They say that prostitution is the oldest trade, and I suppose that this saying has a great deal of truth in it. As society has grown more complex over the centuries and more open to failure, the number of women who feel that they have nothing left but their bodies has increased. It is a simple transaction and one would imagine that little has changed since the Romans were painting cheeky scenes on their Pompeiian walls. As an outsider, I’ve always seen two different methods of work for a prostitute. Firstly, there are those who work from the streets. Then there are the brothels where a group of women work under the protection of a matriarchal figure.
Under the second category, there is also the escort agency, attempting to give the trade a semi-respectable façade. I thought that this was one of the few modern manifestations, one that had grown up sometime in the 1980s. I kind of associated it with travelling salesmen in their Ford Sierras doing overnighters in Travelodges. But then – well, you probably know by now what’s coming next – I was proved wrong by a film.
I watched the 1936 Ealing film ‘The Lonely Road’, which had been adapted from the 1930 Nevil Shute novel of the same name. This is a clunky old film which was at times difficult to follow. I have to admit to turning to a synopsis of the original novel to try and make sense of exactly what had been going on! But in terms of showing us snippets of 1930s life it threw out a few gems – not least the scene of a dual carriageway road containing a couple of cars and a horse and cart. This dual carriageway road leads our hero, Commander Stevenson (Clive Brook) to Leeds and an overnight stay. He has dinner and asks the waiter what he would recommend in terms of entertainment for the evening. The waiter points him in the direction of a Palais de Danse, where he can purchase a dancing partner for 6d a time. The ladies there are very respectable, he is assured. At first this does indeed appear to modern eyes to be a very respectable transaction, a rather quaint one which I imagined to be closely policed by the management. Commander Stevenson purchases a roll of 6d tickets in order to buy several dances with a young lady and then treats her to a banana split from the temperance bar.
So far, so tame. But then at the end of the night, the dancer goes to collect her coat and has a wager with a couple of other girls on whether he will give her a tip. It then emerges that one of the others had recently gone to a hotel for the weekend with one of her dance partners. She complains that he gave a generous tip to every person working in that hotel except her…even though he told her that it was the best 48 hours he’d ever had! Not so respectable after all. When Commander Stevenson returns and asks his dance partner to come back to his home in Devon for a week, she goes but obviously expects to have to pay for it in kind. So here we have a look at a 1930s escort agency, where women are paid for their sparkling company, but were open to extra activities outside dancing hours. When it comes to the oldest trade, there is nothing new after all.