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The ghosts of Strait Street

The language of Valletta streets in the 1950s, particularly in the ‘Duwi Balli’ area, had its own peculiarities. People spoke of the ‘xo pirto’ (shore patrol), and the ‘loggin aws’ (lodging house). Restaurants in Strait Street served fish and chips, Oxo, or steak and kidney pudding with chips.

The seedy past of Strait Street is being glamorised. It is almost surprising that nobody has yet called for it to be officially recognised as part of Malta’s national heri­tage. It already has its own artistic director.

Heritage helps people to understand who they are, to create their special identity. People select what should be preserved, and what can be discarded. These decisions are not always rational or consistent, as heritage is also built on emotions.

People infuse heritage with patriotism, national identity, tourism and nostalgia. It is sometimes a mixture of fact and myth. Heritage is an experience.

Historian David Lowenthal points out that heritage attempts to clarify the past, in order to give it a present purpose. The study of history, on the other hand, attempts to explain the past. History can be a frustrating and alien place, where facts are hard and inscrutable, unlike the warm and fuzzy world of heritage.

The bars of Strait Street were boarded up for many years, with their names becoming a kind of urban legend – Egyptian Queen, Silver Horse, White Star, Cairo, Blue Peter, and so many more dives that once thrived there. They are now being revived, to general rejoicing.

The popular television series Strada Stretta, which started in October, is a period drama that thrives on costume, furnishings and clichés.

Besides the Disneyworld fun, there is also the not-so-glamorous true history of Strait Street. Some of the protagonists are still alive to tell the tale.

While the old bars and buildings are interesting, it is the real human stories that are captivating – the ambitions, hopes, fears and joys of people who devised ways to make ends meet in a poverty-stricken corner of Valletta in the first half of the 20th century.

George Cini has just published his second volume of Strada Stretta, featuring interviews with former barmaids, bar owners, prostitutes and musicians who worked in Strait Street.

There was money to be made in the bars, but there was also hardship.

These two fascinating books capture memories of Strait Street in its heyday, narrated by an assorted group of survivors. They present a community that goes well beyond the bars into the daily and mundane street life of the lower end of Valletta, near the Biċċerija and Triq tal-Franċiżi.

While the old bars and buildings of Strait Street are interesting, it is the real human stories that are captivating

Cini’s interviews provide a valuable record of the Maltese spoken there after the war, featuring odd English phrases picked up from foreigners who frequented the shops and bars.

Business dropped once the British forces left Malta, and one by one the bars and restaurants closed down.

The nostalgia for this street therefore revolves around Malta’s colonial past. This is the odd bit, as one might have expected some reaction from purists against glorifying a time when desperately poor and vulnerable Maltese women were exploited by British and American men. But there you go, it is fun and entertaining.

The charm of Strait Street is that, in the midst of hardship, a downtrodden side of Valletta offered music and dance, cheap glamour, frills, song and hairspray. This was a make-believe and shiny world with a very tough and rough core. Above all, it provided a livelihood.

Besides virtues and vices, the story features a way of life that has vanished.

History is not only built on grand masters, knights and queens, with everything else whitewashed over. The story of people scraping by, with hardly a spare cent to live on, is just as real.

From the start, Cini reveals his sympathy for the protagonists of his story. He says frankly that he admired their warm hearts and their willpower to withstand life’s difficulties.

He relates that he lived close by in Valletta as a young boy, but his mother and grandmother would warn him not to pass through Strait Street on his way to Christian doctrine lessons. Obviously, this made him even more curious about this world of English-speaking sailors and outgoing girls which was more than the fertile imagination of a young boy could bear.

Once Cini began his interviews for a series of articles in the Times of Malta around 10 years ago, he was hooked. His early curiosity has presumably been satisfied, as has that of many others who, like myself, remember the boarded-up bars over decades, and would hear hushed whispers about what once went on there.

At first, Cini encountered resistance. The people who worked in Strait Street did not want to talk about it. They feared it might reflect badly on them, or on their children. As they opened up and began to narrate their stories, the memories flooded in.

Life was hard, but they also loved the thrill, the music and fun of the bars. Everyone knew each other, and many families were inter-married. Their lives have now changed completely, time moves on, and the new bars do not share the world of the old.

petracdingli@gmail.com

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