Wanted: a new generation at the Casino Maltese

Wanted: a new generation at the Casino Maltese

The Republic Street institution needs fresh blood

The exclusive club in Republic Street is looking for new members. Kristina Chetcuti finds out about the history of this hallowed place whose vitality its president would like to revive.

The Casino Maltese was born out of a sheer sense of competition. Wait. Perhaps we ought to rephrase that. It was the result of a pure grudge. A sideways toss of the head, raised eyebrows, tsk-tsk utterances, and a “Right. You’re asking for it!”

In the 1830s, nearly two centuries ago, at lunchtime, or after work, our colonial masters would congregate in their very own ‘lavish club’, the prestigious Union Club in Auberge de Provence – what is now the National Museum of Archaeology in Republic Street. This club was open strictly to British members only and in a very Largest-Empire-of-the-World manner, the Maltese were excluded. Even Sir Adrian Dingli, the Crown Advocate, who was in all but name the Governor of Malta, always found the doors slammed in his face.

Did the Maltese pass by the Union Club, shrug, and head to the nearest drinking hole? Not at all. “If power is there, the Maltese want to be there,” says Judge Giovanni Bonello who has recently edited The History of the Casino Maltese, the first ever documentation of its kind. “It was a big snub not to be allowed to mix with the owners of Malta.”

Twenty years later, in 1852, they came up with a solution. A “silent and dignified assertion of national identity” was declared and the Casino Maltese opened its doors for the first time, with the founders announcing: “We welcome everyone here except those who are members of the Union Club.”

The truth, of course, was that they did not really welcome everyone. If my great-grandfather, who was a sailor in the merchant navy, had tried to join, he would have been met with a blank look. If the shopkeeper down Strada Reale wanted to join, he would not have been allowed either. It was an elite club and not even the nouveau riche were allowed to infiltrate. Not that my great-grandfather or the shop keeper would even have protested either – it was a time when social classes were clearly delineated and everyone knew that you had to be a ‘pulit’ – of certain social polish – to be embraced at the Każin Malti. Hence the club was home to Sir Augustus Bartolo, Olof Gollcher, Sir Ġorġ Borg, Sir Harry Luke, Sir Hannibal Scicluna, Sir Arturo Mercieca, Sir Ugo Mifsud and the like.

READ: Rare embroidered binding found at National Library

The club’s motto was ‘Omnibus Idem’ (the same to all), which according to Judge Bonello, was Orwellian doublespeak at its best. “The Club did not, until relatively recently, enjoy a lusty reputation for treating all persons equally. Social barriers and behavioural prejudices then ensured inequality remained hale and tangible. Maybe the motto meant that, provided a man joined the Club, then he enjoyed freedom from discrimination,” he says in his typical wit.

A pax Brittanica of sorts was more or less reached in the 1930s, when the Union Club and the Casino Maltese brokered an arrangement: 30 members from each club could join the other. And after that, once the competition was no more, things relaxed, and the Casino Maltese entered into its heyday – with its premises becoming a fertile ground for political ideas.

“Officially the Casino Maltese never did and can never take sides,” says current president Louis Borg Manché. But, with the greatest minds of the islands flocking to the club’s reading room to hang out socially, the ambiance was a catalyst for political ideas. It was a place where intelligentsia met. Let’s face it, you can’t have had Nerik Mizzi and Ugo Mifsud in the same room only for them to talk about tea and biscuits.

The Casino, now in its dignified quarters in Republic Street, opposite the Biblioteca, also used to hold stately dinners and thanks to Albert Ganado’s study of the club’s honorific menu cards we get a sneak peek into fine dining of times gone by: Ris de veau, filets de boeuf, bécasses aux cresson, soufflé d’orange, foie gras en aspic, crème glace vanilla.

The peak of the club’s social function, according to Mr Borg Manché, was the 1960s. That was the time when all lawyers rushed from court to have their break at the club, togas on their arms, discussing their court cases. Other members came from the university campus – then based in Valletta – and from major firms and companies which, pre-traffic and parking problems, still operated from the city.

“It was one of those places where you wanted to be seen,” says Judge Bonello. Something which possibly sowed the seeds of social envy and at some point in the 1960s and 1970s, the Casino Maltese became a sort of anti-socialist symbol. “Who, among the older members, forget the dismayed shiver that ran through listeners when a left-wing prime minister, not renowned for his partiality to gracious living, walked in front of the Casino and said in the loudest of stage whispers ‘we will take this from them, demolish it and build flats for the workers in its stead’,” says Judge Bonello, in a clear reference to Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. Luckily those loudly whispered words never materialised and the club continued to enjoy its popularity.

The Casino’s Carnival Ball was the apex of social life. “People planned the Carnival Ball a year in advance. This was way before you could tire your legs out in Paceville every night – the Ball was the only time in the whole calendar year where you could dance and were not frowned upon.”

Other aspects in the history of the club throw light on society at the time. Women were initially banned, then in the 1960s they were confined to one room – not the reading room though, where the daily newspapers and any political discussion would have been too much for their delicate nature. Today, without anyone having had to burn their bras, women enjoy full membership status and can join in the fray of the daily debates.

“Every day at 1pm in the reading room there’s always a loud discussion and we put the world to right,” quips Judge Bonello, a member since his first lawyer days.

Up to a few decades ago, dress code was strictly formal – now it is far more relaxed, although technically you won’t be allowed in your track suit or gym gear. However, some things will never change: the grand staircase, the imposing portraits of past presidents and benefactors, the impressive balcony view of that historical time capsule that is St George’s Square. And of course, the little bell on the side tables by the sofa so you can – in the quaintest fashion – call for a waiter.

In 2018, it is no longer the ‘in’ place it was, although it still boasts 600 members. “Don’t worry, the average age is less than 100,” says Judge Bonello.

Most members are in fact in their 50s and 60s and Mr Borg Manché has made it his unrelenting cause to bring the club back to life and generate business. “It would be good if more members propose members from the younger generation.”

The premises on Republic Street, leased to the club by the government until 2054, are a monumental and historical heritage. “We need fresh young minds genuinely interested in taking care of the club and Malta’s Patrimonju,” says the president.

The membership that nearly never was

In the late 1960s, Giovanni Bonello, then a young lawyer, put forward his application to become a member of the Casino Maltese.

But because his father had been inexplicably interned to a concentration camp in Africa during the war, his request was almost blocked by an old political adversary of his father “who doggedly picketed at the door of the club during the entire voting period telling everyone entering the Casino: Don’t vote for him. He’s the son of an internee,” recalls Judge Bonello.

“Not all that many cared to listen. I still wear that as a badge of honour,” he says.

Things to look out for when you visit

Even if you are not a member, you can still have lunch at the Casino Maltese because now they have a ‘temporary lunch membership’.

While there, you can have a closer look at the noon dial which originally was shorter and narrower and marked precisely the number of hours – very handy back in the day when no one had a mobile phone stuck to the palm of their hands to check the time.

You can also check out the impressive art collection. Art historian Theresa Vella describes the fireplaces as typical highlights of the turn of the century: “Florid eclecticism and 1950s formalist Art Deco”.

Also, presidents and honorary patrons of the Casino Maltese were very particular about leaving a legacy and sought to engage the right portraitist to capture their profile, hence the Casino houses a collection of paintings by Malta’s best artists: Giuseppe Calì, Edward Caruana Dingli, Willie Apap, Esprit Barthet and Ray Pitre.

How do you become a Casino Maltese member?

You need a clean police conduct certificate, a proposer and a seconder (both have to be members of the Casino).

The application undergoes due diligence (whether you’re Maltese or foreign) and is then passed on to the Club’s Committee of Management. Some applications have been refused at this stage.

If the committee approves your application, then you need to get the vote of 51 per cent of the members who turn up for a ballot. Ballot is held three times a year. Members are sovereign – you will only be welcomed in if you get their approval.

Once a member, you get to enjoy the perks of other clubs around the world with which the Casino Maltese is affiliated.

The History of the Casino Maltese, published on the 165th anniversary of the Club’s foundation, charts the history of the club through the contribution of established researchers. It is available for sale from the Casino Maltese, tel. 2123 4556.

Comments not loading? We recommend using Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox with javascript turned on.
Comments powered by Disqus