Joy of junk: the Birgu market.
I’ve just finished a draft of a short story which deals, obliquely, with my perception of the spaces I’ve lived and brought up in. Spaces I’ve inhabited – sometimes more vividly in memory than in reality.
Having been born in Serbia but raised in Malta – taking long summer trips to my native country while I was a kid – I’ve always had a tenuous relationship with the very idea of place, and how you’re supposed to, or not supposed to, belong to the places you’ve been put into.
This intimate (let’s call it ‘subconscious’) tension was further compounded by real-world concerns (read: I only acquired Maltese citizenship early last year, by which time I had been living in Malta for a healthy 19 years), which allowed plenty of time for subtle neuroses on the matter to germinate at the back of my head.
Not subtle: shells for sale
In what turned out to be quite an idyllic Sunday, I paid a visit to both the Birgu flea market and the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni. The day was a happy one for some obvious reasons. My haul from Birgu was substantial and special while also being cheap – ‘General Correspondence’ book dated 1922-1925 for the same price (€1) as Savage Sword of Conan #40? Yes please – and the journey to the ancient underground burial site was by turns calming and inspiring.
But what also became clear to me was just how tangible the imprint left by Malta’s last colonisers – the British – still remains. Of course, the idea that Malta is racked by post-colonial neuroses that may mirror my own is something of a foregone conclusion. It’s a frequent talking point, and also a convenient way to peg down arguments why Malta remains culturally insecure in a lot of ways, for example.
It’s one thing to encounter a taken-for-granted idea in the ether, but it’s quite another to see it alive in the real world. The Birgu market, an eviscerated sprawl of unwanted collectibles for the most part, is rich in telltale signs of Malta’s former British conquest.
One of my proudest purchases from there is a wonderfully un-PC book called Around the Empire: a guidebook on the parts of the world which then fell under British rule, “so that our schoolboys will know that they don’t form part of a country, but an empire.”
Look, it’s Casual Orientalism everybody!
This time I snagged an edition ‘The Wide World’ (dated December 1945), which is packed with charmingly illustrated exploits of British soldiers enduring hardship and adventure in ‘exotic’ places like India and South America. And neither is it a coincidence, I think, that histories of Windsor Castle (and some of its most notable occupants over the centuries) were very thick on the (Birgu football) ground.
Going to the Hypogeum right after the flea market was slightly surreal, because unless you count farming settlers from what would eventually become Sicily and surrounding parts of Italy, this was a glimpse of Malta long before any real colonisation took place.
These smoothly-hewn caverns cancel out all thought of propaganda and nationalistic paraphernalia – British or otherwise – and they invite a mystery that can be filled with whatever you wish.
This was partly my goal when I was writing ‘Two’ – to connect with something that feels intrinsically Maltese without infecting it with any received notions and romantic jingo. But there’s only so much drama you can wrench out of yellow rock, no matter how ancient. At some point, you have to bring yourself into the picture. And that’s when the real journey can begin.