Malta Diary A trip down Memory Lane – and what it’s like to be a long distance runner!
My late father Frank was a British serviceman (RAF) and unique in the sense he was the only Maltese national who originally joined RAF Malta but was promoted to Officer Rank (first Pilot Officer, then Flying Officer and finally Flight Lieutenant) in the British RAF. This turned out to be a highly determining factor in the lives of my younger brother Edward and myself. Suffice to say that by the age of 16 I had attended no less than 11 different schools and changed homes 11 times too – a long distance run of practically no permanence.
Of origin we are a Sliema (Malta) family. When I was born in 1946, dad was in the RAF stationed at RAF Luqa (Malta) and my birth apparently brought him luck because the day before I was born he was promoted to Flight Sergeant, still aged 24! I was born in St Julian’s in what then was a very rare private maternity clinic but we lived in Gzira at D’Argens Junction on Savoy Hill where my brother Edward was born, exactly two-and-a-half years to the day after my birth.
Frank was offered the chance to undergo a UK training course at Swanton Morley with the unique chance of being promoted to Pilot Officer and relocating to the British RAF, which he accepted and in which he succeeded. However, at the time, relocating totally to the UK seemed daunting and he resigned from the RAF and took up a teaching post in Malta and later became General Secretary of the Malta Union of Teachers.
Thus came my first school experience aged four, accompanying him to the Sliema Boys’ Primary School in Depiro Street – of which I have quite vivid recollections, running around in the playground playing football and sitting in his classroom drawing all sorts of odd things while he taught the older boys.
When he took up the General Secretary post I started nursery school in earnest at the St Monica School in Gzira and shortly after the Sisters of Egypt School for young children at Hamrun. Many, many years and travels later I met and courted my future wife ‘Tilde and was surprised to know we had attended the same school. She showed me a picture and – lo and behold! – we were in the same class and had our Confirmation conferred on the same day in the school chapel.
That was 51 years ago – and we are still in the same class today and will remain until death do us part.
Then in 1953 (which I also recall vividly as being the Coronation Year of Queen Elizabeth II because of all the badges and flags we were given and the ‘patriotic’ songs we had to sing, including ‘God Save The Queen’) my father decided that with two young boys he could not make any economic headway in Malta and nothing could beat a British education for his young boys.
He applied and re-joined the RAF.
In January 1954, amply saddened by floods of family tears, we boarded a BEA Elizabethan passenger aircraft and began our lengthy saga of many years, heading for London Airport (as it was then and not today’s plush Heathrow).
A few days before our departure a BEA Comet had crashed nearby in the Mediterranean Sea causing a number of deaths, a centre of all discussions at the time (but without real meaning for us as boys although we heard all the conversations) and a cause of great concern to all those travelling.
We took off in hushed silence and as the aircraft climbed to gain height, in an extremely loud and innocent voice my brother Edward blurted out for all to hear, “When are we going to crash?” The outbreak of groans was highly audible with passengers crossing themselves and muttering their prayers. In those days a fair percentage of passengers were priests and nuns and while priests frantically thumbed their missals and nuns nervously and fervently recited their rosary beads, my father quietly assured him we would not be crashing!
After a stop-over in Nice we landed in London and it of course was raining and bitterly cold – what else in January in England? We boarded a red double-decker London bus and through rain splattered windows watched the London lights in wonder at all these new experiences.
I was seven years old.
Eventually, we reached Barry Road in East Dulwich and entered number 22, the home of the Maltese families Formosa and Cassar my father had made friends with years earlier when in England and there I saw my first-ever television, a small black and white screen in a wooden cabinet and a large glass lens placed in front of the screen to magnify the screen picture. Wonder of wonders – the large cinema screens I had seen previously squeezed into this by comparison small wooden box!
We then progressed to 260 Barry Road and the Maltese Micallef family where my father had arranged accommodation for us because they were directly related to the family at number 22 and also firm friends of my father.
And hence, the long distance run began as I commenced my first school in England, the St Francis Roman Catholic Primary School in East Dulwich, London. My faint knowledge of the English Language then was limited to “yes” and “no, “please” and “thank you” and “good morning” and “good night” – and a few nursery rhymes.
However, as a child in a “needs, must” situation I rapidly became linguistically able in English and immensely enjoyed Friday afternoons at this school, an afternoon devoted to indoor games, board games, charades and play-acting.
Months later we relocated to Bedfordshire as my father was posted to RAF Cardington and we lived in Goldington Green for some months before moving to Cardington Camp and Shortstown and I relocated to Cardington School Village Primary where my form teacher was the kindly Miss Page and the headmistress the equally kindly Miss Cook….such memories and recollections….their giving special attention to ‘our dear Maltese boys’, my brother and I.
In 1956 dad Frank was posted to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus to help in the coordination of bombing raids over Suez. Cyprus then was in the midst of Eoka terrorist freedom-fighting upheavals for Independence, a posting that almost caused my mum a nervous breakdown, even though we remained at Shortstown. When he returned he assured us that at no time had he been in any danger. The Cypriots on the camp knew he was Maltese and gave him a ‘guarantee’ that at no time would he be a target! “You are one of us – our brother” they told him.
And then – bliss – he was posted to RAF Ta’ Qali in Malta and we returned home and I went to school number 7 at RAF Luqa Primary School and progressed to school number 8 at the Royal Naval School at Tal-Handaq – that is five different schools in four years!
Needless to say, being a Maltese boy whose dad was an RAF Officer, among so many British children at two British services schools in Malta made me a highly-favoured son of the Maltese cleaners, labourers, handymen and school bus drivers and I was treated with great respect – almost reverence – particularly by the Maltese guys who ran the school tuck shop at Tal-Handaq and gave me a load of choc bars and sweets freebies on a daily basis!
September 1959 and we headed back to England. Fortunately, my father decided a sea voyage would do us good and rather than flying we boarded the troopship SS Dilwara bound for Southampton which had reached Malta from Aden, repatriating the now defunct Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
One of my most vivid recollections was the Dilwara steaming out of the Valletta Grand Harbour, the Scottish regiment’s bagpipe and drum band playing the ‘Skye Boat Song’ as our relatives waved good bye from the bastions and as we did likewise, tears streaming down our cheeks.
As my father was temporarily posted to RAF Calshot in Southampton we lived in Herne Hill, London, residence No 9, and I continued my secondary school career at school No 9, the Strand Grammar School, in Elm Park, Road, Brixton Hill and in the meantime moved to house no 10 in Auckland Hill, West Norwood.
Another posting, and another move, this time to Lincolnshire, at Market Rasen, near my father’s posting to RAF Faldingworth and I continued my studies at the rather posh and upmarket Dr Aston Grammar School.
To my horror, Rugby Football was favoured over Association Football and my form master, the Welshman Mr Harries, always kept a rugby ball on his desk and looked down on anybody who did not play rugby as being “a sissy”.
in 1962 back to London, back to Auckland Hill and back to Strand School followed by a year at Brixton Day College and thus at the ripe old age of 16, in an eight year span, I had changed residence 11 times and been in and out of 11 scholastic institutions.
Did I suffer? Not really. I never made it to university but had undergone the university of life by the age of 16, particularly at Strand where in the Brixton element one had to be as tough as nails and where my House Master once blocked my popular nomination as Captain of the House First Eleven football team on the grounds he did not want “a perfumed Latin” as a House captain!
Still, I did win House and School Colours in the School First Eleven, despite my scoring an own-goal in my debut match for the team at which the team captain ran over to me and blurted in my ear “Oi Fenech (the Brits ALWAYS pronounced it Fenick), the point of this game is to stick the bloody ball in the other team’s net”!