Monday, January 23, 2017

For grandchildren and young adults

What was it like at the time when I was born in Valletta, Malta? I came into this world in 1936, shortly before the Second World War started. At the time there were no computers, refrigerators, washing machines, jet planes or televisions and even plastic was not yet invented. Cars were considered a luxury. At the time we did not even have a telephone. Toys were made of wood or metal. Some of my toy soldiers were made of lead, which is now considered a poisonous material. So were the points of pencils!
The year I was born was quite an eventful one. Malta, at the time, was a British Colony and part of the then vast British Empire, which included countries like Canada, a large part of Africa, Australia and India. The King of England (George V) was the head of the British Empire and so when he died that year, Malta went into mourning. My father wrote this in his diary:
“January 20: H.M (King George) passed peacefully away at 11.55 GMT. Heartrending news made known to mostly Paper boys. Then half mast flags. Schools and Public buildings closed. BBC cancelled all programs for the day. They listened to brief news bulletins, service and there was a speech by the Prime Minister. Many countries broadcast tributes to H.M. All entertainments stopped and everywhere in mourning.”
King George was succeeded by King Edward VIII (I was named after him) but shortly after, this king decided to abdicate his throne in order to marry an American. In those days he was not permitted to marry this lady and remain a king since she had already been married and divorced. His place was taken by his younger brother, King George VI. So the reason for my name no longer remained but since my second name was George, I was not completely out of royal names.
That year there was already some indication of the terrible war years to come. My father recorded this in his diary:
“March 7th: The Germans entered the demilitarized zone of the Rhine and caused a riot of comment. March 11thpm we had a mock air raid and gas raid. “The Passive defense corps” was all out. It took place in Valletta and 3 cities. All were prohibited from the streets. We started at 1.30. The maneuver lasted from 2 to 7. It succeeded. The population was scared and the people flocked out of the area to be affected.”
My father was a school teacher and got his first appointment in 1927 18 at a salary of about $250
per year. My mother was a schoolteacher too and was appointed that same time at a salary of about $150 per year! She was 17 years old. My father would continue to teach for over 50 years and during that time well over 1,500 students would have passed through his classes. His subject was mathematics. He also ran the Boy Scout Group of the School as well as the sports section which included soccer and athletics.
How did we entertain ourselves in those days? My mother came from a family of six children and they all played a musical instrument. My mother played the mandolin banjo, her sisters and brothers played the piano and the violin. The toys I remember having were a set of wooden blocks and a train set. We also had toy soldiers made of rubber or lead. We went out regularly to the Floriana gardens early in the afternoon and while my mum and dad sat on their favorite garden bench, we played tag or hide and seek among the palm trees. Occasionally we had a ball and played in the large sports ground in Floriana. We even tried our hand at cricket without much success!
I was just over three years old when World War Two started and by the time it was all over I was nine. I remember little of the early years when we lived in the top apartment on the sixth floor of Vincenti Buildings. At first we were told to shelter from bombs by hiding under a table and later on we thought it safer to go down the 113 steps and stay at the bottom of the staircase. However, as the big bombs started to fall and explode, it was clear that the only safe shelter was in the caves dug in the rocks under the ground. A bomb did fall on Vincenti buildings directly hitting our apartment on the top floor and destroying the building right down to the ground. Fortunately by that time we were no longer sheltering under the stairs but had left our home to stay with my grandparents in Floriana. Eventually, even the house in Floriana was destroyed by bombs and by then our family had to move around to other locations (Birkirkara, Sliema, St. Julans, Attard and even Gozo)
I remember when there was an air raid during the night (a siren would go off) my mother would wake us up (my brother Ronald and me) and help us put on outer clothes as we never knew how long the raid would last. Half asleep, I would then get into my pajamas to go back to bed, much to my mother’s frustration. Once down in the shelters, you could still hear the bombs falling and the loud noise of the explosions. The strong gusts of wind from the explosion were felt even down in the rock shelters under the ground and men, who always wore hats in those days, had to hold on to their hats as they would otherwise fly off.
Living in the shelter for hours and sometimes days, became a way of life in those days. There was little to do and there was a shortage of food. We had to join long queues (lineups) for milk, heating and cooking fuel (kerosene) or for a meal from the “Victory Kitchen”. This was a government organization which provided bad tasting soups, like those at the soup kitchens in the time of the American Depression. In shelters, you could hear the sound of people praying the rosary and babies crying amid the shrill sounds of bombs falling. For a while I slept in a hammock in the shelter and I once fell off it but must have been very tired as I remained asleep!
There was not much chance to go to school during the months when there were continuous bombing raids. My father often had to teach classes down in the shelters. He was also appointed a ‘Special Constable’ to help make sure that everyone went into shelters during air raids and then made sure that he went in himself! Transportation was very limited and it was not easy to get to school unless you lived close by. I was eventually enrolled in a Montessori school when we returned to Valletta sometime in 1943. My brothers John and Herbert were both born during the war and the youngest brother, Peter was born towards the end of the war.
Even as the war in Europe was gradually drawing to a close and we were able to live a more normal life, we lacked many of the day-to-day necessities of life. For a while we lived without electricity, using oil lamps as the only source of light. And even when we had electricity, there was a ‘blackout’ order and everyone had to make sure that no lights could be seen from the outside so that the attacking enemy planes could not see where the houses and people were. They even scratched out the number of miles to Valletta shown on the stone milestones in case the Germans decided to invade Malta. This was a bit of wasted effort as it was found out after the war that the Germans had a full scale model of Malta with details of all the roads and buildings.
Essential items, like bread, milk, oil, sugar, etc were rationed and you could only get your approved quota of these items, and it was marked on your ration book each week that you took it.
Cigarettes were also rationed and those who did not smoke, like my father, could exchange their cigarette coupons for food. Pity the cigarette smokers who preferred to smoke instead of getting essential food.
was at Montessori that I realized that I had an inclination for drawing. I won a class competition for drawing a cat (I must have been about eight at the time) and the prize was a rubber eraser! That small incentive helped me to continue my pastime of drawing and coloring. After leaving Montessori, I was accepted at the Lyceum (High School) in 1947 at age 11. The subjects I learned included English, Mathematics, Nature Study, Maltese, Italian, Latin, Geography and Art. Art was my strong point and I won a Christmas card drawing competition. I had two entries but was not sure which one to put forward. My art teacher (a famous Maltese sculptor) told me to put them both. One of my classmates negotiated with me to let him have one so that he could enter it in his name. In the end, I decided it was not the right thing to do.
One of my old drawings (age 12) Beheaded St. John?
I had joined the Lyceum Scout Group of which my father was Scoutmaster even before I attended the Lyceum.
I was accepted as a Cub/Scout so that I could join in the camping and hiking activities. As the youngest member of the group, I would occasionally manage to get a piggy-back ride on one of the senior scout’s back when I got too tired. Ronald and I took part in the annual Scouts Christmas Party and performed sketches on the stage. Uncle Joe (left) greeting Lord Baden Powell.
My Uncle Joe was also involved in Malta’s Scouts and as Island Commissioner he was to greet Lord Baden Powell on his visit to Malta. A stamp commemorating 100 years of scouting in Malta has just been issued and shows Uncle. Joe marching with Baden Powell
A plaque commemorating Uncle Joe as Chairman of the Malta Playing Fields Assoc.
At the time I was also learning the piano and could accompany the sing-along songs (My darling Clementine, etc.) This brought me to more encounters with the stage. Aunt Inez, my father’s sister, used to be part of an amateur acting group and did not like walking alone at night after rehearsals so she encouraged Ronald and me to do some bit parts. My debut was when I was 14 when I had a very minor talking part (about three words). I also took minor parts in radio plays and was part of the Lyceum small orchestral group which ventured abroad as far as Gozo! I was rehearsing to take part in a Shakespeare Play (“The Tempest”) when my acting career came to an abrupt end as I left school to start working with Barclays Bank at the age of 15. This would be the start of a banking career which would span over 44 years in four banks in three continents. But that is a story for another day……

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