Songs from the heart, tales from the gut | George Cini

George Cini guides us through his vivacious history of Strait Street, now republished in an English-language version.

George Cini: “The original edition sold well, which surprised me a bit at first, truth be told”
George Cini: “The original edition sold well, which surprised me a bit at first, truth be told”

"How's The Gut?"

From London to Moscow and beyond, this is, if journalist and lecturer George Cini's word is to be taken at face value, a question posed to many a Maltese traveller.

The Gut, of course, refers to Strait Street - Valletta's once-notorious entertainment spot, which made many a WWII serviceman happy as they ventured into its dark recesses to ply themselves with drink and, if they were lucky, the occasional local girl.

It's a story that's easy to romanticise. But as Cini himself has discovered, on penning a work on the subject, the reality of Strait Street in its heyday - encompassed roughly from WWII to the 1970s, and delivered to Cini through candid one-on-one interviews with some of the Streets key movers and shakers - doesn't really do all that much to deflate the romance...

Cini's colourful slice of anecdotal history, 'Strada Stretta: The Gut Which For Many Years Lit Up Valletta' has now been translated into English by the author himself.

During a loquacious conversation in which the veteran journalist (and former Valletta resident) betrays his still-brimming passion for the subject, he tells me that he was egged on to translate the book into English, gradually.

"Given the 'dual' language situation we live in, some people confessed to me that they'd rather read the book in English. So eventually, I thought it was something of a logical step... even though you inevitably lose a lot in translation, which was pertinent to this book because I wanted to replicate the speech patters and idiosyncrasies of my interviewees as best I could."

But linguistic convenience isn't the only reason that Cini sought out to broaden the book's reach.

Because the fact is that Strait Street stands as a lively curiosity in Malta's history. And the legacy of its many protagonists still lives on in their families.

"The original edition sold well, which surprised me a bit at first, truth be told. I'd ask people - especially younger people who would not have had any direct contact with the history of the Street at all - 'why do you want to buy this book?"

Cini chuckles at this disarming apparent lack of any skills at self-promotion.

"A young man came to my launch in Gozo and told me he was getting the book for his girlfriend. 'What are you doing that for?' I asked him. 'She'll probably just hit you with it!' But he said: 'well it's a fascinating story... and whenever I asked people they seem to shy away from it'."

And indeed, it's a story replete with prostitutes, cross-dressers, drag artistes and bohemian musicians - the like of which would probably make excellent fodder for any recorder of the darker, seedier (but still lively) side of life - it's not that hard to picture a Jack Kerouac penning an ode to Strait Street too...

But if some appear slightly ashamed about their antecedents' involvement in this hedonistic panoply of wartime decadence, Cini discovered that just as many are proud of their 'Gut cred'.

"In the same way as some people would proudly announce that 'my grandfather was a general in the Second World War', so people who are descended from bar owners, musicians or performers from Strait Street speak of them fondly... they're happy about their Strait Street 'lineage'.

"It was curious for me to discover, also, that a lot of people who seem to be working in catering and hotel management today are in fact descended from bar owners, waiters, chefs who were around Strait Street back in the day. And most of them were barely aware of this connection before I mentioned it to them, and they would say, 'wow, you're right actually...'"

Because despite its romantic veneer, it shouldn't escape our attention that Strait Street was also - economically speaking - a success story. And though tales of prostitution are the real headline-grabbers, Cini is quick to point out that prostitution was illegal at the time.

"Even if you agree to sleep with a girl for money after you've met her in a bar, you could only do it after the bar closes. Above all, Strait Street was an entertainment hub. You have to picture the scene: these sailors will be coming over after months at sea, where they would be placed in tight-knit, exclusively male communities. So naturally they'd be very eager to have a good time with women, those who liked women, of course..."

In fact, the mere presence of a girl at the door was enough to lure eager servicemen to the bar. According to Cini, feminine wiles even made it easy for the bar to charge extortionate prices.

"The British, especially, would have this 'live and let live' attitude, you know. At that point, after you've been at sea for so long and have just received your wage, you wouldn't be all that cautious about how you spend it..."

Another ingredient to Strait Street's success - when compared to other wartime ports, even in the Mediterranean - was, simply, it's accessibility.

"The naval officers would have to report back to their ship at 8am each morning - otherwise their pay get snipped, and so does their leave. Which was why Valletta was convenient. They could simply hop on to a cab in the morning, stop at the (recently restored) Barrakka lift, which would leave them at Marsamxett."

So is that spirit truly gone for good? Yes, would be Cini's short answer, but the gradual revival of Strait Street as something of night time spot gives him hope that a memory of the street will at least remain.

"The Tico Tico bar re-opening is a good sign for example," he says.

"Strait Street needs to take on a new form now, but it should continue to exist as a symbol of its heyday..."