The ugliness of Malta’s soul is synthesised in its gardens

Published: August 8, 2017 at 1:11pm

A friend has just sent me his thought for the day, that the ugliness of Malta’s soul is synthesised in its gardens. I thought about this for a little while, and concluded that it is true.

Malta’s gardens reflect a fear of nature, a love of concrete and hard surfaces that can easily be swept and washed with disinfectant, a suspicion of trees, a lack of delight in plants, and an obsession with regimentation and lining things up in a row, the fewer of those things – plants – the better.

In short, Maltese gardens distil the idiosyncrasies of Maltese people far better than the interiors of their homes do. Though those interiors are equally sterile and hostile, and determinedly uncomfortable both visually and physically, they can’t – because buildings by their very essence are designed to serve as protection from nature – be seen as evidence of aggression towards it, as Maltese gardens are.

I love gardens: mysterious, magical gardens full of nooks and crannies, the equivalent of rambling old houses packed with rackety furniture and old curios brought back by antecedents from their peregrinations, gardens that are collections of plants of all kinds, tall and small, wild and tame, big-leafed and spiked, tangle-branched and swooping. The hard-wiring for this pattern in my preference was probably, I now realise, set by the time I was in primary school and my imagination captured by Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

That children’s novel, written in the Edwardian era and published in New York and London in 1911, had long since fallen out of favour by the time I was a child in the early 1970s, and no longer bore any resemblance to life in Malta or life in general at the time, though it will have done to my grandfather’s siblings. (My grandfather was himself not much of a reader in adulthood, so I assume he was not much of one in childhood, either.) It was their original edition I had found in an old bookcase in my grandparents’ country-house in San Pawl tat-Targa, along with other era-defining children’s novels like the younger siblings’ Just William books from the early 1920s, and a copy of the mid-19th-century Tom Brown’s Schooldays, with their father’s – my great-grandfather’s – name scrawled in it alongside bored doodles.

Despite the gardener’s profound antipathy towards children in any shape or form – he would accuse us, falsely, of trampling on plants, hoping to get us banned from what he clearly regarded as his territory, the garden there also had a profound influence on my sensibilities and helped shape the pattern of my preferences.

I suppose a background note would be in order here, for those who only know San Pawl tat-Targa as the urban conglomeration of flats and tightly packed houses that it is today. But back then it was a hamlet isolated and distinct from Naxxar, so much so that the Marquis Scicluna – not the eccentric one who lives on in popular memory, but his quiet and reclusive father, who had the whole of Palazzo Parisio up the road to play with, preferred to live instead in San Pawl tat-Targa, which was nothing but a brief street of low-key, one-storey country-houses leading off from the chapel, some of them lived in year-round, like the Marquis Scicluna’s and Major Ferro’s, and others only on Saturdays and Sundays, like my grandparents’.

Across the way were the rather grander and more salubrious Villa Degiorgio, now the official residence of the British High Commissioner, Villa Agius – which became a wedding-hall after the bachelor brothers Agius, who lived a solitary life in it, died, and is now Villa Arrigo, and the torrijiet, the two fortified houses, and a couple of other one-storey houses alongside them.

I could go off at a related tangent here and talk about the urbanisation which has destroyed Malta’s characteristically southern Mediterranean beauty, of nature, fields and buildings that blended in with both. But I’ll stick to gardens, and I’ll avoid talking about the gardens in people’s homes, as there is no point in causing personal offence to those who deserve none of it.

Maltese public gardens are horrendous wastelands of concrete paving with ugly bushes, chosen for their ‘hardiness’ – which in the Maltese way of thinking means that they can survive, gagging and shrivelled, showing major signs of dehydration, without water for extended periods. These are set out in Spartan rows to accommodate the thick, black and completely visible drip irrigation pipes without which no Maltese garden, whether public or private, is complete. For ease, convenience and thrift, these are laid out in straight lines and at right angles to each other, and that dictates the planting.

Now even the gardens at San Anton Palace are ruined, those gardens which were an endless source of fascination to me as a child, with those trees from exotic parts of the world, wearing their necklace-labels giving the botanical name, the place of origin and the date of planting, sometimes in the previous century.

Those palace gardens were laid out originally – physically, that is, as we have no record of what the planting was like – in the baroque manner, which relied on symmetry and formality. But starting in the early 1800s, the governing British turned them into what can best be described as a botanical garden of the era: a collection of plants from the exotic corners of the empire, but adapted to the climate here in Malta. Most of the British empire covered the hotter climes anyway, which means that the plant collection at San Anton Palace would have been something to behold. Some of the more exotically wonderful trees – now huge towering things – have survived into the present.

The atmosphere and spirit of a botanical garden was kept up well into the late 20th century, even after San Anton Palace ceased to be, in 1974, the official residence of the British governor (the representative of Malta’s head of state, who was the British monarch) and became instead the official residence of the new head of state, the President of the Republic of Malta. This would have been because the change of regime did not mean any changes to the old retinue of resident gardeners, who knew what they had to do and kept the botanical garden alive in fact and spirit. When I was a child in the 1970s, and even when my children were toddlers in the late 1980s, there were old-style greenhouses at San Anton Palace, full of potted plants, and wood-and-glass potting sheds full of cuttings and experimental plants.

But as the old gardeners retired and were replaced, or not replaced at all, and the brutal governments of the day allocated ever fewer funds to something thought as unnecessarily bourgeois – or, to use the idiom of our Chinese Cultural Revolution allies of the day, as ‘capitalist running dog’ – as the upkeep of a garden, the grounds of San Anton Palace fell into basic maintenance mode that eventually took a turn into a generalised air of neglect. But neglect does not damage gardens in the way that deliberate action does.

The real damage was done some years ago, when the upkeep of the palace gardens was contracted out to the very same consortium which plants out and maintains Malta’s equivalent of municipal gardens, traffic islands and roundabouts. The gardens lost their magical ‘plant collection of the empire’ qualities and now look just like an oversized traffic roundabout on a public road, with many of the same pointless annual flowering plants, which are shipped out here in bulk and planted everywhere, from a centre-strip to a palace garden, whether they are appropriate or not.

The last time I visited, I wanted to weep. What sort of country hands a botanical garden to the contractors who maintain public roundabouts?

They do a brilliant job of public roundabouts and centre-strips on roads, if you think money should be splashed about on annual flowering plants rather than on more permanent Mediterranean shrubs, succulents and cactuses. But that does not qualify as gardening. It qualifies as decoration and pattern-making using plants – a living version, if you wish, of those completely and utterly pointless pictures made from millions of petals in Italian squares, for which thousands of flowering plants must die to create something that could as easily be made of crepe paper.

And then, of course, we had President Abela’s decision to turn the Palace’s kitchen gardens into a horrific wasteland full of plastic furniture, bad food, fizzy drinks and a platoon of those contemporary pushchairs that look like they’ve been designed to withstand enemy invasion while nuclear-bombing the Japs. I look at them, from the perspective of somebody to whom a pushchair meant a featherweight MacLaren that folded up to something slightly larger than an umbrella (and that was the double version, for two toddlers), and say to those fixated mothers, quietly in my head: “For God’s sake, your children just need to sit in that thing, not go to war in Iraq and perform some sniper action.”

So now San Anton Palace gardens, too, synthesise the essence of the Maltese soul: that collections of plants are random and disturbing to the need for pattern and repetition, and that for something to be sabiħ it has to be regimented and form a regular design. The beauty is in the pattern and not in the plants.

And fascinatingly, the Maltese attitude to flowering plants is the polar opposite of that towards home furnishings and interiors. With plants in gardens or on roundabouts, the more garishly colourful, the better. The more clashing, vile and loud colours there are in a pattern-shaped and rigid flower bed, the more sabiħ it is. But interiors have to be greige, beige or fawn.

There are many ways in which a southern Mediterranean garden can be beautiful. This is one of them.