Popol Vuh and Malta

‘Krautrock’ band and frequent suppliers of soundscapes for Werner Herzog movies Popol Vuh are gradually becoming my ‘return to Malta’ soundtrack.

Since I often take two or three weeks off in August to skim off at least some of the time spent under the scorching heat we’re blessed with during summer, this means I return as it’s all just receding – that inevitable twilight hum that’s perfect for moody langour.

It all started with a crazy Dingli-Rabat hike in 2013

It all started with a crazy Dingli-Rabat hike in 2013

Nothing says moody langour like ’70s prog, of course, but I do find something in Popol Vuh’s sound that is particular to a Maltese landscape still stewing in summer’s juices.

Maybe it’s all about the temptation to take shelter from the sun, and in Malta said shelter would often come in the form of limestone blocks (trees would have a very practical application here, alas). And in Malta, limestone also means history, lots of it.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Shadows and barely-comprehensible ancient history – it’s no wonder that out of all of Popol Vuh’s albums, it’s their soundtrack to Herzog’s Nosferatu that I find most apt of all.

Ghar Lapsi

Zonqor

Chernobyl Barbeque

St Thomas Bay

Rabat blog6

‘Writing is too much fun’ | Jim Crace

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

Jim Crace at a press conference at the University of Malta earlier this month. Crace will be Writer in Residence there until December 19

My interview with novelist Jim Crace was picked up by the Man Booker Prize’s website this week. The acclaimed British author is currently holding court at the University of Malta – my alma mater – where he will be stationed as Writer in Residence and erstwhile mentor to local authors until December 19.

I’m very excited to form part of the intimate gathering of Malta-based writers who’ll be receiving advice and encouragement from Crace in the coming weeks. Initial meetings have certainly been morale-boosters. For a decorated novelist with a long and illustrious career behind him, Crace is as unassuming as they come, and it’s also refreshing to see him express a genuine interest in Malta, contrary to the tokenistic praise – delivered in press-friendly soundbites – by other celebrity visitors.

Here is what the Man Booker people had to say about all this:

Jim Crace, twice a Man Booker shortlistee, has been talking in Malta, where he is currently writer in residence at the university of Malta, about why he reversed his decision not to write another novel, and he credits, in part, the Man Booker itself. ‘I honestly wasn’t expecting to get shortlisted for the Man Booker again,’ he said about his 2013 shortlisting for Harvest. ‘Really, I thought that I was coming to the tail end of my career and just writing books for myself, essentially … but then along comes Harvest … and my career just bounced back again. Suddenly, what was gradually quieting down was even noisier than it ever was.’ This is good news for his legion of admirers. It is good to know that the prize can, while it can’t cure flu or the ageing process, nevertheless can have such a curative effect. Crace admitted another motivation too: ‘Ultimately the real reason why I returned to writing was simple: it’s just too much fun not to do it.’

Click here to read the full piece

Click here to read my interview with Jim Crace

Bits of October | The Favourite Season

Eye of the storm: M'Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

Eye of the storm: M’Scala, Malta, 05/10/14

The heat has finally decided to recede but the weather is still nice – October is equivalent to spring in Malta but it comes with Halloween attached, therefore it wins.

Traditionally associated with decay, the season has actually borne some fruit for me already, so it’s just a matter of maintaining a productive momentum now.

Some moments to boast about, because that’s how the web-generation rolls.

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Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

Custom dust jacket by The Secret Rose

The New Weird anthology of short fiction and essays (edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer) may not be the absolute best and/or influential book I’ve ever read, but it’s had a strong enough impact on my post-adolescence creative life to warrant at least its own custom dust jacket.

The anthology introduced me to M. John Harrison – ‘The Luck in the Head’ is proof that genre-inflected surrealism could really be a thing, with atmosphere to boot – and it made me sit up and pay attention to Clive Barker, as ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ showed me that far from being superficial trafficker in splatter, Barker is interested in tapping into the primoridal (at a stretch, ‘pagan’) strain of horror fiction. It has even led to friendship, as Alistair Rennie’s blistering, shocking and hilarious ‘The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines’ (the only original story in the anthology) made me seek out the author online, and a couple of years later I found myself sitting on the sofa of his plush Edinburgh pad showing him a video recording of a round-robin reading my friends and I performed of the story (in funny voices).

Its carnivalesque meld of genre elements and literary fiction made me feel like kindred spirits were around: that I could consolidate my since-childhood love of genre fiction with a newfound love of carefully constructed language and intertextual lit games. This spark was an extra kick in the butt to kick-start one of my enduring (collaborative) passion projects, Schlock Magazine, and the addendum essays gave a necessary backbone to my MA dissertation on the New Weird.

I knew my friend Sarah Micallef – aka The Secret Rose – would be able to meet this challenge, and then some.

Click here to get the full lowdown on how she put this baby together.

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Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Cover illustration by Vincent Chong

Speaking of Schlock, this month we’re resurrecting from our summer-slumber (blame the aforementioned heat) just in time for – again – Halloween, and I’m quite happy with what’s in store.

Already up is our interview with prolific writer and editor of The Spectral Book of Horror Stories Mark Morris, along with a profile of Spectral publisher Simon Marshall-Jones.

I like the unsentimental approach Morris has towards fiction writing; an inevitable survival tool, perhaps, considering he’s written tie-in material for properties like Doctor Who, Spartacus and the Dead Island video game.

Here’s my favourite extended quote from the interview:

“I accepted the ‘Dead Island’ commission – an 80,000 word novel in four weeks, based on nothing more substantial than 15 pages of gaming notes. I panicked and sweated over that one for an hour or two after accepting it, and then knuckled down and within half a day produced a novel plan and writing schedule, which I stuck to rigidly. That then gave me the confidence to write a Spartacus novel, which again was an 80,000 words in four weeks job. I’d never seen the TV series and knew nothing about the ancient Roman Empire, but I said yes and just got on with it.”

In the weeks ahead we’ll also be featuring analyses on Penny Dreadful, along with an excellent essay on the ‘splatpunk’ horror sub-genre that delightfully skates a fine line between academic rigour and fannish enthusiasm.

Click here to read our full interview with Mark Morris.

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

It has also been a good season for reading so far. I’ve finished Karen Joy Fowler’s Booker-nominated We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves last night; having zipped through it in little over a week (a busy work week, I hasten to add). Though I think it’s ultimately not as hard-hitting and profound as it could have been (strong ideas are suggested but never allowed to fully take root), it remains an endearing and touching read. Fowler is clearly an effortless storyteller; there’s a fine balance of heart and mind all throughout, and the back-and-forth narrative is effervescent and rich.

On an entirely different tangent, Jeff VanderMeer’s conclusion to his Southern Reach trilogy was both obliquely satisfying and inspiring. To some readers’ frustration, Acceptance deliberately refuses to wrap up every single mystery at the heart of Area X. But I found its oblique approach to be its most powerful quality.

Acceptance

In fact, ‘oblique’ is what is best about both the VanderMeer and the Fowler book. Among other things, memory is Fowler’s theme, and the fragmented hopping back and forth of her narrator Rosemary is what lends the book both its charming conversational rhythm and uncanny poignancy.

VanderMeer, on the other hand, enhances his genre-collage by coming at everything sideways and leaving plenty of leftover gaps for the reader. Gaps which, thanks to his left-field manipulation of genre details, create a creepy – in the literal sense of ‘creeping’ – effect over the proceedings.

I will be talking about the Southern Reach Trilogy with my good friend Marco Attard, for an upcoming edition of his Pop Culture Destruction ‘Destructcast’.

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The Southern Reach Trilogy is also about our mistreatment of the natural world and its enduring power despite all of this, so I was glad to experience some of nature’s wrath first-hand during a picnic-cum-hike at one of Malta’s few remaining spots of unblemished ‘nature’.

Far from being a damper on our outing, a sudden storm lent a welcome atmosphere to our adventure. We found shelter and watched the rain and lightning, and the mud-caked trip back ensured we experienced something of an adventure too.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to usher autumn in (see image above).

Housing

Birzebbugia, Malta, 2010

Birzebbugia, Malta, 2010

“I was taken with the thought that these were dream homes, literally: here was space from which history had been expunged, and an optical illusion of history set up in its place. The real houses were elsewhere on earth. Was this what one built when one lived with a sense of being precariously positioned in space and time? I imagined them all to be sleeping an enchanted sleep that would go on through the years, until they were embedded in a thick enough buildup of time to wake without vanishing into the air” – KJ Bishop

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Read previous: HOMING

Rapping

Dizzee Rascal performs at the Isle of MTV 2014 concert at the Granaries, Floriana, Malta. Photo by Ray Attard/Mediatoday

Dizzee Rascal performs at the Isle of MTV 2014 concert at the Granaries, Floriana, Malta. Photo by Ray Attard/Mediatoday

“I’m attracted to the idea that trickster narratives appear where mythic thought seeks to mediate oppositions. Just as Raven eating carrion stands between herbivore and carnivore (or, in my own earlier version, just as Raven stealing bait stands between predator and prey), so there is a category of mythic narrative, a category of art, that occupies the field between polarities and by that articulates them, simultaneously marking and bridging their differences. It is the tale in which Coyote tries to retrieve his wife from the land of the dead but creates death as we know it, Coyote does go to the underworld and so overcomes the barrier between life and death, but at the same time his impulses overcome him and the barrier remains.” – Lewis Hyde

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Covering the annual Isle of MTV festival is one of the great, regular Calvaries of my existence as a journalist. Or rather, the pre-show press conference itself: you couldn’t pay me enough to attend the free-of-charge crush of sweaty (largely foreign) teenage bodies – the Granaries in Floriana rearing to crack under their weight – and all the while, the otherwise proud St Publius Church gazes on.

Being filed into the pool area of a five-star hotel: the international press primped, young and eager, at the ready with tabloid-friendly questions to fire off; the local media hot, bothered and blase, tired of hearing just how “beautiful, historical” Malta is, how “friendly” its locals are, and, apparently, how awesome the fish is.

But East London rapper Dizzee Rascal was something of a refreshing presence in this year’s otherwise stale and repetitive churn of pre-prepared, mealy-mouthed sound-bites.

Asked (by the chipper, elfin-faced and Irish-inflected MTV VJ Laura Whitmore) about what he thinks of the Isle of MTV image as a production, he replied: “Well MTV’s got the money, innit?”

Asked (just like his Isle of MTV colleagues were) about how he’ll handle the oppressive heat on stage, he replied: “I mean it’s only a 20-minute set, really, we’ll be okay.”

Asked (by an equally chipper local radio journalist) whether performing at Glastonbury was the highlight of his career so far, he replied: “I don’t know… I actually think the proudest moment of my career so far is being able to buy my mum a house.”

Cue applause.

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Read previous: MONSTERING

The Butler on the Heath | Joseph Marcell

 

Joseph Marcell as King Lear and Rawiri Paratene as Gloucester. Photo by Ellie Kurrtz

Joseph Marcell as King Lear and Rawiri Paratene as Gloucester. Photo by Ellie Kurrtz

So I got to interview Joseph Marcell, aka Geoffrey from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, for the paper a couple of week’s ago.

The phone interview was arranged in light of his forthcoming visit to Malta, where he will be playing the title role in The Globe Theatre’s touring production of King Lear.

I will admit to feeling star-struck by the opportunity. I will also admit to succumbing to a slight bout of panic when the phone number I was instructed to call appeared to be non-existent. But once that logistical hiccup was ironed out, Mr Marcell instantly put my nerves at ease, doing good to the memory of Geoffrey with his effortlessly cordial demeanour.

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“From where I’m standing… I think what people responded to [in Geoffrey] was the fact that he’s an employee who doesn’t hesitate to criticise his employers. He’s not a bore: he pushes the boundaries and risks things all the time.”

“Upon my return to the UK, I didn’t have white lilies in my dressing room, a personal assistant and Voss water from Norway – I had to deal with that kind of stuff (laughs)! But seriously, it was difficult in some ways because the Hollywood thing is that you have people who do things for you – in the theatre, on the other hand, you do things for yourself.”

“To be honest, that is the sort of thing you think when you’re in your 20s – that King Lear is the role you ought to be playing later on in your career. But then when you get there you realise there’s so much more to it than that.”

Click here for the full interview

Got the Itch | Under the Skin

 

Under the Skin

Scarlett Johansson is dropped into Glasgow dressed as any other woman and ready to be picked up by the nearest gentlemen. Jonathan Glazer, the director, follows her with a string of hidden cameras, and turns the street into a theatre. A fiction about desire, the object of wonder, and that pale extraordinary woman with red lips who just happens to take a fancy to the passer by.

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Good news: my adoptive country will be getting to see the Scarlett Johansson-starring, Jonathan Glazer-directed Under the Skin from this Friday onwards, by which time it would hopefully have not hit the pirate networks and will entice a generous-enough audience to St James Cavalier in Valletta, where it will be showing for a total of six screenings from mid-June to early July.

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Glazer’s film – based on the book of the same name by Michael Faber, whose prose has previously been adapted into BBC’s rather good ‘R-rated Dickens’ mini-series The Crimson Petal and the White (2011) – has intrigued me for quite some time, not least because of its seemingly arch approach to genre: it seems to have elements of both sci-fi and horror, but the overall arc of it appears to suggest something ultimately undefinable and definitely eerie.

It also appears as though the team behind the film – and this includes the star herself – appear to be keen to strip the glamour off Scarlett Johansson’s persona.

This interests me because a) it appears to play against the way stars are constructed these days, which is only a metonym for how we consume and internalize them; and b) it’s a reminder that Johansson wasn’t always a sex goddess (remember Ghost World?) and that her on-screen transformation into one was, I think, signaled quite clearly with that opening shot of Lost in Translation. Does it mean it can be unmade just as easily now?

By making her play an alien who preys on men, will Jonathan Glazer succeed in letting her career and aesthetic direction develop into something more substantial?

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Either way, Glazer will always have the benefit of being a curio, of being someone who operates from at least one remove from the standard Hollywood system; even, perhaps, beyond the indie film festival carousel.

His music video CV is thicker than his feature-filmography, which suggests that he can’t be bothered with the grind of narrative cinema and its corresponding industry, only approaching a project if it really interests him through and through.

There’s always risk involved here (music video directors-turned-feature film directors run the gamut from dazzling to dire), but this makes them an interesting phenomenon either way.

Personally I found his debut Sexy Beast (2004) to be a style-over-substance kind of experience. Save Ben Kingsley’s blistering turn as a deranged gangster who pays (an ultimately unwelcome) visit to his former colleagues’ idyllic island getaway, the film could easily have been directed by Guy Ritchie – the Brit-gangster tropes are very much in place (with iconic tough guy Ray Winstone leading the show, they can’t help but be) and the narrative is thin.

Birth (2004), on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish entirely. The premise grabs you: Nicole Kidman’s husband comes back to life in the body of a 10-year-old boy just as she’s about to get remarried.

But instead of being blunt or exploitative, it’s a delicate experience; the music and the affluent and snow-capped New York surroundings making the whole thing feel like a fairy tale. And here fairy tale does not mean Disney cartoon with a happy ending tacked on; it means the simple but ominous build-up of otherworldly doom that suffuses the story as each element of it clicks inevitably into place.

Different as they are, what both Sexy Beast and Birth share is the theme of an intruder disrupting our protagonists’ comfort. You could say that Glazer enjoys existing – or, at least, of telling stories – in this zone of discomfort.

In terms of Glazer’s archetypes, so far we’ve had Nemesis (Sexy Beast), a Ghost (Birth) and now we have an Alien (Under the Skin).

The latter promises to be the most foreign, the most unsettling. Let’s hope it lives up to its title. Because we’re all masochists at heart, aren’t we?

Click here to book your tickets.

Post-book launch post | Managing clutter

Marsamxett reading spot

I’ve blogged about this spot before, and not too many posts ago. But a lot has happened since my last post (at least it feels as though it has) and I’ve found myself gravitating towards the place again.

It felt significant because my head was in a hectic, accelerated mess that day – peace seemed like a hardly achievable goal and then, I sat down in my favourite nook to read – for just under an hour – and the whirling clutter in my head decided to take a break.

I was glad to come across a particularly memorable passage, too.

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“I knew him well enough to know that if you asked him the right way, at the right moment, he would do almost anything; and in the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after me and hopped in the car laughing if I’d asked one last time. But I didn’t. And, in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t – I say that now, though it was something I regretted bitterly for a while. More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street – which was, of course, ‘I love you’.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

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It’s still early days, but I’m happy with the local reception of the novel so far. This being Malta it’s inevitable that your first (and possibly last?) readers be your friends and acquaintances, which complicates things somewhat as you’re never sure how honest they’re all being while dishing out praise. But luckily, some have qualified their praise quite convincingly, and I’m glad that others haven’t felt the need to sugar-coat what they didn’t like about it either.

I’m also glad that the review which came out in last Sunday’s edition of The Times of Malta was solid and balanced – neither a hatchet job nor an unmitigated torrent of praise that nobody would be convinced by.

But what makes me especially glad is that the reaction to the things I prioritised the most in the novel – atmosphere, ambiguity – is positive. I would hazard to say that this is the best a writer can ask for.

I’ll be keeping busy with collaborative projects in the meantime – the inherent loneliness of writing a novel doesn’t inspire me to dive into the process again so readily – but there is something about the process of long-haul writing that I do miss, at least at this relieved-that-it’s-over distance.

It becomes an organising principle; something to either dread or look forward to each passing day, week, month: regardless of whether you’re in a good place with it or not, it’s there, waiting. At its best, it keeps the relentless clutter at bay – it’s the space in your head that’s yours, and nobody else’s, and there is something thrilling about bringing a chunk of that shapeless aether out into the world.

So perhaps, despite my initial protestations, a second novel may be in the offing. Even if I write them in ten-year lapses like the aforequoted Donna Tartt…

Debut novel jitters: ‘Two’ pre-launch fun

Two book launch invite

My debut novel, Two, will be out from Merlin Publishers in just over a week’s time. The promo-machine for the book, such as it is, has been continuing apace, and it’s been great fun so far.

My good friend – the actor, theatre director and stand-up comedian – Philip Leone-Ganado wrote up a great interview on The Sunday Circle, which he also edits (yes, a Renaissance Man if there was one).

Photo by Jacob Sammut for The Sunday Circle.

Photo by Jacob Sammut for The Sunday Circle.

Bolstered by great photos by Jacob Sammut (who seems intent on becoming my unofficial portraitist these days), it delves into the book’s themes, textures and origins, with a coda about the philosophy and day-to-day operations of Schlock. Click here to check it out. 

Following the release of the interview, the guys behind Merlin Publishers and myself activated one of our first ideas for Two’s actual book launch, taking place at the Wignacourt Museum in Rabat, with the aid of Nicole Cuschieri from Creative Island. Seeing as the narrative of Two hinges on a big secret, we’ve decided to make secrets the focal point of the launch.

To this end, we’re inviting everyone to anonymously submit their own secrets online, so that we may use them to ‘decorate’ the launch party’s venue. We’ve already amassed 60 secrets at the time of writing, and you’re still in time to submit your own by clicking here.

(Usage note: if you’re a first-time user of the simplyconfess.com site, you might need to click on the link and ‘enter’ the site — confirming you’re over 18 — then leave the site and re-enter via the same link.)

Finally – for now, anyway, because there’s still a couple of things I’ll be attacking you with in the coming week or so – we’ve also set up a Spotify playlist themed around the novel. I’d like to think that selection accurately reflects the mood of the book, at least to some degree. Click here to listen to it.

After the first couple of drafts of the book were finished, what I found most rewarding was doing my best to ensure that the texture and feel of it was flowing and consistent – a particular challenge in this case, given that the novel is structured on a parallel narrative.

Putting together a playlist that capitalises on that just feels like a (dare I say it?) well-deserved cherry on the cake.

Hope to see you on March 28. Overseas readers: we’ll keep you posted on ebook options for Two as soon as we have them.

Confirm your attendance to the launch on Facebook.

Valletta Walk: The rock and sea, your only companions

“He said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours.” – HP Lovecraft, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’

Marsamxett 1

Perhaps it’s not exactly loathsome, but there is something non-Euclidian about this place. It’s a place that fascinates me and yet, I don’t even know its name. A resident of the city told me that it probably falls under the Marsamxett Harbour, but he didn’t sound certain enough for my liking.

Marsamxett 2

The sea-and-weather beaten soft stone shaped in undulating, irregular bumps and curves. The remains of metal features, structures, now so completely rusted they look more like rancid fauna than a man-made imposition on the landscape.

Marsamxett 3

The man-made features that do retain a discernible function – the staircases connecting the the haphazard, treacherous space – are almost a parody of themselves. The entire area is so precarious that you feel stairs shouldn’t be there in the first place – walking through it shouldn’t be encouraged.

Marsamxett 4

Then there’s a kind of stone clearing; there comes a point when there are no longer any bridges or staircases, and you can get a level, clear view of the sea.

But this is only partly true, because the last staircase you see is also the largest one in the whole place. And the most obsolete. It stands like an obelisk, though it’s pinnacle is now boarded up by a iron gate (it’s new, as far as I know, but at a distance it looks thin, brittle). It amplifies its uselessness by simply being there – standing proudly to signify nothing.

Marsamxett 5

Around the staircase, another inviting paradox. The place is both anonymous and open. It faces the sea, and from a certain vantage point – i.e., its neighbour across the sea, Sliema’s Tigne – it is the most exposed part of the entire city.

But in truth, it’s so removed from the rest of the city that it provides a quiet, strange sanctuary. Perhaps this is why it’s a favourite spot for fashion photo shoots. It has a disquieting, undisturbed glamour. Or maybe its draw is that it’s one of the few places by the sea that more or less guarantees isolation. Logic: the droves that crowd to the sea at the first sign of decent weather aren’t going to brave this treacherous terrain so eagerly.

Marsamxett 6

But although the place is finally open – going by just this one snapshot, you’d be hard-pressed to distinguish the area from Sliema’s ever-popular Surfside – it remains treacherous. Even if there are no longer any cramped, suspiciously sturdy stone staircases to make your way through, the rock here is entirely exposed to the sea, and the visitor is forced to negotiate through puddles now. Puddles that are really little ponds – the liquid inside them the dark green of fairy tale illustrations, where frog princes dwell. (Imagine slipping, now. Imagine falling on your back – the city where humans mill about to either side of you but so far, far away.)

These pods sometimes grow – they widen; not just puddles dotting the rock but a space big enough for a daring spirit to swim in.

Marsamxett 7

Turn a corner and find a shanty town; green doors caked with dirt and chipped with age, a family around a formica table, the patriarch with a blood-red bald head and hands flaked with a dazzling coat of white hairs. You imagine his fingers to be chapped, leathery like the rest of his skin.

Marsamxett 8

The water assumes the shape of a canal now. Below the shanty town it’s an emerald green, almost as if to mirror the doors. And on it float bread crusts – ten of them, then around twenty and then thirty, before they thin out to two or three as you walk on. There are no fish to disintegrate them, at least not now.

The cramped shanty town contrasts with its mirroring view. The sea opposite is a vast gulf framed by another mirror image: Valletta and Sliema sit at either side of your peripheral vision, as if ready for a duel.

Marsamxett 9

And then you walk under a tunnel, and what was wide is now thin again (the city’s familiar grid. You knew this interruption to its structure couldn’t last). You pass through this rounded maw of brick and you find yourself assaulted by fruit flies and saints: a commemorative collection of holy pictures stuck together, with an artificial candle standing vigil. The fruitflies are as multiple as dust mites.

You’re back in the city, and the only way forward is uphill.

Marsamxett 10