The ladies on the door of the lap dancing bar opposite my flat in Soho are all of a certain age. Their dress code is "smart casual" Top Shop, rather than the thigh-flashing micro skirts favoured by young East European girls in more up-market establishments, and they're all "real" women making a living, with a healthy sense of humour and cynicism. They stop me regularly to ask for the latest gossip regarding the now relentless developments in the area. "You know everyone round here, so you know what's going on," says Magda, the 50-something Maltese grandmother who's usually worrying about the drug dealers and their punters on Rupert Street blocking the passage of her potential clientele down our little alleyway.
It's not the most glamorous of spots, as far as red light areas go. Just a narrow, mostly sunless cut-through between Wardour and Rupert Streets, with a handful of local businesses, including a tiny unisex hairdressers run by lovely Chinese fellows of indeterminate sexuality, and an even tinier beauty salon run by a jolly young South American girl, her personal fiefdom just big enough for a massage table and a desk on which to paint her clients' nails.
The lap dancing establishments themselves are a long way from the kind of places most people would picture uber-wealthy premier league footballers hanging out in. This is not the world of Peter Stringfellow. This is the world of trying to make a quick buck and survive, and the last gasp of Soho from its heyday in the '50s, '60s and '70s as the centre of London's sex trade.
When a Polish owner took over the lap dancing joint two doors down from The Lounge Bar, he gave the place a cheap but fancy facelift and installed two bouncers clearly built from plans which doubled the volume of the average brick shithouse. Almost immediately, his new club began exerting pressure on The Lounge Bar to also have heavyweight male bouncers out-front. "You need proper security, we're going to report you to Westminster Council," was apparently one of the "threats" made with a view to removing female callers from their rival bar, thus creating (in Soho terms) a level playing field.
Given that Westminster Council is reportedly determined to drive out the sex trade from Soho, and has a policy of not renewing sex licenses for the premises if a shop or bar is shut down, it was no idle threat. The irony is that it's the Polish club that's been shut down, after the questionable police raids of last December. Launched on the pretext of stopping the resale of stolen goods in Soho clubs and bars, it became immediately apparent that the raids were primarily an attempt to evict local sex workers from their flats.
Several of the girls in the Polish bar were, however, found with stolen goods they were trying to flog to their customers, and that was enough for the police and the council to shut the place down. "I tell my girls, never take nothing." The Maltese Porno Boy who runs The Lounge Bar has been a Soho fixture forever. In the 40 years I've lived or worked in the area, I've seen him diving in and out of the once numerous strip clubs and sex shops that used to cover the one square mile I think of as home, back in the days when the so-called Maltese Mafia was still running most of the sex trade. I only found out his real name recently, but I still think of him as the Maltese Porno Boy as even in his late 50s he has boyish good looks and the enthusiasm of a kid.
"They do anything they can to shut us down," he tells me. "I tell my girls be careful, don't take no stolen goods never," the air hanging heavy with the implication of a "sting" operation. The police thought they'd finally nailed him in the raids when an enthusiastic young PC produced a box of white powder from his club. It turned out to be talcum powder used by one of the not-hugely exotic ladies who perform the lap dances on the tiny dance floor in his slightly depressing basement, a single pole standing forlornly next to the very basic bar which sells "sparkling wine (dealcoholised)" at £160 a bottle.
"This place used to be paradise," MPB tells me quite regularly, usually in the middle of a prolonged, frustrated speech about what he is being charged for rent, rates and utilities these days. "At night, in the rain, was a sea of neon," he says, gesticulating down Old Compton Street. "So glamorous, exciting, all the bars like The Paradise, The Blue Lagoon, shining in the dark."
Now it's more likely to be another tapas bar that opens. Or worse - another "bubble tea lounge".
The Maltese Porno Boy also likes to share with me the state of his bar's toilets, which suffer from leaks due to the appalling state of the pavement in our alleyway. "I pay all this money for rates, and the council never fix it." Often I'll see him outside his bar with a bucket of cement, filling in the worst holes.
He sees it not so much as neglect because of lack of council funds as a deliberate policy to make our alley less palatable for people to walk down. But the volume of traffic never diminishes, with naive punters alongside clubbers, out-of-towners "up West", tourists desperately seeking the last gasp of the Soho they've heard is London's den of iniquity, and even the vicar of our local church, St Anne's, walking his wee dog in the mornings.
A cracked and broken paving stone hiding stagnant water or worse is a great leveller, and my alleyway - or "Court" to give it the proper, posh appellation - definitely makes all walks of life equal in Village Soho.
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