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The Ride

BASIL RAMSEY recounts one way of facing disaster with a composer

The island of Malta has a burgeoning tourist trade, even though this rising tide obliges the islanders to build bigger and better hotels to accommodate holidaymakers and thereby endanger the sights and atmosphere they seek.

Somewhere in the thick of this will be found the lively and cheery composer Charles Camilleri, who has proved the best musical ambassador the island could ever hope for. He spent a period in Canada getting on for 40 years ago composing and conducting, but left with his family to settle in London, which he preferred for his European base. Nevertheless, his roots are in the Mediterranean where he now remains much of the time in his Maltese villa, usually furiously composing.

Camilleri's surface exuberance belies the inward spiritual being whose music is often permeated with stillness. Listeners become aware of this, usually without realising a gentle power radiating from the music's centre. The secular aspect of this extraordinary musician is vivacious and clearly meant for delight, with a sometimes no-nonsense and rumbustious use of folk material.

Over the years we have been friends, we have shared some experiences that might be deemed peculiar. Camilleri was honoured as the resident composer at the Belfast Festival some years back (I would not believe anybody today unaware of this city and its location). We flew in from London Heathrow late one stormy evening, the airport located well away from the city. A young Irishman came forward to meet us and led the way to what appeared as the most disreputable car in Ireland. He jerked us into a nightmarish ride with all the classic symptoms of a crazy coot. He told us in staccato jabs that this was his thirteenth and last journey into Belfast that evening, and thank God for it. For once Charles was utterly silent. So was I. More than enough noise was generated by screaming tyres round impossible bends and an overtaxed gearbox desperately trying to cope with horrific demands.

The experience finally over and us collapsed into hotel chairs, we decided that dicing with death did not agree with either of us. Our clear decision about a suitable remedy came quickly to hand: a liquid strong and comforting, with which Ireland is not in short supply.

We have rarely recalled this experience in chatting. Some things are best forgotten even when they are unique.

Copyright © Basil Ramsey, July 19th 1999

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