Frames and cages (and Malta, part one)

I’m writing this in Luca airport in Malta at the end of a fascinating, but not always easy, week.  I arrived last Wednesday so it’s been eight days I’ve been here.  (Aapparently the colloquial phrase for a week in Maltese/Malti is “eight days” or something invoking “eight”).  I knew there would be two days of work, and there are always two more that are largely lost to the travelling. So I’d left myself four more to have some time to just be a sightseer.  That was four times what I usually allow myself on my work trips and not infrequently I don’t allow myself any rubbernecking time.  I guess that is the first cage I’m thinking about sitting here: normally I feel that I’m too far behind with things I’ve said I’ll do for/with various people to justify the extra time (and perhaps there’s something about any extra costs too).

Malta is an amazing place, and I hope this won’t people off visiting, but it’s been a mixed experience for me and at times I’ve felt caged here.  Some of that was about discovering that I wouldn’t realistically be able to mix much work the rubbernecking in those four days.  That came about through my location: I had pretty much caged myself without intending to!

I had booked myself into an airBnB to keep costs down.  That was a first for me and I think my inexperience both with airBnB, and with the geography and facilities of Malta didn’t help.  I booked into a lovely looking place in Zebbug. (There should be a dot on top of that “g” but my software currently doesn’t have that.  I think it’s pronounced “Zebbuj”, with the stress on the “bb”.)  Zebbug, , is near the middle of the main island, Malta itself, and looked sufficiently near to where I’d be working, Attard, that if need be I thought I could walk there.  I’ve just rechecked and it really is only 4km.  However, my colleague warned me the roads were not fun for walking (and she rated them lethal for anyone daft enough to hire a pushbike … and the death of a cyclist the first day I was here did seem to support that).

She was right about the walking, certainly if one took the main road.  I hadn’t really taken in what 37° heat, coupled, perhaps oddly, with quite high humidity (the island is small and the Mediterranean has a lot of warm water with which to nearly saturate the air) and high dust levels mean.  They don’t make attractive walking conditions for sure, particularly not if you should turn up looking like a moderately respectable academic asking for input on the CORE-OM translation with no pay for the volunteers!

In fact Marija gave me lifts to and from Mount Carmel Hospital both days we worked there so that was no problem.  Driving isn’t always easy on the island so it probably did help that I had chosen a place near the hospital and not far off her own direct route.

So I found myself feeling a bit caged not able to walk far, nor cycle.  However, there were other caged feelings.  Starting with this within minutes of getting up the first morning in the airBnB.

I know that’s a terrible ‘photo, shot on my ‘phone, through a window in the house, with the sun blasting down onto the plastic sheet above the cage but that really is two adult barn owls.  Inside, in the kitchen there was also a budgie in a pretty small cage, about a quarter of the size of the one that contained my grandparents’ budgie when I was a very young kid, some 60 years ago. Back then I suspect caged birds were more common in homes in the UK.  It’s funny how much the sight of two beautiful barn owls in a cage hit me.  It’s been one of those moments when I realise how deep some beliefs go in my psyche, somehow in my body too.

It was a couple of days later before I mentioned this to my host, who is a lovely man. He tells me he lets them fly free from the roof of the house and that they come back.  He has had them both from very young (weeks/months old) and both are under two years old.  I believe him completely and that shakes some of my convictions that they simply shouldn’t be caged, but it doesn’t remove those feelings.  I’m sure he doesn’t let the budgie fly free, my guts say that it wouldn’t return, but I have no logic for that.

So I found myself reflecting on just how central some ideas about freedom sit in my “core construct system”.  The idea of the “core construct system” is from Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) and is about those beliefs so central to who I am that they’re hard to change, sometimes hard even to notice.  For sure, this isn’t about something I haven’t noticed: the last few years for me have been a very conscious process of revolt against feeling caged by bureaucracies of one sort or another. Since leaving the NHS and the cycle ride that started this blog, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting that my beliefs about allowing people to make their own decisions disabled me in the roles I’d come to occupy.  I’ve also been railing (reflecting doesn’t cover it!) about a culture that seems increasingly to trumpet about freedom while more and more restricting it, particularly for all but the wealthy or obscenely wealthy.

But back to last Thursday morning, those birds really hit me and ironically they sort of caged me.  The only place to work was a table downstairs near both the owls (in a light well behind a locked door from me) but near the budgie.  I desperately wanted to blog, and to do some work, but my room had a huge double bed with no real space for me to put the laptop on a surface and my legs under it.  I rapidly discovered that working with it on my lap, sitting on the bed was both uncomfortable after a while, and damn hot in an already very hot environment. Downstairs was the only option. However, I found I simply couldn’t stay down there: the not very strong, but inescapable smell of the birds, mostly of the budgie I’m sure, was nauseating to me.  I’m sure that was mainly some Pavlovian association of a disgust at their containment, with an admittedly not attractive, but not gross, smell.

The result is that this is my first blog post in a week in which I really hoped I’d do two or three and have had enough amazing sights and experiences, and felt connected to the reading I’d been doing about Malta, to have supported at least one post a day.  However, I couldn’t post from a laptop on my thighs, not when I’d used about 30 minutes in that position to do the main Email screening and quick replies that seem the minimum per day.

So here I am in Luca airport feeling released.  I fantasize that the feeling is the one those owls do when they spread their wings and fly above Zebbug.  I know that’s projective and crass anthropomorphism: who can know what the owls think or feel?   Clearly it can have little in common with my thinking about freedom.  Who am I too, to judge my host for his caged birds?  The frames that create meaning for us are always cultural and caged birds are common here.  I saw a good number of birds, all finches: chaffinches, bullfinches, goldfinches and greenfinches; being carried around in tiny cages, usually by men I would guess in the age range 45 to 70. At first I thought they were selling them but I think they were actually just taking them out for some freedom, of sorts.

The title here “Frames and cages” pays homage to Tony Ryle’s 1975 book “Frames and Cages: The Repertory Grid Approach to Human Understanding”.  Repertory grids, and personal construct theory, or personal construct psychology that I mentioned above, had a huge impact on me when I first discovered them, which would have been in 1980.  I met up with Tony, probably in 1986, and I did the analyses of grids that led to a paper with him (“Some meanings of body and self in eating-disordered and comparison subjects”) which came out in 1991.  I had the geeky skills to run the programme, INGRID, that was then hosted on the University of London mainframe, that crunched the grids, and the further geekiness to transfer the output to SPSS on the St. George’s Medical School minicomputer, to analyse the grids.  Maybe I should re-read the paper.  I’m not sure I’d like it but it was probably ahead the game back then.

Tony died, at 89, in 2016.  There are obituaries in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/15/anthony-ryle-obituary, with a lovely ‘photo of him; sadly, I don’t think I have any of my own) and on the ACAT (Association for Cognitive Analytic Therapy, a therapy Tony pretty much created by melding some psychoanalytic ideas and PCP), https://www.acat.me.uk/page/tonys+biography  . I’m shocked to find that the obituaries in the British Medical Journal (at https://www.bmj.com/content/355/bmj.i6011.full) and even one on the ACAT site (https://www.acat.me.uk/reformulation.php?issue_id=52&article_id=502) are locked so that non-members can’t get to them.  I don’t think Tony would have approved of that, in fact, I’m pretty sure he’d agree with me that no self-respecting journal or membership organisation should be so desperate as to lock obituaries from public access.

There I go, railing about cages, paywalls and restrictions on freedom.  Hm, I think this theme is going to run and run here.  Enough for now.  For all there were challenges, I will post more about how much that is remarkable is here to see in Malta, and how much more that is almost unbelievable, is there in its history and prehistory.

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