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Strickland House: The making of an institution

One of the Constitutional Party meetings.

One of the Constitutional Party meetings.

VICTOR AQUILINA; Strickland House, Allied Publications, 2010, 394 pp.

Historians and journalists are different but somewhat related species. The starting point for both of them is the facts; interpretation and opinion come later.

Victor Aquilina is a journalist, and a very good one. He has spent a lifetime in the profession. The last 10 years before he partially retired were spent as editor of The Times.

Last year, his significant contribution to professional journalism in Malta was recognised through the Gold Award, part of the Malta Journalism Awards, organised annually by the Malta Institute of Journalists.

For years, Aquilina has been busy researching the birth and progress of the Allied group of newspapers, The Times of Malta, The Sunday Times of Malta and Il-Berqa.

The first two continue to go from strength to strength, despite growing competition in recent years. Il-Berqa, their Maltese language companion, was phased out in 1968.

The result of the research is now seeing the light of day. Book one was published recently. It covers 1921 to 1935, when The Times of Malta was launched.

The author tells the story of “the standard-bearers” who launched the daily newspaper from Strickland House, now itself an institution. The story is inextricably linked with the lives and work of Gerald Strickland and his daughter Mabel.

Lord Strickland was in the thick of Malta’s public life from the last years of the 19th century and, with interruptions of service abroad, in the first 40 years of the 20th century.

Well-blooded, educated at Cambridge University, well wed, he became a figure who was as loved as he was hated.

In his years in Malta’s politics the Nationalists, in one form or another, began by dominating the scene, standing for everything Italian, epitomised in the figure of Enrico Mizzi.

Strickland, an anglophile, committed himself to ending that dominance; to replace it with studied allegiance to Britain, disseminating the English language by first artfully working to displace the widespread use of the Italian language with growing emphasis on Maltese, the language of the masses.

Aquilina makes it clear he is not presenting a history of the period. His style is not that of a historian, particularly in the deliberate lack of commitment to strict chronology.

But historical fact permeates the book. The author drew on many sources, including the works of history professors Joe Pirotta, Henry Frendo Dominic Fenech, and Godfrey Pirotta. Perhaps above all he was privileged to have access to Villa Parisio, the former house of Mabel Strickland in Lija and now the seat of the Strickland Foundation, where the correspondence, memoranda, and other material relating to the period from 1921 up to Lord Strickland’s death in 1940 are kept.

The book covers the politician’s stand-off with the Malta Church, the first use of mortal sin in a Maltese election, the role of Archbishop Michael Gonzi, the fierce opposition and uneasy liaisons resulting in the 1920s, when the Labour Party was born and later entered into a compact with Strickland, which saw them win office (without the Labour Party accepting any posts) and which brought to boiling point the clash with the Church.

Mabel Strickland was at her father’s side from the time she came of age, stayed there until he died and took over the mantle, perhaps with bigger success in publishing terms but far less in those political.

I experienced her style and friendship first hand between 1962 and 1966 when we were MPs, both in opposition – I on the Labour side and she wending her lone course, indefatigably opposed to Dom Mintoff in the first instance, less so to her old foes, the Nationalists.

She might not have achieved much in direct political terms, but the influence of the Strickland newspapers was indubitable. Lord Strickland was convinced early on that a political party had to have its newspaper in order to repeat and repeat its message.

To that aim, he ventured forth with Il Progress, which soon had The Times of Malta as a regular supplement. He bought what is now Strickland House in St Paul’s Street – numbers 341, 342 and 343 – on March 13, 1930, on Mabel’s behalf, out of a loan of £5,564 18s. 6d. provided by Lady Strickland. A far cry from what Allied Newspapers must have paid to acquire their new premises on the Mrieħel bypass.

Turned into a fully-fledged daily newspaper in 1935, The Times (‘of Malta’ was dropped when Prime Minister Dom Mintoff subjected to government regulation the use of ‘Malta’ in a name) grew to dominate the daily scene, as it still does.

Strickland House withstood the ravages of World War II. It was burnt down by officially unidentified Labour thugs in October 1979. They gave the Labour government a bad name, despite an abject letter of regret by Prime Minister Mintoff to Mabel Strickland.

But they did not kill off Strickland House. It rose phoenix like out of the ashes.

Its newspapers no longer operate for a political party. They are still perceived to be anti-Labour on balance, but effectively lead the way in the manner they opened their letters and opinion columns to contributors of contrasting opinions.

Always a man of the left, I am an example of that. I have written regularly in The Times and The Sunday Times for an unbroken 22 years and, moreover, not a single word of mine has ever been censored.

Malta has come a long way from the 1920s, with an ugly repetition of the 1930s’ politico-religious dispute in the 1960s, one whose story has not yet been written. That of the 1930s has been well covered. Aquilina visits it plus much more in a contribution which makes riveting reading throughout.

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