With another venue open in Hammersmith, the popularity of striptease as entertainment clearly continues to grow -- unless you're a Hollywood producer, in which case it’s better to cut your loss, give Demi Moore the $12m, and send her home. But the heterosexual male in the capital has an every-increasing variety of opportunities to see more-or-less gorgeous girls taking their kit off.

The reasons for this growth may be correlated to the decline in situations where men are allowed to openly interact with women on a sexual basis. Overstep the bounds and you could end up in court, as one prominent doctor found out. He either brushed against a waitress's leg (his version), or put his hand up her skirt (her version): the truth most likely lies in between. Now, the "victim" worked in a theme restaurant, and dressed specifically to appeal to male fantasies: yet when they were acted upon, the perpetrator was found guilty of indecent assault, when surely "lack of self-control" would have been a more appropriate charge.

This just represents the bluntest over-reaction. Men are basically sexual creatures, and it's not something that can be turned off like a tap. Two million years of instinct trump a century of Victorian morality, and less than a decade of political correctness: biology is destiny. Yet an off-colour remark in the office could result in a sexual harrassment suit, and catching a woman's eye on the tube leaves you feeling like a pervert. It's no wonder that men flock to places where they can release at least some unresolved sexual tension without fear of repercussions.

There are times, however, when the question of exploitation does rear its head. Less of the punters by the artistes, or vice versa, more the way both (but especially the girls) seem to be getting exploited by the venue. From what I’ve heard, it seems that at best they don’t pay the girls. At worst, the babes have to pay an up-front fee and also contribute a hefty slice of their takings - 30% was the figure I heard - to the house. Now, this money doesn’t seem to be used to subsidise the drinks prices: while not extortionate, neither are they exactly happy-hour-at-the-Student-Union. Someone, somewhere is making a very pleasant profit, which probably also goes a long way to explain the proliferation of such venues. From originally being little more than a way of getting customers into out-of-the-way pubs on slow evenings, the entertainment has now become the raison d’etre. However, it is something of a disincentive to realise that the asshole DJ is taking his pay out of every quid you drop in the jug.

A pleasant development on the scene has been the introduction of table-dancing to, first Metropolis, and then Brown's -- the service lets you select a dancer and have her perform for you in relative intimacy. The cost is about a fiver per head, which gets you a song's worth of undiluted attention in a curtained-off area. While remaining strictly a visual pleasure, it's an experience I'd recommend to anyone -- these girls are good at their job, and when you get to pick the best of them, it's like having a blow-torch turned on your libido. The sensual equivalent of freebased cocaine, you get a cheap, instant, intense high, followed by an overpowering urge to repeat the experience. Fortunately, unlike crack, the main problem is supply and demand: especially at Metropolis, after 'booking', you may have a lengthy and for some reason nerve-wracking delay as you stand around, waiting your turn.

This innovation appears to have come about partly in response to a venue called 'For Your Eyes Only', which opened last year in the exotic location of, er, Hanger Lane. This new Gyratory System specialises in the table dance, but has not yet been visited by TC since it’s a) miles from anywhere else you'd ever want to go and b) £20 to get in, which goes against our philosophy. When one can see babes of the quality of Ulrike and Marianne for free, why bother paying?

This is especially true when the escalative spiral is continuing apace in more accessible areas. For a while, Brown's offered "lap-dances" -- though let's be clear, we are not talking anything like the full-contact, sticky trouser experience seen in Showgirls. [See Beer and Writhing in Las Vegas for details] It was more like a point-blank table dance, so close you could feel their body heat, and strictly no contact permitted. This required incredible will-power - or sitting on your hands and to enforce the rule, it all took place 'in the open'. However, after about ten seconds, you didn't notice, and though the girls may be only topless, it was better value than their table dances.

That wasn't their only new feature, though the appeal of the tequila slammer escaped me: five quid to lick salt from your girl's arm, down the alcohol and pluck the lime from between her teeth seemed a bit steep. Both innovations only lasted a few months, but it’ll be interesting to see how their competitors respond: will Metropolis begin doing proper lap dances? Whatever happens, we, the customers will likely be the ones to benefit, illustrating perfectly the delights of competition in an unregulated free-market economy...

[Eagle-eyed readers may have spotted Brown’s making the news in August -- sadly, for all the wrong reasons. Three employees were shot, when a group they’d thrown out for hassling the girls came back. One bouncer took six bullets, while his colleague and the manager were also injured. Sobering stuff. Not that it’s stopped us from going there, of course!]

Nights of the Round Table

A cellar bar, situated near one of London's mainline stations, is home to the Round Table, a private member's club which represents the next level of fleshly activity down -- or up, depending on your point of view -- from the likes of Browns'. Admission to the Round Table is by request only; they don't advertise, and prospective applicants may face a grilling to ensure they are legitimate punters. Assuming you pass the test, you are told the location, and given the basic details: events happen on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with special "stag do's" on the first Monday of each month. Membership is forty quid a year, plus six pounds for a normal event and twenty quid for the stags. It's then a question of screwing our courage to the sticking plate and going along. For (im)moral support, I went with a friend, expectations high that this was a ripoff, scam...or something worse. We descended into the depths of the Earth to meet the fabled "Reg", the mastermind behind the Round Table...

For the sort of person whom the News of the World would undoubtedly label an "evil genius", Reg seemed an entirely affable bloke, though I think the fact that there were two of us worried him a bit, since the rest of the customers all arrived on their own. Only Jehovah's Witnesses and undercover cops work in pairs, but Reg's greatest fear appeared to be that we were Inland Revenue. I toyed with the idea of pulling out my work id and yelling "Freeze, scum!", but I'm fond of my kneecaps the way they are.

We paid our subs, got a spiffy membership card, bought a couple of beers, and watched the rest of the audience and the girls, arrive. Like other venues, the clients were a mix of City suits and casual dress, though as mentioned above, no groups were present. The three girls engaged to provide the evening's entertainment were a Mediterranean girl, thin to the point of anorexia, a Eastern European, pretty but with such a frosty attitude that we nick-named her the Ice Pole. and an English lass, the best of the bunch, though a little plump. Below the standard of Metropolis or Brown's, definitely, but scarcely unpleasant to look at, averaging maybe 6.5's. Having reassured ourselves that it didn't seem to be a con, our next question was the deeply philosophical "Why are we here?", specifically, what would we get for our cash. We were answered fairly rapidly when the first dancer, the Mediterranean, appeared. Taking her top off in close proximity to one punter, the customer in question reached out and began caressing her breasts. "My", we thought, "this is new", eyebrows (amongst other things) rising. But they had to be pulled off the ceiling when this respectable-looking gent then began sucking lustily on the teat as if he'd never been weaned off milk. It was clear that at the Round Table, stripping was no longer just a spectator sport, it had become a participation event.

This culture shock resulted immediately in us both assuming defensive, crossed-legs postures, as the girl proceeded randomly round the room, receiving similar attention from other attendees. However, when a not unattractive woman is trying to sit in your lap, keen for you to run your tongue around her nipple...well, it would be churlish to refuse. My "rabbit caught in headlights" expression was soon replaced by a sizable grin.

The process was repeated with the other two girls, leading us to wonder just how far they would go. And, indeed, how far we would -- this was not a place for faint hearts, and many of my companions who happily visit Brown's would find the Round Table a breast too far. From the morality and fidelity points of view, one can defend "just looking" easier than "putting your head between them and going blubble-blubble". Much as I love TC and its editor, there are (just) limits.

After the inevitable circulation of pint jugs, the next set of routines pushed those boundaries further, as the girls performed wearing nothing at all. Obviously, this offered better, ah, openings for entertainment, and the girls remained as pliable and available for interaction as ever (even if the Ice Pole still looked like she'd been sucking a nettle or two). This set the standard for the rest of the evening, with random variations such as baby-oil, up until well past 11. Though things were still in full swing at that point, I had to head off, my fingers bearing an unmistakeable souvenir of the evening, which combined baby oil and a muskier, more intimate scent...

It's probably true to say that events at the Round Table blur the boundary between dancing and prostitution. This was made abundantly clear when, less than half an hour after arriving, another attendee sidled up to us, and handed over cards inviting us to a "house party", taking place in Peckhan the next Monday. Twenty-five quid got us a show from two of the girls there that night, no pint jugs, bring your own booze and you were "guaranteed a fuck". This was something of a shock: it's one thing to see a girl on stage, and dream about having her, but the knowledge that you actually could have her, for the price of a decent meal, puts the whole event into a new dimension. It's one with which I'm not exactly comfortable: as someone previously wrote in TC, "the gap between fantasy and reality is sometimes a pretty good idea". So I didn't go: besides, the cute English girl wasn't on offer.

Other evenings since have offered other girls, of varying quality as well as the renowned "Sue the Swopper", an amateur performer who turned up to perform on an ad-hoc basis. I was under the impression such women were merely created by the letter column editors of dodgy magazines, but this woman genuinely seemed to be into the exhibitionism. To each their own.

As for the stag events, they really weren't worth the (quite considerable) extra money, unless you enjoy the sight of a rugby scrum of flabby men with their willies out, crowding round a woman, to the extent that nothing can be seen of her. As a spectator sport, it leaves something to be desired, though there is the odd alternative diversion. Seeing a woman stick two cucumbers, a can of Diet Pepsi, a can of Ruddles County, a marrow, and most of someone's forearm up her pussy (no, not at the same time) is certainly an impressive sight, but is hardly erotic. Similarly Sue's taking on of, literally, all-comers, leaving her looking like an open condensed milk sandwich (think about it...). The 1-on-1 action was a touch better, but overall it's an experience I was left in no hurry to repeat.

If the legality of the pub joints is questionable, the legality of the Round Table must be even more dubious. I suspect many of the foreign girls probably don't have all the necessary papers, which would limit their employment elsewhere. The premises were clearly not licenced, which led to a visit from the authorities, and a currently on-going hiatus. As for fire regulations, forget it. All this, in a way, makes it remarkable that it did appear to be "honest", rather than a scam. Those who operate beyond the law are not required to have much concern for customer satisfaction, but to Reg's credit, he seems to play it straight.

From the aesthetic point of view, the Round Table is never going to be up to the standard of other venues, where the women are prettier and generally at least give the impression of wanting to be there. You trade off a few seconds of very close attention, against a few minutes of more distant entertainment; which is "better" depends on too many variables to call. If Brown's and Metropolis are the Serie A of stripping; the Round Table are the local park league. The quality on display may not be comparable, but you're almost guaranteed a hell of a lot more goals. There are times when that will be just what you want. 

[Max Renn]

Next: Cannes, it ain't
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