Malta Diary 1. The Straight and Narrow Strait Street in Valetta
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), 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 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, mostly thanks to the British military. Valletta’s Grand Harbour throughout the decades teemed with Royal Navy cruisers and destroyers and 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 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 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.
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.
HOWEVER, there may yet be life for the old dog. Valletta will be Europe’s Centre of Culture in 2018 and the organising Chairman Jason Micallef last week 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.
Strait Street may yet return to the glorious days of the straight and narrow.