PEOPLE have sometimes likened my
smile to that of a bank clerk who has just discovered a foolproof
embezzlement scheme. It is a direct calumny on that facial movement which
is as wide open as my wallet and resembles that seen on someone cheerfully
I smiled reminiscently on Wednesday at
"Dealmakers", the bright and informative supplement in this paper, which
had an article headed: "Pssst! Fancy a nice little earner? Well, let’s do
For entrepreneurs featuring in newspapers’ business
sections, who believe that every crowd has a silver lining and who
instigate big bucks’ deals such as squeezing money out of the Eskimos by
introducing them to the corset or - a smash hit in Saharan souks - selling
toffee-making equipment to the Tuaregs, I feel a twinge of envy and
admiration that gets me right in the small of my investment portfolio.
Financially-speaking, I, too, could have been big; it was the deals that,
by and large, were small. Some came in my early reportorial years.
cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist.
seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
wrote the poet Humbert Wolfe, and some citizens, although they might have
believed in the non-bribeable, editorial generosity or restraint of the
press covering events with which they were connected, nevertheless offered
gratuities to grease backhanded palms.
I EXPERIENCED their approaches
mainly when court reporting. As I left the judicial precincts, some
citizen might emerge, blinking, from the shadows - Edinburgh has a taste
for shadow - and offer to do a deal with me.
"How much to keep my name out
of the paper?" he would ask. I would respond with journalistic jocularity
by naming, say, the 1950s equivalent of £200. Instead of sagging in mirth
or shock, the fellow might start peeling off the notes and cause me to
inform him loftily about the cleanliness that was next to godliness of
Edinburgh journalism after which - too blinking true - he would slink back
Later, I would be invited to dinners, receptions,
lunches and parties, all, I thought, because of my warm personality, but
which, in cold reality, was part of a later revealed deal in which I could
be expected to mention favourably the name of a company, individual or
project. Such practices left me not annoyed, only a little hurt.
might have bulked big financially was in immediate post-war Mauritius, a
paradisal, south Indian Ocean island, its settlements then, in atmosphere,
still suggesting France, of which it was once a colony.
there moved like a graceful saraband while the British garrison, despite
being run down strategically, performed a merry dance disposing, as in
other soon-to-be-dismantled military enclaves, of equipment, legally and
otherwise, with military strict tempo and precision.
maelstrom of open and covert commercialism, where did I stand?
Precariously but proudly, since I was nothing less than a quartermaster
sergeant in charge of a garrison’s life support system which included
moustache cups (officers only), field service trouser-presser and shorts
long (1917 pattern).
I was the king of khaki drill clothing, the lord of
long puttees and the supreme pontiff of soap supplies.
bright quartermastering day, I was walking along a bush-lined road when
out from the undergrowth appeared a charming Asian gentlemen who
introduced himself as a garrison laundryman.
"Pssst! Fancy a nice little
earner," he more or less said, offering me a big deal which, if not
whiter-than-white, would surely lighten my spirits.
I was to invent fictitious soldiers’ names on my weekly laundry lists, in
much the same way as in the Russian novel, Dead Souls, and shared profits
would accrue. My mind Gogoled. In refusing, I told him we would be
defrauding the British taxpayer and subverting the imperial ethic.
stunned, revealed that a previous co-operative quartermastering NCO now
had an elegant villa and large garden with a flagpole, in Kent, and
claimed bitterly that I was lowering the tone of corruption on the island.
was obdurate but, if I had agreed, I might have, after demob, cornered the
Indian Ocean market in monocles (senior officers only), air-cooled,
marching order underwear and bootlaces (1941 tropical pattern).
I smile and dream on.