The Malta Independent 21 September 2019, Saturday

Lest we forget

Timothy Alden Sunday, 18 August 2019, 09:49 Last update: about 2 months ago

The 15th August, the Feast of Santa Marija, is of great significance in Malta for many reasons and Operation Pedestal in particular looms large. It is the day when the SS Ohio limped into Malta’s harbour with a few other surviving ships from a great convoy which suffered terrible sacrifices to relieve our besieged island.

A few short years ago, fresh from university and employed by the NGO Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, I was tasked with organising the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the remains of that convoy. It was an epic journey from which three key commemorative events ensued, starting with a live performance of sound and lights and re-enactors in Senglea. We then enjoyed a Stradivarius concert in St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral and ended with an exhibition in Bormla where the excellent Raymond Agius shared his beautifully captured scenes from the convoy through his paintings.

The most poignant event of all was the ceremony in remembrance of Alan Shaw who had, until his recent passing, been the last survivor of the convoy. His family flew in to Malta to lay him to rest.

Ultimately, none of it would have been possible without Simon Cusens, one of Malta’s foremost guardians of our wartime history. Having had the privilege to learn so much at the centre of these events, I set out with the hope of becoming an amateur historian of sorts myself.

I carried out a couple of interviews at Hilltop Gardens in Naxxar, where one lady in her late nineties told me what it was like to board the train in Mdina –  where she lived before the war – and ride on it to Valletta. I also began interviewing my grandparents for their memories of a fast-fading Malta. It still boggles my mind that they lived through a time which, to my generation, seems legendary: a world that feels so different to the one we know today.

Through these experiences, my desire to protect Malta’s heritage truly solidified. This journey reaffirmed my commitment to, and passion for, environmental politics and my attempts to guard our patrimony. It is also why I hope to see more projects on the part of the government to protect the collective memory.

The National Archives of Malta have the Memorja project, where the memories of the elderly are recorded in interviews. There are similar independent initiatives such as the Magna Żmien project, which uses people’s private audio and video collections. I have also been made aware of a collaboration between the National Archives of Malta and The People of Malta – a Facebook page developed by teachers Stephen Buhagiar and Roderick Vella.

These are all excellent initiatives, but it took passion and dedication on my part to merely become aware of their existence. They are, unfortunately, a drop in the ocean when it comes to efforts to protect our heritage. They come against a backdrop of over-development, where the social and physical fabric of our towns and communities are being ripped apart by greed.

We desperately need to do more and in order to succeed we cannot merely fund historians to conduct interviews, although this is a crucial foundation for which I am grateful. We require opinion leaders to encourage – and provide social incentives for – the younger generation to record and interview their older relatives and here the power of social media may help. We need dedicated teams of artists, technicians, historians and other academics to come up with creative ways of preserving the collective memory.

If we do not achieve this then, in the blink of an eye, we will have forgotten ourselves. In this rapidly changing world, what meaning do we ascribe to life if we leave behind us nothing of where we came from? We live in a privileged age where we possess the means to preserve who we are so let us allow those who come after us to remember. Passing on our memories is, after all, one of the greatest acts of love and connection. Similarly, let us show our elders that they will never be forgotten. We owe them nothing less.

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