I was in the Groucho Club swapping self-satisfied greetings with leading hacks when the urge for nicotine became insistent and I stepped outside for a fag. The door hadn’t stopped swinging behind me when I was pounced on by a range of even more heartless, shameless characters. They were literally queuing to con cash out of me.
‘You want some coke, boss?’ ‘No, thank you.’ ‘Very good, very cheap.’ ‘No, thank you.’ ‘Boss, let me give you a sample right here. Blow your mind.’ ‘Go away.’ ‘Only £40. I give you my phone number. Money-back guarantee.’ ‘Get out of my face.’ ‘OK. Give me one cigarette.’
A smoke-blackened man took his place. ‘I need money for a bed for the night.’ ‘How much?’ ‘Nine pounds eighty.’ I felt in my pockets, which were empty. ‘Sorry, fella, but I’ve already given away all my change and smaller notes. If you like I can put you on the waiting list.’ ‘Give me £20, then.’
I was on a stag night. The last time I was in the Groucho Club I was thrown out for asking Tracey Emin for her autograph. She’s a lovely woman and obliged graciously. But the waitresses saw and reported me to the management. On this visit, however, my beggarly conduct wasn’t held against me and I managed to conform to the house rules until one o’clock, when we were asked to leave because the club was closing.
Outside on the pavement again, there was the usual conference about where to go next while being enfiladed and importuned on all sides by drug dealers, mendicants, minicab touts and rickshaw drivers. The conference was inconclusive. The homeless man was still demanding £9.80. Impatient to get away, another member of the party and I climbed aboard a rickshaw and told the pedaller to take us away. The rickshaw man stood on the pedals and we set off for a club in Holborn, where, he said, we would be able to drink all night on payment of a £20 entry fee. Ten minutes later, the red neon-lit exterior of the club swung into view, rose and fell slightly until it reached equilibrium, and we disembarked and went in.
The man taking the money on the door was about seven feet tall and stooped, as though he’d been raised under low ceilings. Just inside the door a stark-naked woman was performing a backward crab for the benefit of an uninterested man with a criminal face slouched on a banquette. I tried not to stare at either of them.
The long, barely lit room was otherwise empty. But there was a staircase, which we ascended, and at the top we found ourselves in a cheerful, lively bar. I ordered beers, and, while the barman poured, I idly looked along the length of the bar.
Another surprise. The bar was lined with young women wearing hardly anything below the waist, and not much above. All of them turned and smiled at me. More incredibly still, there was an element of competitiveness in their smiles. I felt a female arm snake around my waist and clasp it. Turning around I found myself looking into the brown eyes of a woman who said her name was Maria. ‘Would you like a dance?’ she said, running her fingers through my hair and drawing my attention towards a door, through which I assumed was a dance floor and disco music.
‘Good of you to ask,’ I said. ‘But can I settle in a bit first?’ Crestfallen, she stepped back a pace and invited me to feast my eyes on the form. ‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like me?’ She was top drawer, and I said so, adding that I didn’t believe for a minute that a girl like her could be attracted to an old tortoise like me. She withdrew in confusion and I turned with relief to my £10 bottle of lager. I looked around for my friend, but he’d vanished, to check out the disco, presumably.
I know that it must show an astonishing degree of naivety to spend half an hour in a lap-dancing club without realising it. You’d have thought the girl doing a backward crab naked might have given me a clue. It wasn’t until I’d refused a third and fourth woman a dance, and the next put her hands on her hips and said it was an absolute bloody disgrace for a man to come into a lap-dancing club and not buy any dances, that the scales fell from my eyes. Shamefaced, I allowed myself to be led by the hand into an empty room for one dance only, where I sat with my hands covering my face because I could hardly bear to look.