Down among the Touts

"Looking for a show sir?"

It's an innocent enough question, almost as though coming from a concerned passer-by; helpful advice to the lost or bemused.

"Come this way, sir. Only £5 to get in, lots of sexy girls, all the way, sir."

As most of London knows, the penalty for following such guides down into the Soho fleshpots can be an arm and a leg. Drinks are sold at anything from £5 to £500 each, with unseen levies for membership, bonuses for the hostesses and vague surcharges.

Less well-known is the life of the tout: men (always men) ususally in late middle age, who prowl the area between Wardour Street, Broadwick Street, Lexington Street and Shaftesbury Avenue, the capital's murkiest district and home to more than a dozen clubs of ill-repute.

Jimmy Jones has been on the game for 30 years. Grandly, he calls himself the King of the Touts, and has operated in all areas of the business - sports fixtures, rock concerts, procuring customers for prostitutes - and now works for a handful of strip clubs in Soho to get some regular cash.

"There's the Paradise, Soho Live Girls, The Foxy Lady, The Scarlet Lady...I've worked for them all," he begins, drawing on his pint with an ache in his eyes. He'll make £3.50 for a simple £10 entry, or 15 per cent of larger payments to the club. With prostitutes, it's £10 for a £30 trick, or £30 out of a £100 job, for a woman "with a bit of class," he says.

Jones is in his 50s, with grey hair standing up alarmingly on his head. His eyes are glazed with alcohol, even in early evening, and you might see him eating a burger in the street, bits of roll and meat falling from his mouth as he rushes to finish it.

"I reckon to make £100 a night, but apart from my hotel, I spend everything on gambling. I'm happy when I'm skint."

His 'hotel' is a miserable flea pit in Argyl Square, Kings Cross, where hourly rates are still (unofficially) available to the prostitutes who used to dominate the area. Regular B&B is around £18, reducable to £15 if you're prepared to bargain. Jones says he pays cash every morning.

This man has certainly seen better days - and worse. For six months he was banged up in Lincoln prison for repeated failure to pay police fines. The regular charge is 'obstructing the highway', carrying a £50 penalty. He's lost count of his number of convictions: "about a hundred, I should think, and about fifty sentences of a week each."

He wears a shabby grey suit and answers questions slowly, as though surfacing from some dire psychological soup. His eyes take a while to focus.

Better days, for Jones, entailed running his own small cinema and bar: JJ Sex Films on Gerard Street which thrived briefly in the 60s. It was, he claims, next door to another club run by the Kray Twins called El Morocco, thereby pinching some of those gentlemen's gangsterish glamour. He attracted similarly big-spending clients until a police crackdown. "I got nicked three times in a year for corrupting morals and running a disorderly house," he remembers. And so the business failed.

Nowadays a big payout comes from unwary Japanese tourists. Attracted by Jones' few coughed phrases of Pidgin Japanese ('Skebishow' means sex show, 'Uganoko' means fucking show) they tiptoe downwards into the Flamingo, the Foxy Lady or the Soho Live Girls,have a drink with an aging hostess with dyed hair, withered breasts and a bruised voice, watch a bored, gum-chewing Scandinavian woman slip her bra-straps over her shoulders and drop her nylon briefs with the ablomb of a council estate elevator, re-order drinks, smile politely as the hostess tells them that she really liked that film The Last Emperor and depart, £3,000 lighter.

Jones, meanwhile, is three streets away, in the pub.

* * * * *

Younger, but less cocksure and somehow sadder than old Jones, Ray Dyer leaves his Southall housing co-op flat and pops into a Paddington bar for a few pints before work. At 41, he has been through the RAF, sold double glazing and kitchen units and then fell into touting through laziness.

"It's easy money. You can just turn up and come away with a hundred quid. Two hundred if you can be bothered to work at it."

Unlike Jones, he stays away from prostitutes: "the penalties are higher, and, you know, it's not really the sort of work to get into. I'm not saying there's anything morally wrong with it, but I don't touch it. I don't have a gambling habit, or a drink problem, or a family to pay for, so I don't have to do so much work."

The only obvious flaw in this argument is that, watching Dyer drink, you'd swear it was doing more for him than quenching his thirst. He tips his glass as high as it will go without spilling, opening his throat in a sort of frog-like spasm, and shuts his eyes tight as though a tremendous inner pain is consuming him and this is the only remedy. Like a drug addict closing on a needle, his hands shake as they steer towards the glass and he braces himself for the next injection of fluid.

At work, he keeps careful tabs on punters who have entered clubs and how much money they're spending. "You won't see me, but I'll see you, let's put it that way." The clubs sometimes try to under-pay him, but they respond well to threats of a boycott. Touts will confer amongst themselves and remove a club's custom if it is misbehaving.

Dyer wears a blue pin-stripe suit, about two years out of fashion, has thick black hair and a shifty, seedy expression. He jiggles his eyes towards the ceiling at any hint of a tough question, as though weighing up which lie is most appropriate.

He refuses to name the individual clubs for which he works, on the grounds that they might not use him if they saw this article, but then he says he'll tell me for "an ex gratia payment". Since his reliability seems so low, I figured this would be a waste.

Rather than go for the Japanese, Dyer will go for the Londoner on a night out. A group of pissed lads can be an easy target, playing on their bravado and mysogeny. But there are dangers: "I sometimes meet them on the street later, after they've been ripped off, and I get chased. A couple of times I've been beaten up."

Touting just pays the bills, as far as Dyer is concerned. "I've got to work quite hard at the moment, because I've got a big phone bill coming up and the phone is my life-line. Nobody does this because they want to," he says, gesturing towards his empty pint glass as a prompt for a re-fill. Prison sentences have come and gone and new laws threatened by clean-up-Soho activists hold little terror for him. "I couldn't give a shit about new laws. I'll just see what happens," he shrugs.

Local police are no more enthusiastic than Dyer, "We can do them for the old Highway Obstruction," says one, as he frog-marches a drug dealer along Gerard Street to a waiting van, "but we never get convictions these days. It's hopeless. These clubs are all over the place and there's nothing we can do."

The sex industry has certainly enjoyed a boom in recent years. For a decade or so, since the mass evictions and arrests of the late 70s, there was little to arouse a Soho visitor's libido save for a rew racks of fading plastic-wrapped magazines and misleadingly titled 'XXX' film shows where breasts might be daringly rubbed every 15 minutes.

Lately the shops have blossomed forth with ceiling-high stacks of hard-core videos, openly displayed, (but of such smudgy quality that they are probably fifth generation pirate copies). Satellite television has rubbed the sex industry back to life and Soho is once more living down to its hard-won reputation as the sleaze capital of the UK.

Hence Jones, Dyer, and perhaps 30 other full- and part-time touts shuffle groggily through the streets as the evening rain glints red and green in the desultory neon.

Lennie James is not among them. Another of the longest-serving touts in Soho, he is currently languishing at Her Majesty's Pleasure in Wandsworth, after the police had had enough of his no good ways. Two-and-a-half years is the word on the street, according to Dyer, who smiles his shifty smile. James had ripped him off by approaching a recently-employed club bouncer and pretending to be him to get his money. "He's a dosser," says Dyer. "He's on his way out. He used to do card tricks like 'find the lady' which is illegal now; he can't really hold it together, he's one step up from the gutter."

Before James was sent down, we spent an hour or so in a Wardour Street pub. He did look a bit miserable and smelt as though he could have slept rough the previous night, but he was a jolly old geezer in some ways. "I'll tell you where you come from," he wheezed, winking. "I bet you £10 I can tell you where you come from." "Go on then," I said, without offering the money. "From your muvver!" he barked and descended into a coughing fit.

"Touts are all the same," he said once he'd recovered. "They can't be bothered to do a stroke of work, so they come down here and drive themselves barmy looking for punters. It's a crap old game, but I'm too old to do anything else now."

He says he looks out for men walking slower than normal, bald men, men with raincoats on - all the old cliches. "And men who've got damp patches on their trousers..." and he gives another spluttering guffaw.

As ownership of the clubs is concentrated into a few hands, the rivalry between them can be intense. Paul Raymond, the biggest single landlord, can afford more sophisticated marketing methods and has often mounted attacks on the pack of touts which comes sniffing at the doors of Madame Jojo and the Paul Raymond Revue Bar. He managed to get a court order banning touts from within 100 yards of his property some years ago, but that too has had little effect on the trade. You can still see them, looking over their shoulders for police, crossing the road opposite his clubs and luring potential customers to a fate worse than sex in the passageways round the corner.

No legislation exists to prevent clubs charging whatever they can get away with, once a customer has passed into their premises and there is no direct law against touting in these cases. But one story puts the trade in perspective. Tomi, Jules and Dog took a trip into Soho from their flat in Southwark one Friday night and spent three or four hours getting smashed at the Nellie Dean in Dean Street. Walking into Soho, a tout picked them up straight away and led them into the Flamingo Strip Club. They ordered three pints, only to discover that they cost £10 each. "Fuck off," said Tomi. And he paid £6 for the lot.