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Tales of sex and the capital city

Strada Stretta: It-Triq Li Darba Xegħlet Il-Belt
by George Cini
Allied Publications pp ix + 246
ISBN: 978-99909-3-156-3.

No city is complete without its no-go areas. Urbanity, or what we might call “city-ness”, needs its differences, moralities, and hierarchies, preferably living cheek by jowl. One urban legend of urbanity tells of a sign in the foyer of a Chicago (or was it San Francisco?) hotel that says “Turn right on exit”. Heed the sign and you will find yourself bang in the middle of a posh shopping district; ignore it and you risk your reputation, watch, and wallet.

George Cini is familiar with this kind of advice through his grandmother, Tona tal-Ġinġer, whose sign read “Avoid Strada Stretta”. It was the precaution of a woman keen to preserve her family’s (tal-Ġinġer) status as respectable urban working class. She was of course right, for the Valletta of the 1950s had not one but many types of working class. A slip might take a generation to fix.

It turns out her grandson has taken that risk, or maybe not quite. Mr Cini has dared to turn left, albeit in a guarded way. Writing-a-book-about and going-there are not quite the same thing (indeed it may be argued that authorship implicitly distances the object). Besides, and conveniently, the geography of morality tends not to weather history all that well.

Strada Stretta sets out to do two things. First, to give “The Gut” a fair hearing by letting it tell its own stories. Second, to take the reader back to the days of the flotta (“the fleet”, refers to warships in harbour and sailors crowding the streets of Valletta) and rescue for posterity some of the charm, sounds, and lights of the city’s most colourful street.

Mr Cini does this in a straightforward and unpretentious way (indeed this is one of the things I like about the book), by bringing us what are pretty much the transcripts of 18 interviews with some of what remains of the protagonists.

There is much richness in his materials. We learn of women from poorer families who moved to Valletta to make a living, of the charmed lives of the bar and dance-hall owners, and of the dynamics of a city living off its maritime connections.

I particularly liked the sections on music, musicians, and entertainers. The last included Rita Cordina of Ħamrun, nicknamed “Sparrow”, who apparently could do interesting things with a bottle.

The book would have benefited from a more solid introductory essay, possibly one which places Strada Stretta within the longer-term history of wine, women, and song in our capital. The section of prostitution is oddly dry and mostly an account of two murders. This exposes Mr Cini to the charge of self-censorship.

I can see why sex dare not speak its name. Much like Mr Cini’s grandmother, many of his informants (especially the women) are at pains to establish their relative respectability. When Giovanna Schembri, who ran the Morning Star dance hall, tells us that, “On the feast of St Dominic we would all go to confession” and that, “Strada Stretta was no worse than today’s Paceville,” she is making a point about morality. (After all it was apparently foreign sailors who drank the nectar.) Even so, I came away feeling that maybe Mr Cini hasn’t quite turned left after all.

The book gains from a number of photographs of people and places. Some are period, others more recent (regrettably, not many are accurately dated). Three photographs particularly struck a chord.

That of it-triq tal-Franċiżi reminds us how radically Valletta has changed in 50 years. The 1950s interior of Larry’s Bar is as evocative as it is well-preserved – one hopes it will not go the way of the gorgeous Salvo’s Bar in Floriana, destroyed a couple of years ago to make way for yet another pastizzeria. My favourite is that of Nina, photographed at her tenement. Nina has a Sophia Loren-like raw voluptuousness about her – no wonder she was so sought-after by American servicemen.

There are also a number of watercolours by Paul Caruana and which I found a tad folksy and sanitised. The good thing about them is that Mr Caruana is himself very much rooted in the “lower” part of Valletta. So perhaps they ought to be read as a rendition of childhood as laundered by adult nostalgia.

My quibbles notwithstanding, I can well figure why Strada Stretta is flying off the shelves. Mr Cini has come up with an eminently readable and enjoyable book, one that will go down well especially with people whose family roots go back to Valletta. It may not be terribly thorough, but then The Gut was all about a bit of fun – with or without a bottle – in the first place.

• Dr Falzon is head of the Department of Sociology, University of Malta.

This book is available at Word for Word.

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