How I Became A Sex Worker

Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the striking stepped gable of Het Wapen van Riga (OZ Voorburgwal 14), a 17th-century merchant’s house
Michielverbeek, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the late Seventies I spent a couple of years in Amsterdam. Whilst I was there, for a time I was employed as a Sex Worker.

Right. That got your attention, didn’t it?

Oh, don’t worry! I’ve lost count of the number of dinner party hubbubs that have been silenced by the detonation of that particular little conversational hand grenade. Every face around the table turned towards me mouths agape, appalled fascination etched across every countenance. Not the wife, of course. Her reaction to this sort of thing nowadays is to roll her eyes, shake her head, and go back to daintily polishing off the entrecote.  But, as a bald statement of fact, the above does rather scream out for some urgent clarification.

To be precise, I worked for a few weeks behind the counter of Amsterdam’s oldest dirty book shop. It’s probably still there to this day, I imagine. Where Damstraat meets the Voorburgwal, if I remember rightly. I manned the till, kept the shelves stocked, took care of deliveries, and did a bit of sweeping up at the end of the day. Therefore I could, with complete justification, describe this role as ‘Purveyor of autoerotic gratification at third hand’ on a job application form, were I ever thus inclined.

Not that I ever have been. Nobody’s really bothered about what you got up to before your graduation, are they?  They assume you’re just a Nice Middle Class Kid who spent his adolescence doing Nice Middle Class Things. Like studying for Grade 3 on a cello you built yourself out of matchsticks, stuff like that. And now I come to think about it, quite a lot of questionable activity has been laundered off the old CV by the miracle of UCAS. But I digress.

I’ve had worse jobs, it has to be said. As a young chap whose prior experience of erotic literature was page three of the Sun and an early flirtation with the lingerie section of the Great Universal Catalogue, there was admittedly an initial interest. But after a while, when you realise with a deep sense of gratitude that troupes of dwarves dressed in black leather performing acts of unwarrantable intimacy with a variety of farm animals are not at all your cup of tea, the novelty soon fades.

There was also the clientele. From the furtive, via the dribbling and the desperately sad, to individuals who palpably made your flesh creep: it was a cavalcade of curdled libidos. 99% of customers could not look you in the eye as they paid for their stuff. But the other 1% would stare directly at you with an enticing leer as you bagged up their purchases, and it was them you had to watch out for.

Jobs were plentiful in Amsterdam back then, and I soon discovered that working in coffee shops and bars was no less lucrative than in the book shop, and that the customers were far less depressing. I also discovered that a cheery young chap with a striking resemblance to Robert Plant, and “een sekk-see Engelsch akk-sent”, could do very nicely for himself among the Eurobabes up from their more staid hometowns for a few nights’ naughtiness in the Dam. The post-pill, pre-AIDS generation. I had myself a rare old time.

I was born and brought up in the armpit of rural mid-Carrotshire, and me and my mates were what used to be called Tearaways. That is to say we had objectionable haircuts, we whizzed about the place on a variety of tinny Puch mopeds and barely roadworthy Honda 125’s, and we had a tendency to congregate in inconvenient locations and snicker at stuff. There was not one of us who had a genuinely bad bone in his body, though. We were dolts, certainly, but we were not thugs. But we were healthy young men doing what healthy young men do: finding our place in life, testing the limits of authority, and generally careering about with a cavalier disregard for the dictates of common sense. Conflict with the adult world was an inevitability.

My Granddad was born in 1892 into what we would now regard as conditions of desperate poverty, but which was then known as the Respectable Working Class. He left school at 12 and later served on the Western Front throughout the First World War. He raised his family through the Hunger Years of the Twenties and the economic insecurity of the Thirties. When he died in the Seventies he was living in dignified retirement in a Council bungalow, and was supported by a State pension. This seemed to me to be a fair outcome for a life of labour.

My Dad was born in the Twenties and served in the Far East during World War Two. When I came along, in the Sixties, the Working Class was experiencing a wave of prosperity such as never before. I remember Dad first going to work on a pushbike, then a moped, and then finally we got a car: an olive green Morris Minor. When the Old Man died he was a homeowner, he had money in the bank, and he’d even been able to invest a bit here and there. This seemed to me also to be fair.

Had things continued like this, I very much doubt if I’d ever have left Carrotshire at all. I’d have finished school and got a job, spent a few years sowing my wild oats, then settled down with a sturdy-thighed local lass and raised me up a brood of chuckleheaded Carrot Crunchers. I’d have drunk in the local pubs, played cricket for the local team and known little more about the wider world than can be gleaned from a fortnight on the Costa Del once a year, which might have been better for both the wider world and me. And this too does not seem an unreasonable expectation.

But it was not to be.

For all that it was a rural place, mid-Carrotshire was the site of an industry that had a huge demand for labour. From the little village where I lived, a row of big brickworks stretched northwards along the valley floor to the county town. Each site had dozens of tall chimneys belching out black smoke, and each provided work for well over a thousand people. This is to say nothing of all the local firms that supplied or were in some way dependent upon the brickworks.

There were six of these sites. Each had a quarry, a railway marshalling yard, and fleets of huge lorries left daily carrying tons of the distinctive bricks; the Fletton type as they’re known in the trade. The company that ran the works also provided a lot of social housing for the workers, not being short of the bricks with which to build it, as well as friendly societies, sports clubs and whatnot. The valley floor was a seething mass of brick related activity.

Or it had been. The industry had started to stagnate in the Sixties, gone into recession in the early Seventies, and by the time we came to plop off the end of the State Education conveyor belt there were only two sites left, and they were running at a greatly reduced capacity. The redundant works were now brownfield sites surrounded by thousands of acres of arable land devoted to growing root vegetables, and the valley floor was silent.

Nevertheless, that fateful summer, we carried on as if we hadn’t a care in the world. We looned about, got into scrapes and chatted up birds. A few of us were in what passed for a Punk Rock band, and we were actually doing quite well. We’d garnered a fair bit of local notoriety and we even had a manager of sorts, a chap called Tony. Tony had roadied for Jethro Tull, he owned a van to carry our equipment, and he reckoned we had a shot at going the distance. There seemed to be reason for optimism.

One night we were standing outside a Chinese takeaway. Another group of lads, who we vaguely knew and strongly disliked, passed by. Words were spoken and a scuffle developed. Then somebody picked up a dustbin and lobbed it through the takeaway window. It made a noise like a bloody bomb going off, and we scattered like  frightened hens. I decided to make my way home on foot, about six miles distant.

One peculiarity to which I must draw your attention is that the precise area in which I was born was known to the inhabitants of the broader region as ‘Little Sicily’. Not because we tend towards the swarthy in appearance, but because of our ability to hold a grudge. Back then everybody had somebody they pursued a vendetta against. My Dad’s own personal Nemesis was a local copper, a gentleman who for the purposes of this reconstruction we shall call Constable Digg-Bickhead.

I have no idea what was the cause of the animosity between them. The fact that the chap had a double barreled name was probably enough for the Old Man. But the antipathy was repaid enthusiastically, even unto the second generation. Which was me. I’d had several run-ins with the chap, and whenever our paths crossed he would go out of his way to be as obnoxious as possible. So you can imagine my joy when, just a mile or so from home on that night, a car drew up alongside me and Constable Digg-Bickhead wound down the window, gave me a cheery grin and said ‘Now then, Sunny Jim. And where have you just been then?’

The events of the next few weeks are a blur. Six of us were charged with a variety of offences but, undoubtedly due to Constable Digg-Bickhead’s malign influence, I was framed as the ringleader. I was also charged with having chucked the bin through the window. This meant that I got some bonus charges all of my very own. Thank you, Constable Digg-Bickhead.

The wife always gives me a slantendicular glance when I say this, but it was not me who put the bin through the window. I know who did it. He knows I know. In fact every bugger involved knew who did it. And also, for almost the entire duration of the fracas, the Fat Kid from one of the posh houses had me in a headlock, and I was too busy trying to stop him punching me in the face to have a great deal of time left over with which to gallivant about with dustbins. But the Omerta of the Dunderheaded prevailed, and we’re nowadays both staid members of society so there’s no point in rattling old bones.

But should I ever find myself charged with an offence of the gravity of, say, being drunk in charge of a mobility scooter, I would expect him to at least dob himself in as an accessory before the fact. There would be some justice in that.

By the time it came to trial, the whole thing had become a bloody Nine Days’ Wonder. The local rag had made a big hoo-ha about it, which had gone down tremendously well at home, and they even sent a reporter to cover the proceedings. A few months previously one of their reporters had gone to one of our band’s gigs and he had published a review, the essence of which was “These vermin should be publicly horsewhipped!!!” We had responded by writing a song proclaiming our belief that the chap was an enthusiastic onanist, and playing it at every gig thereafter. He was the reporter the paper sent to cover the trial. Of course he was. Perfect.

To be fair to the Magistrate, I have rarely seen a chap who looked quite so unimpressed by proceedings. The owner of the takeaway was prolific in gesticulations and broken English. Constable Digg-Bickhead sonorously perjured himself in a “Hi was vehicularly proceeding halong the ‘ighway” fashion, and channeled his inner D’Oyly Carte copper. Us lot burped and shambled our way through whatever bits we had to speak, and generally made for an unedifying spectacle.

At the end of it all, the Beak took off his glasses and massaged the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb for a few moments. Then he raked us with a glance in which exasperation and pity took equal measure, and handed down what must have been the most lenient sentences on the tariff. Everybody else got a twenty quid fine and bound over to keep the peace for three months. Due to my role as putative ringleader, I got fifty quid and bound over for six months. Thank you so very much, Constable Digg-Bickhead.

As far as I know, my fine never got paid. A few days later, things having hit rock bottom at home and my prospects in the locality being appreciably less than the square root of sweet FA, I decided it was time to go. I had read about Amsterdam recently, I think Hawkwind had played a gig there and they seemed to have enjoyed the place. So, with no firmer strategic rationale than if it’s good enough for Hawkwind, it’s good enough for me, I cleaned out my Post Office account, caught a train to London and bought a coach ticket for the crossing to the Netherlands.

And that is how I became a Sex Worker.

PS It occurs to me that we have some amongst us who might be able to highlight any procedural or other errors in the above relation of my criminal history. I would point out that nowadays I am frequently unable to remember why I walked into a particular room, so expecting me to have a detailed recollection of events which happened over forty years ago, and which I only dimly comprehended at the time, is a bit of a stretch. I would also say to them: “But it’s Art, Dear Boy. D’you see? D’you see, Dear Boy? It’s Art! Aaaahhhhtttt!”

Plus yah boo sucks to you for being a pedant. And a stinker to boot.

First published in – Crikey Riley! –  2018. Seems like a long time ago now.

© bobo 2021