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Hunting the Gladiator and the Gecko

Image: Gladiator and Gecko - wartime Malta

A THIRTEEN-YEAR SEARCH FOR A CHILDHOOD STORY BOOK REACHES ITS END WITH A SURPRISING DISCOVERY


[Above: Gladiator photo - public domain / Turkish gecko - Aron Tanti / Educational Resource, Malta]


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A Memory of Childhood


It could be a trendy pub or films with Russell Crowe (hmm... I wonder which one he would play) but it’s neither.

Over sixty years ago I was given a children’s book about Malta during World War II. I loved the book and kept some of the images of that country in my mind. At some point in the fifties it must have been thrown out in a house move or suchlike. The images stayed on. Foremost to a boy of those days were those of a handful of (real) Gloster Sea Gladiator biplanes that stood alone against enemy aircraft for some weeks in June, 1940 until the arrival of some Hawker Hurricanes. There was also the vague picture of a gecko in my mind – a small lizard found throughout the islands. There being none in Britain and only a brief description in the book I had little idea of its shape, size or colouring. Though it was a children’s book I remembered nothing of the main characters, a mix of Maltese and English children and their families. Of the plot the only thing that stuck in my mind as the years went by was the terrible siege imposed on the islands as Italian and German air attacks rained down the heaviest bombardments suffered by any country during those years. The English and Maltese people fought and suffered together, finally surviving the war without having been invaded. It was a story that faded into the background as other popular fiction took my attention. The text book moved centre stage. It, in many different guises, would stay firmly there for over thirty years.

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Malta at First Hand

In 1997 my new colleagues at Leeds Metropolitan University and myself were teaching tourism management. Right from the start of the courses in 1992 the residential visit had been an essential part of the process. After many successful visits in the UK an overseas week was set up using Malta. That year we took a couple of dozen students to a hotel in St Julian’s Bay. It was the first of what would be nine residential over as many years. And of course it brought back into my mind that children’s book. I had not been to the country before, but over the years it would become a place that I loved and many of whose people became firm friends.

It was then that I began to search for the book. I started with second-hand book shops whenever I looked in to one. Northing appeared. What made it difficult was that I didn’t know the title, the author or the publisher. Vague queries of friends and dealers about “a children’s book set in the war and about the defence of Malta by its people and the RAF” produced only blank looks. I asked friends in Malta. Nothing came of it from them. Then one day I went in to A C Aquilina and Co’s bookshop on Republic Street, one of the best general book stores in Malta. They knew nothing of it, but a helpful manager suggested I try speaking to an English lady who ran a children’s second-hand book service. How do I contact her? I asked. He picked up the phone on his counter, dialled a number and handed the phone to me. People over there can be like that – helpful and straightforward. But the lady I then spoke to hadn’t heard of it either, so I had drawn another blank.

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Googling Geckos and Gladiators

Back at home it was time to use the British Library’s online search facility. I could only type in ‘Malta’, ‘1940-1950’ and children’s fiction as I had no further detail. Again there was nothing. I left out ‘children’s fiction’ but got no further... except, a book by Kenneth Poolman called ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’ appeared. This was more interesting because I knew that three Gloster Gladiators mentioned in the story had been nicknamed Faith, Hope and Charity. I switched to ABE Books, the biggest international website listing books on sale by dealers. There were several copies on sale. This could be it! ABE entries tend not to describe in detail what the contents of books are unless the dealer decides to add information. It is often a big problem. But someone listed the book as the story of the three RAF planes that defended Malta. I ordered a copy, thinking that here was a chance. It arrived, and it was a disappointment. The book was a historical account rather than a children’s work of fiction. Later I came across another possibility, which was called something like ‘Air Spies Over Malta’. This was fiction and it was aimed at children. I bought a copy. It was not the one.

One year, in Malta, I used our ‘free day’ to visit the War Museum in Fort St Elmo. Amid all of the material on display stood the remains of one of the Sea Gladiators that actually defended Malta without any other air support for seventeen days in 1940. Nicknamed Faith, it was the only surviving machine of the three and was presented to the people of Malta in 1943. It was repaired several times using spare parts from other, incomplete aircraft. Even so, it lacked its wings when placed in the Museum. Malta also has a Military Aviation Museum sited on one of its three wartime airfields, that at Ta’ Qali. It is claimed that this Museum has been asking that Faith be transferred to its care because it is decaying in its present position and needs special attention. Here, therefore, is another example of a country’s past that could be lost to its future generations. I felt the same about that wartime children’s story which I recalled as being told in a way which grabbed the attention about a key episode in Malta’s history.

At home I was exhausting just about every avenue of enquiry. I contacted specialist book search services, with no luck. I looked again at the British Library – nothing showed up. Would anything appear on eBay? I thought. I looked there and found – nothing. General Google-searches came up with nothing that looked remotely like my lost story, apart from Poolman’s non-fictional account and the Air Spies book. One or two of my nearest and dearest began to adopt sympathetic smiles whenever I mentioned my recall of a story from more than sixty years before. They were the knowing smiles that get reserved for those senior citizens who are heading for the homes for the terminally confused. I knew the book existed – or had existed. In it I had heard of Malta for the first time. When we took students to the audio-visual show at The Malta Experience which described thousands of years of its history I watched the section about the Second World War with some pre-knowledge gained way back in my childhood. A couple of years back when I was teaching Maltese students on the islands for a week I had time to walk around exploring. One day I saw a gecko basking in sunlight on the wheel of a parked car. Geckos were in the book, too, I remembered.

But perhaps the book had been a short-run production by a British publisher of patriotic, imperialistic war stories, glorifying the RAF over anything to do with the Maltese people. Perhaps it had little literary merit, a short print run and nothing to comment it to either library archives or second-hand book stores.

Perhaps it would stay.... just a memory.

And then a chance hit on an internet blog site turned up a slight clue.

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A Lucky Break

Every now and then I tried typing in something like ‘wartime children’s story Malta Gladiators gecko’ on Google. Usually nothing appeared. Then one day last month I typed something like that ... and a blog came up by Dr Stephen Bigger. He turned out to be a retired academic writing extensively in a number of blogs about religion – and children’s fiction between 1930 and 1960. In November 2009 he wrote about two children’s stories, one called Wings for Nikias, written in 1942 and subtitled A Story of the Greece of Today; the other called Island on the Beam: A Story of Malta, written in 1944. The author was an American, Josephine Blackstock. As I read Dr Bigger’s account of the Malta story it began to match my memories in many ways. Not everything tallied, perhaps. The title meant nothing, either as a memory from my childhood or as a description of Malta.

So over to ABE Books and a search. One copy appeared and, of course, I ordered it. A few days later it arrived. It had it dust wrapper with a picture that seemed familiar. Very familiar, in terms of the children, boat and rocky coast that it showed.

Image: Island on the Beam

I glanced through at the drawings it included and the names that popped up from the page. John, Iris, Tessa, Pietru, Geckos. Uncle Rahib, Uncle Umberto, cousin Beppo, David Rhodes, Mrs Mattias. That ‘Geckos’ stood out like a sore thumb. I remembered it as a lizard but not a boy’s name. It was here as both, with the young Geckos adopting one of the lizards, called Carob, as a pet. Beppo rang a bell in my mind quite definitely. And there were the mentions of Gloster Gladiators, with one, Faith, as the plane flown by the RAF pilot David Rhodes. It didn’t take many pages before I knew that sixty years after reading the story I had found it again. My search was over. I had in my hand the book that gave me my first knowledge of the place to which we took our students in 1997.

“Island on the Beam” is very much of its time. But its authoring is unusual. I will come back to that. The title, first of all. It’s a bit ambiguous. At the very end is a comment about an amber-coloured Malta sitting in the blue sea – the island on the beam. We might say it was lying off the starboard beam of a boat – off to the side. On the other hand the phrase was used in the RAF during the war, of course a key part of the story, as meaning that something was on course, doing the right thing. It was a saying that came from the use of a radio navigation beam. A pilot could read from instruments whether he was flying correctly along a radio beam or was drifting away. So the book title meant that it was about a country that was doing the right thing during the war – and it was a book written during the war.

Now the main characters. There are two families, one Maltese, the other English. The Maltese are two children, Pietru and Geckos, their mother, Mrs Matthias, and two uncles, Rahib and Umberto. I need to make a point about the names later. The English children are John and Iris Rhodes, who had moved to Malta a few years before, with their father, naval Captain Rhodes. David Rhodes is an RAF pilot flying one of the Gladiators. There is also a kinsman of Uncle Umberto, Beppo, from Sicily, and a Scottish anti-aircraft gunner, Sandy, engaged to an older sister of Pietru and Geckos, Tessa. An important character is that of Bob Phelps, an American sailor from Chicago who moves in and out of the story and through whom the epic story of the SS Ohio is told. This was a tanker of American origin though at the time signed over to the British. The Ohio took part in one of the convoys that struggled to get food, fuel and supplies to the starving Maltese and British on the islands in 1940-42 while Italian and German planes were laying siege to the country. Bombed and torpedoed the Ohio limped towards Malta’s Grand Harbour with a desperately-needed cargo of fuel. It was slowly sinking though two destroyers were lashed to its sides to try to save it. A Roman Catholic priest appears in a couple of scenes, a focus for the important element of Malta’s religious life which then, as now, was a foundation for every part of daily life. Two British Governor-Generals have leading roles. Until 1964 Malta was part of the British Empire (it would become a Republic in 1974).

The characters are generally quite basic though with a little overdrawn in their national characteristics. Sandy is full of Scottish-isms like ‘fush’, ‘mon’ and ‘whist’. Bob has his ‘jeepers, creepers’, ‘zowie’ and ‘I guess’. The Maltese are given to saying ‘I vow’ when they might have said just ‘I will’. They refer to some genuinely Maltese words like ‘rahal’ for village, ‘dghajsa’ (“dice-ah”) for a small harbour-boat. The old capital of Malta is referred to – Notabile.

That puzzled me. In ten years of visiting the country it’s a name I have never heard, nor seen on any maps. Wondering about the accuracy of the book in depicting Malta I emailed my great friend there, Vincent Zammit, who teaches at the Malta Institute of Tourism Studies. Vince was always a lynch-pin in our arrangements for student residential, setting up many lectures, talks, visits and events. He commented on the names. Yes, Pietru is a Maltese name (“Peter”) but Geckos is not found – it would be used only for the plural of the lizards common there. ‘Rahib’ is not a Maltese name either. But ‘Notabile’ for Mdina was a very common title, as in Mdina Notabile or Notable City. ‘Mdina’ meant sheltered place, or, from the Arabic, a city. As an American, the author Josephine Blackstock apparently took her knowledge of Malta from a navy friend who had travelled there. Doubtless she also used written sources. We can’t be sure whether the incorrect names were mistakes or included for some other reason. In a similar way the geography of the islands gets a little distorted. As a children’s book this might just represent a simplifying of spatial relationships. Hal Far airfield seems to be close to Valletta when it was in reality several miles away. The children row from their village on St Paul’s Bay to find a cave to the east. It’s not easy to be sure, but to reach a stretch of coast with cliffs likely to contain the kind of cave mentioned they might have needed a long row to the eastern part of the island. But it’s a children’s story, after all, not a documentary about wartime geography.

And as a child’s adventure story there are caves to explore, a villain to be dealt with, exciting races (the ‘imnaria’) to take part in. Families gather for happy feastings, the church brings communities together and the island country is a beautiful place set in an azure sea. Then the bombs rain down, the cities are devastated, the people are reduced to near-starvation, killings and maiming occur in the course of the war. However, friends and enemies are firmly identified. The benevolent British and the proud Maltese realise they become unified under the stresses of the conflict. Their American friend helps save the day and holds out the dream of visiting his wonderful country. Pilot-hero first class David Rhodes shoots down enemy warplanes and invents an esoteric piece of technology that will help future airmen while also bringing together English and Maltese people who made it all possible.

Image: Island on the Beam - illustrations - R Mills

Illustrations from Hutchinson's edition published in England, 1948, by Reginald Mills

The Author

The biggest surprise was the author. I had long thought that Island on the Beam was written as a piece of British Imperial triumphalism immediately after the war. No-one seemed to know it in Malta. It was not turning up in any lists that I could find. It looked to me like it had been a children’s novel dashed off to celebrate the exploits of the RAF alongside the Dam Busters Raid and the Battle of Britain. Or maybe to help cement Malta firmly into the structure of the British Empire. I envisioned a book printed in small quantity and sold for the equivalent of about 2.80 (in old money, half a crown – a common 1940s book price). The author would have been some ex-RAF type, male and ranking perhaps Squadron Leader.

I was very wrong.

The author was a woman. An American. She was never in any of the military services, but from 1921 had been the Director of Parks and Recreation in a town within the Chicago area. Her name was Josephine Blackstock.

Ms Blackstock was always keen to have the children of Oak Park benefit from recreation grounds that stimulated activities and helped them to learn from experience. She oversaw the building of five outstanding recreation grounds, one of which won second place in a USA competition to find the most beautiful playground in the country. Besides the usual facilities the recreation grounds had community festivals, an orchestra and a drama club. There was an Aviation Club endorsed by the famous American woman aviator Amelia Earhart. Blackstock encouraged a newspaper supplement to the local paper that was written by children in the park clubs. She even set up a junior police force.

Each recreation ground was named after a famous children’s author: Carroll, Stevenson, Barrie, Anderson, and Field (only the last being American, the others British or Danish). During 1933 she was in charge of the Enchanted Island children’s entertainment zone of the Chicago World’s Fair of that year. Josephine Blackstock also wrote children’s short stories and plays – and two novels. The first of these was called Wings for Nikias. It was written during World War II and set in Greece, becoming quite famous for its story about the Greek resistance to the Nazi occupation. She followed it up with another story about resistance to an enemy by a Mediterranean country – Malta. This was Island on the Beam.

Josephine Blackstock was therefore writing about quite distant countries, one of which at least was probably unheard of by American children unless they followed the news of efforts to defend and feed the country in the early 1940s. From what relatively little I have so far been able to find out about her it would appear she was very positive towards Britain (the naming of three of the five recreation grounds appears to be evidence). She must have had a wider perspective than just the boundaries of the USA, perhaps partly from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 and the international pavilions it had on show. Dr Stephen Bigger refers in his web pages to some American friend of hers who had travelled in southern Europe who supplied information about geography and culture that she had not got from first-hand experience. It also explains why there is the character Bob Phelps, from Chicago, features so strongly, leading the children in the book to plan a visit to his city after the war. And although the situation of Malta as a British colony is presented in a positive light, with deeply harmonious relationships between the Maltese and the British, there is the feeling all through that the Maltese children are seeing their country standing up for itself and through growing contacts with their American friends will make their own choices in the future. As the American colonies did in the eighteenth century, freeing themselves of their historic ties to Britain. Finally, both the Maltese and the English children go through personal and wartime traumas including attempts at treachery, near starvation, injuries and the violent death of a close relative. From these kinds of experiences they learn more about who they are and who they will be in the future.

Island on the Beam is a tale of discovery set in a distant land in a time of war and deprivation. Josephine Blackstock’s story deserves to be rediscovered in Malta, Britain and the United States for what she set out to do nearly seventy years ago.

Click here to read Dr Stephen Bigger's blog postings on 'Island on the Beam'

Image: Rafaello Busoni illustration - 'Island on the Beam'

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About Rafaello ('Raphael') Busoni who illustrated the original, US edition:

(1900–62). The German-born U.S. artist and illustrator Rafaello Busoni wrote and illustrated several children's books and illustrated many more by other authors. Much of his work focuses on geographical subjects.


Busoni was born in Berlin, Germany, on Feb. 1, 1900, of a Swedish mother and an Italian father; he considered himself Italian by nationality. At an early age he showed a talent for drawing. During World War I, when he lived with his family in Switzerland, he began to pursue art seriously, quitting school at age 16 to become a painter. At age 17 Busoni had his first exhibition. After the war he settled in Berlin.


In 1939 Busoni fled Germany in response to the growing Nazi threat and settled in New York City. He soon became a successful illustrator of trade books and textbooks. When his son reached an age at which he became interested in books, Busoni turned his professional attention mainly to books for young readers. Among the titles he wrote and illustrated are Somi Builds a Church: A Story from Lapland (1943), Stanley's Africa (1944), and The Man Who Was Don Quixote: The Story of Miguel Cervantes (1958), winner of the 1963 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award. For other authors, he illustrated books on topics in geography, history, and music. He also worked on editions of literary classics such as Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Busoni died in New York City on March 17, 1962.

Busoni, Rafaello. (2010). In Student Encyclopædia. Retrieved July 28, 2010, from Britannica Online for Kids: http://kids.britannica.com/comptons/article-9318323/Rafaello-Busoni

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Image: Modern Malta - composite

Photographs of modern Malta: top panorama - Grand Harbour from Upper Barrakka Gardens; bottom panorama - Ramla Bay, Gozo; also includes an entrance to a world War II bomb shelter and people viewing the part-underground nineteenth century Fort Rinella, and other details of life in Malta. Photos: AM


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