Tag Archives: alex grech

Three men and Everest

Marco Cremona, Dr Greg Attard and Robert Gatt plan to climb the sixth highest mountain, Cho Oyu (8,201metres) this September, and Mount Everest in May 2010 in their challenge8000 expedition. This is their story. But there are also others in on their adventure: Victor Saunders, their guide; and the three women who live with them.

Marco Cremona, 40, is a man in a hurry. A wiry man in perpetual motion, he speaks quickly. The conversation veers from green issues – at the core of his business as a mechanical engineer and environmental consultant – to the mountain boots he has just bought online for Euros 690 from a US specialist store. At an altitude of 8,000 metres and in minus 40 degrees, size 40 feet need size 45 boots to accommodate thick socks and swelling.

Dr Greg Attard is next to show up. At 32, he’s a cross between a rugby player and a 1960s’ Rock Hudson. He lets Marco do the talking. A query about whether Maltese climbing mountains is akin to Jamaicans doing bobsleigh at the Olympics is met with a shrug.

The answer comes later in an email from Robert Gatt, the third man in the challenge8000 team. “We’ve lots of good quality rock climbing in Malta. From rock climbing in Malta, it’s a natural progression to other climbing disciplines and bigger challenges.” Climbing is also a natural way for Robert to live. “Whether it’s a sun drenched rock wall in Malta, fell running on a wet English day in the Lake District, climbing up a frozen waterfall in Italy, an Alpine gully in Chamonix or a Himalayan peak in Nepal, it’s my passion,” he says.

The three did not discover mountains at the same time. Greg was always an all-action type; a Scout, in love with the outdoors. By 17, he’d started to travel. In the summer vacations on his medical course, he’d go for an elective exchange and spend two months a year climbing in eastern Europe and Greece. Marco got the mountain bug when he decided to join the Kilimanjaro One project. “After that climb I was hooked. I met Greg when I went to Etna for training. Robert I knew socially.” Marco is the glue among the men, and the expeditions.

The three were consistently climbing higher mountains; raising the bar by 500 metres with each climb. This September, the team plans to tackle Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. At 8,201m, it is the standard preparatory trail for Everest. The technicality of both mountains is similar – oxygen is required, and the expedition can take anywhere between eight and 10 weeks. The Everest expedition is scheduled for May 2010 and will entail climbing and camping in inhospitable terrain and unforgiving, cold to reach the summit at 8,848metres.

Climbing is a logistical challenge: the team needs the support of a specialist organisation to take care of equipment, flights, porters (two sherpas for each climber), food, water, visas, transport and equipment. The missing piece in the jigsaw is Victor Saunders, the guide, who has climbed Everest four times in the last five years. Victor calls himself a cautious coward. He was chosen on the basis of reputation, which is basically measured on the number of people he has got safely up and down the mountain. He’s known as a warm, level-headed, Scotsman, and is an architect by profession.

Training can be gruelling as you need a good cardio-vascular background. Greg runs and cycles. Marco says he’s lucky that he’s lightweight, but admits to doing aerobic exercise running up and down 60 degree clay slopes. “You have to train your mind too. Mountaineers are hard-headed and everyone involved has an opinion,” he says.

Timing is everything and often make or break of a climb. There’s only a short season, pre- monsoon, in which to climb the mountain and this can result in a kind of ‘people jam’ on the ascent routes, with up to 200 people all having a go at the same time. “I hate crowded mountains. You can have one to yourself,” Greg mumbles.

Climbers have eight hours on oxygen going up, and another eight coming down. In minus 25, sweating, they’re pushing it and running out of time and energy. Hypothermia can start to kick in. “If you don’t make summit before 2pm, you need to turn back. Till now, we’ve never failed a peak. I don’t know how I would react to failure,” says Greg. It’s no surprise that 30 per cent of attempts to climb Everest end up in failure.

What makes a good team? The team’s roles seem well-defined: Marco is the logistics person and more of a trekker; Greg is more a mountaineer; Robert is ‘very technical’ and more a climber. Male-bonding is inevitable; if you are going to spend ten weeks in a tent together, you have to get on. “The mountain brings out the worst and best in each of us,” smiles Greg. “You’re dealing with fatigue and bruised egos. Saying we’re all hard-headed is an understatement”. Marco says he finds it relaxing. He can get away from the day to day and the mundane and just concentrate on the task at hand.

We skirt around the subject of danger, but it’s something they are reluctant to discuss. “Climbing is dangerous and even more so at high altitudes where the ability to make decisions is hindered by hypoxia and extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Danger is a challenge to be managed both individually and as a team. We’re not madmen. We’re taking a calculated risk. People engage in extreme sports because they are so demanding, mentally and physically, that you live for the ‘now’,” says Marco.

If you collapse on a mountain over 8,000 metres, the chances are that you will stay there. They’ve seen a couple of bodies on previous climbs. They’re too heavy, with all that kit, to retrieve without risking other lives. Knowing your limits is key to survival, and that’s where a good guide comes in. He has to know how to push a climber to his maximum capability, but not let him get beyond that. He has to look for tell-tale signs – people getting out of breath for instance. The guide can turns things around if necessary.

What makes a man contemplate bad food, no sleep, no sex for 10 weeks, pain, danger, fractures, falls, frostbite, hypothermia, altitude-related injuries, disorders or possible brain damage? The answer seems to be one word: the summit. It’s a loaded word and keeps cropping up in the conversation. It’s as powerful a driver as the purely nationalistic one – to be the first Maltese to climb Everest. There is a sense of history being made. But the real motivation is personal; it’s part dream; part challenging yourself to get out of the comfort zone; and all about ‘pushing yourself to the point where you never thought it was possible to be, mentally and physically.’ They hope that their forthcoming expeditions will inspire people to dream and have a go at turning those dreams into reality.

There is nothing as painful as summit day. Their longest climb to a summit to date was 17 hours. “Half way during summit day, you think, this is the last time I am doing this. Once you get to a summit, you have to calculate the energy reserves you have to get back. You may get summit fever. You get intoxicated. That’s the risk. People judge if you are successful if you have got to the summit. Ten metres away doesn’t count. It’s a very cruel thing,” says Greg.

What happens when you’ve climbed a mountain? Marco says on the way down he dreams of beer, junk food, and a good shower. Greg says he’d be happy to stay on the peak, and that he gets ‘post-performance depression’ when he gets home. Both men say the mountain is a drug. “We read about mountains every day. We may live here, but we live the mountain each day”.

I wonder what it’s like to live with these men. They grin and say the heroes are the women who see them risk their lives, and spend a long time away from home and large sums of money on their lonely passions. Marco says the mountains came after his relationship, and that his wife knows he is cautious, but it’s tough not being able to communicate for long periods of time. He has been away climbing a mountain for one month a year in the past years. Greg says his girlfriend knew that ‘the package involved the mountain. ’ Robert, they tell me, lives for the mountain. I ask them what happens after Everest. Marco squirms. He says he’s agreed to have one shot at Everest and then that’s it. He’s 40 and this is his last big climb. Greg says that he will find some gentler peaks to go for, and perhaps take his girlfriend with him.

There are perhaps other limitations on their expeditions though. So far, they’ve been funding themselves, but the big two climbs coming up need funds from corporate sponsors. “Climbing is expensive, so that means I have to work harder when not climbing, “says Robert. Hopefully, corporate sponsors won’t be long in coming since the team’s effort is all in a good cause. Challenge8000 has pledged that throughout the next year it will be promoting awareness of asthma and better air quality in Malta through its association with the Society of Maltese Asthmatics and the ‘Stop the Dust!’ campaign.

As they leave, Greg jokes about the frostbite from his last climb and that his big toe is still stuck. Marco says they will be linking up on Etna over the weekend. When they leave, I switch off my laptop, and wonder if I’m any closer to understanding these two complex, gifted men, intoxicated by a summit on the other side of the world.

Obamame

Media_http3bpblogspot_hnvck

The best velvet glove 18-minute speech I’ve heard for a long time.
Whatever this man will achieve, he has already changed the lexicon of politics for ever.
Even managed to silence a six year-old.  Jacob knew it was history, all right.
And for a day, thanks to this, even you can bask in the great man’s glory.

Christmas is for kids

We had a sleepover for Christmas. My 4 year-old niece, Scarlett, stayed over, so her parents could get find time this morning to clean up the house after the Christmas Eve party.

At 6.15, there was the first fragment of conversation from the kids’ room. Santa had delivered, Jacob was tearing into the contents of the sack on his bed, and Scarlett was screeching at the Barbie and the pink fake make up kit. There’s little you can do except surface from what’s left of the alcohol stupour of the night before and mumble instructions about toilet doors, clothes, tripping over spiral stairways, breakfast soon on the way.

You grasp your first mug of hot coffee, look at the exhausted face of the mother of your child, and hope the caffeine will somehow carry you through the day.  

And the day swims by.  We get to my brother’s in a heap for lunch, spend four hours eating too much turkey and Jamie Oliver stuff, watch an old Muppets Christmas Special, drowned in the sound of squabbling kids and adults sneaking the occasional slurred cat nap.  Two girls aged 4 and 5 gang up on my son aged 6 and scream they both want to marry him, and he doesn’t know where to look.  The presents arrive late, my father is tired and has more wrinkles than last year and there are not enough bags around for the booty we have to carry back home.

And then I find out that Pinter has died.  

Christmas is about kids.  It’s about waiting for the next present, the next kiss, the next distant relative to plant a smacker on your nose and ruffle your hair until you are well and truly exhausted and can finally crawl back to your bed and start counting the presents in your head.  

There is no other day in the calendar which makes me more aware of time slipping through my fingers and the resourceful networks of family than Christmas day.

The Whistler and the last tambourine man

Media_http3bpblogspot_rcofx

Tommy Camilleri spent the first seven years of his working life opening blocked drains.  Then he got fed up inhaling fumes and he got a job as a road sweeper in Naxxar.    “It’s good work if you want to get to know everyone in Naxxar,” he shrugs. 

Tommy is the last tambourine player of Malta. The tanbur is the poor man’s tambourine:  the frame is made from beech wood and sheep skin, often with some decorative tberfil painting on the skin.  A wooden loop (cirku) slides over the frame like a belt clasping the skin.  The jingles (plattini) were traditionally made from the lids of food preservative cans.  

Tommy played with some of the finest folk musicians of his generation – Toni Cachia ‘Il-Ħammarun’, Ganni il-Ħawli.   They played in hotels for tourists, in Carnivals, during Christmas, at weddings and for anyone who would pay.  Like all tambourine men, Tommy was the front man for the band, with his own well-rehearsed act.  Then, in the second half of the last century, Maltese folk music went into terminal decline.   And now the people Tommy used to play with are all dead.

He turns up for our appointment on a Tuesday morning in his finery:  cap, black waistcoat, matching pin-striped trousers, white shirt, black sandals.  He refuses a glass of wine at the Mqabba Band Club because he says he is recovering from a heavy night.  Behind his thick glasses, I could make out watery eyes.  Tommy is 78 going on to 98.  He’s tiny and quiet and weaves his hands nervously on his lap. 

Just as the acrid black coffee kicks in, we are joined by a beaming Guzi Sciberras, also known as ‘Il-Mija’.   Il-Mija is 57, and clearly still relishing early retirement from the Dockyard, where he was a Charge Man.  He now makes the flejguta, the Maltese end-blown cane flute.  It’s his idea that we should talk in his field ‘next to the Torri Vincenti’.  “It’s where I find my space and peace and quiet.  I’ve been spending all my spare time there since 1967,” he says. 

The glue between the tambourine man and the flute maker is Ruben Zahra, the freelance composer who often uses folk material within his contemporary works.  Ruben is in a race to save traditional instruments from extinction.  “Together with Guzi Gatt, I’ve listened to hours of 1960s recordings of Maltese folk music.  All the core Maltese traditional instruments – the żaqq, the Maltese bagpipe, the tanbur, and the flejguta – have stopped being made, for more than a generation.  In the case of the flejguta, we could not even find one.   But we knew the sound it made.  We decided to try and make these instruments before we lose them forever.  Our research led us to the makers of traditional bird whistles.  Enter il-Mija.’ 

Il-Mija’s piece of solace is a tongue of soil and a stone hut right by the perimeter fence of the airport.   In the middle of the patch is a beehive with an open door.    I immediately think of bird traps and sense that this place was a killing  fields of sorts, at some stage. “We used to bait the guys from the RAF for some morsels, through the fence, when we were kids,” grins il-Mija.  “Don’t worry about the bees,” he adds, as one zooms past my left ear.

Il-Mija opens a box over-spilling with pluvieri, the Maltese bird whistles.  He’s like a kid with the cookie jar.  The names of birds roll off his tongue as he goes through a demonstration of the sound each whistle makes.  “This one is Il-birwina – listen carefully!  This is the tellerita.  This is the gurlin.”   It is difficult not to get intoxicated by the childish delight of a man who has spent 40 years making whistles.  And as for the sound – if you close your eyes, you could believe that you were in the midst of bird song that most people in Malta can only imagine.

Maltese traditional instruments were made from locally-sourced material:  ashwood, cane, string, animal skins and cow horns.  Il-Mija is both an artisan and a recycling man.  In the true spirit of the Maltese, nothing is wasted.  He showed us whistles made from the bone of a horse’s leg, a piece of walnut, and the tubing from an old car tyre.  “You cannot make one of these things unless you are a whistler yourself.  The cane needs to be firm, dry and straight – but most of all you need to understand tone.  If you are going to fake a bird into thinking another bird is calling, you have to master this with precision.  There is no margin for error.” 

We ask him about his tools.  He laughs and shows us another box:  a hand drill, a vice, a scalpel, a chisel. “I’m not interested in TV.   I have made 89 whistles till now.”  Making the flejguta is just another challenge.  The air is directed against the sharp edge of a hole cut in the cane just below the mouth piece.  Six finger holes along the length of the flute produce different tones and distinguish the flejguta from the simple whistle.

Ruben thinks it’s time to get to the music, unfurls the zaqq from his bag and coaxes Tommy into playing a tune, right there, against the wall.  Coming face to face with  Iz-zaqq is a bit of a shock – half goat, complete with tail, half whistle; the weirdest of instruments.    Its bag is made from goat skin, its chanter from two cane tubes and a horn that projects its drones. 

When Tommy plays, he is like one of those Wallis & Gromit  Plastecene men, moving in slow-motion.    The tambourine is in perpetual motion, and the man seems stuck to the tambourine.  One moment it’s under his leg, then against his knee, then it hits an elbow, then it’s under the crescent of his darting fingers.  And the music is familiar, Moorish, raw and sad rolled into one.  I am told later that Il-Hammarun played the same melody on the zaqq all his life.

When they finish, I don’t know whether to clap or just relish the moment.  Instead, Matthew’s camera moves and snaps the moment.  I ask Tommy what he thought of the new tambur Ruben is producing, as he cradles it on his lap.  “I like its voice,” he whispers.  “Remember that the first sounds that Christ heard were iz-zaqq and the tanbur.  These are instruments of the shepherd.”   He cocks his head like a thoughtful dog when il-Mija announces that we cannot leave before we share a drink with him.

I watch the jet planes take off and ask Tommy about playing abroad.  “I’ve never been on a plane,” he says.   “I’m scared of heights .  Even going up in a lift is not good for me. ”

The two men have different ideas about legacy.  Tommy has five children, il-Mija has two, none of them are musicians.  Tommy says one of his granddaughters has promise.  Il-Mija boasts:  ‘My craft will die with me.  Besides, if I teach someone, will they attribute credit where credit is due?’  He etches his ‘100’ mark on the back of all his whistles.  Somehow, there are different egos at play here. 

“Malta is the only European country which does not provide folk instruments as a cultural product on a retail basis,” says Ruben.  “We’re trying to do something about that, before we lose this cultural heritage for ever.”  With a mix of determination and entrepreneurship, the new Maltese tanbur is being made in Spain.  I guess you have to start from somewhere to reclaim your past.

On a humid morning in Mqabba, the bees buzzed, the jet engines screeched and the zaqq droned and flirted with the tambur.   And our heads were filled with folk music, Il-Mija’s excellent J&B and the indelible passage of time.

Change yourself

Obama managed to energise a nation and most of the western world into believing that change was possible, against a background of collapsing markets, war, strife, bigotry and overall disillusionment with the way the US came to be perceived after 8 years of George Bush.

Seth Godin is about to change the lives of some lucky people.  Very soon.  The details are here.  

Even just applying for this is enough of a paradigm shift, for most people.

January is round the corner.   New York City, for some people, is going to become the promised land.

New year and new directions beckon like no other year.

The tooth fairy

My son lost his first tooth this morning. I woke up to find him with his nose pressed against the mosquito net. In the half dark, I could just make out his open mouth.

“It just came off!” he sobbed, his hand cradling a tiny tooth.

I tried to comfort him as best as I could. I cracked jokes about pirates. I hugged him, and for a moment could remember all the teeth I had lost, before dentists could get their pointed instruments on their eventual replacements.

Then I remembered the tooth fairy.

We didn’t get as far as a tooth under a pillow this evening. Instead, it nestles on a saucer, on his bookcase, waiting to be whisked to a place where everthing is available for barter. An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth.

And by tomorrow morning, there will be three euros, in place of Jacob’s tooth, to buy another Roald Dahl book, and another story to spin.

71

“I just sing in the bathroom these days. I sing some of the tunes I used to perform with a sense of nostalgia. It’s frustrating, that I cannot project my voice the way I used to. But I have to accept that my strength is no longer there, even though the voice is. The voice is the last thing that dies. Because, when we’re about to leave the world, we just sigh and let go.”

Paul Asciak, aged 85, former tenor and first tutor of Joseph Calleja, Malta’s finest tenor.

Tomorrow my father is 71. Quite a milestone for him, and for us. I cannot remember celebrating my parents’ birthdays, when I was a child. After all, life revolved around us kids, not grown-ups.

I guess all that changed, once I had my own child.

What also changed is that I live in perpetual fear of losing people I love.

Doesn’t everyone?

So this evening I embed this little, twisted black video here, to chase away my fears. And in honour of my father – who has lived his life, his way, despite more than his share of deaths and misfortunes.

Since cheating death is not a viable option, there is much to learn from my father. In his winter years, he has became adept at living for the day, for the moment, for the 90-minutes duration of a Milan match and a beer with his friends. My father just refuses to grow up. So when I see him with my five year-old, it’s not difficult to know which one of the kids is the wiser. Or the merrier.

Happy birthday Dad.

Coda

Media_http3bpblogspot_iwjni

1. What is it about New Year’s Eve, that makes you stop and take stock and wait for something to happen and then realise that it isn’t going to, unless you really go out of your way and rock the boat and do something dangerous, impulsive. Or downright calculated.

2. I’ve written 10 new year resolutions. Some are scary. I read somewhere you should print and tape them to your desk so you cannot run away from them. I’ll store mine on my laptop.

3. What am I scared of? Phone calls in the night. The inevitable.

4. I love being a father. My son is still at an age where he asks me questions and waits for an answer. He is already a better dancer and wordsmith than I can ever be.

5. If I find a cartoonist, I will finally get the story we’ve called ‘Oink the Pig’ actually written. Instead of just woven in our heads, in laughter, on the way to school, each morning.

6. How to learn from mistakes, grow a skin, move forward without listening to all the voices clamouring for attention.

7. How to move forward. Period.

8. If you have words, you can wriggle out of trouble as much as you can land yourself in it.

9. You do not have to be next to me for me to think the world of you.

10. Count your blessings. We’re still standing. Here comes the new year.

Digging into Facebook

Media_http1bpblogspot_bycac

There are nearly 14,000 Maltese who have a Facebook account. Five weeks ago, when I started thinking about this snippet, there were 8,000.

Facebook is the Internet site of 2007. In October, Microsoft spent $240 million for a 1.6% equity stake, valuing the company at a whopping $15 billion. With 34.5 billion page views in September, according to Media Metrix, Facebook is now the fourth most highly trafficked Web property worldwide. Together, with the iPhone, Facebook was the Internet story of the year.

What nobody can say for sure is whether Facebook will be as popular in 2008. Such is the fickle nature of social networking sites that the next big thing may be round the corner: Google recently announced its Open Social network.

I wanted to understand why the Maltese are taking to Facebook in their droves, when they can pick a phone and meet a mate in 30 minutes for a drink and a chat. And why people keep sharing the most mundane and (sometimes) intimate details of their lives with online ‘friends’.

So I asked six questions to 13 friends within my Facebook network. I spread the mix, to make sure there was nothing much in common (except that I knew them all). 12 Maltese, 1 Canadian in Gozo, from all walks of life: sales & marketing executives to businessmen, students, a technologist and a published poet. This is some of the chatter that came back:

Joining Facebook tends to be a collective of peer pressure, curiosity, professional obligation and boredom. Facebook helps people rediscover old friends and keep tabs on those living overseas. Or those anywhere else with an Internet connection and time on their hands.

Facebook is an addiction, a guilt trip, a time-waster, a laugh, a glorified Hi5 for adults. We find ourselves trapped in our need to communicate: we check our email continuously; we get mad if we forget our mobile; and, now, there’s Facebook. Many use it like SMS or Twitter, with fingers rattling on a keyboard to keep up with hundreds of ‘friends’ from all walks of life. It’s an incredibly powerful virus which motivates people to infect their friends and colleagues.

Voyeurism and narcissism appear to be key drivers. Girls inevitably change their profile picture on a more regular basis than the boys. We are an ego-centric, nosey nation, and now have a licence to pry quietly into other people’s lives and what makes them tick. Exhibitionism is a major characteristic of contemporary life. Except that on Facebook, you’re only exposing yourself to the people you choose, as opposed to the entire web.

You can also lose yourself in your kind of crowd. Join’ Michael Mifsud for President’ (869 members and growing). Or groups managed by restaurateurs, rock bands, politicians, journalists, socialites and lonely hearts. Throw a virtual sheep, send a zombie kiss, order an electronic ice cream or play Scrabulous with your grandmother.

Concerns about privacy are growing. Employers use Facebook to search and measure up current and prospective employees. Some may already be paying the price in terms of lost employee productivity without knowing it. And others have been quick to see the branding opportunities. Paraphrasing Shakespeare… all the world’s a stage, so potentially anyone and everyone is your audience. Act with caution.

Not everyone is convinced that all is what it seems to be. Who’s a friend? Are friends counted in numbers or shoulders to cry on? Are the ‘friends’ on your list simply contacts, or merely trophies? This is one facet of the internet: trying to personalise, even embody, contacts that could well be anonymous. Facebook can also stand for currently bored, lustful, socially unfulfilled or generally avoiding real life.

Yet surely there’s no easier device around to help you organise a party, share your videos and pictures, market your talents, illustrate your life, let people know your every mood swing. I found out about the lovely Café Brasil concert at MITP because ‘Indri Mangu’ set up a Facebook Group for the occasion. New friends to Facebook are regularly greeted by older ones with the rousing ‘what took you so long to get here?’ There must be a reason for being here, surely?

The Facebook backlash has started. Credit information group Equifax said members of sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook may be putting too many details about themselves online, and putting themselves at risk of identity fraud. Fraudsters could use these details to steal someone’s identity and apply for credits and benefits. About 80,000 people in the UK were victims of identity theft last year, at a cost to the economy of £1.5bn. Facebook’s own new Beacon Advertising Service added to concerns about privacy issues. On 6th December, Mark Zuckenger, the Facebook founder ate humble pie and apologised for the way Beacon had been launched. People simply don’t want their personal data used for commercial purposes without their permission – even if the company using it is as familiar a travelling companion as Facebook.

Despite its success, nobody is quite sure if Facebook is here to stay. While many profess an inability to live without it, the same people think that like all technologies, Facebook will eventually be surpassed. It’s the latest in a long line of social networks, starting from Friendster and, most recently, MySpace. Like all trends, the ‘cool kids’ will move on to the next big thing, and the masses will follow. Such is the fickle, transient nature that something deemed indispensible this year may well be old hat next. Just like the bar that was impossible to get into last summer and is not quite in vogue this year.

It’s as if our life cycles just got accelerated.

Maybe Facebook is just another indicator that being Maltese simply means being part of a global goldfish bowl. We use social networks like everyone else does. We will always run in herds to the next best thing, a time-poor, utility generation. Or maybe we’ve run to Facebook because the ‘cosy’ Maltese parochial life is long gone, as we spend more time in front of laptops, speak to fewer people in the flesh, pry over their shoulder online and gauge our social life success in terms of numbers of online friends. We long to feel connected in an age when one inevitably feels disconnected. There is a lot of talk, but much of it is mundane, and not of all of it may be true. We may be creating virtual online selves to make up for other things that we find lacking in our real lives.

Or maybe, we’re just smart, on the ball, and live full lives. Like millions of others, we are now connected, but on our own terms. The new glue for our social networks is online conversations. We’ve just become as good as anyone else in making our voice heard, assuming someone is really listening.

I suspect this conversation will keep going for a while longer.

More Facebook conversations here.

Saudade do Rio

Media_http3bpblogspot_wiiyc

It’s been a while, since I posted anything here. Blame it on life, living, and a growing sense of what Talking Heads used to growl about. Say something once.. why say it again?

I was dragged out of hibernation by Lily, who edits Manic, a magazine for the Independent. This piece appeared there a week ago. It gave me an opportunity to get out of my current skin. And be in a place I am now linked to, that I need to go visit, again. Because it is a place that serves as a mirror to the canvas of my life.

When the rains come, I long to escape. A year ago, I succumbed to a growing sense that time was running out for doing things on impulse – and escaped to Rio for the year end.

Rio. The word alone triggers a chain of postcard clichés. That Duran Duran video. Jesus on Corcovado with his arms sweeping over Sugar Loaf mountain. Carnaval. The land of samba, the tanga, verde e amarelo, beautiful football, beautiful people and all night parties. Then the other Rio… the dark underbelly of violent crime, drug culture, corrupt police, Central Station and City of God.

Everything about Rio is a contradiction
. It’s all black or white. You will either love it or run away fast, murmured the Sicilian seated next to me, as the Varig flight touched down at Tom Jobim Airport. He was in Rio for his 15th visit.

Rio is a full frontal assault to the senses. You wake up suddenly to the sound of bird song or a street vendor selling water melons. You leave an Alexander Calder exhibition downtown, walk round one block and find a cow tied to some railings. Everything is cheek by jowl. The ocean and the sand and the great curves of the beaches with the elegant high-rise hotels and apartments. And glued, on the hills, at the edge of the forest, in full view of the privileged, is the scar of the favelas.

You have to quickly get into the swing of things
. Especially, if like me, you only have 14 days to burn. I was told to leave my watch and credit card at home and to dress ‘poor’. We’re lucky – we tan quickly and blend in.

But we’re not Cariocas. To understand them, you have to first understand something about their music. And then, start tuning to the rhythm of their conversations. And finally, you will notice the way they hold themselves, the way they walk. And how they dance.

Music is ageless. I watched the legendary Caetano Veloso play under a yellow moon in a cauldron called the Circo Voador. At times he was pure nectar, sometimes his backing band made Nine Inch Nails seem tame. At Trapiche Gamboa, kids aged 15 to 70 sang and danced the night away to the uplifting samba of Galo Canto’ and several litres of Chopp. The next morning, Alexandre, dentist cum samba connoisseur, turned up with a boxful of CDs because I’d said I really wanted to get into mu’sica brasileira.

Rhythm is everywhere. Someone is always tapping away on a table, waiting for a coffee, humming a tune. Women have hips, and use them to killer effect during a samba. In Laranjeiras, every Saturday afternoon, musicians meet up in the little square and play for hours, in return for a drink, or two.

Sometimes, things get weird. An impromptu trip to an exhibition of graffiti art led us past the market and the saffron shops and men in string vests and the black mamacita smoking a big joint in an alley. That was when I realised the exhibition venue was the Hotel Nicacio, and that ‘Sex Art’ was a project by local artists to paint the walls of a thriving brothel.

You need to watch your back. Car journeys are planned to reduce the number of potential red light stops, and the risk of car-jackings. One Sunday, en route to the amazing La Plancha, a kid not older than 7 ran in front of our car as we cruised to a red light stop in broad daylight. He took one look at us and raised his t-shirt over his head for a second. Then he juggled three red balls high above his head. Leo lowered the window a hairline crack and handed two reais to the kid, who flashed a white grin and scampered to the side as the lights turned green. “What was that all about?” I said. “That’s to show us he didn’t have a gun,” said Brunno, as another Tom Jobim number purred. It was only later that Leo told me his mother’s Toyota was bullet-proof.

Eating and drinking is great value. Think fruit, juice, fish, rice and beans, finger food, real Brazilian coffee. Nothing quenches your thirst quite like agua de coco. Or a Guarana’. Or a cachaca. Or a chopp.

Rio is a beautiful, colourful mess, with Cariocas as its glue. Skimpy lycra bikins and havaianas jostle for space with nail parlours and cosmetic surgeons. Hedonism is institutionalised – on every beach, on every paved sidewalk. From Copacabana to Ipanema to Barra. On an apartment on the 21st floor, you look over Lagoa, and wonder if you are in a dream. Because even favelas twinkle in the dark.

Sometimes, when I am stuck in a jam, I close my eyes and succumb to a saudade for Rio. A longing for what is now gone, but which might return in a distant future.

Pencil in 2014, when the beautiful game goes to Brazil.

Go to Rio.

Before you lose the urge to do things on impulse.

My top 10 things to do in Rio

Before you get to Rio: befriend a local. Find someone on Facebook. That way you stay safe, don’t get hassled by street vendors and live like a carioca.

1. Get a snapshot with your own Personal Jesus at Corcovado. Pinch yourself when you do your slow 360 degrees.

2. Settle down for the evening at the Academia da Cachaça in Leblon. Try the cachaça with honey. And then the 30 other variants. Try the feijoada. Watch the laughter.

3. Go body watching on a beach. The best beaches are further away. The best bodies tend to stay central.

4. Cross the bridge to Niteroi. Feast your eyes on Niemeyer’s MAC, the most beautiful museum on the planet. Drive to the top of the mountain and face the city across the bay. Be brave, tag on to a hang-glider buddy and jump over the edge.

5. Watch the posers and rollerbladers at Avenida Atlantica on a Sunday. Follow up with a detox breakfast of juice and pancakes at Ipanema. Or head straight to Boteco Belmonte in Flamengo for pasteis and empadas.

6. Take the rattling trolley at Santa Teresa. Have lunch at Sobrenatural. Go back in the evening for some ice-cold Chopp at Bar do Gomez. Hug strangers.

7. Roam downtown. Buy saffron in the market. Find some peace in the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet. Peek into the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Sip tea in the elegant Colombo café.

8. Hire a car and in two hours you are in Buzios on the Costa do Sol. Stay at the Pousada dos Gravata’s in Geriba’. Open the door to your room, and you’re on a sandy beach.

9. Go and dance with the multitudes at Trapiche Gamboa. Watch a samba school rehearse. Do your funky chicken.

10. Spend your last night watching the sunset at Ipanema. Make a wish. Life is beautiful.

Why Rufus is good for your soul

Media_http4bpblogspot_hdydj

The Old Vic is not normally the venue for an eight-piece band and four nights of sell out concerts – you only have to look up at the gods and the massive crystal chandelier and wonder whether the insurance applies to a wall of sound. But there is nothing normal about Rufus Wainwright (or ROOOOOFUUUUUUS) as the burly guys in the boxes insisted on screaming.

You have to experience a Rufus concert to understand how sublime, funny, outrageous, clever, unique an artist this man is. Gifted with a voice to make any mortal’s heart shiver, Wainwright’s music is a mix of jazz, pomp, ballad, soul, rock, blues. He is also the campest, funniest of performers. Someone who is in your face, takes incredible risks with the patter patter and the heavy breathing down the microphone and then dives into a sublime piano solo.

Five minutes into the show, Rufus gets up from his piano stool and grimaces. ‘Gee, I have sweat running down my buttocks’ he frowns, patting his striped posterior. ‘At least, it feels like sweat. I hope it is.’ The gays in the stalls whistled, everyone else hooted. This was a bastion of regal English theatre, for heaven’s sake! ‘Let’s do some rock and roll. At the Old Vic… just don’t break anything’. He does a costume change after six songs, and comes back in lederhosen. As everyone shrieks he shakes his head and says ‘I know. Just before they ran off to the mountains. Oh, by the way.. it definitely WAS just sweat.’

No, Rufus is not Liberace for the 21st century. He does hover dangerously close to pastiche, sometimes. But there’s always the music and the complex orchestration and that voice. Rufus at the Old Vic is one of those rare moments, when you watch an artist realising that the peak they aspire to is just there, within their reach. And Rufus reached out. Cappella singing without a microphone. On-stage cross-dressing to emerge as Judy Garland crooning a foggy day in London town. Laughter, pathos, fun, wickedness rolled into one.

Anything I write will sound like a pastiche. You cannot write about or picture where music can take you to. I just know that last Friday, for two hours plus, I was transported to a place where nothing else matters.

Life repeated

I’m doing some theatre, after an absence of two years. Yasmina’s Reza’s Life x 3 is a seminal piece on marriage, parenthood, ambition and disappointment – a real mid-life sliding doors of a piece. It comes at a good time for me – when I am again stopping to take stock of where I am, and where I want to go.

It’s also a real challenge. It’s just four of us, on stage for most of the 100 minutes or so of the performance.

We’ve got just over three weeks’ of rehearsals to go, and then we’re on for three nights at the Manoel. That’s the normal deal in Malta – quick rehearsals, quick runs. I don’t mind. The process is intense. It makes life that much more interesting and dangerous.

The Limbo Rock


Children who die without being baptised go to limbo, where they don’t enjoy God, but don’t suffer either, because whilst carrying the original sin… they don’t deserve paradise but neither do they deserve hell or purgatory.
Pope Pius X, 1905.

I’m at an age where many of my favourite people are dead. I can close my eyes and rapidly find myself in a movie of faces and shadows and snippets of lost conversations. My mother has found one hour for herself and is sewing a dress for my sister on her old Singer. The trumpet-playing skinhead Nannu Karm is reciting an episode from his handwritten autobiography Suldat Qalbien jaf evita’ l-Gwerra (The Brave Soldier knows how to avoid the War). Nannu Manoel is frying golden chips and stealing a swig of Johnny Walker from the hidden cupboard and blowing raspberries so I can scream at the giant moles on his cheek. Paola is sunbathing alone on the terrace of her apartment in Mosta.

Sometimes my dead people clamour for attention, as I see something unravel I know I have seen before. Other times they are so close they are almost in my rear view mirror, whispering stuff I know is for my own good.

None of my dead people would have gone to Limbo, of course. But the news that the Vatican is ‘reviewing the state of Limbo’ and that Cardinal Ratzinger a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI believes that Limbo is a mere ‘hypothesis’ has thrown my safe topography of the afterlife into disarray.

To get a handle on this: until 6th October 2006, once you snuffed it, you were on a well-documented elevator ride to the afterlife. Press 1 for Penthouse Heaven for the good, beatified, exemplary members of society. Press -1 for Basement Hell and eternal damnation for the bad eggs who will fry to kebabs. And there, just beyond the revolving doors, suspended in time, grey or beige leather or whatever your favourite murky material, press 0 for LIMBO.

Limbo. The temporary status of the souls of good persons who died but did not go to Heaven. For many years, the word alone made me shiver. Even more than Hell, because I come from a generation that believed that Hell harbours most of our rock icons and some of the most interesting people we met.

Limbo is for the almost-rans, trapped in a perpetual waiting room, without any assurance that they can get to the ultimate destination. Limbo is for those who didn’t quite make the grade. Too good to be bad, not quite good enough to make it straight to the good afterlife. Lost souls in a perpetual state of disappointment.

I was brought up in perpetual terror of Limbo. My mother threatened me with Limbo if I did not eat any vegetables, refused to wash my ears, take my cough medicine or threw darts at my sister. Limbo was for children who were never to see the face of God and His choirs of angels. For some reason, my mother took poetic licence with the Church’s dictat that Limbo only existed for dead kids who did not make it to baptism, and extended it to include a raft of misdemeanours. My four year-old brain had to take daily decisions on what was allowable during play time, in case of a premature death leading to a one-way ticket to Limbo.

It was an odd approach to child-rearing. I guess my mother was sly and kind enough to realise that Limbo was the perfect deterrent for young children to stay healthy and safe. Maybe she got her Limbo and Purgatory all mixed up. Whatever it was, for a while, it worked. I was determined that the one place I was not going to end up in, in perpetutity, was Limbo. I cannot determine the damage it did to my sanity or my outlook of life in the future.

Limbo is part of our vernacular. Management gurus have made a career of reminding us that in life things are never in black and white, and always some shade of grey. Think of U2’s ‘Stuck in a moment’, any status where a person or a project is held up, and nothing can be done until something else happens or lurches into life. Think of a girl who has left you hanging on a phone and may or just about may not get back. Limbo has extended as far as a programming language for writing distributed systems and has a place in legal jargon. It is found in poetry, theatre, comic books and anti-submarine weapons systems.

As I grew up, I embraced Limbo. We discovered the Limbo dance in puberty. We coaxed unsuspecting girls to sway their chests under a home-made limbo stick in the basement of somebody’s birthday party, waiting for the proverbial moment when the last contestant grazed the stick or hit the floor. In the 1970s and early 80s, the term ‘Limbo Rock’ became synonymous with the Malta we loved to hate. We were trapped in a place we never made, with escape the only option to a better life with an unlimited choice of toothpastes, foreign imports and freedoms to embrace. Limbo is now for middle age. When you are too old not to know your limits, too young to actually start to believe that most of what you wanted to get done will never happen, and that you have to let go of the superflous. And make your life simple again, like it used to be, when you were a child.

On 2nd October at 3.30pm, my son Jacob decided to put a piece of toy into his ear, while his mother was preparing his tea. It was, admittedly, the first day at his new school – a traumatic experience that can excuse momentary acts of madness in any four year-old. But by the 3rd October, several attempts by competent doctors to extract the bug’s eye from the right ear proved unsuccessful. So at precisely 13.10, on my wife’s birthday, I found myself at a St Luke’s operating theatre, dressed in those frightening green gowns, to ‘help calm down’ my only offspring while he was anaesthesised. And as my son struggled in sheer terror in my arms while four people tried to put a plastic mask on his face and told him to breathe out to make the orange balloon fill with air, my mind tried to cope with my own terror in slow-motion by spinning elsewhere.

How have we lived with stuff about original sin for millenia?

How many grieving parents have had to deal with idiots telling them their newborn are in a place called Limbo?

How have we continued to believe that real life bureaucracy is extended to the afterlife, that not having a child’s passport stamped with baptism in this life means you’ve lost your child’s insurance policy to a better life in the next?

How do you explain Limbo in a world where six million children die of malnutrition every year and where the much-maligned Muslims believe that children go straight to heaven without passing any test?

What kind of religion makes you believe children go to Limbo?

Then Jacob stopped screaming and went limp in my arms. And a kind lady with blonde streaks in her hair tapped me on the shoulder and led me out of the door. And I wept, like I have not done, for 22 years.

And then on the 6th October, the Pope goes and banishes Limbo.

It made me feel like Jacob putting the eye of a plastic bug into his ear had some kind of purpose in it. Thousands of distraught parents have one less pain to think about. And my mother is grinning somewhere, knowing she prevented me from having more fillings than I now actually have by reminding me of Limbo as I prepared to bite into another chocolate burbon biscuit, smuggled under the bed sheets.

Now Limbo’s no more, I kind of miss it. There is now no buffer. No Chinese walls. No waiting room. You’re either up, or down. Good or Bad. I thought of writing a story called ‘I want my Limbo back’. I wonder if the term will fade out of common use. And one night, I dreamt of my mother and father at the Sliema Chalet under the moonlight in a fifties evening dancing the Limbo Rock again.

Every limbo boy and girl
All around the limbo world
Gonna do the limbo rock
All around the limbo clock
Jack be limbo
Jack be quick
Jack go unda limbo stick
All around the limbo clock
Hey, let’s do the limbo rock

Chubby Checker, Limbo Rock.

The unbearable lightness of summer

Media_httpphotos1blog_llaow

There is something as inevitable about the tail end of summer as the drop of water that splats on your windscreen as you are about to exit the Santa Venera tunnel.

We’re tired.

Summer in Malta is when the brain fries and time stands still. Same as it ever was, splutters David Byrne in my car, in the middle of a hazy Monday morning traffic jam.

Summer is the sickly-sweet smell of diesel as you skip over the bubble gum at City Gate and meet a pseudo-Peruvian band next to McDonalds. Summer is sea salt on your lips as you watch Gozo recede into the distance from an August ferry. Summer is half days for some and grumpy service all the time and sweat snaking its way down your back and turning your shirt into your own branded map.

Something stirs the parts not yet ravaged by cynicism and 45 summers.

Surprise me, my old rock. Show me there is still a pulse in the scorched earth.

Summer is Babel. MTV TRL Generation X has long moved on from beer festivals. DJs germinate out of billboards at the same rate as ants crawl out of August kitchen cupboards. Tribute bands at the Splash and Fun rub shoulders with memories of the real thing at Luxol. Renzo and N’faly Kouyate’ bring world music to the Verdala Palace.

Everything is bigger and louder. The BBQ sets on the beach get 21st century. We have gone from weekend village festas to one-week events brimming with local ‘talent’ on sets in front of the parish. Big Bangs outgun throaty bells, rattling window panes, scaring the very old and the very young. A rogue petard catches a kid’s clothing on fire. We celebrate our own unique blend of festa junk in village squares – the nougat, the broken beer bottles, the holy confetti. Empty vessels.

Ash. Flaked skin. Sun-burnt tourists in string vests, visible G-strings. Tattooed backs. Perhaps the ink will cope with another twenty more summers.

Oh you pretty things. The English language girls get chatted up by the testosteroned Maltese boys in pigeon English. Birgu Waterfront is accosted by pretty designers and nouveau speculators. Locals watch bemused and reverse their vehicles to avoid head-on collision on a one-way, two-way road in front of the table tops with the muted lamps.

Cranes pepper the skylines. Nothing will stand in the way of progress and urban development. The huddled trees outside Castille shudder and whisper to convince responsive politicians to extend the Development boundaries. Today a town house in Sliema, a washroom that is really a penthouse, tomorrow Ta’ Cenc. The devastation will be felt long after this generation of decision-makers have stopped feeling anything.

Who pays for this? A girl collapses in a doorway in Paceville in the early hours and dies. Somebody’s daughter; somebody else’s responsibility.

Go home, they scream, at what remains of the boat, as the Africans try to make it to shore.

St Paul would have a rough time getting shipwrecked here these days.

Roger Waters does not trust the Government. In the break before the Dark Side of the Moon, the giant screen snaps politicians in the complementary seats engrossed in animated conversations with the business community in the expensive seats. For a moment, spontaneous boos and laughter startle the men with the pot bellies.

Hilarity. Nearly forty years after the Prisoner, I discover I am not a number, but a Brand. We drive next to taxpayers’ billboards and the dirt, over the pot holes, diverted round another MEPA-blessed supermarket.

It’s about the product, stupid. It’s about wanting to do something about it, instead of raping it. It’s about education and customer service instead of treating our environment like a toilet and fleecing others. If we go for mascots again to show our true face, let’s go for the guy with the hard hat or the loadsamoney plasterer.

The cicadas are hoarse. A wasps’ nest takes residence outside my son’s balcony. In a designer office with muted lights, the drains get blocked every week. Tourism dips, chairmen resign, two trawlers are sunk in the presence of dignitaries. The fish are puzzled, but divers and hoteliers hope they will congregate for the party all the same.

The first shots ring out on September 1st. We can shoot them in the air, we can shoot them on the water, we will never surrender to a bird’s right to fly over the Archipelago of Malta. The GWU shifts uncomfortably as the port workers go their own way.

Love Lost. On a Sunday afternoon, Shevchenko races to the crowd at Stamford Bridge and kisses a blue shirt on prime time TV. Down at the Milan Club in Qormi, the die-hard rossoneri burn posters of the mercenary No. 7. The Juve fans prepare for life in Serie B. The World Cup plastic flags must have made it to skip land by now. Football will be strange, this winter.

Give me some space. Teenagers who cannot find it on land, find it online on MySpace. From the hum of her PC in B’Kara, MaltaChick1 competes with Geriatric27 in Slough for the attention of a global online audience. The Maltese discover reality TV. The Annual Awards ceremonies have replaced the Annual Rabbit shows. Air-conditioners hum, the lights twinkle in the courtyard, despite the surcharge.

So we sail. Watch the twin keel of the catamaran slice through the morning. Hug the first beer of the day, watch the light hit the bastions. Laugh, like a four year-old.

Doesn’t Malta look manageable from the sea?

Maybe summer is about waiting.

We wait for Smart City to make us smarter. To get rid of our inferiority complexes that make us feign superiority, reward mediocrity, resist change, recycle the same faces. We shall prevail despite our disastrous placing in Eurovision, the lack of FDI, the kids moving to Continental addresses. The Opera House will be used again. We will stop pissing against walls, stop chucking our rubbish in our neighbours’ back yard, stop worrying about everybody else’s business and plant some greenery outside our doors. We shall travel on a low-cost airline to a regional city with access to a train network. We shall read more, talk less, make great music, make love to those we love. We are all connected: by blood, by football ties, by You Tubes, by curiosity and index fingers pointed at the sky. We will realise someone moved our cheese, and that we have to race to find some more in different places.

Fingers rattle a keyboard.

As the moist clouds start to build over Siggiewi hill, you can almost touch the regret at the passing of another summer.

Tricolore

Yesterday there was a hilarious Tanti Burlo’ cartoon in the Times . Its subtlety will be lost on anybody who does not live on this island. Suffice to say that a) Malta has a well-publicised problem with ‘illegal’ migrants that has revealed the fascist / insular underbelly of a supposedly Catholic culture b) Malta has a well-publicised problem with bird hunting, which is the vice of 10,000 washed and unwashed, who regularly hold various Governments to ransom c) tonight is World Cup night and half the nation will watch with bathed breath while the other half will disguise itself as francais or feign disdain and d) someone entrepreneurial has made a killing in silly plastic flags fixed to vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

I am old enough to remember 1982, the last time an azzurri team made it to a World Cup Final with any real chance of winning, and the mesh of tangled bodies in Chris’s parents’ living room. And the night of tricolori flags on the Sliema front and bemused tourists toting large cameras, wondering if they had been transplanted for a moment to Circo Massimo.

Nothing much has changed, in the football-fried frenzy of the populace.

And in the meantime, the sun savages and wrinkles skin, runs lines across the hasiras, keeps the ACs screeching next to to the solar panels, dries up all sources of natural water and greenery.

And soon, I will be 45 and striking another year off the tree of life. And pretending the mirror lies.

From Technology to Dust

You know things have really changed for ever when you take them for granted.

Three weeks ago, my team of super geeks realised that we were going to miss the afternoon matches in Germany unless ‘we did something about it’. We work in one of those buildings designed to serve a designer’s ego (doors that don’t look like doors, wash hand basins that look like concrete slabs, a kitchen not wide enough to swing a cat around…. you know what I mean). And signficantly, no TV in the space-age boardroom.

I called my friend at the Cable TV company and persuaded him to give me a Sports Channel feed and send an installer with a set top box. The installer was slightly surprised to find he was setting up his kit in a server room.

Giselle then remembered that she had an old TV at home. The geeks founds some space for it among the servers. But definitely not enough space for six men to pay homage to Totti, Beckham & Co.

Two days later, the head of geeks turned up with some software.

So fast forward to yesterday.

I was on the tail end of my ‘404’ – a daily conference over VoIP with a bunch of people in Malta and the UK. Brasil are starting to get to grips with Ghana

My friend in Rio is on Skype, watching the game in Germany via Satellite, chattering to me about Ronaldo’s 90kgs.

Ronaldo does his bit of magic.

CALL ME NOW!!! shouts the message on Google Talk.

I click a mouse without thinking, as Ronaldo’s gap tooth smile fills my laptop screen.

“Can you hear them?” screams my friend through my headset, above the rattle of firecrackers in a street somewhere in Rio de Janeiro.

“We certainly wouldn’t have been doing this a year ago!” I shouted back, muting the sound on my VoIP call, as someone in the UK rumbled on about statistics and return on investment, blissfully unaware of what was going on in Malta, Germany, Rio……

I didn’t even know you, a year ago, I thought, driving back home later. Until we bumped into each other on Flickr and ended up in online conversations on life, the universe, and Ronaldinho Gaucho.

Nobody is spared, from the onslaught of the new over the old. Not even my three year-old. We are currently working on a project together… a story that has taken a life of its own, as I drive him to kindergarten in the morning. We had got to a stage in the narrative where he needed to buy a present for someone on another planet, fast. “Where are you going to get a suitable present, Jacob?” I asked, taking my foot off the accelerator as the next speed camera appeared, thinking of the toy shop that has just closed down to make space for another wine bar. “Don’t be silly, Daddy,” he chuckled, “On the Internet, of course! Mummy even got me these shorts on the Internet. Look!”

I laughed, thought of how his world is nothing like mine was, how he is already accelerating past me while I struggle with my daily dose of You Tube , Lifehacker , Boing Boing and TechCrunch .

Then, just as my brain was spiralling to morbid thoughts of leaving him behind and dust to dust, I came across this.

Which kind of puts things into perspective.

We live in wonderful times.

Americans don’t get it

OK, so the World Cup hasn’t been all that brilliant till now. There have been a couple of bravado goals (sic. Fernandez yesterday against Mexico, Frings in that first Game for the Germans), and the fans have been cool with telegenic painted faces (except for that stand-off between Germans and drunken Brits in Stuttgart (beer still served while plastic chairs flew from one end of the square to the other).

But nothing, nothing justifies this!

This from a gun-toting nation that thinks a ball is oval, ‘soccer’ can only be war (sic. Mr Bruce Arena before Italy v USA), and expects any sport event to be interrupted every 30 seconds by a commercial for flatulence (I know… 21st Century attention span keeps diminishing, and the US does have its share of flatulent people.) In 1984, on holiday in Florida, I drove round six blocks in desperate search of a sports bar showing the World Cup Final. I returned to my hotel room to find that Brasil v Italy was being transmitted, after all – but the commercials had eaten into everything up to the kick off.

I know. I need to rant at something. Someone. Anyone.

The USA will do for now.

Maybe it’s the time of the year

Media_httpphotos1blog_uveox

Everything and everyone is frying. From the air-conditioners to the bandsmen playing their brass outside the electric parish of St Nicholas. The World Cup rumbles on, Italian football is on the verge of collapse. Max watches Shevchenko score a penalty for Ukraine, and cannot find it in him to forgive the Chelsea-bound mercenary, despite the 173 goals scored for AC Milan, or the hundreds of times the Ukranian gave grown men a rush of blood to the head.

Or maybe it’s the way middle age infiltrates the old grey cells and whispers Stop wasting time doing stuff you don’t want to do. If you want to get something done that Jacob will be proud of, you have to do it your way… your way…

It’s true. Ever since Shevchenko fidgeted his way through that press conference and said he just had to leave Milan to learn decent English and bond with his family in Knightsbridge, nothing’s quite been the same.

Max scratches his head and contemplates ten fingers, waiting to claw a keyboard.

Get a life, says the radio voice in the head, full of forty-five year-old static.

Don’t get into trouble, whispers his soulmate.

Let’s go and watch Xtruppaw next weekend, says Shaun

All revved up and no place to go

Media_httpphotos1blog_lhctf

Things have a habit of happening when you’re out of the way on holiday, blissfully incommunicado with no email or internet. In September last year, while I was contemplating a five-course feast in Chiaramonte Gulfi in Sicily, the Depeche Mode concert in Milan sold out in five minutes. A second date was added the next day, and that sold out in just over half an hour.

I tried to convince myself this was fate. I mean, I wasn’t really into Depeche Mode. I only woke up to their blend of electronic music once Dave Gahan nearly died of a heroin overdose and got most of his torso tattooed. My brother Shaun’s band Syrup had done a mean cover of Enjoy the Silence. I bought a couple of CDs, loved the dark stuff. But that was about all I had noted of Depeche Mode for the best part of two decades.

But one morning last November I got out of bed early, spent two hours on eBay and bought a ticket for the Milan concert from a woman called Valentina – for a lot of money. Then I thought, sod it, I’m middle-aged, I can afford to stay in a couple of decent hotels. So I booked those too – one in Milan, and another in Rome – because a working man deserved a week’s break to play and travel in style. By breakfast, Depeche Mode was starting to look like an expensive exercise in impulsiveness.

Fast-forward to five minutes trying to browse through Zara’s men spring collection while my three year-old wrestled with a red-faced kid with the neck of an ox. There, among the rails and hangers, I had a chance encounter with a flaming red t-shirt with the nostalgic reprise…..‘NOW is the time to relive the WONDERFUL EIGHTIES.’

My generation came of age in that twilight zone, squashed somewhere between the late seventies and early eighties. We were starved of most things essential for the body or soul: a credible University; toothpaste; foreign imports; dangerous films; and jobs without a patron. My friend Pierre licked stamps for six months at the Philatelic Bureau while on a student-worker placement. A girlfriend’s claim to fame was refusing to give up some of her UK chocolate stock to a Customs Officer at Luqa, and then proceeding to eat all ten Cadbury’s Milk Tray boxes in front of the ‘Nothing to declare’ channel.

Between 1978 and the early eighties, we were four testosterone-fuelled guys in the back of Godfrey’s father’s blue Polo, howling to Meatloaf’s Bat out of Hell and trying to figure out why punk had never made it to Malta. Paceville was a sleepy place with Casablanca and Crow’s Nest offering neon lit ‘poola’ and the greatest juke box. The best chicken and chips was at Grotty Pub, as long as you could bear being press-ganged into Eddie’s sing-along on a Thursday night. The best value hamburger was the Mexican burger at Sunrise Inn. In our pre-cholesterol days, we saved up for tortellini at Borsalino, and licked the cream off the plate. When we were broke, we stopped for early morning burgers from Golden 7, or huddled in conversations on Kafka and politics in Rabat, around 10c coffee in a glass and a mountain of pastizzi at the Crystal Palace.

Music was our release from what was outside our door. Chris had the best hi-fi and VHS system on the island in his parents’ flat in Parallel Street. Saturday night was video night. Chris made great toasted sandwiches. We curled up on the sofa and watched whatever few films were available in VHS format.

We never pulled any women.

But we listened to some great sounds. King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, the Floyd, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Joni Mitchell – and whatever still resonated from the sixties. David Bowie’s God status with his Berlin trilogy was consolidated with Scary Monsters. What we did not own, we taped.

Then the eighties kicked in, and everything went belly up. We rapidly went from platforms to ankle boots. Women discovered shoulder pads, t-shirt dresses, big hair, and named their daughters Kylie and Sue Ellen. Bono got a mullet. I went from an unsuccessful DIY perm to a trimmed beard and blue Spandau Ballet baggy pants with elastic. For a while, I thought orange leg warmers and a burgundy boiler suit were cool. The only one who resisted the fashion tide of change was Chris. His pièce de résistance, a netted blue t-shirt and a stained pair of shorts, became a pornographic piece with the years.

Music got crap, big time. Even Bowie got crap. Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Adam Ant, Culture Club, Bucks Fizz, the New Romantics…. the names still send shivers down the old rock ‘n roll spine. The Riffs said it all with their anthem Dance music for the eighties depression. For one night, we witnessed a near riot at the Ambassador in Valletta, when rows of cinema chairs collapsed like dominoes.

We stumbled into theatre, into a make-believe world away from the beatings and the school protests. For a brief period I bailed out of my accountancy articles then realised I would starve being a jobbing actor and chickened back to my dull text books.

Some things started to change. My sister got her friends along, and Chris improved his repertoire of closed toasts. The dating started in earnest as one or two of us got lucky and stumbled into the awkward, groping world of sex. Except the girls wanted to neck in more secluded places than in front of Chris’s VHS, and we really had to get serious about earning some money.

I used my first pay cheque to buy gleaming silver hi-fi and spent three years paying it back on instalments. My second purchase, a Yamaha DT 125, was regularly stripped of its mirrors and mud-guard because Japanese spare parts could no longer be imported. So you had to go and buy your bike’s body parts back from the shady guy at the Monti on Sunday. I seemed to go about life either soaked or bruised. There were moments of respite from the groundhog crises – Italy accidentally won the World Cup in 1982. A Dylanesque songwriter called Grimaud inspired us to hold lighters in the dark before the rest of the world caught on. But generally, we were in silent freefall. As a generation with no aspirations other than to survive, and hope we got lucky – somewhere, somehow – our horizons shrunk back into the clenched fist of the archipelago.

Then on 1st June 1984, my indestructible mother succumbed to cancer and I realised life had to be seized by the scruff of the neck. The next year, I got a one-way ticket to London and bailed out.

Gradually, all my friends did. Two were already on to Sea Malta contracts and travelled, others got on the timeshare sales’ bandwagon in Lanzarote, while the doctors were out on a limb in Saudi or the UK. We became the nomad generation.

And then, for some reason, in the nineties, we started to drift back, quietly. Some of us made kids, late. A few joined the establishment. Most of us woke up to thinner hair, bags under our eyes and proper love-handles. Chris now wears a suit but still needs a style challenge. Sometimes I circle showrooms with gleaming bikes. Except the speed cameras would nail you screaming through the tunnels. You cannot really get a child seat on the back of a Honda Fireblade.

On the 18th February 2006, I joined 20,000 kindred souls to scream songs about angst, drugs, emptiness and the fragility of life. And I realised that instead of travelling backwards, to the eighties, we had gone full tilt, fast forward. Just like Dave Gahan, the front-man with the tattoos, we were not looking over our shoulders or hanging on to memorabilia T-shirts. We were experienced, hard-nosed, dangerous, heart on your sleeve, 21st century online, kids now.

Maybe the night was about that heady place where life meets the powerful memory bank of music. Music, our first love, that like our basic sense of smell, can roll the clock back – but also carry you somewhere else. To that place where for a second, restlessness and doubts and regret are pushed aside and you live for the moment.

And you realise, that somehow not only have you survived the eighties soundtrack to your life. But that you’ve finally arrived for the second half of your life.

Intact.

The white water

Media_httpphotos1blog_uffln

Max is always in hibernation at this time of the year. And this winter, the island has decided to go down the low-energy route, sapping him of humour and drive. Perhaps it’s just the rain or the lack of warm light – whatever it is, Max is dug in for winter, under layers of fleeces and wrinkles.

This morning the weekend decided to provide a diversion in the form of a bright morning, and Max went down to Exiles to watch the waves. He waited for thirty minutes, to try and find something to photograph on the horizon. When none appeared, Max remembered that this was how he used to be, when he was 18 and restless and wondered if he would remain island-bound for the rest of his life.

Perhaps life always goes full circle.