While I definitely remember my first trip to the drinking establishment known as Brown’s, it’s difficult to work out where I originally heard about it. Maybe it’s ingrained on the collective race memory of those who work in the City of London; I certainly don’t recall being told. The first visit to said location came courtesy of a couple of guys at work, whom I’ll call Nick and Dave – whether these are their real names depends on how much they pay me – who used to vanish every Friday lunchtime for “a game of pool”. I was eventually invited along, only to discover that their idea of “a game of pool” seemed to involve standing around watching cute girlies take their clothes off. But, hey, I’m willing to adapt.
Brown’s, y’see, is a pub with entertainment, where lunchtimes and evenings, a congregation gathers to worship at the temple of Venus. But what distinguishes the place is how remarkably unsleazy the whole affair is. The Soho cliché – as exposed by unimaginative tabloid TV shows – is 250 quid drinks, enforced withdrawals from cash machines, etc. Brown’s proves this need not be the case: there’s no entrance fee, and drinks are pretty standard City prices (though I appreciate that to Northern readers, two quid a pint is sufficient to bring on apoplexy anyway). I suspect the reason behind this is licensing, though the exact legal status of the place is uncertain, anyway. The tight-assed City of Westminster council would certainly require a public entertainment licence, and probably a ultra-costly sex show licence too – thus Peter Stringfellow’s attempts to open something sounding slightly similar to Brown’s in central London are unlikely to be prove as amusing or good value.
However, out in the wilds of the East End, no-one seems to bother. Or perhaps the authorities realise that when strip-clubs are outlawed, only outlaws will run strip-clubs; better to have a civilised place than one run by a Kray wanna-be. This seems to me to be an enlightened view, as Brown’s hurts no-one: it gets increased custom; the girls make more in an evening than they could generally expect to earn in a week, and we get to see pretty girls take their clothes off, without all the expense and tedious effort of talking to them, buying dinner, etc. All-round benefits, as far as I can tell.
Due to the relaxed attitude of the authorities, the area is something of a Golden Triangle, with at least three in a 200-yard radius, though Brown’s is the undisputed champion. These included the well-named ‘Spread Eagle’ pub, whose most memorable act was notable less for beauty than an uncanny resemblance to Edwina Currie. Last time I passed, the place was boarded up, but I wasn’t quite able to decide whether this meant it was closed, or was just some new form of post-holocaust decor. All these places share a marginal sting in the tail, in that between sets, the girls meander round with a pint glass, soliciting contributions. You don’t have to give anything, but c’mon, we’re not cheapskates; it’s their only pay-cheque, and girls displaying their all for your delectation and delight surely deserve something in exchange. A quid per request is standard; fail to chip in and, well, the girls can do a very effective job of making you feel like something scraped off a shoe. Expect to be hit half a dozen times over an evening, and it’s still pretty good value.
The girls work in pairs, alternating their acts. The stage is chest high, maybe 25 foot long by 10 deep, with a ledge on the outside for the pints of those skilled enough to edge their way to the front. [Generally, the height and size of the stage is a good guide to the quality of the joint: seedier establishments have a lower or smaller stage, and some truly low-brow places don’t have one at all]. Each girl generally performs four times: the first and third are relatively mild, minimally clad dance routines, while the second and fourth are not. The content seems to be left to individual girls, but are generally at the hard edge of soft-core, for want of a better phrase (firmcore? floppycore? crumblecore?) – just about anything short of actual penetration goes. I’ve even had the unquestionably novel experience of seeing a girl mime selections from ‘Grease’, taking “lip-synch” to whole new dimensions, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Prince, Madonna and Enigma are perennial favourites as far as music goes, but I’ve heard everything from Tom Waits to The Human League.
What makes a good stripper? That nebulous term “charisma” is probably more important than anything else. The best aren’t usually the prettiest, who seem to think “I’m here and I’m beautiful, what more do you want?”. The less stunning apply more effort, and the results can be startling: “We try harder”, to borrow an ad-line. The key talent is being able to convince each and every member of the audience that you are taking your clothes off for them alone. Important here is the viewer’s attitude; as in the cinema, you have to be capable of suspending your disbelief. To gain the full sock-knocking-off effect, you must be utterly convinced that when the babe gazes deep into your eyes, she means it. Of course, two seconds later, someone else is getting the treatment, but that’s show-business, and you can play the same game – in five minutes, you’re looking into another girl’s eyes. This must be the ultimate open relationship.
A pair of independently suspensioned hips are also useful, the sort only loosely attached to the rest of the body (cf. Kate Bush). Otherwise, there seems to be no obvious common factor; tall, short, young, old, blonde, brunette, redhead, it doesn’t make much difference. But the best raise taking clothes off to an art-form worthy of comparison with ballet dancing; it’s sometimes hard to link the girl you see slipping quietly out the side door at the end with the angelic creature on the stage, who could probably teach De Niro a thing or two about method acting.
Brown’s position on the fringe of the City means customers are a strange mix of suits and donkey jackets, one of the few pubs where both are found. But despite this flammable cocktail, the phenomenally high levels of testosterone presumably present, and the alcohol factor, I’ve never seen anything even approaching aggression between the customers. Indeed, it’s one of the few pubs in London where I’ve talked to people I didn’t know – admittedly, not much more than “Phwoar!”, but for a Southern pub, this counts as unprecedented levels of informality. It helps that to reach it requires moderately serious effort, thus only true students of beauty make the effort.
So behaviour is generally highly civilised, to the point of chivalry; “Thou shalt not touch the girls on stage” is commandment #1, obeyed by virtually all, even when there are interesting bits of babe-shaped anatomy within licking distance. Precisely what would happen if someone got over-heated, I don’t care to think, but peer pressure seems to be a very effective restraint. No-one really wants to risk the wrath of fifty cavemen, denied their gynaecology lesson.
Most people attend in groups, though a few, generally pretty sad, individuals come alone, then stand around reading newspapers between the acts. Personally, I garner much amusement from taking visiting friends to Brown’s, and monitoring their reactions. Watching a formerly streetwise, cool dude get reduced to a pile of shambling drool is a salutary experience. Even better is seeing an alleged ‘New Man’ revert to a more normal condition: it’s amazing how much can be undone by a ‘Prudence’ or ‘Jennifer’ set to stun…
But I carefully ration my visits, because it’s a fair trek, and part of the appeal lies in the delight of rediscovery. I’d hate to grow a tolerance to cute girls undressing, a fate which seems to have befallen the DJ. He exhibits a frighteningly impervious air, far more interested in cueing up the next record than anything the girls were doing – terminal Beauty Shock, I imagine.
In these days of increasing political correctness, it is nice to know that part of London remains proudly and defiantly non-PC. And hopefully while Browns’ is open – pause to switch into Winston Churchill mode – the forces of darkness shall never, ever prevail!
A bird in the hand, or two in the bush?
My experience of Brown’s was an interesting and enlightening one, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. While the evening was certainly highly enjoyable, having a few beers and watching a couple of young, naked ladies dancing about on a stage, to me it was far from an erotic experience. On the one hand, perhaps my feminist sympathies – as mild as they are – wouldn’t let me take pleasure from such one-sided entertainment: i.e. a large group of men standing around and watching a woman stripping, etc.
While it might generally be considered grossly degrading to the women (and to “woman”), to me it also, paradoxically, degraded the male viewers – transfixed, tongues out, salivating like a bunch of dogs, virtually brought to their knees by the sight of “sex”. It was often more fascinating to look around the room a the audience, at these faces, for amusement than at the act itself. How weak men can be, believing in such superficial illusions.
That’s what it’s all about: illusion. What prevented Brown’s from being even remotely erotically stimulating to me was probably the incomplete nature of this illusion. It was perfectly clear the female performers were there for the employment, and the money – coming round with a glass to collect financial contributions hardly helps you forget what they are really there for, whatever their practised smiles may say on the stage. And when the show’s over, you see them get their clothes on and toddle off home, the apparent “sexual excitement” utterly extinguished. I would suggest that other forms of “pornography” are far more effective, since whatever the reality of the sexual state of the performers – whether they are really enjoying it or not -the illusion of the acts and the performers’ enjoyment is more complete.
With Brown’s, it is perhaps seeing “behind the scenes” and being reminded of the financial relations involved that enhances its falsity and undermines its erotic potential. Although I don’t claim that all performers in hardcore (for instance) actually enjoy their work, at least the illusion is preserved that they do, and we see nothing to suggest otherwise. Unlike at Brown’s…
[Brown’s – 1 Hackney Rd, London, E2. Tel: 0171-739-4653. Times are uncertain; I know they operate evenings during the week from 6-11, and lunchtimes Mon-Sat from 1-3. I’d recommend getting to the place about 8 pm, as that allows you to catch the end of one shift, and the start of the next, thereby letting you maximise the Cute Quotient! But be warned that Friday evenings can be very busy, so avoid if possible. Nearest tube: Old Street, about a ten minute walk away. See map for details.]