:: Article


By Andrew Stevens.


Catharine Arnold, City of Sin: London and Its Vices, Simon & Schuster 2010

Robinson talked of how hard it was to find any remains of the shivering, naked heart of the city that Soho had once been: the countless creaking, winding stairs, leading to poky rooms, the ascendant lured up by whatever clumsy enticement was offered by the crudely hand-lettered card stuck by the downstairs bell. On that first evening we collided with a man ducking out after his swift transaction upstairs, already moving at street speed as he came through the door.
Robinson stopped and peered at the whore’s card. Written in pathetic childish capitals was the name Monique. He looked at me. ‘Do you fancy going up?’
‘Not particularly.’

Chris Petit, Robinson (1993)

A book which proudly claims to depict London and vice, from the Romans to Christine Keeler via Nell Gwyn, would rightly be said to belong to the popular history genre. City of Sin, the third part of Catharine Arnold’s surveys of the capital’s ‘dark side’ (the others being her London-based studies of madness and burial), is definitely popular history in the most commonly understood and commercial sense of the genre, but equally it could be viewed as bracketed within the burgeoning Ackroydian ‘London studies’ discipline (as evidenced by the growing number of academic courses offered and supply of texts), though it obviously lacks any such academic rigour. Actually, at times the writing is boilerplate and pedestrian to the point you wonder how it made it past the staff of a not inconsiderably sized publisher. Other reviews have already taken the author to task over this.

Arnold is further let down by the book’s marketing puffery (“If Paris is the city of love, then London is the city of lust”!), predicated on a fairly amusing yet unacceptably trite reductionism of two millennia of history of settlements on the Seine and Thames. It’s just so laughable (intuitively Parisian brothels have an equally vivid and valid history) that it doesn’t merit further comment, never mind stand up to any meaningful scrutiny. Equally, Arnold’s enterprise suffers from a lack of even pace, with the book’s obvious commercial appeal derived from the Starkey-Schama type depictions of medieval and Georgian tavern bawdy-ness, the whole Moll Flanders thing, to the point that more recent history is simply bolted on to the end as an afterthought. In fact, the post-2000 period is little more than the cutting and pasting of some English Collective of Prostitutes press releases to the point where Niki Adams could stake a reasonable claim for a share of the royalties. While the book’s densest content has to compete against a plethora of similar titles in the marketplace, the latter era of Keeler and Rice Davies is positively thin in comparison to James Morton’s Gangland Soho and Ed Glinert’s West End Chronicles, also accessible in their approach to their subjects. And where are the rent boys, the Greek Pete‘s? Anyone who has either read up on the subject or even merely spent more than a holiday in the capital will probably feel short-changed by the whole reading experience (though fans of Sarah Waters or Belle de Jour might find some ‘Oh gosh!’ vicarious enjoyment in it.)

The author herself, as part of her pre-release publicity, claims not only to have spent a considerable amount of time living in the capital during the 1980s (for the record she is now a Labour councillor in Nottingham), but as having extensive knowledge of the subject under discussion where as a “gamine public schoolgirl” English graduate she turned tricks in Mayfair for well-heeled, older (read ‘impotent’) clients. Therefore her concentration on the period elements of the history rather than that of (her) living memory is regrettable yet possibly understandable. Or perhaps she rues the absence of the internet during that period (“that most recent phenomenon”, she helpfully notes.)


Put simply, as the book seeks (yet fails) to demonstrate, the vice trade has run through London’s history from the first stone laid in Londinium right up to the very second that you’re reading this (the early part of the book does detail the trafficking which took place under the Roman Empire however.) For most intents and purposes, it is and always has been an embedded and perhaps grim facet of the capital’s routine, a fact widely acknowledged in all media, from soap Brookside’s Sheila Grant’s concern that her son Damon would naturally stray into Soho during his London sojourn to the tittering of the welfare queue in Angela’s Ashes on hearing where the young boy’s father was now domiciled. It almost, as the common refrain has it, goes without saying.

The current reading of the vice trade in the capital is usually understood in an Evening Standard-reader sense as relating to the demi-romantic licentious behaviour of the late Sebastian Horsley, who did a good line in living what he depicted in his work, or perhaps the antics of blogger Belle de Jour, both presented at a safe distance. We have, as far as I am aware, no latter day Rector of Stiffkey. However, for the most part, the low rent end of the trade (as opposed to elite call girls for footballers and sheiks) is carried on rather shabbily in the back pages of local newspapers and newsagents windows, and increasingly via specialist websites such as AdultWork and PunterNet (or even just craigslist). In truth, the trade has been serviced by successive waves of arrivals, foreign and domestic, for the past 1,000 years (the Britpop era music exec protagonist in John Niven’s Kill Your Friends bemoans the cost of prostitutes in the provinces compared to the capital, where Balkan refugees swelled the ranks in the late 90s).

The Home Office-funded Poppy Project, which frequently finds itself rebutted by the English Collective of Prostitutes for its demands for legislative lever-pulling to banish prostitution from the capital’s streets, has undertaken lengthy and costly research into the availability of off-street (ie. brothel) prostitution in the capital based around borough localities but admitted that its telephone research had been hampered by premises putting the phone down on their female researchers (use male proxies or even the postcode search on AdultWork, perhaps?) and was able to come up with a quasi-scientific estimate of availability, country of origin and age of women working in the trade. More recently it has, belatedly, tried to build up a profile of the ‘punters’ themselves, but while a fairly typical brothel staffer might be Polish and in her mid-20s, the profile of users is harder to pin down as it extends to all ages and backgrounds.

The trade’s reach into the capital’s routine is pervasive and is often closely allied with property interests. Someone who made the shift from estate agent to police officer once told me that she dealt with more prostitutes in her former career than she now comes across (the Met’s ‘job’ refrain to its officers of the “three P’s” that can get you the sack being “prisoners, property and prostitutes”). Our contemporary frame of reference for dealing with the trade probably began with the Street Offences Act of 1959, legislated for with the West End in mind and bafflingly enacted in response to the (gay) Burgess-McLean affair, with the Obscene Publications Squad to follow (more gloss-over in the book, I’m afraid.) The examinations by Stewart Home (himself once accused, by the Evening Standard no less, of ‘ghosting’ Belle de Jour!) of the era/locale and reviews of its film treatment (London in the Raw etc.) in particular are worth following up if your interest is aroused in this period.

It went on. Westminster Council’s convenient hate figure leader Dame Shirley Porter, accompanied by a number of her council colleagues, memorably went on a tour of Soho’s sex shops in the name of ‘fact-finding’, which subsequently led to the passage of the typically anodyne-sounding Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982, which gave the authority sweeping powers to regulate and therefore curtail the sale of pornography within its jurisdiction (I was once asked to evaluate the Act and spent time among the enforcement officers, one of the more memorable aspects of my career so far).

The priggish architects of the Street Offences Act and Dame Shirley Porter’s ‘fact-finding’ municipalists are still among us. Former Westminster deputy leader and now Deputy Mayor of London (Policing) Kit Malthouse has in particular devoted inordinate amounts of the Metropolitan Police’s resources (amid cuts to the Human Trafficking Unit) and seemingly his own spare time to tackling the scourge of ‘carders’ (the infamous callbox prostitute adverts), normally a fairly routine task of CO14, the Met’s Clubs and Vice Unit. The history and operations of the capital’s vice squad, established in 1932 to move on hookers from Piccadilly and which at one stage operated from a Leicester Square saloon bar but now has Charing Cross nick to work from, which would make for a book in itself (possibly a more interesting one.)

We might have come to expect this from the party of Jeffrey Archer and his own dalliances with the walk-ups of Shepherd Market, but the behaviour can also be observed on the Commons benches opposite, albeit couched in different rhetoric. Labour’s ‘crusading’ minister for women and equalities Harriet Harman, armed with the latest Poppy Project report, told delegates gathered at the party’s 2009 seaside conference (such places being no stranger themselves to knocking shops) that she wanted to pull the server plug on PunterNet, which as it is hosted in California, she had to plead to Governor Schwarzenegger to assist (“naked in the conference chamber” indeed). Cue the site’s forums buzzing for days with grateful nods to the hapless dupe for all the free publicity and increased traffic and business. The finger-wagging patrician minister, like some kind of Norland nanny, replied that the prostitutes and the site’s webmaster “should be ashamed of themselves” (‘Punter Net prostitutes thank Harriet Harman for publicity boost’, Independent, 2 October 2009). More soberingly, it was left to Natasha Walter and her Living Dolls (2010) to remind us of the harsher side of what transpires on the site itself:

A poor punt indeed! Wouldn’t open her legs to give full penetration. I just drilled her until I finished, cleaned up and left… Shite punt. She was not into being fucked hard. Finished with her wanking me as she said I hurt her too much… Just seemed to go downhill from then, she lay flat on her back, eyes shut, no sound or movement, until I shot my load, then cleaned me up and off she went… Once again another crap Eastern European shag.

It’s this level of recent detail which City of Sin is sadly lacking and all the more poorer for as a result. For all Arnold’s depiction of the Roman Empire’s trafficking and the Gin Lane era handlers who preyed on each coach of naive arrivals from the shires, the mission to explain and connect these practices with the context of the more recent Eastern European, Chinese and Latin American corollary of globalisation and the expansion of the EU simply does not come off.

Andrew Stevens is a contributing editor of 3:AM and lives in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 7th, 2010.