The Malta Independent 18 March 2019, Monday

Marie Benoit's Diary

Malta Independent Tuesday, 28 January 2014, 12:15 Last update: about 6 years ago

Why has it become so difficult for me to read a book from cover to cover in a week say or even a month? If I pick up a novel, by the time I reach the third chapter  I am constrained to return to the first one as I would have forgotten who is who. Throughout my life I have been a book lover and I have spent a great deal of time reading. Even now my nose is most of the time in reading material if I’m not at my computer.  But it is mostly magazines, newspapers and links which are uploaded on Facebook that I look at. Not forgetting the endless newsletters about health to which I am tempted to subscribe from time to time or which are forwarded by family and friends. They have not improved my health one bit but just by reading them I convince myself that I am doing something about it.

Gone are the days when I would say to a member of the family: ‘Hands off, I bagged it first’ about some newly acquired novel or autobiography. Now many books purchased or given to me lie languishing in my living room table and on my literary conscience.

Yet on a chilly winter’s day what is more enjoyable than, in anti social mood, I sprawl on a bed or generous sofa, under something warm, reading a good book possibly with a box of chocolates within easy reach?

 

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Among my pile is Giovanni Bonello’s Histories of Malta: Confusions and Conclusions, Volume Twelve published by Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.  Several volumes of Histories have been deservedly awarded by The National Book Council. Reading anything written by Judge Bonello is not exactly a sacrifice. His writing is not immersed in a torrent of lyrical or indigestible prose. Although rather unhappily, he is no lover of the British, his grasp of their language is truly remarkable. He does not wrestle with language, as if extracting every word with a syringe. On the contrary his writing seems to flow from some hidden source – the hidden source of learning, carried so lightly of course. Each essay is a feat of expertise but written to sound as if the author enjoyed the journey researching the facts and weaving them together. He is a raconteur and has the gift of making a most readable story about everything he researches. How does he manage all these publications and articles which appear with the swiftness of the Red Arrows, on top of all his other duties and interests? And if you get a glimpse of him anywhere he always looks unflappable with no dark circles under his eyes. Whereas although I am a mere hack I generally feel like an overworked tugboat and the puffiness under my eyes has become unmanageable.

 Apart from the writing there is another thing I like about Histories. It is the purely mundane fact that I can dip in and out of it because each essay treats a different subject. If I abandon it for a week, or a month I don’t lose track of the story or the characters.

I haven’t finished reading Histories by any means but let me share just one chapter which I have so far enjoyed. If you still have book tokens lying around which you found in your Christmas stocking,  I would not hesitate to urge you to go and purchase this tome. It is the last one in the series I believe and you will be sorry when it goes out of print. 

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The many illustrations in the chapter Cinemas in Malta before World War One –caught my attention so I started with it.  The author writes that as far as cinemas are concerned, the island can proudly claim pioneer status. ‘The first public cinema show in Europe took place in Paris on December 28 1895. Just over one year later, early in January 1897, films were already being screened for public viewing in a hall in Valletta. Very likely, the author writes, this was Harding’s Cinematograph exhibition in St George’s Square (Main Guard) ‘a hall on the ground floor where Marks and Spencer now stands.’ Mr Harding didn’t waste much time to open his cinema and after this two more in Sliema. Gradually more cinemas started sprouting in Valletta and Sliema and eventually all over the island. If you are intrigued by the word ‘bioscope’ as I was, Judge Bonello tells us it was then the accepted alternative designation for cinema. ‘Some Eastern European countries today still refer to cinemas as bioscopes,’ he elaborates.

Soon after 1906 there were full length cinema programmes at the Manoel Theatre “lasting two hours from 6pm to 8pm” at very popular prices.  The “Grande Cinematografo Melita” in Ghar-id-Dud, Sliema seems to have been  the very first cinema in Sliema. In September 1906 it hosted a fund-raising event in favour of the church of Stella Maris. Sliema attracted cinema entrepreneurs like Mr Alfred Axisa. Is it Gianni’s maternal grandfather I wonder? In July 1907 he opened the “Duke of Edinburgh Cinema” at the Ferries. Mr Axisa thought that entertainment in Sliema should be cheaper than Valletta: adults paid two pence and children one penny. He build another large cinema in Tower Road which he called “Cinema Axisa”and later renamed “The Alhambra”  There was the “Grande Cinematografo” (Salinos) in No. 246 Strada Reale, Valletta  which stood where the reading room of the Casino Maltese stands today. Axisa’s competitors, the Falzon brothers, boasted that their cinema hall,”was the meeting place of the elegant public of Sliema”.

It was inevitable that nudeness, revealing clothes and costumes, all the way from Hollywood, would eventually raise hackles and there would be a demand for morality, at least from the Church.. So, no doubt aware of the undercurrents, the Falzon brothers pointed out that what was shown in their cinema ‘in no way offends morality and public decency.’ And this was addressed  to the ‘ladies and misses’ – and not to the men.

In the author’s words: ‘No doubt to counteract the baleful immorality of the new entertainment, the Unione Cattolica San Giuseppe set up its own cinema in 1912 at Palazzo Carafa, 94, Old Bakery Street, Valletta, which presumably only screened edifying, didactic films.’

The owner (and cinema pioneer in Malta) of the Bioscope in Valletta which is pictured here opened another cinema in Sliema, in St Anne Square “Harding’s Cinematograph” which eventually became the “Cinema Majestic” which those like me, of a certain generation, remember well. He also ran the Victoria Theatre in Sliema.

Other Valletta cinemas were the “Café du Commerce” today Caffé Cordina which had been so beautifully decorated by Giuseppe Calî  and the Café Anglo-Maltese. The author points out that established cafés were then starting to transform themselves into movie halls. During the shows ‘select’ music was play by ‘skilled pianists’. We have to remember that ‘talkies’ did not exist before 1927 so while during the projections soloists or small ensembles entertained the audience cabaret acts enlivened the intervals.

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After the earthquake that devastated Messina and Reggio Calabria in 1908 killing between 60,000 and 200,000 persons, in February 1909  the “Britannia Circus Cinema” in Floriana laid on a two-hour movie spectacle which was shot on the spot in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy. One of the illustrations in this chapter is an advert from Cinema Salinos in Valletta who were promoting the film of this earthquake ‘for a few days only’: “Stirring episodes of the Messina & Reggio Earthquake,” it promised.

The author tells us that information about the early cinemas on the island proved to be anything but abundant. “One has to scour the contemporary newspapers with the utmost patience to glean any, mostly disconnected, fragments of cinema lore, as no one seems to have undertaken any systematic research so far.” The fact that this essay was written at all says a great deal for the author. Only a dedicated, accomplished and experienced researcher could have produced so much out of so little.

 I am looking forward to reading the other essays. Next session will be Paolo Del Rosso, Knight, Assassin, Poet.  From a cursory browse through the essay I get the impression that he had a naughty streak in him and we all like a naughty streak as long as it is not our man but someone else’s..

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