French cabaret artist Edith Piaf is best known for her ballads about life, love, and sorrow. I remember listening to her “La Vie en Rose” at the age of 15 on a long-play belonging to my uncle, and I was captivated by her strong and distinctive voice, a trembling alto wail that became the voice of the Paris working class. Standing at four-foot-eight, she was known in France as the “Little Sparrow”.
Now, Warner Music Group has announced it will use AIsoftware to recreate the voice and image of the iconic French chanteuse, to narrate an upcoming animated biopic. The AI, according to Warner, was “trained on hundreds of voice clips and images”, with the support of Piaf’s estate.
AI-powered entertainment is worrying many living artists, but I certainly look forward to watching Piaf’s biopic and listening again to some of her most famous songs. Among her greatest hits are the unforgettable “La vie en rose”, “Milord” and “Non, je ne regrette rien”.
Talking about her on HBOMax, political comedian John Oliver listed her among the finest things from French culture, including “Camus, Camembert, madeleines, macaroons, Marcel Proust.” Her cabaret songs about carrying on living in the face of adversity reflected the difficulties in her own life, which was marked by tragic loss and struggles with addiction. Even Piaf’s early years were difficult, with her mother, also a singer, abandoning her to be brought up by her grandmother.
She died at the age of 47. Over 60 years after her death, Édith Piaf’s glory has hardly faded – and part of the myth is certainly her eventful and sometimes mysterious life. To this day, Piaf is one of the most successful French-speaking singers, even ranking above the French-Canadian Celine Dion.
When she was buried on October 14, 1963 at the Père Lachaise cemetery, tens of thousands of people paid their last respects to her. Admirers of the great cabaret singer regularly adorn her grave with fresh flowers to this day. I had the opportunity to see this myself when I visited the cemetery. By the way I strongly recommend that anybody going to Paris for a holiday visit the cemetery, which attracts millions of visitors every year and whose graves include such famous names as Frederic Chopin and Marcel Proust.
My grandson spent almost two months in Japan recently and has told me of his experiences there. One of them was the Sendaibori river in eastern Tokyo which marks the start of a journey by Matsuo Bashō, Japan’s most revered poet, that would result in his greatest collection of haiku verse. Displayed at regular intervals along the promenade, tablets with his haiku inscribed on them evoke the cooler climes of autumn when the poet left on an odyssey that would result in his most famous work, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” (Oku-no-hosomichi) — a retelling of his 156-day, 2400-kilometre journey into the northern frontier of Japan’s main island, Honshu.
Haiku is a Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and even as many as 17 syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.
The haiku are imbibed by the seasonal certainties of the late 1600s, containing references to full moons, chirping cicadas and cherry blossoms. Awareness of the seasons, and the seamless transition from one to the next, underly innumerable facets of Japanese life: cuisine, traditional dress, the performing arts and naturally haiku poetry.
In one of his poems, Basho famously wrote ‘Seek not to follow in the footsteps of wise men of old but seek what they sought.’ In another memorable passage, he suggests that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” The book is a spiritual journey inspired by the Buddhist ethos, shedding all worldly belongings and letting the winds determine your fate.
The physical journey also had a practical side: Bashō made his living in part as a teacher, and any number of far-flung disciples were happy to host the master and receive lessons in poetry during the journey. Since then, Bashō has become many things to many people – bohemian sage, unorthodox artist, quintessential wayfarer, beatific saint, and above all a poet for the ages. In his Narrow Road, Bashō seamlessly employs self-deprecating humour, logistical detail, Buddhist compliance, painterly description, and even raunchy griping (“Fleas and lice biting; / Awake all night / A horse pissing close to my ear”).
Haiku was made popular in Malta by Anton Buttigieg — the politician, president and poet, and also taken up by Victor Fenech and Lino Spiteri. One of its most popular renderings was “Bil-Ħajku Nsellimlek: Mill-Ġappun għal Malta u Lura” — an anthology of more than 200 haiku in Maltese penned by 20 writers living in Malta and abroad. The contributors included Fenech and Spiteri but others like Joe Friggieri, Oliver Friggieri, and Ġorġ Peresso. This collection was compiled in solidarity with the Japanese people following the disaster caused by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in March 2011, and the radiation outbursts at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
Revisiting some of the Maltese haiku, I came across two by Anton Buttigieg. One is:
Gardel jgħanni / ġo siġra; almenu wieħed / li għadu ħieles.
A gold finch singing / on a tree; at least one / has not been trapped!
Kemm ħlomt, Mulejja / lwien ħodor differenti / biex żbajt is-siġar.
O Lord haw many / differenti green plants you dreamt of / to paint the trees!
Very appropriate for the happenings in Mosta recently, don’t you think?
Read with me
Young children who read for pleasure for some 12 hours a week are likely to do better in cognitive tests as well as enjoy better mental health when they are adolescents than those who do not have not this reading habit. These findings were based on research among 10,243 young adolescents who underwent an array of tests, clinical assessments and brain scans, apart from information provided by the parents, caregivers and teachers.
According to the research published in the journal Psychological Medicine, the participants were split evenly between those whose reading history spanned 3 to 10 years (so-called early readers) and those whose reading habit started later, if at all (between zero to 2 years).
The researchers found that the detected benefits included such things as better memory, speech development and academic achievement, as well as fewer signs of stress or depression and fewer behavioural problems such as breaking rules and acting aggressively or impulsively. As adolescents, those who had started reading at the earliest age also slept longer and spent less time on electronic devices than those who had started pleasure reading later in childhood or not at all.
I am sure that this would be the case in Malta too if some research were carried out. More reading by children should be encouraged, considering that a global survey ranks Malta 31st among 57 countries in basic reading skills. Mind you, Malta has improved its result since 2016. What is worrying, however, is that reading skills in 10-year-old students are considerably better for those coming from wealthier families whose children attend independent schools, than those who go to church and State schools.
A national report on the PIRLS survey – a comparative study of the reading attainment of 10-year-olds (Year 5) conducted in 2021 shows a score of 515 for Malta, similar to France’s, but a long way from Singapore’s 587. In Malta, like the rest of the world, girls did better than boys. Among the Maltese, the girls got six points more than the boys (the international average difference between boys and girls was 18 points). The study confirmed a link between the popularity of reading among Maltese pupils when compared to their parents. The percentage of Maltese parents who like to read, at 37% was higher than the international average of 31%.
I must say that there’s a lot going on in the literacy field. I wasn’t aware of this until I noticed several facebook posts about “Aqra Mieghi/Read with Me” from Marylou Cassar, a friend of mine. In this Education Ministry programme, she and other volunteers share a story with children, then sings nursery rhymes with them, and engages in other fun activities. Parents can also participate. The sessions are both on-line and physical, at school or in public libraries. In a typical year, there are some 1,340 sessions in 48 centres reaching 1,500 children.
Two other programmes – The Magic of Stories and The Pleasure of Reading – promote a love of books, encourage self-expression, and involve role-playing, reaching obver 100 primary schools and 17,000 children. So-called Reading Ambassadors — normally footballers, singers, presenters, journalists and actors – contribute to these programmes.
All these efforts seem to be having results. As a matter of fact, membership by young people in public libraries doubled to 3,360 in 2022, mostly because of strong interest by children under the age of 12. No doubt, this will have contributed to the increase of 10.5% in spending on books in 2022, reaching €21.8 million.
A trip on Chadwick Lake
“A few Sundays ago, I went on a trip across the Chadwick Lake. The boat was a state-of-the-art one, with a transparent ceiling and sides and electric power to reduce noise and emissions. It was made of light-weight material so it could be carried from one section to another of the lake. The trip was very enjoyable, one which I would want to repeat when the water level of the lake is higher.
“The only problem with the trip was what the skipper told me about his working time. Apparently, he toils for 60 hours a week, has a daily rest period of only one hour, and only has two weeks annual leave. I worked up such a rage at the abysmal treatment of the skipper that on the morrow of the trip I sent an email to the EU’s Directorate-General for Mobility and Transport.
Surprisingly, a couple of days later I received an email from a bureaucrat asking me to provide further details as he could not find any navigable lake in the folder about Malta. He added that, in spite of this and pending further searches, he was as concerned as me that the EU’s Working Time Directive was not being observed in an inland waterway. He promised to investigate further and, if this proved to be the case, the Commission would insist that Malta applies the Directive.
I now realise this was just a dream. But what is not a dream is that the Commission has now written to the Maltese Government requesting it to transpose the Directive to all inland waters and any transport provided on it. The Directive would naturally apply to Chadwick Lake, the Burmarrad water locks and any other secret or undiscovered rivers and canals we may have. What would we do without bureaucrats?