The late porn baron’s company wants to redevelop London’s village of vice — but without the sex, will it lose its soul?
The front line in the battle for the soul of Soho can be found if you take a walk down Brewer Street until you reach a door that is open on to the street and has an illuminated sign above it that says: “Models 1st and 2nd floor come and see.”
I’d be lying if I pretended that I hadn’t occasionally wondered what I’d find if I dared to venture up stairs like these in London’s louchest neighbourhood. I’ve got a pretty good idea, of course, but perhaps the reality is more innocuous, less euphemistic than you’d think; maybe there really are just models up there comparing hats.
Soho may once have been notorious for its fleshpots, but the majority of them disappeared a decade or two ago to be replaced by restaurants you have to queue for and private members’ clubs crammed with media executives who once ogled strippers but now focus on getting the intern drunk. Surely, in 2014, in one of the throbbing hotspots of the London property market, you can’t just walk in off a bustling boulevard of bars and cafés and find a prostitute waiting to entertain you.
I ascend the stairs, passing a can of Red Bull discarded by a previous visitor in need of some last-minute fortification. I pause to let a man of about 60, in suit and tie and carrying a briefcase, scurry past, eyes down. I knock on the door of the first-floor flat and am welcomed in by Kim, a heavily made-up Polish woman of 30, with a helmet of dark hair and wearing an unbuttoned long white cardigan over underwear that was not designed with the modest in mind. She is joined by Sue, a friendly 52-year-old former prostitute who is now her maid, greeting customers and monitoring Kim’s safety.
I just want to talk, I say. Seriously, I’m only here for research purposes. We discuss the future of Soho and their fears that new development could be driving out the oldest profession.
Soho is trying to come to terms with two recent events that have divided those who live and work there. The first was a raid by 200 police on 40 premises in Soho, including sex shops and flats being used by sex workers. Closure orders were issued against 18 flats that were believed to be operating as illegal brothels.
The second event was the decision by Westminster City Council to approve the biggest redevelopment ever attempted by Soho Estates, the property empire bequeathed by the porn baron Paul Raymond to his granddaughters, Fawn and India Rose James, who are worth an estimated £374 million.
Raymond, who became one of Britain’s richest men through pioneering strip clubs and pornographic magazines, shaped the spirit of Soho from the 1950s until his death in 2008 and sank his vast profits into real estate in the area. The porn magazines were sold after Raymond died, but Soho Estates owns 60 acres across Soho and Leicester Square. Last year’s film of Raymond’s life, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan, opened with him driving through Soho in his Rolls-Royce with a young Fawn beside him, ticking off buildings he owns every few yards.
Fawn James, the daughter of Raymond’s daughter Debbie and Duncan Mackay, keyboardist with rock band 10CC, is an actress and a director of Soho Estates, which is run by her adoptive father, John James, Debbie’s second husband. They want to develop Walker’s Court, a seedy, smelly alleyway that includes sex shops and clubs and which was home to the legendary Raymond Revuebar, the first club where women dancers could be simultaneously naked and in motion and the well from which Raymond’s filthy riches first began to gush.
Westminster Council approved the plans — which included restaurants, night clubs, retail and office space as well as a theatre — after the planning committee concluded that the proposed buildings were too high and bulky and would be harmful to the townscape, but added that this consideration should be outweighed by the benefits of removing sex-related activity from the area.
For many, however, the sex that is left is an essential ingredient of Soho. The writer Howard Jacobson says he came to live in Soho for the “hum of infamy” and compares the Walker’s Court development to “the sack of Rome, the siege of Carthage, the looting of Persepolis”. The actor Rupert Everett claimed that “puritanical forces” were at work.
Kim says the police knew her well enough to share a cup of tea when they came to make regular checks on her, but when she was raided, they broke the door down. “They came in like they were shutting down a terrorist, shouting and screaming. Some of my friends were dragged out in their underwear.”
The flat, where Kim and Sue have been working together for five years, was closed down, but Kim and her neighbour in the flat upstairs went to court and challenged the closure order. It is not illegal to earn your living as a sex worker, but it is an offence to keep a brothel (a place where more than one woman is a prostitute) or to control prostitution for gain. The women argued that there was no third-party control. Some strange details emerged in court, including that rent was left in the microwave overnight and collected by a mysterious person unknown to the women. Nevertheless, the judge was convinced that they were not being controlled and so here Kim is again, open for business.
There were about 45 sex-worker flats in Soho before the recent closures. Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes says that two women whose flats were issued with three-month closure orders are working on the streets, which is considerably more dangerous. “I don’t look rough,” Kim says. “If I was on the streets I would look terrible.”
Commander Alison Newcomb, who is in charge of Westminster policing, said at the time of the raids that there was evidence of rape and human trafficking at brothels that they hoped to close. Some charges have been brought in relation to handling stolen goods, but not yet for trafficking. The English Collective of Prostitutes says the amount of trafficking is overstated, especially in closely scrutinised Soho. “I am not saying that trafficking doesn’t go on, but does she look like she is trafficked or under pressure?” Sue says of Kim. “This is what we choose to do, not made to do. The girls are not trafficked, not controlled in any way.”
In this flat, at least, the women, who say they are good friends, give every indication of being warm, funny and free of duress. The bedroom has cheap-looking black drapes at the window rather than curtains, but an effort has been made to create some ambience. The bed has a brightly coloured, spotted duvet, there are fairy lights, a wardrobe and a wooden bench for customers to leave their clothes on. The radio is playing pop music in the background. We sit on the sofa in the small sitting room, chatting and watching the CCTV images of customers ascending the stairs. A known time-waster wearing a bobble hat is turned away.
Business is down since the police action. Sue argues that if men can’t safely visit prostitutes, “you are going to see an increase of rapes on the street”. In flats like this, “the girl just provides a service”.
“You would never think who comes here and what they ask for,” Kim says, but “many customers just want to talk and have a massage. You need to moan about your wife? I am the number one. Come in, I’m listening. I make people happy.” The women say that they are no trouble to the community because the men who visit are anxious to be inconspicuous.
Andrew Murray, chairman of the Soho Society’s planning group, says that when brothels were closed to make way for a redevelopment close to where he lives there was a significant improvement in terms of noise nuisance at night. “We don’t have the fights and arguments between punters,” he says. On the night of my visit to Sue and Kim, two women in another flat have to fight off an aggressive customer.
The Soho Society’s members are divided on the sex industry in their midst. “There are people who want to keep it like the old days: ‘Sex isn’t a bad thing, it’s part of the character [of Soho] that we don’t want to lose.’ That’s one view in the community,” Murray says. “On a personal level, I disagree with that.” He is a Baptist minister and, after living in the area for almost 30 years, does not have a romantic view of sex workers. “I am not convinced very many have positively chosen prostitution in the first place. There’s a fair bit of damage behind the curtains.”
John James met Debbie while managing one of her father’s clubs and moved over to run Raymond’s property business. He remained close to Paul after Debbie died from a heroin overdose. Quite what the King of Soho would make of the way the family business is clearing the sleazier elements from its properties is anybody’s guess. Before the recent police raids, the company had sought the removal of sex workers in four Walker’s Court flats and attempted to close three unlicensed sex shops and a lap dancing club to redevelop the site.
“We have no quarrel with legal sex work, ” says John James. The company funds a weekly Terrence Higgins Trust testing and support service in Soho for sex workers. “We agree that it would be better if sex work is done safely. However, we are a responsible landlord and we cannot ignore a police notice telling us our premises are being used as brothels, as we risk being prosecuted.” Many of the sex-worker flats are owned by foreign and absentee landlords who have also received police notices.
Soho Estates is involved in conservation projects, but at Walker’s Court the plans include large expanses of glass and the demolition of two unlisted buildings of merit that English Heritage said were characteristic of the Soho Conservation Area.
The neon Raymond Revuebar sign will be preserved as a reminder of the seamy nightlife heritage that made Raymond and his heirs rich. Fawn James is particularly keen on the new 150-seat theatre, which will not be used for sex-related activities, and hopes it will be a successor to the Boulevard, a comedy club that shared an entrance with the Revuebar and was played at by the likes of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Michael Palin and Robin Williams.
“The Soho Estates motto is to keep Soho’s soul,” John James says. “Soho today has got an edginess that people like. It’s not just about the night-time economy any more; people want to work here, shop here and have a night out. Soho is all things to all people. Walker’s Court is a dark alleyway that people avoid walking through. We’re committed to making big improvements to regenerate the area.”
The Rev Simon Buckley, priest at St Anne’s Church Soho, has offered support to the women fighting to get back into their flats, but he also takes the long view. The Huguenots were once a major presence, but today the French House pub is about all that remains of their legacy. The area is famous for its gay scene, but now much of that has moved to Vauxhall or Shoreditch. “I don’t buy that if you clear the prostitutes from Soho you lose Soho,” Buckley says. “Soho continues to reinvent itself as it always has.”
My time with Kim and Sue comes to an end with another knock on the door. Kim ushers a guy in a hoodie through to the bedroom and I make myself scarce. Downstairs on the street, engulfed in the evening revellers streaming past, I look back through the open door and see Kim tottering down to the first floor landing to freshen up in the bathroom before attending to her client. A very Soho moment. For now at least.