This piece is a chapter or section from my forthcoming Real Swansea 2, which is the follow up volume to Real Swansea, which sold out in 2011 and will be reprinted, in a new edition, in the first half of 2012. Both volumes are part of Seren Books' Real series of psychogeographies, edited by Peter Finch. Real Swansea 2 will be published in the second half of 2012. I am currently working on Real Gower, due for publication in 2014.
I’m sitting in the No Sign bar in Wind Street with a former student of mine – let’s call her Scarlet, her chosen professional name – who used to work in a Swansea brothel. Not that brothels advertise themselves as such: massage parlour, gentlemen’s club, health club are the preferred euphemisms. Scarlet has kindly agreed to walk and talk me through a semi-clandestine side of Swansea of which the majority see and hear little. Only occasionally will a news story bring it steamily to light, as when, in 2009, male prostitute Paul Grabham murdered his prostitute wife Kirsty Grabham in their flat in Rosehill Terrace, Mount Pleasant, and dumped her body in a suitcase beside the M4 near Bridgend.
“Prisons are built with stones of law,” wrote William Blake, “brothels with bricks of religion.”[i] Religion is no longer the force in Welsh life that it used to be, but brothels and sex workers are still with us, even if their procedures and habitats are constantly adapting to shifts in the law and changing social mores. ‘Nymphs of the pave’, ‘sirens of the Strand’ or ‘bats’ as they were sometimes known in old Swansea (because they came out only at night) have been part of the local scene for as long as there’s been a port at the mouth of the Tawe.
These days, it’s more of a ‘massage parlour’, luxury apartment or escort kind of trade rather than a street-walking business, and in recent years Mansel Street – about 300 metres away from the central police station – has been the hub of such activity. In the port’s heyday, the numerous pubs, ‘dancing houses’ and ‘women’s lodging houses’ in and around the Strand were the focal point. By 1865, over 330 known prostitutes were working in Swansea, many of them no doubt operating out of an extensive slum – in what is now the Alexandra Road area – which was frequently denounced as “a hotbed of theft, brutality and immorality”. By 1912, that figure had fallen to about 100, but they still managed to turn Castle Street and Wind Street into “dens of iniquity, riot and theft”. The wealthy, as ever, have made their own, discreet arrangements – chiefly, these days, involving escorts – but for impecunious desperados, on both sides of the deal, the encounter may sometimes take place in notably squalorous, if not dangerous, circumstances. Until the recent refurbishment of High Street began, men would go looking for sex in the warren of railway tunnels behind High Street station, the resort of homeless street drinkers and hardy women who’d sell their bodies for as little as a fiver a time. One was nicknamed Gaslight Lil, the inference being that she’d been on the game since before the advent of electric lights.
Scarlet, who spent about a year working in the brothel – not as a prostitute but as maid and receptionist – was offered her job when, employed by a cleaning agency, she turned up to clean some premises above an Indian take-away in Dillwyn Street, at the western end of that night-life jam-pot The Kingsway.
“There was this girl there, really sexy, who’d come down from Manchester, and she was setting up a brothel. She didn’t want the usual bed-and-box-of-tissues establishment. She wanted to set up a gentlemen’s retreat, to bring a real bit of Manchester class to Swansea. In the bed at that time – four-poster, wrought iron, silk sheets – was her boyfriend. ‘Want a line of coke?’ he says. Well, why not, innit?”
Scarlet’s job included changing the bed (each client had fresh sheets and towel), doing the laundry, topping up the candles, replenishing the lubes and condoms, cleaning the sex toys, writing the copy for the portfolio and designing the website, cooking for the girls, washing their clothes and making up names for them, and chatting to clients both on the phone and as they waited to get horizontal with a girl.
Her basic wage was £50 a day, but with tips from the girls she’d sometimes improve that by £100. And the days were long: 9 a.m. until midnight or 1 a.m. The girls, including Scarlet, would start the morning with a glass of free champagne each, and keep topped up throughout the day with regular infusions of Buck’s Fizz. “We were pissed most of the time.”
Clients were charged £120 for a half-hour session, of which the girls would receive £70 and the boss, ‘tantalizing Tori’, £50. “She was different from other places, which tended to be cheaper: the girls weren’t just pieces of meat. £70 per client is very good. The price was all-inclusive – not separate prices for different services, like kissing or hand shandy, that you get in other places. I was dressed the part and would get the men worked up while they waited, showing them the portfolio, acting sexy, winding them up so they’d come quickly and you could get them out of the place faster. Portfolio, shower, dance – that’s how the show began. It would get some of them so excited they’d come almost before they got started. There’d be quite a turnover of clients. It was backed up because it was a brand new brothel, and we’d often have to hide the clients from each other.”
Swansea’s older establishments resented the competition from this new business. They’d attempt to sabotage it by leaving bad reviews on the website, repeatedly phoning in to block the lines and prevent incoming calls, sending bouncers round to threaten to smash the place up, and infiltrating spies to steal Tori’s winning ideas.
There were three or four girls on Tori’s books, including a pole dancer, an 18-year-old known as Angel, and an economics postgraduate from Swansea University they called Lucia. “Tori was seriously anal about cleaning and would not employ women addicted to drugs,” Scarlet tells me. “Heroin and crack are problems with girls in other places. Most had been abused and raped. Some enjoyed working there. It was theatre. It was the women together. Laughing at the men as soon as they had their backs turned, but pretending to be really nice. We used to just rip it out of the men – who thought we really loved them. “We worked as a team, and it was hard work, for all of us. When the girls were having a period, they’d be told to stuff a sponge up ’em, so that they could carry on working. Most of the blokes were normal, everyday guys, with only maybe one in ten being a bit pervy. There would be on-line warnings put out generally about the dodgy ones. Safety did come first. The clients would often be young, good-looking guys, probably really shy. ‘Ah, love ’em,’ we’d often find ourselves saying. It’s all scary for them when they come in. Sometimes the men would just want to talk, about how difficult their lives were. Not bad guys, just ordinary guys who loved sex and weren’t getting enough of it at home.’
Occasionally, the police would pay a visit, and they’d have to hide a girl or two, as the law sets a limit on the number of girls who can work in a brothel. Scarlet would also be instructed to remove all the condoms from the boudoir drawer, to foster the illusion that theirs was a spa-type establishment. The laws around prostitution in Wales and England are far from straightforward. It’s generally assumed that prostitution – exchanging sex for money – is illegal, but that is not the case. However, soliciting and running a brothel are illegal. But what, in the eyes of the law, is a brothel? In Scarlet’s time, an establishment worked by just one person, with or without a maid or receptionist, was not classed as a brothel. The law changed following the serial murders of five Ipswich prostitutes in 2006, to permit two prostitutes and, possibly, a maid/receptionist to work legally in a brothel.
Swansea’s city-centre brothels, of which there are fewer than half a dozen, seem to be tolerated: by their neighbours, which are mainly business rather than residential properties; by the police, presumably because they tend to be in largely non-residential parts of town; and by The Evening Post which cheerfully cashes in on the sex trade in its ‘Personal’ notices, tucked between the car adverts and the sport – where you can find everything from a ‘Stunning Transexual’ and ‘Happy Niki’s Reviving Massage’ to a ‘Buy one get one half price’ deal at Chantells and ‘No-strings fun in Sketty’.
We begin our crawl of the euphemisms by heading up Wind Street towards High Street station. Just before we reach the stylishly refurbished Grand Hotel, there’s a dusty door on our right, to the ‘classy’ (and apostrophe-free) Park Lane Gentlemans Club, where, says its website, “Our girls are beautiful and will always do their best to please you. Our fees are a reflection of this.” A ‘regular adult massage’ will cost you between £40 and £60, but you might prefer to splash out on a one-hour massage at £100 to £200, or a ‘Double (twice) massage’ at a similar rate. (Is the higher rate, I wonder, for the ugly and the old?). Kissing will cost you an extra £10. So too will toys and a uniform.
We turn west into Alexandra Road and pass between the police station and magistrates’ court on the threshold of what, until about 2010, was Swansea’s sex-trade mecca, Mansel Street. There used to be three ‘establishments’ here, until the recent closure of Passion Gentlemen’s Club; the building (1934) is now the latest home of the Elysium Artspace, an enterprising gallery for young and adventurous artists which began as Exposure Gallery in College Street in 2003. The artists have only just moved in, [ii] and are staging their inaugural exhibition on this huge building’s three floors, which they have left largely as they found them when the sex-workers moved out: holes in ceilings, garish wallpapers ripped away in jagged sheets to expose either bare walls or older layers of paper, chintzy paintwork and mouldy old finishes, fragments of cheap, dusty carpet, and expanses of concrete or bare wood flooring.
“There were used condoms of various colours littered all over the place,’ says Jon Powell, one of the Elysium’s directors. ‘They were dropped behind radiators, in odd corners and beneath floorboards. We found an empty tube of lubricant jelly, a red garter under a floorboard, a red skimpy tube top stuffed behind a radiator, and a pair of tights with a hole ripped in the rear stuffed behind a radiator in a room which, disturbingly, was decorated with yellow, child-like wallpaper. We also found a love letter of sorts.”
Some of the builders who have lately visited the gallery to provide quotes for renovation work remembered being clients of Passion. Apparently, on the top floor there were pool tables, a bar and a jacuzzi, with mirrors on the walls and ceiling, where you would be wined and dined before withdrawing to one of the smaller rooms.
One of the builders told Jon: “I used to come here a lot, I did, until they started getting in girls who were cheap and looked a bit rough, so I started using next door.”
Jon also found a couple of time sheets, with girls’ names, room allocations, and amounts paid. At that time, there seemed to be five main girls working there – Nicole, Lucy, Elisha, Reni and Sophie – and they entertained eight or ten clients a day in rooms called Pink, VIP, Gold and Studio, at roughly £40 or £50 a time, with the establishment retaining about half the proceeds.
Immediately next door, and just two doors away from the Undeb Bedyddwyr Cymru (the Baptists Union of Wales), is the ever-open but rarely used front door of Studio 95. Most clients are backdoor men, ‘parking at rear’ (double entendre intended, if you like, but it’ll cost you) being a desirable feature of these establishments. Scarlet goes in to check out the prices. “It’s really cheap,” she reports, “£40 for a full personal service, and the girl gets £20 of that. It’s clean, though, and they’ve got a cash machine. But there’s nothing much happening there.”
Bunnies, further up the street, seems even cheaper: £30 until 5 p.m., of which the house takes half, and £40 thereafter, with £5 for extras. It’s open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. until late. Parking, of course, at rear. The girl Scarlet spoke to was about 18 or 19, and she’d been working there for three weeks. “I asked her what is was like and she said, ‘Love, it’s like a girls’ night out.’ It seems a really nice place. Made me want to go and work there. Hope they change the sheets. Bet they don’t.” [iii]
A slur-y beggar reeking of booze taps us for cash ‘for a burger’ (the euphemisms abound) as we turn down towards The Kingsway to check out Scarlet’s old workplace in Dillwyn Street. But it’s been abandoned, as has the take-away below it. The blackout material is peeling from the brothel window, giving us a glimpse of the sun-faded satin swags of the boudoir.
“I wonder what happened to Tori,” says Scarlet. “I hope she survived. She drove us hard, but I liked her. It was fun working there and I learned a lot. There were loads of laughs, even though you felt like a slave sometimes. But I wouldn’t say the girls were victims. It was like a business which seemed all normal and glamorous, but there was this sadness about it. The whole place felt like that. But when you’re making that kind of money – what other jobs get anywhere near it?”
[i] One of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). [ii] c. April 2010. By 2011, the Elysium Artspace had moved again, to 31 Craddock Street. [iii] By June 2010, Bunnies had moved to the more romantic setting of premises above the Gigi Ristorante Italiano (subsequently the Palace of India) at 22 St Helen’s Road.