Shine on you crazy… butterfly

Let’s face it: you can’t not at least ‘appreciate’ that sort of ballsy, in-your-face, cockiness… not to mention the sheer, barefaced ‘honesty’ of it all: whereby Tal-Farfett practically informs us – directly to our faces – that he fully intends to simply ‘buy’ his way into government… by promising… erm… ‘all things, to all people’…

Richard Sultana, leader of the ‘Independent Democratic Butterfly Party’, contested the 1987, 1992 and 1996 elections
Richard Sultana, leader of the ‘Independent Democratic Butterfly Party’, contested the 1987, 1992 and 1996 elections

Remember when we were young? (And ‘shone like the sun’, and all that?) Yeah, sure you do. Don’t we all? It’s just that some of us have to venture a little farther down memory lane, to actually recapture those memories. And you know what happens when you venture a little too far in any direction, don’t you? Sometimes, you get a little lost…   

This week, for instance, a series of random online events – including a spat between the Animal Welfare Commissioner and the Sannat local council, over today’s annual noon-time horse-race – jogged a distant memory of a certain independent candidate named Richard Sultana.

You might remember him as ‘Tal-Farfett’ – the fiercely proud (and mostly toothless) leader of the ‘Independent Democratic Butterfly Party’, who contested the 1987, 1992 and 1996 elections. In particular, you might also recall how he had once famously promised to “make the Marsa racecourse straight… so that the horses don’t get dizzy” [!]

But, well, that’s what I meant by ‘getting lost’. As it happens, I have distinct memories of the Broadcasting Authority’s electoral transmissions in 1987 (or at least, I thought I did); and what stands out most in those recollections – apart, of course, from Spiridione Sant’s timeless rendition of the National Anthem – was precisely that ‘racecourse’ promise: delivered, with deadpan seriousness, straight from Richard Sultana’s own mouth.

So firmly was this notion fixed in my head, that I thought I could even remember him actually saying it, in those very words. And I certainly remember it being the source of much merriment on the school playground, in the days, weeks and years that followed….

And yet, when I tracked down the original clip – available for posterity on Youtube – I found, to my disappointment, that he never actually added that punchline about ‘sparing horses from dizziness’. He did promise to ‘straighten’ the race-track: in fact, it was the first of his many, many pledges in that broadcast (and he even repeated it, for added emphasis).

But he stopped agonizingly short of giving us any reason WHY he wanted to do such an utterly potty thing. Which leads me to believe that the ‘punchline’ was either added to the narrative later (possibly, by schoolkids such as ourselves: in which case, I’d say we did a rather good job of it, all things considered)…

… or else, he DID state something to that effect, somewhere: but not during that particular broadcast; and not in 1992 or 1996, either.

Because that’s the point I was coming to. Having watched (and been mesmerized by) his performance in 1987, I went on to rewatch those of the next two elections, in sequence … by which point, I had long forgotten the original reason for even having looked up ‘Tal-Farfett’ in the first place.

In case you were wondering, the original reason was to showcase that – though Richard Sultana’s proposal may indeed have been as ‘bat-shit crazy’ as it sounded – at least, it suggested that he actually CARED about the plight of animals such as race-horses (enough to want to protect them, even from imaginary causes of suffering).

Why, oh why, then, is it so difficult for the Sannat local council (and all enthusiasts of traditional Maltese summer horse-races) to do the same today? For instance: by simply shifting the time of those races, from ‘High Noon’ – when it is manifestly too hot for horses to be at full-gallop, on tarmac-surfaced roads - until after 4pm… as, after all, is already the law for karrozzin horses?

But… I have to admit that my original objective got a little lost, against the new (and unexpected) backdrop that had meanwhile swum into view. Because it was not just my memory of ‘what Tal-Farfett said’ that got distorted, over the past 30 or so years. The man himself turned out to be decidedly different, from the affable ‘crackpot-politician’ I remember from the 1980s.

Leaving aside that, over the nine years that separate his first from his final electoral broadcast, Richard Sultana seems to have literally shrivelled up, before our very eyes, into the mummified husk of a human being (by 1996, he had lost all but one of his few remaining teeth: assuming, in the process, a startling resemblance to Gollum from ‘The Lord of the Rings’...)

… and closing an eye at certain questions that never actually occurred to me, back in the day (such as: how ethical is it, really, to parade people like Richard Sultana – who would be described as ‘vulnerable’, by today’s standards – on live TV, for popular entertainment?)...

No, what struck me more is that Tal-Farfett’s ‘metamorphosis’ was not merely superficial. At some point during that downward physical trajectory, Richard Sultana also acquired a certain mischievous twinkle in his eye. Unlike the deadpan-seriousness of his 1987 outing – and, significantly, after the shock of his first electoral performance (he only got two votes: one of which, presumably, was his own) – his entire demeanour becomes decidedly more cynical. His answers become more cryptic; and his toothless smile, more enigmatic.

So much so, that by the end of the 1996 video, it becomes hard to actually tell whether he really was still the same ‘crackpot’ who had entertained us all so much 10 years earlier… or whether the joke had actually been ‘on us’, all along.

Consider how often, in that clip, he deflects Tony Barbaro Sant’s questions with a simple: ‘I don’t need to answer, because I know best’.  A few [loosely translated] examples:

Q. Where is all the money going to come from, to finance your electoral promises?

A. “The money will come from somewhere. That’s all you need to know. Just vote for me; and when I’m Prime Minister, I’ll see to it that the money comes from somewhere. Don’t you worry about that…’.

Q. What is your solution to Malta’s water problems? [Note: Funny, isn’t it, how the issues themselves don’t seem to have changed at all since 1996…]

A. ‘I have an answer but I’m not going to give it to you, because… it’s better that way. When I’m Prime Minister, you’ll have the answer. But for now, I’m going to keep it to myself.”

Now: on one level, you certainly have to hand it to Richard Sultana. He might have ‘floated like a butterfly’, most of the time; but at a pinch, he was certainly capable of ‘stinging like a bee’. (In fact, Tony Barbaro Sant himself looks visibly pained, throughout that interview…)

And besides: that is precisely the sort of ‘chutzpah’ that most people feel is lacking, from more recent generations of Maltese (and, dare I say it, even international) political leaders.  There are almost moments when Richard Sultana seems to single-handedly capture all the ‘swagger’ (and intransigence) of Dom Mintoff; all the ‘self-assurance’ (and ‘thriftlessness’) of Eddie Fenech Adami… and granted; he may well have lacked the gravitas of either, in the end…

But nonetheless: those traits we all laughed at so much, coming from Richard Sultana Tal-Farfett, were actually INDISTINGUISHABLE from the ones we all admired – and even expected (not to mention, ‘voted for’) – from our more serious political leaders, at the time.

And this, I suspect, is the reason why there is even such a thing as a ‘Richard Sultana Appreciation Society’ today. For let’s face it: you can’t not at least ‘appreciate’ that sort of ballsy, in-your-face, cockiness… not to mention the sheer, barefaced ‘honesty’ of it all: whereby Tal-Farfett practically informs us – directly to our faces – that he fully intends to simply ‘buy’ his way into government… by promising… erm… ‘all things, to all people’…

Hmmm. See what I mean, that the joke might have been on us, all along?  And how the spirit of Richard Sultana himself may even now be having a last, hearty (and toothless) laugh, at our expense?

Let’s take a closer look at the Independent Democratic Butterfly Party’s actual electoral programme for 1986, shall we? Now: if you close an eye at that single campaign promise about ‘straightening the Marsa racecourse’ (and OK, maybe a couple of other equally ‘bat-shit crazy’ ones: like, for instance, installing ‘central-heating at the Ta’ Qali stadium’)…

… well, it turns out that pretty much every other electoral pledge he made, in that campaign, has not only been emulated by both Labour and Nationalist Parties, ever since…  but also, DELIVERED.

Starting with… well, the moment where it all suddenly gets interesting [Note: it’s roughly 1:30 minutes into the video]:

“And I tell you also: all the people of Valletta; Floriana; Marsa and Rahal Gdid… whatever you need, come to me. No appointments, no secretaries: just come to Richard Sultana, and he will see to it that you get whatever you want: from top, to bottom…”

Honestly though. How very ‘different’ is that, from the Office of the Prime Minister’s official reply last week, to questions about a private meeting between Robert Abela, and construction magnate Charles Polidano (literally a few days after the latter was interrogated by the police, on suspicion of money-laundering)?

“The Prime Minister is requested meetings with investors on a regular basis, to discuss their ideas and investment projects, and any potential challenges relative to their investment.”

And how very different is it, from the same Robert Abela’s private ‘meeting’ with a consortium of Gozitan developers – organised by Joseph Portelli – on the very eve of the last election? (Or, for that matter, from when former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi invited ‘aggrieved’ Nationalists to private meetings at Villa Arrigo… to ‘listen to their complaints’, on the eve of the 2008 elections?)

Well, to be fair, there is one difference, I suppose. We laughed at Richard Sultana Tal-Farfett, when he merely ‘proposed’ the same thing in 1987. But we didn’t laugh, when Prime Ministers from both Malta’s ‘serious’ parties actually went ahead and DID IT: over, and over again.

Ah: but who’s really laughing now, I wonder? (If not that ‘crazy butterfly’, still ‘shining on’ in the sky…?)