J’accuse: The Price of Bread

Bertoons

This article appeared in The Malta Independent on Sunday on the 25th May 2008.

This week’s Economist landed in my letterbox on time. As I tore at the irritating cover plastic I glanced at the front page headline: “Inflation’s back!” it read. “You bet”, I muttered, as I discarded the pesky promotional papers that jump out of the paper’s pages. The workers who have been working on the roof of our apartments for the past three weeks must have wondered whether I got out of the bed on a wrong foot. I walked on, musing that the fact that the economical gurus of this world have decreed that the inflation monster is back to haunt us was not much of a surprise. As I carefully negotiated a passage as far as possible from the regulation imposed portaloo that had been placed on our apartments’ front steps, I was more concerned at how long many people can live in a state of denial.

It’s the Governments’ Business
Or is it? At work I purchased the Daily Mail from the inhouse stationers – force of habit, the Mail cryptic crossword is unbeatable – and again the inflation monster kept stalking me. “Yes, This is a Real Crisis” read the headlines. The “real” in the phrase was underlined, in an effort to ensure that the not so intellectual readership of the tabloid do not confuse it with one of those fake crises that occasionally get reported for a lark. Gordon Brown’s advisers were reported as saying that “this is the first real crisis of globalisation” and the rising of price of oil is very much the culprit. Fuel, heating and food costs are on an alarmingly steep rise and Gordon’s government was sinking deeper in the material that normally comes in quite a brownish colouring. Browsing the morning news while imbibing a brew of Italy’s finest I stumbled upon the travails of another governmental victim of this mess. Monsieur Sarkozy is facing a country that has had assez of this rising price of oil. Strikes galore, dock workers protesting against privatisation, fishermen who cannot earn their daily fare due to the excrutiating toll of fuel prices, transport associations who have had enough of the lack of progress in pension talks and above all the main bone of contention: the rising prices of the basic food basket.

Give us this Day
My, my. Which is when I turn to Maltese news for a breather. Or so I think. Half expecting to find the front pages full of the sad news that the beloved and beautifulgirl from Calypso had succumbed to the laws block voting (ha! there’s a wasted televote for you), I am moderately surprised to see that in Malta it’s very much the same tune. Foremost among the similarities is the removal of the bread subsidy and the potential death of the Maltese hobza. The government has, rightly, chosen to remove the subsidy on flour and the bakers are complaining. One baker went so far as to complain about consumer choice – we make wholesome Maltese bread and the consumer stll opts for the more expensive “foreign” bread. Hmm I smell something fishy here. For if the problem were that the consumer is suddenly forced to pay more for his bread that would be one thing. But the complaint seems to be that the consumer in any case opts for a different variety.

Which is a pity. Now I may be a coeliac – that means that bread is to me as garlic is to dracula – but even though I have had to forego the pleasures of consumption of the daily loaf I still get irrationally excited by a shelf full of hundreds of varieties of bread. I live in a country that is strongly influenced by the French tradition insofar as bread is concerned. Close your eyes, think of a shape, think of a type of bread (crusty, soft etc) and combine the two together. In all probability you have thought of a typical bread in some unkown village in France. I have seen them all, long, short, countrystyle, fancy, herbal and more but never… and I say never… will any of these breads live up to the great monument of Maltese culinary ecstasy better known as the hobza tal-Malti. Its qualities must be recorded for posterity, exalted and trumpeted to the four winds. Should it ever disappear our children, what am I saying…the world’s children… will be deprived of the possibility of a kisra hobz dripping with olive oil, tomatoes and gozo cheese – simple heaven.

I remember the days when I would wait for the sound of the bread van in Paceville to rush out and buy a still burning half loaf and rush back home to spread multiple thick slices with butter and eat to my heart’s content. No amount of motherly warnings that I was sure to get a tummy ache would stop me – little did she know that the gluten was to be the real culprit. Which brings me back to the bakers and their complaint about consumers not chosing their protein-ful loaf. Truth is that the subsidy was misplaced. Lino Spiteri clearly argued this during the week – the subsidy did not go to help the needy but was effectively a subsidy for everyone. That it should be removed is not a disaster – that the hobza dies out as a side effect would be a catastrophe. Once again appeal must be made to business sense and marketing. Next time you are at your bakers look out for the hobza standing proud. Never should we be told to eat cake… or that pansy soft and misshaped concoction that the French have De Gaulle to call bread. (excuse the lame joke).

Trainspotting
Another interesting bit of news coming from the island was Minister Gatt’s declaration about the state of the Maltese transport system. I have a personal resolution to try not to sound too negative when commenting on this government’s achievements. It is hard to stay mum though when a Minister of the people’s government (almost twenty years now) comes up with the revelation that Malta’s transport system is not exactly up to scratch. Better late than never some will say, better Austin than anyone else I will add. Love him or hate him the Minister with a penchant for braces has a reputation of an achiever with a somewhat Thatcherite vision at the basis of his modus operandi. Just the right person to tackle the numerous obstacles he will inevitably face when attempting a full blown transport reform.

Transport is not a secondary issue. It is not a luxury and cannot be relegated to minor element in the governments’ priorities. Fact: there are way too many cars on the road. Fact: In this country space comes at a premium. Fact: the current stakeholders are only good at opposing regulation, maintaining a stagnated status quo and frankly we should have seen their backs years ago. That someone had the gall to complain that the government measures on toxic fumes were to harsh is telling as to how cocksure these people can be about getting what they want. Fact: Our bus system is designed to accomodate the drivers and not the commuters. Fact: Tourism and environmental quality of life are both victims of this ridiculous state of affairs.

When it comes to transport I find that I have to reign my ideas in before I begin to sound like some fascist idealist. If it were up to me we would have a limit not just on the number of cars on the island but also on the size of the cars and the maximum speed they could reach. I am ecstatic that the idea of a tram/train seems to finally have caught on. I dream of the day that a citizen could live in Gharb (that’s Gozo) and commute to Valletta by electric powered train daily. Forget the bridge for cars or people – link the islands with a train with possibly the best scenic trip you could get in Europe. Then there’s the use of the sea around us, of extending the electric cab system that seems to have caught on in Valletta. Get the cars off the road and at the same time get modes of transport that will entice people to dump their fuel guzzlers and road blockers.

This week the Luxembourg commune finally agreed on a tram system to create a skeleton framework that will cut through the city. Just like Malta with trains, Luxembourg’s love story with trams will be a revival of a past history when trams rolled along the town’s streets and cars were few and far between. More will be needed. More stringent rules of parking capacity for large buildings will ensure that better and more decent planning is put in place. It will have to be rational and it will involve sacrifices – the government must woo the citizens with real projects that translate into real deliverables. We’ll wait and see.. in the meantime good luck Austin. (BlogPointer: any ideas on transport in Malta? Visit http://www.ptmalta.blogspot.com and have your say).

Races, Winners and Losers
“I’d get out if I believed that Obama had a better chance to win than I do”. That was Hillary on her opponent. No one ever said that leadership runs were an easy thing and even though Hillary seems more than done for after the last round she seems to want to stick in till the very end. Over at our very own leadership race, Monday promises to introduce an interesting twist as the Document analysing the election results is released publicly. Full marks to Labour for this move. I had already written that this should be the way to go. Having leadership candidates propose ways of dealing with these reasons for a loss would be the best way to assess their suitability. I hope that we will be hearing less of the “stolen votes” and “incumbency” issues and more concrete suggestions for transforming Labour into a viable opposition. (Blogpointer: a good take on the leadership bid: http://www.labourinlabour.wordpress.com).

On a different plane of winners and losers, in another battle between Red and Blue the reds came out victors on points. There’s no fathoming the spin of lady luck and the slippery service of a Moscow stadium past the hour of midnight. I felt sorry for Chelsea, not because I am a closet supporter but because I knew that somewhere in Paceville my dad was glued to the TV watching the team he has supported since youth lose so cruelly after being so close to the prize. That’s life. With some luck, after the match the streets of Paceville were not the usual ugly sight of piles of rubbish and after effects of drunken vandalism. I read that some bye-laws are being prepared to prohibit consumption of drinks in the street. That would solve part of the problem. Paceville needs a more comprehensive plan. I have often written that it should have its status elevated to that of a Borough representing different stakeholders and hopefully bringing the best out of what can be a real, safe and funpacked tourist and local attraction.

No Vodka Please We’re Block Voted
Back to Morena. David Gatherer’s name makes no sense to many. He is a statistician (or molecular scientist) who has scientifically confirmed the voting patterns present at the Eurovision. Thanks to Gatherer I had no hopes for Morena’s song. Beautiful she may be, Gozitan even (a major asset) but she had no hope against the various blocs. We must resign ourselves to taking the Eurovision for what it is. On this morning’s drive to work I listened to a phone in on Belgian radio. The usual arguments. We should stop participating. Disgusted at the block voting etc etc. Moral of the story – we do not live in such a detached island after all. The world’s got a bit of the same all over. Before you get all in a huff about a silly song contest spare your thoughts for people with greater problems on their minds – like the 51 new entries on our island – landing with two different boats in the space of twenty-four hours.

Jacques blogs daily at https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Comment is free.

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