Furtive sex was a flourishing industry at the end of the Macmillan era. I had a certain ingrained prudery and never paid for a prostitute in my life, even at the time I will relate after my long-term companions died and I only occasionally enjoyed the pleasures of sex. Maybe I sound puritanical, but it was not that. I knew one or two professionals well but I never availed myself of their services. One is always pestered by hustlers when one visits Paris, especially as a lone male, and when soliciting was accompanied by genuine pleas for cash — “I’ve been ill and can’t work” was the favourite — I gave them the money and moved on.
What disgusted me was the element of exploitation. Suddenly all around me there were, if not prostitutes, a rash of “pornbrokers’ shops” as pornographic booksellers were called — not to be confused with “pawnbrokers”! I regarded them as a pest, especially as the police were paid off. That milieu penetrated the world of spies and dirty tricks upon international, political and extra-parliamentary politics.
At any rate, as I then saw it, the London street women were business people who took a risk and it usually paid off though this did not necessarily apply in other cities abroad. The men engaged in the traffic were some feet below the dregs of humanity. Later I, and everyone else, learned a lot from trends in the women’s movement but in the fifties they had yet to get over their message that the sex\porn business degraded woman, even if the participants were willing. They degraded men in a different way from the way they did women. Male whores, pimps, most pornbrokers and almost all porn film makers, were often police spies and informers as well as being bullies in the exploitation of women.
The pornographic booksellers paid off the West End police, who raided their shops, giving advice as to their coming, in rotation, the way they picked up the prostitutes. I remember all too well a dishevelled brass screaming and kicking as the police carried her into the Black Maria at Piccadilly Circus. I can hear her now yelling, “It’s not my turn, you bleeders. I paid you only last Wednesday.”
The police used occasionally to raid booksellers, in my case, three times, in the hope of finding something “dirty” like Radclyffe Hall or D.H. Lawrence. They resented the fact that these booksellers never bribed them. I knew that and once said tongue in cheek, “I wish it were possible to pay you gentlemen something to stay away, it upsets my customers. But that would be bribery, illegal and unthinkable”. If looks could have killed, that would have been my lot.
The pornbrokers and the bookthieves co-operated. Basil the Bee, as the queen bee of them all of them all was known (I cannot remember his real name, if I ever knew it) spent his life within a quarter of a mile of Soho. There was Foyle’s Bookshop, where he was, in a manner, licensed to steal books within reasonable limits by their own detectives. Also in easy reach was St Patrick’s Church, Soho Square, where he was a devout worshipper, and the urinal on the corner where he re-committed the sins of the flesh he had confessed at St Pat’s.
But one day Foyle’s discovered what everyone else in the book trade knew already: that some of their detectives were bent and sacked them. Enterprisingly, Basil the Bee rented an office directly facing their theology department, and when the coast was clear sent in his gang to raid the shelves. The plug-uglies who went round as commercial travellers for him aroused the suspicions of a theology bookseller, who reasoned they could not all be impecunious curates or divinity students selling their books and he cautioned the police who had to act whether they liked it or not. They came up the stairs to Basil’s office in force just as a certain quasi-bookseller turned up.
He was a ‘chairman’. The big noises of the porn trade hired managers at very large sums to ‘sit in the chair’ for as long as three fines were notched against them as presumed proprietors in breach of the law. Then they resigned by mutual arrangement as it meant prison next time. The business was ‘sold’ to a new proprietor, someone else sitting in the chair for the real proprietor.
He was also co-director with a legitimate (as it were, or rather a non-erotic) bookseller, and bought stolen books on his behalf. Coming upstairs on his normal business, he was arrested by the police. Unfortunately they were not the police he paid for protection in his porn business but a different set altogether, interested in crime rather than vice. He was arrested against all custom and practice.
That was how I got to know this world, because some kind soul sent this frustrated chairman to me as someone whom the lawyers couldn’t help. For years I knew and enjoyed my reputation as a barrack-room lawyer.
As I could not help him, he looked around my bookshop patronisingly and asked why I did not go in for pornography. He could not understand any of my scruples. I hated to sound a prig, but there it was. He pointed out, far from untruthfully, that I did not take a hundred pounds on a Saturday night, and asked what I had taken. “Fifty-five,” I said. He was slightly impressed, but I forgot to mention it was pence. Next week he was round full of woe and imploring my assistance. Not only had he been charged with theft (later altered to receiving) when he was on the protected list for porn, his alleged partner had decided their relationship was at an end. This was quite understandable but he would not return the money invested in his business for laundering. He pointed out that it was in a limited company which had never traded. The cash had been spent buying stock which had been transferred to his own business unfortunately at a loss, as the result of a decision taken by the managing director when the sleeping director was sitting in the chair for another, “What am I if not his partner?” my lame duck asked me. “An idiot,” I pointed out.
To add to his woes he had to pay a huge fee to his usual protector, after which the police remembered that he was intercepted going to an office above the one concerned in the conspiracy, so he didn’t go to court. The Bee, however, got a huge sentence and went berserk when someone else who wasn’t concerned went scot-free. He told everyone how corrupt the police were, the extent of bribery, sodomy, theft and fraud in the new and second-hand book industry, and named every villain in the business ranging from Mayfair bookshops who charged antiquarian prices for books still in print to Meltzer of King’s Cross who was mixed up with Spanish terrorists.
He, poor lamb, the only innocent in the book trade, had got ten or fifteen years for a first offence in stealing books from Foyle’s, which everyone in London did; some even came over from far-off continents to do so. Well, yes, in a way. Many respectable people stole books from Foyle’s, as they paid their staff peanuts and didn’t overly bother about shoplifting. When they went on strike Christina Foyle said they were all sexual perverts anyway and should be glad to be employed. I wrote to the press in response suggesting if the proprietor were right maybe the public should keep away from the long dark alleyways of books Foyle’s had in those days.
But even so Basil’s offence was not quite the conventional idea of shoplifting. The perpetrator does not usually hire a room opposite and survey the ground with binoculars, While too it was a first offence (rather, charge) so far as stealing was concerned, for he had paid for protection from arrest for years, he had a record as long as your arm for sexual offences.
He complained to everyone from the Chief Rabbi to Oswald Mosley. He expected the Chief Rabbi to take action against his acquitted visitor’s non-partner for the sharp practice which had let him profit from the Bee’s downfall, but as the person concerned was a Marxist and an atheist and had no connection with his ancestral faith, there was not much the reverend gentleman could do, even if it were a religious offence to dissociate oneself from someone having bad luck, and he had wanted to oblige someone also claiming he was being discriminated against for his fascist views.
The only one to take Basil the Bee seriously was Mosley, who took at face value the argument that he was really going down for political offences, an argument more often used over the years by Communist Party bookthiefs, less often by his supporters. But as Mosley lived in Paris he couldn’t help much beyond reminisce of his own days in Brixton jail and how it caused his phlebitis, I suppose. I never had the chance or desire to ask anyone.
A detective came to my place to follow up the Spanish terrorists, and told me of the allegations, which included Basil’s request that Blackwell’s of Oxford be closed down because they had refused to pay him for books re-supplied by him, after they had been stolen from their shelves by one of his “scouts”. Before I answered my part of the saga I asked which side in the civil war he thought were the terrorists, as if I didn’t know. It was the one that lost, of course. I admitted knowing lots of one variety but none of the other. He didn’t answer, but stressed this was all in confidence, probably because a Labour government was in office.
He told me when leaving, “You don’t recognise me? I’ve been round to your place a couple of times. I spoke to your mate Joe. I said I wanted an illustrated book on walking-sticks and he offered me one on malacca canes. Next time I asked you for anything on camping and you showed me a DIY book on tentmaking for girl guides. Then I gave up”. He went out laughing. I remembered the incidents but couldn’t see anything funny. Everyone would see the joke today, but the fact I didn’t do so then was one of the reasons I never took £100 every Saturday night.
Another pornography seller and bookthief was Ray, who also worked the non-erotic non-bookstall presumably for Bernard Kops on days when he wasn’t there. I wonder now if he simply moved in on the stall when Kops was away and Kops never knew anything about it. Clearly Kops didn’t know where he was half the time, if his later memories are any criterion.
Ray had been for a while in the Anarchist Federation (Hawkes-Brown section) and ran a straight film show with the camera he used for another type of film showing. He absconded with the takings and set up his own bookshop. There was a curious character named Marinus who hung around his bookshop regularly and was at all South African protest meetings. I met Upton through Denis Levin, who was an Oehlerite (a kind of non-Trotsky Trotskyite) and a bookseller.
Eric Heffer was the best-known of the Oehlerites, but defected to the Labour Party and died in the odour of sanctity, an MP beloved by all Parties. Sometime an extreme Trotsky supporter, sometime orthodox Labour, sometime High Anglican darling of the Tories, he only disappointed the real Oehlerites, of whom there must have been at least five. Denis, one of the Oehlerites, whose geese were all swans, had high hopes of him then. When we met him one day in a cafe, Marinus came in, and greeted Denis like a log-lost friend. Heffer warned him he was “dodgy”.
The Mr Big of Porn, Bobby, set up shops well stocked with porn openly displayed. It was all illegal until the prosecution of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” and later that of “Oz” collapsed and to write, if not yet in certain circumstances to say, “fuck” became legal. At that date the hard porn world collapsed for years until harder, more violent porn became surreptitiously fashionable. Different men would take the ‘chair’, that is, be the recognised owner and take on the fines, reimbursed by Bobby. On the third occasion the magistrate, who must have known the set-up as everyone else did, would solemnly warn the ‘owner’ that next time would mean jail. The ‘chairman’ ostensibly sold to a new owner whom Bobby appointed.
What such people were doing in left wing circles, or the Bee and some others in right-wing ones, one may easily deduce. One day I happened to go to an anti-apartheid meeting, invited by Joe Murumbi, and someone nudged me and said of Marinus waiting to go in “That’s Peter Hain” (then a Young Liberal leader). I already suspected Marinus of being a an agent-provocateur and police (possibly South African) spy. Murumbi was sure of it. When I went round to tell him Marinus was in the crowd and had been identified as Peter Hain, he smiled and told me Peter Hain was addressing a meeting miles away.
Later Murumbi told me that a European or many a white South African might be fooled by the resemblance, but an African could tell Marinus was of mixed blood. He suggested charitably that Marinus might be blackmailed by the SA police so he could “work his passage” as a White rather than a Coloured.
Some years later there was a burglary in Streatham near Peter Hain’s home, and Peter Hain was ‘identified’ and charged. In court he proved it could not have been him and blamed South African agents. Had he not been acquitted before I read it in the newspapers, I would have volunteered evidence of the above. Murumbi, though by this time Vice-President of Kenya, might also have come forward. Hain went on to become a Labour MP. The only time I have seen him since is on television where the resemblance is less striking.
It is generally accepted that this was a dirty tricks campaign of the South African police, but I am not sure. If it really was Marinus concerned, and significantly he vanished thereafter, I think it highly feasible that he tried a bank robbery for more creditable and credible reasons, but felt he could get an alibi by making it appear to be somebody else. Hain lived close at hand. While nobody would be daft enough to slip out for ten minutes to hold up the bank round the corner without troubling to put on a disguise, people who opposed apartheid might be thought, in the climate then prevailing, to do crazy things, Had Marinus been caught, he could explain to the British police he was on their side, and if that did not come off his bosses might reward him for a good try. Maybe, even so, he did charge expenses, but who can tell until the sea gives up its dead or the Afrikaaner police files are opened, whichever is the sooner?
Another in the porn game was Freddie Reid, who went off with Joe Thomas’s wife when for a brief spell the three of them were jointly engaged in strike action. I never met him, but according to Joe he had been sincere enough until he was blacklisted for his strike activities and then turned to despicable methods of earning a living. There are many crimes the blacklisters have to answer for, and perhaps one day they will. In this case some of them at least did.
In the course of his profession, perhaps independently or as an agent for Bobby, he had met Dr Stephen Ward. Ward was an osteopath and a sex fetishist. His talents, and from all accounts he was quite a gifted conversationalist, led him to mix with the highest circles in the land, and pander to the rich and famous. Royalty, Cabinet Ministers, pop stars, foreign diplomats, foreign spies, rent boys and girls, all came into Ward’s net. Some of the porn merchants acted for him both as outlets and supplies. He seems to have been a drug dealer and a pimp.
When the Profumo case brought Ward into national notoriety* and even brought down the government, he committed suicide. Reid promptly gave up his job with Bobby and induced the dispossessed director to open a bookshop in Museum Street with him. Prior to its opening, he organised an exhibition of Ward’s drawings and photographs which he had been holding in safe keeping, plus what he had obtained from his secret hideaway flat.
He announced one day that before opening there would be a private sale and the public could come in on the Monday after. There was a stream of limousines to Museum Street that week as the great and good bought compromising pictures of themselves at high prices. It is a joy to think that they may have included some responsible for blacklisting the man now blackmailing them. “God pays his debts without money,” my sagacious tailor in Stoke Newington, nodding wisely, said when the bank that had bounced his cheques got broken into by armed robbers, presumably not after his overdraft.
The long queue of prurient public, or it may be art lovers, on Monday saw only a few harmless rural pictures. Freddie didn’t have the cheek to charge the sincere admirers of Ward’s art the admission fees originally intended, perhaps because there were too many of them, but he told his fellow director he was giving up the premises.
At least he gave him his money back, but left him stuck with the lease. I passed him in the street and he bemoaned that he had borrowed money from his wife’s family to go in with Reid, and been left with an unuseable shop for porn after the notoriety, and so had been let down once again. All I could say, ungenerously but understandably, was “I bet you don’t take £100 this Saturday night”.
No account of lowlife bookselling would be complete without an account of Desmond, who passed into legend. He had originally been a groupie of Freedom Press but was caught by Marie Louise Berneri stealing postal orders. She offered to have him psycho-analysed but he insisted the postal orders she found in the coat he was wearing at the time must have been put there by somebody else. He joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain instead.
The SPGB was a small sect of dogmatic socialists of early century breed. Appalled by schisms and divisions around 1910, they wrote a constitution and stuck to it rigidly for the next eighty years. One of their members had jumped on an anti-war platform from which venerable old George Lansbury was speaking in the First World War, to save him from an indignant mob. Later he had been expelled for contravening the constitution by “appearing on a reformist platform”. Desmond, chasing the rough trade after WWII, actually spoke on a fascist platform to oblige a close friend with a sore throat (or something), but wanted to stay in the SPGB. The latter were puzzled as to what to do. Nobody, understandably, was prepared to claim he had appeared on a reformist platform.
Impressed with an intelligent piece of oratory for once, the fascists invited him to speak again and he finally let the SPGB off the hook of embarrassment and formally resigned according to the constitution. He survived long years of prison and is active in the extreme Right as I write. He has even stood for Parliament campaigning on a policy of law and order.
At the time, stung by the Bee’s revelations, he found London’s climate too disagreeable and went to Glasgow and disaster. Running a longfirm fraud, he needed to pay cheques into one bank account and draw out cash for a private one. Thus when his firm went intentionally bust, at least he had no need to beg but was provided for, as approved of by the founder of one of the world’s most lucrative businesses, Jesus of Nazareth himself.
Immediately after Desmond withdrew cash, the bank was held up. There was no connection with him, but the bank manager knew the serial numbers of the notes held in the bank that morning, without knowing to whom some had been issued in normal trading. Police investigation showed a large sum of matching serial numbers had been paid into another bank ten minutes after the hold-up. What were the police to think?
Feeling convinced they had a right one there, they interviewed Desmond who could prove he had legitimately drawn a cheque for that amount. But he had a nervous tic in his eye, an English accent, admitted to a London business address, and it seemed an odd transaction altogether so they took his fingerprints and were able to detain him on an indecency charge in Manchester years before.
Blackwell’s of Oxford got to hear of it and had a list of charges they wanted to press. The unfortunate Desmond was taken to Oxford, still protesting that he had never held up a bank in his life. When he got into court he almost fainted when he saw almost every bookseller and publisher from London there to bring different charges.
The only two who stood by him were (oddly enough) both women, a sex he detested. One of the two was, of course, his mother, a devout Roman Catholic who once told me she had shed tears for him nightly and would do so no more, but he was still her son; the other was my accountant Lisa Bryan. Lisa was in the SPGB but collected lame ducks the way I did, she told me ruefully. We both tried to shake them off but they came waddling over, tails in the air. I don’t know which of us was the worst, and we passed off hopeless cases to each other. Anyway I drew the line at some and she didn’t, so judge for yourself which of us was the more crazy. She was generous to a fault, keeping a couple of families, not her own, in her house. When she died young, one hanger-on said to me sadly, “It’s a great tragedy — so many people were dependent upon Lisa”. I never went as far as her in throwing my bread on the waters. When I did it came back dripping wet and uneatable. Hers never even floated.
Another lame duck that came around for breadcrumbs of advice I shall call Gwen. Gwen was a suburban schoolteacher with literary ambitions. One of her pupils was gifted and Gwen used to visit her mother to lend her books. The mother, whom I shall call Lyle, said she was in business and had to travel to town at seven o’clock each day. This was not unusual in the morning but in the evening?
When Gwen gave up her job to concentrate on writing poetry, on the strength of one published poem which brought in a couple of guineas, Lyle felt confident enough to confess she was a prostitute. She was also passionately fond of poetry and she and Gwen got on fine for all their differences in lifestyle.
Gwen found herself on the brink of starvation in a few months after being refused unemployment pay and not selling another poem. A couple of guineas wouldn’t last forever, as she presumably had known. She told her friend she was almost prepared to go on the game but was advised not to do so. Lyle herself was sick of the pimps anyway. She proposed an alternative. She intended to set up on her own without a pimp, and needed a “French maid” as they called the receptionist. Usually the receptionists are broken down old pros, as ugly as possible to make it clear that they are not in the business themselves. One woman alone on the game is permissible, two in a flat makes it a brothel and illegal. Someone is allowed to keep the clients waiting in turn, but if it’s a man he’s automatically done for living on immoral earnings. Prostitution per se is not illegal for all that but it was advisable to pay off the West End police at that time.
Though Gwen was young and far from ugly they could get away with it, but after a few months the pimps found out what was going on and were outraged in their deepest sensibilities. They informed the police that someone was plying the trade without paying anybody, and London’s finest responded promptly to this breach of the unwritten law. Lyle in her schoolgirl uniform, probably her daughter’s, and Gwen in her severe dress were dragged out of their premises one night. The clients, prosperous and even prominent men, were discreetly allowed to dress and go. The girls were taken to Bow Street and remanded, being told by the police they didn’t want anyone “coming up from the sticks and working our manor. Where’s your ponce?”
I had known Gwen for some time and recommended her against thinking she could earn a living by writing love poems, however good they were. She had pointed indignantly to the sales of mediocre poets like Mrs Wilson, wife of the new Prime Minister. I explained this in Philistine fashion, recommending her to marry Edward Heath, Leader of the Opposition, when she might in due course sell too. She accused me of having the emotional plague, whatever that was, but held no grudge against me for that reason. I turned up at the trial as a character witness to say she was not and never had been a prostitute and had quit work to become a writer. I didn’t dare say she wanted to earn a living as a poet lest she be committed to a mental home. Her former employers provided a character witness.
Everyone is on the make with a prostitute. A “tom” is fair game for everyone. Even the solicitor took a hundred pounds in notes from Lyle and carelessly slipped it in his pocket. I don’t know how much of that the taxman saw. Anyway, the other witnesses testified they all had separate rent books, separate keys, and although working in the same house, had no connection. They were all on the game. The charge is never prostitution but soliciting or keeping a brothel and she had done neither.
After the acquittal we all trooped down to a cafe. I did not realise why, but in my case, it was for coffee. All the witnesses, bar the education official who had gone home and myself, wanted paying, which Lyle took for granted. I was waiting only for a sandwich. Gwen told Lyle I wouldn’t take any payment and Lyle was amazed, offering me services instead of cash, and when I shook my head told me I was the most genuine man she’d met, which may not have been too difficult. I accepted the compliment but let her pay for my sandwich to show there was no prejudice involved. Lyle said it was her day. She had encountered both me and a really liberal magistrate.
One of the other witnesses overheard the word ‘liberal’ and, misunderstanding the sense in which it had been used, launched into a diatribe against Jeremy Thorpe, leader of the Liberal Party who would one day meet his just deserts, He would not stop, but raved on and on. He had a grudge against Thorpe, but not one word could be believed by any sane person. Hoping to change his ever more hysterical conversation Lyle said she thought Marinus (“that South African git”) had been one of the pimps responsible for her denunciation and he broke off the invective against Thorpe to deny it, saying Marinus was on the run from the police himself and would anyway not stoop to it. He didn’t have to stoop, as the music hall comics used to say, he only had to pick up the telephone.
Much later Thorpe was accused in a sordid affair involving a male and some thought it was a South African Intelligence dirty tricks plot as in Hain’s case. My five cents worth of evidence for the history books rests.
* for more on Stephen Ward, refer to the 100 best books on the Profumo case. (When all concerned have passed beyond earthly libel laws.) He brought down a Cabinet Minister with him and the Government resigned.
© Copyright: 1996 Albert Meltzer
Published by AK Press Book details and the Kate Sharpley Library.
Marked up by Chuck0 in 1996, originally posted at http://www.spunk.org/library/writers/meltzer/sp001591/angeltoc.html
(Reproofed by KSL May 2010).
Part of I Couldn't Paint Golden Angels: Sixty Years of Commonplace Life and Anarchist Agitation