The Dilly: A Secret History of Piccadilly Rent Boys by Jeremy Reed

td(Not discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

On the fringes of Soho, Piccadilly has long been London’s principal location for the illicit sale of sex, and Jeremy Reed explores the history of rent boys from Oscar Wilde’s notorious attraction to the place to the painter Francis Bacon’s predilection for rough trade. The book includes tales of Soho’s clandestine gay clubs from the days when homosexuality was illegal, the punters inexorably drawn to the area, the development of the secret slang known as Polari or Palare, (though I’m not sue he’s right on this as it was used at London’s docks in the 18th Century and some trace it back to the 16th Century) as well as the Dilly’s influence on pop stars from the Rolling Stones to Morrissey. The author examines the careers of a number of former male prostitutes who worked the infamous ‘Meat Rack’ and investigates what drew them to risk their lives. His study includes a chapter recording his friendship with Francis Bacon and concludes with an account of the demise of the Dilly trade, when male escorts booked online supplanted the boys hanging out on the neon-lit railings.

Because prostitution was illegal, these boys mixed with the criminal underworld – like drugs, I wonder of the answer is legalisation.

It the last chapter an add-on? The book ends logically with the previous chapter.

The role of the church is noted – Fr. Ken Leech set up Centrepoint for drug rehab. when he was at St. Anne’s Soho.

The infamous ‘Bishop of Mecdway; makes his appearance. He came to fame on a TV documentary about runaways called ‘Johnny Comw Home’ where he picked up boys from Kings Cross and settled them in homes which were really brothels. He got authority funding because nobody checked his bogus credentials.


Jack Saul and his associates at the Dilly adapted Circus slang or Palare into their coded vocabularies, with male prostitutes being called pejoratively ‘Mary-Ann’, ‘pouf’, ‘fairy’, ‘tante’, `tapette’, all terms known to Wilde and his milieu as family. A criminal slang vocabulary, known at the time as Parlyaree’, as the prototype for the secret gay slang Polari that coloured the repressive 1950s and 1960s, as a form of verbal drag in which language is camped, was already in circulation, with some of its insolently spiked additives picked up from the nearby Alhambra Music Hall at No. 23-27 on the east side of Leicester Square that was used as a pick-up place by both male and female prostitutes.

According to Warth, the semiotics of Polari and offended by the exclusively the Masonic lingo, ‘Homosexuals have their own private language, constantly changing as some of their expressions go into common usage. They recognize each other by the phrases they use. Makeup which they sometimes wear, is “slap”. Putting on women’s clothes is “dragging up”. A man who they recognize as unsympathetic to them and likely to scoff at their mincing ways, is a “send-up”. Anyone strutting and posturing, as they do, is “very camp”.’

Alex recalls elements of the hustler’s lingo he used at the Dilly, such as ‘vice-boy cigarettes’ for marijuana smoked before sex, and drugs sold at the station, ‘ups and downs’ for amphetamines and valium, `two-for-one’ for heroin and, if he was on, he’d be hiding his ‘bee bites’, or if he was out to rob he’d be ‘working the fags’. He recollects other terms such as `goofer’ for a punter in his forties, an ‘ice palace’ for a client’s affluent home, ‘incendiary blond’ for a faggot; a whole vernacular of quirkily inventive and quickly deleted terms used as argot by Dilly boys in the 1970s.

That Polari had been introduced by Dilly boys into oho clubs was observed by Ken Leech who noted, In the world of the coffee clubs there is a culture with its own language and words like `bona” (good), “vada” (to look), “nishta” and “nanty” (no) are used extravagantly. The homosexual language is called Polari and should be.

distinguished from camp language, which is more widely used and less restricted.’

On the run, and pathologically motivated by one of his wallet-grabbing forays to the Dilly, Scanlon tracked a company director to the station toilets, came on to him sexually in a cubicle and snatched his stashed wallet. Ramming the man up against the wooden door Scanlon coolly rummaging through his wallet discovered the man’s identity and details including his address and threatened to tell his wife unless the director paid him k800. Scanlon, after stealing the panicked and traumatized victim’s credit card, walked the man to his bank to cash a cheque for the amount demanded.

Two years later he was accidentally recognized as wanted by Detective Colin Johnson who was on undercover duty at the Regent Palace Hotel bar, a venue consistently popular with rent boys on account of its location, clearly putting the frighteners on a visibly distressed and grey-suited businessman. When the two men disappeared into the hotel, Johnson organized an immediate search to find the room they had taken for an assignation and arrested Scanlon, who had in the meantime demanded k30o from his unsuspecting victim. Arrested and tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to ten years. Judge Michael Argyle, repulsed by Scanlon’s intimidating methods o±

extortion and systematic menacing of wealthy homosexuals said in his reprimanding summary, ‘These are loathsome offences. Today is your paying-up day.’ As a marker of insidious Dilly machinations Scanlon’s case epitomized gay criminality — a sexually confused, indisputably disruptive sensibility using his self-loathing in part to victimize the compromised and the vulnerable through extortion. Gays subverting  othe r other same-sex types were an invasive Dilly rogue gene, mercenary twisted, often aggressively homophobic and far more injuriously dangerous than stereotypical queer-bashers.

Wheeler strips down thee romantic illusion that being a Dilly boy was a sexual gateway-maaking easy money for doing nothing but hang out looking availar

For punters sometimes deny they made a deal with you, or don’t pay you. What can a rent boy do in this situation? Say you’re under age and go to the police? Who is the police more likely to believe, a middle-class businessman, which most punters are, or an eighteen-year-old gay prostitute? Boys get raped, gang-banged and beaten up . . . And what about the queer-bashers pretending to be gay and punters who take you round the corner where you are expected to give a blowjob and he’s got three of his friends waiting to give you a going over?

This brutally realistic, take-no-prisoners confession of the unavoidable flip-side to being Dilly rent quite rightly argues a case for the punter controlling trade, often through class and privilege, and in effect being vindicated by the police if a dispute should arise over a deal reneged on by refusing to pay. Rent boys as socially despised outlaws were unable to appeal to the police if they were abused by punters because their profession was illegal, and, of course, the punter knew it and used it to his advantage. We come back to the time-tested criterion that no one likes having to pay for sex, because of the implicit psychological admission that he can’t find a partner or is in some way cheating or living a double life, is physically unattractive or, hardest of all in the gay world, growing older.

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