East London Hookers
Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Emma and Sarah live and work in London’s newly trendy East End – selling their bodies to feed their crack habits. In an area still stalked by the ghost of Jack The Ripper, some things never change.
I moved to America not long after filing this story, only to hear a couple of years later, from the photographer and video artist, Robbie Cooper, that Laura had died of an overdose. These kinds of tragedies are preventable. Addiction is treatable. It’s not easy, but once you know how to tell if someone is on drugs, you’ll see them in life, over and over. They deserve our help not our judgement. RIP Laura.
If Hanbury Street could speak it would cry out each night at the bloody irony of its fame. For at about 9pm, a boomy man in a deerstalker arrives with some 30 tourists in tow, and explains how Jack the Ripper once sliced up the whore Dark Annie at this here spot, breaching her belly and throat, removing her uterus and slinging her guts over her shoulder. Her spilt blood was soaked into the ground, the street echoed her screams, the killer was never caught. Indeed, at least four victims and 112 years later, the Ripper remains free as a macabre boon to the local economy – a horror story bought, sold and muttered by all who walk here. Night after night these slow swarms of foreigners pour through the streets on killer Jack’s trail. Some nights five at a time.
The tourists do not realise however, and the guides prefer not to notice, that the blood of whores is still spilt on Hanbury Street, has always been. It is not uncommon to see working girls slip into cars barely 50 yards from the huddles of rapt Americans even as a guide, within earshot, glories in the gory details of a bygone hooker’s slaying. The coincidence is ominous to say the least. Take Ninksy, for example, a working girl drug addict who at 38 is one of the elders of ‘the game’. Aged 16, she moved in with a 54-year-old gang enforcer because “I fancied him, I suppose, everyone was scared of him”. And it was here in Hanbury Street that he first battered her. Suspecting infidelity he used a pool cue to break her nose, some ribs, perhaps a shin – it was a long time ago – and then locked her in the house for three months. Ninksy still lives and works on and around Hanbury Street. The routine brutality of her life is such that she’s been beaten up so often she’s lost count, been raped 12 times – “or was it 13?” – had her nose broken three times, the lobes torn from her ears and if the streets could speak they’d say she was assaulted only the other day by a punter on a motorbike.
Just as people are damaged by experience, so places too bear scars, and the cusp of the East End and the City, the rump slice of Tower Hamlets, resonates with centuries of grim vibrations. Spitalfields itself takes its name from a since-raised priory dating back to 1197, St Mary Spital from which ‘hospital’ is derived – cures were primitive in those days and the sick were more often sent to die here than heal. Although forever at Mammon’s door, Spitalfields has long been characterised by exclusion from the City’s wealth, embodied until by buttressed walls with armed guard posts as streets like Artillery Lane and Gun Street recall. Houndsditch, (a stretch of the Ripper tour) marks the dumping ground for diseased dogs during the Great Plague. And during the eminence of the docks the area was a hub of sleazy port life, seamen and alehouses, hookers and smugglers. It was in these dark Victorian streets of sewer mists and Dickensian poverty, that harlots would stand, often toothless and ridden with sores, a shameless affront to the tight-lipped prudery of the time.
And here they remain, keeping the hooker heritage alive – not the same ones obviously although, as dinner party jokers from the posh bits never tire of saying, ‘you wouldn’t know it from the look of them’. In the Ripper’s day the hookers of Whitechapel typically fell prey to booze, hence Hogarth’s uncharitable sketch of the women of Gin Lane. His disdain is reflected by this unnamed witness of the 1880s: “Stupid from beer, or fractious from gin, they swear and chatter brainless stuff all day, about men and millinery, their own schemes and adventures, the faults of others of the sisterhood”. The modern version of this prattling gin-soaked cliché is the ‘crack whore’, already a cliché herself. Every crack polluted major city has its crack whores – London, New York, Paris, Milan – yet they are widely depicted in the same broad strokes as their Gin Lane antecedents. Shot-eyed, sickly, irredeemable wretches, at best worthy of pity, at worst of scorn. ‘Crack Whore’ is now such a popular byword for gutter life that it has become a playground insult a la South Park: “Eugh Cartman! I saw your mom on the cover of Crack Whore Magazine.”
Partly due to the Met’s concerted purge of King’s Cross in recent years, Whitechapel now suffers the distinction of being London’s ‘crack whore’ capital – many girls just went down the road – but the endurance of working girls in Whitechapel at all rubs against the grain of an area that has seen so many changes since Killer Jack’s day. Waves of immigration, Irish, Jewish and Bangladeshi; the Blitz and the rebuilding of the City; the rise and demise of both the markets and the port of London; and now a property boom that foreruns the area’s current mutation from the grizzled ghetto of popular myth to a modish village of designers, artists, bankers and advertising executives, so many cappuccino-swilling ironies bidding silly money for a those elusive Georgian loft spaces that are rumoured to lurk here. From cockney heartland to the new Notting Hill. Yet even as these tides of trendiness sweep through the area, imperilling the remnants of local trades such as textiles, fruit and veg and bric a brac, the street prostitutes – or ‘fruit bats’ as market traders used to call them – remain like pillars of human architecture. Their permanence underpins the territory. The oldest profession indeed.
Jane Sadler is my name and Stepney is my station
Heaven is my resting place and Christ is my salvation
When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
This little poem will tell my name
When I am well forgotten
– Jane Sadler, 28
Jane has been asleep for 26 hours, one of those long rock slumbers, payback for some three days and two nights on the pipe and on the streets. Another long, joyless session. Now she’s on the couch of a local crackhead junkie in one of a handful of dishevelled flats where working girls will drop by of a night for a boot (to smoke heroin) or a fix (inject) or a lick (crack pipe). Often the flat-owners are dealers and swap sex for drugs, but Paul’s different, he makes her tea (three sugars) and buys her chocolate bars (junkies eat a lot of chocolate). She would have gone back to her boyfriend’s flat on Brick Lane but he’d just steal her gear and “I can’t be fucked with it any more, he’s a living ponce.” The coffee table is strewn with drug detritus, and Have I Got News For You plays mute on the television. It’s around 10pm.
Jane needs to rest. Only a fortnight ago she was raped, beaten and lucky to escape with her life, it was her second attack in as many months. “He was banging my head against the wall, Asian guy, down that alley off Whitechapel high street. I tried to scream but he had his hand round my mouth, he had a hold of my hair, I thought he was going to kill me.” Since then, she cries out in her sleep every night, wailing and flinching. When she wakes up, still wearing that crumpled pinstripe business suit of the last few days, she is in a sour mood. “Why didn’t you wake me?” she whines, eyes pressed shut against the pain. “I’m clucking like a bitch. Don’t tell me you ain’t got a cigarette. Who’s got a phone?”
Jane is a 28 year old hooker, with four years on the street. There is much that’s typical about her story. As a census keeper might report in a survey of Whitechapel’s crack-addicted prostitutes: she is a local girl aged between 18 and 35, she works 7 nights a week, rain or shine, serving up to eight punters a night, she has no fixed abode, staying instead at a number of flats belonging to dealers or punters or fellow addicts, and she has a child by an absent father. Given her condition, she rarely sees ‘my baby’ who is currently in the care of her mother and like most of the girls she has a harsh history of childhood trauma and abuse, male violence, malevolence and wrong turns. She also has a heavy heroin habit.
“Give me the fucking phone!” Cold turkey has begun to set in and her cells are seized with sickness, a phase junkies call ‘clucking’. This is a heroin thing, no such equivalent exists for crack, the addictions are very different – heroin is a biological imperative, crack a psychological craving. But they go together like coffee and cream, they are the push-me pull-you twins of gutter addiction. Heroin helps dissolve the pain, physical and otherwise; whereas crack keeps you awake, gets you talking and fills you with that cocaine hunger for more, another one, keep at it till its gone. One girl explained the marriage as follows: “the brown makes you cluck so you need that before you can do anything. But you need the white to pep you up, get you out and talking to punters, you need the white to get in a strangers car. But white makes you paranoid. So afterwards you need your brown to relax. To forget.” And so it goes, brown and white, back and forth, day in day out.
Crack’s ravenous nature has dramatically accelerated the red-light money-go-round. In a typical night, Jane’s turnover amounts to £60 for brown and £150 for white. She could make that money in an hour, even less on a good night since there are a few lucrative regulars – magistrates, businessmen – who’ll pay up to £100 for French (oral) and sex. As a rule, however, Whitechapel is a grimy, downmarket beat with a reputation for cheap girls. More typical going rates are: £20 for French, £30 without a condom, £40 for French and sex, with extra tenners and scores thrown in for groping, swallowing, sniffing and spanking. There is also the popular “lick and a shine” option, with its reassuring ring of servility finally nailing the myth that street prostitutes actually hold the power in the selling of sex. This involves the punter taking a hit off the crack pipe (the lick) while the prostitute gives him oral (the shine). The price is standard French, of course, except when it’s dead on the streets because, say, the police are scouring the area for kerb-crawlers. Then prices plummet – full sex can stoop to a lowly £10 and the girls are left shivering in doorways as their cluck comes on. Market forces dictate flesh trade prices just as they do for stocks on the LIFFE floor, barely a mile down the road.
Jane promptly dials the number, one of sixteen dealer’s mobiles that she knows by heart. She’ll proudly rattle them off if you ask her, one after another, it’s a working girl addict’s party trick. Some carry crib sheets which they use to test themselves, covering up one side as though preparing for a French vocabulary test. But pieces of paper are risky. You can lose them, or worse, be arrested with them. These girls travel light at the best of times – no phone, precious little jewellery, stick of lipstick and a pocketful of condoms is plenty. Besides, dealers regularly change their phone numbers, so chances are your paper will be out of date before long. That’s another reason to be out on the streets late at night – in case Faizal rolls by to tell you his new number.
“Ak shadda, ak hala,” pronounces Jane, 28, into a stolen cellphone. It’s Bengali for ‘one white, one brown’, just like her and her ‘boyfriend’ Mustafa. “How long? OK then, behind the mosque.” She puts the phone down, reaches for her shoes and cracks a thin smile. “Five minutes, not bad is it? Quicker than pizza.” It is well into Friday evening and the restaurants and bars of Shoreditch and Brick Lane are teeming. The main red light area is Old Montague Street, or ‘the beat’ as both girls and police know it, which turns off “London’s Famous Curry Lane” just as the restaurants begin. Stand on the corner and you’ll see Brick Lane in one direction bursting with colour. Waiters stand smoking outside their establishments welcoming passers by to ‘Banglatown’, the trendies head for the Vibe Bar, there is a gallery launch not 100 yards away – down the road from Gilbert and George’s house in fact – and someone saw Tracey Emin in the Pride of Spitalfields pub. Look down the beat, however, and the traffic is all stealthy punters in cars, idling over the speed bumps to best examine the three girls in view. It is silent but for engines and one girl calling to another for a cigarette. She’s standing in the pale glow of a Salvation Army walk-in clinic called Hopetown, a contemporary of Jane’s called Lisa, 24.
“My mum and dad split up when I was nine and I lived with my mum. She’s an alcoholic and drug addict, she takes gear and rock. I was raped by her boyfriend when I was 11 and I started taking drugs about 14 to block it out – I used to serve up at the school gates. He got six months but I still had to stay there. And even though my mum knew it was true, she wouldn’t do nothing, because she depended on him for drugs. My mum used to bring punters home. Not for sex but they used to pay £50 just to look at me. I started working for my habit when I was 18. All I’ve known is drug life.”
Lisa grew up on Brick Lane, she is Ninksy’s niece in fact, part of the area’s hooker genealogy. It was Ninksy that taught her to dip, a trick for which Lisa has become notorious on the beat. Dipping is robbing punters during the act, not to be confused with clipping which is simply making off with the money without providing the sex. “I can take the money out the wallet and put the wallet back while I’m doing the business,” she smiles. “I hardly ever get caught.” But dipping is a dangerous game – she runs both the risk of losing repeat business, which hurts when you’re clucking, and, worse, the risk of violent retribution from robbed punters. She cannot always flee these attacks, sometimes she has to fight and that means depending upon other girls for help. It isn’t always forthcoming.
“What am I gonna do, get a kicking because Lisa’s been thieving?” said one. “Fuck that. She can sit in her own shit far as I’m concerned, the girl’s a thief. She’ll nick your drugs off the table right in front of you and just deny it, even if it’s obvious. She’s a compulsive liar. In a year she’s pregnant 10 times but she’s always the same size, always has a miscarriage or someone’s beat her up and she’s lost it…”
As was reported of the gin-lane hookers in the Ripper’s Day, the beat girls are a bitching, squabbling bunch, there’s precious little solidarity on the street, no matter how closely their ordeals correlate. Lisa and Jane, for example, both have children they never see and histories of rape by members of their families – Lisa by her mum’s boyfriend, Jane by her uncle. They know the same dealers, skank the same punters, bear the same scars, do the same drugs and both girls want to give up – the drugs, not the work, the money’s just too good. But they are friends only until rock comes between them, miserly quantities at that. One week, they’re inseparable, hanging around the same flats, fixing heroin together, forearms dripping blood onto the tiles. And the next, Lisa sports a bruised jaw, she accuses Jane’s ‘boyfriend’ of the deed. Jane claims to have beaten her up herself for ‘nicking stuff’.
And this is another trait they share – junkie Bangladeshi boyfriends who beat them, use them to feed their habits and exacerbate the misery men bring to their lives. Lisa’s ‘boyfriend’ was a smalltime drug dealer who after a six year relationship, married a girl from ‘back home’ (in Bangladesh) according to the wishes of his family. “He was good to me, took me a long time to get over him,” she says. And then without missing a beat: “He used to beat me up though, the rock made him violent. When I was pregnant he put his knee on my stomach and punched me.” She still writes him gushy poems.
There exists a doomed relationship between the working girls and the growing Bangladeshi community of Whitechapel. Social deprivation is their glue and at every level they clash. But their lives are bound up together to greater or lesser degrees. At one end of the scale are the dealers who develop relationships with the working girls, paradigms of dysfunction each one. Their lives are similarly dissolute and strewn with casual violence, the kind of standard issue disposable gutter conflagrations the criminal attorneys in Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire Of The Vanities describe as “a piece a shit”. One day Jane’s ‘boyfriend’ for example, was stabbed in the arm in a crack-fuelled argument over whose turn it was on the Playstation. Another time a transit van pulled up and four boys jumped out to batter him with sticks. Whatever.
At the other end are the suffering residents of the beat, a plain and open residential street. A councillor lives here. And this prominent restaurant owner, who virtually spits his digust: “These bitches, they leave their bloody condoms in my garden full of all kinds of diseases. My children find them. Every day, I’m telling you. They approach me when I am with my wife. Bloody bitches couldn’t care less, they swear in your face. But if I touch them, I will go to jail.”
Until early last year the beat approached a scene from Hanif Kureishi’s My Son The Fanatic. A protest by SNAG, the Spitalfields Neighbourhood Action Group, would march from end to end in predominantly Islamic attire, with banners and cameras to snap and shame any kerb crawlers. The exchanges were ultimately peaceful and the prostitutes would move on. “We understand that they’re lives are very hard, and we have sympathy for that,” assures Azad, a SNAG coordinator. “But they should respect the fact there are families here, with children. No parent wants to see someone selling sex and taking drugs right in front of their children.” Besides the dealers and the campaigners, however, lurk darker encounters, according to many girls. The gangs who drink and rob the girls, sometimes threatening rape. And the gangs who just give them a hiding, the so-called ‘Muslim vigilantes’. Lisa has been attacked with iron bars and they didn’t rob her, and Jane was beaten to the ground by a group of eight boys who broke two of her ribs and a milk bottle over her head. The telling geography continues – Jane was attacked at around 11 o clock, just down the road from the Ten Bells pub where a Ripper tour would have been made its final boozy stop. Formerly called the Jack The Ripper, it’s interior is replete with Ripper memorabilia and artifacts, yet during the day, it features strippers. The police does not recognise the existence of vigilante groups – it’s all assault to them, if they find out at all – nor does SNAG or the exasperated Imam Abdul Kayum of the East London Mosque. For years, working girls have bought drugs and picked up punters in the shadow of the mosque, whether at the rear, near the funeral department, where drug dealers drop off day and night, or across the road from the main entrance at the Shell garage, often frequented by working girls in search of condoms.
“There are so many problems in western society, with the prostitutes and the drugs,” he says, “this is not the way we try to raise our children. But of course many boys see them standing every night and the temptation is there, they go down the wrong path. And the police do nothing about it, they say they can’t keep patrolling, not enough cars.”
Perhaps Karim should be the Imam’s real concern. A pot-bellied father of three in his thirties, Karim looks like just another harmless tubby type in a jumper. But he is a crackhead known to all the girls, as a lick and a shine punter. One night he retreated to the bedroom with a girl, pipe in hand, to do his business in full view of the GQ photographer. Oblivious, he moaned “oh yeah, suck it” between lugs of crack smoke, as though he were in a porn movie. In the next room, the regional news reported that house prices were rising in Tower Hamlets at the rate of £2000 per week.
Karim wouldn’t say what it was he was running from – a forced, unsatisfactory marriage, the stress of raising a family on the social, the austerity of his Islamic upbringing or any number of personal agonies, who can tell what runs through the mind of such a far gone punter? No doubt his sordid habits are a trick to his ego, to fool him for five minutes that he is free from his bleak reality, in control at last. These are the typical delusions that men bring to the liaison. But the girls, trapped as they are, they speak about freedom, too.
We’re all going down to, Sunny Holloway, no more action for a week or two
We’ll come marching out of, Sunny Holloway, that’s when you’ll see what we can really do
In a week or two
(To the tune of Summer Holiday by Cliff Richard)
A week before she went down, in the strangled staccato that betrays a recent lick, Laura Troughton said indignantly: “I only got my freedom a couple of years ago. I was tied down to a boyfriend who wanted me to be some kind of housewife, and a mum who wanted me to be some career girl, and I’ve only just got away from them. Here, I can do what I want – I’m my own boss, I don’t have anyone nagging, disagreeing, making me feel guilty.” At 22 she is one of the beat’s more recent recruits although her background in Hackney’s crack and ragga scene was no picnic. And until last week you’d see her stand under street lamps, stick thin like a blade in heels. Now she’s in Holloway prison, the same place her mother Lynne once went although for very different reasons.
Lynne was arrested as a radical feminist on a demo, she was a Greenham common woman who lived cheek by jowl moving from commune to commune. Her Holloway experience was a hearty time, as one of a whole fleet of protestors who were incarcerated together in the eighties. Laura, however, was caught stealing underwear with Lisa one afternoon, both of them on probation orders for soliciting. She gave a false name, Stacey, was caught and promptly locked up for a few nights.
Laura and Lynne have a complicated relationship. Laura partly blames her mother for her “fucked up life”, for not showing her enough love. But she visits on occasion, often at unholy hours of the morning, sporting dilating pupils, a fiery temper and demanding money. In order to stop her estranged daughter coming round, Lynne has installed barbed wire on her garden walls. “Not for me, for Rochelle,” she explains. Her regret is plain. Rochelle is Laura’s daughter, a pretty, half-black six year old, whom Lynne has raised for years now, sending her to ballet and piano lessons. As Lynne attempts to give her granddaughter an ordered, straight life, Laura’s interference just doesn’t help. She tells Rochelle that “mummy’s sick, she’s in hospital.”
Laura’s passage to prison is a litany of horror stories, a downward slide that begins with gang-rape at the age of 11 by five sixteen year old boys. Damaged and reckless she ran wild from then on, nurturing her crack habit and suffering at the hands of so many ‘boyfriends’, one of whom battered her beyond recognition, after which, as her right wrist shows, she attempted suicide. For a while, she tasted the high life of her profession, working as a higher class hooker from a free flat overlooking Hampstead Heath. “I was making £500 a day some days, I had punters in Chiswick, Knightsbridge, none of them was violent. But I met this boy and got on the brown and it made me unreliable. The woman who ran the escort agency said I could have my job back if I got off the gear.” Things quickly became desperate forcing her out onto the streets. She dumped her sponging boyfriend and settled for the resolutely downmarket life of the Whitechapel beat.
A year on, she barely dreams of making decent money in escort work, the streets seem to have a gravity all their own. But while she’s inside, she has the chance to get off drugs, which is why so many working girls sell prison like Butlins, it puts colour back into their cheeks. It’s great, they say, you get off gear, the girls are lovely, there are songs.
On visiting day she comes bounding out of the waiting room – or cunt’s corner, as it’s known, if your visitor fails to turn up. All laughs and high spirits, she wolfs down her chocolate bars and enthuses about her ‘creative dance’ lessons. Apparently she has an aunt in Bristol who will pay for her detox programme (£250) and put her up for as long as she wants. It’s looking good. She reckons she’d still work for a while before she figured out what to do, but coming off, that’s her target. Her determination is reminiscent of the promises Jane makes as she prepares the next pipe – “I’ll come off the day after my birthday.” Or the notes Lisa writes herself in big red biro: “Got to get my life in order, get myself on a script, stop the rock, only weekends, rent a flat, meet someone who cares and understands me, settle down, find things to do.”
The so-called ‘crack whore’ scene in Spitalfields is driven by delusion at every level of the food chain. The girls tell themselves they can give up the drugs when they’re “ready”, that they can spot violent punters, that they have their independence, their youth and a sort of freedom. Addicts never tire of repeating the freedom lie about crack or heroin use. All you hear once the pipes and foils are smoking are the strangled promises to give up passing around the table. Then there is Karim’s fantasy, his twisted appetite for bought sex, the protestors’ delusion that moving them on somehow helps or that the girls are leading the boys. But most insidious of all is the fallacy that the area’s degradation is somehow glamorous. Tourists revel in the hammed up horror of the Ripper tour, the site of the recent Brick Lane nail bomb and the abandoned buildings, all birdshit and broken windows. Artists flock to the area to bathe in its hard-edged reality, it is Spitalfields’ low-life allure that draws the comfortable classes to people the new coffee shops on Brick Lane, browse the new gallery spaces and designer furniture stores. Yet this spells a disturingly unconscious abandonment of the underclass. Few notice the human dereliction of the area’s working girls, to most they are invisible, just left of the blinkered vision of the interminable lifestyle articles that focus on the area. Like third world poverty, one learns all too quickly to shut it out, lest it ruin your holiday.
Laura was released from Holloway on condition that she stay at a bail hostel, getting in before 11pm each night. However on the first night, she turned a trick or two and stayed up on the pipe at a dealer’s house. She tried to hide from her mother and the police for as long as possible but after a few days she and the dealer had a fight, she went for his carotid with a kitchen knife and ended up back on the streets. She spent Christmas and the New Year’s Eve at her Majesty’s Pleasure.
“When you’ve been working you forget why you’re there, what put you there,” she says. “You get addicted to it. You know you can just go out there and in 15 minutes you’ve got your money.”