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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 108 - Dreaming of that nice little earner in my Army days

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 refunding money.

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 a deal."

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.

You cannot hope to bribe or twist (thank God!) the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

Thus, 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 into shadowland.

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.

Where I 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.

Life 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.

IN THIS 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.

One 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.

Briefly, 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.

He seemed 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.

I 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).

Big deal; I smile and dream on.

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