“(Finally), in the early morning hours of November 20 (1969), the fourth attempt coalesced and more than 90 Native Americans landed on Alcatraz. The island’s caretaker, Glenn Dodson, who was 1/8 Cherokee, told the landers that they were trespassing, winked, and then showed the landing party to the warden’s house. It was there that the occupiers established their headquarters.” (History Nuggets).
In the mid-eighties Manoel Island was our playground. Wednesdays – days off from the disciplinary jesuit school – were days of adventure and roaming. “We” were a band of urchins from the greater Sliema area spanning from the Gozitan in Paceville to some guys from Fond Ghadir, Tigne and some even from the point where the barrier between Sliema and Gzira becomes murky (Gzira would have been “other people”). Cursorily vetted by our parents it was “kosher” for us to hang out together and hang we did making the land stretching from Pembroke to Valletta our realm that we would shuttle around in on wide skateboards or hitching rides on buses.
Ruins. Desolation. Abandoned buildings. They were the disneyworld and playstation of our day. We did not hunt for pokemons or ride the rollercoasters in some luna park. We went to the crumbling villas on the QuiSiSana waterfront, we rode our skateboards blindly down the lanes of Pembroke from El Alamein to Juno and Tunis. We “explored” the barred gates of Australia Hall and braved the dangers of mad dogs that could be unleashed any moment by caretakers or “residents” of some of the ex-army houses that had been reclaimed thanks to Mintoffian concepts of public good. We were known to have raided the vast desolation that was the Gzira Stadium with it’s jungle like growths, corrugated iron mazes and leftover mementos.
Most of all though we owned Manoel Island. Nobody knew it at that point but a band of young twelve year olds were the actual rightful owners of the island named after a grandmaster. Crossing the bridge onto the island was an act of liberation from the mundane boredoms of everyday life. Once we were past the turnstiles of the old stadium (the one on the island not the one in Gzira) we knew we were back in our land. There were ramparts to be climbed using rudimentary ropes (purchased at the Sunday Monti along with all the army surplus we could find – diligent kids were we), there was an abandoned hospital to be inspected from top to bottom, there were miles of tunnels to be walked through with trepidation and a faulty torch. There was also the actual fort guarded by the usual token army of rabid dogs but nothing was an obstacle to our water war games and camping exploits.
Safety was never the question. Nobody in his right mind would let their kids run the whole gamut of risk-taking actions nowadays. Neither, had they known, would our parents ever have allowed us to roam the land of used syringes, satanist relics and rusted obstacles. The used syringes were the marks of a burgeoning addict community that used the abandoned zone for their needs away from the prying eyes of the public. The “satanist” marks deep in the bowels and tunnels under the fort were also the clues of life away from the public – a pentagram here, a box of candles there. Some crazed fools doing their trendy thing as some were wont to do in the 80’s – and scaring the living bejeezus out of the teens exploring the tunnels like some a latter day Famous Five minus the ginger beer.
Pembroke, Saint Andrew’s (including Saint George’s Bay), the stretch of land behind the Hilton, Qui-Si-Sana, Tigne’ and Manoel Island. Their time in the eighties was a time of desolate abandonment. Beyond the point where the old ITS school used to stand was a vast stretch of rough land and a bit of asphalt. It was an alternative point of gathering to Ta’ Qali for those football-loving fathers and sons who gathered religiously on Sunday afternoons – the fathers to listen to Serie A on radio and the sons to form a myriad of football matches until the four o’clock siren call to turn back in for a hot shower and supper.
Bit by bit each of these fantastic zones would be imagined away by some architect closed in a room where he “designed” his latest project while surrounded by fake trees ready for the to-scale model that he would pitch to the businessman in whose hands one would find the most flexible politician or party with the least amount of spine possible. We all know which way Australia Hall went. We have seen the battle for foreshore access around (ex-Hilton) Portomaso. We have sat and watched while the coastal path around Saint George’s Bay becomes a nostalgic memento. We have seen the old Qui-Si-Sana turn into an unrecognizable monster and Tigne point is … well it’s Tigne point.
The coalition of local councillors and activists that have put their foot down on the matter of Manoel Island and access thereto are a welcome breath of fresh air. In this here age of post-truth politics it is becoming harder and harder to get people to understand how much political decisions actually affect their rights – especially when their rights are not so easily tangible. Much of the problems of corruption in today’s politics have not sunk in for many of the voters and citizens – mainly because they can be fobbed off with words and spin.
Access to the foreshore, access to a park, to open air to clean public spaces. Now that is tangible. It is the ideal first building block to recreate a socially active part of the populace that finaly has had enough of being told what can or cannot be done for and with the public good.
Well done Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent. That is a well done that cuts through the ages. It comes from a band of kids whose skateboards scratched the pavements all along the Front, who marked their time with Swatches and whose day was made when they found an extra bit of strong rope that would let them climb that extra bit of metres onto the rampart outside the fort where they would sit and watch the crazy society far way in its rushed madness to an ill-conceived idea of progress.