Updated: Jan 8
Games Children Play
When I was a young boy many years ago we had no toys to play with; we had to use our imagination. Our parents could not afford to buy them for us the main reason being that most families had a good number of children; I had 8 siblings. We played mostly in the streets and we often had to make our own playthings. We played with everything, we used cardboard or wooden boxes, tin cans, paper, bottle caps, empty cigarette packets, gozo clay which we obtained from a nearby hillside and even with our school copybooks at the end of the term. We used to recycle without ever having heard the word or realising the importance of re-using waste materials. The one thing in our favour was that we had the streets to ourselves. Nobody had a car in those days except one doctor that I remember so the streets were totally car-free and safe. In winter when the weather permitted we played after school hours and on Saturdays and Sundays while during the summer holidays we spent a lot of time at the seaside, mostly in Marsalforn or at Xlendi which are about 30 minutes walk from Victoria.
The school holidays from early July to almost the end of September were a special treat for us children but on the other hand our ‘gang’ would be divided and many of my friends would disappear. Some families in our area had a summer house by the sea so for three whole months my friends Alfred, Tony and his brother Joe, George and his brother Felix would be staying at Marsalforn while I remained in Victoria with my brothers. We did not have a summer residence but It was fun playing with my brothers too, Tony was 2 years and Mario was 3 years younger than me..
Sometimes I would find myself alone at home. I lived with my great-aunt who raised me up practically from a baby. She, God rest her soul had a big house a few doors from my mother’s, a kind of farmhouse though it was in the city center. I had the house all to myself to play in – the rooms, especially the largest one which we called the ‘house’ (don’t know why) the roof, the terraces, the loft, the cellar and the garden. The ‘house’ was so large that at one time I built a 14ft boat inside it.
In the Garden
Our house layout was stupid by today’s standards. From the street we entered into the hall or front room, but then we had to pass through a longish terrace of about 15 feet to access the other rooms. So when it was raining we needed to cover ourselves again though we were inside the house. On the other hand it was cosy both in winter and in summer. The thick walls and high ceilings together with the materials used for the roofs made all the difference. I spent the best days of my life living in this house with my loving aunt and when something jogs my memory I get serious nostalgic spells.
On the right-hand side of this terrace we had a low door with a gate leading to the cellar along a sloping, darkish and unpaved passage. This passage also led to the garden. We climbed 3 steps and passed through a low, narrow doorway which also had a kind of gate.
In one corner of the garden my great-aunt kept some hens and a cockerel in a pen fenced off with chicken-wire. I remember that at one time we also had a full-sized turkey. At night the fowls could retire to the cellar through a small window that served to allow some light to penetrate within.
I played a lot in the garden alone or with my brothers. We used to set up a camp with sacking and reeds, a rickety contraption but it served its purpose. We had army mess-tins made of aluminium and we used to light a fire and cook eggs and tomatoes scrambled together. In Malta we call this simple dish ‘balbuljata’, very basic and delicious. And doing it ourselves in camp was more enjoyable still.
At a younger age I used to try to snare cats. There were a lot of them that I often saw crossing along the rubble wall at the back of the garden. So I used a line with a large hook baited with a piece of meat or fish but of course the cats never swallowed the hook but just gnawed at the meat. It was cruel on my part but its natural that sometimes very young boys get mischievous. However I have nothing on my conscience cause I never got one though I tried several times.
Together with my brother Tony we once had a try at fire-arrows. We used to tie a rag soaked in paraffin to the arrow-head, light it from a candle and let fly at the trunk of the old prickly pear which grew against the rubble wall at the back of the garden.
I used to help sometimes in the garden too. In mid-December my aunt used to plant broad beans. I used to help by putting 2 dry beans in each hole that she dug with the hoe. The hoe was too heavy for me to handle. We finished the job by covering the beans with some soil. She did this herself. In April we harvested the green bean pods. We ate them raw with salad, added to cheese pies, stew of beans and eggs and soup with ‘kosksu’ a kind of very small hard pasta beads.
My aunt used to save some of the finer beans to let dry for the next planting.
In The Cellar
I used to play in the cellar a lot too. The entrance was through a narrow sloping archway on the left of the passage leading to the garden. It was a large ‘room’ with a high ceiling of stone slabs resting on 5 arches. The walls were black with age and centuries of dust. Inside it was quite dark because it received a little light from the small window that opened on the garden. The corners high up on the ceiling and the black crevices and holes on the walls were covered with cobwebs where I could see big fearsome spiders.
It was not the first time that I got out my catapult, loaded it with seeds that we used to feed to the chickens and shot some of them. They were so ugly like black widow spiders but maybe not as big.
What intrigued me most was the pond. It was a mystery for me how in the cellar we had a small pond that was forever full of black water always at the same level more or less. The water looked black because of the lack of light. At the far end of the cellar opposite the window someone had built a stone wall of only 2 courses high, about 2 feet that is, that divided the cellar and enclosed the pond. The pond was about 10 feet by 5 and all around the water it was solid brown rock that was a little slippery. The water had no smell at all and was certainly uncontaminated because I had often seen our hens drinking from it.
I played for hours by my pond loading a small raft with stones and unloading them on the other side. Once I had the idea of making a boat out of a prickly pear pad. I cut the green soft pad lengthwise down the middle. I chose the best half that already looked like a flat boat with a rounded bottom and a straight deck. I then proceeded to cut a groove in the soft flesh along the whole length of the deck exactly in the middle and, making the groove about 3 inches deep. Finally I removed the flesh all along the groove taking care not to make the skin too thin. Next came the thwarts, one in the middle and two shorter ones in the bow and in the stern. I made these with pieces of reeds and they served to give beam to the craft. With the thwarts the boat looked quite good and it floated without making one drop of water. I played for hours pushing it from one side of the pond to the other. At times my aunt used to call me to see what I was up to seeing me so quiet for so long.
We had a lot of small holy pictures lying around and one morning I decided to make a cinema. It all started when I found a round spectacles lens in one of the drawers. I think it was not a lens at all but only a circular piece of glass of about 4cm in diameter. I spent a lot of time sitting on the floor trying to make it work.
I cut a hole of the same size of the ‘lens’ in the side of a cardboard box and fitted the glass. The only light I had was a candle which I had obtained from the sexton of St. George Church, so one can imagine the powerful wattage that I had at my disposal.
Though I spent several hours placing a holy picture in front of the lens with the candle light behind it in an attempt to project some kind of a picture on the wall I did not succeed. However it was fun while it lasted but I never tried it again.
Making a Boat out of a Prickly Pear Pad
At the back of our garden leaning against a high rubble wall we had a large old prickly pear tree. I used to climb it taking great care not to make contact with any of the pads covered with sharp hard spines. One fine day I decided to make a boat out of one of the pads.
I climbed the tree and with a knife I cut a fairly large one and dropped to the ground. I scraped it lightly to get rid of the spines on both surfaces. Next I cut the green soft pad lengthwise down the middle. I chose the best half that already looked like a flat boat with a rounded bottom and a straight gunwale (topsides). I then proceeded to cut a groove in the soft flesh along the whole length of the straight topside as near to the middle as possible and making the groove about 3 inches deep. It was quite easy to remove the flesh all along the groove taking care to leave a fairly thick skin on both sides. Next came the thwarts, one in the middle and two shorter ones close to the bow and to the stern. I made these with small pieces of reed the longest one being about 7 cms.
With the thwarts the boat looked quite a good seaworthy craft and it floated without making one drop of water. I decided against hoisting a sail because in the cellar there was never any wind.
Games Children Play
Playing with my Friends
As a group with about 6 of my mates or more playing was more fun. Besides the element of competition we had the choice of which game to play - with marbles, at cops and robbers, at ‘horse' racing, at guessing the word and more. The most popular game was perhaps Changing Corners.
Playing at Corners
Near where I lived there was a little square with 3 streets leading to it and there was an alley too. This game was popular because we did not need any ‘equipment’, we only needed the street corners of which there were six. We simply had to decide which boy was going to be ‘it’. We drew lots and the loser had to stand in the middle of the square while all the other boys held a corner. Each of us stood at his corner ready to exchange corners with another boy.
One of my earlier paintings. I did this in1995. Oil on board. It is not a grand painting but it gives one an idea of how the game was played.
This involved a lot of running and shouting. The fun started when the boys darted here and there from one corner to another while the ‘it’ had to be very fast to try to usurp a corner whose owner had left vacant while in the act of exchanging.
If the ‘it’ boy succeeded then the boy who lost his corner would have to stand in the center of the square being the ‘it’. We played at this very often, to our neighbours dismay, shouting and calling each other’s names, “come George, now George”, when the ‘it’ was looking the other way.
Cops and Robbers
Sometimes we were ten or more boys with three or four joining us from a nearby quarter of Rabat (Victoria). We divided into 2 groups, one gang being the robbers and the rest being the police.
In summer many of us were barefoot and we all ran to our hearts’ content along the car-free streets in our vicinity chasing the robbers if we happened to be the police. When we caught a robber he was allowed to join the police rather than leaving him alone waiting for the game to finish.
In fact the game never finished; the police seldom succeeded in catching all the robbers. The game ended when we were fed up or when it was time to go home.
Playing at Horses
One boy or sometimes a girl would be the horse and the other the jockey. The horse had to have some kind of footwear because he had to wear horseshoes. It was great fun being the horse and hearing your feet clanging on the concrete ground. The horseshoes were recycled empty milk tins. The horse clamped the tins onto his shoes by stamping with force on them. The center of the tins was almost flattened and the sides curved inwards and gripped the sole of the shoe.
Meanwhile the jockey had a set of colourful reins in his hands which were fitted on the back of the neck and passed under the armpits of the horse. For the reins we used to ‘knit’ a long ‘rope’ with waste/surplus wool of different colours which we got from our mum, sister or whoever. At times we were given an old woollen garment such as a jersey and we were shown how to undo all the stitches and roll the wool into a ball. It was fun knitting and we used to compete over who made the longest rope.
For knitting we used a wooden bobbin with four small nails hammered on its top. The wool was inserted in the hole of the reel all the way leaving a couple of inches hanging on the underside. At the top the wool was wrapped loosely around the four nails. The knitting proceeded by making a stitch on each nail. The stitch was very easy, just hooking the lower line over the next line of wool placed on each nail in turn constantly turning the bobbin in the left hand and hooking (stitching) with the right.
At intervals when the nails fill up with the knitting the rope is pulled from the bottom end and the ‘rope’ slowly starts to form.
In Maltese we called it the Xini (Sh eeny) if I remember correctly. This was fun too, but it needed a lot of work to construct. It was made of strips of wood, string and kite paper.
The main beam was a strip of wood of about 4 feet with a moveable handle at one end and the axle on the other both attached with a screw. For the wheels we used a wooden bobbin sawn at the middle. The axle was shaved at both ends so that the halves of the bobbin could be fitted.
The cross-beams and the masts were made from thinner lengths of wood and nailed to the beam. The masts were adjusted and strengthened by lines tied to each other and to the cross-beams and to the main beam. The galley was decorated with coloured festoons so that it looked like a 3-masted schooner with sails.
Sometimes if we had some money we fitted a little torch bulb on the bow powered by a small battery , a blue Berec brand if I remember correctly.
We enjoyed ourselves driving our galleys along the quiet streets of Rabat in the neighbourhood of St. George church area.
(to be continued)