In my late fifties, still sprinting, I made the dubious decision to drop my career, as a working actor in the UK, and set up home with my family on the island of Gozo.
Seven miles wide and twelve long, Gozo makes up part of the Maltese archipelago, Malta, Gozo, Comino, Comminotto, and Filfla, a combined landmass the size of inner London; one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world. Gozo, with a painter’s light, telling landscapes and ancient, weather hewn, shorelines… biting cold for a few months and warm to baking hot for the remaining year. I’m not complaining… and it’s no big deal… unless… people, particularly the gallant cohorts I’ve hung with, ask why? Why choose such a cultural backwater?
Swallowing a flush of resentment, to the polite, I’d mumble something about a disillusioned actor needing a quiet place to write and the financial equation making sense at the time.
Defensive? Maybe? I found that kind of reasoning abrupt, somewhat offensive, not just to my ear, but to the complexities and intrigues of a significant community who have lived here forever. Nowadays, I realise the question says more about me and my friends, rather than this tiny island with its thirty-seven thousand inhabitants.
Turn the byway from any lane, road, or path, to find numerous signs of prehistoric settlements on the Maltese islands. On a clear day it is possible to see Sicily from Gozo… and dated around 5200 BC, Sicilians were the first migrants to cross the strait of Mediterranean Sea, to settle and work the land. Older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, the Ġgantija Temple, was built as a place of communion, deifying fertility, centring the island, to the mother and the earth… a frontrunner for a small team of activists founding Greenpeace. These days, Gozo maintains two theatres which, aside from a catalogue of local productions, host world-class opera performed to packed auditoriums. Along with cracker-rich street festivals, concerts, dance, film and plays, are favoured with excitement and verve, among locals and foreigners alike. 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.
I would say the Maltese and Gozitans are shrewd survivors, steeped in culture, with a distinct and illuminating history to boot.
By force, or marriageable intent, from the Phoenicians, Romans, Moors, Normans, Spanish, French, and the British, Malta’s key position in the Mediterranean has attracted power hungry empires throughout millennia. To this day many Gozitans shudder at the thought of the Ottoman Empire, enslaving most of their ancestors in the great siege of 1551. As a former colony, Malta and Gozo has been used, abused, maimed, scarred, overtaken, pillaged, measured and put in place, by those hell bent on stamping their seal of authority on the world. The British Empire, called in at Malta’s behest, to rid them of the French, came to be the most influential, in cultural dominance, governance and in law. The port of Valletta, also known as the Grand Harbour, was a prized asset for the British, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Malta’s proximity to the German, Italian and Japanese shipping lanes, in 1942, saw more bombs dropped in two months, on this tiny area of land, than the entire London Blitz. The Axis resolve to flatten and starve the islands into submission, over the course of World War II, brought the people of Malta and Gozo to the brink of extinction… economically devastated, emotionally and physically starved, they were awarded the George Cross, for their endurance and heart-placed heroism.
In moving to Gozo, perhaps I fooled myself into thinking I was attuned, mature enough for what I was letting myself in for.
Certainly, whichever way I came to be here, I made the choice, the decision to settle. I knew from experience that it didn’t matter where I planked my body, which way the house was built, or how the furniture was spread, those wretched demons were waiting to imbibe their place wherever I laid my head… and therein lies the thread.
Over many years, of ups and downs in hard graft, I’d come to realise the vital necessity of self-worth and accepted 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 my place in society. Reasons are always susceptible to variables and dispute, but facing this challenge was to be the toughest choice I’ve ever made…
Takes twenty-five minutes to get across the channel, on the ferry, from Malta to Gozo, meanwhile, locals and government, argue and debate the construction of a tunnel, under the sea, to make the journey faster. Overshadowed by its older brother, Gozo, with its apparent lack of a slick doorway to Malta, and the outside world, is inhabited by a populous torn from old ways, doubting they will ever catch up with the new. Going out of their way to find work, they hope, watch, wait, prey, while they rush forever forward, leaving a vision to fix a dream and lay it down with the other crowd.
I’m not claiming for one minute that time is not of the essence, or an extraordinary landscape and comfort of a nice home, doesn’t make a difference, it obviously does. Nevertheless, the environment, school and work place, often left me with a sense of deep isolation and like the Gozitans, I was overshadowed by the requite to dampen the screams of injustice. In being dumbed down, shut out, cut off… conditioned accordingly, it’s hard to engage with 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.
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 this terrifying legacy.
Taking a semiconscious shift, toward this new sphere of island life, the various mental and physical mechanisms that went into adjusting and surviving, seemed vague, hard to see coming. With the operative of time on my side, it became apparent that I did lack a connection to some form of cultural exchange. Aside from an actor in chaotic transition, I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint what it was.
I began to let my guard down, unwind among local life and custom, and gradually came to see a theme, something familiar about the people of Gozo that I recognised, as a conflicting struggle within myself. Then one fine day, conversing with a neighbour, it hit me between the eyes!
Gozo wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the main event!
An overwhelming powerlessness, gave rise to anger, unparoled grief and unimaginable depression.
The little I knew of incarceration, I might just as well have been banged up in a bricks and mortar jail… If your 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… I had landed a metaphysical prison that can bring the most resilient of souls to the brink.
The imposed ramifications, the process of being locked up, wasn’t apparent until I surrendered, ministered the reprise, the given space to breathe, to befriend the child within, in kind.
Thrown from pillar to post, a stage drawn vagabond, trying to make a living the best way he could, pinning his hopes on a dream, humiliated down the exchange, stealing refuge from broken relationships, avoidance, running, with a decent job, in fear of getting caught! I don’t remember a time when he wasn’t in the outside lane, sprinting in the opposite direction.
Flatlined in the valley, the seed of reason began to turn.
Pigeonholed as some kind of adversary, consistently trapped by the hunger of a systemic incessant need… success at any cost… head down, work hard, for his art, for capital… forging ahead on adrenalin and willpower… following leads… tunnelled to the letter of indoctrination, with eyes closed, he came within a hair’s breadth of losing the world.