Around 1962, an għana ballad called Mintoff Story was tape-recorded by a leading folksinger, nicknamed Il-Papa, while the lead guitarist was Carmelo Cardona, It-Tapp, the best of his time.

To a degree he may have made us but did we also make him?- Ranier Fsadni

Twenty-seven years later, when I first came across it, the spool-tape had been transferred to cassette. Dom Mintoff had been in semi-retirement for over four years but the tape was still in circulation. The man who lent me his copy to make mine gave me that eye-to-eye look that meant both that I just had to listen to it and that I’d better take care of it.

He was, I think, also trusting me with it in a second sense. We never discussed them but we obviously had our political differences. In that Maltese way, they were unspoken but blatant each time we greeted and grinned at each other. We became friendly not despite these differences but partly because of them: Each occasion that we met was an occasion when, cooperatively, we successfully walked through the minefield without blowing ourselves up. In 1989, that couldn’t be taken for granted.

With the Mintoff Story cassette, however, politics was going to intrude explicitly for the first time. The song was recorded in a year when a critical general election was approaching and the Labour Party’s fortunes were low. It was not just the Church’s interdiction, although that in itself was associated with many family dramas and tragedies. In a five-party landscape, Mintoff was generally accused of threatening to lead the country off the political, not just moral, precipice.

In being lent the cassette I was being trusted to make the effort to understand it, to put myself within the Mintoff Story, to identify with that voice from the past that sang about the future.

The ballad itself explicitly strove to weave Mintoff’s biography into history and legend. It went into surprising details – such as a description of the Oxford Tripos system – while embroidering with myth. Mintoff’s birth was dated at the outbreak of WWI (instead of 1916) and he was said to have excelled academically at Oxford (he didn’t).

The main motif of the song was that the world was out of joint. The forces of evil had turned against the hero but he would eventually overcome. Had the ballad been a Hollywood film – or indeed a Biblical tale – the voice was singing out of the critical point in the plot where the hero seems broken but is actually about to mount a comeback.

Why am I, in a week like this, going back 50 years to speak about what was, in the general scheme of things, a marginal song of defiance?

First, I’m not really going back 50 years. Almost 30 years after its recording, being given the tape was like being given a gift – it was creating a relationship. The Mintoff Story involved even those who listened to it. It didn’t end in 1962. And to my mind it’s clearly like that for the rest of the Mintoff stories, laudatory and damning, currently being exchanged in the country in 2012. In recreating the past, we are also shaping our present and future.

Second, the ballad helps illustrate four different kinds of truth that keep being entangled in the discussions about Mintoff. All four are important but they answer different questions: What really took place? How does one explain it? What did it feel like to go through it? Was it good or bad?

Getting the facts right need not be a matter of point scoring. Was the Egyptian economist Mokhtar M. Metwally right to argue that the economy took a downward turn soon after Mintoff took power in 1971? Did the powers granted by the 1964 Constitution grant Malta enough independence to negotiate what Mintoff subsequently did internationally?

The answers to those questions can only help us understand and explain better what Mintoff did. The claim that he transformed Malta can only begin by knowing the facts about what it was like before he changed it.

Explaining what and how he did it becomes more contentious simply because causes and effects can be hidden from participants in events. To understand why the Mintoff Story was a folksong requires knowing that Labour Party clubs, then, offered an alternative to band clubs whose hierarchy often blocked a new class of skilled workers from being represented. To draw people towards its clubs, Labour organised folksinging sessions and, in the process, played a part in transforming għana into a genre that sang of modern concerns.

Paradoxically it was a modernising reorganisation of society and politics that made folksinging an appropriate vehicle. I suspect that closer scrutiny of the reorganisation of state and society will help explain the social sources of Mintoff’s charisma and appeal. To a degree he may have made us but did we also make him?

To answer we need to be able to discuss whether the Church’s interdiction was a sign of its weakness rather than strength, and whether the growth of the welfare state in the 1970s was accompanied by a paradoxical personalisation of the state.

Those are separate questions from actually trying to understand what the changes were like for different sets of people and then judging whether it was good or bad. If we’re not prepared to distinguish the questions we may be condemned to not getting answers.

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