The Mintoff that I hugged
I was already 34 when I met Dom Mintoff. He was 71, no longer leader of the Malta Labour Party or Prime Minister. In a single week in 1987, a friendship was sealed.
It was after the general election, which Labour lost. I had managed to be elected but my spirits were low.
Our leader, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, was struck by serious illness and out of action. At the then party headquarters in Cospicua, Mintoff met the parliamentarians, greeting each one individually.
He told me, “I wouldn’t have bet five liri on your being elected!” I replied with a smile that could mean many things. His nickname for me – he never called me John – became “Smiles” but that came later.
A short while later he addressed a mass meeting in Fgura. The unparalleled orator, who was able to make his listeners laugh and cry. I was there. Driving home, on a whim I made a detour to Tarxien and rang his doorbell.
A growling voice asked who it was. “Montalto!” In very colourful language he asked me what I wanted. Then I heard the door open. On the threshold, a backlit silhouette, Mintoff stood in his bathing trunks, arms akimbo. “This had better be urgent!”
My words tumbled out. I just wanted to thank him. We were broken and he was making us whole again. He was pleased. He called his wife (“Babs!”) and demanded I repeat what I had just said in English. After which, he invited me in for supper.
He asked me if I liked to swim and walk. The next day we went on our first swimming trip. On that occasion, he warned me that I had to be careful. If I were to become his friend, I would become a political target. “I’ve always wanted to be your friend,” I said. “I choose friendship.”
From that point, and for the next 16 years or so, I met him at least once a week (except during my 22-month stint as minister). We had a special rapport that, perhaps, can only exist when two men are almost 40 years apart in age and complete opposites in several respects.
He would often ask me to accompany him on trips abroad. I made him laugh, lent a non-judgmental ear to some of his confidential reminiscences, and he enjoyed grumbling that he had to take care of me when it should have been the opposite.
I became his lawyer. When several senior lawyers, sympathetic to his cause, advised that his Delimara case against the government was unwinnable, I disagreed and told him that I had found a legal precedent in Belgium. And we did win.
Somehow, I also became an emissary for his “missions impossible”. Some were tense but others, like the time he sent me to Archbishop Joseph Mercieca with an offer to buy the Curia building in Floriana (the plan was to convert it into a new Labour headquarters and, yes, he did gather the funds), make me chuckle helplessly till today.
In 1996, when I was facing a difficult re-election campaign, he imposed himself as my canvasser. He came down to my district and over two days conducted a surgical campaign on my behalf. It did wonders.
Mintoff has often been described as tight-fisted but my own experience was the opposite. For my 35th birthday, he invited me to Delimara, secretly invited my parents, wore a bright checked shirt I had given him, sang “Happy Birthday” and gave me a valuable set of etchings which Aldo Moro had given him. I had to be careful in saying that I liked something he had, since more often than not he would insist on giving it to me.
Our relationship had special rules. Mintoff didn’t like being touched but he let me hug and kiss him on both cheeks each time we met. He almost expected it. Once, when he bit my head off for a careless remark I made, he noticed I had lost my appetite. He gave me a squeeze, saying, “If I can’t get angry with those I love, who can I get angry with?”
I hesitate to describe our relationship as that between an uncle and nephew. It may be taken to be presumptuous. I would be happy to describe our odd couple as something only Walt Disney could invent: the unlikely, mutually protective friendship between two very different animals, an old lion king called “Perit” and an oversize cub called “Smiles”.
That’s the kind of figure we must have cut on a Parisian trip. Despite having been there several times, he had never managed to visit the major sights. I was happy to show him around and joke that he was getting glances from Parisian women. He told me what I could do with my jokes but he also came to my room in the mornings, when my head was still heavy with sleep, to share his special honeyed, milky tea from his thermos (where he recounted that the famous thermos dated back to the 1950s, when a serious attempt to poison him was made).
My enduring memory is from a Tunisia trip. He had insisted I learn how to windsurf. I was hopeless and drifted around a mile out and couldn’t get back. A strong swimmer even in his 70s, he dived into the sea, caught up and hauled me in. Growling, of course, because he loved me.
Dr Attard Montalto is a Labour member of the European Parliament.