The Malta Independent 28 January 2023, Saturday
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Marie Benoit's Diary: ‘Of the making of books, there is no end’

Marie Benoît Tuesday, 29 November 2022, 12:05 Last update: about 3 months ago

The book mills in Malta, authors, printers, publishers, go on churning out books in spite of the fact that the general complaint is that we are essentially a non reading people. Books aren't selling enough, we are told. But thank goodness books go on being written and published. All manner of books. Since the Book Festival is still on I wanted to write something about two books which deserve to be bought and enjoyed.

The first, very recently published, is Malta Stories from the Life and Times of Jerome De Piro, 1914-1996, compiled by his son Marquis Nicholas De Piro who in his Introduction explains: "Here we do not have an autobiography ever scheduled for publication. This narrative was never meant to be an autobiography and apart from the Coronation Diary written for the family it came about because of my suggestion to my father that he should type out stories and memories on his old Imperial typewriter. I said: "Just tell it to us as it really was. Please give us a taste of what you can remember." This he did and the illustrations with my captions were added by me after being found in a variety of photograph albums sometimes untidy bottom drawers, and old box files."

In my case there has not been time to read right through the 326 pages yet. That will happen soon. But I have dipped into the book and love it. It keeps alive some interesting, historical and amusing otherwise unpublished memoirs from the past of a privileged member of our aristocracy. The writer is entertaining and has an eye for detail. The many characters which pepper the book include his adored 'nanny' Cenza and "when she was not present physically life was only bearable because I knew I would be back in her arms with mine round her neck and so my cup would be filled to capacity." How adorable.

Baron De Piro endears himself to his readers with glimpses of his life and the diverse personalities, great and small, who crossed his path.  He describes a civilised way of life and there is a star studded cast throughout the book. He must have been a darling of a man.

In his time children were named after saints under whose protection individuals and travellers entrusted themselves. No silly names which parents themselves sometimes cannot even pronounce.Poor children. His is a world which is far away from the dissonant modern one we now inhabit; far from today's world of joggers, designer drugs and in which everybody is moving: moving jobs, moving homes, moving money. His is a signorile world of old fashioned discretion and also an unshakeable belief in God and prayer.

I love the tale of how he once helped himself to an almond and instead of eating it put it up his nose. "It went straight up and disappeared. I suddenly sensed danger and ran to my mother to break the news. Panic. I heard comments saying that the almond would almost certainly turn into a tree and imagined myself walking with an almond tree branching out of my nose. I felt that I had ruined my life." Happily the offending almond was eventually removed with various contraptions.

Travel by ship and train, schooling in Malta and abroad, holidays and eventually marriage to the beautiful Phyllis (Did he ever call her 'Phyllis, ma belle' I wonder), children and so much more. And of course attending Her Majesty's Queen Elizabeth II coronation which must have been a highpoint in their lives. A rich life indeed.

I am looking forward to lolling on my bed or sofa and reading Jerome from cover to cover in comfort. The typeface is a decent size and so clear. Publishers should bear this in mind. It encourages Oldies to read and they are the ones who have the time to do so.

This book can be bought from Delicon Books Facebook page at Euros30 (paperback). It is also available at BDL books San Gwann and online at bdlbooks.com at the same price. Hard cover copies can be bought at Euros 40 from Delicon Books only.

The other book of which a copy has reached my hands is Caroline Tonna's  Society Fashion in Malta: The Portrait Photography of Leandro Preziosi 1830-1869. This is a Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti publication and has a Foreword by Giovanni Bonello. Let me quote him: "Caroline has done incredible and invaluable archival research, particularly in the travel literature, the newspapers and magazines of the era, to reconstruct, faithfully and in detail, the whys and whens of the fashion narrative of the island. Though the author aimed at defining anything dress-related, the book ends up throwing valuable light on the convoluted political and social scenarios of Victorian Malta, if only as a side effect. I find Caroline's research impeccable, manically thorough and impossible to disagree with. Our only divergence is as to who was actually the first Maltese photographer. I believe we are both right." He then goes on to explain why.

This is such a handsome book, well illustrated with plates, coloured or sepia. It has a detailed Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Sources as well as Electronic Sources and what seems to be a comprehensive index.

By and large the women look like characters from some Dostoevsky novel, waiting for bad news. I don't think many of them had ever set foot in a kitchen and I hope they had a platoon of servants to launder those dresses, especially the ones with flounces and frills.

Certainly no one can accuse these women of power dressing. Do you remember when Hillary Clinton swapped the pink frocks and hair ornaments she had worn as First Lady for a battalion of black suits and starched shirts thus stepping into a new style before running for a seat in the United States Senate? Donatella Versace had commented: "She should treat femininity as a opportunity and not try to emulate masculinity."

Here are strictly feminine fashions, far from today's jeans with aesthetic rents and the ubiquitous gym shoes. The women featured in the photographs have neat hairstyles. Flicking long manes of hair around and long hair spilling on the shoulders was not then the vital accessory that it is today. I couldn't find the portrait of a single blonde in all the book. Many blondes in today's Malta are bottle blondes.

I have to admit that I have again only dipped into the text. A thorough reading will be done later.  But I did spend time looking at the photos and their captions and found them fascinating.

Caroline Tonna's interest in fashion goes back a long way. She was the first in Malta to edit and publish a fashion magazine Elegance. She has come a long way since then. Now she is a respected author and researcher, sometimes presenting her research on television.  Caroline has an undiminished work ethic. The hours spent on research to produce this book must run into thousands. She is to be admired and her latest work enjoyed.

May books have a fairer wind, if for no other reason pour encourager les autres. There can never be enough good books, as far as I am concerned.

Caroline's book is available at the Book Festival at Ta'Qali or online www.midseabooks.com

I see from Facebook that Midsea also have 'A bargain corner for Melitensia books at exceptional prices. 


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