Nothing personal

My first book, about prostitution in London, was published in 1992. It began in dreamy suburbia and ended up with me meeting my eventual wife, Alison. During the three years I interviewed prostitutes and their clients, and wrote about them, I was intrigued and appalled by the sex business, beaten up and hospitalized, and taught some valuable lessons about both life and writing.

The chances of our lives crisscrossing in any other way were miniscule – but a book about the London sex industry brought a South African draft dodger and a Home Counties girl together. As an architectural student at UCL, working on a post-graduate design about the sex industry, Alison bought Nothing Personal in December 1992. She tracked me down via my publishers, to ask for help with her work. Alison soon turned her architectural project into a five-week art installation in Bloomsbury.

A few years earlier, this book had begun in equally curious circumstances. I had just found my first literary agent, a former South African who lived in Surbiton. Her neighbour was a Danish escort, Marina, who had bought her own sex agency. She had just been interviewed sympathetically in The Observer as she challenged the hypocrisy of legislation surrounding prostitution in Britain. Marina believed that a book about her life should be published. She just needed a writer.

I met Marina one sultry Thursday evening in Surbiton in 1989. She opened the door with a glass of wine and a whip in either hand – while wearing an outrageously tight red latex cat-suit. I was surprised when she ushered me into a room full of men; but the fact that she had managed to entice some her clients to meet me seemed an original feat.

Marina introduced me as "a writer of integrity" whom she hoped might describe the world of escorting with truth rather than sensationalism. It's a mysterious law of life that as soon as you are described as being full of "integrity" you break out into a shifty-eyed, collar-loosening rash of perspiring convulsions. At least her clients soon averted their eyes from me and returned to the more pleasant sight of Marina voicing the virtues of liberated desire – where men were free to be serviced and satisfied, flogged and dominated. We could find beauty and joy in, apparently, anything and everything. Why, Marina told me in a whisper, there was even a man in our company who was imaginative enough to desire the pleasuring of Goldie – her patiently panting golden Labrador. Apparently her client's yearning had yet to be fulfilled as smart old Goldie had yet to be convinced of his allure.

I struggled to identify the culprit for they all seemed to be middle-aged English gentlemen from banking, engineering and advertising. The men gradually joined the conversation. Talk shifted from bestiality to big business, from Picasso's Blue Period to the delights of literature. Everyone was determined to prove himself a cultured citizen rather than a sexual deviant. It was almost poignant to see them trying so hard to reaffirm their sense of decency – but Goldie kept the pathos in check.

Yet I soon knew I could not work with Marina. She became very drunk – and I felt sure it would be a mistake to work with her. I also didn't want to ghost-write someone else's book. And so, that night, I decided I would write a wider book about prostitutes, both men and women, and their clients. I had no idea of the darkness and the craziness I would soon discover, let alone the kindness and compassion.

The book turned out to be my journey through the extremes of London prostitution from 1989 to 1992. I called it Nothing Personal, loaning the title from James Baldwin, but I would not have believed then how it would shape the rest of my life – as I ended up marrying one of my readers.