Serpent's Egg

The Eroticism of Fat Men

Is Soho losing its mojo?

The seedy sex shops and cabaret clubs are making way for boutiques, delis and million-pound flats. That’s offensive, say London’s sex workers and creatives. John Arlidge reports


Why do you want to meet here?’ asks Laura, as I walk into Snog, just opposite Madame Jojo’s in Soho. Laura doesn’t like Snog. She prefers something stronger. Sex. And she wants me to know there’s not enough of it in Soho any more. ‘Come, I’ll show you where the girls left around here work,’ she says.

A short walk up Walker’s Court, past the Harmony Bookstore, that sells… well, let’s just say it’s not your average Waterstones, leads to Peter Street. ‘There’ll be girls working there, each with a “maid” [minder], and more over there,’ says Laura, pointing to two open doorways with ‘MODELS’ written in red marker pen on a piece of card in the hall. She knows because she used to work these streets. Ah, the oldest profession is alive and well in its traditional London home. Or is it?

Laura, who works with the English Collective of Prostitutes, which represents sex workers and campaigns for the legalisation of prostitution, says that there’s not as much sex as there used to be — and way less than there should be. ‘See those buildings over there,’ she says, pointing to the corner of Peter Street and Walker’s Court. ‘They used to be working flats but now they’re closed.’ The same goes for the ‘bookstores’. Harmony will soon shut up shop because there’s not enough passing trade.

Soho’s sex business has always been tough. If it isn’t the punters giving retailers and prostitutes a rough time, it’s the police, who regularly raid sex shops and brothels. But now the home of the British sex industry is facing an adversary far more threatening and unexpected: the London property market. Bricks and mortar are so hot, they’re better than sex. Official. Paid sex contributed around £5.3bn to Britain’s GDP in 2009, the first year in which its value was calculated. By contrast, property transactions worth £350bn are completed in an ‘average’ year, almost one third of those in London.

Campaigner Benedict CumberbatchProperty prices in Soho are soaring. A 1,500sq ft flat on Brewer Street is valued at £1.4m, up by almost 50 per cent since 2009. Rents on flats and shops are rising at about ten per cent a year. The boom is attracting the attention of developers. Since 2003 the West End has lost around 180,000sq m of office space, as developers convert offices and other buildings into new homes. A former local police station is being turned into an apartment block where flats will sell for more than £500,000. Wealthy families with children are moving in. From 2003 to 2014, the number of children under the age of 16 in Westminster increased by 30 per cent, nearly double the rate for that age group across London.

Sitting in his first-floor office on Greek Street, wearing a cornflower-blue shirt and a gold watch larger than a starter home, is John James, the biggest developer in the heart of Soho. You haven’t heard of him, but you have heard of the man who founded the £500m firm he heads — Soho Estates. Paul Raymond, who died in 2008, aged 82, was Britain’s first porn and strip club magnate.

James, who was married to Raymond’s daughter Debbie (who died of a heroin overdose in 1992), is spending £10m redeveloping Walker’s Court, including the flats that Laura is so incensed have closed. He has already shut down the cabaret club Madame Jojo’s. Several small sex shops are going, as is the Pink Pussy-Cat, a lap-dancing club. In their place will be new flats, new restaurants, a new theatre. An ‘improved’ Madame Jojo’s will reopen under new management.

To say the moves, which have been approved by Westminster Council, are unpopular is… well, just look at the list of famous names who have joined the campaign, Save Soho, to protect the area’s traditional character: Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry, Rupert Everett, Eddie Izzard, Idris Elba, Paul O’Grady, Gary Kemp, Janet Suzman and Roger Daltrey. They have signed a letter, published in The Times, that called on London Mayor Boris Johnson to protect Soho’s existing entertainment establishments, such as Madame Jojo’s, and to halt the closure of iconic venues.

Critics say that Soho should not become just another place in the capital for the rich to buy homes and set up businesses. ‘Soho is irreplaceable with its unique raffishness, a hint of sleaze and wickedness,’ says Fry. ‘The current rush to smarten up, to maximise profits by kicking out the old, would spell disaster to the magical realm.’ Everett adds: ‘There’s a land grab going on in Soho by puritans and property developers.’ He accuses the police of being heavy-handed in recent raids. A year ago, officers broke into dozens of flats and arrested scores of prostitutes.

Kemp points out that seedy but cherished clubs, such as Madame Jojo’s, were vital to the success of his 1980s band, Spandau Ballet, as well as other acts, including Adam Ant and, later, Adele. ‘We began our careers playing in small venues in Soho. We need more venues for young, up-and-coming bands, not fewer.’ Laura adds that she does not want her old stomping ground ‘to be sanitised and gentrified and look like every other neighbourhood in London, a cascade of glass and steel. Look what happened to Shepherd Market. It used to be a place where girls could work. Now it’s full of champagne bars. We need to keep Soho special, and that means keeping the sex.’

In his office, James guffaws. ‘You want sex! There’s still plenty of sex here and always will be.’ He points out of the window at some bright red lights in a window across the street. ‘Those aren’t old Christmas lights, you know.’ He concedes that two properties where girls work will close under his redevelopment, and new flats — for rent, not for sale, he stresses — will be built. But he points out that the burlesque club, The Box, also on Walker’s Court, of which he is the landlord, will remain. ‘It’s the 21st-century version of the Raymond Revuebar,’ he says, referring to the original strip club that Raymond established in 1958.

Performers at Madame Jojo’s, which has closedJames dismisses claims that developers are forcing out the sex shops, such as Harmony. ‘Yes, rents are rising, and that makes it hard for the owners, but don’t forget the internet. That’s killing their business, just as it killed the magazine business that Paul Raymond used to run. I’ve got sex-shop owners coming in and handing back the keys, telling me they can’t make a go of it any more now that everything they sell you can find cheaper at the click of a mouse.’

As for claims that Madame Jojo’s will no longer support new acts, it will reopen ‘bigger and better for all kinds of things,’ James insists. ‘And we are opening a new 150-seat theatre called The Boulevard in Walker’s Court. It will host new acts, too.’ He crashes his fist against the desk: ‘I care about this part of London. I’m more committed than many in the community. I’m not taking profit and running away to the Seychelles.’ Everett is unimpressed. Soho doesn’t need more theatres, he says. He accuses James of ‘playing Monopoly to double his money’.

Everett and James will never agree so I decide to seek another view. Russell Norman used to be head of operations at the Caprice group of restaurants, which includes J Sheekey and The Ivy, before he established his Polpo eateries in Soho and Covent Garden. Over coffee in Polpetto on Berwick Street, he tells me he supports the closure of prostitutes’ flats and the recent clampdown by police. ‘When people talk about how sad it is that the old sex trade is going, they are recalling the classic old tart-with-a-heart hooker who gave lonely souls a little slap and tickle.’ But that has gone now, he frowns. ‘Most of the girls who work here are trafficked. They are brought over from Eastern Europe and plied with drink and drugs and groomed. They’re treated like human cattle. There’s nothing romantic about that.’

Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes denies that most girls are trafficked and says that Soho is one of the few places where they can work in relative safety. ‘The alternative is often working alone on the street,’ she tells me over tea and cake at a local Moroccan café. Norman agrees with Adams that the strip clubs should stay. ‘That’s healthy, harmless. They deserve their place. The Box is delightfully dangerous and sexy.’ And as for grit: ‘It’s still pretty grotty. Go to Rupert Street at 4pm. It all changes when the drug dealers emerge. It’s scary — if you like that sort of thing.’

Brian Bickell, Norman’s landlord, likes a flash of flesh, too. The boss of the largest property outfit in the area, Shaftesbury, which controls £2.6bn of West End property, says that Soho is changing but ‘it has always changed as tastes, styles and the economy have changed over the years. It’s not losing its bohemian character. Neither we nor any other landlord here would let that happen because we’d be killing the reason most people want to be here. Far from losing its soul, this area is rediscovering its soul for a new generation. This ain’t going to be Disney.’

Illustrations by Thomas Burden


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