My friend Daphne

As a journalist Daphne insisted on writing about what she saw was wrong. She was fearless and never gave up the chase. Her childhood friend Clare Vassallo recalls how Daphne had always been like that, even as a child – hard-headed and determined, funny and clever, witty and talented.

First days of school

My earliest memories of Daphne go back to my very first school days when I was barely four years old. I remember my mother telling me I would be going to school, and I did.

The school van came to pick me up and then, after a rather traumatic and noisy day, it brought me back home. The shock came on the second day. No one had told me that I would have to go back there. Every day, for twelve whole years.

Over those very first weeks at school a little group of girls in pig-tails, and hair-bands joined forces and became friends. On rainy school days we spent our lunch breaks in a large room which echoed loudly. The older children ran around shouting and chasing each other while we stood with our backs to the wall, watching.

On sunny days we spilled out into a large playground. The rowdy boys were sent to run and kick a ball ‘under the arches’ at the back and the girls got on with their own games.

We girls had a few favourites but our top game was one we created ourselves called ‘Witches and Fairies’. The witches ran and chased the fairies as they tried to make their way to the ‘safe home’ between two large planters.

Daphne's class

Daphne (left) and I in a class photo 1973 - St Dorothy's Primary

St Dorothy's

Our primary school, St Dorothy’s, was in the town of Sliema where our gang of friends lived, so, after school, we’d pop round to each other's houses. When we were about nine or ten, on Saturday mornings we'd venture out and walk down to the shops on the seafront. We'd pick up our favourite comic books from Mr Manche’s stationery and then go on for a coke and a cheesecake at Allies’ Bar. From comic books we progressed to teen magazines. The titles changed as we grew older but magazines remained a staple that kept us in touch with a world beyond our island’s shores.

We also loved books. We formed a club and pooled in our Alcotts, Blytons and annuals. Since Daphne was the Book Club President (I was Vice-President), we kept them all in Daphne’s bedroom. This meant that together we had access to a greater variety of books.

birthday party

Daphne (right) and I at our friend's 8th birthday party

Secondary School

At the age of eleven we moved to St Dorothy’s Convent Senior School. This was an old building in the old Medieval capital of the island far from our home town. The old city stands high upon a windy hill with views of much of the island beneath it.

The school was two old palaces connected by a Venetian looking stonebridge across a narrow street. On one side of the bridge stood the Headmistress' office. Sister Ellul was a stern and rather severe nun and kept a tight hold on discipline. 

St Dots Prison, as we came to call it, was rather different to what we had imagined. Compared to our adventure books, it was boring and repetitive. The stone building with black metal bars at the windows, and not a stitch of carpet or curtain, could be rather cold and miserable in winter but it wasn't without entertainment.

birthday party

"hard-headed and determined, funny and clever, witty and talented."

And one source of entertainment was Daphne and her attitude to authority. She wouldn’t shy from contradicting a teacher, or voicing her strong opinions on all sorts of sensitive subjects. I remember almost feeling sorry for the only male teacher in the school. Father Sylvester had the unenviable task of teaching religion class to a bunch of vociferous and opinionated thirteen year olds.

He must have realised he’d totally lost his hold on us by February when Daphne and some others thought it funny to leave a rather elaborate Valentine’s Day Card on his desk. They found themselves directly in Sister Ellul’s office.

Growing up

Daphne would speak her mind because hers, and ours I hope, were informed minds. We all read a lot and were interested in politics in the late 1970s and 80s.

Party politics started to affect our families, our education opportunities, travel – and even things like being able to buy a good bar of chocolate. Our teenage years were heavily marked by the restrictive politics of the day.

Our years in school helped us to find our voice and to protest (and get arrested, as Daphne eventually did).

Daphne's portrait

Daphne photographed by P. Zammit Cutajar

Her work

I'm sure that our book club and our love of books helped in giving Daphne her great writing skills and clever turn of phrase.

The same skills that she showed in her school essays, became central to her regular opinion columns in local newspapers, and later in her very influential and powerful blog called ‘Running Commentary’.

Besides her political and social writing she also edited two beautiful magazines, ‘Taste’ and ‘Flair’ the first about food and travel, and the second about houses and decoration and furnishings.

There was fun and appreciation, beauty and humour in Daphne’s writing - as well as the sharp and unrelenting political commentary which led to her early end.

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Clare Vassallo

Clare Vassallo is an Associate Professor at the University of Malta. She's been Chairman of Malta's National TV station, Consultant to the Ministry of Culture, Judge for the National Book Prize, and Judge and Chair of the Panel for the Malta Press Club Award to Journalists (IGM), the Gold Award and the Award for Travel Journalism. She has served as a member of the Faculty of Arts M.A. Committee since 2009.

Clare has translated various books including P J.Mejlak's Having Said Goodnight and J. Friggieri's Straight to the Point. Read her article about Daphne on Think magazine.

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