The Village by the Sea | Marsascala Under Attack (Again)

Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation. This is the third blog post in an erstwhile series.

So we had a sea view.

Sullied at the edges of your peripheral vision by clumsily placed solar panels, sure, but it was there. It greeted you each morning and provided a balm in the evening during summer – then, in all of the expected ways – and during winter it allowed for a showcase of nature’s fury as the waves crashed in violent foam over the promenade.

It remains the one undeniable perk we both miss very much now that we’ve relocated from Marsascala to Rabat a year ago. No longer being able to wake up and smell the sea, taking in its blue-on-blue hue, can’t be brushed off so easily. You can only be stoic about so much.

Thinking back on this, it’s the Marsascala dawn that really stands out in the memory. The sea view is the sea view, yes, but it really comes into its own in the morning, when it allows you to greet the day with a particular sense of accessible, graspable majesty. You visualise the opposite bay like a slowly-loading act of creation: the sight of the water hits you first, with the promenade and the dotted boats appearing gradually, replotting themselves into the scenery. A wide blue expanse, from eyeline to sublime horizon, would have its meditative perks too, of course.

But there’s something charming in the way the sea is stoppered by the twist of the promenade, at least viewed from our former spot in Zonqor. (One of my smallest – and so, most precious – delights was spotting buses work their way across the promenade road from our terrace. A miniature reminder of a system that somehow, with all its faults, still manages to work. To serve people.)

You realise it all the more when you actually go down and see for yourself – when you experience the promenade as a participant, not just a mere spectator. The slippy-slide of the moss-strewn walk down by what is a de facto boat yard… a brief shot of pure vernacular beauty, sadly interrupted too soon by the parked cars that insist on crowding you before you’re allowed to emerge to the main walk, facing the church.

But for a while, it’s like you’re transported into a scene redolent of the early 20th century: the promise of an effortlessly charming Mediterranean village fulfilled. Old houses fronted by streetlamp-flanked benches, for lovers to share pizza and beer purchased from very close by. Room for families to spread out a formica table and benches for a multi-generational gathering of card games and barbecues. And despite the independent flurry of boats that frame and flank it all, room enough for an old man with a bad leg to dull his pain with diligent exercise – a refreshing dip into the sea, after which he dries himself off seated upright by the wall, before working up the strength to head back home.

Regular sights for me, but morning and evening. But it all goes by in a few seconds: a pocket of fantasy, a near-literal blink of an eye. Because after that, you’re either back to the sea-view blocks by the road, where you’ll get to enjoy the more traditional pleasures of a rocky beach which will – eventually – be joined by the Zonqor fields we fought very hard to retain back in 2015. Or you’re more likely to head about your business in the opposite direction, marching your way to the promenade and its string of shops and restaurants, along with a nail technician and real estate agents’ office (or two. Pretty sure there were at least two).

This is where the true ‘life’ of Marsascala could be said to begin: the trigger of the daily churn of people and business. In the absence of a concentrated square, we get a stretched out one: the promenade serves as a gathering point for people and a stopping point for fruit & veg trucks, at least until it sheds the skin of a village square and becomes the ‘leisure’ promenade expected by convention.

The transition point for this is the small area by the traffic lights which lead to the bus terminus – or more accurately, to the recently-refurbished, multi-generational family restaurant Grabiel – where the barriers to the sea are briefly opened up; a place that serves as a small parking space and which in winter leaves plenty of leeway for flooding – you’re often forced so skip over and otherwise creatively manouevre through large puddles of pooled and brackish sea water.

From there forward, the communal spirit becomes more solitary and leisurely. You grab an ice cream and march forward towards St Thomas Bay and its environs; an area of true sublime beauty very much compatible with tourist postcards. But it also exists in the shadow of a fallen ruin: the old Jerma Palace Hotel, now a crumbling reminder of mismanagement and institutional dithering, but also a pro-active breeding ground for some of the island’s more interesting street art, and the location for many a low-budget music video.

Its neighbour, the St Thomas Tower, taps into a similar vein of neglect and decadence: it’s thankfully no longer a pizzeria, but any historical glory it may boast feels diminished by its flaking exterior, and its proximity to the far more imposing Jerma ruin. Still, both structures are also notable for their cat colonies, often seen crossing indistriminately from one side of the street to the other, making this cat lover’s heart skip a beat each time.

If our walk from Zonqor is undertaken during the evening, this is the point at which we often begin to turn back home. That, or we extend our walk past St Thomas Bay itself – to overlook the beach during magic hour and forgive this island and its people its many shortcomings.

Read previous: Distance Does Not Mean Protection

Distance Does Not Mean Protection | Marsascala Under Attack (Again)

Having lived in Marsascala between 2015 and 2020 and seeing the sleepy-but-bustling former fishing village once again become a target for suffocating over-development, I’ve decided to look back on some of my impressions and memories of the town, partly motivated by simple nostalgia, partly by an urge to help myself understand just why the authorities and the business class so often make it a point to single out Marsascala in their ongoing drive towards uniform devastation. This is the second blog post in this erstwhile series.

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Marsascala always struck me as one of the few villages or towns in Malta whose borders are actively separated by clear distances.

Most of Malta’s localities exist on parallel and intersecting lines – like the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma in China Mieville’s fantasy-noir novel The City and the City. Plant yourself at any border on the island and you’ll likely find yourself facing or tailing a couple more. Not so with Marsascala.

The road that extends from its closest Southern cousin of Zabbar feels like a proper ‘highway’ between one town, city, village and the next. Neither is it terribly feasible to walk to nearby villages through its other end – a one-hour trek to its more decorated fishing village cousin of Marsaxlokk is certainly beautiful in the right conditions, but impractical in others; opting to walk to the equidistant Zejtun is neither a pretty nor safe proposition.

And trudging through the ‘pedestrian’ highway to Zabbar (and nearby Birgu) would be pointless – it’s a strip of land designed exclusively for cars, and all the ramblers would get out of it would be inhaled fumes.

But this isolation equals neither boredom nor tranquility, much as I sometimes wished that to be the case. Marsascala is ‘bustling’ in various senses of that loaded word. A fishing village turned summer-house location for local families turned expat haven turned half-hearted tourist spot.

A few decent restaurants have popped up in recent years, but the provision of overall services remains on the sketchy side. No need to pine for the mercilessly ‘sleek’ counterparts of Sliema and St Julian’s – which would be uncomfortable for a host of related or vaguely-related reasons – but moving to the more centralised and quieter area of Rabat has quite literally brought home the benefits of the more traditional village structure.

Marsascala, on the other hand, is marked by long stretches and disproportionate distances, only to be stoppered by sprawl on its edges and contours. The long promenade cuts a swathe across Zonqor Point and St Thomas Bay on either end, and both of them are then burdened by apartment blocks – snails carrying a shell of cramped-together dwellings. In between are the shops, restaurants and yes, some villas with ‘unobstructed views’ for those who can afford them.

It’s a mish-mash rearing for change – or rather, for streamlining and ‘completion’ – a completion which in Malta signals only oblivion.

This is why a raggedly hybrid place like Marsascala is so vulnerable to attacks of ‘development’. Its liminal state – between warm summer dwelling and tourist hub, between fishing village and cool hangout – is an affront, an offence.

And its edges must be smoothened into the choking nothingness that Transport Malta, the Planning Authority and – crucially – the status-hungry populace want. Anything that just “sits there” is a waste of time and resources.

The poverty of the Maltese school system – a reheated version of utiliatrian British methods based on rote learning and mechanised exams – means there is no oxygen left to cultivate a sense of enrichment and belonging in leaving things just as they are, and enjoying them as such.

Which is why we are left to suffer under the yoke of public officials such as the Planning Authority’s executive chairperson Martin Saliba, who equate the zombie-brained expansion of ugly urban sprawl with an inevitable drive towards a vaguely-defined “modern era” for Malta.

Distance is what isolates Marsascala, and what makes it vulnerable. You reach it after a long stretch, and you find it to be all alone. You imagine it cupped in the palm of a distracted sea-goddess.

No UNESCO-protected fortifications defend it from attack, alas.

Read more: Resistance & Self-Compassion: The Case of (and for) Marsascala

Resistance & Self-Compassion: The Case of (and for) Marsascala

The seaside village of Marsascala which served as my home for roughly six years up until recently has once again become a beacon of environmental resistance in Malta, after a government-sponsored proposal to choke its bay with a vulgarly gigantic yacht marina has led to a near-unanimous uproar among both activists and locals.

If the root of the complaint were not so depressing, such a united front would have been inspiring to witness. After all, it’s a ripple that follows on from a similar wave or organised dissent back in 2015, when the ‘American University of Malta’ was proposed on the same village’s outskirts.

This was to be a beacon legacy project for disgraced former prime minister Joseph Muscat and his chosen coterie of movers and shakers in the political and business world – a Malta-Jordan collaboration built on virgin land with a pre-packaged, pre-purchased American university syllabus aiming to attract further ‘high net worth’ individuals to spend their money in Malta and Gozo.

That the project is now little more than a shadow of its proposed self stands as something of a feather in the cap of the same environmentally-conscious protestors who took to the streets to fight it tooth and nail.

We should remember this. We often denigrade ourselves for not doing enough, or for doing too little, too late. Or for not accepting that the status quo will carry on in its usual churn regardless, and give into apathy and a sense of futility as a consequence.

But the long view is that while short-term battles may be lost and while, on the environmental front at least, the political and business hegemony may continue to treat us with utter contempt (whose unholy alliance is still not taboo, even after it was a direct contributor to the murder of a journalist), taking a stand still matters.

There’s a lot to scoff at in the current generation’s earnest, somewhat pat ideas on how to make life marginally more tolerable – as was the case for generations past. But I would insist on encouraging everyone involved in this ‘resistance’ to exercise a degree of self-compassion.


Following the concerted uproar, the American University of Malta was set to be split into two campuses – one ostensibly to remain in a ‘reduced’ capacity on Marsascala’s Zonqor Point, the other to occupy an historic colonial building at the harbour town of Bormla. The extension back to Zonqor will only happen if the Bormla campus fills up. This remains an unlikely outcome, given how student count amounted to under 100 by late 2019.

Activists should allow themselves not just self-compassion here, but an enlivening jolt of sadism too. This is a call to laugh at the critically wounded near-corpse of a mortal enemy. To cackle in the face of at least one of these offenders – who cackle at our earnest attempts to counter them nearly 24/7, as more and more obscenities crop up at every corner.
It may not be the most noble emotion to indulge, but we deserve it. If anything, it will give us fuel for the next fight… which will always be around the corner.

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I’ll be putting out some follow-up posts to this one, in which I’ll finally be dumping some memories and impressions of the town. Don’t expect amusing trivia and historical rigour. But feel free to expect pretty much anything else. I know I am.

Coming Home | The battles to be fought

We’re finally packing for our trip back down to Malta, which will cap off a hugely eventful summer that was stressful and ecstatic in equal measure, for reasons that should be more or less obvious to anyone who has graciously inhabited the orbit of Virginia and myself during this heady time.

Though many of my new friends and family — yes, that includes V. and my in-laws — will view Malta through their own subjective lens, the place remains a home for me.

A home, with some complications.

I grew up there, but I was not born there. There’s an “arm’s length” quality to both my own perceptions of Malta and also, perhaps, how its other, “more native” inhabitants — including those closest and dearest to me — view my positioning as a latter-day Maltese citizen.

It’s a place that’s defined by waves of foreigners. It’s a place defined by its ability to serve, to coddle, to indulge fantasies. These fantasies could be fey and harmless — the dreams of spending time on a sun-kissed, sea-rimmed and historically layered island are an appeal in and of themselves — and also quite literally concrete.

 

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It’s the latter that’s dirtying my impressions of the island like a splotch of expanding ink as I think about heading back after a month’s absence. And it’s come to a point when resisting the concertisation of the island by developers needs to become part and parcel of one’s daily routine if any change to the malignant status quo is going to occur. And even if such resistance leads to nothing in the long run, I still want to put myself out there in whatever way I can — as luck would have it, a mix of absurdism and stoicism has become my MO since my late teens, so I can just about stomach the thought of my actions leading to nothing much in the long game as long as I feel their conviction in the short term.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

Because for better or worse, I am marked by this island, and being of a nostalgic disposition anyway, I feel the wedges of these marks press all the deeper once we’re abroad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that thinking about the streets of Valletta and Rabat, about my routine walks along the Sliema coastline, and even far less idyllic walks around this overdeveloped rock, are images that drop like lead in my heart and mind — that remind me of just how indelible my connection to this island is.

I’ve spent this summer around Rome and Helsinki — two cities whose beauty is far more varied, expansive, even more efficient if such an adjective is appropriate — but neither of them have the cruel power Malta has over me (at least, not yet). The environs of Rome are becoming like a second home to me — a ‘new family’ connection that I’m grateful for — and the rugged beauty of the city-proper and the (often verdant) variety of the surrounding parts are like a tonic to me, after the scrunched, yellow and small — and shrinking — stretch of Malta.

And in some ways, Helsinki, with its geometric lines, its traffic-free streets and its efficient public transport system felt almost like a parody of all that I thirst for in Malta: so refreshing was it to be in a place where you’re not gutted by heat and humidity, and where public spaces were just that. (V., in fact, describes it as utterly science-fictional).

But Malta is where the significant experiences of my life happened, and this is something that cannot be replicated even in the places that would otherwise fit far more comfortably with my ‘lifestyle’. Perhaps it was growing up in Malta as an immigrant that made me appreciate its contours even more — and I’ve detailed some of the psychological ins and outs of what having/not having a Maltese passport really means in an article last year — so that I’ve never taken my connection to Malta for granted.

Chernobyl Barbeque

And ironically, it’s the ability to travel more that has cemented this connection, not dampened it. Perhaps carelessly, when I was actually growing up in Malta I’d assumed that I would move away eventually. Applying the same crass-economic logic that many of those who actually settle into Malta operate under — the relative low cost of living, good climate, tax breaks, etc — I’d instinctively assumed that living in Malta would mean selling myself short, and that the real opportunities lay elsewhere.

In other words, I was letting the specifics of the island slip by in favour of abstract notions of what constitutes happiness: a larger place where you’re more likely to meet like-minded people and secure jobs and other opportunities that would not have been possible in Malta.

But as the years went by, and as life events continued to teach me to appreciate the granularity of life over any broad brush strokes, I began to cherish the specifics of Malta. I began to appreciate how all those streets I’ve walked up and down are actually inside of me, in a way that I couldn’t possibly say about any other country I’ve visited (even my native Serbia… but that’s a whole other blog post right there).

Now, I want to head back home to our flat in Marsaskala, release the cat from her carrier bag and take in the sea view. Maybe even go out for an ice-cream by the promenade (it won’t be as good as the one in Rome, but…). Now, I actually appreciate the memory of walking down from the utterly nondescript suburb of San Gwann to what is now my father’s apartment in Sliema after a long shift at the paper. Now, those dingy, potholed streets — which morph from industrial estate to government housing to beautiful 18th century follies in the blink of an eye — are no longer bitter images of fatigue and routine. They’re memories of a real life’s trajectory — valuable because, not despite of the fact that they’re routine.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Now, I look forward to visiting my father at the same Sliema apartment, sipping his trademark Turkish coffee (the one true family tradition whose baton I’ve grasped firmly with both hands) and chatting. To the noise of construction outside, no doubt. But also to the healthy bustle of the various photographers and other helpers that populate (and animate) his studio.

This is why I don’t want the specifics of Malta to be washed out by an overdevelopment drive. This is why I want us to be able to breathe in the little of the island that’s still left. Developers will always speak of doing their utmost to strike a ‘balance’ — as if this is already a concession, an act of charity on their part. But what they don’t understand is that things have been thrown off balance already, for a very long time. Building ‘sustainably’ is no longer possible. The island is too small, and too much of it has been eaten up.

It is with an always-complex cocktail of emotions swirling in my head that I will land back in Malta tonight; to the air that I’ve described as “milkshake thick” in TWO. What I know for certain is that I will make a concerted effort to meet the people I love more often than I have over the past few months. And that, hopefully, they will all join me in the fight to preserve what’s left… in whatever way each of us deems fit.

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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).