, to live in the hope of a life with less angst, less grief; a life where irrational and compulsive fear didn’t rule the roost. Never mind repercussions. The persuasive power of thought, following an age-old pattern, continued to drive a wedge between me and the artistry.
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 leaders throughout millennia. To this day many Gozitans shudder at the thought of the Ottoman Empire enslaving their ancestors in 1551, by penetrating the Cittadella; a case of treason from the inside of this impenetrable fortress. 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. Malta’s proximity to the German, Italian and Japanese shipping lanes, in 1942, saw more bombs dropped over a duration of two months on this tiny area of land than the entire London Blitz. The Axis resolve to flatten and starve the islands into submission, over World War II, brought the people of Malta and Gozo to the brink of extinction. Economically devastated, emotionally and physically starved, the Maltese and Gozitans received the George Cross for their endurance and heart-placed heroism. Following their independence from the British in 1964, Malta became a republic within the British Commonwealth. Not to be outsmarted, they joined the European Union in 2004.
Maltese, or Malti, is the only Semitic language, based on an Arabic vernacular, spoken in Europe. As well as their native tongue, most Maltese are fluent in English and Italian.
It would seem the Maltese and Gozitans are shrewd survivors, a go-get mentality, steeped in art, with a distinct and illuminating history to boot. Certainly, whichever way I came to be here, I made the choice, the decision to settle. I knew from experience, from sitting on the fence, through the fog and malaise, the hits, misses, being rich, poor, accepted, rejected, it didn’t matter where I planked my body, which way the house tilted, or how the furniture spread, those wretched demons were waiting to imbibe their place wherever I laid my head. I knew that if I didn’t clean up my act, curb the volatility in my life, I’d continue to be a liability to my family, to the company and to my part in life’s play. Through the heartbreak and pain, I came to realise the power of thought, how emotional and intellectual reasoning mapped by human conditioning can bring the strongest of souls to the end of a rope. Blossom or perish? In leaving the UK, perhaps I fooled myself into believing I was diligent, mature enough for what I was letting myself in for.
I first came to Gozo in 1977, reporting for work on a film. The roads were mostly rough and broken back then. Donkeys helped farmers tow the cart and plough in the quiet lane. Along with some cherished cars, tackling the make-do highways, there were a few vintage buses and lorries, a customised variety, unique eye-catching works of art, refurbished from the ground up, polished, paraded and proudly maintained by their owners. The clear turquoise sea seemed to bloom, full of marine life.
When we came to live here, at the turn of the century, buses and lorries were losing the artist’s touch and getting uniformed, cars growing in number… there wasn’t a donkey in sight… they assigned any remaining ass to the corral… locals were now tilling the fields using small motorised ploughs; after working the land, they attached this little machine to the cart. Wheels replace the blades, propelling your man from field to home, for greater efficiency and speed. An encroaching hill of rubbish loomed over the centre of the island… metals, paper, insecticides, plastic and other incumbent waste, driven by sharp winds and torrential rains through the soil, through rocky nooks, crannies, down roads, rivulets and swept into the sea; out of sight, to be out of mind. The sea and its bed, lacking a previous lustre, far short of the abundance I remembered, now a sombre reminder to wake the earth doctor. Old farmhouses and other such buildings are being renovated, spruced up to make way for the new wave… the heavy limestone blocks carried on the shoulder of a single mason, one at a time, now lifted nineteen to the dozen by cranes growing in number across the skyline like feral machines. Potholed roads increasingly paved and tarmacked for the domination of traffic, earmark concrete modernisation on the up and up. Meanwhile, locals and government argue and debate the construction of a tunnel under the sea, to make the journey between Malta and Gozo faster, reaping an economic swing.
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’d mumble something about a disillusioned actor needing a quiet place to write and the financial equation making sense. I found that question abrupt, somewhat offensive, not just to my pride, but to the complexities and intrigues of a significant community that has lived here forever. Defensive? Maybe? Nowadays, I realise the question says more about me and my friends, rather than Gozo, with its thirty-something thousand inhabitants.
Step off any thoroughfare and you’ll not have to walk far to find remains of prehistoric settlements on the Maltese islands, suggesting small cultured communities of farming and worship, dating back to the Early Bronze Age. On a clear day, it is possible to see Sicily from Gozo. And 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 Temples, engineered with precision and artistry, built as a place of communion deifying fertility, centring the island to the mother, the earth; a frontrunner for a team of activists, way down the line, founding the outside movement Greenpeace.
Today, Gozo maintains two theatres staging a catalogue of local productions, including opera with world-class singers, performed to packed auditoriums. Along with cracker-rich street festivals, concerts, dance, film and plays, favoured with excitement and verve, among locals and foreigners alike.
Overshadowed by its older brother, Gozo, with its apparent lack of a slick doorway to Malta, the outside world, inhabited by a populous torn from old ways; doubting they will ever catch up with the new. Seeking work, they hope, watch, wait, pray, rush forever forward, lining up to catch a ride, leaving a vision to fix a dream with the other crowd.
Homing in, as much as one can, given an alien status, I let my guard down, unwind among local life and custom and came to see a theme, something familiar about the people of Gozo, that I recognised as a conflicting struggle within myself. Aside from an actor in chaotic transition, I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint why this struggle had become so overwhelming. Then one fine day, conversing with a neighbour, it hit me between the eyes! Gozo wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the central event!
A small island used, abused, maimed, scarred, overtaken, pillaged, measured and put in place, by those hellbent on stamping their seal of authority on the world. The repercussions may seem clichéd, patriotic, and normalised, but they are masking a raging inevitability. We learn by example. One over the other. Increasing the need for speed. Like some communally accepted sociopathic ADHD, our global village seems well short of tying in with its natural and native habitat. If nothing else, Gozo is a microcosm that magnifies, reflects the ecological and personal outcome of that inherent legacy.
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, when it obviously does… it’s reassuring to feel a sense of civic and legal pride, especially when the social and cultural policies seem to help you. But if the frame doesn’t fit the picture and you’re trapped in a succeeding rush, severed from that main artery, it becomes difficult to engage in political and social discourse, to notice, or even care, about toxic waste, our carbon footprint stomping the earth, poisoning the air on the wing of progress.
What planet are we on? What are we thinking? Does reaching the top in a career sum up the main reason for occupying the human form? Is climbing a socioeconomic scale, be all and end all of our lives? Do fame and fortune serve any kind of harmony with the universe? Unless I’m someone who sits above, or below, another in their class, do I cease to exist? Have I held it together, only to fragment at the last hurdle? Is death a commanding focus for putting these life-size conundrums into perspective? Questions, questions, questions, running down the clock. However, it comes from whatever challenges lay ahead, drawn to the abyss, teetering on the brink; I’d reached the threshold of the human shield and there was no turning back.
Cranky, off centre, down the out, redundant, missing a link, sparking with the fairies, no good to man nor beast, why bother showing up for the gig… that’s me in the nutshell. A divergent, trying to fit the suit the best way he could. I might as well have been a fugitive who’d run out of options.
Chained to a notion of cultural and social approval, overwhelming powerlessness gives rise to anger, grief and unimaginable depression; a metaphysical prison that can bring the most resilient of souls to the edge.
And yet it’s here, flatlined in the valley, backed into a corner, brought down to size, where the seed of reason turns. Those imposed ramifications, being enslaved, only became apparent when I ministered the reprise, embraced the space to breathe. Befriend the child within, with empathy and understanding, fully aware, on this day of release.
Thrown from pillar to post, a stage drawn vagabond, trying to make a living the best way he could, pinning his hopes on a dream. Lost in the classroom, missing a link on the studio floor, humiliated down the exchange, stealing refuge from broken relationships, avoidance, running, with a decent job. Pigeonholed as some kind of adversary, in fear and trepidation of getting caught. I don’t remember a time when that boy wasn’t in the outside lane, sprinting in the opposite direction.
Driven by the hunger of some incessant need. Success at any cost. Head down, work hard, for art, for capital. Forging ahead on adrenalin and willpower. Following leads. Adamant. Tunnelled to the letter of indoctrination with eyes closed, we’ve come within a hair’s breadth of losing this precious world.