On a couple of occasions Eric Shepherd tried his hand at prophecy too. He got one right, and the other almost, but not quite.
Remarking how ‘prickly’ the Maltese generally were, how anxious they showed themselves to take offence when offence was meant, but mostly when it was not, Shepherd suggested that the prickly pear should feature on Malta’s coat of arms, like the thorny thistle that symbolises Scotland. Little could he guess that his tongue-in-cheek banter would have been taken up seriously 50 years later, in 1975, by Dom Mintoff, when Malta’s official coat of arms was changed from the heraldic one to another in which the prickly pear featured prominently. Bingo, Eric.
While not all that keen on what the Maltese considered to be humour, Shepherd mostly laments their anxiety to take offence, the sad inability of most to laugh at themselves, and even more sadly, their inability to take any joke about anything Maltese. He recounts some episodes from first-hand experience.
The Garrison Library, frequented by British and Maltese alike, had prominent signs ‘Silence’ in the reading rooms. The British respected them, some Maltese did not. An Irish army chaplain proposed in the suggestions-book that the ‘Silence’ signs should also be displayed in Maltese. Apriti cielo. The kindest comments which followed sounded genuinely pained, the commonest, incensed: the unworthy padre “had insulted the whole Maltese nation”. Was the Pope aware of how the Maltese were being humiliated? Why was the Pontiff not defrocking a worthless minister, and presto?
The second incident concerned a young British RAF officer who had encountered some dodgy practices while looking for a house in Malta. He privately wrote a humorous, exaggerated account of it to his father. Lamentably his father happened to be the editor of a small British provincial paper and thought it good fun to publish that piece. Would he had never done it! An indignant Malta rose up in arms – miskin min ikasbarni, miskin min jidħak bija or something suitably insular anyway.
Even the violently pro-British Daily Malta Chronicle joined the fray with a front-page article impressing on the authorities their duty to compel this airman to behave like an officer and a gentleman, once he obviously couldn’t do it on his own. His superiors took the spineless way out and instantly posted the culprit as far from this thin-skinned island as they could throw him, somewhere he would not be exciting the natives to patriotic revolution.
Entre nous, has much changed over the past 90 years where outrage to national sensibilities is concerned? No answers louder than a whisper, please.
Shepherd’s second prophecy just missed. His favourite, possibly the only Maltese student he really respected and praised unreservedly, though squarely a nationalist resistant, was Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, ‘il-Gross’, a corpulent young law hopeful who had studied literature, and was then president of the students’ union.
Shepherd had no doubts that with his student’s brilliant intellect, his infectious charm, his culture, his boisterous sense of humour and his communication skills, il-Gross would eventually end up Prime Minister of Malta, a promise which had all the professor’s blessings, despite his student’s sharply Italianate sympathies.
The outstandingly gifted Mifsud Bonnici had been proposed as the first Oxford Rhodes Scholar from Malta, but another student was selected. Surprise surprise, the student chosen happened to be the son of a university professor who was also, surprise surprise, vice-president of the Maltese Imperialist Party. But that, no doubt, was only a coincidence, a delightfully staggering one. Shepherd, though rabidly colonialist himself, roundly condemned the elimination of the anti-colonialist Mifsud Bonnici as unfair political cronyism that was ultimately also short-sighted.
Il-Gross did forge a soaring career for himself, in law and as a nationalist politician, only stopping short of becoming prime minister. Shepherd was so impressed by his outstanding student that he actually included in his book a full-page portrait of the prime minister to be, complete with butterfly bow tie, spivvy walking cane and spats.
Shepherd treats Mifsud Bonnici differently from the rest. He is one of the exceptionally few personalities he mentions by name. All the others remain dimmed behind frosted glass, either nameless (but often identifiable) or given playful nicknames.
Thus the two leading political adversaries of the times, the pugnacious Dr Enrico Mizzi (who Shepherd objected to) becomes Signor Mufti, and the intractable Lord Gerald Strickland (who Shepherd objected to even more), crops up as Lord Cherub Dreamland. The professor considered both intellectually superior politicos: Mizzi, except for Lord Strickland, “quite the cleverest and most interesting figure in Maltese politics”.
Shepherd goes through a litany of Maltese complaints, and supplies his British antidote to each of them
Of the Labour Party, Shepherd says very little. He could not place its doctrine anywhere in his own political spectrum “as almost every working-man in Malta is a capitalist in respect of owning his own tools or plant”. The Governor, Lord Herbert Plumer, often makes a mildly bumbling appearance as The High Personage.
Others he mentions flatteringly by name include the anglophile Augustus Bartolo, owner of the Chronicle, and the rector of the University, Temi “Temmy” Zammit, “this versatile man – his sciences are legion, his public services innumerable; but what is more, he is a sincere, kindly, upright, patient man, whom any university might be proud to have for its head and any country for its citizen”.
All that was undeniable, and, in truth, plenty more praise should be added on, but the fact that Zammit represented the primordial switcher, from vocal supporter of the patriotic front to colonial poster boy, may have endeared him further in Shepherd’s eyes. The basic survival virtue of reinventing yourself at the convenient political moment was at that time applauded as admirable philosophy. It was identified as the commendable wisdom of knowing which side your bread is buttered on. What else did you need to know to open up a luminous career path?
I can see a pattern in Shepherd’s identity camouflages – it’s OK to mention by name those on whom you shower praises, but not those you expose to taunts and contempt. Shepherd’s publishers would no doubt have warned the author of the crippling hazards of libel damages. And the author knew that many Maltese regarded the law courts as their comfort zone and just spoiled to take you there on any pretext, particularly for the more obviously farcical ones.
Although Shepherd rightly considered the nationalist faction toxic to his imperial mission, he grudgingly concedes the charisma of their leader Nerik Mizzi: “Signor Mufti is a redoubtable man, with a real courage of his convictions. A fine debater, a fluent orator, a tireless tactician, he was ever the darling of the high spirits at the university; and, when he was returned at the elections, they and the lyceum boys organised a sort of Roman triumph for him: of which I was an eyewitness. Signor Mufti, while not fat, is a large man; but this notwithstanding a crowd of boys had got him on their shoulders and was carrying him amid plaudits down Strada Reale.”
And did Shepherd take his imperialist mission seriously. He just could not stand the ingratitude of the Maltese – What? After all Britain had done for Malta? He gives four – yes, four – examples of the reckless prodigality of the mother country towards the colony which for over a century had been made to serve, and then still served Britain’s commercial, imperial and strategic interests before serving its own. Shepherd goes through a litany of Maltese complaints, and supplies his British antidote to each of them. Not blindingly impressive answers they seem to me, but worth listing nonetheless.
“The Maltese say they have a cultural affinity to Italy and a preference for the Italian language: we admit the first and respect the second.” As cast-iron proof of this admission and this respect, Shepherd slams in the reader’s face the fact that “a highly placed British official, in my time, actually learnt Italian not to grate on the Italophile ear!” Second proof: “The Maltese are Roman Catholics. We are mostly Protestants. But what do we do when the papal legate comes ashore in Malta? We send our gunboats, at considerable expense to the British taxpayer, to escort that personage into the harbour!” Can I exclaim ‘Wow’, in reverential whisper?
Do you still need more proof of how recklessly munificent the colonial owner was towards its native chattels? During a recent Near-Eastern crisis, the Royal Navy left the Maltese harbours. Its absence was felt by those who depended on the fleet. So what does the British Empire do? “We detach a unit for service in Maltese waters, so that this grievance may be lessened!” Shepherd then digs up a fourth proof, after which he runs out of examples of imperial largesse: the Maltese are permitted (he means suffered) to be (paying) members at the Garrison Library, and then they take advantage of their presence on the committee to vote for the purchase of some publication in Italian. “Which is at once provided!”
“Good Lord, what haven’t we done for the Maltese!” Shepherd concludes, appalled equally by the irresponsible magnitude of Britain’s bounteousness as he was by the ingratitude of the natives. Against the abhorrent evils of colonialism, four irrelevancies were the best its advocate could come up with. What ungrateful bitches, the Maltese.
The professor’s pet hates were the university students, the very reason he came to Malta and the very reason he soon packed and left. The chemistry between the two just failed to show up. We only have his side of the coin to go by, so we do not really know if the students couldn’t stand him to the same extent he couldn’t stand them. But we do know the end result: he only resisted three years, probably the minimum period mandated by his contract, then bolted from Malta and preferred a future as school teacher in the Sacred Heart Convent at Roehampton to a challenging university career overseas.
The Valletta premises of the university were the first to put him off: from the outside (St Paul’s Street) they “consist of nothing but a long blank wall with a single unpretentious (indeed rather dirty) entrance in the middle”. Zammit, the rector, brought him down to earth during their very first meeting: he told the new professor not to expect too much of the students nor to overheat himself in the performance of his duties. Zammit and Shepherd struck an immediate friendship that lasted throughout.
The new professor had presumed the students to be full of reverence for their genuinely august rector, but they instantly took it upon themselves to disillusion him: “The students, to my huge disgust, showed very little respect for his authority – or indeed, for any authority; and members of the professional staff, subject as such to the rector’s chair, would appear in the courts against him in some of the many amazing lawsuits instigated against the university by students who failed to pass their examinations. Verily, Malta is a queer place!”
The University students had just emerged, and quite euphorically too, from the bloodied Sette Giugno riots in which they had actively participated, and the feeling of elation at playing heroes in something they saw as daring, patriotic and adventurous, had not abated yet. They had just written history.
“The studenti had regarded themselves ever since, and with much justice, as a formidable political force.” Shepherd, in their eyes the personification of what the students had rioted against, got the brunt of that elation: “My first year’s relations with the studenti were simply disastrous.”
He explains how: many times he could not even manage to start his lecture or “was unable to proceed for the shouts, jeers and horseplay... often and often I have waited almost the whole hour for opportunity even to begin.
“Sometimes, in despair, I have dismissed the class to its more congenial political conversations in Strada Reale without a word said.” And yet, the newspapers always persisted in referring to the hotheads as “our poor students”.
Towards the end of “the first year’s purgatory”, just before the exams, Shepherd received an endearing anonymous letter “signed with a skull and crossbones” spelling out tersely that if any student had his promising career injured by the new English professor, he and his wife would be instantly liquidated.
Attempts to escape to the UK would be futile, “You will never reach your England”. The threatening contents of the letter did not really scare him, he says “but, as showing how I was loved and honoured, it was disturbing enough”.
Shepherd remarks that “no tigress despoiled of her young was ever fiercer than the Maltese student in doubt for his career... no dog expecting a whipping ever crawled so abjectly as a Maltese student in front of his examiners”. On examination day “their pitiful nervousness not only prevented their doing their best, but was actually distressing to witness. Sweat stood in beads on brows, physical anguish gave a pinch to noses”.
The professor’s pet hates were the university students, the very reason he came to Malta and the very reason he soon packed and left
Some students believed that everything was permissible so long as it was not classified as a sin. A Church college chastised a pupil for ungentlemanly behaviour. He just couldn’t understand why; he was amazed he had been punished. “Why shouldn’t I do so? It isn’t a sin!”
What irked Shepherd most was the facility and frequency with which students took the University to court, usually, though not exclusively, over some meagre examination result. The victimised student would retain a top law professor from the university to sue the rector of the university, who was then dragged over the hottest legal coals for having refused a resit or a revision of papers to a dull or negligent plodder who couldn’t make it and shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
After intense popular frisson, the judge finds for the poor student, who then goose-steps exultantly into the lecture-room to announce to the professor who had failed him: “I have won my case! I have to be examined again!” The other students burst into deafening applause, shouting “Evviva XY! Down with all tyrants!”
Everything conspired to wreck Shepherd’s teaching career in Malta. The students saw him as the embodiment of an alien, usurping culture that was trying to supplant their own.
They resented him as an innovator in a university in which traditions were set in stone embedded in concrete, and change looked threatening and inherently abominable. He was a Catholic who had no time for bigotry and superstition.
The students had a sense of entitlement totally disconnected from merit. If they failed their exams, the courts would reinstate them, if they didn’t, the family dynasty would take care of them anyway.
Achievement was not all that bad, but mediocrity didn’t hurt either. Shepherd was a teacher who wanted the students to think, not memorise. A lot can be forgiven, but not that. He was the enemy.
Shepherd’s book, 300 pages long, cannot be summarised or critiqued in a couple of pages. The whole is far too complex, unobvious, provocative and layered to be simply accepted or starkly dismissed. I re-read it, with plentiful emotion, after 60 years. I promised myself to re-read it in the next 60.
Shepherd passed away on May 23, 1955, aged 63, at the nursing home of the Irish Sisters of Charity in Hackney. He never, I believe, visited Malta again after his stint as professor.
His obituary in The Tablet records that “for the last 15 years of his life he was a sick and disappointed man, but those who knew him best always found him humorous and kindly, full of good talk and hospitality to the end”.
This obituary describes Malta and Me as “an extremely witty and penetrating study of the island situation”. It may well be that, but I would not have repeated that tribute in front of pre-war nationalists. And if I did, I would not have cared to guarantee anyone’s impunity.
I need to thank Leonard Callus who greatly facilitated my research at the National Archives and George Camilleri, Angela Malkowski and Peter Vassallo for their assistance.