The Malta Independent 23 September 2021, Thursday

The Presidents’ Gardener

Malta Independent Monday, 15 February 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 8 years ago

Following the steps of his father, he worked as a gardener since his 13th birthday. He spent 47 years gardening San Anton Gardens and played the French horn for 60 years. He served under the rule of eight British governors and five Presidents of the Maltese Islands. Elaine Attard met Salvu Giordimaina at Tal-Virtú grounds in Rabat, where since he retiared he spends most of his free time.

Mr Giordimaina, turned 81 two weeks ago, is known by his nickname – Salvu tal-Jazz or Salvu l-gardinar, around his hometown, Rabat. He is a mine of information and never stops learning new things.

The Governors-General

At 13 years of age, on 13 January 1942, following his father’s footsteps he started his gardening apprenticeship at San Anton Gardens where he practically spent the rest of his working life.

He knows the gardens inside out and looks back at the years spent there with nostalgia. Mr Giordimaina recalls how he initially earned one shilling a week.

He started speaking about each governor one by one. The Governor-General of Malta was the representative in Malta of Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Malta between independence in 1964 until the declaration of the republic in the 1974.

General Sir William Dobbie is the first governor he remembers. He ruled Malta for two years between 1940 and 1942, and had noticed that Mr Giordimaina working barefoot. Like most of his peers at the time, he didn’t have any shoes so Sir Dobbie gave him a pound to buy himself a new pair.

The governor did not spend his full term in Malta and was replaced by Lord Gort John Vereker. Mr Giordimaina remembers that Lord Gort’s son had been killed in the battle of Salerno where the British army had lost a lot of personnel.

Sir Edmond Schreiber came after Lord Gort. He remembers him as an avid hunter who used to hunt in the San Anton palace grounds. Mr Giordimaina remembers he had a beautiful hunting dog which the governor had brought over from the UK.

Then came Sir Gerald Hallen Creasy. Mr Giordimania remembers Sir Creasy as a very smart man. He used to suffer from a pulmonary condition and wanted to cover the leather seats of the Austin Princess, (the governors’ car which is still in very good condition today) in white fabric. Mr Giordimaina thinks he did so to avoid getting his trousers creased.

Then came Sir Francis Douglas. Douglas came from a poor family unlike his predecessor. Once, he got pelted with oranges because the Maltese national anthem wasn’t played at the end of an important football match, recalls Mr Giordimaina.

“Douglas used to smoke a pipe. A few days after he left, we found one of his pipes in a planter in the gardens. I hung the pipe in the gardeners’ room,” said Mr Giordimaina and wondered whether the pipe is still were he hung it.

Sir Robert Edward Laycock took over duties from Governor Douglas. Mr Giordimaina remembers Sir Laycock as a rich but kind man. He and his wife enjoyed helping Maltese charities. In fact the Ursuline Creche in Guardamangia was named after Laycock’s wife, Angela. The couple enjoyed inviting guests for dinner and had asked Mr Giordimania to build a small bar in the gardens. He used to clean the bar every morning after the couple hosted a party.

Sir Guy Grantham became governor after Sir Laycock. He was an admiral and had brought a number of Maltese navy men to work for him in the palace. Mr Giordimaina described Sir Grantham as a person who enjoyed working with Maltese people.

The last English governor of Malta was Sir Maurice Henry Dorman. He ruled Malta from 1962 until 1964, when he was the Colonial Governor of Malta and then became Governor-General of Malta from September 1964 until July 1971, when he was replaced by Sir Anthony Mamo.

On 3 July 1971 Sir Mamo was appointed the first Maltese Governor-General. “He was an exceptional man who loved the gardens and enjoyed a walk round them everyday after meals. He used to call me every time he had guests visiting the gardens so I could tell them the names and something about the plants and trees in the gardens. Lady Mamo also enjoyed caring for the kitchen garden. She grew her own vegetables and herbs,” explained Mr Giordimaina.

Sir Mamo had rendered the gardens safe for children. His own nephews and nieces spent a lot of time playing there so he asked the gardeners to surround the ponds with metal guards to prevent the children from falling in. He spent two and half years as Governor- General until he was appointed President in 1974 by then Prime Minister George Borg Olivier.

The first Presidents

Dr Anton Buttigieg followed Sir Mamo. Dr Buttigieg loved gardening himself, Mr Giordimaina explained. He had renamed the visitor’s suite from Churchill’s room to Vassalli suite. Lord Gort had originally changed the name from Room 9 to Churchill’s Room after the UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s visit to Malta in 1943. He had used that room when he came.

Agatha Barbara’s presidency followed. “Ms Barbara was a very disciplined woman and she had a passion for everything that was Maltese especially Maltese food like the popular bean-dip bigilla and fresh Maltese tomatoes. She loved animals and introduced them to San Anton Gardens. She brought birds of all kinds from Australia and China. She was given swans and pheasants by the Chinese government,” explained Mr Giordimaina.

Ms Barbara had opened the doors of San Anton Gardens for school visits. He recalled when a group of Gozitan school children visited the garden and were having a break inside the Palace courtyard.

Ms Barbara started asking them a questions about Maltese history but they shied away She was angry with the teachers and demanded why the students didn’t give a reply.

“A few months later, the school group returned to visit the gardens. This time the children were fully prepared to answer all of Ms Barbara’s questions,” laughed Mr Giordimaina.

Mr Giordimaina had decorated the Verdala castle with fresh flower arrangements during Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi visit to Malta under Ms Barbara’s presidency.

Courteous and affable is how Mr Giordimaina described President Pawlu Xuereb. Born in Rabat, Mr Xuereb and Mr Giordimaina lived in the same street and were childhood friends. Mr Xuereb was three years older than him.

“He didn’t fancy drinking and preferred a cup of tea and pastizzi. He spent hours writing in the garden. Mr Xuereb was a novelist. He preferred to take a walk in garden after he arrived from his day duties in Valletta, just before lunch. We spent hours talking about agriculture. His presidency lasted two years,” illustrated Mr Giordimaina.

Then came Dr Censu Tabone. “He was a gentleman. He had a passion for everything that had to do with clocks and watches. He fixed every broken clock in the palace during his presidency and there were about five broken ones,” said Mr Giordimaina.

Around two and a half years into Dr Tabone’s presidency, aged 61, the time came for Mr Giordimaina to retire. Dr Tabone had asked him to delay his retirement by a few years but after 47 years of service, he felt he should stop working to dedicate more time to his family and his other passion, music.

The president granted him the permission to organise a party to celebrate his retirement in the gardens he grew old in. His family, the palace staff, his fellow gardeners and the palace soldiers were all invited.

Mr Giordimaina vividly described how surprised he was when he saw a cake in the shape of San Anton palace and the gardens. The palace chef had prepared the cake exclusively for him. He was even more surprised when he learnt that the president had ordered the San Anton palace and gardens shaped cake himself!

Salvu Giordimaina and music

Mr Giordimaina is also a very good musician. He started playing the French horn from a very young age when he joined the Konti Ruggieru band club of Rabat. He himself taught scores of students and today he occasionally plays for charity.

He spent 60 years playing the French horn until unfortunately his eyesight started deteriorating. He proudly speaks of his son Paul to whom he passed his musical talents. Paul Giordimaina is a popular musician in the local scene and had represented Malta together with singer Georgina in the Eurovision song contest of 1991. Mr Giordimania has another two sons Ronald and David who live in Queensland, Australia.

Tal-Virtú grounds and the rotunda of Santa Maria of Virtues

Twenty years later Mr Giordimaina spends most of his time at Tal-Virtú chapel and grounds near his home in Rabat, the same place where he spent most of his childhood years.

His father used to own some of the fields on the hill known as Tal-Virtú just below the Rotunda of Santa Maria of Virtues.

At the time a certain Dr Bonello who was nicknamed tal-warda, because he kept a flower in his pocket, owned the area. He was originally from Sliema but used Tal-Virtú castle as a summer residence.

Mr Giordimaina explained how his father, from whom he inherited his gardening skills, used to take care of the doctor’s land in Tal-Virtú. Dr Bonello, had brought some carob trees from Cyprus. He and Mr Giordimaina’s father had planted the trees in the driveway of Tal-Virtú grounds. Around 120 years later, the carob trees can still be appreciated and Mr Giordimaina speaks about them passionately.

Carmen and Charles Mangion today privately own the chapel and the adjacent land. Mr Giordimaina helped them gather information to restore the chapel and the castle to their original a state after years of neglect and vandalism.

The couple, who found the help of Mr Giordimaina extremely useful, celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary on Mr Giordimaina’s 81st birthday. They celebrated together by a thanksgiving mass which was held in the chapel followed by a small reception in the grounds where Mr Giordimaina spent most of his childhood.

He explained that for many years, when Malta was under British rule, the navy used the area as a campsite. Sometimes the military organised dances inside the rotunda. Tal-Virtú was a strategic location as it was close to the Ta’ Qali aerodrome and high on the hill one can see a large part of Malta. Mr Giordimaina accurately remembers where a Bofor canon was strategically located to shoot down the aeroplanes attacking the aerodrome.

There was a time when the grounds were used as a meteorological and astronomocial observatory.

Mr Giordimaina’s last word goes to current President George Abela. The Presidents’ gardener final wish is to meet the current President George Abela and tell him all he knows about the history of San Anton gardens though he admits that he briefly met him once. He was glad to hear about the President’s initiative to organise a citrus festival at San Anton Gardens every year.

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