Women Working: Prostitution Now 
by Eileen McLeod.
Croom Helm, 177 pp., £6.95, August 1982, 0 7099 1717 1
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An English Madam: The Life and Work of Cynthia Payne 
by Paul Bailey.
Cape, 166 pp., £7.50, October 1982, 0 224 02037 4
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All the Girls 
by Martin O’Brien.
Macmillan, 268 pp., £7.95, October 1982, 0 333 31099 3
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‘To me it’s just a job. They get on, they get off and get dressed and that’s it.’ Thus Sharon of Birmingham, one of several matter-of-fact working girls interviewed by Eileen McLeod for her study of Prostitution Now. Most of McLeod’s interviewees would go along with Sharon’s view of her vocation. Here’s Carol: ‘When they give me the money I say “Look then get on with it I haven’t got all day,” and they say “I hope you’re not going to rush me,” and I say “Look cock, you’ve got a certain amount of time here I don’t expect you to be in and out in two minutes, but I don’t expect you to spend two hours here”; they say “Fair enough.” ’ ‘Fair enough’ may indeed be what they say to Carol, but it’s probably not what they are saying to themselves. Yet there they are again, the punters, once more forking out good money for bad sex. Carol and Sharon have little need to brood on the niceties of customer-relations.

Nor do they ever seem drawn to speculate on why chaps keep coming back for more – more of what the girls themselves perceive to be an almost derisively brusque freeze-off. So far as Carol and Sharon are concerned, it’s all a matter of ‘relief’ or ‘despunking’, something that men have to have done to them from time to time. As a car needs to be filled up, a man needs to be emptied. And the fact that necessity is involved does not in the least soften the working girl’s view of what she’s up to. On the contrary, it makes her all the more secure in her contempt, all the more confident that business cannot fail to prosper – supply and demand nicely balanced by Nature in favour of the supplier.

As for the men, most of them probably know very well that prostitutes despise most of their clients, that some simply despise men, and that the whole transaction is likely to be, shall we say, offhand. Some keep at it, presumably, because they keep hoping that they will get lucky – that tonight, unlike all the other nights, they will chance upon a true ‘lady of pleasure’: a healthy whore who likes it, and who quite likes them. The fantasy of purchasable and yet genuine (just for you) sexual compliance has brutally deep roots. As to the others who ‘go back for more’ – well, in many cases, Carol and Sharon are probably correct about ‘despunking’. Quite a few, though, revisit the house of shame in the hope that Sharon will be just a touch more hostile this time, that Carol’s irritability will have sharpened up a bit since Thursday. These men go back for a sweet taste of ‘just what I deserve’ and would flop dreadfully if Sharon suddenly went soft on them, or if Carol let them play on into extra time.

Or so I hazard after reading the confessions of Cynthia Payne, the ‘madam’ jailed in 1978 for running ‘a disorderly house’ in Streatham. The police raided her place during a Christmas party and picked up 17 women and 53 ‘middle-aged to elderly’ men, including clergymen, MPs, barristers and diplomats. Only Cynthia herself was punishable by law: Messrs Bedwell and Lovejoy simply had to give their names to the police. The press raised a few murmurs, and a few laughs, on Cynthia’s behalf. Her own attitude was summed up by the wall motto in her kitchen: ‘My house is CLEAN enough to be healthy ... and DIRTY enough to be happy.’

The oddity of Cynthia Payne is that she would take a dim view of the Sharon/Carol line on prostitution. She seems to have liked most of her clients, she talks of providing a useful ‘social service’, she has done excellent work with the handicapped, and altogether takes pride in having encouraged her girls to be ‘loving on the bed’: ‘Most women on the game don’t even kiss the punters, let alone do what my girls do. I don’t order them to kiss, but they know I’m grateful if they do.’ Cynthia also goes to extraordinary lengths to accommodate unusual ‘kinks’. If a bank manager, say, wishes to be pelted with mud, Cynthia will somehow get the mud together, or at least make do with a bit of vaseline and the contents of her Hoover bag. If a vicar wants to do it with an angel (‘I crave an ample angel,’ was how the Reverend worded his request), she will rush about in search of the necessary props: a big blonde, a flowing cotton shift and a pair of golden wings from the theatrical costume shop. And in each case she will get a real sense of fulfilment from the outcome. The muddy bank manager she describes as

in his seventh heaven. Some of the stuff stuck to him, which was exactly what he wanted. He looked bloody horrible by the time we’d finished with him, like a monster from the deep. He thanked me after we cut him down ... I called him a disgusting sod and ordered him to wash. That clinched it. He was squirming with pleasure.

As for the vicar, on meeting up with his ‘divine messenger’ he ‘started to salivate in an alarming manner’. The angel was then ‘most ferociously deprived of her wings’.

How then does Cynthia maintain this high standard of hospitality, this cheerily (and, come to think of it, literally) painstaking determination to ‘fix up’ her eccentric clientele? Her ‘biographer’ Paul Bailey clearly believes she has that fabled ‘heart of gold’, that she is a kind of Lady with the Red Lamp, imaginatively caring for the wanking-wounded, the casualties of the sex war. But there are many differences between her set-up in Streatham and the predicament of streetwalkers like Carol and Sharon. For one thing, she doesn’t – or didn’t during her years as a madam – need to simulate any sort of submission to the horny male. In the main, her punters seem to have been bondage-buffs, slaves in search of a leathery dominatrix or freaks whose peccadilloes involved very little close contact with the bodies they had bought. Most of them were ‘upper-class loonies’, wishing to repeat some bad experience they had with Nanny. One will turn up with his own ‘punishment chair’, another will plead to be allowed to do heavy housework in the nude (with the odd lash if he bungles it), a third will carry a page of dialogue which he will want his girl to read out with him: the climax comes when she beats him for not washing out his ears. When Cynthia describes these goings-on she sounds like some kindly old repertory bore: director, stage manager and wardrobe mistress – ‘Remember the Angel! Gawd, that was a laugh ... ’

Cynthia’s other clear advantage over ordinary working girls was that she specialised in the elderly: ‘I don’t cater for young men any more, unless they’re transvestites or slaves. Blokes under forty are all Jack-my-lads who think their pricks are bloody priceless.’ The types who went to her in Streatham all had one reason or another to feel out of the mainstream of sexual conduct. Even those who didn’t want a beating would probably not have had the cheek to turn one down. Certainly, there was no chance of any of them coming on like ‘Jack-my-lad’. With male subservience made explicit, Cynthia could afford to be compassionate and bountiful. One of her favourite clients was a 62-year-old virgin. In Paul Bailey’s warming words: ‘Old Humphrey was one of several beneficiaries of Cynthia’s special discount scheme for pensioners. He is 76 now. He is adamant that meeting the Streatham madam ensured him more than a decade of unexpected happiness.’

According to Bailey’s biography (which leans heavily throughout on Cynthia’s own words and at times seems more ghost-written than written), the madam was not always so obliging. Indeed, her own sex-life before she got into ‘partying’ was spectacularly joyless. A succession of layabouts and con-men had their evil way with her when she was in her twenties: there were messy abortions, a fond but faded sugar daddy, and one near-true-love: the disreputable Sam, a ‘carnival bloke’ when newly ‘despunked’ but of repellently prodigious appetite. ‘I remember crying once when he was doing it because I didn’t want it and I said so, it was that time of the month. He took no bloody notice. When the prick is hard, the brain is in the balls.’

As a prostitute, Cynthia was a grudging performer, a Sharon or a Carol – ‘I used to lay there like a log.’ It was only when she drifted into the role of impresario that she developed the social awareness which enriched so many lives in Streatham. At first, she claims, she laid on her lunchtime sex-parties because ‘I love entertaining. It’s my greatest pleasure in life.’ She would advertise in contact magazines and set up lesbian displays for her ‘older’ clients. She also provided food and drink – and gave the left-overs to the neighbours. ‘It was years,’ she says, ‘before I came up with the idea of an admission charge ... In those days I was always out of pocket after a party. Everything was free: the booze, the grub and the fucking. I’d laid it on just for the fun of it.’ When she did start charging, she did all she could to maintain the party spirit – her grizzled punters would be asked to buy vouchers at the door: a way of avoiding any squalid sterling transactions in the bedroom, and the source of later jokes about Sex in Exchange for Luncheon Vouchers. Her greatest triumph came when her father visited the house. A violently puritanical presence in her childhood, Dad had been revolted by Cynthia’s slow drift into prostitution; there were occasions when he could have helped her, but hadn’t. The first half of Bailey’s book is full of her pathetic letters home, and of her complaints against her father’s fierce self-righteousness. And then:

Dad turned up one night on my doorstep, really far gone in his cups. He could hardly stand up, he was so bloody squiffy. I let him in, and I said, ‘For Christ’s sake, Dad, what are you doing in London this late?’ It was after midnight. ‘I want a girl,’ he said.

Cynthia tells him he is drunk, that he will feel different in the morning:

I was convinced that he would be thoroughly ashamed of himself when he woke up, he was that kind of man. Either that, or he’d forget that he ever asked me. Anyway, he came into my bedroom the following day and he said to me, ‘Cinders, I meant every word of what I said to you last night.’ I was bloody flabbergasted. He was stone cold sober by now – it wasn’t a drunkard talking any more. ‘I want you to find me a woman. You specialise in looking after the needs of older men – well, Cinders, I’m an older man, and I need a woman.’

She asks for time to think it over and Dad begs her not to take too long: ‘I’ve never known him to be so bloody nice to me. Typical man, I thought – all smarm when he wants his oats.’ She broods on the whole business for a bit – ‘it wasn’t as if he helped me when I was desperate’ – and then, grand old trouper that she is, ‘I had one of my brainwaves’:

I remembered Mavis, who’d been my sister Melanie’s best friend at school. She’d worked for Dad for a while and he’d fancied her something rotten ... He wanted to make a pass at her, but he thought that because she was so ladylike she might take offence. And he didn’t have a bloody clue, and no more did Melanie, that when he came and asked me to organise a bit of the other for him that Mavis was one of my girls. I’ve sent dozens of blokes to Mavis and they’ve all come back raving about her. She’s a genuine French polisher, the real McCoy. She gives the most bloody wonderful blow-job it’s possible to have. She’s an artist at it.

So Mavis it is, and Dad – when next seen – is indeed gleamingly French-polished, and an utterly changed man. He becomes a regular client at Cynthia’s parties, and at last treats his daughter with respect – not quite grovelling, perhaps, but near enough: ‘He was a nice old boy at the end because he was having it off whenever he felt like it. It just goes to prove what I’ve always maintained – that men are much more pleasant and considerate so long as they are regularly despunked. If they’re not getting their oats, they’re bloody pests.’

Cynthia is now out of jail, still lives in Streatham and still gets her housework done by Slave Philip and her garden fixed by Slave Rodney. Her former clients, Bailey says, are ‘waiting in the wings’. Her dream is to open a home for the elderly – men and women:

I’d be matron. There would be special wards for the disabled. If people wanted sex, they could charge it to the National Health – the ones who can’t afford it, I mean. I’d have slaves to do the cleaning and Mistresses to see that they don’t cut corners. I’m surprised that no one’s thought of it before.

Norman Fowler, please note.

Martin O’Brien is exactly the sort of Jack-my-lad who would have been barred from Cynthia Payne’s premises. In All the Girls he sets off round the world (or parts of the world) with unlimited funds and a grimly limited mission: he will sample whatever prostitution has to offer – from Caracas to Bangkok, from Sydney to Moscow, from Manuela to Magda. It all gets tiresomely repetitive, and O’Brien’s topographical and sociological flourishes don’t help. Nor does his remorseless vanity: one girl calls him ‘king-size’, another can’t prevent herself from handing it out free, and almost every one of the whores he runs into finds something about him she quite likes.

Interestingly, from the Cynthia Payne angle if no other, O’Brien’s most vividly recorded encounter is with a dominatrix in Paris who locks him up in leg chains, binds, blindfolds and gags him and then gives him a sound thrashing: ‘I felt with each new stroke only a burst of warmth, spreading, like fat dissolving in a heated pan.’ The description goes on for some two pages and, in terms of gratification, is the high point of O’Brien’s odyssey. If All the Girls fails, he could do worse than put his name down for some kitchen work in Cynthia’s old folks’ home.

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