‘There’s a rat in San Anton, what are we gonna do?’

I’ve been visiting that place, every once in a while, for the better part of over 40 years now: and looking back, I don’t think there’s ever been even a single occasion, where I didn’t at spot at least one (usually, several) member of the ‘Rattus’ genus, scurrying around the undergrowth somewhere

Oh, well. I suppose you can always tell there’s something deeply wrong with the country you’re living in... when your Facebook feed suddenly starts resembling the lyrics of a 1986 hit single by British reggae band, UB40.

People my age will surely remember that track well, as it was a big hit on the dance-floors of places like Tiguglio, Styx, Axis, The Alley, and Coconut Grove, back in the day.

But for the benefit of any millennials reading this – to whom ‘UB40’ probably sounds more like ‘some kind of device you plug into your mobile phone’ - it went something like:

“There's a rat in my kitchen, what am I gonna do?

There's a rat in my kitchen, what am I gonna do?

I'm gonna fix that rat: that's what I'm gonna do,

I'm gonna fix that rat...”

Now: I am the first to admit that, as lyrics go, these don’t exactly showcase the very best of 1980s pop songwriting talent. Then again, however: they weren’t exactly meant to, either.

After all, people didn’t listen to bands like UB40 to be bowled over by the sublime artistry of their evocative lyrics. And it’s probably just as well, too. For as far as I can remember, UB40’s only other 1980s smash-hit went something like:

‘Red, Red Wi-i-i-i-i-ine! Stay Close to Me-e-e-e-e...!’

I mean... not exactly ‘Samuel Taylor Flipping Coleridge’, is it now?

But, well, that’s also the whole point, right there. It was (and still is) perfectly understandable, for a pop group to achieve instant chart success, with a song about something as mundane, commonplace, and entirely vacuous, as...

... ‘a rat in the kitchen’.

But to kick up precisely the same sort of exaggerated fuss, over a photograph of a REAL rat... just one, please note; and not even in anyone’s ‘kitchen’, this time (where its presence might indeed be considered problematic); but rather, in the gardens of San Anton Palace, Attard...

... in other words, a place which (let’s face it) has ALWAYS been infested with precisely the same sort of rodent, doing precisely the same sort of ‘rodenty things’ (i.e., ‘ambling about in search of food’: you know, like wild animals usually tend to do, in what is after all their own natural habitat....)

Sorry, but... that’s not ‘understandable’, at all. That is, quite frankly, idiotic.

But for those who may have missed the original post (not for age reasons, this time; but simply because they’re not ‘friends with Arnold Cassola on Facebook’): I’m referring to the photograph uploaded by the former Green Party leader last week – reproduced above – accompanied by the words: “TAL-MISTHIJA! X'TELQA!” (‘SHAME! WHAT NEGLIGENCE!’)

Now: to be fair to Cassola, those words do not seem to be his own... but rather, a quote from the (unnamed) ‘citizen’ who originally sent him that ‘shameful’ photo for publication. In fact, the rest of the caption is so badly written that I very much doubt it could even be handiwork of someone with a PhD in History (and around a dozen academic papers to his name).

Literally, it translates as: “If you like, put up this picture of this relaxed rat which wanders about, together with others of its kind, eating in the only Maltese garden of the President in San Anton! TAL-MISTHIJA! X'TELQA! etc.’

And leaving aside the implication that President George Vella may actually be the proud owner of several other ‘gardens’ (only one of which - San Anton – qualifies as ‘Maltese’...)

... it also betrays an astonishing detachment from reality, of the kind that would be worrying enough, even if it only came from the semi-literate individual who took that photograph in the first place.

But no. Evidently, it also comes from politicians of the calibre of Arnold Cassola: who held that ‘shocking’ photo up, for all to see, as if it represented some kind of disgraceful ‘indictment’, of the abysmal state to which our entire nation (represented, in this melodrama, by the ‘Presidential’ nature of the backdrop) has now – but ONLY now, it seems – suddenly ‘degenerated’.

And in so doing, he fired a starter-pistol for a plethora of like-minded reactions: ranging from ‘tearful’ (or ‘irate’) emojis; to comments lamenting the inexorable decline in standards, that characterises the ‘Apocalyptic’ phase that our country is currently going through...

To quote the one that most adequately sums up this entire attitude: “Everywhere you turn there is disaster. Everywhere!”

OK, at this point, I feel a couple of questions need to be asked. Starting with the most obvious of the lot:

Erm... Guys? Hello? Have any you ever actually BEEN to San Anton Gardens - even once, in your entire lifetimes – before suddenly deciding to go all ‘shock-horror’ on us, at the mere sight of one of its more common, everyday, non-human inhabitants?

Reason I ask is that... I’ve been visiting that place, every once in a while, for the better part of over 40 years now: and looking back, I don’t think there’s ever been even a single occasion, where I didn’t at spot at least one (usually, several) member of the ‘Rattus’ genus, scurrying around the undergrowth somewhere.

And it bears mentioning that some of those occasions were more... well, ‘dramatic’, than others.

One other thing I suspect that none of those ‘scandalised’ commentators ever did, was ‘attend a performance of the MADC’s annual summer Shakespeare play’ (a tradition that has been upheld at San Anton, on-and-off, ever since the mid-1930s).

That was something I used to do once a year, (almost) every year, for nearly as long as I can remember... and there were several instances, that I myself witnessed, where San Anton’s resident rodent population decided to ‘get in on some of the Shakespearian action’, themselves.

Two of them, in particular, stand out in my memory. The first concerns a production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, in which the titular hero began his ascent of the makeshift vine-trellis, in the hope of reaching Juliet’s balcony... only to disturb a rat that had taken up residence among the vine-leaves; and which suddenly leapt out onto the stage, causing an unintentional (but rather hilarious) ‘jump-scare’ among the audience.

The second was half-way through a scene from ‘Othello’, and... well, you have to have seen it with your own eyes, to appreciate the true splendour of it all.

So there, on one side of the stage, lay the ‘corpse’ of Desdemona, upon the bed where her husband had only just throttled her to death... and on the other, Othello himself, reeling in the throes of guilt, regret, and belated realisation...

... but most of what was happening on stage was lost on the audience: because at that precise moment, a rather large (and seemingly well-fed) specimen of ‘Rattus rattus’ decided to regale us with a little performance of its own...  by ‘tight-rope walking’ across the breadth of the stage, on one of the many overhead telephone-wires.

At one point, the audience’s ‘murmurs’ and ‘titters’ turned to ‘gasps of consternation’: as the rat in question seemed to momentarily lose its balance, and came this close to actually falling off that wire (in which case, it would have landed directly on Desdemona’s face, as she lay in feigned death below.)

What can I say? In true Shakespearian fashion, that rat ‘stole the show’ (unwittingly rescuing what was otherwise – no offence, or anything – a rather drab, non-descript theatrical performance, until that point).

In any case, I could go on... but the point here is that these memories of mine go back to the late 1980s/early 1990s: a time when San Anton Palace was already the President’s official residence; it was already evidently crawling with rats, mice, cockroaches, and all sorts of other ‘vermin’...

... and yet, strangely, nobody – not even Arnold Cassola, that I remember – ever held up this unremarkable fact, as if it were the final confirmation of the total ‘disaster’ that the Republic of Malta had somehow ‘degenerated into’.

This is something that is only happening today: and not just with regard to ‘rats in San Anton’, either.

In fact, there was another (unrelated) Facebook post last week, which at a glance seems to home in on the crux of the entire matter.

It was about Austin Camilleri’s ‘Headless Horse’ statue, recently approved by the Planning Authority; and Philip Leone Ganado – by an interesting coincidence, also a Shakespearean theatre director – had this to say on the subject:

“For the first time in God knows how long, a public artwork with the potential to become iconic, something bold, interesting and in dialogue with its space. And it's described as a ‘headless horse statue’, reported on as if it were an apartment block, and pilloried in the comments. Is this an issue of arts appreciation, or are we so beaten down by the construction onslaught that we see absolutely anything manmade as a threat?”

To which someone promptly responded: “If this government is paying for it, it can't be right.' That's basically the only thought running through most 'educated' people's head on the island. And if not, you're a Laburist!”

They’re perfectly right, you know. What both these incidents reveal, is that the real ‘disaster’ facing this country has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘rats in San Anton’, or ‘Headless Horses on the Qbajjar coast’...

No: it’s the fact that we all have seemed to have collectively lost all sense of proportion, in our tireless efforts to continually depict Malta as being far more ‘disastrous’, than it really is....

... and, well, it’s all starting to get a little ‘silly’, now.