Anyone familiar with the old Times of Malta offices is likely to remember the sweet smell that often wafted over the Valletta building’s entrance.

Such was the smell that those walking past for the first time would often look around for a second to see where it was coming from. It was usually then they would spot a small man in a baggy white shirt standing in the corner, carefully holding his pipe, matchstick box in his pocket. He would greet them with a smile and a slight nod.

He was Ivan Fenech, one of the paper’s assistant editors and, to most people at the office, iċ-Ċukaj.

Those my age and not aware of his time as an actor might have, like me, initially found it hard to believe the quiet, somewhat quirky and sharp-witted, assistant editor had been at the heart of the much-loved satirical TV production Aħn’aħna jew m’aħniex.

But that was Ivan for you, a man of few words but with many, many talents.

He fell suddenly ill on Tuesday evening while editing the last stories of the day before the paper is passed onto the printers downstairs. He had been chatting jokingly with colleagues, as he did several times throughout the day, until only a few minutes before.

After being rushed to hospital, Ivan passed away 24 hours later. He was 55.

I held back tears when I was asked to work on this piece but then I thought back to one of the many exchanges I had with Ivan.

“I don’t know what’s wrong but you have my support,” he had said a few months ago while I fretted over some mundane, work-related issue. That was the loyal colleague many of us knew and loved.

Ivan's desk at the Times of Malta offices.Ivan's desk at the Times of Malta offices.

Blessed with a keen eye for detail, Ivan had the ability to transform any story into an even better one and, as young journalists, many of us would often eagerly listen to him mumbling suggestions, half-apologetically, knowing our work was in safe hands.

Initial reactions to Ivan’s death have now made us all realise that our reserved colleague had been respected by many people outside the newsroom walls, whether they knew him as the assistant editor, iċ-Ċukaj or the man with the pipe at the Times of Malta.

He first joined this newspaper in the 1980s, working as a journalist. He left the company in 1997 to join the then Malta Environment and Planning Authority and, subsequently, moved to Germany, where he lived for several years. He returned to Malta in 2013 and rejoined the Times of Malta as an assistant editor.

His dry and caustic humour was reflected on Aħn’aħna jew m’aħniex, where he had the role of a Maltese man who was stranded in the fictional land iċ-Ċukaj. The role quickly became very popular and, to this day, it is regarded as one of the most iconic characters to be born of Maltese television. Like the show itself, the character portrayed by Ivan lives on in the collective memory of those who, in the 1980s and 1990s, would never miss an episode.

More recently, he was known through his widely-read political newspaper column.

“My enduring memories are about the pride with which he spoke about his wife and daughter, his love of Maltese history, manifested in his large collection of old Malta pictures, his fondness of anything that was traditionally Maltese and the way he loathed technology and could not come to grips with his own mobile phone.

Ivan (third from left) acting in L-Ispettur tal-Gvern (The government inspector), by Nikolai Gogol, produced by Ateatru. Photo: Stephen FlorianIvan (third from left) acting in L-Ispettur tal-Gvern (The government inspector), by Nikolai Gogol, produced by Ateatru. Photo: Stephen Florian

With him, what you see is what you get: a highly intelligent, loyal and genuine person

“Along with our work-related chats, we also discussed retirement. Alas, his came earlier than either of us imagined. Farewell, my friend. Don’t press all the keys when the phone beeps,” long-time colleague Chris Scicluna said.

Another colleague of many years, Rosanne Zammit, remembers Ivan’s love for anything Maltese.

“He loved all that is Maltese and when the offices of the Times of Malta were still in Valletta, he loved his walks in the city. On his return from Germany, where he lived for a number of years, I remember him searching for a home with traditional features.

“He found his home and also became a neighbour. He immediately got involved in the village feast celebrations preparing confetti to throw from his roof, a Maltese tradition that has dwindled in popularity and which, in his own way, he was helping to keep alive,” she said.

Anthony Manduca, deputy editor of The Sunday Times of Malta, his desk neighbour since the newspaper moved offices, said: “Ivan was a lovely person, totally unassuming yet highly intelligent and well-read. He cherished his principles and values, which he refused to compromise for the sake of being in line with public opinion and that is something to be greatly admired. He was a dear friend and I will miss him and our discussions and friendly arguments very much.”

Fellow assistant editor Ramona Depares described how, as a teenager, Ivan’s TV character was her “hero”, much to the annoyance of the nuns at school.

“When he rejoined our newsroom some years ago, I had a huge fangirl moment. But Ivan was a lot more than that. While reserved, he was also witty, kind and a born story-teller, so much so I fast forgot he was on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from me. I will never look at anyone smoking a pipe without thinking fondly of him and missing his anecdotes,” she said.

News editor Matthew Xuereb also spoke highly of his colleague, whom he believed to be “a great humble person”.

“He wouldn’t seek to impose his views or opinions but rather discuss the different aspects of the subject at hand. It also struck me how appreciative he was, even for the smallest of things like dropping him off at home when he had no car,” he said.

The Times of Malta’s three editors each have different memories of the man they worked side by side for many years, each reflecting Ivan’s different traits.

“Ivan was a man of principle, a good man with a strong sense of right and wrong. Although highly opinionated, he was also genuinely humble. He never took himself too seriously, which was, on the one hand, a strength and, on the other, perhaps a weakness when it came to his health. He was gentle and caring. His smile was lovely but his eyes never lit up more brightly than when he spoke about his daughter,” the editor of The Sunday Times of Malta, Mark Wood said.

An illustration by Ġorġ Mallia.An illustration by Ġorġ Mallia.

Online editor Herman Grech admitted he was “ideologically at odds” with Ivan, however insisting that his colleague would always respect the point of view of others and “try make his argument with that trademark smile”.

“On the job, he was well-read, imbued with vast political knowledge and blessed with impeccable wit, which came across in his writing. Just a couple of hours before he passed away, he came over to my desk to discuss the latest cover version of Heroes by David Bowie, an artist we were both besotted with.

“He asked me to upload YouTube to watch his favourite version of the song portrayed in the film Christiane F and you could see his eyes almost well up with tears with the lyrics ‘and the shame was on the other side’. And that for me summed up Ivan in his complex, creative and sometimes dark self,” he said.

To the editor of the Times of Malta, Ray Bugeja, Ivan had a look and a smile “that would instantly disarm you, however angry you may be at him”. “With him, what you see is what you get: a highly intelligent, loyal and genuine person. He always looked before he leapt and would spend long hours thinking and doing research before writing something, including draft editorials. Where is the leader we agreed upon, I would ask him as the deadline drew closer. Here, he would calmly reply, pointing at his head.

“One of the toughest decisions I made in his regard as editor was stopping his incisive weekly column when he was appointed assistant editor. He had a sharp and accurate pen that might even annoy and disturb those who disagreed with his line of thinking. Always correct and ethical in his writings, he put his arguments across without ever resorting to hate or mental violence,” he said.

Allied Newspapers managing director Michel Rizzo also remembers Ivan fondly: “Words are powerful tools and Ivan’s talent for expression was rarely equalled by others. He triumphed quietly and humbly in his journalistic career, which is indeed a rarity in today’s day and age. Regretfully, we lost him far too soon. He served the Times of Malta well. On my behalf and that of my fellow board members at Allied Newspapers Limited, I stand up and salute him.”

From the opening theme of Aħn’aħna jew M’aħnix. Photo: Brian DecelisFrom the opening theme of Aħn’aħna jew M’aħnix. Photo: Brian Decelis

His peers’ tributes

“A brilliant columnist who could verbalise with the best of them. I didn’t always agree with him, but always admired the way he wrote about what he so vehemently believed in. And now he’s gone. Just like that. A flame that has died without even flickering. Taking with it a sharp mind and a satirist’s heart. His wife, his daughter, must be entirely devastated now, if I, who knew him far, far less than they love him, have this sudden, incredible darkness inside me.” – Ġorġ Mallia.

“I am in shock. A school and lifelong friend. Ivan is a true gentleman and, above all, a beautiful soul.” – Ivan Bartolo.

“Ivan, you have left me speechless. How I wish this news is another tale, like that of your adventure in the Ċukaj.” – Vince Fabri.

“I’m in shock. We worked on so many productions together. What impressed me the most about him was how, despite being quiet and reserved, he had this sense of humour that would have us all in fits. He came to life on stage and through his writing. Such good memories.” – Paul Mintoff.

“The good die young and my former colleague and friend was good. I consider myself privileged to have known and worked with him. He possessed a sharp and witty sense of humour despite work pressures and the ups and downs of life. I will never forget the get-togethers of his close friends at his house.” – Michael Testa.

Welcoming Archbishop Charles Scicluna on a visit to the newsroom of the Times of Malta.Welcoming Archbishop Charles Scicluna on a visit to the newsroom of the Times of Malta.

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