These memoirs, written in celebration and not apology, are dedicated to everyone who has yearned to see their life on the page, who has hoped one day to read about working-class lives told by the working-class people who lived them. Today’s the day. Enjoy. – Kit de Waal, editor of Common People
I am working class, I am sure, but I am struggling to explain myself. It doesn’t help that the ‘me’ I am trying to describe keeps being redefined, and it is not my doing. You see, when I was growing up in Leeds in the 1970s, I was the illegitimate half-caste child of a single-parent prostitute. Today, the only part of that description that is still meaningful is ‘single parent’. As for the rest, it has mostly been reconstructed, and re-understood.
For instance, the words polite society uses to describe my ethnic origins have graduated from ‘half-caste’ to ‘black’ to ‘multiple heritage’ and, currently, I am ‘mixed race’ and/or ‘a woman of colour’ (or perhaps person of colour?). Of course, all these reinventions happened without my permission. I didn’t get to change my subscription to any particular identity, I simply got on with growing up and older. British society and the blunt instrument of time took care of it.
Don’t use ‘brass’, love… ‘Brass’ sounds like we were rough, and we weren’t
But, while language around race constantly evolves, provoked by social anxieties about difference – there are few terms for ‘illegitimate’ heard in everyday life today. ‘Love child’ still appears in some newspapers, usually related to extramarital scandal, but I can’t think of any new ones. It’s as if the idea of illegitimacy itself has atrophied and is now almost dead, as the perceived stigma of being born ‘out of wedlock’ has decreased. New words, fresh vocabulary to hide or alleviate the pain of shame are simply not needed.
Even my mother’s former job has been dignified by resignification. She would now be called a ‘sex worker’ not a ‘prossie’, or a ‘brass’, or… but our ages-long apprehensions about sex have produced more euphemisms for members of the oldest profession than I can list here. My mother is no different from anyone else, and though in her late eighties now, she still has opinions about nomenclature. This is what she would like you to know: ‘Don’t use “brass”, love. Say “working girl” or “madam”. “Brass” sounds like we were rough, and we weren’t.’
Were we a bit, um, rough? Perhaps. But all of the elements that go to make up a person’s social class – income, locality, race, education, parents’ profession, etc. – are impossible to separate, meaning considerations of class that limit themselves to one or two of these characteristics are horribly unreliable when applied to the individual. My first definition of my childhood circumstances may beg a different conclusion, but I know what my mother means. We weren’t rough, not really, especially if respect for education, good food and common decency mean anything.
Perhaps I could use a points system to establish my social class? I am no statistician, so forgive the vagueness of this notion, but don’t some countries use this method to judge who is a desirable (versus non-desirable) citizen? Let’s see:
I grew up in the city of Leeds, and am therefore a northerner – minus 10 points.
I went to boarding school between the ages of twelve and sixteen – plus 15 points.
My mother paid for my education via prostitution – minus 10 points.
I make a living as a writer and arts producer – plus 15 points. I have brown skin – but it’s caramel-coloured, so not too dark – minus 8 points (it could have been 15).
I am overweight by more than twenty pounds – minus 6 points (but minus 12 if present at a supper party where talk turns to the diners’ sports-related injuries or comparing their ‘PBs’).
The existence of Aristotles was, though not the first lie of my life, certainly the biggest
And so on. But I am writing about the past, and this list speaks to the present. I think my mother maintains that we weren’t rough because she was never a street prostitute – more of an escort. She even ran a successful brothel for a while, opening Aristotle’s in the mid-1980s, when the country was high on money and strong women. Two in particular showed her the way: Margaret Thatcher and, madame par excellence, Cynthia Payne. Later, a Crown Court judge would pompously comment: ‘I’m sure Aristotle would be spinning in his grave had he known his name was to become synonymous with a massage parlour.’ I give him more credit. I was only just a teenager then, but I was seriously impressed with what she achieved.
Actually, my mother wasn’t new to running her own operation. She’d had a café, called the Wheel, and an ice-cream van with a name nobody can remember, and a marriage bureau, as dating agencies were called in the sixties. But Aristotle’s was the first of her businesses I remember clearly. And its existence was, though not the first lie of my life, certainly the biggest.
Because nobody was ‘out’ about selling sex thirty-five years ago – decades before the Belle de Jour blog and reality shows set in escort agencies. It was also before sex trafficking and the exploitation of women and girls was a widespread moral concern, so it was a very hidden world. The environment Aristotle’s emerged from was a tough one. Only a couple of years before my mother opened the doors, the Yorkshire Ripper – a prolific client of Leeds’ prostitutes – was convicted of twelve murders, mostly of working girls. He is still suspected of having committed many more. Women mostly had to protect each other and police themselves.
In the same decade, but down in London, Cynthia Payne had turned the selling of sex into something that was more naughtily suburban than urban seedy. In her leafy Streatham street Cynthia serviced a desire for sex and strong discipline with humour and charm. Like Thatcher, she had a bit of a ‘sexy matron’ persona, freeze-dried hair and instinctive respect for entrepreneurship. The collision of harlotry and industry was all around, and my mother, in early middle age with an apprenticeship of cottage-industry prostitution behind her, was perfectly placed to exploit it.
Following Payne’s example, she sought to make the place as respectable as possible. The location helped: next door was, handily, a sandwich shop. Opposite was quite a smart pub, one of those new ones just starting to call themselves ‘wine bars’, and a little way down the street was an advertising firm that had produced a series of iconic ads for Porsche. As a result, there was a string of tulip-red Porsches parked along the road. The location was perfect for the purposes of selling sex: classy, close to the market but not in anyone’s backyard.
Selling sex is as sophisticated a process as selling any other product
The outside looked as smart as the interior. Above the front door, Mam had invested in a smart, tan-coloured awning, with Aristotle’s writ large in curly font. There was a reception and waiting room, from which stairs took clients up to the first floor. Here were two ‘treatment rooms’, a hand-built Scandinavian pine sauna and a shower. It was all very tastefully done, with white walls and heavy, gilt-framed prints of romantic paintings. It
Aristotle’s opened around 10 a.m. and closed some twelve hours later, and it quickly became the centre of my world when I wasn’t at boarding school. On duty were two sex workers and they needed a receptionist. When Mam offered to pay me £5 a time to work as the receptionist on a strictly casual basis, I jumped at the chance. This role required little of me: I would tell the punters who was working that day, as most had their favourites, take their money as they came in through the door and direct them upstairs. The rest of the time I would sit and talk to the girls. It was a free education.
Aristotle’s taught me that selling sex is as sophisticated a process as selling any other product. Sex needs branding and Aristotle’s, if not the Selfridges of the sex trade, could easily have claimed to be its John Lewis: honest value reliably supplied. Sex is not simply sex: it has to be branded so that the consumer knows exactly what they are buying. Street trade was visible then in Spencer Place, a few miles away in Chapeltown and the centre of Leeds’ red-light district. Sex was more available there and cheaper, so Aristotle’s had to offer something more, and it did. Privacy, cleanliness and safety from robbery and attack. It provided these things as much for the girls who worked there as it did for the punters who quickly began to seek the place out.
Leeds: Photo by Benjamin Elliott on Unsplash
Mam soon found that the key to staffing Aristotle’s was variety. There were fat women and thin women, big-breasted and small, black, brown and white, older and younger (the lower age limit was early twenties and the upper late forties). Each had their own rules about the services they offered, and this was negotiated between them and their clients. In the time-honoured tradition they split their earnings with my mother. Punters were also charged an entry fee.
Though they may have been busy in the evening and perhaps had a mini-rush at lunchtime, there were long days to fill when there were few customers. So, ‘the girls’ (as everyone called them) talked and talked. Not many of them worked more than a couple of days a week, and in their own time the majority were mothers and grandmothers, as well as wives and girlfriends, so there was plenty to talk about.
It is difficult to describe just how normal everyday life at Aristotle’s was for me as a teenager. With little else to do but talk, smoke and eat, we set sail on rivers of words. Pamela talked for hours about other places she had worked, jobs she had had, and about her wonderfully camp little boy Richard, for whom I babysat. Rose told me about working in London and Glasgow from a shared flat with other girls or on the streets – far from home, and far from judging neighbours and her huge Catholic family. One girl, Ada, whose boyfriend was a writer whom she worked to keep, would bring his poetry in for us to read. I was sometimes goggle-eyed at their tales, but I at least had the sense to shut up and listen, especially when conversations took a more surreal turn.
‘You know him has the newsagent’s at the back of Morrisons?’ ‘I don’t know him. Go on, though.’
‘You do! Big fat man. Swaps the dodgy videos.’
‘I don’t. Go on!’
‘You do… Anyway, you know he’s selling soiled knickers for four pounds a pair?’
‘Why? Can’t you just buy them in a shop?’
‘No, these are worn. “Soiled” is what he calls them in the ad.’ ‘No!’
‘Well, I went into the shop the other day and nobody’s behind the counter. I wander up to the stockroom door, and there he his, hunched in the corner like Rumpelstiltskin, rubbing Gorgonzola cheese into the gusset of some pound-shop pants.’
‘God! What did you do?’
‘I asked him what he was doing. He knows I do this, so I suppose he isn’t bothered about telling me. So he says, “I’m rubbing cheese into these knickers.” Then he stops, looks up at me and says, “You won’t tell anyone though, will you?”’
We had a good laugh, but really it was characters like this who peopled the day there. There were so many men and women on the fringes of the sex industry, keeping their heads down, breaking bread with their families, and buying the Daily Mail while living off immoral earnings. There are the strictly legit types: the accountants, landlords and suppliers that come with any business (stocks of baby oil, talcum powder and condoms need to be maintained). And there were people, mostly men, who just liked hanging around.
Men like Eddie the Spiv, who sold ludicrously overpriced ‘contact’ mags full of ads for gorgeous nymphomaniacs seeking discreet, adult fun. The adverts were entirely fictional. Nevertheless, his box numbers received plenty of mail, all containing hopeful stamped, addressed envelopes. This meant that Eddie, to avoid arrest or just a good beating, had to reply to at least some. He wrote many himself, but the risk of sending several similar letters in an identical hand to the same punter was ever-present. His solution was to take writing pads, pens and the SAEs down to his local pub and get the middle-aged alkies who propped up the bar to write the letters he needed in exchange for free drinks. More than once he gave me a bundle to post on the way back to boarding school so that the postmarks would show they had come from across the North, and not solely from East Leeds.
Mam was an exemplary small businesswoman right up until the day Aristotle’s was raided by the West Yorkshire vice squad
Aristotle’s was something of a community and my mother was its matriarch. Thanks in large part to her judgement, there were no fights and almost no thieving (and I am willing to bet that the incidents of STIs, mental illness and addiction at the sauna were less than on the streets outside the door). The stigma of what the women did for a living meant that I heard many conversations I could only have heard in that back room, among people who understood the business. And I believe this inside perspective meant I saw Aristotle’s for what it was: a place where good-looking, decent women who could hold a conversation offered various sexual services in exchange for money. They could work hours that fitted around childcare and earn enough to live well above the breadline. For the punters, Aristotle’s was something forbidden, a trip to the edge of criminality and deceit, a sophisticated artifice, and perhaps the best brothel in Leeds for a while.
But it was hard work. My mother got up several times in the night to run hundreds of towels through the washing machine at home. She drove to wholesalers to buy industrial-sized bottles of bleach and tile cleaner. She continuously hired and, on occasion, had to fire a stream of women, many of whom thought that working in a sauna was easy money, then quickly discovered it wasn’t. She booked adverts in the local paper; she kept accounts. In fact, Mam was an exemplary small businesswoman right up until the day Aristotle’s was raided by the West Yorkshire vice squad.
On the day Aristotle’s was raided it made the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post. Ten policemen burst in simultaneously through the front door and an unused back door upstairs. An elderly doctor, a regular of Pamela’s, got the shock of his life. He was allowed to dress and leave after giving his personal details. This is key to the role of police raids in shutting Mam down – after the raid and the publicity, the regular punters, who are the bread and butter of a business like Aristotle’s, become too scared to come near the place.
The police took my mother to the police station and presented her with their evidence. They’d obtained this by sending two constables into the sauna to pose as punters in the preceding weeks.
‘I’m sick of only getting handjobs – that’s all they’ll pay for,’ one officer of the law complained of his employers.
Understandably, my mother had little sympathy.
They already had days, times, sums of money that had changed hands, but this didn’t stop them questioning her for hours and dragging up everything they could, including a minute enquiry as to exactly why Pamela was wearing stockings at the time of the raid.
‘Get in there!’ said one of the officers.
‘I haven’t killed anyone, you know!’ she reminded him, but he ignored her and slammed the cell door shut. They had put her in one of the men’s cells with an awful stench and only a wooden bed to sit on. She had had enough.
‘What’s she doing now?’ she heard someone ask.
‘Crying her eyes out,’ came the anonymous reply.
And it was true.
It might have been the questioner who came and moved her to a woman’s cell. A stainless-steel toilet and a woolly waffle blanket lent it an air of relative luxury. He brought her food too. Bread with Stork margarine on it and salad so bland it was like water on the plate. She just had time to reflect that the salad could have been improved no end by a spring onion or two, when one of the kinder officers came to tell her she was free to go.
‘We don’t usually get people like you in here,’ said the young man who escorted her to the desk sergeant.
I do not believe I have overcome my childhood. I believe I was made by it
And that was the problem with the whole business, really, as Mam says now, ‘We weren’t the types to go to prison,’ so a career as a criminal queen pin was never really on the cards. She opened up the next day, of course, but a fine of £2,000 and being raided for a second time shortly afterwards would eventually shut Aristotle’s down for ever and force the good women who worked there in safety into other, less reputable establishments or out onto the streets.
Today, I exist in the world as an educated brown woman who makes a living in the arts. I am middle-aged and, perhaps, middle class. As such, it may seem as if I have ‘overcome’ the circumstances of my childhood, somehow outperformed appropriate expectations of a girlhood like mine. But I do not believe I have overcome it. In fact, I believe I was made by it. I was partly constructed by the good women of Aristotle’s, and what small successes I have had in negotiating adulthood are because of what I learned from them. But still, I have found it difficult here to find the exact words to explain how this happened. I have tried to find a vocabulary that is specific, not slippery, words that are fixed in time, not so easily subject to resignification. I am hopeful, but not optimistic, that they won’t mean one thing today then something quite different tomorrow.