In my late fifties, still running fast, I made the 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?
I found that question abrupt, somewhat offensive, not just to my pride, but to the complexities and intrigues of a significant community who have lived here forever. 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? Nowadays, I realise the question says more about me and my friends, rather than Gozo with its thirty-something thousand inhabitants. The fact is, the Maltese and Gozitans are shrewd survivors, a go-get mentality, steeped in art, with a distinct and illuminating history to boot.
Step off any thoroughfare and you’ll not have to walk far to find remains of prehistoric settlements on the Maltese islands, suggesting small cultured communities of farming and worship, dating back to the Early Bronze Age.
On a clear day it is possible to see Sicily from Gozo… and dated around 5200 BC, Sicilians were the first migrants, crossing the strait of Mediterranean Sea, to settle and work the land. Older than the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge, the Ġgantija Temples, engineered with precision and
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.
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 a 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. In moving to Gozo, perhaps I fooled myself into thinking I was attuned, mature enough for what I was letting myself in for. Reasons are always susceptible to variables and dispute, but facing this challenge was to be the toughest yet.
I first came to Gozo in 1977, reporting for work on a film… the roads were mostly rough and broken back then. Donkeys helped farmers tow the plough. There were a few vintage buses and lorries adorning the make-do byways, a customised variety, proudly maintained by their owners, unique eye catching works of art. The clear turquoise sea, seemed to be blooming, full of marine life. Move forward to 2003, when we moved here, there wasn’t a donkey in sight… buses were beginning to get uniformed… locals were now tilling the fields with small motorised ploughs and when it wasn’t working the land, this little machine was attached to the cart, propelling your man from field to home, for greater efficiency and speed. The sea and its bed were lacking its previous lustre, with the shoals of fish, far short of the abundance I remembered… an encroaching hill of rubbish loomed over the centre of the island… metals, paper, insecticides, plastic and other incumbent waste, forced by torrential rains, into the soil, through rocky nooks, crannies, down roads, rivulets and swept into the sea. Many of the older buildings are being spruced up, the limestone blocks once put in place one at a time by man alone, are now lifted into the air by cranes, growing in number across the skyline… the potholed roads are beginning to be rebuilt, smartly tarmacked for the ever evolving traffic… concrete modernisation on the up and up, reaping an economic swing.
Following their independence from the British in 1964, Malta became a Republic within the British Commonwealth. They joined the European Union, one year after we moved here.
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. Increasing the need for speed, like some communally accepted, sociopathic, ADHD, our global village seems well short of tying in with its natural and native habitat… if nothing else, Gozo is a microcosm that magnifies, reflects, the ecological and personal outcome of that inherent legacy.
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.
I started 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. Aside from an actor in chaotic transition, I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint why this struggle had become so overwhelming. Then one fine day, conversing with a neighbour, it hit me between the eyes! Gozo wasn’t a dress rehearsal, it was the main event!
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. It’s reassuring to feel a sense of civic pride, especially when the system and cultural policies seem to work in your favour. But if the frame doesn’t fit the picture and you’re trapped in a succeeding rush, severed from the main artery, it becomes difficult to engage in political and social discourse, to notice, or even care, about toxic waste, our carbon footprint stomping the earth, poisoning the air on the wing of progress.
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. The little I know of incarceration this divergent, trying to fit the suit best way he could, might as well have been a fugitive, banged up, in a bricks and mortar jail.
If you’re 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. Chained to a notion of cultural and social approval, compelled to dampen the cries, of injustice and remorse, I had landed a metaphysical prison that can bring the most resilient of souls to the brink. An overwhelming powerlessness, gave rise to anger, grief and unimaginable depression. And yet it was here, flatlined in the valley, that the seed of reason began to turn… the imposed ramifications, the process of being enslaved, only became apparent when I ministered the reprise, embraced the space to breathe… in consiousness… to befriend the child within… in kind… fully aware… on the day of release.
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 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.