Since the pink FT went off-colour to produce the scoop of the month, I have
been wondering if the Presidents (no apostrophe) Dinner, the Dorchester Hotel's starring role in it, and the sleazy sub-text of business ethics it revealed, has any Scottish equivalent. At the risk of disappointing you, the best I can legally offer is the Excelsior Hotel at Glasgow Airport back in the 1970s.
The Excelsior is no longer with us and barely rates a mention on the internet. A BBC history site dated 1986 describes it as 'an imposing structure nine storeys high which is situated 100 yards from the main terminal building... The hotel has 305 rooms and two restaurants...The clients are mostly businessmen usually staying no more than two nights.'
For some, two hours was enough. Yet the hotel's reputation for brief encounters – we are talking here of more than tea – only came to light because of a celebrated court case involving a local businessman, Maurice Cochrane, Jimmy as he preferred to be called.
His eccentricities made him a favourite of the tabloid press. He was known by those tell-tale euphemisms 'ebullient' and 'larger than life.' And it is true that Jimmy had a certain panache. When he walked into a hotel, he would automatically slip the doorman a fiver, the head waiter a bit more, and the band, because hotels ran to bands in those days, 20 quid, all before he sat down. He was something of a byword for generosity was our Jimmy, especially at the Excelsior.
Born in London, not that that necessarily excused anything, he worked as an actor with repertory companies in England, but his theatrical career bombed and he turned to the more lucrative trades of fraud and house-breaking. His acclaimed production of 'Twelfth Night' played to full houses at an open prison in Gloucestershire.
He made a fresh start in Scotland, set up his own company (Rotary Tools), and managed to bribe the National Coal Board, Scotts shipyard in Greenock, and the Chrysler car plant at Linwood into awarding him contracts. Jimmy denied that offering 'inducements' was unconventional. 'I didn't corrupt anyone who was not already corrupt,' he explained.
One of the main inducements at his disposal was a hard-working young Polish model, Anna Grunt, who received a flat fee – indeed a pretty well horizontal one – every time she slept with one of Jimmy's clients. It was always £35.
On one occasion, John Sim, 51, 'small and balding,' a production manager with the Coal Board, was dining at the Excelsior with Jimmy and other clients of Rotary Tools, when Anna joined them. Drink was taken – rather more than the four units a day then officially permitted – and Sim abandoned his pork chops to accompany her upstairs. He described what followed as a momentary lapse.
He was promptly followed to the bedroom floors by another escort from the Cochrane stable, Maretta Barnsley, and a second client. When she was challenged in court to describe him, Maretta replied that she wasn't looking that closely.
Jimmy's complex business arrangements only started to unravel when he hosted what he unwisely billed as 'the party of the century.' Four thousand turned up at a Glasgow warehouse; by 2am, they were still queuing to get in. It was a wild, democratic Glesca version of the Presidents (no apostrophe) Dinner, no doubt with Anna and Maretta dancing attendance in anticipation of the inevitable after-party at the Excelsior.
The David Walliams of the piece – the hired hand giving a smudgy patina of respectability to the proceedings – was none other than the rector of Glasgow University, Arthur Montford, a sports presenter with Scottish Television. Montford, in addition to his duties as compere, was expected to adjudicate the aesthetic centrepiece of the evening, a beauty contest in which the organiser's girlfriend, Carolyn Shultz, had been installed as short-odds favourite.
The briefing for Montford was nothing if not direct. He said later in evidence: 'The only comment Mr Cochrane made to me was that Carolyn will win.' Carolyn duly did.
After his chastening experience at the Presidents (no apostrophe) Dinner, it may be of some comfort to David Walliams to learn that, apart from the embarrassment of being summoned as a witness at Maurice Cochrane's trial, Arthur Montford suffered no lasting damage to his reputation.
He was not dethroned as rector of Glasgow University, any books he may
have written were not whipped from the shelves by outraged retailers, and he remained an ornament in many a Scottish living room on soporific Sunday afternoons of football highlights. He died some years ago, but is still fondly remembered for his loud check jacket and amiable persona.
The Crown Office prosecuted Cochrane for providing sex and cash to small, balding officials of nationalised industries and other executives prone to momentary lapses in the Excelsior Hotel. Risibly, however, it also accused him of rigging the beauty contest. That charge was eventually dropped, but Cochrane was found guilty of the others. He spent the next 12 months treading the boards in Scotland's largest repertory theatre – Barlinnie Prison.
As he was led to the cells, he blew kisses at his young wife, Carolyn, for they had married shortly before the trial. Since the fall of Rotary Tools, the couple had been living in a council house, with Jimmy reduced to selling knickers in an open-air market. Carolyn told the press that she would wait for him. Whether she did has not been recorded for posterity.
Although all this happened a very long time ago, it has obvious resonances with recent events. Theresa May, poor dear, thought we had left that sort of stuff 'behind'. But now we know that only the names have changed. The latter-day Anna Grunts are clearly as much in demand as ever. Businessmen continue to behave badly in hotels. And the tame celebs who preside over corporate junkets are still overcome by an acute case of myopia whenever they approach an after-dinner podium. No surprises about any of it, really.
But there's one important difference between then and now. Without scruple in every other respect, the founder of Rotary Tools never pretended that he was doing any of it for charity. Even Jimmy had standards.