BECAUSE this is a family column
it is likely to contain nothing to bring blushes to anyone from those
mouthing Snow White to lean and slippered pantaloons eye-straining over
the large-print pages of The Plain Man’s Guide to British Birds.
Nevertheless, the column indicates that I have been about a bit and seen a
thing or two, and therefore considers it appropriate to state that the
four years’ jail sentence passed by a Paris court on Margaret MacDonald
(44), a former convent girl and later madam of nearly 600 prostitutes
throughout Europe, was unduly harsh.
A first offender, she claimed
she merely ran an escort agency, leaving her charges to bustle about in
their own extramural activities. Already, some have shouted "scandalous"
at the sentence, claiming that, in justice, the agency’s customers should
have been nicked as well.
The French letter of the law was doubtless strictly
followed, but there were suggestions of anti-British influences at work
and subtle, sabotaging pressures from rival agencies. In such Gallic
intimate matters, I suspect the worst.
My view of the oldest profession
hovers, morally neutral, between the belief that it is a blight on
humanity and the view that, like the poor and taxes, it will always be
I remember an approach to me made in a salubrious
Edinburgh street when I was a young man. "Excuse me," whispered a
middle-aged, respectable-looking blonde. Heavens, I possessed a Wolf Cub
good conduct badge and, as a junior reporter in the Evening Dispatch, I
had a position to keep up. In my best, biting Edinburgh Newington tones, I
replied, "certainly not". "I only wanted the correct time," snapped the
woman with equal froideur.
Shortly afterwards, leaving the Playhouse cinema one
night, I encountered Annie, who often appeared in the Burgh Court charged
with importuning the lieges to their fear and alarm. Her approach was
direct and pragmatic, like that of a cement mixer. When I shook my head
and left the locus briskly, she followed and, as I boarded my bus, she
delivered an accurate verbal sling shot. "Ye think ye’re a big shot," she
shouted to the scandal of queuers, who doubtless thought they were
witnessing a family squabble.
The scene shifts, as it
sometimes does in this space, to British Somaliland, when, in the
mid-1940s, I was a full-blown Army corporal in temporary command of a
truck, bearing Army stores 200 miles from Hargeisa, the capital, to the
Ethiopian town of Dera Dawa.
My driver, a former Italian
prisoner-of-war named Giuseppe, as in Verdi, was among the happiest of
men. The war was over, he had survived and he sang joyfully to the bush
lands, dusty tracks, mountain roads and Ethiopia’s greenery. In the midst
of a snatch of Bellini at a frontier settlement named Jijiga, the truck’s
engine faltered, as did Giuseppe’s fruity tenor.
needed, he said. Until they were completed, would I mind staying overnight
at his expense at an hotel called - if I rightly recall - the Imperial-Splendide
where he had "a very good friend".
I agreed - the Army was trained
for such emergencies. The hotel resembled a decrepit structure for a
Hollywood Western, but the staff, mainly Ethiopian and Somali females with
beaming faces, resembling finely-carved ebony, were the first and last
words in friendliness. The place was a hive of jollity, with Italian and
French male guests, who, I was charmed to see soon made friends with the
lasses. There was dancing to an ancient wind-up gramophone, one of the
cracked records sounding like Dame Clara Butt singing Home Sweet Home
Giuseppe soon found his friend, but I refused the
offer of one, stating that I had to look after my Smith & Wesson revolver.
The food was indifferent, the wallpaper was peeling, but the hotel had
three stars which you could see through holes in the roof.
next day, Giuseppe warbling robust Rossini. It was an interesting
interlude although I suspected that things went on there which were not on
the level. Was it a house of ill-fame, a pleasure palace? I sometimes
The hotel, however, did need tarting-up. When
Margaret MacDonald is released, she might consider setting up an escort
agency on that fabled frontier where her business enterprise and
inter-personal skills would be much appreciated.