THE KENNY Bookshop and Art Gallery recently hosted the launch of Galway artist Vicki Crowley’s absorbing memoir, Beyond the Ghibli, which traces her life from her earliest days in WW2 Malta, via many years in Africa, to settling down in Barna with her Irish husband Don and children.
There is no shortage of incident or colour in the book, from enduring wartime bombing raids in Malta, times spent living in Eritrea, Libya, Cameroon, and Gibraltar, descriptions of assorted aunts, uncles, and grandparents, love at first sight upon meeting Irish engineer Don Crowley, and narrowly escaping a coup d’état in Sierra Leone. Crowley’s keen artistic eye captures all these events, places, and personalities and brings them vibrantly to life in her absorbing narrative.
It is intriguing to learn, early in the memoir, that Victoria Xuereb, as she was born, in Malta in November 1940, has Irish ancestry. “My mother’s name was May Brennan and she also had Irish blood on her mother’s side,” Vicki tells me over an afternoon coffee. “So even though she was Maltese there is Irish blood in the family and you could see it in my uncles and aunts, they had an Irish look. My great-aunts had it as well and they also somehow had a slight Irish accent which they hung on to even though they had never been to Ireland. They got it from their father who was from Dun Laoghaire, or Kingstown as it then was, and had been in the Royal Navy. They were proud of that accent and they knew they were different to other Maltese people.”
Where is home?
Vicki’s father joined the British army during WWII and was stationed in India. By the time he returned home after the war ended Vicki and her brother Jo could scarcely remember him. “It was strange having to adjust to my father when he came back from the war,” she admits. “Later we got close and I remained extremely close to him all his life. He was such a lovely man. He came to us like a stranger and on the day he arrived I was waiting for him to leave to go home to his mummy!” she says with a laugh. “Of course I was then banished from my mother’s bed and I resented that. But he was fascinating because he had all this paraphernalia that he brought back from India. We weren’t supposed to play with it but we used to sneak in and play with his gas-mask and all kinds of army equipment.”
Not long after her father’s return the family moved to Asmar in Eritrea, a place she describes with great affection. “Life there could not have been more beautiful and it seemed that anything was possible. We were in this lovely country, living high up on a plateau and walking with clouds around us, we literally had our heads in the clouds and I was so happy.”
That happiness was rudely interrupted when Vicki’s mother took her and her brother back to Malta to enrol them in boarding school. The book vividly describes the emotional shock she felt. “That very early separation from my mother - I was barely seven years old - was a tremendous wrench,” she tells me. “I really wasn’t expecting it, my parents told me I’d be going to this wonderful school and they had brought me to see it and it was very nice but I didn’t realise the implications; that my mother would be leaving to go back to my father. So I just woke up one morning and she was gone, it was dreadful. It was like bereavement, and it must have been so awful for her as well. But I got over it. I must have built some kind of protective layer around myself and I think it probably made me strong.”
One of the most memorable episodes in the book relates how Vicki, after suffering endless persecution from a vindictive nun, ran away from school and made her way alone across Malta to her relatives. “I think that was probably the bravest thing I ever did in my entire life,” she states. “When I went back to school I was a heroine among my fellow boarders and that was nice! The nun must have been chastised in the meantime as she was no longer my class mistress; she had been moved so that was a relief. Nevertheless, at the end of that school year when I went back to Africa for the summer holidays my parents told me they were absolutely not sending me back to that school.”
Given her somewhat nomadic upbringing I ask Vicki if there was any one place she thought of as home. “Home was always where we were at any particular point in time,” she replies. “I never pined for any place other than where I was. I was always able to adapt to wherever we were, both as a child and later in my married life, even though there were times when those places might have been primitive and remote - but even they had their benefits as well.”
'You can’t stop here you have to carry on’
The book is divided into two sections, the first one covering Vicki’s childhood while the second describes her secondary schooling in England and subsequent life. On leaving school, she was apprenticed to an architectural practice in Malta where she acquired skills that would serve her well in her future career as an artist. “It was a very disciplined form of drawing and design, very measured,” she notes. “That apprenticeship really stood to me and I’m very glad I did it even though initially it was not what I wanted to do. But in those days one obeyed one’s parents and my father said I was not going to Paris to study fine art I was going to Malta to the architects’ practice!”
After her marriage to Galway native Don Crowley, Vicki lived in different parts of Africa and the book summons many fond memories of those places. However the political turbulence of the sixties also impacted on her family. Her father was badly assaulted in Benghazi by followers of Colonel Gadaffi after he seized power, an event which forced her parents to return to Malta. Vicki herself, along with Don and their three children (with Vicki expecting their fourth ), had to escape Sierra Leone after a coup there in 1968. That departure paved the way for the family’s relocation to Barna, in 1970, which has been their home ever since.
And so to Beyond the Ghibli. “I always knew I was going to do this,” Vicki reveals. “It was as if I was recording all the little details from the earliest times in my life. I can remember things from very early on. The trigger point for the book was when my mother took me to Valetta when she was quite elderly and pointed out all kinds of things to me. She seemed so anxious to impart them to me so that I shouldn’t forget them and I should pass them on and I vowed that I would one day. Then about three years ago I started writing the first part of the book containing my childhood memories. Des Kenny read that and said ‘You can’t stop here you have to carry on,’ so he encouraged me to write the second part and here the book is now, finished. It ends when we came to Barna which was a logical conclusion because it closed a circle with my Irish ancestry and all our travel. It was the end of a 30 year journey.”