The Malta Independent 22 February 2020, Saturday

Gannmink from Bastjun

Noel Grima Tuesday, 14 May 2019, 08:57 Last update: about 10 months ago

Mintoff, Malta, Mediterra, My Youth. Publisher: Book Distributors Ltd 2018. Extent: 560pp

In 1998, after he toppled Alfred Sant's Labour government, Dom Mintoff was an outcast, rather, The Outcast - hated by the Nationalists over the past decades and now hated also by the Labourites for having been, as Sant called him on the Vittoriosa seafront, a traitor.

There was still fire in the old boy, as I learned when I began to follow his impromptu meetings in the old style when the EU accession issue came up and Labour, playing the Partnership card, lost the referendum. Mintoff's speeches were rambling but enormously diverting.

Later on I faced him in Court when he sued Daphne Caruana Galizia and me, as her editor, over something she had written. He sued for civil libel and also criminal libel. At first he used to be driven to Court but later he seemed to lose interest and let the cases lapse. He was an old man by then, dressed shabbily, to the enormous mirth of some in the courtroom, complaining only if the window was open, faced by magistrates who refused to allow him the time he needed to make his long-winded speeches.

But now I learn that ever since 1998 he had been writing his autobiography. This hefty book is the part of his autobiography he managed to conclude, ending in his stay in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar during the war. There is a postscript by his daughter Yana to bring readers up to date till the time he returned to Malta when the war had eased. But as the introduction by his grandson Daniel Mainwaring says, all the words in the book are by him.

After his death, his family found entire boxes filled with papers in Dom's almost illegible handwriting. Then followed a huge collaborative effort by many people to polish the book and make it presentable. This volume is the result, a hugely enjoyable read.

It is a pity that death, at 96, stopped Dom from completing the oeuvre and I have been informed there may have been other writings which might constitute a follow-up to this volume, but nothing is confirmed.

As it is, for now at least, we have to be satisfied with this book and it certainly does satisfy.

It certainly puts paid some of the myths or incorrect information that surrounded Mintoff, spread certainly by his opponents.

Such as the vexed question how he got expelled from the Seminary. The way he tells it, he was not expelled, he left when he started to doubt what he was being taught.

There is more to it. Before he entered, his mother, through an acquaintance, had met rather clandestinely a priest and lined up for her son some benefices which could have made him, if not rich, rather comfortable.

Dom had even been given the cassock but one day he overheard the superiors discuss his two sisters' apparently lavish weddings while he was not paying any fee. That, and his reaction at some of the superiors (otherwise he is very appreciative of most of the others, including the later Bishop Galea) and against the closed mentality he was surrounded by, made him leave.

Another canard described him as hiding away in Britain while Malta was being battered by German bombs. He explains it in a completely different way. Ironically he was later to combat against one who came first in the Matric exam (Eddie Fenech Adami). Dom came first in all the exams he sat for, both Matric and in the university architecture course. As a reward for his achievement, he sat for the very tough Rhodes Scholar test and came first too.

He was thus invited to go to Britain and this naive young man who had never been abroad, left Malta when the war was already declared (but before Italy entered the fray and began bombarding Malta) and travelled by train all the way through Italy and France before reaching Britain.

His description of life and studies at Oxford University are riveting, his new Leftist friends, his writing for the New Statesman, and how he met and fell in love with Moyra de Vere Bentinck who later became his wife.

It is interesting to note that before he left Malta, Dom had a girlfriend, Lita (Melita) Lucchese but it was mostly puppy-love which fell by the wayside when he left to go to Oxford and follow his dream.

Prior to all that, he speaks of his childhood in il-Bastjun, the very tough area of Bormla and the abject poverty he experienced there and saw around him. This was the poverty that marked his life and pushed him to the stances he took in later life. It was a very tough area but Dom was always street-wise, despite all the efforts his mother made to keep him out of harm's way. He tells how once he almost drowned and how Carnival in Il-Bastjun was not the innocent festivity it is today but a racy, earthen, bacchanal. In those streets, he learned to fight with his hands and feet and to give as much as he got.

His mother was always working hard to "civilise" him, with more failures than successes.  His father, who for long periods was absent from Dom's life since he was a seaman afloat, came into Dom's life in his late teens. He was the one who created, from his Ghasri (Gozo) past, the pet name Gannmink, and Dom practically lived in the Auberge de Castille, later to become his office, where his father was in charge of feeding the British servicemen stationed there. There Dom came across Lord Mountbatten, from the British royal family.

Dom had a habit of compartimentalising his friends and acquaintances - the Bastjun gang, the young people who flirted around the Santa Margherita area, his university friends and colleagues, the few Labour diehards who elected Dom as party secretary general when the party had next to no supporters. To each group he gave his time but at the end, as his political ideas became radicalised, he became more and more involved in politics, till he gave everything up to go to Oxford.

He is honest to the point of laughing at himself, as when he burned one side of his bathing suit on his first visit to a swimming pool and had to walk out with Moyra following closely and covering his uncovered backside.

And all around him, while he grew up from a street urchin to a young Lothario to a top university student to a budding politician, the war was closing in and drastically changing not just his life but also that of the entire world.

But that is a story told only in part and what Malta went through is not told except obliquely for he was stuck in Britain, working at Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners, because travel was impossible.

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