Nostalgia isn't what it used to be anymore

The nostalgic idea of a lost beautiful, pristine and untouched Malta in the past has also taken currency here.

Imagine that the construction of the so-called ‘Popeye Village’ – which was really a film set – was carried out in more ‘civilized’ times, by which I mean after the Planning Authority (subsequently MEPA) was set up.

I am sure that the most important condition for the issue of the necessary permit would have been required that the set was to be built in such a way as to not permanently disturb the land on which it is built, to the extent that it could be dismantled and removed, leaving the terrain in the same exact condition it was before the temporary set was built.

I always imagine this scenario whenever I hear news items that feature ‘Popeye Village’ as a permanent tourist attraction in Malta. The official website of the attraction puts it this way: “Popeye Village Malta has grown from its days as a film set of the 1980 Musical Production ‘Popeye’ into one of the major tourist attractions on the Maltese Islands filled with a number of colourful fun activities for all young and young at heart.

"Open all year round, we guarantee an enjoyable visit to all of our guests. Once you walk into this captivating, over 30-year-old village, you will be greeted by Popeye the sailor and his friends, who will be your hosts and entertain you all throughout your visit. The whole family can be part of a unique filming experience with the animation crew and giving you the opportunity to see yourself on the big screen.”  There is an obvious element of bragging in all this, but then this is an advert aimed at attracting tourists to visit the place.

The use of the site as a permanent tourist attraction after the film was shot was, in fact, an afterthought. It seems that it occurred to the late Lino Cassar, or so he used to claim. Whoever it was, the idea was not pre-planned and any planner would have shuddered if he or she were to be asked to approve the site as a permanent tourist attraction after the film shooting was over – to say nothing of what today’s environmental NGOs (and MaltaToday’s James Debono) would have said.

Yes, planners are not infallible and they do get it wrong sometimes. The approved Local Plan for Valletta designated the site of Renzo Piano’s Parliament building as a parking site and had to be tweaked in order to accommodate Piano’s plans – a case where planning policy was changed to accommodate a proposed building rather than proposed buildings having to conform with existing planning policies. The obvious conclusion is that Piano was right and the planners lacked imagination and were so evidently wrong!

This is not something that happens ‘only in Malta’, as I almost hear some people saying. An article on London written by Janen Ganesh and published in a recent supplement of ‘The Financial Times’ (London: the capital of globalisation – September 29) points out how wrong the planners were when they insisted that skyscrapers were verboten as they would ruin the London skyline and how silly are those who think that London was better before politicians – notably Tony Blair – over-ruled this resistance.   

This is how he puts it: “Nostalgia is a kind of amnesia: the romanticisation of old London forgets how shabby and short of opportunity it was, entire neighbourhoods languishing in dilapidation, industries declining and being replaced by nothing in particular.

“Where Canary Wharf and City Airport now sit were, as recently as the 1980s, toxic marshes and squalid housing estates. In King’s Cross, where the Eurostar zooms in and out from Paris and a new urban village is taking shape, there was desolation and homelessness. This was closed London, when skyscrapers were forbidden and the business culture was a kind of organised slouch that was yet to be blown apart by the Big Bang. It is bizarre to remember all this and conclude that more has been lost than has been gained.”

The nostalgic idea of a lost beautiful, pristine and untouched Malta in the past has also taken currency here. Comments written in the social media as a reaction to quaint and interesting photographs of a past Malta that exists no more betray the same sort of nostalgia that depends on amnesia.

People decry the loss of large parts of Malta, forgetting the squalid conditions in which so many Maltese used to live. This nostalgia ignores the increase in population; the big strides in public health; the immensely improved standard of living now enjoyed by the Maltese; and the incredible advance in people’s accommodation standards, as if living in some ‘kerrejja’ or five people to a room was no problem.

To echo what Ganesh said about London, it is bizarre to consider all that we have achieved ‘and conclude that more has been lost than has been gained.’ People, of course, don’t realise it is bizarre because they conveniently forget all about the poverty and the squalor of the past.

All this has been realised thanks to the effort of the much-maligned political class, warts and all, and of all hues and colours, and not as a result of some well-thought out planning regime or of short-sighted wishes for the world to stand still.

This is not to say that we should ditch planning and carry on haphazardly ignoring technical and scientific facts, but that opening up for new ideas and ventures – rather than looking at things claustrophobically in the mental sense – need not be a bad idea.  

This is just a plea for common sense and all for the recognition and appreciation of man’s creative genius in spite of his limitations. This can only lead to the conclusion that no planning policy should be rigidly set in stone and that any straying away from the way forward planned beforehand by other humans, is not necessarily sacrilegious.

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