Walking down Strait Street... yet again

When George Cini first published a volume of interviews on Valletta’s tumultuous former red light district, he could not have imagined it to be the modern nightlife hub it is today. TEODOR RELJIC catches up with him as a slimmed-down, revised version of the book, ‘Strait Street: Secrets and Stories from behind Closed Doors’ hits the shelves

George Cini: “Today’s visitors do not see the vibrant, noisy, indecent and, at times, rowdy backdrop of yesteryear”
George Cini: “Today’s visitors do not see the vibrant, noisy, indecent and, at times, rowdy backdrop of yesteryear”

What lay behind your impulse to put together a book on Strait Street?

The enigmatic alley which has been tossed in the tumultuous waves that buffetted Valletta throughout its history, had a great story to tell. In 2004, when I set out on this voyage in search of ‘gold’ along this famous narrow strip, I couldn’t find anything in book form nor on the internet.

And to make matters worse, Strait Street looked like a deserted film set while the stars of the show had either dimmed or lost their sheen forever.

The only sources available were the surviving ‘actors’ who had toiled along this entertainment hub. And that’s where I noted the nuggets glittering in the fading light. So I started in earnest to record their rendition of how they saw life on the street and how it ebbed and flowed with the fortunes that came the island’s way.

The book ‘Strait Street: Secrets and Stories from behind Closed Doors’ is a collection of interviews with the survivors who had sweated and toiled to earn a living from the services that the street offered. A street synonmous with barmaids, live music, food, drink and lodging houses.

The street had lodged itself into the psyche of most servicemen who served in Malta. In time, the shenanigans that were part and parcel of life down ‘the Gut’ as the British had christened it, became a colourful part of their collective memory.

Strait Street has become a flagship project of Valletta's 'regeneration'
Strait Street has become a flagship project of Valletta's 'regeneration'

Since the publication of the first edition of the book, Strait Street has become something of a flagship project of Valletta’s on-going “regeneration”, with an exciting overhaul and exploration of its potential being put back on the cards on the one hand, while the risks of gentrification are also part of that process. What do you make of all these changes, and how do they tally with your research and experience of Strait Street?

While Strait Street is enjoying a renaissance, today’s visitors do not see the vibrant, noisy, indecent and, at times, rowdy backdrop of yesteryear. And the reason for this is simple to understand. The street lived on the free flowing cash of seamen and soldiers who were ‘dying’ to have a good time. It was a supply supported by the demand of thousands of servicemen flocking to the street as if on a pilgrimage to a miraculous shrine.

Strait Street which knows its beginning as an entertainment centre to the late 19th century started to feel the cold wind of change after WWII and particularly in the mid-fifties. The latter years saw the triumphant introduction of the jukebox and the frenetic sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, which left its mark on the live music culture of the time. The rot continued with the run-down of the British services in the sixties and the demise was not too far behind, but for a short break with the arrival of American members of the Sixth Fleet on their way to and from the war in Vietnam.

As the revival of Valletta and the long overdue makeover of its public and private buildings and monuments gained momentum, gentrification set in. Property which had lain desolate for decades was injected with a new lease of life and in the process, prices went sky high.

This has made it impossible for millenials to even think of buying an abode in the city and as the aged population dies out, it is not being replaced by younger residents. But then, how can a city retain its colour, customs and culture if it loses its residents? Therein lies the rub.

Do you think one needs to do some ‘work’ (or at least, a certain degree of mental exercise) in order to separate the reality of Strait Street from its romantic myths? And do you see any danger of excessively romanticising aspects of Strait Street? (Rowdy musical atmosphere and illicit lovemaking is one thing... endemic poverty, quite another...)

People tend to romanticise the past by imagining that life then was more enjoyable than the present. I cannot help feeling perplexed when I see somebody seemingly mesmerised by a photograph of Grand Harbour full of sail-powered ships and saying what a lovely life that must have been. They tend to forget not only the abject poverty at the time but also the lack of hygiene, good living conditions, social security and health services.

With the advent of the hugely successful series Strada Stretta on Television Malta, viewers tended to believe that the romance, conflicts and sub-plots in the series were based on what had actually taken place in Strait Street across the years.

One has to bear in mind that TV series are based on fantasy and writers have to pepper their scripts with all sorts of dramatic twists to keep viewers on tenterhooks week in, week out. Human nature being what it is, we tend to take such adaptations as the truth. To take one example, find a couple of people who have watched Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and ask them whether the film depicted what really happened in Jerusalem when Christ was crucified.

Would you be surprised if they refer to the movie as their primary source about this painful episode rather than the Biblical account?

Valletta’s older population is dying out, and rising rents are pushing the younger people away. How, then, is the city to retain its colour?

What are some of the main reasons you’ve published this new, revised edition, and what do you hope readers will get out of it?

With the crowning of Valletta as European Capital of Culture, the story of Strait Street is meant to entice the thousands of visitors who are expected to swarm to Valletta this year.

The book Strait Street: Secrets and Stories from behind Closed Doors opens a window on a world that is hard to imagine. A world that was based on allure and fascination that has ensnared in its web so many punters, artists, musicians, authors, voyeurs and dreamers. While that world is gone, the seductive pull somehow persists. The book and the street have been ‘discovered’ by Lilo Solcher, a top German travel writer who has had features published in Augsburger Allgemeine and in Der Spiegel. Another writer, Priscilla Totiyapungprasert has broadcast her impressions on the same theme on Fodor’s Travel.