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In Search of Lost Beauty

In this utilitarian age we live in, beauty – I find – becomes more and more elusive, and I personally become increasingly a living anachronism. A dinosaur, ageing ungracefully and wondering what happened to those balmy days when the world was my oyster. With Covid, this sense of being on a fast train that one can’t get off save to die has become far more acute.

I watch politicians the world over making hashes of their governments, acting like cornered rats and throwing the artist to the wolves. The British actually asked artists to retrain, and I suddenly got visions of Russian princes and grand dukes driving taxis in Paris after the revolution they had fled from in the clothes they stood up in. Gone were the Faberge Easter Eggs and the malachite walls… is this what Covid has done to us? Is this the end of civilization? 

In Malta, over the last half-century, we have made a total Horlicks of our environment. The baroque and Semitic vernacular has given way to masses of chicken coops and highways crisscross where once there were quiet country roads lined with rubble walls and Aleppo pines, as one sees in the work of the vedutisti under a sky of Posillipo blue inherited from Naples. Graciousness and elegance seem to have been forgotten or eschewed and there is no Marchese Scicluna to ‘develop’ into something as iconic as Balluta Buildings… if only. 

Our plutocrats are definitely not patrons of the arts, and our planners are devoid of any aesthetic sense. While I have to still come across an architect who is an artist first and a draftsman afterwards, except for Richard England who’s Manikata Church shines like a beacon in this dark and ugly age. 

We live amidst a forest of cranes with the noise of jiggers forever in the background driving us mad as they delve like malicious orcs deeper and deeper into the earth. One cannot escape. 

With Covid, the possibility of escaping to a concert, a play, an opera, an exhibition has become like playing snakes and ladders while people think it’s safer to restrict artistic activity to online performances, which lack the frisson of a live performance, not to mention its intrinsic beauty. 

Where has beauty gone? We are surrounded by ugliness and squalor made all the more poignant when confronted with a black and white photo of old Sliema that old codgers like me post on Facebook or Instagram. I remember the lovely villas, Bonici, Trigona, Torreggiani, Formosa, Hunters, with lovely 18th and 19th century houses clustered around Stella Maris Church. Now nothing is left. Yet I remember them all. I used to play with my contemporaries at Villino Bonici and I used to walk Mary Trigona’s black poodles around the block for half a crown, which was a vast fortune in those days. I used to play social tennis every Saturday at Villa Formosa – it’s all gone!

The Prince of Lampedusa wrote that things must change in order for them to stay the same, but it’s simply not true. Our world has been transmogrified by greed and insensitivity and we have destroyed our once beautiful island all in the name of progress 99 times more than the Aeronautica and Luftwaffe did in three years on incessant bombardment. 

Maybe it’s Covid, or maybe it’s that age is catching up with me, but I think that the post-war generation has made a complete mess of things. Most of us agree that this is true and yet we persist in our error. On and on we go, splitting masonry designed to withstand the erosion of centuries and replacing it with cement and aluminium. 

Yes, this is a jeremiad of leviathan proportions that is going to fall on deaf ears, but at least now that I’ve managed to write it the pent up frustration, I feel is slightly better. 

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