The Dilly: A History of Piccadilly Rent Boys

The Dilly: A History of Piccadilly Rent Boys

by Jeremy Reed


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

A previously undocumented slice of London's underground sexual history, and its influence upon artists from Oscar Wilde to Francis Bacon and the Stones to Morrissey

Piccadilly Circus has long been London's principal location for selling sex and this is the first book to really explore the history of male prostitution at "The Dilly." Dating from Oscar Wilde's notorious use of the location for pick-ups through to Francis Bacon's equal attraction to rough trade and right up to recent history, this is a pioneering piece of counterculture history. Employing a flair for acute visual imagery, the author maps out Soho's submerged gay clubs and drinking-rooms in the decades before de-criminalization. This is followed by the new masculinity advocated by the Mod look in the 1960s, the influence of the place on rock and pop stars such as the Stones, Marc Almond, and Morrissey (all of whom themed songs on the subject) and the book closes in the 1990s, when online male escorts replaced rent boys on the Piccadilly railing. An exhilaratingly colorful recreation of the illegal occupation of one of London'’s central commercial zones by lawless Dilly boys, this history is augmented by first-hand interviews with rent boys who worked the meat-rack in the 1970s as well as a chapter recording the author's personal friendship with the artist Francis Bacon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720615890
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 10/01/2014
Pages: 330
Sales rank: 439,915
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Reed is the author of more than two dozen books of poetry, 12 novels, and volumes of literary and music criticism. He is a winner of the Somerset Maugham Award, the National Poetry Prize, and the Poetry Society's European Translation Award.

Read an Excerpt

The Dilly

A Secret History of Piccadilly Rent Boys

By Jeremy Reed

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2014 Jeremy Reed
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1598-2


Watcha Gonna Do About It?

It's the defiant risk that's addictive and the territorial subversion of the street, in this case a commercialized, congested, tourist-brokered London WC1 piazza with its local authority, the City of Westminster, into a sex-tourist epicentre for rent that keeps bringing me back to the place compulsively and all its accumulative big-city tensions. Of course I'm nervous. It's a dusty gold afternoon in September 1978, the air furred with nitrogen dioxide pollution, and I desperately need money to write. Nobody pays poets for their time, but my unusual pop-star poet's looks attract constant attention for their sexual ambiguity, and I know from experience they'll sell.

I've been mapping the place out for the past year, getting pro positioned all the time and watching the fugitive dialogue between punters and rent boys as the illicit semantics of a cash deal sealed on the meat rack or below the street on the tube station's unstoppably busy circular concourse. There's an estimated 38 million people yearly enter and exit Piccadilly Circus Underground Station, and the notorious Dilly boys are an obvious attraction if your kicks come from dodgy same-sex assignations.

I've chosen the northern side of the streaming piazza, outside Boots and under the full-on neon lights advertising brands such as Coca-Cola, TDK and Samsung. The Dilly's both a community, in that boys form independent families and work together with a streetwise avatar overseeing their needs in selling sex, or it's a place for solitary rogue opportunists like me, there to pick up accidentally and dissolve back into the capital's anonymous crowds. I can see two mean fake-leather-jacketed teen runaways draped edgily over the railings under the arches on the Regent Street side of the Circus. You've got to be resiliently tough to do the rack, and most likely you'll get arrested by the Met in time because you're obstructing the highway and the place is monitored by decoys, or the pretty police, as a means of entrapment, as well as under the 24/7 grainy image surveillance of clusters of CCTV cameras. It's an obvious danger zone for desperados with a habit or the equal mixture of gay and straight guys working there to unscrupulously earn, risk getting beaten up in the process or get infected by sexually transmitted diseases or by the viral transmission of HIV. The plague's already entered the Dilly as cellular undercover, an irreversible viral operative that rewrites itself into cells through infected semen but nobody's doing safe sex or knows about precautions. All those Johnnys, Jims, Petes, Alexes, they've gone suddenly without trace into death, their stand-out individual characteristics remembered only by those who knew them as rent and who still don't properly understand the nature of insufficiently medically diagnosed retroviral infection or even really care or assume it will never happen to them.

I'm so slim at 8 stone 7 pounds that I look like a hologram, my neural networks anthologized into alert, adrenalin and the fast, edgy creativity that fires up connections whether I'm writing or not. I'm a skinny alien who speaks an exolanguage, and my fingernails are painted punk black. I move out of the direct sunlight so that I can see properly as well as be seen. Part of the thrill in this game is being the singular focus of attention, gobsmacking a complete stranger to a coercive halt. I've stood round here long enough to recognize typical punters from atypical, but you just never know. It's all smoke and mirrors: people characteristically invent their own names and identities at the Dilly in the confused exchange of lugubrious, illegal commerce. I'm wearing a black cashmere V-neck, skinny jeans and black-and-white Converse All Stars, the clothes accentuating my size-zero look. Standing on the railings, almost like meditation, it requires a partially dissociated conscious awareness. You're not really there, but at the same time you're so full on that you can almost feel bumped by atoms. I'm thinking, what if my mother knew? My friends wouldn't care; they all know that I live poetry as my oxygen and I work at the speed of light and don't belong anywhere but the edge.

The two boys on the meat rack have dodged under the street to avoid police, but I look more like an eyelinered pop star or dancer waiting for a friend to merit their scrutiny in scoping the Circus for importuning Dilly boys. Who knows what anyone really does with their time? Our occupations to strangers are like a series of locked space-times; you can't get into anyone else's, and so you just assume they do something purposeful or are going somewhere in the city.

Of course I'm visible only to prospective punters who account for a very small percentage of the unsuspecting crowds streaming by like footage; only that to these men Piccadilly Circus is an obsessive destination, and the lonely and the predatory saturate the place in the sunlit air. The six tube exits exude that particular whiff of the London Underground, a diffused mix of cleaning detergents and dead air escaped from the network of the Bakerloo and Piccadilly lines. It's the rush hour smell of live track and ozone and endemic commuter BO.

* * *

You've got approximately three to four minutes of forensic character assessment on the railings, as optimal intuitive decision-making in the hard-edged atmosphere dominating Piccadilly Circus, as to whether to commit your trust to a stranger. If you're a fraction out in your psychological assessment of a personality into a type – and most punters are frightened – then you've got the balance wrong. If you give the anonymous stranger a microgram of power, he'll use it to his advantage and come down hard on you as manipulatively vulnerable. The art is to stare the person down precisely and look not only directly into their pupils but at whatever's windowed in their bloodshot corneas where they hide. Nobody's real in this fundamental exchange, but I need instantly to sniff out the pathological on my fine-tuned freak-radar. The man could be anyone and me likewise, as part of the continuous reinvention of character that London encourages and permits owing to the transient nature of social contact and the anonymity integrated into that exchange.

I'm looking for the lonely and not the predatory, the sugar-daddy kind with soft angles to their speech and just a flavour of culture. The first man to approach me I take an instant dislike to: sly, cool, a city slicker in a charcoal crumpled Paul Smith suit worn without personality and flat on his figure. I make no response to his suggestions and flatten him by refusing to acknowledge his existence. If you don't respond, the person is left hanging in self-conscious disconnect. I blank him in the drizzled sunlight and watch him pointedly head for the arches and hang in there quizzically assessing the two leather-jacketed runaways who have resurfaced to claim their patch. I do the same with a second and a third prospective punter who are quickly dusted off by my cold imperturbable indifference. With men on men at the Dilly everything's done by signals, increased activity in the brain's amygdala and a corresponding drop in the insula and all networks firing. You've either got it or you haven't attitude. I'm looking out into direct polluted light thinking I want to get out of there, but polarized to the risk, as another surge of disorientated commuters stream disconnectedly out of the Shaftesbury Avenue station exit into the concentrated late-afternoon dazzle. 'Watch out for yourself, love,' a man had shot at me in passing without stopping, his hunted look full of confused hurt as though he had been there, too, all the way down.

I must have waited another ten interminable minutes, pulling as many looks from girls as men and occasionally dipping into a copy of Thom Gunn's Jack Straw's Castle, when I got the right signal. The man was suddenly standing between me and the sun: a youthful fifty-something, deconstructed quiff, chunky grey woollen cardigan worn over a white T-shirt, pre-faded jeans with non-reflective pewter rivets and a look that seemed to read in me corresponding aspects of himself. He had lodged his shades in his hair, film-star cool, and simply said, 'Would you like to go for a coffee?' already half turning as the invitation to follow. I didn't hesitate and walked with him off to an unpretentious Piccadilly Café on nearby Denman Street, a greasy spoon with an unreconstructed 1950s interior and an incorrigibly bohemian ambience.

He was Jonathan, worked in media, and told me he owned an apartment at Phillimore Gardens, off Kensington High Street, and that we could go back there. He told me that he came to the Dilly once a week and that he'd got robbed by a boy at the nearby Regent Palace Hotel and didn't take risks any longer. I could read the index of loneliness in his foggy grey eyes like a satnav routing an itinerary of under-the-street places where he regularly stopped off. I told him I was a poet and worked part time as home-help to a stockbroker (I actually did) and that I'd decided to sell my looks when I needed cash as an additional asset. Jonathan was reassuringly intelligent. He told me that people's ideas of prostitution, were to his mind, unconditionally hypocritical and that, while commerce had no scruples about letting property for income, they mostly considered renting the body as taboo. We settled on £30 for a blowjob, walked over to the Soho Car Park in Poland Street to pick up his bottle-green Saab and drove west through panicky traffic to his minimally furnished Kensington flat with a smoky cat called Billie and a prominent spirits-stocked drinks table. My first Dilly assignation had taken me four miles west to high-end Kensington.

I went back to Piccadilly Circus the next week, same place outside Boots and this time more confident, more in the lawless know and again scored lucky, and it became a habit for a time, this quick money fix before my nerve inexplicably broke one day and I couldn't ever properly retune the frequency, couldn't rewire whatever it was took me there. Looking back what drew me there seems to have had something to do with the whole urban street lore attached to Dilly Boys and their legendary status of hustling on a charged strip of commercialized pavement right up in your face, take it or leave it and 'Watcha gonna do about it, mister?'

I left off when I no longer got an accelerated dopamine rush like going on stage hanging out there, but the experience taught me most aspects of human psychology. Maybe, too, it was the shattering sense of vulnerability that helped reverse my initial optimism about staying lucky at the place. I wasn't part of the community, most of who operated underground on the rapid-transit station concourse or who formed familiar clusters on the meat rack. Rent occupying a physical rather than virtual space was already a diminishing profession, and it requires a lot of interactive social skills to hold up there illicitly on the street for a year or two, drenched in cortisol and reactively edgy paranoia. I came out of it with no abuse other than verbal threats from potential gay-bashers, shot nerves (I usually took 10 milligrams of Valium before going there to dull the edges) and an ability to totally dissociate and time-slip, as though I'd rapidly zoned ahead of myself into another time, another place, situating the present in the imaginary future.

Most of the rough-trade runaway Dilly boys weren't that lucky, got convicted, sometimes raped, murdered, fell ill repeatedly with an undiagnosable mixture of SDTs and finally, owing to radically impaired immunodeficiency, got shunted with HIV terminally and died without ever properly knowing why. But that's another story in the history of a working place that has attracted a consistently generic band of resistant Dilly outlaws to its condensed, impacted arc, extending across a circle built in 1819 by John Nash to connect Regent Street with the major thrust of Piccadilly and topographically subverted by rent into a gay microcosm in which successive generations of youth has gone to the black-and-gold painted railings selling sex out of need, desperation, curiosity, rebelliousness, criminality or whatever impulse takes you there, quite literally offering love for sale in an arena of life-threatening theatre conducted in the face of the totally unsuspecting going about their normal self-regarding lives. To have worked the Dilly is quite literally to have stood at the epicentre of London life, vulnerable, alert, looks-conscious, waiting for the right punter, street outlaws projecting invincible attitude.


Oscar Wilde as Dilly Punter

A century before the shooting of the rent-boy documentary Johnny Go Home in 1975, they were already there at Piccadilly Circus, outside the department store Swan & Edgar or slouched under the arches insolently with their slippery attitude, their punkish defiance, their hoodlum tactics, bashed-in hats and tight suits and their pocketed earnings; Oscar Wilde was known to them in the Polari they spoke as a tribal slang for commonality. Dilly trade, existing on the unstable boundary between visibility and invisibility, when the police showed up, covered a broad demographic from couriers to Post Office boys, newspaper sellers, sex workers, runaways, mean-hearted pretty young things and were part of a fugitive gay demi-monde to which Wilde grew increasingly addicted, as well as providing an underground source for the two novels he wrote between 1889 and 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray of 1890 and the scandalously homoerotic Teleny published anonymously by Leonard Smithers in 1893 in an edition of 200 deluxe copies for subscribers only under the imprint of the Erotika Biblion Society.

Swan & Edgar, a landmark department store constructed in the early nineteenth century on the corner of Regent Street and Piccadilly Circus, significantly targeted by the suffragettes in their window-smashing raid on 21 November 1911 and surviving until 1982 when it was closed by the Debenhams Group, was always integrated by male prostitutes into a convenient locale largely because it had an exit directly into the Underground. It was while waiting outside Swan & Edgar one day in 1888 that Wilde, according to his close friend Ada Leverson, first made direct contact with the lugubrious Dilly boys hanging on the corner. According to Leverson, 'As he stood there full of careless good spirits, on a cold sunny May morning, a curious, very young but hard-eyed creature appeared, looked at him, gave a sort of laugh, and passed on. He felt, he said, "as if an icy hand had clutched his heart". He had a sudden presentiment. He saw a vision of madness, misery and ruin.'

We'll never know the boy's name, shuffling round the sunlit Circus with hands in his pockets, his contempt for Wilde undoubtedly the expression of his own repressed sexuality, but he was clearly the formative influence in liberating Wilde into an accelerated attraction to low life and signposting the physical availability of rough trade at the Dilly. Leverson is in fact unintentionally describing Wilde's introduction to Dilly boys, an impromptu initiation that most London gay men underwent until the 1980s in recognizing aberrant aspects of themselves in Dilly trade, and Wilde was, of course, no different. The place leads to dissociation, fascination, criminal impulse and the weird spin of a circle, the Circus that is in fact standing still. If you stand on those black railings long enough, they spin like you've got vestibular damage and feel motion sick and start quite literally seeing things.


Excerpted from The Dilly by Jeremy Reed. Copyright © 2014 Jeremy Reed. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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