Sunday, December 12, 2004

Hey Cheeky Man!

Not much of a Fantasy. Not much in the way of Lovely Girls.
Some people like to play golf on Sunday afternoons. Me, I prefer to argue with Slavic 'hostesses' outside places like this …

I once had a lot of time for Soho. From my early teens through to my late twenties I spent much time in that part of London. For many years I worked in nearby theatres and loved the whole atmosphere. A mix of seedy sex clubs, Italian coffee shops, bars, music venues and assorted Chinese business interests, it was a marvellous place to spend time. Soho was what London was all about.

Soho's changed. My opinion of Soho as plummeted in line will my overall disenchantment with London in general. Soho is still sleazy but it's harder-edged sleaziness that features much seediness but none of the romance that once came as part of the package. It’s a real shame.

I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why I think Soho has become rubbish. All the components are still there; the bars, the sex clubs, the eating places, but it's more bad tempered, less of a laugh. I can’t believe I'm even writing this but I think the problem is Soho has become too commercialised.

No. I still can’t believe I just wrote that.

When still at school a few of us would occasionally skip Wednesday sports afternoons and get the bus into Soho. We would stroll around in the company of a few cans of lager without ties but still wearing our black sixth form blazers and check out the goings on. Occasionally, a midget-sized Maltese or Cypriot proprietor of one of the many bijou girlie bars would come out onto the street and beckon us with an outstretched finger, saying something along the lines of …

'Yes, yes'


'Please my friends. Come in'

or my favourite

'Enter yes. Special rates for young men in full time education'

It's not like that now. I think most of the old generation of titty bar tycoons have passed on or been passed on.

The vibe isn’t the same any more, as an experience I had earlier on today confirmed quite emphatically. Ian and myself had been strolling around Chinatown / Soho for a couple of hours taking pictures, as we do. We signed a petition calling for a halt to the demolition of a chunk of Chinatown (boo!). We admired a group of ageing mods and their Vespas having a coffee in Bar Italia; as they have done since 1958. All good stuff and in keeping with the Soho of old.

We strolled past the rebuilt Admiral Duncan pub. Soho has several gay pubs, including the Admiral Duncan. They're good pubs and, to the uninitiated, they look very traditional and inviting to passing tourists looking for some local colour and a tankard of fine British ale. One of the great joys of Soho is watching uncomfortable American tourists huddled nervously together like worried cattle, finishing their drinks as quickly as possible after having realised what kind of place they've walked into about five seconds after buying their round.

The Admiral Duncan was blown up by a particularly nasty nail bomb in 1999 and three people were killed. The man responsible was a lunatic gay hater. I still think about that atrocity. Largely because I am mindful of the fact that anti-gay terrorism has claimed precisely three more victims than Islamic terrorism in the UK. Strangely, in the wake of the Admiral Duncan murders there were no calls for ID cards or a government crackdown on militant heterosexuality.

We were strolling down a side street when I noticed a shop called 'Spankarama'. That was definitely going into my personal album. As I made a bee-line towards Spankarama I half turned and grabbed a quick, poorly executed shot of another emporium called Fantasy Club. I kept on walking. A few seconds later a hard-faced, blonde woman came running out of Fantasy Club screeching in an East European accent. I think it was Polish. Her face was plastered with a heavy foundation cream that had been mixed with glitter. Her eyes and mouth were garishly painted. The overall effect wasn't doing much for me. She called out 'Hey! Cheeky Man!'. She was yelling at me. I thought about walking on but decided, no, bollocks I'd take her on. Our conversation went roughly along the lines of …

'You must PAY!'

'Pay for what?'

'In this country you must pay for everything'

'This is my country. Don’t tell me what I must do'

'You take picture you must PAY'

'No. I am walking on a street. This is a free country. Don’t tell me what I must do in my own country'

'We pay council tax so you must pay. It is law. I call a policeman.'

'OK. Fine. You call a policeman. I will wait and we will see. I am in no hurry'

'You must PAY'

'Don’t tell me what to do in my country. If you don’t like our laws why don’t you F*CK OFF HOME!

Even if I say so myself, I do abusive shouting in a strong London accent to a pretty high standard. At this point we had gathered an audience of about ten people; including a bag lady, several tourists and a West Indian in overalls. The West Indian laughed loudly and in an approving way at the 'F' Off Home' line. I really was quite pleased that he didn't take the comment personally. Anyway, Lovely Lady chose to ignore my considered advice and came back with a riposte worthy of the great Oscar Wilde himself …

'You take picture of me. You must pay'

'No. No I didn’t. I took a picture of the shop. Stop being such a daft trout'
(She didn’t understand the last bit at all and looked confused. She realised I wasn't being complimentary)

'What did you say?'

'I said stop being such a d-a-f-t t-r-o-u-t'

'No. You take picture of me. You not take picture of shop'

'Yes. I did. Look'
(I showed her the picture on the back of my camera. She went quiet for a moment. It really was just a picture of a shopfront)

'You can see me in picture!'

'No. No you can’t. Are you going to call that policeman?'

'You must PAY'

'If you’re not calling the policeman I am going to continue with my business.'

At which point I started walking away. I was mindful of the fact that Fantasy Club, even though it clearly didn’t offer the 'Lovely Girls' it claimed to, probably did employ at least one ex-Spetsnaz bouncer who had learned the finer points of customer management during a couple of tours in Chechnya. One thing I learned from my limited time in Eastern Europe is don’t piss off people involved in any form of vice or criminality. The only thing in Russia cheaper than home-made vodka is human life. They're serious.

God Bless the English and the open door policy. Any past deficiency of abusive East European whores on the streets of London has clearly now been rectified. Do I sound harsh? I wonder how long I would survive wherever that particular creature came from if I chose to demand money from people and lecture them on the laws of their country whilst displaying a useless command of their language and a dodgy English accent?

Lovely Lady wasn't bothered by the fact that she thought I had taken a picture of her. She was just narked that I hadn't paid her for services rendered. It was fairly clear from her manner that she was pretty much open to anything, provided I paid my way.

I actually have had the good fortune to meet very many sound Eastern Europeans throughout my life and would never pretend that Lovely Lady is at all representative. I really would rather that her and her particular kind stayed at home though. We already have more than enough of our own, home-grown, domestic product.

So, there I was, in Soho, arguing on the pavement outside a brightly lit Fantasy Island with an overly made up hostess cum prostitute. For metres around, a crowd of people had gathered and was guffawing loudly. Ian was standing nearby equipped with an extremely expensive Leica rangefinder and fast Summicron lens. Just prior he had been complaining that there hadn’t been much worth taking pictures of.

The camera stayed in the case.

Nice one Ian

London is becoming an increasingly hard place to take pictures in. As a point of principle I don't practice intrusive photography. I earn no money from my hobby and it's not worth the hassle. If I take pictures of people I either ask them first or restrict myself to situations where people expect to have their picture taken. Nevertheless, in the last few months I have been moved on by armed police, hassled by immigrant security staff in public places in violation of the law, threatened by Irish marchers and accosted by whores. These scenes have normally taken place in full view of the very large number of CCTV cameras that now line the streets of London. No-one seems bothered by those. On reflection, the Irish marchers were the scariest, it was obvious they had much experience in providing the service they were offering me. The whore was a close second though ...

PS Ian, I just checked and is still available as a domain

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