The prediction that went very wrong

Maltese and their patrons continue to suck up to firework enthusiasts and play to their tune, even when their antics go beyond every limit and are indeed, detrimental to other aspects of our cherished island life

The fireworks lobby is reminiscent of the US gun lobby which has the political class held firmly by the balls
The fireworks lobby is reminiscent of the US gun lobby which has the political class held firmly by the balls

To believe that the Maltese do not feel strongly about fireworks is an understatement. In 2007, more than 11 years ago, the late Jeremy Boissevain – a leading Dutch anthropologist – was interviewed in MaltaToday and argued that there were many reasons in the 1960s to think that Maltese village traditions including fireworks would slowly peter out and vanish.

“The social changes taking place in village cores, with outsiders moving in and locals moving out, meant that fewer and fewer people would identify themselves as ‘from the village’.

“The villages themselves were growing and changing. There was also mass emigration at the time… at every point, all these changes seemed to translate into a situation whereby boys were being taken away from the village, and from the organisation of the festa, never to be replaced...”

He made the point that a gradual extinction seemed more or less inevitable. However, in spite of this mass exodus of young male volunteers, Maltese festi have not only stubbornly refused to keel over and die, but they have carried on growing and growing.

Then Jeremy Boissevain expressed concern about this. “Today, the village feasts last for a whole week, instead of the traditional three days. The fireworks are noisier, the band club rivalries are more intense…”

That was 2007 and Boissevain in his interview admits: “I have made many predictions, and many of them have been proved wrong,” thus exhibiting all the intellectual honesty for which is admired throughout the academic world. And one of his misfired predictions concerned the same system of patronage networks that he had famously explored in “Saints and Fireworks.” 

“I thought that patronage would decline over the years. In fact, I had written an article about this; it was called ‘When the saints go marching out’…”

Boissevain attributed this error of judgement to youthful exuberance. “I suppose it’s the hubris of the young, inexperienced person – in my case, an anthropologist – who took too short a view of history,” he admits.

“My predictions were based on short-term observations over a single year. In such a short time-frame you can’t get a real historical perspective. And besides, in the 1960s anthropologists were encouraged not to study history. Traditionally we worked on cultures without written archives…” 

Jeremy would have been amused to see that on Friday night the past week, the highlight of the day was to be a fireworks experiment that would have entered the Guinness book of records. A barge floating in the open sea carried a nuclear-like device that was expected to light up the skies and rock the island.

Thankfully, as we all know, the event turned out to be a major flop.

But it is not the failure to impress with a giant petard that concerns me. 

What concerns me is that the Maltese and their patrons continue to suck up to firework enthusiasts and play to their tune, even when their antics go beyond every limit and are indeed, detrimental to other aspects of our cherished island life.

No one in their right senses should have accepted to sponsor this event, more so to waste taxpayers’ money to carry out this event. But in the eyes of the politician, the culture of pyrotechnic excess is something that needs to be promoted, upheld and supported, even when the level of pollution, noise, disturbance levels make most of these exaggerated experiments unworthy of 2018.

The truth is that this episode illustrates the state of the nation at the moment. It is not only about noise in general, where – to be frank – no one is willing to talk about the decibels that go on until the early hours of the night both from firework displays and music events. It is more about this attitude that anything goes. 

With all the talk of our moral high ground, the Maltese play out as the most tolerant people one could ever dream of. So long as no one steps on their toes… then the whole world can collapse.

This is not a recent trait in the Maltese character… the idea that the Maltese could not give a damn of what happens beyond their doorstep is something embedded in the Maltese psyche and language.

To add insult to injury we are abetted by a general attitude in the country where enforcement and rules can seem to be in a state of flux. 

Where is it unthinkable that people ask for a VAT receipt? Where on earth are people who break the law actually considered heroes, not villains? And more significantly, where else are people who flout the law and succeed in screwing the State applauded for their capability?

Even the fireworks culture, especially when excess is so crudely celebrated, is a reflection of a society that is willing to look the other way because it does not embrace change. And with our very partisan and parochial form of vote-catching, no politician of either hue will stand up to be counted. Even the Partit Demokratiku has no voice on this – its founder members Godfrey and Marlene Farrugia are firework licence holders. And needless to say the Prime Minister himself, apart from being a fireworks aficionado, was born into a family which built their business on the firework industry.

Considering the number of people who have died in fireworks accidents, any argument that firework displays are verging on the excessive finds little support. And since nothing has ever changed even when so many people have lost their lives, we should not expect miracles here.

It reminds me of the US gun lobby, which has the political class held firmly by the balls.

Jeremy Boissevain was a downright decent anthropologist – if he weren’t he would have described Malta as a provincial town falsely claiming nationhood with a self-centred but pragmatist attitude.

Which is why in the little miniscule country of ours we still hang on to mediocrity when it matters to politicians. In other spheres we adjust the pace of things and go for change. One such change that is evident is the way construction and roads have disfigured our country. 

And this can only happen because if there is one thing that takes precedence over votes, it is money. We live in an era of decadence, and we are to blame in our little way.

Like Jeremy Boissevain I will dare make one prediction. And it is a sombre and dark one – nothing will change for the time being.

It will only get worse and only by getting horribly worse can things eventually change. Change, sometimes, is not catalysed by ideas. But by change itself.

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