It was September 1959 a typical autumn day in Malta, rather dull bathed in pale sunshine. My parents, my brother Edward and I were on the British India troop ship, the MV Dilwara. I was aged 13 at the time.
My father’s term as RAF Senior Equipment Officer at the Ta’ Qali airfield had come to an end and we had to return to the UK and resume our living there. Instead of taking a flight back to London my father had decided we should undertake “a family cruise” as the “SS Dilwara” was passing through Malta on the way to Southampton via the Suez Canal. We were to enjoy a sea voyage of between six and seven days.
On board were the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on their way back to the Scotland after their period of duty in Aden.
We had boarded the vessel the afternoon before departure to help us settle in. Vividly I remember scores of traditional Maltese “dghajsas” swarming around the ship moored at Marsa; soldiers tossed coins overboard into the sea and young boys dived off the dghajsas to delightfully retrieve them.
On the morrow, early in the afternoon the “Dilwara” steamed out of Malta’s Grand Harbour. The harbour bastions were crowded with spectators watching the sailing, and some of them were our dear relatives.
As the ship moved towards the harbour’s breakwater, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ Pipe and Drum Band struck up the tune of “The Skye Boat Song”. Clinging to the railings and waving, our eyes were emotionally filled with tears. The tune has remained etched on my mind ever since.
The sea journey was one of wonders for my eyes. Daily, there were two hours of schooling for us children and the ship docked for a few hours in Gibraltar enabling us to explore the rock. Finally, we sailed into Southampton Harbour with the Pipe and Drums Band playing again. The train journey from Southampton to London – in pouring rain under grey skies – was a sobering one.
We took up residence in Norwood Road between Herne Hill, Tulse Hill and Norwood and in later years when I began reading Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes I was fascinated that together with Brixton, these areas were Sherlock’s stamping ground for many of his adventures!
As I had successfully passed the then Eleven Plus exam, I was consigned to Strand Grammar School in Elm Park between Brixton and Streatham, along Streatham Hill, a school under the patrimony of King’s College, the only Maltese boy among 500 other boys. Later I was to learn that the Strand Old Boys included Fabian of Scotland Yard and the famed disc jockey David Jacobs. Additionally, a team of scholars from Strand had deciphered a very intricate Nazi code during World War II.
I soon became known as “Malt” or “Malteser” – my greatest attribute being that (a) I was an avid soccer fan (b) I was a good footballer and (c) at the time I was a good goalkeeper but then reverted to playing as left back.
I was consigned to Salisbury House (yellow colour) and was immediately drafted into the house team and the Strand Under-15 team. Later I went on to play for the Strand Second XI and even more gloriously the Strand First XI.
Sadly, as a Fifth Former, I had a put-down. The Salisbury House Master was a Mr Packington, who was known as “Mum” because every sentence he delivered ended with his “mmmm …” expression. That is, “we will now move to the mid-term report … mmmm …”
At the start of the new scholastic year the House had to appoint the Captain of its soccer First Eleven and the boys clamoured it should be me. “Mmmm” disagreed and said “no, no, no, we cannot have a perfumed Latin as the captain of our House team mmmm”. I was consigned to Vice Captain and the boys disagreed.
Many years later, the boy, Walton, who was designated Captain, met a former Old Boy who had remained as a great friend of mine. He sent me his very best regards and an apology that he had been unfairly designated Captain and I relegated to Vice Captain.
My dearly, dearly beloved maternal grandmother Giovanna, who loved me to bits, knowing my fanaticism for association football and my devotion to our home team in Malta, Sliema Wanderers, diligently sent me weekly newspaper cuttings of local football reports. When these did not arrive it meant that our Sliema had lost and she spared me the anguish!
My equally dearly beloved in-law Uncle Edwin Bowman (he was married to my mother’s sister Annie) and was also my Godfather, sent me Maltese grammar books to study and with the help of my father I studied Maltese on my own and later obtained my Maltese GCE ‘O’ Level without having attended one formal lesson.
My father bought a new house in Auckland Hill, West Norwood, London but shortly after we moved in we relocated to Market Rasen in Lincolnshire because my RAF officer father was stationed at nearby RAF Faldingworth and my dear mother Pauline was finding it difficult to cope with two growing teenage boys – my brother Edward and I.
I was consigned to the very formal De Aston Grammar School in Market Rasen where my Welsh form master took an immediate dislike to me.
On the first day he asked me “what do you play boy, rugby or football?” He was an avid rugby fanatic.
I immediately answered “football” – and that immediately relegated his perception of me to zero.
Being Maltese, we were a novelty in the village famous for its Market Rasen Racecourse. However, many of the boys had RAF fathers and had at some time or other spent time in Malta and I was naturally accepted as “one of the boys” – although one had the cheek to say I came from “an island of goats and stone walls”.
Again, I excelled on the football field rather than in my academic studies. On one occasion, I was aged 15 at the time, I was playing for my house team in my usual left back position. The ball was volleyed over our goalkeeper Jenkins on towards the net and I rushed in and cleared it with a spectacular overhead kick. There were shouts of “continental football!”
The De Aston headmaster was watching the game together with a number of masters. He stopped the match and walked onto the pitch and shook my hand!
This had a plus side for me. It was the custom that during lunch, the students were set around house tables of about ten boys around the table. The lower form boys had to act as waiters, clearing away plates and delivering plates with lunch to the senior boys. The head of our table was goalkeeper Jenkins.
When it came to my turn to act as waiter he promptly said “not you – you are too valuable on the football field to do these chores”. From that day onward I enjoyed the privileges of senior boys!
Sometimes I dream of these memories – a young Maltese boy growing up in England.
“Oh where; where has that time gone?”
A rueful expression and thought on past experiences.
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