Malta Diary The straight and narrow Strait Street in Valletta – and the pitched “Battle of The Gut” in 1950
As requested, I have selected my favourite piece for 2014, and I think this also went down well with readers. I have added some new very interesting information and pictures.
Ask any British servicemen – mostly Royal Navy and Army – or US Navy Mediterranean Sixth Fleet sailor, stationed or passing through, about Malta up to the early 1970s and with an animated twinkle in their eye they will immediately mention “The Gut”.
By the 70s it had already began sharp decline and after 1979, when the last British and NATO servicemen left, “The Gut’s” death knell was sounded. Bars, music halls and guest houses were locked, barred and bolted and nowadays are either in a state of collapse or are heavily boarded up.
Yet for decades, the area was Malta’s precious economic lifeline in the Valletta street known as Strait Street (and unflatteringly dubbed “The Gut” by British servicemen and in Italo-Maltese known as Strada Stretta), a thoroughfare so narrow that in some areas you can touch the street’s walls on either side with outstretched hands. It is the narrowest street in the parallel patchwork of grid streets that make-up Valletta, running vertically and horizontally parallel and criss-crossing each other at perfect right angles.
That is how Knights of Malta Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette wanted Malta’s capital city Valletta built after the rout of the invading Ottoman Empire forces in 1565 and that is how it has remained. Aptly named, Strait Street is the narrowest one in the city.
In its early years it had already acquired and sealed a sullied reputation as a duelling spot for the Knights and gained a reputation as a locality for courtesans and prostitutes frequented by the supposedly celibate Knights who were as prone as anybody else to venture off the straight and narrow.
The “big bang” came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly thanks to the British military. Valletta’s Grand Harbour throughout the decades teemed with Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers together with Merchant Navy vessels transporting servicemen to and from the Suez Canal, as well as general cargo vessels.
Thus was established Malta’s main “Red Light” district as progressively Strait Street began to fill up with bars and music halls which in turn filled with female sex workers. The hustle and bustle was phenomenal. Beer and alcohol flowed like water; honky tonk pianos and bands with brass and string instruments blurted popular tunes and cash tills jingled merrily and continually.
It is popularly accepted that British crooner Frankie Vaughn took his first step to fame as a singer in one of Strait Street’s many bars when serving as a naval conscript stationed in Malta, and many Maltese singers, orchestras, trios and quartets fondly regarded the street as their starting point.
There were three categories of female economic activity. Some were barmaids, others were “hostesses” with whom one could enjoy a drink and a dance and the others were prostitutes. Hostesses worked on a commission basis – the more they danced and the more their partners sloshed back the beer, the greater their commission.
Interestingly enough, prostitutes had to undergo regular medical check-ups by the Department of Health and if they had clearance from VD and STD’s they were supplied with a metal tag which they would exhibit to prospective customers as proof of their cleanliness from disease.
Vaudeville, jazz and can-can oozed from every corner and with money flowing in, many music halls imported female singers and dancers from all over Europe, particularly Hungary, Italy, France and the Balkans.
Needless to say, Military Police and the local constabulary (selected for brawn rather than brain) were everywhere. Truncheons worked overtime and the “paddy wagon” came and went on a shuttle service. This element was further greatly exacerbated when in the late 50s and 60s NATO forces joined the British and pitch battles between American Sixth Fleet sailors, Italian and French sailors – together with the British and often with the Maltese – clashed to defend their national honour.
However, the real battle of battles still strongly etched in the brain of those who can remember, took place in 1950 and is recorded in folklore history as Strait Street’s most infamous.
Thousands of British troops were being withdrawn from Palestine where they had dealt with the front-line brutal confrontations between the newly-launched state of Israel and the start of Palestinian resistance.
These were of necessity tough and hard-grained commandos sorely deprived of female company and alcohol during their stint in Palestine. At “The Gut” they amply made up for lost time and for many months trouble had been brewing.
The residents of Valletta had over the decades become almost totally inured to troublesome occurrences but the quarrelsome demeanour of these returning commandos was more than they could bear and particularly that of one commando troop which ran amok amongst the many bars and drinking clubs.
An ad hoc meeting of bar and club owners, as well as the various minders and bouncers fashioned a “Valletta Troop” and on one early evening they formed a chain determined to bar the commandos from the street.
The result, needless to say, was bedlam. The commandos were tough, but the “Valletta Troop” was equally tough and resilient, seasoned as they were in street fighting and dealing with trouble. Pitch battles ensued over the next three nights (the local constabulary seemed “unaware” of what was happening and the British Military Police could only deal with British servicemen). Finally, the British Admiralty acted and confined all servicemen to their troop ships until the troublesome commandos sailed away.
Amongst the fiercest local individuals was one “Pawlu t-Tork” (Paul The Turk), a most interesting and endearing character. He was a gigantic man of Turkish descent who by day worked as a bread-seller pushing a large wooden trolley laden with fresh bread, the most gentle and docile of men despite his massive build. His endearing calls of “Pawlu hawn” (Paul is here) became a bye-word in Malta.
By night he was a different character and worked as a bouncer, a seasoned and accomplished street fighter who was frequently challenged by other bruisers to bare knuckle fights but always emerged victorious.
“Pawlu t-Tork” was one of the mainstays of the “Valletta Troop” and certainly played his part in the resistance movement.
With the Admiralty announcement, the “Valletta Troop” claimed victory and henceforth, the residents of Valletta became affectionately known as “Tal-Palestina” and their war cry “Tal-Palestina, hadd ma jista’ ghalina” (we are invincible and nobody can match us). Although 65 years have elapsed, the slogan is still widely used today and particularly chanted during football matches when Valletta FC is playing!
As for “Paul the Turk” he died many years ago but is still affectionately remembered as a folklore character and to those who can remember it, for his sales-pitch cry of “Pawlu hawn”.
Between 1971 and 1975 I worked with a publishing and advertising company that had its offices at 60A Strait Street but by then the hey-days were over and widespread dilapidation was vastly evident and many commercial outlets had already closed down.
Still, there may yet be life in the old dog. Valletta will be Europe’s Centre of Culture in 2018 and the organising Chairman Jason Micallef has vowed that a whole restoration programme is to be mounted on Strait Street with the intention of turning it into Valletta’s “Paceville”, the locality in St Julian’s that today is the hub of Malta’s hum-drum nightlife.
HOWEVER, strict regulations have been laid down, mainly that all forms of revival must strictly adhere to the street as it used to be, the same names for the bars and clubs, the same decorations and even street advertisements have to reflect the adverts used in the 1950s. I hastily add that prostitution is NOT included in the revival plans.
Strait Street may yet return to the glorious days of the straight and narrow