Monday 29 May 2023

Let’s get loud….or better still, let’s quiet down

This column first appeared in Malta Today

The news that Valletta establishments are now going to be allowed to play loud music outdoors until 1am will only be welcomed by those who thrive on noise.

For the rest of us who prefer our nights out to be laid-back and subdued (some people actually prefer going out to dinner or a drink and being able to hear each other talk), we are definitely being edged out of places where we can relax without ear-splitting decibels disturbing our right to some peace. More crucially, let us not even get started on what this means for the residents of Valletta who want a decent night’s sleep and hotels which have tried hard to attract upmarket tourists who, I imagine, will not relish having pounding music beneath their windows until that late hour.

The legal notice will now allow seven streets which are lined with restaurants and bars to blare out loud music just like Paceville, Bugibba and Qawra have had to endure for years. The streets are Merchants Street, Old Bakery Street, Old Theatre Street, Republic Street, South Street, St Lucia Street and Strait Street. Previously there was a ban on late-night music in the capital city, but now the volume has to be kept “at a moderate level”. That kind of vague description is not much help, because what is moderate for one person would be unacceptable for another. Who is going to decide what is tolerable or not?

It is not like this country is exactly renowned for keeping things at low volume. On the contrary, as mentioned above, you are hard-pressed to find restaurants which do not crank up the volume with music which is more suitable for a club, even though diners have to shout to have a conversation. We should not have to ask the restaurant manager to turn down the music (the glares of annoyance should be his first clue), but clearly, many have no concept of what soft background music is. There also seems to be no distinction between one kind of vibe and another: I can understand having loud music in a regular bar but at a wine bar, for example, where the ambience is more low-key and attracts a different crowd, the music should be adjusted accordingly.

I fail to understand what Valletta hopes to gain from this, or why it needed to do it in the first place. Ever since Covid restrictions were lifted, it had already returned to its previous atmosphere with people eager to go out and enjoy themselves like they used to. In this respect, the regeneration of the city which started a few years ago, was already a resounding success, so hats off to all those who were a part of this. It went from being a ‘dead’ city where no one would ever dream of heading for a night out, to becoming the ‘go to’ place, especially for those whose PV days are over. And that’s another thing…why do we need another PV? What’s wrong with having different areas of the island designated, so to speak, for different types of crowds? Valletta had already made a name for itself for being a more sophisticated, more hip and cooler night spot which caters for a specific clientele…but once you start allowing the deafening din into the early hours of the morning which we associate with other areas, you’ve already ruined it.

Like many things in Malta, there is an element of shortsightedness about this decision, which has taken something that worked, and seems to be intent on torpedoing it. Does whoever was behind this idea seriously think people will suddenly desert the capital because music has to be lowered at a reasonable hour? Well, they weren’t deserting it before, so why should they now? After all, those eager to go clubbing after a chilled out night in Valletta have a number of other diverse options on the island to choose from. There’s also another issue – once you allow music until 1am in the morning, the fear of many residents is that the next step will inevitably be for music to be allowed even later.

We are already a country which is swamped in noise wherever you go: apart from music everywhere, there are the honking cars and constant revving of engines which shatter any silence, the TV sets and general clatter which inconsiderately bother the neighbours and booming voices which take over public spaces, as adults and children alike scream at each other to talk. We might close an eye and make allowances for the annual festa petards and noise by the revellers, especially this year after a two year absence, but summer on the whole represents a very serious challenge for those seeking peace and quiet. You either have to stay home in your A/C and invest in double glazing, or seek out secluded beaches and areas not frequented by those who love to make noise – which is getting more difficult as time goes by. Your best bet is probably buying noise cancelling headphones or to try and escape as often as you can by hopping on a plane for a weekend getaway to some destination where your ears won’t be constantly assaulted.

When it’s time to return, you will have absolutely no worries about finding the correct departure gate either…just follow the noise.

Have more babies, bring in more foreign workers, or shrink the economy?

I have written more than once about this country’s conundrum when it comes to staff shortages, which continues to be a hot topic of discussion among all entrepreneurs.

This week former Labour Minister Evarist Bartolo joined the fray and boiled it down to the oft-mentioned three choices facing Malta. Either the Maltese need to start having more children (which in today’s high cost of living climate is highly unlikely, apart from the fact that we would need to wait 18 more years until they grow up), or we need to keep bringing in more foreign workers from different countries (an option which has been met with a lot of resistance from locals who resent the ‘foreign invasion’, even though it is precisely this foreign workforce which is keeping many sectors going).

But the final option in my opinion, is the best and only realistic one, even though it will be looked at askance. The truth is Malta was clearly never equipped for the type of economy where there is so much of everything. Boutique hotels, for example, were a brilliant idea, until they sprouted like an uncontrolled outbreak of mushrooms. Restaurants, bar, cafes, wine bars, takeaways, you name it, there are only so many which can be sustained with the manpower we have. The same goes for that bête noire …construction, which everyone agrees there is too much of (unless of course it happens to benefit them personally, then it’s fine). The only exception I would make is people working in the caring professions, because with an ageing population, the demand for carers both in private homes and in nursing homes, as well as the need for nurses, is unparalleled and cannot be met by the local supply.

Having less of everything might seem like Malta is taking ten steps back, but I believe it would mean making several great strides forward in our quality of life. A more manageable population will mean less cars, less frenzied traffic and less chaos in general. In the main road where I live, I once counted at least 30 different type of eating establishments, supermarkets/grocery shops and fast food places, in a stretch of less than a few kilometres. Having such a wide choice is nice, and we will certainly never go hungry….but is it ultimately sustainable? Nope.

The idea of a shrinking economy is something which will obviously not go down well with those intent on being billionaires. For them, the end always justifies the means, no matter how many unskilled, untrained construction workers plunge to their death, and no matter how badly their establishments are being run because of lack of staff. But for those who are happy with what they already have (and yes I believe such people still exist), going back to enjoying the simple pleasures in life …is more than enough.

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