Monthly Archives: April 2014

Revive the Bookshop

It is certainly no news to report that in the last few years, the local media has been getting increasingly inundated with articles focusing on local cultural aspects. Surely, this is something commendable if this ‘cultural content’ is replacing tabloid-like stories, gossip and irrelevant speeches on trifling matters by village politicians. It is in the context of such an atmosphere that I will humbly put forward some observations on a matter which book lovers like myself, find very worrying. And my appeal comes as a result of these observations.

There were times when in Malta you could find bookshops. Now, of course some would disagree with this blunt statement which, although short in words, is enough to frame two distinct historical epochs having different ramifications. Let’ start dissecting. what is a bookshop?

A bookshop can be many different things to different people, hence different definitions are in order. However, we can easily distinguish between types of bookshops which are no more, and the so-called bookshops of today.

In the not so distant past we had bookshops which sold good quality books and stocked their shelves with the best titles of the day; and by best titles I don’t simply mean the most sold holiday paperbacks. Book lovers are still nostalgic reminiscing about the days when one could walk into Sapienza in Valletta or Florida in Sliema and be able to browse through the best contemporary fiction and a divergent mix of academic titles. And the booksellers used to be well-read individuals with whom you could even have a decent conversation on books and their authors. Gone are the days when bookshops used to be a social point where one could meet people with similar interests. Under the rectorship of Peter Serracino Inglott, students of the University of Malta could even make use of an independent bookshop run by a cooperative which did not restrict itself to the importation of books used solely for University courses, but actually had its own distinguished character by stocking and selling a wide range of interesting titles on many different subjects.

Book lovers can hardly be tagged as ‘romantics’ for harboring nostalgic feelings for bookshops. Nowadays, the sale of books in Malta is dominated by a number of bookshops, which, as a general rule, are all based on the same commercial model, with the sole purpose of a quick return. Book selling has become restricted to children’s books, textbooks, Melitensia and the occasional super-star best-seller title which hits the international headlines mainly for its controversial vacuity, such as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Da Vinci Code”. Occasionally, you could find Paulo Coelho in these bookshops, but nearly all other English titles are simply third-rate publications which in England would probably be found lying about in bazaars and big bargain shops. Forget about Tolstoy, Austen, Dickens, Marx, Brecht, Kafka, Sartre, Camus, Ginsberg, Bukowski, Thompson, shortlisted Booker authors, Pulitzer Prize winners, and did I mention Noble Prize winners? There’s the Internet for all that. Surely, ebooks have taken a share of this market, but this is only one factor which has caused the demise of the bookshop. There are still people out there who are purchasing large numbers of good quality paperbacks off Internet sites, for the simple reason that they have no alternative. And to further rub salt in the wound, one of the last bookshop owners still standing has told me that she will not bring in new stock again, while another bookshop popular with University students has recently reduced its shopping hours.

However, I refuse to accept the assumption that the demise of the bookshop has been simply brought by a decline in readership and the phenomena of ebooks and electronic devices. Indeed, book sellers and publishers alike have been remarking along the recent years that book sales weren’t what used to be. However, I would like to propose readers of this article to consider this situation in an inversed manner: that the demise of the bookshop has created a readership crisis and further fuelled ebook sales. Readers still exist, and despite dwindling book sales and Eurobaromter surveys, cynically implying that the Maltese people are philistines, there is still out there, a very large number of book-lovers who would be more than glad to make use of bookshops to buy reading material for their own enjoyment and personal interests. But what are they actually buying from the current bookshops available? Well, they are buying books by Maltese authors, of course, and the market is flooded with them.

It is truly encouraging to see new emerging authors having their works published and read by many. The new generation of writers is divergent and the talent is not lacking: Immanuel Mifsud, for example, even won the EU Prize for Literature. But then, one asks how wise is our belief that we should only be concerned about selling Maltese titles and not foreign ones? Undoubtedly, we should concentrate our efforts to support local publishers and native authors with all means possible, but while doing so, it seems that we have also forgotten that, apart from Maltese authors, there is a world out there with thousands of new books being published every single day.

Maltese authors and publishers should not look at foreign authors as their competitors. Instead I believe that they should complement each other. And it is in this spirit that I call for the revival of the bookshop. If Maltese authors are in fact selling their books, and if all those Maltese readers, hooked on books, are buying paperbacks off the Internet, then there is still the possibility of reviving the ‘old type’ of bookshop.

Having said that, if we want to revive, nostalgically, the old type of bookshop, creating a kind of Dickensian Curiosity Shop, then we have to take into account also the impact of current technology, for example, the ebook and Internet exposure, and try to blend the old with the new. At the end of the day, it is up to the owner or manager of the bookshop to ensure that s/he stocks the best of current cultural and literary offerings. A bookseller with an educated taste will ultimately be able to attract clients with similar sensibilities and powers of discernment.


Brinkmanship, bluff and Freedom Day


Professor Dominic Fenech made a very interesting critical point during the launch of my recently published book, “Il-Ħelsien: il-Mixja lejn il-31 ta’ Marzu.” Fenech criticised my use of terminology with regards to Dom Mintoff’s diplomatic manoeuvres vis-à-vis the British, and pointed out that my term “bluff” was misplaced. Instead, according to Fenech, “brinkmanship” was more suitable a word to describe Mintoff’s actions.

I used the term “bluff” to describe Mintoff’s indirect threat to the British in making a deal with the Libyans should the British fail to meet all of his demands.

On March 2nd 1972, while Mintoff and the British Government (then led by the Tories under the premiership of Edward Heath) were discussing the terms on which the British had to close and dismantle their base in Malta, the British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home sent a telegram to NATO and the US Government, claiming that he had received information from a pro-Labour source and a pro-Nationalist Party source, that Mintoff was going to strike a deal with the Libyans if the British did not meet his demands.

The telegram stated that the Libyans were offering the Maltese Government £180 million sterling in ten years, and were going to effect the payment via a Swiss bank.

Apart from this telegram, there is no documented evidence that the Libyans were actually offering such a staggering sum in return for a Maltese base and it is for this reason that I am quite confident that in this case Mintoff was in fact bluffing.

Mintoff knew quite well that, although the British were dismantling the naval and military facilities in Malta as part of their modern defence strategy based on missiles and aircraft (as outlined in Duncan Sandys’ defence White Paper in 1957) NATO, the UK and especially the US, still considered Malta as an integral component in their geo-political sphere of influence and by no means did they want it to be utilized by their ideological rivals i.e. the USSR and the emerging independent countries forming part of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Nowadays, we’re even in a position to prove this with President’s Richard Nixon messages to Edward Heath, in which he urges him to come to an agreement with Mintoff even if this meant increasing Britain’s financial offer.

The voluminous file PREM15/1704 of the UK National Archives, is quite revealing on the discussions leading to the final agreement signed by Lord Carrington and Mintoff on March 26th 1972. In very simple terms, we witness Mintoff dealing with political forces much bigger than himself, while pushing NATO and the UK to pay a high price for making use of Malta as a base.

At the time, Malta was still largely considered to be a developing country by the World Bank. The vision of the Malta Labour Party was to turn Malta into a developed country with a diversified economy: a free country which needed not depend on the returns of its use as a military and naval base.

The fact that the British base was finally marked for total dismantling by 31st March 1979, rendered Malta free to officially join the Non-Aligned Movement and secure lucrative deals with countries outside of the Western sphere of influence, such as China. When the official date of the closure of the British base came to be, on 31st March 1979, the day marked as Freedom Day, Malta was identified by the World Bank as one of the richest nations amongst small states.

There can be little doubt of the MLP’s success in implementing its vision.

Of course, making the British pay a hefty £14 million sterling per year as rent for their use of Malta as a base, played an important part in Malta’s economic development in the 1970s, but simply saying that Mintoff negotiated a new lease agreement with the British and NATO is an under-statement.

Mintoff had successfully forced NATO to accept the fact that, according to the new agreement only Britain could make use of Malta as a base, while NATO’s financial contribution was only being considered simply as payment NOT to allow the use of Malta as a base by its ideological rivals.

More than anything else, this agreement shows Malta’s utmost geo-strategic importance. Mintoff was tactful in playing this card so effectively in the worldwide political scenario. His negotiating skills and tactful manoeuvres put Mintoff on a par with ‘the big boys’ (his foreign counterparts) and, moreover, cemented him in the local annals as the tough negotiator and larger-than-life political character that he was; a true mover and a force to be reckoned with.

All things considered, I cannot but feel that in our collective consciousness, Freedom Day provides for a much more tangible concept than other national holidays, for it is not only the day on which we celebrate Malta as an independent state free from the clutches of foreign bases and wars which do not pertain to us; but it is also the day when we can truly celebrate the realization of the working-class dream – that of living in a free and democratic society which offers job opportunities and a decent standard of living.

This was by no means simply the dream of the Maltese working-class, it was also the dream of the European class and today’s dream of emerging working classes in developing countries, most notably those of the Arab World.

The first thing which comes to my mind when I think of Freedom Day is social justice. I propose that the best way to celebrate Freedom Day is to conserve the achievements of the 1970s in light of the strong wave of austerity politics being implemented across Europe. We simply cannot allow to be robbed of the gains that the working class made in the name of modern European capitalism – the same brand of capitalism which is increasingly jeopardizing the very workers’ rights that resulted from long years of struggle and revolutions.