MALTA DIARY: FASCINATION WITH VALLETTA’S STRADA STRETTA (STRAIT STREET) LINGERS ON … was it a state within a state?
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The small island of Malta has a hundred-and-one features to be associated with … prehistoric temples, a vast heritage, a chequered history, world wars and currently the wrangle between the Maltese Government and the new Italian Government over responsibility for immigrant boat landings.
Contrastingly, it seems to be most popularly associated with the notoriety of its narrow Valetta street (more an alley-way really), Strada Stretta … or otherwise, Strait Street.
One would have thought that with the gradual demise over the years of veteran British and NATO servicemen, this interest and association would ebb and gradually fade away.
That is far from the case.
Admittedly, Red Light Districts always have a fascination of their own and seem to be in eternal association with the human mentality. Many people associate London with Soho, Rome with Via Veneto, Amsterdam with ladies in box show windows and Hamburg with the Reeperbahn – made more famous when The Beatles featured there for a number of nights in their early days.
Malta’s Strada Stretta no less; it may be the sleaze, or the sexual imagination – but, there is more to it than that. Over the years of study and research I have reached the conclusion that Strait Street was a compact State within a State and all those who earned their living there made and had their own rules and regulations – an exclusivity that could only be enjoyed by those who actually thrived within the zone.
The rule of thumb seems to have been “we are looked down upon as being a necessary but evil blight on society and community standards”, so, “leave us alone to manage on our own.”
Now that is has been revamped and given new life (MINUS the sleaze!) to become a central feature of Valletta 18, Valletta being the European Capital for Culture this year, interest has surged again, a fascination with the street’s history and its significance.
The German feature writer Lilo Solcher writing in the newspaper “Augsburger Allgemeine” and then a follow-up article in “Der Spiegel” described the street as “more of an alley that has a special history” because it always played an important role in the development of Valletta and indeed, of Malta as a whole.
Solcher met Valletta-born author, university lecturer and former journalist George Cini (a former colleague of mine in many years past) who has written two immensely popular books that have immortalised the street and are well worth a read. His first, “Strait Street Secrets” was followed by “Stories From Behind Closed Doors”.
His research and recollection is based more on the characters and the day-to-day life of the narrow street’s community and the great part they played in economic activity.
Strait Street was essentially an entertainment zone and as with all such zones had its own steamy Red Light side but was not merely that. Basically it was a string of bars and music halls with the concept of providing beer and alcohol for those that relished it, pretty girls, for providing music and entertainment and thus an escape from rigorous military life in between and after two World Wars and a time in which to drown sorrows and make merry.
Naturally, this was a magnet for British sailors and soldiers and other British military personnel and in the 1950s and 1960s included NATO forces, particularly from the US Sixth Fleet which had a great presence in Malta.
The bar staff were essentially pretty and seductive females whose duty it was to induce customers to drink as much as possible and thus supplement their meagre salary with commissions. Needless to say, some provided other services and further supplemented their income.
Many came from poor families to where the money went, sustaining enormous families when it was common for a couple to have anything from ten to 15 or 16 children.
Many Maltese entertainers began their singing or instrumental career performing there in considerably-sized jazz orchestras and as competition increased, many music halls resorted to bringing in female singers and entertainers from around Europe – mostly eastern Europe – with a number staying on and marrying locally.
With flowing beer and alcohol always available, bar brawls were common and staff had to be rough and resilient as well as patrolling policemen selected more for their brawn than their brain. British “red cap” military police were never far away to deal with their own and in my recollection US military police were quite merciless in the treatment of their own drunken personnel.
Yes, it was a tough life lived on a day-to-day basis and a continual struggle for all the authorities to maintain control and not let matters sprawl out of hand.
Solcher described Cini’s books as “representing the memory of how this street used to be. A world which has ended”.
Over and above the daily presence of thousands of sailors and soldiers, families actually lived in the street, particularly in the lower reaches with grandmotherly and motherly figures holding great sway tending to their homes and their children.
Although the narrowness of the street is almost unbelievable there was a strict code of conduct that had to be followed – mainly concerned with housekeeping and cleanliness. Particularly in summer each housewife was expected to daily sweep and wash their front-door area in exact street ratio measurement and if the woman living in the opposite residence failed to do her proper ratio she would be given what for in verbal abuse.
In the evenings, women and their children gathered to communally recite the Holy Rosary at various points before the children would be ushered in with the approach of street bar patrons. There was also great communal support between the families.
The street had a stream of characters who made their mark and were memorable. One such character was a guy Tony Psaila, nicknamed “Zalzettu” (in Maltese, ‘the sausage man’), a tattooist who did a roaring trade but had to find ways and means of smuggling in tattooing oil as this import was prohibited by law. He made his needles from old jangling door bells!
Tattooing then was not the rave it is today but most sailors relished an anchor on their arm, or wanted “mum” on their forearm or the name of a loved one.
Another character was a man known as “Il-Lubjana”, an expert in getting around Court orders who was much sought-after by bar owners when they were arraigned for regulation breaches. A common one was that of employing under-aged girls in bars and the presiding Magistrate would order a temporary bar closure as punishment. “Il-Lubjana” would pop up in Court and urge the Magistrate to order closure at a period when business was normally slower than usual!
He was also known for fixing and arranging convenience marriages, mainly of east European women facing deportation and he would find Maltese “husbands” for marriage, enabling the women to remain in Malta.
Drag artists were also extremely popular, men dressing up and performing on stage as females. These used nicknames and the more famous were “Il-Bobbie”, “Guzi tal-Cairo” (one of the more popular bars and music halls was the Cairo Bar), and “Johnny il-Golliwog”.
Needless to state, rules and regulations were continually breached left, right and centre. Normally, most breaches would be overlooked (unless of a really serious nature), fixed by back-handers willingly accepted by patrolling police!
All in all, life went on, music halls playing their jazz music, beer and alcohol flowing and cash tills ringing merrily – employment and revenue being provided for many who would otherwise be unemployable and at a time when women in employment were frowned upon for entering a male preserve.
As Solcher wrote, “a world that has ended”.
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