The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

Oliver – the hidden years

Noel Grima Sunday, 29 November 2020, 08:12 Last update: about 3 months ago

Four days after Malta attained its independence, Oliver Friggieri and I and some 40 other young men entered we would say today quarantine in a big building some doors away from Oliver’s home in front of the police headquarters in Floriana.

That was in those years the Seminary where future priests spend eight years of study and prayer. Oliver did not stay the course, and roughly half of the 1964 entrants left without becoming priests.

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By then, just after secondary school, Oliver was already known as a budding poet and as a lover of the Maltese language.

Life enclosed within the walls of the seminary must have been doubly painful for him. The rule book was still in Italian, the prayers in Latin – the first Mass with parts in Maltese was said by Archbishop Gonzi as part of the Independence celebrations.

The rector, Mgr Albert Pantalleresco, one of the Maltese patriots interned by the British for their pro-Italian sentiments in deepest Africa, had just stepped down after a long rectorship where to speak in Maltese earned you a punishment.

The new rector, Fr  Victor Grech, brought with him an air of modernity to sweep away the musty air of the past. The Vatican council was in full swing and good Pope John had replaced the austere Pope Pius.

Most of us adapted to this hybrid mix but I feel the anti-Maltese bias of Seminary life must have deeply hurt Oliver. Otherwise he seemed to adapt to seminary life.

Given our number, we were split into two groups, one under (the late) Fr Alfred Muscat and the other, Oliver’s, under Fr Joe Bugeja. Their dormitory was the large hall overlooking the Balzunetta street (which became quite lively when there were naval vessels in harbour).

Like many of us, Oliver came from the Minor Seminary and also like many of us he came from the MUSEUM. But he was always restrained, almost shy.

Whenever there was an important church celebration at St John’s we would set out, a quaint procession of priests in black cassocks and red sashes, wending its way from Floriana to St John’s. Who would have foreseen that one day, he, and he alone, would have his funeral in those surroundings, attended by the high and mighty of the country?

In such a large group friendships were made which lasted for many years. Oliver was especially close to the uproarious  Eddie Gauci and Richard Vella Laurenti, later to become an ambassador. All three, as can be seen, did not stay the course. Later Godfrey Grima became his close friend.

Oliver was never the leader of the pack nor the life and soul of the group but he had a quiet wicked sense of humour which could erupt when you thought least likely.

He was not gifted with a musical voice and this when all seminarians were press-ganged to be the cathedral choir. But later on he teamed up with Patri Bert and gave us those hymns which are still sung in churches, after 50-plus years.

Once he left the seminary, Oliver broadened out. His love of the Maltese language led him to academic specialisation especially with his studies and analysis of the Italian phase of Dun Karm, the national poet.

He never stopped writing poems, reportedly till the minute he died.

And more importantly he chose to address Malta as his interlocutor of choice. He was not, as I have just said, the national poet, but his concerns were national. He became the conscience of the country and when in the dark days of the late 1980s he wrote Fil-Parlament ma jikbrux fjuri he touched the national nerve and the subsequent play drew to the Manoel Theatre people who had never entered the theatre.

His monumental Pawlu ta’ Malta was again national in scope and breadth - religion entwined with patriotism.

His written trilogy, culminating in it-tfal jigu bil-vapuri is a deeply conservative look on life in Malta in the early twentieth century, set in rural Malta with an ingrained class system.

With our shared social background he must have welcomed the improvements to the standard of living but he definitely did not form part, I believe, of the iconoclastic Sixties.

People have been penning all sorts of articles and reminiscent memories of Oliver in the past days. He was very accessible especially to students and I still find him writing appraisals to books well below his level.

In private conversations he worried about Malta and its future, especially in view of the ingrained partisanship of Maltese life. The present day concerns – about the environment or about the rule of law – maybe came too late for him to make his voice heard. Or maybe I am wrong.

He was and remained a very humble person. A priest, a former student of his, has written of Oliver at Mass in the Fleur-de-Lys church and how he felt shy his former teacher was listening to his words.

I am sure he would have never accepted, had he been alive, to have his funeral at St John’s and with the whole panoply of the State. That’s the last trick life played on him.

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