Memories and powdered falsehoods
Reactions to my collection of memories of the time I spent in or was close to politics keep reaching me, in one form or another, six months after publication. Quite a few fall into two categories. One is that, surely, I have a lot more to say than I actually did in the collection, and presumably I have left room for a sequel.
Another comes from those who urge me to have the memories translated into English, either because they are not familiar with the Maltese language or because, although they are Maltese, they find it difficult to read and to understand Maltese texts.
Among the latter there are those who have paid me a compliment, which I appreciate. They tell me they have made an effort and read the book which, after all, they found not to be such a hard task, not least because the style is quite unencumbered.
I thank them, but express no desire to seek a translation. The book is about Malta and the Maltese and, without my deliberating in any way, spilled out in Maltese. As far as I am concerned, I shall take no initiative to have it translated.
To those who tell me that there surely was more that I recalled I candidly admit that there is. But, I add, I wrote what I wanted to write. In this regard a particularly sharp assessment came from a friend whose critical opinion of all that I do or fail to do I have sought for over four decades, and hope to continue to do so for a few more years.
He insisted there was more I should, rather than could, have recalled. I said, I know, but I deliberately exercised such restraint as I wanted to, though that did not block out the polemical. The result is lightweight, said my friend, tartly.
That rankled, but as always I appreciated the candour. I said I had deliberately kept the style, and some of the content, light, and left it at that. I reiterated to my friend, too, that there would be no sequel. My publishers, PEG Ltd, will put out in mid-autumn a collection from among the short stories in my eight published collections, which owe their inspiration to the years I made my way through politics.
The stories, without being political in any partisan sense, do flesh out what political life can be like. It will be called L-Onorevoli, a reference more fitting to the gentle common folk I write about than to such political characters I draw here and there, such as in the form of taking the Mickey out of myself.
I reply to the reactions that reach me on a personal basis. But one which came along from Canada is worth sharing, I feel. It comes from a man slightly younger than myself, who emigrated 22 years ago. His view, therefore, is at one and the same time informed and detached. I cannot claim the second attribute.
Although no longer in politics whatever goes on there, the frequent silliness and the rare profound draws my attention, whether I like it or not. I pass opinionated value judgments, both in my Times columns and in private conversation. The Maltese-Canadian retains his memories and keeps in touch, but from a distance made up of thousands of miles, as well as considerable years.
Physical detachment is still a moulding factor, I feel, even though the Internet closes the gap, not least through access to electronic versions of our newspapers.
My correspondent kindly congratulated me for Jien u Ghaddej fil-Politika. He said the book was of much interest to those who want to remain aware of what went on in Malta. He said he would put some questions which, apart from my assumed replies being useful to him, might be useful to me too should I prepare a second edition of my memories.
The Maltese-Canadian wrote that, although he came from a 'fanatically' Nationalist family, he used to have many hot debates with family members about politics in Malta in the Sixties and Seventies.
"Although I practically always - other than in 1971 - ended up voting Nationalist," my correspondent wrote, "I still insisted that (Dom) Mintoff was often right. To my family, especially my dear mother who had little formal education, Mintoff and all the Labourites were offspring of Beelzebub roaming our islands.
"The word 'socialism' was anathema to my mother, and she would not be convinced otherwise. I used to spend hours arguing and quarrelling with her."
In the middle of the Sixties this person started going out with a girl who came from an avowedly Labour family. This fact raised hell within his family. That background drove my correspondent to apply his real-life experience to formulate the following:
"Everyone knows that both Mintoff and (Archbishop Michael) Gonzi were very hard headed, and seemed oblivious of the virtue of humility. To this day I feel that, had they held any goodwill and a smatter of humility, Malta would not have passed through the Calvary of those years.
"But, if I remember correctly, Gonzi was wont to claim to all and sundry that he had documents from the Vatican which, according to him, approved his position (in the politico-religious dispute). I tend to believe that - at least so it appeared - the greatest failing of the Church lay at the doorstep of the Vatican authorities, and not that of the local ecclesiastical authorities.
"It might be the case that Gonzi used to manipulate the issue and was not sincere in what he would tell the Maltese people. I wouldn't be surprised! You did not say anything regarding the above in your book."
The correspondent's second point concerned changes in the electoral system. "You and Mintoff," he wrote, "both insisted in the Eighties that the government should be formed by the party which garnered the majority of the votes cast, and not that which was allocated the largest number of seats.
"It is not surprising that you feel that this was a great success in your political career. I always felt that was how the system should be. I never could understand how a democratically developed country, such as the UK and Canada, has the 'first past the post' system.
"There must be some reason for this, which I have failed to grasp. What do you think?"
I offer these comments from abroad as food for thought. There remains much to think about. The politico-religious dispute has yet to be covered by someone who could adopt a detached view of what took place on all the sides involved, and with access to what went on behind the scenes, again on all the fronts involved.
I tend to think that a full history of the times will never be written, not least because so many of the primary-source participants have died, leaving nothing or very little in acceptable written or recounted form behind them.
A non-participant did bring to bear an angle of relevance to my correspondent's musing. Fr Arthur Vella, SJ, an old friend, had kindly accepted to be one of the speakers when PEG Ltd and I launched my collection of memories in the early spring.
His presentation included the following: "At the height of the politico-religious issue I was still studying abroad. As such I could only observe the scene from afar. I have to be more than careful in what I say, therefore, for it is not easy to speak of such an event once you were not part of it; once you have not experienced a reality which, close on, couldn't have been more heated.
"I used to receive information, especially from a member of my family, a priest, who held very valid principles relating to the social sector and who sincerely loved the poor and the workers. I wanted to weigh the situation properly, although I was not on the scene from the start of the Sixties.
"I would also seek advice from some experienced social moralist at the university in Rome, where I was studying, to try to understand what was going on in my homeland. A person of great standing in this sector told me, I recall, that one required great vision and prudence from all sides.
"By prudence he did not mean some form of diplomacy; he was referring to that rare virtue, which helps you to be wise enough to know when to wait where you should wait, and to weigh your next action well. In brief, to show great discern and understanding before taking any decision.
"This was lacking from both sides in the confrontation (of the Sixties). And we all paid a heavy price for that. I even dare say that we still suffer consequences in pastoral life.
"It was the time of the Second Vatican Council and the words of Pope John XXIII still reverberate in my ears: 'Throw the windows wide open and let fresh air into the Church'! That fresh air slowly approached our shores and, when I returned to Malta in 1964, although the politico-religious dispute was still raging, hot heads were already beginning to cool down.
"I remember meeting a small group of priests who expressed their strong desire that the politico-religious dispute should end and that there should be peace between the Church and the Malta Labour Party. I admired their efforts towards such an end."
Fr Vella's recollections, too, have the great value of being based on a perspective which began from the outside looking in. It is such words that should be studied in depth by present-day historians so that the sad story of the Sixties, which paradoxically brought a new spirit of enlightenment in its wake, may be told properly.
Today some look back in anger, others look back to distort and to damage Labour. The MLP, on its part, looks to the future, as it has been doing for quite a few years, now, and as it now must.
Nevertheless the past can neither be rubbed out, nor should it be painted with powdered falsehoods.