Prostitutes’ cards


6.30 am, Central London. A few commuters are making their way from Paddington down to Marble Arch but otherwise the Edgware Road is eerily empty.

The phone boxes down by McDonald’s are a veritable hive of activity though. A BT cleaner gives the gleaming call box a final polish, and quickly gets going. Steve and Harry, two likely-looking characters in baseball caps, hold the door open for him, wave him on his way, then move in. Up go the cards.

“HOT HONEY – Sexy Young Thai Model. 18.”
“NAUGHTY 6th FORMER – Water sports, Toys, French Maid.”
“BLACK MISTRESS. Bondage. Spanking. Caning. Domination.”

Swapping phone-boxes, with meticulous precision, Harry places a vividly decorated card for a “fully-equipped” ‘Male Reform Centre’ (featuring, rather ominously for most of us, Electrics”) above a plain card offering the simple message “Spank me harder” written in scary handwriting. Then they’re off to catch up with the cleaner up at the next box.

During the next four hours, the two cardmen, plus 6 or 7 others, will trace the cleaner’s route – up and down the Edgware Rd, down Praed Street, past Paddington into Bayswater – papering each and every phone-box with cards advertising the services of local prostitutes. If anyone objects, Harry will tell them, “don’t worry, we work for
BT ! We’re ‘interior decorators’.”

In one of the most effective and sophisticated direct ‘mail-shot’ campaigns in the capital, each prostitute will have 2 or 3 different styles of cards advertising different services for different types of punters. The cardmen will put up at least 2 of each card and will usually be working for, on average, 2 or 3 girls. So in each box, Harry and Steve will leave between 20-30 cards.

It’s no wonder that by midday, an American tourist making a call from a phone-box outside the London Planetarium in Baker Street, can hardly see out through the glass.
“I never seen nuttin’ like this,” he says in amazement. “Not even in Times Square. In sex shops, sure, but not phone booths. Not comin’ at ya from all sides, right in your face this way.”

Before they came here, he says, he and his wife used to think of England as Lady Diana, Sherlock Holmes and double decker buses. One thing is for sure: the old red London phone box was never meant to be like this.

3pm, in Bayswater. The cardmen are back on the streets doing the afternoon “top-up”, replacing cards that might have been knocked down during the day. Boxes are usually only cleaned every other day but the cardmen know several outraged citizens/local eccentrics who spend hours going round taking the cards down, and there is always the chance that Westminster Council has launched another clampdown. Even if they have, many cardmen have come to an ‘arrangement’ with the cleaners.

Having become obsessed with the challenge of cleaning up phone boxes in their area, in November last year BT and Westminster Council launched an 8-week cleaning blitz on phone boxes in Westminster that resulted in an astonishing total of well over one million prostitute cards (nearly 20,000 a day). As many as 200 cards were taken from one box. There isn’t really room for more.

Richard Clark, whose film ‘The Card Game’, goes out tonight as part of the ITV series ‘Metroland’, says the amounts of money being generated by the cards is “staggering.”

“With 3 or 4 card men covering different areas of London, most prostitutes will have between 1000-1500 cards in circulation every day,” he says. “If she puts a photo of herself on the card and uses 3 or 4 cardmen to cover different areas of London, some girls can spend £ 150 a day on cards. Printing the girls’ cards can be a very lucrative business.”

In the crumbling basement of an elegant Georgian square in Bayswater, you can see why they bother. The more cards go up, the more calls come in.
‘Gina’, a bewilderingly chirpy, cheeky, 19 year-old from Birmingham, is getting ready to meet her first punter of the day.
“Sorry,” she yawns. “I’ve just got up.”

With her is ‘Kitty’, a former working girl who for £ 45 a day, works as Gina’s “maid”, answering the phone and marking down where the caller saw the card – in order to monitor the cardmen’s ‘productivity’. She gives out Gina’s description (“19 years old, an English beauty… she’s brand new”) and prices.
“£ 25 for topless hand relief. £ 40 for personal. Come and see, darling. No obligation. You can discuss any other specialities when you get here.”

If they show up, Kitty also screens the punters at the door – looking for the vice squad, the occasional weirdo, and, in Westminster, the council.

Westminster Council has often called in the DSS to ‘discourage’ the card game, though this is very much a last resort. Attempts to use charges such as Criminal Damage, Living Off Immoral Earnings or Running A Brothel have all failed. Hardly any of the cardmen are acting as pimps and a ‘brothel’ requires more than one prostitute.

Three years ago, BT were told by OFTEL that they had no legal right to disconnect prostitutes’ phone-lines being advertised in BT boxes and 6 months ago, a judge ruled that the placing of cards did not constitute an offence of littering because, as privately-owned, closed cubicles, phone boxes were “not a public place.”

Card-men in Westminster are currently being reported under regulations in the Town & Country Planning Act concerning the “control of advertising.” They invariably plead guilty, regarding the fines (between £ 150-500) as an occupational hazard.

Richard Clark explains, “The cardmen make between £ 20-£ 30 a day from each girl, six days a week. So with 2 or 3 girls, the money starts to mount up.”

Police at Paddington station estimate one cardman has amassed over £ 30,000 in fines, but serving a14 day stretch for ‘non-payment of fines’ and the slate will be clean.

Unlike the fly-posting game, the cardboys (and one card-girl) on Edgware Rd are a tightly-knit group, having breakfast together most mornings and even going on day-trips together (jet-skiing !!!). Some cardmen have passed it down to their sons and younger brothers.

You can recognise them out on the street by the flak jackets they wear (for the pockets) and packets of blu-tack. Most of them operate by their own code, with a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ never to take down or move anyone else’s cards.

Even more bizarrely, on the days when the cleaners don’t clean the boxes, the cardmen turn up at 6.30am anyway and actually take the previous day’s cards down themselves (!) – allowing whoever gets there first to claim pride of place for his own cards when they start afresh. Placement is all in this game.

“Now this is what I would call a very good card,” Steve explains with the air of a true connoisseur, showing me a card for ‘Miss Brazil’. “Strong colours, no picture, which is unusual at the moment. High-grade paper – doesn’t curl at the edges or need to be creased to stay up.”

Like most of the others Steve has been a card-men for years and maintains his only alternative is going back to pick-pocketing.

“Carding is perfectly harmless,” he insists. “No-one’s getting hurt.”

In fact, those involved in the card game argue that the system is the safest possible for both parties.

From the punters’ point of view, the prostitutes are less likely to be using drugs (junkies can’t get it together to organise the cards, let alone the rent) and there is less risk of ‘clipping’ (where punters are ripped off or mugged).

According to Nicki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes, with less risk from pimps and dangerous punters, prostitutes working in their own premises are “ten times less likely to encounter violence than they are on the streets.”

Without the card-game, she says, this is where “a large proportion” of them would end up.
“Where else can they go ?”

The ECP argues that Westminster’s campaign is not only a waste time, money and resources, but actually putting women at risk – not just from pimps and punters but from kerb-crawlers.

Police and Westminster Council disagree. One officer told me: “prostitutes always say they’ll have to go back on the streets, but they never do. All the street-girls I know are, without exception, doing it for drugs. These girls are in it as a business. They’re not the type to go out on the streets.”

Robert Moreland, the Chairman of Westminster Council’s Environment Committee, also refutes the idea that an increase in street-girls is an inevitable consequence if the cards are outlawed.
“They can go back to putting cards in shop windows and advertising in magazines. The other side of the coin is that, it’s litter, it’s not nice for children, it gives a bad image and so forth.” (Working girls claim the deadlines for most sex magazines make advertising impossible.)

So for now, the occupation of London’s phone boxes by the prostitutes’ cards will go on. A study by the University of Westminster, commissioned by British Telecom, concluded that, without specific legislation, there was very little that could be done about the cards without more serious consequences and a proposal by Lady Olga Maitland to make the cards an offence under the Criminal Justice Act was opposed by the Government.

Both BT and Westminster council admit they rarely receive complaints about the cards (most Londoners are used to them) and in recent months, many prostitutes have toned down the explicit nature of their messages in order to deflect criticism.

The council’s concerns about litter and the effect on tourism might well be justified, but their campaign could have a serious human cost for girls like Gina. As it is, her situation is not exactly an enviable one. Looking around her spartan, decidedly dingy, flat in Bayswater, the only decoration in her room is a few porn pictures on the wall. A whip and a school uniform are hanging, sadly, over the back of the door. A pencil sketch by the bed has the words “AIDS KILLS” written on a coffin.

Gina has spent the night watching TV, drinking wine and getting depressed. With her expenditure on the cards, the cardmen, the maid and the exorbitant rent she’s paying (doubled when the landlord discovered what her profession was), she needs to make around £ 300 a day just to break even. Yesterday, she tells me, she took £ 150 off one guy just for walking him round on a dog’s leash,

The heatwave has been disastrous for business. She dreads getting into more debt, and as the hours go by, with the prospect of going back to a life over-run with pimps and drugs growing, her desperation worsens.
“The police hounded me off the streets in the first place,” she complains, almost in tears. “Now they’re trying to drive me back out there.”

It is one in the morning, and she is just about to call it a night when the phone rings. A punter on Queensway has seen her card and is on his way over. Gina leaps to her feet in relief, and flashing a smile as she goes, runs to the door to get ready.