Sunday 01 October 2023

Let’s do lunch with Godfrey Grima (2000)

When I phoned Godfrey Grima for this interview he expressed surprise: “Why me? I’m no longer in the public eye!”  Well, I told him, that is a good enough reason as any.

Valletta’s long-established restaurant Malata was the venue for our meeting.   I was a bit early and so had time to chat with proprietor Joe Fenech Soler who, together with Gloria Borg, has been running the place for the last two years.  I asked about his famous wall of caricatures: “They were drawn by a Dutch artist, and represent all the politicians who have ever been elected to Parliament.”  

The traditional Maltese style decor is punctuated by all types of hats, one of Joe’s passions, which hang from every possible fixture.  The musical instruments peeping out from underneath a table are not just decorative. Apparently, in the evenings, whoever feels a bit festive can start banging away on a bongo drum.  The clientele have been known to dance on the tables and sing to their hearts’ content.  Apart from its renowned ravjul and typical Maltese/Italian cuisine, Malata is known for its atmosphere.

“It’s a home away from  home” confirmed Peter Calamatta who happened to be dining there as well that day.  “Good food, an open house atmosphere and a good host – Malata has it all.”

At this point, Godfrey Grima arrived.  “I like Joe, he’s an old friend; we started out in journalism together” Godfrey said, when asked about his choice of restaurant.   “He has savoire faire and knows how to please. Eating here is money well spent.” 

He went on to tell me of the many interesting meals he has had at Malata with friends from abroad “which lasted until 3am”.

Like most people these days, he is watching his waist line.  However, he loves to cook for other people, enjoying nothing more than inviting friends over to his farm in Mqabba where he ‘creates’ various meals. Godfrey admires creativity, and speaks in glowing terms of his talented wife, who is an artist.

So, I asked, why is he no longer in the public eye? “I don’t want to do TV any more. Every station has offered me a programme but I’ve refused. I’ve done all that.”

The tone sounds very final.  Why is he so adamant, I wanted to know. “I don’t think I can do it anymore. I made a statement. I interviewed people I thought were worth interviewing. This is a small place, and there are not that many people.”  We were, of course, referring to Dahrek mal-Hajt, which was on for two seasons between 1992-93.  At the time, this one-on-one interview programme created quite a stir because its ‘pushing the boundaries’ style was the first of its kind. 

“I remember a woman phoned me after my interview with Anglu Fenech, who was then head of the GWU, and said ‘I admire your courage’. I was surprised because the tyranny had long been kicked out of power and I thought that people had become used to speaking their mind.”  

Godfrey admits that he went into television not knowing a thing about the medium.  But, as foreign correspondent with the Financial Times, he did know a thing or two about journalism and how to conduct structured interviews.  “I was not in the entertainment business. I did not want to discuss divorce, or transvestites, or gays or lesbians.  I wanted to discuss serious issues.”

Coming as he does from a print journalism background, I got the impression that he looked down on television.  He disagreed: “I like good TV, but it’s very difficult to find.  I like Georg (Sapiano), he’s the top soil.  The rest are just layers of clay. There’s nothing in there that attracts me.  Georg is superb. He does his homework and he has the guts.  He is equipped with the legal knowledge so the mind works like a journalist’s mind works – towards a conclusion; a purpose. I’m not here just to waste time, take my money and run for the bank. I’m here to do a job.  People in their homes have to be satisfied, and in nanoseconds.  Georg does it very well.”

As for entertainment: “Just give me an action thriller!  Indiana Jones, or something like that which is completely removed  from reality.”

I just had to ask him: what did he think of Xarabank? “It’s popular, people like it, but I don’t want to know about the plight of gays in this country.  I don’t want to see the former head of a prison facility being drawn and quartered by a studio filled with a motley crew of thieves. I don’t think that’s television.  It’s probably good comic stuff. It’s entertainment for the masses. But I was never an entertainer – I can’t even tell a good joke!”

As we were speaking, several well-known faces came and went: Dr George Hyzler, Dr Giannella Caruana Curran.  Located smack opposite Parliament and down the road from Court, Malata is a favourite haunt of MP’s, lawyers as well as businessmen.  “We put up with the politicians” Godfrey said smilingly.  

We finally got around to ordering.  Godfrey chose the spaghetti with garlic, fresh tomatoes and olive oil, while I tried the focaccia con caulfiore: a mouth-watering freshly-made pie filled with tuna, cauliflower, potatoes and cheese inside the lightest pie crust I had ever tasted.  

It was time to put my cards on the table.  Look, I said, I did not really know all that much about you.  So I asked around and learned a few things, and I want to know whether they are true.  Godfrey looked slightly worried.

You can be nasty to people you don’t like: “It’s not a question of not liking them. It’s difficult running a business in this country (Godfrey owns an Advertising/Marketing Agency).  When I go to the bank they want collateral and that is my collateral.  Every penny I make and spend is mine so I have to be careful who I hire. Some people work out, others don’t.  If somebody is road-blocking my progress, not my personal progress, but the project, then yes, I get shirty. I’ve never had a case, that I know of, of me not liking anybody for personal reasons.”

You are very demanding: “Yes, that’s my character.  You can’t suddenly say ‘I want to take a day off’, ‘I’m not feeling well’ or ‘I want to see my mother.’  I think I still have a record with FT for taking 6 flights in 3 days. If something’s got to be done, it’s got to be done. No one ever said it’s easy.”

Contrary to popular perception, he describes himself as actually being very shy.

“I’m shy and people say ‘oh, he’s making himself out to be shy.’ I love the company of intelligent people, whether men or women. Most of my friends are very intelligent people whether businessmen, academics or in politics. I can’t stand people who have nothing to contribute to a conversation.”

When I asked him whether he was a chauvinist, Godfrey acknowledged that he comes from an era when feminism was just starting out.  He knows Australian feminist Germaine Greer personally and remembers talking to her for hours on these issues.  He could not always understand her point of view at the time and used to attribute what she said to her having had one drink to many!  But no, he concluded, he was not a chauvinist: “I admire successful women.  Although when I was young, women didn’t take part in politics, my mother did.  She was by my father’s side all the time and till this day can blare out the Communist national anthem!”

Godfrey’s mother is something of a legend herself.  At 85, she still has a habit of popping into his office, interrupting his management meetings to wag her finger at him and speak her mind.  He shakes his head and chuckles with filial resignation: “I love her, she’s a sweet lady, but we disagree a lot.”  

His father, with whom he was very close, instilled in him certain principles, a love for the English language and quenched Godfrey’s incessant thirst for knowledge. “He was very convincing. He never allowed you to have a shadow of a doubt about anything.  That’s how he built up our character.”  Godfrey’s father died in 1978: “I still miss him;  I still ask him questions.”

I had also heard that when it comes to paying up, he could be rather ‘reluctant’. “Yes, we’re rather tough on paying up, but it’s also difficult to collect  money in this country.  People take ages to pay you.  My first priority is my ‘extended family’ – the 20 people working for me.  So if someone else has to make do without a cheque from us for a couple of weeks, that would be my preference. But it’s not because I have a love of money, I never have.  I don’t have big boats, or a flashy car, I just live comfortably.”

You are disorganised: “Oh yes, every journalist is.  We’re at an airport, and one of us would have lost his passport, the other his ticket. Journalists are like that. Journalists are always thinking about their stories, don’t you find?”

You are moody: “Yes, and I’m becoming more and more moody. But I’ve always lived under pressure, and that makes you moody. I’ve always worked for very hard taskmasters; editors who eat people alive. You’re on your toes, coiled up all the time. That makes you moody, and the next guy who rubs you the wrong way, you snap at him.”

Coming from a working class background “breathing the air that your parents and siblings breathe” made Godfrey feel part of a huge, powerful unit which stood him in good stead, made him tough and not afraid to challenge authority.  He tells me with not a little pride that he was one of the few who could stand up to FT editor Sir Gordon Newton and even more daringly, to the Man Himself, Dom Mintoff.   

He admits, however, that at the age of 58, and having travelled and mixed with rather powerful people, he feels cut off from his roots.  “I still go to Zejtun and spot my childhood friends, but people now look at me as something else. We chat about our younger days, but life and circumstances change you.   I can share a drink with them, but I cannot discuss certain things with them –  we all move on.  Even the working class has moved on.”

The meal finished, we pondered dessert.  You’re trying to diet I reminded him.  We opted for coffees instead.  Then we were offered liqueurs.  His resolve vanished: “Oh go on!” he urged.  So, a Tia Maria and a Zambuka it was, while reassuring ourselves that the walk to the car park would compensate.

Talk turned to age and whether getting older scared him.  Not at all, he said, and he told me with fatherly pride that he has a lovely 23-year-old daughter.  “It’s not dying, but the process of dying which frightens me.”

When elections come around, Godfrey Grima is always called upon to give his analysis on the political climate.  He predicted both the Labour win of 1996 and the fall of the Labour Government in 1998.  He speaks with something like despair of politicians in general.  “I don’t like the way politicians mess it up.  They are long on promises and short on responsibilities.  Lots of things don’t make sense. You have a Central Banker running MDC, you have a scientist running our financial centre, you have someone who was so brilliant as chairman of a bank and is now chairman of the Tourism Authority.  Where do they get these ideas from?  Only Maltese political parties do these things.”

Individually, Godfrey believes, the Maltese are a striking people who can excel at what they do.  But collectively, “we miss it up like crazy!”

Finally, I asked Godfrey about his friendship with Oliver Friggieri. “We fight like cats and dogs, but he has a fine brain which I admire.  He’ll be surprised to read this because we’re always quarrelling! He thinks it’s an attitude thing: just because he says it, I have to be against it.  One of the best poets I’ve ever read in any language and an honest man – I like that in people. We are diametrically opposed. I can’t write poetry, he can’t stand journalism!  He’s very critical, and I’m not. But he’s one of a kind.”

And how would Godfrey Grima describe himself?: “In reality, I’m what you see. In many ways, I’m your average Joe.”

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