Alex Grech's blog

Saturday, July 30, 2005


Tomorrow, 31st July, in about 30 minutes, I will be 44.

Bob Hope once famously said that middle age is when you start to show your age around your middle.

To celebrate official middle age, I have compiled my 44 list. The 44 things I have learnt in 44 years of life.

There’s no order in the numbering, no point to be made. Other than to establish a sense of order that tends to be absent in my real life.

44 Lessons

1. 23 is a good age to break free from your roots. At 23, I ran away to London, just as people in Malta started to believe that tear-gas and police beatings were something to be managed in the daily course of life. I gravitated from a dump in Holloway to a flatlet in Upper Street Islington to a garden flat in Willesden which was up and coming but never quite came to leafy Buckinghamshire with the smell of wood smoke. Anybody aged 23 in Malta should pack and go and get a taste for something larger. And acquire some degree of perspective and humility.

2. I do not go for stereotypes in women, as evidenced by two marriages to beautiful, intelligent, foreign and remarkable women. The first - a small, curvy brunette, full of Greek passion, an artist, aromatherapist, aspiring singer, shopaholic maniac non–stop chatter box; the second - tall, lean, blonde, cool Britannia, gardener, writer, perfectionist, industrious DIY expert. I seduced both with words - money and good looks not being readily-available at the time. Both eventually took pity and cooked him beautiful meals.

3. Kids don’t make sense until you make your own. When you do, you realise they’re just like you. I have contributed to the creation of a beautiful child. Sometimes, I can remember exactly the night it happened. Sometimes, I wonder how it happened.

4. Football is poetry. At the age of 12, I scored a hat-trick in 10 minutes on the De La Salle football track, reserved for the more marginalised of footballers. When I scored the third goal and turned to celebrate, my ankle caught the edge of the boulder cum goalpost, and my ankle ballooned on impact. For a moment, with the adrenalin rush, I felt no pain.

5. Football is cruelty. AC Milan v Liverpool, Champions League, Istanbul. A six minute sequence that still sends shivers down my crooked spine.

6. Mentors tend to arrive in the early years. My mentor was my cousin Mario, now a Professor of Economics at Pretoria University. Mario shaved his head when everyone had perms, introduced me to dangerous books, alternative religions, women with bangles and hairy armpits, Jim Morrison, Wagner, Talking Heads and a bunch of fellow badly-shaven dropouts. He also housed me when I ran away from home at 17, for all of six weeks. All the way from San Gwann to Mosta. I have never been a mentor to anyone.

7. Theatre is a home for dreamers, exhibitionists and misfits. I have done some theatre work he is proud of. At least, it proved you can be shy and still beat your fears by doing what you fear most. Standing above another’s head.

8. Blood can run thicker than water. I am proud of my siblings. Especially of my 28 year-old brother Shaun, a pure, idealistic, talented guitarist, artist and semi-permanent student. Shaun always sees through me.

9. Beauty is all about the senses. The sound of the sea at Ghajn Tuffieha as you gently fall sleep on the stomach of someone you love. Your child’s first cry. The smell of the nape of your lover’s neck. The smell of freshly ground coffee. A swim under moonlight. The first time you touched. The cliché’s all work because they are the result of millennia of passion and sensuality and humanity.

10. The best way of seeing Rome is on the back of a lambretta, preferably holding on to a girl in a mini-skirt called Francesca.

11. There’s a lifetime to worry about things you can do nothing about: love-handles, lovelessness, receding hairlines, lost careers, cancer, loss, scoliosis, getting older, not making it to NYC with Jacob, women walking by and looking through you, cars to replace, bills to pay, years rolling by, Malta going to the dogs, the unbearable lightness of being.

12. Nothing much good ever comes out of nostalgia. Especially nostalgia for an imaginary island. Or as Bennato used to croon… ‘l’isola che non c’e’. All those migrants out there, in grey weather, thinking of sparkling blue sea and bobz biz-zejt, please take note.

13. When people are cornered, they are capable of the vilest of acts. In Malta, the cocktail party system inevitably closes ranks to protect its own.

14. Small places breed small minds. Living on a small island requires a thick skin, a sense of humour and a boat.

15. Paid work, in many cases, brings out the worst in people. You always have to serve someone…Bob Dylan got that one right.

16. Young women and older men will always be chemically attracted to each other.

17. Nothing beats the company of a beautiful, intelligent woman for an evening. Assuming you are a male heterosexual.

18. When in doubt, travel. Despite the Maltese Government’s best efforts to stifle any inclination in its citizens to do so. Treat the departure taxes with contempt.

19. A quick introduction to Maltese environmental values should start with a visit to any street to watch a Maltese housewife wash the front door of her house. Sneak a look at the spick and span of the house behind her. Watch her sweep the dirty water down the road, for it to nest in front of a neighbour’s door.

20. Women are as treacherous as men in sex and love. They just know how to dispense their treachery silently, with a smile and superior style.

21. Old friends get old. Old friends get to be part of the system, write letters in the papers, take fewer risks, tell me to keep my mouth shut. Sometimes you need new friends.

22. Time takes its toll on any relationship, no matter how beautiful, intense and well meaning. The difficulty is to acknowledge this, and learn how to manage expectations after the realisation. And grasp the moments.

23. The Maltese hate returned migrants almost as much as they hate illegal ones.

24. You can’t always get what you want. I still struggle to accept this. It doesn’t help that most times I don't know what I want.

25. It is possible, for a period of time, to love more than one person at the same time. There is always a price to pay for addictive relationships. They are also the ones most likely to remember on one’s deathbed.

26. A little rage is good, sometimes. A little rage all the time is bad for the heart, and the people you live with.

27. Shiny happy people are not always happy. Silent, sullen types are not always depressed.

28. The Internet has saved lives and broken others. Like all brilliant inventions, it needs to be treated with respect.

29. It is never too late unless you persuade yourself it is. Or someone has died.

30. Short skirts are dangerous, if worn by women who understand the danger.

31. A little alcohol can do wonders to free your tongue in conversation with strangers.

32. Contact lenses were one of the most significant inventions of the 20th century.

33. We are always scared. We come to this world alone, we leave it alone. In the interim, we make a little heat between the sky and the earth.

34. Men are as vain and complicated as women.

35. The liars, cheats, and cads do get away with it. All that stuff we learn at school and teach our children does not prepare us for the real world.

36. Music, good music, can still reach your darkest soul. Whether it is Rufus Wainwright on your iPod or a Peter Gabriel concert.

37. Greed is all around us. The unhappiest people I have met were millionaires. They were certainly not the most talented. They were always the ones who counted their pennies.

38. You are going to die. Every other fear should pale into insignificance.

39. Religions have a lot to answer for.

40. Chartered Accountants are rarely sexy people.

41. At 44, you realise there are things you wanted to do at 23 which you may never be able to do. If you still can, go out and do them. Now. Unless you don’t want to do them any more.

42. As you get older, birthdays become sources of some mirth.

43. At the end of the day, you just have to do it (with apologies to Nike).

44. At 44, you realise you know nothing. And that it is time to start to learn something.

This is it.

Monday, July 18, 2005

All that jazz

Max spent most of the weekend at the Malta Jazz Festival. Since its inception in 1991, Max has only missed one edition, which featured the fabulous Al di Meola set - because he happened to be in the wrong part of the world at the time. Otherwise, it's been an annual pilgrimage to listen to the great and annointed and occasionally to the young, dangerous and on the rise.

The audience has grown up with the Festival. It is now older, balder, fatter, pushes buggies, spends more time next to the beer stand at the back. The Jazz Festival is an excuse to meet old acquaintances, exchange pleasantries, promise to make phone calls, and go manwatching. Or if you're a man, look out for the latest in bra straps and summer sex gear on some fading beauty.

There was something odd about this year. Perhaps it was the lack of big names. Government, the whole nation, is bust - so there is probably no money to lure back Mike Stern, Al di Meola, Chick Corea... or go for Pat Metheny or Ry Cooder.

The trouble with this year was that it lacked passion. Even danger. No Hiram Bullock getting off the stage and playing among the crowds. Nor the late, great Michel Petrucciani, all four feet of power, telling the audience that his band was 'drug-free' before launching into an explosive set.

It was all very staid. With the possible exception of Dino Saluzzi, who brought some warmth and passion. Certainly not the appalling John Zorn, who refused to come back for an encore, but was heard laughing 'fuck you' as the audience politely bayed for more (Max really wondered why...)

Or perhaps it was the audience. It knows what to expect, but secretly hopes it will be surprised. Last year, Jonathan, an English friend of Max and a very competent musician, and long fan of the festival, dared to write in a local rag that some of the fire was going out of the event. He was greeted by a particularly vicious diatribe from organisers and Maltese patriots.

This year, Jonathan stayed away.

For Max, the highlight of this year was his father. The erstwhile Willie, kicking 69, managed to sneak in to the musicians area, with a friend of his. "I'm telling you, the next act will be great," he beamed to Max. "Her name is Rosa Passos and she's from Brazil. I told her I was a great AC Milan fan. I asked her if she knows Kaka'. She nodded. Really nice lady."

Max left the festival half way through her set, the gentle, sad, bossa nova slowly fading as he realised another year had gone by, and that he had little to show for it.

Saturday, July 09, 2005


Bombing London is not the same as bombing New York. This is a city that has had to live with the threat of terrorist attacks since time immemorial. Some people have actually been through more than one bomb attack in their lives.' The Brits have perfected the art of the stiff upper lip against adversity. Partly it's the legacy of the Second World War and having to deal with bad weather and the daily unexpected. Like the rest of the world, glued to a TV set, Max watched the lack of panic as people who had been within seconds of losing their lives walked away from nightmare sites that had just been bombed.

There's something intrinsically British that Max admires deeply. It's the reason why Max married a British woman maddeningly different to him, why he took up British citizenship when he could, why he still regrets finally giving up on the grey and leaving the UK for good.

It's that element of cool. The one which says 'you can get this close to me, but beyond that, it's my territory.' It's about being civilized. It's about having a system to make sure things work. Sometimes at the expense of warmth and Latin tactile. Sometimes it can seem heartless.

It's about British steel.

Al-Qaeda can try and bomb the UK to bits. It will never manage to intimidate anybody. It will never get to the core of what makes Britain tick.

And Jacob and Liz, in the meantime, are bunkered in the relative safety of Alton Hampshire, among the lawns and the village pubs and afternoon teas and the tick tock of grandfather clocks in spotless, silent halls.

Max feels very alone.