The Times of Malta: A response to my Guardian article on bendy buses

Jessica Abrahams’s article ‘London’s old buses are driving Maltese round the bend’, which recently appeared in The Guardian, was a succinct, accurate look at the transport situation here in Malta, now that London’s discards and castaway bendy buses have suddenly turned up on our doorsteps – quite literally I’d say, especially in the limits of Marsascala.

Apart from making for an entertaining read, I found myself marvelling at how beautifully Abrahams managed to hone in and capture the essence of how completely wrong, ungainly and utterly alien these monstrous buses are to our “narrow streets, winding hills and medieval cities”, causing them to stick out like sore thumbs “with the grace of a rhino stuck in a Wendy house”.

I allowed myself a moment to ponder the millions that were spent, the consultation reports that came to pass, the feasible studies that were undoubtedly drawn up and studied closely by the Transport Ministry et al, but more than that, how Abrahams, who doesn’t even live here, seems far better acquainted and more in touch than they, with the spirit of our little island, and not just with its routes, but more significantly, with its roots – with the idiosyncrasies, the nooks and crannies that make Malta extraordinary.

As far as I am concerned, this is the biggest stumbling block Malta faces. It’s not Arriva or the water and electricity hikes that will be the death of us. It’s a combination of a number of factors which indicate that the people who get to run our country perhaps don’t know what’s best after all. It’s about being prepared to spend thousands, even millions, to try to make something work, when it so obviously jars and isn’t suited to our natural habitat.

But more than that, it’s about being content to chip away at, bulldoze through and knock down the old, the quaint, the historic, under the guise of ‘positive environmental change’ and to replace with something wholly unextraordinary, something better suited “to the wide open vistas of a Scandinavian airport”, as London Mayor Boris Johnson put it when he said he was glad to see the back of them.

I always imagined the Gozitans had it sussed but even they appear to have fallen prey to our national obsession with demolition, paving, and of course, roundabouts. And the trouble with things demolished is that once they are no longer, it’s not easy to remember they were ever there to begin with. It’s hard to compete with something that has disappeared.

It’s the same with trees. When they get the axe, we’re told they were sick and had to go. You simply can’t argue with something that is gone.

One such building recently bit the dust in Gozo. A small building jam-packed with historical significance which was allegedly the Grand Master’s first stop when he’d visit Gozo, en route the Citadel. It was here that he’d don his robes and regalia. Someone saw fit to dismantle the building to enlarge an existing, perfectly functional, albeit smaller, roundabout, just before the en­trance to the main street of Victoria.

In a roundabout attempt to pacify people like me, they promised to reconstruct the old building a few metres further back. Even if they do reconstruct the building, using the original materials, the issue is not just about the old stone, the balcony or the fact that the ‘reconstructed building’ will most certainly not follow any strict rules of conservation.

The alarming point at issue is that the building had a particular reason for being there and ought to have been left ‘in situ’. Its demolition is completely at odds with, what is known in French as ‘l’esprit du lieu’.

In conservation circles, this is by far the most important concept. You see, it’s not just about hanging on to a bunch of old stones for old times’ sake. It’s about hanging on to the spirit of a place, which can never be reconstructed or reinvented.

I found myself in Valletta the other day, at the foot of Crucifix Hill, doing some fieldwork. I remember an old bar that was situated right at the bottom which I’d visit annually, during the Jazz Festival. It’s gone now, so the memory fades, but I believe it may have been called Jolanda or Yolanda. This bar was a veritable museum, a testament if ever there was one, to the British Royal Navy’s presence here in Malta. Apart from the classic bar counter, it also had a vast collection of artefacts and memorabilia which told more than just a story or two.

It got the boot when Viset thought it might be better suited to a Maritime Office. Apparently that didn’t last very long, because it’s now been replaced by some Regional Marine Pollution department which appears permanently closed and doesn’t see much activity.

It’s such a pity that the people who get to make decisions like these fail to appreciate that tourists are not interested in unexciting, cheaper-by-the-dozen modern buildings. If it’s economic activity they hoped to attract with Viset, with the right renovation and marketing, that bar, and all the bars in that area, could be fantastic tourist traps and money spinners.

Now I fear St Elmo and the Citadel will meet the same sort of fate. While I am not averse to rehabilitation projects, I never seem to agree with the government’s understanding of ‘upgrading’.

Both are undergoing modernisation. The fort should be its own main attraction. Its secret underground passages and wealth of history is quite enough without the need to modernise it with elevated walkways. The restaurant areas must be discreet and remain in the background, and can’t overpower or assume more prominence than the historical element. Same with the Citadel, where simplicity is key.

I fear that the next time I visit, it will be like taking a trip to the Independence Gardens in Sliema or the newer one in Qui-si-Sana. That very sterile unremarkable ‘one-size-fits-all’, which is churned out like a franchise fast food chain and is best described as unremarkable, soulless and unspecial.

by Michela Spiteri. Originally published in the Sunday Times of Malta. View here.

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