Chesterton and the Osborne Hotel
We all know that Byron visited Malta. Some of us may have an inkling that His Serene Highness Prince Louis Alexander of Battenberg did likewise and stayed at the Osborne Hotel. But who had any idea that Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a paying guest there in 1934?
He visited Malta after recovering from a bout of jaundice in the U.K. The island was not a part of his itenerary when he set out from England on a holiday with his beloved wife Frances. The intention was to go to Rome - it was Holy Year - on to Sicily and the Palestine. At Syracuse he was too ill to finish his journey and returned home via Malta where he stayed at the Osborne in Valletta, up the road from Admiralty House.
Well before this time, he was an established intellectual force, a man of letters, a convert to Catholicism, a formidable journalist, a radio broadcaster on BBC, an author of countless books including volumes of Farther Brown stories, a master of paradox in the original and cultured meaning of the word. He was a Catholic even before his conversion.
Like Belloc, Mgr Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn (and Newman in the 19th century) he was one of the most influential writers of his time. His work is currently undergoing a renaissance in a world where so much he had foretold has come to pass. With those who insist on their right to do this or that in mind, he had once written, 'To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.'
His stature, physical, moral, aesthetic, intellectual, and his reputation, gained him an invitation to dinner at Admiralty House while he was in Malta, but his illness prevented him from attending. Instead, he was visited by Lady Fisher at the Osborne Hotel. She found him 'sitting on a rickety basket chair', clearly in pain, which he did his best to mask by talking a great deal. One of his biographers, Maisie Ward, records that 'Lady Fisher sympathised with him for the cold weather, his obvious physical misery and the discomfort of his chair'. ' You must'. he told her, 'never sympathise with me for I can always turn every chair into a story'. And of course he could; he could.
I will leave for another time, Deus volens, the tributes paid to this extraordinary man on his death and limit myself to a practical query. Do the owners of the Osborne Hotel know that their place served for a few days as a residence for one of England's greatest sons and Catholics? Would they consider putting up a plaque along the lines ' Gilbert Keith Chesterton stayed here in 1934' to ho anour his memory and, indeed, in honour of the hotel that accomodated him, 'rickety basket chair' and all?
We know from Allister MacMillan's Malta and Gibraltar Illustrated, published in 1918, that the place received 'a large number of (favourable) testimonials...from naval and military officers and prominent people...' and had hot and cold running water in 1903 (can that be correct?). What has the Osborne done with its memories?
Article taken from The Sunday Times Of Malta, February 10, 2008
A year ago to the day (almost), I made reference to the fact that in 1934 GK Chesterton was one of the guests of the Osborne Hotel in Valletta. He was to die two years later in Beaconsfield, weeks after finishing his autobiography. An extraordinary feature of that book is that it has but one date, the evidence for which, the author tells us, is "hearsay" - the date he was born; he cannot personally vouch for it, but it is what he has been told.
Not so strange, then, that his world history, The Everlasting Man, is also without a single date; from the days when the caveman was not the grunting brute who hit his woman with a club before dragging her into his cave, but - an artist, to the day of the Incarnation and its impact on history.
Fr McNabb, we learn from the introduction to Chesterton's autobiography, sang the Salve Regina "over his expiring body"; after which, he picked up Chesterton's pen and kissed it. "That pen, like the boney finger of St John the Baptist, best told the story of its owner by pointing adamantly and awesomely at Someone Else." One reviewer wrote that the book contained "several draughts one after the other of human and literary champagne!" The last sip bears - sipping.
"But for me my end is my beginning... and this over-whelming conviction that there is one key which can unlock all doors brings back to me the first glimpse of the glorious gift of the senses; and the sensational experience of sensation. And there starts up again before me, standing sharp and clear in shape as of old, the figure of a man who crosses a bridge and carries a key; as I saw him when I first looked into fairyland through the window of my father's peep-show.
But I know that he who is called Pontifex, the Builder of the Bridge, is called also Claviger, the Bearer of the Key; and that such keys were given him to bind and loose when he was a poor fisher in a far province, beside a small and almost secret sea."
When I learned that the great man himself had come to Malta the discovery excited me enough to ask whether the owners of the hotel knew that their place had been, for a few days, the residence of one of England's greatest, 20th century sons - and converts. His visit, alas, does not merit a mention in his autobiography but would they, I wondered, consider putting up a plaque to mark the honour of his stay at the Osborne? And what else of interest did they have? Answer came in the shape of memorabilia.
Among these, a hand-written note on the hotel's letterhead - Osborne Hotel Malta (upper caps) Patronised by H.R.H Prince Louis Alexander of Battenberg and The Duke of Bronte - "I have to thank the management of the Osborne Hotel for a quite exceptional degree of courtesy and comfort" - followed by a magnificent flourish of a signature. The writing is strong and vertical, bold downward strokes, t's the sign of a cross, Greek e's.
Among them an invitation to a dinner held by the Gallipoli and Salonika Pilgrimage and Malta Branch Salonika Reunion Assn. on May 7,1936; "in the Chair H.E. the Governor Lieut. Gen. Sir Charles Bonham Carter K.C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O." At the back of the card a picture of the Osborne, Union Flag fluttering above the building, which is set forward from the rest of the street, shutters and windows open.
Among them a wine list printed at the Colonial Library Press (where else?) offering a McNish Special Whisky, Specially recommended at eight pence per glass; a Gordon's Gin at six pence pg; a Farsons Special, Light six pence per half-bottle, a Munchner, Cisk, same price (Lewis Farrugia and the Marquis John Scicluna were battling it out in those days), liqueurs at nine pence pg, 20 shillings for a Clos Heidsieck champagne - the most expensive item on the list along with G.H. Mumm; and a Claret St Julien, delicate and smooth, for all of three shillings.
Among them a newspaper article informing its readers that the 16th century calash of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt would be "on view" at the Museum of Our Lady of Graces in Zabbar. Originally housed in the residence of Fra Aloisio Mazingi, Prior of Capua and Bailiff of Santo Stefano, the property was purchased by Charles Strickland, brother of Lord Gerald Strickland. The premises were bought after Charles Strickland's death by the Schembri family and converted into the Osborne Hotel. The purchase seemed to have been effected in 1903, hence, I imagine, the selection of 193 as the hotel's telephone number.
And for the record, a certain Mr Parsons stayed for seven days in Room no. 8 in February 1949 and was charged £5, 19 shillings. He did not use heating, ordered no cigars or cigarettes, no meals for that matter, sent no telegram, hired no car, sent none of his dirties to the laundry. Parsons was, clearly, on a tight budget. Or perhaps he died of hunger and thirst with a 'Do Not Disturb' sign on his room; but that cannot be. The invoice is stamped with a 2d self-government stamp.
A hotel brochure refers to Malta as 'The British Riviera' and informs clients that flying time from London was six hours, three days by rail and six if sea travel was preferred. Arrangements could be made for "Hotel Porters" to meet steamers and airliners on arrival and, just as a matter of interest, "The Osborne Hotel is the Headquarters of the English Speaking Union in Malta."
Michael Refalo, recently our High Commissioner in London, who has been instrumental in setting up a local branch of the ESU in Malta, may wish to strike a blow for continuity and visit the Osborne to see whether the ESU's headquarters can be re-established there. With a Man of Letters of Chesterton's moral, aesthetic, intellectual and physical stature as a hovering spirit over its proceedings, his framed thank-you note placed above the seat of the ESU's chair in committee, that continuity will be even more remarked.
Article taken from The Sunday Times Of Malta, February 15, 2009