The Malta Independent 13 November 2018, Tuesday

Marie Benoit's Diary: A man of infinite variety

Marie Benoît Tuesday, 6 November 2018, 09:21 Last update: about 6 days ago

Professor Richard England is the great chameleon. His books, like his architecture, poetry, paintings, drawings, writings and photos are works of art. He is a perfectionist and his elegance permeates his thoughts, words and actions.

His latest book Chambers of Memory: roaming the mansions of Mnemosyne was launched recently at San Anton Palace in the presence of our President, Dr Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, friends and family.

A few days before the launch the President of Italy had nominated Prof. England Commendatore Dell'Ordine Della Stella D'Italia, an honour, richly deserved,  which was bestowed by H.E. the Italian ambassador Mario Sammartino at a ceremony at the ambassador's residence in Ta'Xbiex.

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The presenter that evening at San Anton Palace was Arlette Pisani, lucid and graceful in her introductions.

There were three guest speakers: Prof. Yasmin Shariff, Dr Sǚha Özkan and Prof. Conrad Thake.

Prof. Shariff, architect and environmentalist touched on the family aspect of the book which gave her speech a personal touch.

Professor Özkan, a Turkish Architect, Urban Planner, Historian, Author and Theorist and at present Chairman of the World Architecture Community, related how he had first met Richard back in June 1986 in Geneva at the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture office in Pregny. He quoted from Daniel Libeskind's letter to wish Prof. England Happy Birthday: "A great architect - Brilliant Artist - Outstanding Thinker - Beautiful Human Being...". The handwritten letter is included in the book like several others. Prof. Libeskind is a well-known architect, artist and set designer.

Prof.Özkan also contributed a piece to the book. Let me quote him: "In this first meeting he impressed me very much with his warm charisma and many values that I shared with him in several aspects of arts, architecture, and life."

Prof. Thake spoke next. Let me quote briefly from his speech (he also wrote the introduction to Chambers of Memory): "His erudite knowledge of various literary texts is complemented with his life-long passion for the opera, in particular for the tenor voice, an interest further cemented by his friendship with the Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja. Richard is quintessentially a humanist, a modern day uomo-universale in the Renaissance tradition embracing a wide spectrum of interests and artistic pursuits. However, it should be stressed that to him these endeavours do not have rigid boundaries, they are intrinsically fluid and permeable, all enriching in their own way. Still, in spite of his wide range of interests, he considers himself to be first and foremost an architect.

After Prof. Thake's speech we had a musical interlude. Mezzo soprano Claire Massa accompanied by Harpist Jacob Portelli sang a beautiful Ave Maria, composed by Prof. England's son, Marc who is not only a composer but an excellent artist in his own right. He painted his father's portrait which forms the cover of the book while his sister Sandrina also painted a portrait of her father which is in the inner pages.

The author then stood at the podium and gave an excellent speech. I have heard Prof. England speak on several occasions and his speeches are always thoughtful, concise, beautifully delivered whether in English or Maltese. They are erudite too and invariably with some humour thrown in.

Prof. England thanked all those involved in the book launch, including those friends who came from abroad for the occasion. Apart from Prof. Shariff and Prof. Özkan,  Prof. Amedeo Schiattarella, Prof. Kamel Mahadin and Prof. Marcello Sesito also travelled to Malta for the occasion accompanied by their wives.

Prof. England related to his audience how Chambers came to be. He was urged by his wife Myriam and son Marc that he should document his recollections "as they politely put it 'before your memory becomes fumbled, blurred and unreliable.' So "after arduous labour and endless drafts and versions, here it is...480 pages hovering between lucidity and blurred opacity."

Prof. England said he was determined to avoid the usual formula of autobiographies: "narcissist, self-centred, conceited and self-praising... not in my style, since autobiography is usually more auto-fiction and self-indulgent." So instead he focussed on reminiscences and a selection of his favourite things, places, experiences, music, literary and art works, poetry "and of course opera and tenors for which my family often point out that I suffer from a disease called 'tenoritis.'"

Her Excellency the President of Malta gave the concluding address. She is always warm, always natural and always speaks sense.

A reception followed during which Prof. England signed copies of his book for enthusiastic guests.

A browse through Chambers of Memory  tells me that many of the subjects in the book are illustrated with the author's drawings. The book also contains recollections of individuals who have carved special niches in the author's life, either as friends or as teachers and mentors. "There is one positive aspect of recollection, in memory one is always younger, for memory moves in the opposite direction of time, which of course, at my age, is all very comforting." Prof. England celebrated his 81st birthday recently.

The book also contains, not unexpectedly, an element of humour - caricatures and a number of anecdotes "hoping that these may help the reader digest the rest of the text."

Gordon Pisani and his team at Kite, the publishers of Chambers of Memory, deserve a great deal of praise for giving us such an attractive work. It has everything: beautiful texts, illustrations, poetry, tributes, travel. It is an easy book to read as in spite of its length there is no need to read it from cover to cover. One can dip into it and still find it very enjoyable. It has depth and humour and there is much to learn from it. I hope to have another occasion to write about it in more detail. In the meantime get your own copy. It is certainly a book worth having and a conversation piece in itself.

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