BLOG By MCCV President Victor Borg In a recently published book, Kitarri, Tombli u Teatrin Mario Azzopardi comments on the ways that Maltese in Australia (Maltese-Australian or ‘Maltawstraljani’ as he calls them) amuse themselves. In so far as limiting himself to this topic, the author tries to give a picture of how Maltese who came to Australia in the 1950s and 60s tend to while away their spare time.
The author describes the various venues where guitar playing still plays a part in the life of the average Maltese. He compares life in Australia with that in Malta, and emphasises that in Australia entertainment is very much centred around the family and friends, with barbeques, festi, etc.
He takes a considerable degree of effort to point out that, in the past when, a generation ago, people like Albert Marshall and Vince Pulo were involved, particularly with Harmonics 65, there was a considerable degree of interest particularly in the performing arts. The author keeps harking back to what it was like at that time when Maltese settlers were still young and full of energy.
The author keeps harping on the idea that Maltese in Australia have not developed since they came from Malta and have failed to open their minds and appreciate developments in the fields of the theatre or get involved in other intellectual pursuits. He remarks that many Maltese in Australia simply attended plays and preferred farces to more serious drama.
More serious criticism is reserved for the absence of any attempt at producing modern literature in Maltese. This is true in that there have been no locally grown novelists writing in Maltese, and the many poets that have been very productive have preferred to stick to a nostalgic approach with little attempt to tackle more varied and challenging topics. He quotes Alfred Cachia, a member of the group, as saying that the Maltese Literature Group has become a “Dead Poets’ Society”.
One major failing of this work is that the author never defines what precisely he means by ‘Maltese-Australians’. One gets the impression that he is referring to those who came from Malta 50-60 years ago, and keeps complaining that these people haven’t changed and are living in a ghetto, starved of all intellectual activity. He obtained most of his information from interviewing Maltese who attend bingo sessions or play billiards or other suchlike activities. He does not seem to realise that these cohorts of individuals represent only one-fifth of the total number of persons who consider themselves Maltese-Australians. The vast majority of ‘Maltese-Australians’ today are born in Australia and are completely integrated within the Australian community. The author of this book tells us nothing about these – they do not attend clubs and bingo, and therefore have been completely excluded.
Another flaw in this book is that the author seems to have limited his interviewees to those born in Malta, and therefore represent the culture in Malta that existed half a century ago (i.e., the first generation). He also compares them with the average Maltese living in Malta today. It would have made much more sense to compare the first generation Maltese-Australians, who were mainly manual labourers from villages in Malta and Gozo, with those of the same age from the same geographical areas. Would he have found any major differences there? Are these Maltese attending theatre, writing modern poetry and keeping up with the main stream of European culture as the author seems to think?
We all know that Maltese language is quickly disappearing amongst Maltese-Australian, being spoken mainly by the first generation Maltese. From the survey of the second generation conducted recently by Prof Maurice Cauchi there seems to be still a considerable degree of interest in Maltese culture among these younger Maltese Australians – who now form the vast majority of Maltese-Australians: there are now four times as many Maltese-Australian born in Australia as in the first generation (born in Malta).
What interests the MCCV particularly are the negative and unjustified comments that the author reserves when referring to the Council, comments he highlighted in an interview that he later had with SBS Maltese program broadcast recently. It is, therefore, relevant to summarise some of the MCCV achievements and involvement with the maintenance of Maltese culture, particularly in view of the fact that the author did not bother to discuss these issues with any member of the MCCV Executive Committee (he refers to a vice-president of another association which he confuses with the MCCV!):
- Regarding Maltese language maintenance, the MCCV has been holding Maltese language classes at the Maltese Centre in Parkville for the last 30 years. They are still being held every week. Last year the MCCV spent $10,000 to maintain this program. If it wasn’t for the MCCV’s considerable effort to put 8 students at the VCE examination, the magic number of 15 students sitting this exam (required to ensure the continued accreditation of the Maltese language as a VCE subject) would not have been reached. This would have meant that our younger generation would in future have lost the option of choosing Maltese as a VCE subject enabling them obtain valuable extra points towards entry into tertiary education courses. The author makes no reference to this critical ongoing activity of the MCCV in the area of language maintenance.
- The Maltese Historical Association, which is affiliated with the MCCV, was set up in the 1980s by a former president of the MCCV, following an intensive weekend course in the History of Malta (also organised by another ex-President). It continues to provide monthly talks on all aspects of Maltese culture. The author did not even bother to mention the work of this Association in his book. We understand that Mr Azzopardi was invited to give a talk to the MHA on any aspects of culture in Malta, but apparently, he never bothered even to respond.
- The Library at the Centre in Parkville has been built over the years and now contains a couple of thousand books about history, culture, language, etc. It is undoubtedly the largest Maltese library outside Malta. It is an important source of material relating to Maltese history and other aspects of Maltese culture. We understand that the author spent quite a considerable time in this library, making use of the facilities provided by the MCCV, but not one mention of this library was made in this book.
- The author quite rightly makes mention of the annual activities at the Shrine of Remembrance. He however omits to mention the functions to commemorate the George Cross Award with an annual ceremony at the Maltese Centre in Parkville, largely through the activity of the Maltese Ex-Services Association of Victoria – another association which is affiliated with the MCCV.
- In relation to the Maltese Literature Group, about which the author, who is a respected poet himself, had nothing but disdain, one must remember that the MCCV was also involved over a period of time with this association. Collections of poetry books have been published and musico-literary evenings are held annually at the Maltese Centre in Parkville.
- While the author mentions the work of Manwel Casha, he does not really give sufficient credit to the pivotal role that he has played in resuscitating this form of folk music. The MCCV has always encouraged this expert and his team by inviting them to perform at the Centre on special occasions. The MCCV has also been involved in writing a comprehensive introduction to the book being prepared for publication by Casha.
- The Maltese Cultural Festival, which originally used to last a couple of weeks, and more recently restricted to a weekend, was used to showcase Maltese arts and crafts, not only at the Maltese Centre but also in more public places like Melbourne’s City Square or House of Parliament with the aim of encouraging Maltese as well as non-Maltese to get a glimpse at what can be produced by Maltese.
- The Maltese language program on SBS Radio is one of the most important links that Maltese have with the home country. When there was a very real threat that the SBS radio time would be significantly curtailed, it was the MCCV who organised a major petition to object to this in the strongest possible terms and succeeded in considerably reducing the impact of the proposed savage cuts to the Maltese language program. No reference is made to this in the book.
- The author regrets the fact that there are no attempts by poets to become more modern in their approach to writing. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the relatively enormous output of novels produced by Maltese-Australians (often with a background reflecting Maltese way of life). The MCCV has always been supportive of these publications and has on a number of occasions launched these books at the Maltese Centre in Parkville. A recent review of these authors was published by Prof Cauchi, until recently MCCV president, in a number of articles published in The Sunday Times of Malta.
- Also along this vein, the author seems to be unaware of the list of publications which have been published by the MCCV on the contribution of Maltese migrants to various aspects of life (including cultural) in Australia. These include:
Maltese Migrants in Australia 1990
Maltese Achievers in Australia 2006
Under One Umbrella 2009
The MCCV was the only Maltese organisation who thought it crucial to have the seminal book ‘Malta and the Maltese: A study in Nineteenth Century Migration’ by Charles A. Price, which had been out of print for several years, to be reprinted and made available for scholars of the subject.
In addition, the MCCV has published a number of reports relating to various aspects of life including Maltese Background Youth, the latest being a Survey of the Second Generation.Other publications relating to various aspects of life in Australia, including culture maintenance have been published by members of the Executive of the MCCV
- The MCCV has set up a Fund, the Bishop Joe Grech Fund which has now reached a figure of $40,000, to enable the reward of annual scholarships to young persons of Maltese-background to visit Malta to ensure that they familiarise themselves with Maltese culture.
It is a great pity that this author seems to have spent his research time talking to a selected and very eclectic number of Maltese who seem to have a limited view of life in Australia. He made no attempt to have an unbiased discussion with the younger generation, which these days form the majority by far of Maltese-Australians. If he had done so, he would have formed a very different view of cultural activity, and would not have concluded that Maltese-Australians do not care about modern cultural trends, do not attend cultural activities in Melbourne and Sydney, and seem to be stuck in a rut.
Unfortunately, the majority of Maltese-Australians do not belong to Maltese associations, do not attend bingo, do not listen to għana, do not go to Maltese-organised teatrin, but they have a very full and active cultural life. A considerable proportion of them even keep in touch with what is happening in Malta through the means of internet, which allows them to read the daily Maltese newspapers. The author’s criticism of Maltese-Australians failing to open their minds and appreciate developments in the fields of the theatre or get involved in other intellectual pursuits is simply not based on fact and highly insulting.
One gets the impression that the author created a straw man and then proceeded to destroy it. If he had studied the situation a bit more deeply, if he even bothered to talk to members of the MCCV Executive Committee at least to verify his conclusions about the MCCV, something which he amazingly did not bother to do, if he had widened his net and talked to more representative members of the Maltese community, and not restricted himself to selectively interviewing only some persons with whom he was familiar – the most obvious way of ensuring an unbalanced view of the situation – then he would possibly not have written that “at the Maltese Centre in Parkville, in Victoria, there does not seem to have a cultural product on its agenda” (our translation).