The Malta Independent 21 September 2019, Saturday

The Clews legacy – lost?

Charles Flores Sunday, 25 August 2019, 10:45 Last update: about 28 days ago

Next month, Malta, and his adopted town of Bormla, will be commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Charles Clews – undoubtedly the greatest Maltese humorist ever – whose career was a remarkable reflection of the island’s modern history. Coincidentally, it is also 10 years since his sad passing.

It is difficult to write about the Clews legacy without feeling the need to assess the state of Maltese humour today. Whatever is left of it can mostly be found on social media where, alas, it is more trash and spleen than anything else. This is not a nostalgic or generational backlash, but an honest opinion on the agonising mess into which the genre has wilted over the decades. The stark reality is that there is no hint of Maltese humour – even in the world of satire where manifold efforts have been made but, apart from some empty glorification, hardly anything worthwhile can be deemed memorable.

If video killed the radio star, both the mainstream and social media have robbed us of a humour that once was clean but effective, stinging but respectful and clearly realistic but incredibly creative, when even the simplest of resources were missing. Charles Clews and his Stage Commandos and Radju Muskettieri took Malta by storm without ever using a single expletive or resorting to a spout of slapstick. People who featured in Clews’ top-class scripts knew they were in safe, decent hands, among them no less than the Admiralty Chief at what used to be RN Malta Dockyard, who not only allowed the ‘new comics’ to stage shows during the breaks but was always asking around on how he had fared in the social comment aspect of the shows.

What a far cry from the so-called blogger jokes and the blogger venom that we have had – and continue to have – siphoned into us as a society over at least the past 20 years. One kind, Curia-financed social media commentator recently went so far as to refer to Labourites as “bastards” in what he may think was a joke. We couldn’t stop laughing.

Charles Clews was also active in journalism for many years. I remember being a ‘victim’ of his happy pen on my very first day of work in a newspaper newsroom. I had just finished my sixth form year and been asked by my De la Salle Brothers to attend the prize day ceremony to collect my special prizes in Maltese and English. Like an innocent toddler, I went to my News Editor to get permission to do so, which he granted as I was only going to be away for just an hour. Charles Clews was working on a desk close by. When I returned with the prizes, a small collection of books, Clews – a dedicated bookworm – asked if he could see them, complimenting me in the process.

Little did I realise that, a couple of days later, I was to feature, albeit namelessly, in his weekly light-hearted page in L-Orizzont. Why? One of the several books for the Special Prize in Maltese was a copy of Teach Yourself Maltese which Clews rightly found hilarious. I am sure Brother Henry, himself a highly respected Maltese language grammarian who, as a devoted teacher, patiently helped me out with my first attempts at Maltese poetry, meant well.

Charles Clews and I eventually ended up as Night Editors of sister newspapers. My everlasting memory of those long days working to the frenetic background of half-a-dozen noisy teleprinters is of Charles picking up the phone to be informed by our parliamentary correspondent that the evening’s session was bound to take more hours than usual. He always looked up at the ceiling and let off steam with a litany of rhyming words – but not a swearword in-between – that had the rest of us night staff in stitches.

His work on the old satirical Ix-Xewka was, again, impeccable but never vicious. He used to sweetly take the mickey out of all of us budding writers and poets at the time. Mario Azzopardi was ‘Il-Mulej’, I was ‘Charles Florist’, Raymond Mahoney was ‘Raymond Myhoney, Victor Fenech was ‘Victor Rabbit’, etc., all provided in perfect and amusing verse.

I got carried away, I guess, but for a good purpose. As we remember Charles Clews and his legacy, perhaps it is time to start asking questions. Has Maltese humour, as with many other things, been stolen from us and been replaced by the feeble adoption of globalised ideas? What does our small crop of present-day humorists say about it? There is a very small nucleus of able writers and comic actors who, over the years, have made commendable contributions, but the genre sounds and feels so arid these days.

 

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Prophets of doom or His Master’s Voice?

If there is one thing upon which practically everyone agrees it is that Malta’s economic well-being, a process that started – inevitably burdened by periodic hiccups – in the mid-Sixties has spiralled all the way to the highly positive ratings of the past six years. Different governments and different strategies were part of the success that no one seemed willing to predict when this island-nation’s cries for independence were first heard.

At that time, the late 1950s, the prophets of doom included the international media, particularly London’s Fleet Street. I was recently involved in some on-line exchanges with exponents of the Scottish Independence movement, where I recounted Malta’s story and how it had seemed so difficult and impossible when Dom Mintoff first cunningly introduced the word as an alternative to integration with Britain.

The moral of my story was pretty straightforward to grasp, and the many Scots taking part in the chat could see the validity and the connection with their current campaign to leave the UK, particularly since the Brexit referendum.

One of them spontaneously uploaded a 1959 cutting of a quotation from an editorial in the London Times editorial on those heady days in Malta. The similitude was surreal.

Have a good look at it on this same page and try to conclude whether The Times leader-writers and their Fleet Street peers were erstwhile prophets of doom or merely His Master’s Voice. And they are still up to it – in Scotland, Hong Kong, Venezuela, Brexit Brussels, Russia, France and wherever, whenever the Anglo-Saxon media feels it has to put in its biased share for Queen and country.

 

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