The boy from the Bastjun

published on May 12, 2019 on Times of Malta by Louis Scerri

Dom Mintoff: Mintoff, Malta, Mediterra. My Youth
The Association for Equality, Justice and Peace, in collaboration with the National Archives of Malta, 2018.

Mintoff, Malta, Mediterra: My Youth BDL Books

Love him or hate him, and really there is hardly any middle way, Dom Mintoff was one of the most important figures to thrust his forceful way onto Malta’s political stage in the 20th century.

His radical socialist policies were indeed most necessary to introduce much-needed and much-delayed social reforms in an extremely traditionalist society but they invariably raised the hackles of those who were comfortably well-off, in terms of power or money, or both.

But then, being a fiery character with a dynamic personality, he also had the unfortunate penchant for surrounding himself with supple-backed individuals (or rather the proclivity of getting rid of those with harder spines) which often led him into extreme positions, for few had the guts to openly oppose his ideas.

This autobiography, always keeping in mind all the usual caveats in dealing with someone explaining their life, provides an excellent insight into Mintoff’s youth and the formative influences that led to a bright mischievous boy from one of Cospicua’s poorer areas making headway in a society most conscious of class and privilege. Pre-war Cospicua was in general no depressed area and there were many examples of well-to-do lay and clerical individuals, some with notable social consciences, and whom the young boy was fortunate enough to meet and find their assistance.

Yet there was a visible gulf between the well-to-do and those who, like Mintoff, came from the depressed areas, like his poverty-ridden Bastjun area, and this must have been a great prompter in making the bright young boy ask questions about the fairness of society. The answers he got, or more often did not get, must have driven in him the urge to do something. Even before socialism became a philosophy he understood, he was incensed by the social reality he daily witnessed and helped form in him what he called his “set of moral values and sticking to them more scrupulously than [he] had to the Catholic faith”.

His upbringing in the Bastjun area is probably the essential key to explaining Mintoff’s character. It gave him, first of all, a direct knowledge of what poverty meant in terms of the grim, soul-destroying deprivation he saw all around him (even though his family was comparatively better off, with a father enjoying a stable desirable employment as a naval cook – reputedly ‘the best cook of the Royal Navy’) and to which he was most sensitive. Secondly it gave him the strong determination to succeed against all odds, precisely because and in spite of it.

Mintoff Malta Mediterra BDL Books

The book therefore becomes Mintoff’s personal account of his journey from the deprived Bastjun area to the period when he was studying in England when Malta was enduring the Fascist bombs. It was a time when he was making every effort to return to Malta, as a published letter from the warden of Rhodes House in Oxford to the Governor in Malta, dated June 30, 1943, makes clear.

Daniel Mainwaring and Yana Mintoff, Mintoff’s grandson and daughter respectively, who edited the notes into this hefty 560-page tome, explain its genesis. They say it started being written in 1998, at a time when Mintoff had single-handedly brought down Alfred Sant’s two-year-old government, and had certainly lost a good part of his glamour with diehard Labour supporters. Eighty-two years old, he was then still in full control of his powers, as his marathon parliamentary speech amply showed.

It was perhaps the new situation, when he found himself with no official duties to carry out, that made him start penning down his memoirs, writing page upon page in a miniscule, barely discernible handwriting, a left-over from his school days, which the editors must have had a hard time to decipher to work out a consistent text.

The end result is most interesting, not least because a man who seemed to one and all as one who greatly treasured his privacy, opens up to explain in well-written prose in a most pleasant and readable style how he made it up the political ladder and became the person many admired and as many despised. As he himself writes: “I have been very reserved about my upbringing and its concomitant passions and phobias and avoided the subject as carefully as I kept to myself my next political move and its timing.”

Still, he is candid about many private aspects, like his uneasy relationship with one of his brothers, the one occasion he ended physically fighting with his adored father, his lack of regard for fine clothes, which he carried with him for the rest of his life, and so on. Reading about the youth of famous personalities helps to explain and understand the adult for, as William Wordsworth said, “the child is father of the man”.

Mintoff Malta Mediterra BDL Books

Mintoff shows a remarkable ability to remember the past, sometimes in its minutiae. Still, one should be wary of some of the details. Fr Mark Montebello has pointed out, for example, the many erroneous factual details in Mintoff’s account of his greatest hero, Manwel Dimech, whom he calls “the loveliest Maltese rose” and to whose life and activities he devotes a good many pages. Mintoff decries Dimech’s staunch commitment to non-violence as a means to achieving his political end as pathetic, and “one entirely outside the orbit of [his] own convictions”. Does that explain some of his actions later in life?

Born on August 6, 1916, the third offspring but the first son among 11 children, Mintoff experienced in full the “squalid neighbourhood” where “life was raw, tough and cheap”. A lively child, he got into several scrapes, but his quick wit and personality often got him out of serious trouble. There he got the first practical and vital lessons in life and survival, perhaps also of brinkmanship, of which he was to prove quite a master.

Mintoff’s own short introduction to the book sets out the main themes of his book. He is quite scathing at himself: he describes himself as “living in great dread of isolation”, as being “restless and impatient inside”, aspects, he says, he would carry with him throughout his life.

It is in Cospicua that he found the courage to walk alone and to nurture the rebel inside. It is there that he grew disenchanted at the great divide between the teachings of “the great Nazarene” and “the social reality of the Maltese brand of Roman Catholicism”. For this he would have to pay a heavy price in his political life.

He rebelled against the Church in Malta because he saw in it just “a power-hungry medieval institution whose anti-Christian theology had deadened its social conscience [and which] had driven me into spiritual wilderness until I found solace in socialist humanism”.

Physically small in stature, a feature he inherited from his mother’s side, Mintoff also owns up to having eyes of different colours, something very few of his acquaintances ever seemed to have noticed throughout his life, not least because he continued to describe them as “brown” in his official records.

Mintoff paints an absorbing picture of life in the Bastjun area which he observed with wide-eyed enthusiasm and where life revolved around the Church and the Royal Navy, which fed the poorer people with welcome gaxin and ‘supplied’ most the community’s paint, tools, wood, hardware, clothing and other needs, thanks to the process popularly known as ‘shaving His Majesty’s whiskers in his sleep’. There was also a host of remarkable characters that peopled a unique stage.

And yet, for all his environment’s deprivations, Mintoff asserts that his mother “could not have chosen a lovelier place” to bring him into the world. Born into a religious family and already noted for his cleverness, Mintoff was more or less expected to join the clergy – one of his earliest achievements was being chosen to deliver the Christmas midnight sermon. And yet his experiences at the Seminary ended sourly as he started to doubt “the subsidiary dogmas”, which led him to “anti-Catholic convictions” – “the little things… that tipped the scales”. He left the Seminary at the age of 14.

Mintoff Malta Mediterra BDL Books

It was in Cospicua that Mintoff often involved himself in naughty escapades with his fellow urchins; it was there that the fascination of the opposite sex reared its head (alas, too innocent compared to what today’s teenagers get up to) and met his first girlfriend, Lita Lucchese from Vittoriosa. Their close relationship, however, ended when Mintoff was awarded the Rhodes scholarship and had to leave the island, which he did a few weeks after war broke out on 1939. He describes why he ended up studying (rather unwillingly) civil engineering and architecture in lieu of another subject if only it had been offered. He paints an interesting picture of life at the university, which he entered in 1933 (erroneously referring to it already as “Royal”, four years before the title was assigned to it). It was a time of tension, not least the result of the language question and the Fascist threats from across the sea. It was there that he “began [his] tussle with Giorgio Borg Olivier’s fanatical followers”. For over 25 years, the rivalry between these two political giants would shape Malta’s history.

He admits that his attraction to politics did not come early because his idea was that all local politicians were hypocrites. Indeed, he says he knew more of “what was going on in faraway Manchuria than under [his] nose”. More than anything else he was disillusioned that the “Nationalist” literati “were too frightened to take to the streets and set in motion a national revolution”. Would this tendency to see violence as a possible means of solving political impasses remain in him in later times? Resort to violence was, after all, one of the notorious six points.

His open socialist leanings naturally led him to join the Labour Party, of which he soon was elected general secretary. His rebellious nature was, however, to be given “a humane polishing” and tempered following contact with Lord Mountbatten’s “charming and hardworking disposition”.

Another interesting aspect of the memoirs is the mention of many individuals who struck a close friendship with Mintoff and who we would later see featuring in Malta’s political life, some in the forefront, some in the back ranks. These include doctor and historian Pawlu Cassar, Moses Gatt, Salvu Privitera, Ġużè Debono, Pawlu Farrugia, Josie Flores and a host of others.

Mintoff’s years in Oxford were marked by the university’s buzzing academic life and also his involvement with the Labour Party, not to mention a couple of incidents that ended in fisticuffs.

Significantly, it was there that he met his future wife Moyra de Vere Bentinck, who belonged to a patrician family and was a descendant of Nell Gwynn, and whom he married in November 1947. There he was torn between his budding love and the home-sickness he felt for Malta suffering under Axis bombs. It was only in May 1943 that he managed to get a sea passage on a convoy, reaching home after a stop in Alexandria.

Here he found a people whose souls were “still viciously gripped by the mighty jaws of the Church”, while he was also viewed with suspicion by the colonial authorities who were to say that “the sooner we get rid of Mintoff the better for everyone”.

Mintoff Malta Mediterra BDL Books

But the chronicle of his struggles is another story now fated never to be told and of which Mintoff only left a framework in which he “examined each political era in the last half of the 20th century”.

The book is written in excellent English and a most pleasant style. More than anything, this must be the result of Mintoff’s insatiable and perennial lust for reading from a very early age. As he says, he “cannot live without good books”. His passion for books was also shared by his wife, whose great love for books meant an insistence that books were only lent from the household against a receipt. Later in his life, he is said to have steadfastly eschewed television, preferring the company of books.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the wealth of pictorial illustrations. Many photographs come from the never-seen Mintoff archives but there are many others just as interesting from the National Archives, the Heritage Malta collection, the Giovanni Bonello archives and several other private sources. There are indeed charming pictures of the Mintoff brood, including a sweet one of young Dom in his First Holy Communion suit sitting near his proud father, well-known and lesser-known characters, scenes of pre-war Cospicua, Mintoff’s political meetings, and so on. A veritable pictorial treasure indeed.

Another interesting detail is the mention of many traditional and folkloristic customs which are completely beyond the ken of today’s younger generations.

The Association for Justice, Equality and Peace will dedicate all the proceeds from the sale of this book to support organisations working for justice, equality, environmental conservation and peace.

Mintoff, Malta, Mediterra: My Youth can be purchased online  from BDL or Amazon