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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 62 - Dancing the war away at the fabled frontier's Imperial-Splendide

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 with us.

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.

Repairs were 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 under water.

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.

We departed 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 wonder.

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.

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