A life well-lived | Peter Apap Bologna’s memoirs

JOSANNE CASSAR reviews the three volumes of Peter Apap Bologna’s memoirs

Spanning a period of 76 years, these three volumes by Peter Apap Bologna take us back in time to another era in Malta when it was still under British rule, all the way up to the present day. The first covers the years 1941 - 1973, the second is dedicated to the years Peter was living away from the island from 1973 - 1988, while the final chapter from 1988 - 2017 describes his return to his native land, and the opening of the successful Melitensia Art Gallery.

These books, however, are more than just an autobiography of an interesting, very rich life in which Peter documents his successful merchant banking career, his family life and many travels, but they are also a chronicle of the socio-economic and political changes of his country of birth. Although he spent 15 years living abroad, Peter was in constant touch with friends and family, enabling him to keep abreast of what was happening throughout all the many changes the country went through, especially during the Mintoff years.

Peter is at his best when narrating the many anecdotes which pepper his memoirs, as he has a knack for coming up with vivid descriptions which make the whole scene come alive. Whether he is recalling his introduction to St Aloysius College where the Rector promptly tore up his precious comics, to his first tentative steps into the Big Wide World of London as a teenager where he was sent to become a chartered accountant which required him to be “articled” for five years with a leading London firm, the stories are sprinkled with amusing details and humorous observations. Thanks to the letters, newspaper cuttings and diary notes he has kept throughout his life, he has been able to piece together quite a lot of personal and social history.

What I appreciated most about these memoirs is that Peter never hides the fact that he was always well aware that he came from what many would consider a privileged background. He writes matter-of-factly about the connections and networking which smoothed the way for him in many instances. He speaks with casual nonchalance about his social circle (which might come across as if he were name-dropping all the double-barrelled surnames that existed, and still exist, in Malta’s upper class) but after a while one realises that he is not doing this to impress anyone, but simply because this was precisely the world he came from; the world he was born into. In its own way, this is refreshing, because there is no attempt at faux modesty, or faux anything, for that matter.

Those who remember those days will find in these books a mine of information, as well as nostalgic photos, which are a veritable who’s who of Maltese society.

I found the depiction of British Malta particularly interesting as this is a time period I have no direct experience of (my family returned to Malta in 1976, well after Independence). So learning about what it was like to live in those times, when the British so completely dominated every aspect of life was fascinating; it also explained a lot of the deep affection and affinity which so many still have for the UK. It opened a window into what it must have been like to be a colony of the British empire, something which is unfathomable to me, but which a segment of the older generation look back on with fondness and even yearning.

Peter also writes as a first-hand witness of the historical events which would later influence the political direction Malta eventually took. The split in the Labour Party which saw Mintoff taking over from Boffa, Mintoff’s campaign for Integration which incurred the wrath of the Church, and the dismissive way he was treated by the British Government, which would linger in his memory and condition the way he in turn dealt with the British.

The momentous occasion of Malta gaining its Independence is narrated in all its glory, with particular mention of how emotional people were: some out of pride, and some out of genuine sorrow to see the British leave. “This is the saddest day of my life,” Roger Strickland was quoted as saying. Prime Minister George Borg Olivier, a close friend of Peter’s, on the contrary was crying tears of joy and bursting with pride at seeing his dream fulfilled.

Interspersed with his own recollections, Peter makes judicious use of observations by others, such as a feature article published in 1966 in The Sunday Times, which starts off with the quite accurate statement: “Malta is ridiculously English…Everyone speaks English, drives English cars, buys twinsets and banks at Barclays.” The column goes on to point out that the island was going to start profiting from (British Prime Minister) Wilson’s new law that the British can only spend 50 Sterling on their holidays, except in some places, such as Malta. But it is this sentence which particularly caught my eye for obvious reasons: “As they’ve no natural resources they could possibly export to anybody, they’ve turned to tourists and tax evasion. Malta could become a cross between Blackpool and Switzerland.”

There was an economic and property boom, with new hotels sprouting up everywhere (the Hilton, the Sheraton, Excelsior and the Phoenicia) and best of all, a very low tax rate (six pence to the pound) which was an incentive for British ex-pats to come flocking to Malta and become permanent residents. Talk about coming full circle.

1971 saw the election of the Labour Party, which would govern Malta for the next 16 years, and it is to Peter’s credit that he depicts both the successes and failures of the Mintoff years as honestly as possible. He makes no secret of the fact that he did not like Mintoff’s politics, and understandably so, because the Labour leader immediately set about making himself very unlikeable among the very class of people of which Peter formed a part. The antagonism towards many of Peter’s British friends and acquaintances who were asked, or made, to leave, was just the start. It was the taking over of the National Bank of Malta in December 1973 which really set the tone for the clashes which were to come. Outlined in great detail as the ‘seven days of infamy’, they are a very shameful episode in our political history.

While he did so much good to lift the working classes, and create a more just society, especially in his first term of Government, by Mintoff’s second term his open warfare with the privileged classes and the powerful Church put him into a headlong, never-ending conflict. While I remember those turbulent years, seeing them brought to life in this way through the interviews Peter later carried out, reinforces just how much Mintoff seemed to be constantly fighting against everyone, resorting to heavy-handedness rather than consensus, no matter the issue. As we know, by then he had completely lost control of powerful Ministers such as Lorry Sant and Peter’s questions to both PN and Labour stalwarts about the violence which ensued, the scars of which are still felt to this day, were particularly poignant.

By 1973, Peter and his family had already emigrated to the UK, and his second volume is dedicated to the progression of his career, extensive travelling to Latin America and at one point, to New York, where he relocated with his family for a few years. Unfortunately, his (first) wife never took a liking to the States, but Peter writes compellingly about this new experience. Seeing the US through his eyes, someone who was so thoroughly Anglicised, is interesting, and by this time it is clear that his many travels had opened him up to be more flexible and open-minded towards other cultures. However, he became disenchanted with the xenophobia demonstrated by Americans following the Iranian hostage crisis, and both he and his wife were dismayed by the very relaxed US educational system, preferring the more academically-inclined British system.

Peter makes it quite clear that it was the return of the Nationalists to power in 1987 that propelled him to return to his country of birth a year later. Meanwhile he and his first wife Annie had divorced and he went on to marry his present wife, Alaine, but all of this is recounted in such a discrete, gentle way that it is no surprise to learn that there was no acrimony involved. It was his own personal situation, in fact, which made it possible for him to obtain a divorce in the UK and have a second chance at happiness, which spurred him to try to persuade Gonzi in 2011 during the height of the debate, that divorce legislation must be introduced in Malta. A plea which fell on deaf ears, and which made him realise just how disconnected from reality the PN had become.

But before all that he narrates how he built up his very popular art gallery, while trying to adjust to living on the island again, where the infrastructure was in very bad shape. One advantage of being away for so long was that Peter was always able to call a spade a spade no matter who was in Government, and this keen eye for seeing things objectively can be felt especially in the last part of his memoirs. In 1992, his wife Alaine was stricken by peritonitis and was admitted to St Luke’s, where the conditions were described as truly appalling. She was transferred to a hospital in Germany instead: “At the hospital we were met by a bed on wheels, hygienically wrapped in a plastic sheet – a great contrast with the dirty bed pans at St Luke’s.”

It is clear that over his lifetime, Peter Apap Bologna’s views about his native land have always been shaped by a love of culture, aesthetic beauty and simply wanting to see the country thrive. In 2007 he wrote a piece for the Times of Malta about the “Uglification of Malta” describing the noise, the litter, the ugly architecture of new buildings and the general state of neglect of the roads and pavements. Sadly, over ten years later, this uglification has become worse.

Still, in a move which is quite rare for someone of his background, Peter openly states that in 2013 he voted Labour for the first time in his life, “believing that Joseph Muscat’s New Labour would bring breath of fresh air into our political life – it did. I could see, like many others, that the bad days under Old Labour were in the past and that Malta and we, the Maltese had changed almost beyond recognition.”

It is the kind of honesty which can only be admired, particularly because of the ‘stigma’ which still exists when it comes to voting for the PL, and the way former PN voters are practically treated like lepers for switching sides.

I believe this candor can only be attributed to the fact that Peter is so very well-travelled, and has lived for long periods in other countries where he has been able to experience various types of Governments first-hand. It is only this type of immersion into other political realities and physical detachment which can make one break away and look at this tiny country of ours with a clear head, shorn of the psychological and emotional ties which often “force” people to keep conforming to the political views of their family, no matter what.

Peter’s memoirs will certainly be enjoyed by all those who want to learn more about how Malta has changed over the decades. They will prove valuable for future generations to understand more about the social and political forces which have moulded this country and its people.