Saturday, 4 March 2017

On The Game

It might be an unwise move on my part, but I've decided to blog about what is supposedly the world's 'oldest profession': prostitution. I realise I could be skating on thin sensibilities with this one, so I'll explain why.

The weekly theme is Play The Game and after posting on here each Saturday for a couple of years, I find I've written about the topic of game-playing from several different angles already - football and psychology among them. In fact my blog about Transactional Analysis - Mind Games People Play - still seems to get about fifty hits a week. (Click on the title if you wish to read it - the blog is hyperlinked.) Consequently I've been racking the brainbox for a fresh approach - and this is it...

I've been tuning in to SS-GB, the BBC's excellent adaptation of Len Deighton's novel of the same name, on a Sunday night. It's a fictional account of wartime Britain based on the premise that Germany had invaded this country successfully in 1940. While watching, I was reminded of a wry, poetic story from wartime London, which I've embellished shamelessly:

Picture an East End fish & chip shop on the Mile End Road, the Apocryphal Plaice. It's run by Rita and her sisters, because the men have all joined up to fight for their country. The ladies need to keep the business going. They have a community and their own children's little mouths to feed. However, as hostilities escalate, so do food shortages. Three months into the new year, the sisters find that potatoes are not so plentiful as they were and as a result they will have to pare down their portions. Rita is delegated to write a sign for the shop window. It explains that: 'Owing to Hitler chips will be littler'. The customers moan a bit but they understand the situation and the cheeky humour is part of their stoicism.

By late spring it's not just potatoes that are in short supply. Fishing has become a somewhat dangerous pursuit in enemy-patrolled waters and catches are way down, especially around southern coasts. Rita has to add another line to the sign in the window that explains: 'Owing to Himmler fish will be simmiler' (sic). Of course the customers moan a bit more, but they stay loyal and Rita and her sisters carry on, serving their smaller wartime portions.

Eventually, the Blitzkreig takes its toll. One summer night, in an after-hours raid, the Apocryphal Plaice suffers a direct hit that completely destroys the back of the building, its pantry and friers. When they emerge from the shelters, the sisters find only the front of the premises left standing. They have no option but to shut up shop. They still have little mouths to feed, however, but they are resourceful girls. Rita replaces the sign in the window of the bombed-out chippy with one that states: 'Owing to Goering we're taking up whoring' - and that's how I came to research and write about being on the game. Kudos to our East End Ladies of Negotiable Affection.

I have no direct experience, I hasten to add. The nearest I got to it was when on holiday as a student in Paris. My girlfriend and I were staying on Rue d'Aboukir near the Gare du Nord. We were walking back to our hotel one evening when a denizen of that colourful neighbourhood and fully paid up member of the 'oldest profession' accosted me and asked if I'd like to accompany her upstairs. When I explained that I was with my girlfriend she just smiled and said I could bring her too if  I wished. We passed on that invitation!

The assignation of the phrase 'oldest profession' to prostitution is relatively recent and Rudyard Kipling is probably responsible for its currency. His short story On The City Wall (1889) about an Indian prostitute refers to Lalun as "a member of the most ancient profession in the world". Shortly thereafter a mass-circulation newspaper carried an article castigating the lax morals of the Victorian aristocracy in these words: "In ancient Rome, under the empire, ladies used to go to baths to meet a certain class of men, while men resorted thither to meet a certain class of ladies. The ladies belonged to what has been called 'the oldest profession in the world', a profession which is carried on in Piccadilly, Regent Street and other parts of London with great energy every night..."

Of course, prostitution pre-dated the Roman empire. Evidence suggests that it was originally closely tied in with religious practices in several ancient civilisations, Sumerian, Egyptian, Indian, Greek; that temple prostitutes at holy sites were sanctioned not only to perform certain sacred  rites, they also catered to the carnal needs of both the priests and visitors to the temples - and they were usually very beautiful (as indicated in the statue illustrated above).

They also became camp followers for soldiers on campaign, gave solace to sailors in foreign ports, provided services to mine-workers, navvies, really anywhere that men were away from home comforts and with coin to spend. They were even sanctioned by the Christian church as a necessary evil...and it was only the exponential spread of sexually transmitted diseases in the 16th and 17th centuries that lent the practice any sort of opprobrium.

Prostitution, then, is probably as old as civilisation - even if priests, robbers and grave-diggers might also lay claim to the title of 'oldest profession'. Its longevity is a testament to the basic human need it serves.

I have no moral stance on the practice itself. If it's consensual, that's fine. If men wish to pay women for sex (or women wish to pay men for sex) that is entirely their business. My only concern is for the practitioners themselves. As with any other business, I don't like the idea of prostitutes being exploited, intimidated or abused (by unscrupulous pimps or inconsiderate clients); and the scandal of young women or men being trafficked or press-ganged into being sex workers is abhorrent. There you go.

One thing I've not been able to track down is the origin of the slang idiom 'On the game'. Like the 'oldest profession', it probably also dates from late 19th century England when Victoria was queen but euphemism was king.

You may be relieved to learn that this week's poem (again a work in progress) has absolutely no connection to any of the above...

Waiting For The New Dream Girl
Do you have an identity yet
in my dreams?
Other older lovers,
often confusingly transposed,
masquerade or scold.
Some tug at flailing heart-strings,
their allure not entirely cold.
They give me unquiet nights
of troubled thoughts.

But in our shadowy trysts
I sense a different anima,
playful, not yet focused,
daring me to define
and then to find you.
Are you really out there
somewhere in the waking world?
Such presentiments, by light of day,
might prove to signify nought...
were I to find you, would I know?

Thanks for reading. Have a good week, S ;-)


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. No wonder people liked going to church!

Steve Rowland said...

Anon, are you intimating "religion with benefits"? I'm prepared to believe that may have been the case in the days of templedom - but for the last 500 years (and more) it's probably been an excuse for predator priests to sexually exploit vulnerable members of their flocks - allegedly :-(

Anonymous said...

Great blog. Funny and informative.

Anonymous said...

Highly entertaining. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. Interesting poem.

Anonymous said...

I'm loving the Apocryphal Plaice ;-)

Anonymous said...

The blog is both informative and amusing, the poem is lovely in a wistful way. Well done.

The Existentialist said...

Just read this. A most entertaining blog.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting and well-crafted blog. I love the phrase 'ladies of negotiable affection'.

Tom Shaw said...

Excellent blogging my friend.

Anonymous said...

What a fine blog, fascinating, funny and beautifully written.

Anonymous said...

This was a great read, informative and amusing. Thank you.

GV (Vance) said...

A fascinating blog. I loved the Apocryphal Plaice story and your anecdotal style. Great poem too. Thanks.

Jade Keillor said...

Your blogs are so interesting. I love the poem too.

Harry Lennon said...

So would Vestal Virgins have contravened the Trade Descriptions Act if it had existed B.C? Just asking... An informative and amusing blog.

Anonymous said...

Scandalously good blogging.