J’accuse: Bleak House, Great Expectations

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The Uncommercial Traveller
“Allow me to introduce myself–first negatively. No landlord is my friend and brother, no chambermaid loves me, no waiter worships me, no boots admires and envies me. No round of beef or tongue or ham is expressly cooked for me, no pigeon-pie is especially made for me, no hotel-advertisement is personally addressed to me, no hotel-room tapestried with great-coats and railway wrappers is set apart for me, no house of public entertainment in the United Kingdom greatly cares for my opinion of its brandy or sherry.”

The above picture is the first part of Charles Dickens’ description of his “uncommercial traveller”. That was the traveller who was not a tourist but also a reporter who came back with stories about his travels and transmitted them to his readers. It was a “Rough Guide” before its time – a gathering of skecthes related to travel imbued with Dickensian wit and humour that would make the pompous Bill Bryson pale in comparison.

Of course Dickens was not shuttling through the busy streets of Chang-Mai or Bali comparing the relative comfort of B&B’s or sampling the gastronomic delicacies on the menu in various oriental resorts. In his own inimitable way Dickens still manages to intrigue the reader with his imagery and expression as in his second story in the “Uncommercial Traveller”. It is entitled “The Shipwreck” and it is a story that deals with the brave acts of a Reverend Welsh Clergyman who dealt with persons and bodies of persons shipwrecked on the shores close to his parish.

To many Dickens might sound outdated and archaically classical but can you not savour the punch line in this extract describing the Reverend going about his work of saving the shipwrecked souls? “So cheerful of spirit and guiltless of affectation, as true practical Christianity ever is! I read more of the New Testament in the fresh frank face going up the village beside me, in five minutes, than I have read in anathematising discourses (albeit put to press with enormous flourishing of trumpets), in all my life. I heard more of the Sacred Book in the cordial voice that had nothing to say about its owner, than in all the would-be celestial pairs of bellows that have ever blown conceit at me.”

It’s a simple, touching story of the labours of a clergyman to ensure that shipwrecked souls get a good burial and that the peculiarities of their bodies are registered in order to provide a form of identification for any mourners who would turn up to visit the clergyman’s abode hoping to identify any friends or relatives who had been lost at sea. This was a story about this welcoming last port of call that offered christian care for those who had departed in such ugly circumstances.

Dickens finds time to poke a comment or two at the faux christians, those who bellow much air at their brethren and talk and talk about brotherly love while not putting actions to such words. It’s funny how outdated, archaic Dickens can be so relevant to today’s world. We too have our share of shipwrecks, we too have our share of christian (“I am not racist”) bellows who are often all too ready to carry the village statue in a procession. Sadly the noisy element of our brethren far outshouts the hard working hands that, at the very least, attempt to provide a semblance of decency and dignity to the numerous shipwrecked that are unlucky enough to end up on our shores.

The Pickwick Papers
When you read through the comments section in the online media you do get the nagging doubt that some people scribbling their comments via the keyboard are actually Dickensian caricatures bursting back into life. They must be caricatures, they who are driven to writing absolute drivel by an article that explains that immigrant arrivals in Malta far exceed the local birth rate. The article itself did lend itself to some criticism of the leg-pulling variety. Did you know for example that Malta has more migrants per square mile than Finland has people (per square mile)? Does the figure for Finland include the immigrants in Finland?

They – the modern day glossators – have been the subject of ridicule time and time again. Like the NO COMMENT feature on Euronews, you could just run one comment after another and see for yourself what this Pickwickian assembly can come up with. Take Massimo Angileri who, commenting on an English newspaper (in Maltese of course) seriously doubts that these figures are right because… wait for it… there are surely many more criminals (erm sorry, immigrants) in Malta than we think. The mirth and fun began in earnest as soon as the article was posted: some called for a state of emergency, some wanted to join the African Union and of course you always have that genius who reminds the world that a couple of centuries back Mighty Malta killed off the Turkish threat and now we are the laughing stock of Europe.

The one that really takes it all is by Chris Bonello. “I think it’s about time the Government orders a referendum about illegal immigration. Let the people decide!” Of course. It’s a bit like a menu… let me see… Entrée – shoot them at the border, Hors d’Oeuvres – Increase Detention Centres, Main Dish – Burden Sharing, Dessert – Referendum…. I think I’ll order the referendum… with a bit of “let the people decide” on the side!

I wonder if Chris really thought this one out. What would the referendum question be exactly? The Xarabank Style Question: Do you agree with illegal immigration? The Times of Malta Government Lackey Question: Do you think the Gonzi government is doing enough on illegal immigration and that Joseph Muscat is not as good as Gonzi? The Church Survey Question: Do you agree that illegal immigrants will introduce divorce, euthanasia and abortion? or straight to the point: Do you want illegal immigrants to continue to be the general scapegoat for the ills of this country?

The Old Curiosity Shop
It could be that this whole business is cyclical. Shipwrecked souls keep turning up in history and our country’s geophysical status as an island inevitably means that we will be involved in shipwrecks for some time yet. From Ulysses on the island of Calypso to Paul of Tarsus on the island of Melita we have had mythical and not so mythical moments of shipwreck fame. This time round we have a problem, one that seems to be forcing us (along with other issues) to look into the mirror and learn a bit more about ourselves and who we are.

A blogging colleague (Fabrizio Ellul – a blog that is fast developing into a Maltese version of theonion.com – http://fabrizioellul.wordpress.com) recently complained in a letter to the Times about what he deemed to be a lack of media attention to the levels of xenophobia that is manifested daily in the comments section. Columnist heavyweight Borg Cardona piped in with a call of “unfair” pointing out that the likes of him, Daffers and KZT have been busy tut-tutting away about the xenophobic elements in our small, close-knit community.

I believe that the real question lies deeper than whether a few good columnists (ok, it depends on taste but I’m shooting wide here) find some column inches every now and then to rant at the general public about the lack of values that we seem so eager to display. Fabrizio’s letter was mainly about our politicians’ inability to catch the bull by the horns. Barring the last furore about the Burden Sharing Pact we still have many questions that remain unanswered. What do the Maltese think about themselves? Is this an ultraconservative society that is threatened by an ever increasing wave? Are we really reaching the point were we feel threatened by the fact that more immigrants reach this country every year than we produce babies?

What we lack is real debate about what we are and where we want to go. I am not talking about petty symbols of identity and quarrelling whether independence or republic day is the greatest soul-defining moment of the nation. I mean that we need to ask ourselves what being part of the Maltese society is all about. Gone are the days when Solidarity Always and Everywhere sounded more credible than a simple marketing slogan. Since 1992 we seem to have moved on to being a nation of the frivolous and the egoistic. We kid ourselves big time by thinking that the reference points moulded by the forgers of the first republic are still valid today.

Malta is a democratic republic founded on work and on respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual. Ha! The Religion of Malta is the Roman Catholic Apostolic religion. Ha!

It’s easy to fall back on that idea. Exceptions to the rule are ugly warts that need to be rooted out and hidden from sight. We aspire to seem what we are not and it is nigh impossible to engage in a debate that even begins to attempt to discover what we really are about. Sure the columnists can rant from the pulpit of their unassailable columns. But theirs is no platform for intellectual engagement. We produce pontificating pompous trumpeters(yes there is auto-irony in this) by the dozen but the dearth of introspective dialogue is there for all to see.

Bleak House
It is ironic that all this need for soul-searching and rediscovery of the purpose of a society that calls itself a nation is happening during such dire times across the world. It’s the fourth week running that the Credit Crisis has to be mentioned in this column. It goes far beyond matters economic. The foundations of thinking for international society are being shaken as you read this senseless column. Every nation will be affected by the need to ask itself whether time has come to search for a new purpose of its existence and a new modus operandi (a convivial one it is hoped).

The immigrant threat, the energy crisis, the financial crisis, the international balance of power. They are all haunting us…. hanging around as a guarantee that (as the ancient chinese curse goes) we live in interesting times. In times like these, loaded with more challenges than we would have dreamt of during the complacent nineties, the values and backbone on which a society is built or on which a society reinvents itself will be just as important.

Those who are busy quoting the achievements of Maltese heroes against the Turks, of Maltese resilience in times of war when we stood shoulder to shoulder with the allies fighting out the enemy, all those people who rush to the sorry comfort of rereading the footnotes of history out of context should be warned. Because the greatest achievements in the history books are nation, colour, race and creed neutral – they are achievements by great men and women with strong values and principles who wished the best for their society and the people around them.

They are the leaders in the pages of history who did not rush to the comforts of old in times of adversity but rather discovered a new basis to break through new barriers and venture where others feared to thread. It might be time for all of us to think different and stop burying our heads in the sand.

A Christmas Carol
This column is like many others. Just a simple platform from which a particular rant can be heard and a particular slant given to the current news. All I can do is appeal – appeal that we begin to ask more questions about ourselves and take less things for granted. Most importantly that we take fellow human beings less for granted. That’s the least I’d expect in a nation that has the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith as its constitutional religion. As Tiny Tim would say: “God bless us…. every one”.

This has been j’accuse wondering what being Maltese is about… so you don’t have to!

Jacques has been blogging about the early phases of the blogosphere on https://jaccuse.wordpress.com. Come over and tell us what kind of society you’d like to live in.

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