MALTA DIARY: The antithesis of the straight and narrow – Valletta’s Strait Street – but now being restored to the path of virtue
Malta’s capital city Valletta was built in the 16th Century by the French Knight Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette who unfortunately died before witnessing the final completion of his brainchild.
Its building marked the transition of Malta’s capital cities from the old inland and fortified city of Mdina to a newly fortified sea port which de la Valette stipulated as being essential for defence against the invading Ottomans. It was built on Sciberras Hill, overlooking the Grand Harbour on one side and Marsamxett Harbour on the other, thus essentially straddling two ports always vulnerable to invasions.
Valletta was built on a grid system of vertical and horizontal lines crisscrossing each other at right angles, one of the vertical streets virtually stretching from one end to the other being the notorious Strait Street, a street so narrow in some areas that one can touch the sides of the street with outstretched hands. Hence the name ‘Strait’, in Maltese known as “Triq id-Dejqa” (the narrow street), and similarly in Italian, Strade Stretta.
In English parlance, “keeping to the straight and narrow’ signifies keeping to the path of virtue – which is far from what Strait Street actually was. Clients generally flocked there to abandon the path of straightness and narrowness, to flip over virtue and get stuck into the passions of the flesh!
Ask any British servicemen – mostly Royal Navy and Army – stationed or passing through – about Malta up to the early 1970s and with an animated twinkle in their eye they will immediately mention “Ahhhh …..The Gut”.
By the 1970s 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, although a whole renovation is currently underway.
Yet for decades, the area was Malta’s precious economic lifeline although and unflatteringly dubbed “The Gut” by British servicemen.
In its early years – as if by destiny – it had already acquired a reputation as a duelling spot for the Knights and courted 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, and the mass arrival of the British military. From the 1820s onward Valletta’s Grand Harbour teemed with Royal Navy ships – later cruisers and destroyers – and Merchant Navy vessels transporting servicemen to and from the Suez Canal, as well as general cargo vessels. Numerous army regiments were garrisoned in Malta. Later two World Wars and compulsory National Service conscription ensured an ongoing flow.
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.
The words “welcome sailor – come in and have a drink” became common street parlance. Barmaids in outrageous clothing sported their physical attributes and pimps furtively kept a close eye on their money-making assets.
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 during his National Service stint 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 and alcohol, the greater their commission.
Interestingly enough, prostitutes had to undergo regular medical check-ups and if they had clearance from VD and STD’s they were supplied with a metal tag which they would exhibit to prospective customers.
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 over 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”.
In the late 1960s there was a further inglorious incident to add to the street’s notoriety with the discovery of the dismembered body of a local prostitute, after which an American sailor was arrested and charged with her murder and dismemberment and by trial judged to be totally insane.
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.
Yet, there may still be life for 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 throughout Strait Street with the intention of turning it into Valletta’s hub for restaurants and wine bars.
Strait Street may yet return to the glorious days of the straight and narrow by actually remaining straight and narrow in virtue as well as everything else.