Malta’s unlikely Garden of Eden
I’d like to think I’m well past my ‘best-before’ date as far as Paceville is concerned. I don’t particularly fancy the idea of hopping over pools of vomit or having to queue up at the bar with patrons who could well be my sons and daughters. The bitter pill is that there’s a limit as to how effective a disguise a closely-cropped head can be.
But there’s a problem, and it has to do with the method I chose to earn my living. Paceville is an anthropologist’s golden mile. No beardie worth his salt can afford to give the place a miss, simply because it promises to tell so much about our object of general inquiry. What follows is in the spirit of the note-taking flâneur, shall we say.
The occasion is Superintendent Stephen Gatt telling Parliament’s Social Affairs Committee (SAC) that “the media” tend to “amplify” complaints about the situation in Paceville (The Times, November 16).
I’m not at all surprised that the SAC, led by do-gooder-in-chief Edwin Vassallo, should be so worked up over Malta’s prime den of iniquity.
Let me take the negative instance – what Paceville isn’t, that is – as my point of departure. The best place to study that is the Millennium Chapel, the Lord’s own Trojan horse sat deep within enemy territory. I don’t mean to be judgemental. I think the chapel and its environs are a wonderful piece of architecture, and it’s certainly no skin off my nose that the Augustinian Fathers chose Paceville to ply their wares.
The first thing the chapel website tells me is that it is ‘an oasis of peace and quiet’. Oases being what they are, the implication is that it is surrounded, perennially under assault if you will, by things that are neither peaceful nor quiet.
I love the reference to sound. ‘Quiet’ here means two things: the absence of noise, and the morality of that absence. It’s rather like referring to a lady as ‘tifla kwieta’ (literally, a quiet girl), which is not just about the things she doesn’t do with her vocal chords. Paceville is a post storbjuż (a noisy place) and that’s about the volume of the bass pumping out of clubs but also about a certain (im)morality.
The Millennium Chapel also has on offer ‘perpetual adoration’, which I suppose means that visitors are encouraged to take in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Again, an antidote.
The chapel is unique among places of worship in that its doors are open into the small hours (hence the ‘perpetual’). The sub-text is that there is (or at least should be) no time for godlessness, no matter how late one parks in Swieqi. Hardly surprising given that in Malta good and bad tend to be measured by their relation to the Church. That’s why the Archbishop on occasion does a Great Salt March through the streets of Paceville.
But back to time, which is of the essence in Paceville. Pardon the paradox, it seems to me that the place is very much about the studied keeping of unearthly hours. The point of crawling out of a club at 5am is that it feels decadent, nay positively subversive. This is especially so when one considers that the villages the clubbers drive back to hold collective memories of the ‘quddiesa ta’ l-ewwel’ (the dawn Mass).
The contrast between the grandparents walking to Church and the grandchildren walking out of a club at roughly the same time couldn’t be sweeter (it’s also the subject of popular quips, by the way). It also tells us what Paceville is about in no small way.
The clue is in the term ‘tlajna/inżilna Paceville’ (literally, we went up/down to Paceville) – the simpler ‘morna’ (we went) is less common. The deixis of moving up or down the vertical dimension works to manufacture discontinuity. The thing with Paceville is, it should properly feel different to the rest of the island. It’s where the rules – and that includes drinking, dress codes, and such – are stood on their heads.
It’s not just language that does that. The place has an aura of community-lessness and dislocation about it, spatially as well as socially. I can see why that might give the SAC and their ilk a heart attack, but I can also see the attraction of it. It’s a characteristic that makes Paceville feel urban, rather like people taking their coffee at the airport for no reason other than to breathe some cosmopolitan air.
The presence of foreigners helps. Especially in a place like Malta, concentrations of foreigners are always going to be attractive and norm-rejecting. Strada Stretta wouldn’t have been the same without its crowds of sailors, its American-influenced bands, and its exotically-named dance halls and bars.
My point on community-lessness will not go down well with the few hundred permanent residents. They (understandably) feel that their once-genteel seaside community has been undermined by a logic they scarcely understand. It’s a collision of two worlds, epitomised by the stories of revellers lying drugged-out on the doorsteps of Edwardian terraces.
Their perennial protest is also an elegy to a Malta we feel we’ve lost. Many residents will tell you about the carob trees and fields that inhabit their living memories. Paceville may be the ultimate negation of that but it’s certainly not unique. In that sense the place is symbolic of broader conflicts and collisions.
Of which the protagonists are well-known. In his eponymous novel, Frans Sammut talks of Paceville as a place raped by “is-Sur Cecil”. Is-Sur Cecil is the archetypal predator, the rapacious property developer given to general acts of exploitation and immorality. There is no shortage of Sur Cecils in real-life narratives of the place.
A tradesman who was at my house the other day told me how a Sur Cecil he had done some work for had flamingos in his garden, as well as a swimming pool with a floating bed.
Rather like the 16th-century English traveller who had the nerve to peep into the Sultan’s seraglio, he also told of glimpses of the ‘l-isbaħ Russi’ (stunning Russian ladies) who rubbed shoulders with the flamingos. In the popular imagination, Paceville is a place made by the Sultans of greed.
One of the SAC’s complaints was that young people weren’t well represented at the hearings. They really don’t seem to get the point.
Paceville is a place for ritualised risk-taking played off against the tropes and dominant imagery of respectable Maltese society.
Seriously, which self-respecting reveller would tell their friends they had spent the morning briefing Edwin Vassallo?