‘Malta is our spiritual home’
They fell in love with post-war Malta half a century ago and keep returning to look for the places they once called home.
But although they believe the warm Maltese character withstood the test of time, their “spiritual home” has changed drastically over the past few decades.
“I couldn’t believe it when I saw all those cars on the road. I expect the island to collapse under all that weight at any time,” Lindy Cansdale, 74, laughs.
Ms Cansdale, who used to do office work for Nato in Floriana, forms part of a group of 33 former British forces recruits that have returned to explore the island, just like they used to do when they came in the 1950s.
“We had the best Malta back then,” 79-year old Barbara Gough says. “We loved it, so we’re a bit disappointed at all these new buildings that have cropped up across the island.
“We all prefer the old Malta... and the old buildings,” she says nostalgically as she reminisces about women washing clothes on the Sliema Front and people making the sign of the cross in front of holy niches.
“But one thing we’re happy about is that we haven’t been bitten by a mosquito yet! Back then we’d have to sleep with a mosquito net to keep those pests away,” she adds.
The topic of mosquitoes – and other insects – crops up from time to time as seven members of the Lascaris (Malta) Association reminisce over post-war Malta in the lobby of their Sliema hotel.
The association was set up in 1989 in the UK to reunite communicators who worked at the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean Fleet’s Communications Centre in Lascaris buildings.
Over the years, it welcomed all Royal Navy branches, Royal Air Force, British Army and The Crown people who served in Malta. They meet once a year in different parts of the UK and organise trips to the island every two years.
Jim Goode, 77, takes care of a newsletter sent to about 200 members scattered worldwide.
“Malta is our spiritual home... We keep coming back,” he says, recalling a less crowded and quieter island.
Harry Burgon, 79, from Kent, insists that “nothing beats our Malta”.
Mr Burgon, who was stationed on Manoel Island as an electrician, speaks passionately about the country.
“Don’t you dare criticise Malta or you’ll find some old British man like me, who used to live here, who will give you a good spanking,” he laughs.
But he too seems disappointed that the Malta he knew is disappearing bit by bit.
“We used to buy 11 beer bottles for the equivalent of a euro... Most of the bars have gone now and so have our Maltese friends,” he reminisces.
Mr Burgon met his wife Lee in Malta.
“Something that really stands out is the different outlook on dress code morals,” Mrs Burgon, a former communicator at Lascaris, says.
The 72-year-old woman remembers other Maltese women donning the għonnella and having to wear scarves around their head or waist to be allowed into churches.
Ms Gough butts in: “Only the other day, we saw two foreign girls in a shop wearing just a bikini. Back then, we weren’t even allowed to go out sleeveless.”
She was married in Malta and lived in Pietà for a couple of years. She remembers “big riots” in the late 1950s.
“We had Maltese people coming for us... I recall crowds heading to British people’s houses, breaking their window panes, while, on the other hand, our Maltese neighbours stood guard and looked out for us.”
But these incidents did not kill her love for the island. Her eyes glow when she speaks about her “Maltese adventures”.
She recalls “dancing under the stars” at the Phoenicia Hotel and escapades to Strait Street, in Valletta, which was known as The Gut.
“All the men used to go to The Gut but women weren’t supposed to venture out there,”she winks.
Just up the road from Strait Street was the equivalent of today’s Sliema Front. Kingsway (known today as Republic Street) was a meeting point for young people.
Bernice Harnby believes the best dancing club was the Vernon, which stood where the Central Bank building in Valletta is now.
The 79-year old former telegraphist and teleprinter remembers a Malta where you could get “tight” (the equivalent of drunk) with just six pence.
Ms Harnby has the fondest memory of the island. She recalls the day in May of 1954 when Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh came to Malta for a three-day visit on the royal yacht Brittania.
“I can see it now. I was looking down at the vessel in Grand Harbour and a small Prince Charles in a yellow coat was playing on the deck with Princess Anne.”
The royal family was welcomed by the naval forces but little did Mrs Harnby know that her future husband, Roland, was in one of the submarines.
Now 83, radio mechanic Mr Harnby met his future wife on a day trip to Comino.
They even called their house in the UK Cominotto.
Comino was, back then, “absolutely gorgeous”. With just a goat herd and “beautiful silver sand” the place was idyllic.
However, to their dismay, the island is now crowded with vessels and people and the sand seems to have disappeared in the sea.