Down and out in London

I am depressed that there has been a brothel operating right under my nose, and I knew nothing about

It is another exciting evening on the back terrace of the Hovel. I am exiled from the forward-facing parts of the house because the Thai restaurant over the road, following a power failure, has been supplied with a very noisy generator by the electricity company, which seems content to let the damned thing run for a week without sending any men in to solve the problem. (Thinking that this is good for at least a free meal for two – it’s not the best restaurant in the world, but it is, as far as Razors and I are concerned, the nearest restaurant in the world – I walk in one lunchtime and ask to see the manager, in the hope that he can perform the act of empathy that will enable him to comprehend how hard it is to go to sleep with a generator 30 yards from your ear. The waitress, in what turns out to be the closest we ever get to real communication, hands me a menu.)

Anyway, back to the terrace. It is, again, midnight, and I am catching up with Torchwood on the laptop when I hear an almighty noise coming from an unfamiliar direction. It sounds like a lorry has fallen on its side on the other side of the house. I idly wonder whether to investigate, but the menacing aliens have demanded 10 per cent of the world’s children and I wonder how long it will be before a cabinet minister suggests this might be a good way of ridding this nation in particular of its underachievers. (Not long, as it turns out. “What are league tables for?” is the excellent way the question is put, or answered.) I am gripped.

Just then a voice comes from behind me and to the left. “Excuse me, sir.” In nearly two years at the Hovel, no voice has ever come from over there, let alone one addressing me as “sir”. I am surprised at the way I don’t have a heart attack. “Excuse me, sir, but have you seen anyone come this way? We’re police officers.”

Police officers! I say no, but that I did hear a noise which might have come from the roof.

“Have you got a torch?”

Funny thing, a police officer going about his business in the middle of the night without a torch, but I refrain from saying so. Instead I volunteer to check the skylight and make sure that no vile miscreant is trying to murder Razors in his sleep and make away with our priceless collection of half-empty cereal packets.

All seems secure.

“So what’s going on?” I ask. When the Old Bill are trying to catch villains, I like to be public-spirited.

“There’s a brothel here. Quite common in W1.”

“Are you closing it down?” I ask.

“Yes, that is the general idea.”

My heart sinks. There are two incompatible attitudes to brothels: one, taken by the wit and dandy Sebastian Horsley, is that sex is the most beautiful experience money can buy (look his stuff up on YouTube, if you are so inclined); the other is less forgiving. It would appear that PC Plod takes the latter view. From the judge’s summing-up at the trial of Paul Pennyfeather for white slave-trading in Decline and Fall: “For these human vampires who prey upon the degradation of their species, society has reserved the right of ruthless suppression.”

For my part, I am just depressed that there has been a brothel operating right under my nose, or just round the corner from it, and I knew nothing about it. Leaving the rights and wrongs of prostitution aside for the moment, I think it adds a certain louche tone to an area to have a knocking-shop in the vicinity, especially if clients and employees are both discreet enough to keep their existence a secret for years.

My friend L– used to be a very vocal enthusiast for prostitution. He kept recommending I go to one establishment in Marble Arch, where the girls were beautiful, the prices far from extortionate, and they gave you a beer if you asked for one. I mumbled something about exploitation and human trafficking, and he
said: “Bollocks. These girls are all saving up for psychology degrees, sending money back home and are still making a packet. Well, more than you at least. Which I suppose isn’t saying much.” I never went. I wonder what has happened to L–.

I also wonder about the noise I heard earlier. I would imagine, of all indignities, to be caught in a raid on a house of ill repute is right up there. Was the noise I heard that of some terrified Lithuanian girl in her scanties knocking over a chimney pot?

Or, rather more exciting, is some respectable MP or judge, seeking to relieve himself from the cares of office, now hobbled by his trousers round his ankles, contemplating in raw panic the collapse of his career as he scampers along the rooftops of Marylebone?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, King and Country