You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Il-Kantina - an underground Maltese dive-bar in South London

In most places there is an invisible ideological divide between the north and south.

In London the River Thames gives a definite geographical line to this rift.

In Malta the north is embodied by the upper-classes - who are most concentrated in Sliema and are known as tal-pepe - whereas the south of Malta, otherwise known as The Dirty South, has a reputation for being uncouth. 

I recently visited a Maltese patisserie; it was reminiscent of a Sliema café and unsurprisingly was located north of the river in West London.
This Sunday gone I had the pleasure a fenkata (rabbit feast) at its south London counterpart and found the stereotypes I just outlined to follow suit accordingly.
Down the Rabbit Hole

The exact location must remain a secret but here is an image of the entrance to the bar / canteen. 

It is not the cafe. It is the open doorway in the left hand corner of the photo.

It is obvious from the outset that this establishment is by no means above board.

The meal has been booked in advance my Maltese friend Steven for 17 of his friends.

I was the first to arrive and when I did the only other customers were a group of old men sat at the back playing cards and one guy in his mid twenties wearing a black puffa jacket, twiddling a toothpick with his lips and pacing back and forth whist taking phone calls.

One of the old men was heavily bearded and wore a baseball cap and superman t-shirt. He sat alone smoking and looking at me. he stared so hard that he did not notice the cherry from his cigarette fall off, setting a small patch of the carpet on fire. Super Mario was his nickname - he had been a tug-boat captain most of his life but had now retired and settled in London.

Soon the rest of the party arrived, looking as out of place as myself until we all had a can of Cisk larger and a cigarette on the go. 

The first course was pastizzi which Steven kindly served himself.

The second course was rabbit in a tomato sauce on pasta. I did not want the owner thinking I was taking pictures of anything other than our party but in this photo I managed to capture the card game at the back as well as Super Maria who is at the bar slightly hidden by the guy in the black hoodie called Mike.

After eating a plate of pasta it was hard to believe that the main course of rabbit and chips was yet to come.

In this image you get to see the bar, the method of serving (placing the dishes on the bar) as well as a sneaky peak into the kitchen, where the chef in the white t-shirt prepares the meals on a normal oven like the one you would have at home.

By this point though most people were already too full to serve our own food and the man who I presume to be the owner started to give us our plates and told me that he personally bought the rabbits from France.

In this photo Nina proudly holds her plate of rabbit while Mike in the background (who is from the south of Malta) contemplates whether bunnies ever ponder the meaning of life.

Finally we have the money shot: 'home' cooked rabbit in a garlic sauce with peas and a chip side.

Update: One of the guests at our feast was photographer Stephanie Galea. She took a series of images based on national identity and memory in the Maltese Social Club of London.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

George Smiley illustrations

The  property  I  am  guarding  is  full  of  curiosities  that  were  not  taken  when  it  was  abandoned:

A  1974  edition  of  Tinker  Tailor  Soldier  Spy  –  published  in  London  by  Book  Club  Associates.

The  first  10  pages  have  been  torn  out.

It  is  unfortunate  that  this  copy  is  unreadable,  as  I  have  become  fond  of  the  simplistic  illustrations  of  George  Smiley  in  various  poses.

There  are  no  allusions  to  the  identity  of  the  illustrator.

Anybody  have  any  clues?

Monday, 11 February 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 3 - Renting a Flat in St. Julians. & Introducing the Hero

Chapter 3.

When I viewed the flat that I had found on the university’s notice board I was shocked and delighted at how much you got for your money here. The bedroom was huge with a double bed, desk, wardrobe and en-suite bathroom complete with toilet, sink and shower! – just no door between the two. Fine for a single person with no need for privacy.

            The kitchen had all the modern conveniences. A dozen half full bottles of gin sat on top of the microwave.  The open plan lounge area had bamboo sofas and a CD changer with a fully furnished CD rack. Albums including Shaggy’s Hot Shot and Mano Negra live hinted at the flat’s social history.

            The view from the balcony was a mirror image; dozens of other balconies full of potted palms and sun bleached towels hung out to dry, once again. But I knew that behind those flats the sea was tickling the shore and this made the scene complete for me. Just one minute’s walk down at the bottom of the street cute little Spinola Bay casually shouldered the bulging Mediterranean, it’s dinky harbour clustered with Maltese fishing boats known as ‘Dghajsa’ – the traditional vessels that adorn postcards and the covers of guidebooks. Painted in primary colours and adorned at the bow with an anti-evil charm ‘The Eye of Osiris’ – their bloodshot retinas making them all look like floating junkies, nautical heroes driven to the needle by bearing a responsibility that they have no control over.

            The rest of the flat was very spacious. The hallway was oversized - big enough for a few more rooms. At one end a two-meter square canvas painted with abstract pink, brown and green leaned against the wall. Tucked away at the other end of the hall in a room with no door was the laundry zone decorated with a framed copy of the Athena man and baby poster ‘L’Enfant’ the symbol of the new-man, an 80’s ideal of a caring male in touch with his feelings – the forerunner of the metro-sexual. I made it my mission to become a new man. No babies involved but I would at least start ironing my shirts.

I didn’t need to shop around, Flat 1. Riviera Court was a veritable palace and all for the monthly rent of a box room in Bristol for a fortnight. Of course there is always a catch. In the room across the vast expanse of hallway from mine lived Katya - the bug-eyed, gap-toothed Hungarian lady who sublet all the rooms in the flat. I paid Katya the deposit figuring her abrupt and disgruntled presence was a small price to pay for an otherwise perfect apartment. In a days time I would move in. All I needed now was a job.

            I walked away from the Riviera Court - in the opposite direction to the Astra hotel. The area smelt of disinfectant and was full of nightclubs, shut during the daytime lull. Down some steps I saw the Baystreet Mall and beside it the Eden Superbowl. From films like ‘The Big Lebowski’ & ‘Kingpin’ and TV shows such as ‘Ed’ I had gotten to know that bowling alleys not only offered a relaxed working environment but were also a haven for misfits and underachievers. As if fate was at play, there was a small sign on the customer service desk advertising the need for a ‘Bar Back’. A vague ambition drenched in down-and-out Americana formed. I inquired and handed my CV to the under-enthused manager. The rest of the day I kept handing out my CVs, mostly to big five star hotels that were the major Landmarks of this town called San Giljan [St Julian’s].

San Giljan, a bastion of the tourist industry, filled with language students a mall, luxury hotels and a marina. The year was 2007, the economic peak before the trough. Words like recession hadn’t been heard for years. I was sure a job would come my way. Proudly that night I slept for the last time at the Astra hotel and woke up feeling like a house cat falling from a tree and landing on its feet running like a lion.

            Moving into Riviera Court settled it. I was here, no turning back. It didn’t take long to make myself at home. My few clothes disappeared into the vast wardrobe. My laptop sat alone on the desk and I blu-tacked the collaged front cover of the Ir-Realta newspaper to the blank white wall to give the place an activist feel. I met the other flatmates: A 19 year old freckled Italian girl called Valentina - slightly chubby and playfully shy and Yin - a tiny 22 year old Korean girl, very forward in her well-to-do sportiness. I used my new facilities to take a cold shower. Just before five-o-clock I got a call from the Superbowl “Could you come to work tomorrow?” Could I! Alas, dreams come true when the dreams come trashy.

Walking to work for the first time - smug - my walk now had a definite direction like everybody else’s. So what if I was wearing black trousers a size too big and worn out black shoes? A looser look completed when given an XL staff polo-shirt, the only size left until they ordered more in, usually I wore a Small.

I walked into the manager’s office and had a brief chat with him. He was English himself, from a small sea-side town, but had lived here for the past twenty years. I imagined him when he first arrived; keen and sprightly just like me. Now he had resigned to this managerial role, hidden behind the venetian blinds of his small pain-glass-window office surrounded by stacks of paper. Lines were appearing to furrow the brow of his forehead, which was increasing in size as his hair reseeded. He had a wise but saddened demeanour. Framed photographs of bowling tournaments and plaques hung on the walls, small trophies stood on top of a filing cabinet the larger ones had a cabinet of their own, a few had his name engraved into their past. Stuck to the bottom of the computer monitor a novelty sign read ‘My drinking team has a bowling problem.’ He lead me to the bar and handed me a cloth, taking himself a John Smiths before walking back to his office. Over his shoulder he shouted “The barman will show you what to do, in the meantime just clean the tables.”

            I surveyed the scene from the business side of the bar; a cacophony of arcade games, a few unanimous characters sipping soft drinks, a bubblegum machine painted with a clowns face, a couple playing pool and dozens more couples bowling. Soon I realised it was Valentine’s Day and the absolute romance of the place became apparent, first dates and strikes, tactile tips following gutter balls and friends picking up the spares. After clearing the coffee cups and wiping the tables, I began to relax into my role then suddenly.

A limp hand plunged at me from above. I took it, and shook it. Stood beside me was a man’s torso with one hip slightly raised. I looked up at a weasel-faced giant the width of a beanstalk. His name was Neville Borg – you might have heard of him? The Playboy.

Although much bigger than me it was clear Neville’s staff polo shirt was a Small, not that I was sore about having to wear the XL. It was tucked tightly into his fitted black trousers that were crowned with a huge silver belt buckle. He wore the uniform as suavely as possible except for the polo shirt’s collar that remained completely undone to reveal as much bare chest as possible along with the faint smell of cologne. His hair was short but heavily gelled making it look wet and jet-black. His ears appeared to have been sliced diagonally taking off the tops, leaving them too small for his tall face and they stuck out to make it obvious. His thick black eyebrows formed a brave mono-brow, thinning only slightly above the bridge of his nose. Between blinks his sharp eyes took me in. I just stood agasp. It was a long way from the top to the bottom of his nose where a shadow of a moustache showed through his pale brown skin. His thin toothy mouth started to grin showing off pearly buck teeth before it began to speak.  “You have moved to Malta?” his tone used for questioning, like Jocelyn’s, sounded accusatory.
 I tell him I moved here seeking sunshine.
“You have family in Malta, you?”
“Not even friends?”
Vera? And where do you stay?”

I tell him about the flat and his eyes light up when he hears that I just moved in with three foreign females. He raises his right arm and shakes his hand, karate chopping the air and mock scolding me “Allah!” [1]

Taking me to one side Neville starts explaining exactly whom he is. Hurriedly asserting his authority as a true-blue playboy, lowering his already deep voice to accentuate its masculinity.
“Last Friday. Places club. Bottle of vodka. Drinking-drinking.” He makes the action of knocking back shots. “Pah-pah”
…“Nice shirt. Girls around me.” The stammered speech coming from his lungs but it’s his hands doing all the talking, using his whole body to get his points across. Bent over and looking up through puppy-dog eyes “Neville. Neville” he whimpers in a high pitch, meant to be feminine but instead sounding frightening, he laughs a little.
“The music Allah madoffe” his hand whirls upwards like a tornado “Mela the DJ knows me.” Chest stuck out proudly. Breathing heavily.
“Doof, doof, doof” he pushes the sounds through his teeth and pumps his fist out in front of him.
I am paying attention and saying “Really?” or “Oh” but Neville doesn’t need these signs that I am listening, by now he is talking as much to himself.
“I know how to talk to women, ta.” He says with a huge smile but serious eyes, clapping his thumb against his fingers (a hand movement used in England when someone is talking too much, often accompanied by a silent mouthing of words.) I didn't really understand what he meant by this and was further confused when he made a clucking sound to go with it.

“And the girls” He closes his eyes, pinches his fingers together brings them to his mouth and kisses them like an Italian stereotype about to say belissimo. Instead he tuts. Jerks his head left. And looks away momentarily. Then, with an air of finality, pronounces “Jinn a playboy.”
I look hard at him. This guy added meaning to the word lanky. A kind of Neolithic Peter Crouch. My vision, once again, as in artschool, belonged to Egon Schiele. I saw sharp angles, akward poses and thick drastic lines fronted horribly with a brilliant white lash of light. Neville Borg was an elongated Mediterranean Schiele styled by Dolche & Gabana, his every mannerism irksome but cloaked in bravado:  the living embodiment of the painter’s self portraits.
Lips pouting, he looks at himself in the mirror that runs the length of the back bar. Staring back from behind the glass shelves that store bottles of spirits his reflection adjusts his belt and proclaims, “I know how to wear.” Then he smoothes out his polo shirt from the top of the ribs down.

He pulls himself away from the mirror and slaps the bar. Then pointing at the girl on the customer service desk about fifteen yards away tells me, whilst keeping a straight face “This one. One day. My wife ta.”
Was this diatribe a territorial warning or was he offering to be my mentor? Either way I wasn’t going to argue. He was just the kind of calculating underdog you always hear about but never actually meet. A misunderstood Casanova. His success a badge wearable only through obtrusive boasting. I was in awe.

Eventually he got round to explaining the job that I was here to do but his jagged way of speaking and cryptic phraseology made me realise I should just figure it out for myself. “The bar, the tables… The house of work.” He nodded and looked at me to see if I understood. I nodded back and he smiled his contagious, devious grin.

An hour later another barman clocked in and introduced himself in a much more conventional manner. Alex Grima was Maltese but had lived in Canada until he was eight years old, meaning he barely had the Maltese accent or speech patterns. He spoke frankly and to the point in a low slow voice, the sort you would want to hear narrating a nature documentary.  He was a year older than me and was at university studying Computer Programming. His dark curly hair looked naturally messy but had been crew cut to make it smart and presentable. He had the peaceful, cold, dark, black, lifeless eyes of a great white shark. His face was blank, dominated by thick lips that always seemed on the verge of a smile, or a frown. Something about him made it obvious he had spent time state-side. His stocky sporty physique was heightened by the fact he wore trainers that he would undoubtedly refer to as sneakers. He explained my job role to me – How to mop the floor and wash the glasses. What chemical solutions to use. Where the clean glasses went and where the full bin bags were to be taken. Which beers were in which fridges. Where the ice was. How to make the various coffees. What the staff were allowed to drink: Coolee, a brand of orange squash, was one of the permitted beverages and when I told them it was my namesake naturally I had to try it, and naturally from that point on it was my nickname. Alex also made sure I tried the famous local bitter orange carbonated drink Kinnie, on to which both barmen bestowed a great pride.
“Has he told you how many women he has slept with?” Alex asks me defiantly, clearly irritating Neville.
“No, is it a lot?”
Neville tut-tuts and wags his index finger from side to side to say no, no, no then walks a few steps away.
“Tell Coolee how many women you slept with.” Alex persists.
Neville paces back and forth behind the bar like a caged animal, knowing we are watching him eagerly.
 “Hu ejja Neville” bellows Alex.
Neville pauses mid stride, looks skywards for a brief moment then pure matter-of-fact says “forty nine.” He then quickly turns to face an oncoming customer, slaps the bar and points at them saying “You!”


[1] The Maltese are the only people that use the word Allah to refer to the Catholic God.

Blog Expat: living abroad
living in Malta
Expats Blog

Saturday, 2 February 2013

5 ways to ruin your weekend on a Friday evening.

1) Drink 6 beers and tell everyone in the office that your co-worker's cleavage has been distracting you all day.

2) Go to a house party and have a "friendly fight" with a gung-ho Royal Marine. Lose.

3) Get shizballs lost and roam the Underground network sleeping on  benches getting further and further from your Zone 6 home.

4) Phone your ex-girlfriend and ask to stay over because her flat is the one place you might be able to find - She tells you she has some next man over.

5) Get to your Care-Home around mid-day, after getting stuck in a traffic jam on a bus. Balls trying to hibernate within the gooch. Cold as shit. Fill your hot water bottle and sing at the top of your lungs because nobody is listening.

6) Speak to Norman Portell laughing like a suicidal bastard. Write this clap on your mobile because you aint got no other internet.

7) Drink the Holy Water?