A few days ago a journalist contacted me to ask if I could help with some research he was doing into anti-bribery and corruption. I listened to his brief, and quickly realised that I wasn’t going to be of much use to him at all, as the slant of his piece was more the morality of the thing – is it right to condemn people for acts committed in other jurisdictions where such acts are considered acceptable, if not downright desirable? The debate about “facilitation payments” rumbles on, it seems – although I did enjoy this take on it, having myself paid for speedier service on certain occasions. But it made me wonder how history will judge bribery and corruption – will it be like slavery (with most people aghast that anyone in their right mind would have done such a thing), or will it be like smuggling?
Yes, smuggling. Over the weekend, in order to make a mountain of ironing more palatable, I set up the board in front of one of my beloved videos of “Poldark”. It was the episode where the brigantine Queen Charlotte comes to grief in Nampara Cove, and rogues from the nearby villages descend to claim “pickins’ for all” from the wrecked goods. Some of those goods they consume immediately (the crew’s brandy rations don’t last long), but others they carry off for later sale. At the time (1785), with England struggling to recover from defeat in the American war of independence and the poor starting to question their lot in life, Cornwall was a hotbed of smuggling – the illegal transportation of objects or people, often across international borders. Through their actions, smugglers were depriving the “revenue man” of his due. And yet, like all crimes against the taxman, smuggling has somehow acquired glamour. A while ago I read a book about Zephaniah Job of Polperro, known as the “smuggler’s banker”, by Jeremy Rowett Johns – and the plot outline on Amazon is distinctly favourable: “The Cornishman who masterminded the flourishing contraband trade in Polperro during the Napoleonic wars. Job’s flair for business, his association with the Trelawny family and links with those engaged in the smuggling trade brought lasting prosperity to the inhabitants of this remote Cornish fishing village at the end of the 18th century”. Perhaps one day we will talk admiringly of Madoff’s “flair for business” and Curtis Warren bringing “lasting prosperity” to Liverpool.