Hackney has no palazzi

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BRITAIN is becoming increasingly sordid. You only had to turn on the television last week to be bombarded by allegations of corruption in our most august institutions, such as the police and Brian Clough.

The Institute of Economic Affairs has noticed it, too. Formerly famous as the source of many a hard-hearted Thatcherite policy, the IEA has rediscovered society, and its latest pamphlet laments the demise of 'honesty, duty, self-sacrifice, civility, respect, integrity' - all of which, it notes sadly, 'have a ring of either antique charm or total obsolescence'.

Britain is fast becoming a place of backhanders and half-truths, like Italy without the cappuccinos. Unfortunately, the cappuccinos make quite a difference. I could cope with a certain level of corruption if it meant living in a 15th-century palazzo up a Tuscan hill with plenty of pasta and cheap red wine. Hackney, where I do live, being wet and cold and seedy, offers few compensations for moral decay. But moral decay is what we've got: no one in Hackney admits to keeping their cars there (insurance premiums are far too high). Insurance companies assume you're lying about the value of your video when you report a burglary.

In Italy, the attempt to restore honesty, duty and probity has led to electoral reform and the clearing out of an entire political class. We can but hope, although personally I'd settle for a palazzo.

CINDY DINDIAL, the housemaid who was beaten with a kettle flex and had her head slammed against a wall, has highlighted the precarious position of foreign domestics working in Britain. Dindial was lucky: she got away to tell her story and take her employers to court. There are 20,000 other foreign domestics in Britain, living invisibly on visitors' visas that prevent them from working for anyone else, with none of the normal rights of British workers, no independent legal status and nothing to protect them from virtual slavery.

I tried to be a slaver once myself. I brought my Sri Lankan housemaid (though I preferred to call her the nanny) back from the Gulf, just for a month, to help us settle in. All her friends worked for people who lived in Kensington; her boyfriend also had a flat in Kensington. She was not impressed by the East End. And she couldn't understand why I twitched whenever she described herself as my maid. Now she views me as a rather pathetic figure, and sends lavish presents to my children, to make up to them for living in such a hellhole with a mother who blushed whenever it was pointed out that she had a black maid.

ANOTHER British tourist has been mugged at gunpoint in Florida, so it is probably time to develop my new business idea, which I have pinched from a Japanese woman called Yuko Sawada. Sawada has become a yen billionaire by setting up Home A-Loan, a business which creates that Authentic Abroad Experience at home. Customers rent an apartment furnished in foreign style (racks of briar pipes in her 'English mews', for example), giving them 'a chance to live overseas without all the hassle of actually going there'. Sawada, who has never left Japan herself, says 'if you want to go overseas, you have to get a passport, buy a ticket, get suitcases, shots and traveller's cheques. It's not worth it.'

Especially if you are likely to be gunned down when you arrive. Florida may be the fastest-growing holiday destination for Britons, but the recent violent attacks on tourists must be giving many people pause. My plan is to offer the thrills of Florida without the dangers, probably by renting a room in Canary Wharf. I will supply muffin and pancake breakfasts, good coffee, and air conditioning, and, following Sawada's example, advise clients how much sleep to do without beforehand so as to enjoy the proper jetlag sensations.

I HAVE always felt sorry for Mandy Smith. I assumed she was a kid confused by someone who looked like a romantic hero, but wasn't one, and that she must now be older and wiser. Last week's extracts from her autobiography in the Sun have exploded all such feelings.

Mandy describes how her new husband, the footballer Pat Van den Hauwe, gives her the sort of 'good old-fashioned laugh' she never had with Bill Wyman. This mostly entails his dressing up in women's clothing and pretending to be someone called Helga. 'Pat loves winding my mum up with his practical jokes,' Mandy explains. 'His favourite is putting clingfilm over the loo seat.' Now I think Mandy is just a bad picker.

A NUMBER of readers have written in response to my quest for a word that makes no distinction between the married and unmarried state, to substitute for husband or partner. Philip Stewart of Oxford sugggested 'my man', but this is impossible to say other than in a silly Dolly Parton voice. Someone else suggested the French words Jules, mec and gonze, which apparently derive from the names 19th-century prostitutes gave their pimps. I am not sure this is quite the effect I'm after. Gonze is also disturbingly reminiscent of the Muppets. My favourite came from A Lodge, who suggested fere, feare, fiere, or pheere, meaning (according to Chambers 20th-Century Dictionary) 'a companion, a mate, a spouse, an equal'. But we would need to work out how to spell it.