Words: Nina Antonia
Art: Caroline Coon
Memoirs are a tricky business. The most readable accounts tend to come from unexpected quarters, opening the doors on errant, unconventional lives, as is the case of Laid Bare. A beautifully produced, self-published volume, Laid Bare is an under the radar revelation which the author hopes will infiltrate culture of its own accord. It more than deserves to.
If you don’t know who Caroline Coon is, then you should. Few crossed the decade between hippy and punk quite so valiantly as Caroline. She took the skills that had gone into founding Release, which provided free legal advice for long-hairs arrested on drug charges (“dial 603 8654 day or night with love’) into managing The Clash and supporting Sid Vicious through the 100 Club glassing incident. Unsurprisingly, Ms Coon, who is also featured in the film Rude Boy, is a touchstone for both Hippy & Punk historians, but life doesn’t begin and end in neatly packaged eras.
Although primarily an artist, Caroline supported herself writing for numerous publications, including Melody Maker and The Guardian. She has always kept a diary, which lends Laid Bare a particular freshness, spicing the pages with details that make it seem as if decades ago were only yesterday, although the subjects that she covers, including debt, prostitution and the nature of privilege, are eternal. If you were to meet Caroline, still as lambent as spun gold, you might wonder why she is not as present in popular culture as might be expected; after all, she was one of the women to whom Germaine Greer dedicated the bestselling ground-breaking feminist text, The Female Eunuch. The unlimited can’t be readily categorised, a draw-back in today’s genre specific market. But I suspect that it’s also because whatever the game might be, Caroline Coon has refused to play it. Culture isolates the loners and dissidents, especially if they are women. One afternoon, she told me a story which summed it up. Back in the Sixties, she was ardently pursued by the actor, Terence Stamp. On the night he called up at her window, like a love-sick swain, Caroline finally relented to his advances. Terence was beautiful, so bedding him was no hardship. Afterwards, as he leaned back on the pillow and lit a cigarette, he jauntily exclaimed “Wasn’t that a wonderful fuck?’’. Wanting to be truthful, Caroline responded, “Actually, no.” Disgruntled, Stamp announced “Well Catherine Deneuve and Julie Christie didn’t complain.”
Laid Bare spans 1983-1984, and finds Caroline in financial distress, which she honestly admits was mainly due to her own folly, as she had always found a way to survive despite the odd frivolity. However, the gradual downturn in her fortunes might also be considered a consequence of a political shift. Margaret Thatcher was in power and affordable, alternative London slowly vanished like Atlantis, under the waves. The edgy sensuality of Caroline’s feminist paintings failed to appeal to galleries attuned to the art as investment crowd, whilst her canvasses lack the commercial blandness suited to a corporate clientele. Suddenly she was out of synch with society and terrifyingly out of pocket, without recourse to a spouse or family. Scared of losing her home to the bank and refusing to make money as a freelance journalist, Caroline Coon became a sex-worker. Succinctly she sets the foundations of her rationale, having fought against the constructs of respectability all of her adult life: “We were out to abolish all the sexist myths about ‘reputation’ and ‘respect’ that subjugated us and kept us in our sub-human, second-class place as women, whom Germaine Greer called Female Eunuchs. After all, breaking obnoxious and oppressive patriarchal rules and NOT being lady-like was such fun! It took courage to be defiant, certainly. I had to fortify myself against any frightened loss of will and to ensure that I would never deny what I was and that I would rather be a whore than a wife.”
If you are hoping for a lurid, titillating expose then this book really isn’t for you. However, if you are looking for a finely observed, honest account of how to survive a year’s worth of whoring then it’s an indispensable tome that also features 10 colour plates of Caroline’s paintings. Laid Bare opens with Coon contemplating a relationship with a handsome, seemingly decent telephone engineer called Jim. Unfortunately, he swiftly moves from cloying to demanding unwavering fidelity, Caroline noting: “I felt my heart bridle. Luckily the condemnation and the hostility I saw in his face were a caution.” Jim cannot cope with an independent woman who is able to enjoy sex for its own sake. Nor can he understand one who doesn’t know how to cook. In one of the book’s funniest moments, Caroline decries the simplicity of making lasagna, much to Jim’s dismay. Inevitably, she begins to look for a way out and finds it when Jim derides the women in a pornographic magazine; “Jim lifted another magazine closer to my face. ‘Pity whoever has to have THAT!’ he mocked, giving himself permission to vilify women like me….’’
Alter the bank cuts off her credit, Caroline ditches Jim and begins working in a ‘gentlemen’s club’: “The wet steps of Laurence’s club got blacker and blacker as they receded down. I took a deep breath of cold night air and I held my breath as if it were the last breath of pure air I would ever breathe, as if brackish liquid were about to close over my head….’’ Despite an aura of masculine ostentatiousness, black walls, red curtains, gaudy chandeliers, paintings of Napoleon, Laurence’s’ is a freezing hole of basement bar where the ‘girls’ entice the men to buy champers which they artfully tip under the table, forming a reservoir of cheap bubbly. Numbed by the cold, clad in nothing but suspenders and stockings, Caroline perches alluringly on a bar stool, hoping for decent tips: “In that room we became whom we had to be, perfectly alluring, mostly stupid and always for sale and those who came to the show believed it. “The other women are comrades, a hardy troupe to whom Ms Coon now belongs. How adroitly the scenario is captured, Caroline using words to paint the claustrophobic world of nights without end where ordinary women are transformed into caged delicacies for moribund punters. Some are kinder and more generous than others; the polite, clean, rich Japanese businessmen who are happily curious or the lonely, long retired soldier with a false leg and a warm heart.
But tips alone cannot sustain Coon, as the bank puts on the pressure as efficiently as The Krays ever did. Bidding a not so fond adieu to ‘Laurence’s Club’, Caroline begins working out of ‘Coronettes’, a Harley Street escort agency. It’s a well-run operation, steered to success by the cashmere clad Madam, Helen, who has the flawless beauty parlour veneer of “someone who could buy anything.” Caroline’s vivid pen portraits of the upmarket prostitutes and their legion of pay for pleasure punters are truly memorable. Unlike the male dominated ‘Laurence’s’, at ‘Coronettes’ the women hold sway, from the gorgeous scene-stealing Fifi to Angel who is as pretty as her name, whilst hardened Darcy resembles the wife of an oil-tycoon. The competition is tough though rarely bitchy. Perhaps it’s because all the women face the same risks, as Helen explains: “There are three kinds of customers in this business. The ones that are good for me, the regulars, the ones who are good for you, the tourists, and the ones who are violent and/or do not pay. They are blacklisted.”
Under the auspices of ‘Coronettes’, Caroline finally begins paying off her debts, though it’s a far from easy job, proving both physically demanding and mentally exhausting. Most of the punters are reasonable, professional men who understand the nature of sex as a cash transaction and are relatively graceful. But three squirm on in the memory, unforgettable for all the wrong reasons. Rich, spoilt and empty headed, the snobbish, masochistic Andrew dreams of making Caroline his mistress.
Unfortunately though predictably, he gets off on her eventual eruption: “Tonight you’ll gossip knowingly about whores at your Mayfair dinner party, oozing self-righteousness, pouring contempt on them, but the truth is- and such a thing as truth exists if you can be bothered to put your mind to it- the truth is, your gutless, lazy dishonesty makes you inferior to any whore that ever lived!” it’s a wonderful moment, very patiently and elegantly lead up to. The ‘Michael Stein’ incident is the most curious; how could she have put herself in harm’s way? Few traps have been better oiled as Coon eloquently explains: “If Fifi’s warning had not put me sufficiently on my guard it was because norms learned in childhood forever have the power to confuse lessons of experience.” The most poignant scenario is an elegy to an invisible, beguiled wife. She’s out, so hubby buys a whore and takes her to the marital bed. His wife’s perfume is still on the sheets, the kid’s toys are on the floor. The suburban stud’s ability to commodify the act and not see it as a trespass against the family life he enjoys or a betrayal of his partner’s trust is staggering.
Eventually, Caroline pays off her debts but ‘The Life’ has taken its toll. With a little spare cash, she takes a holiday in Saint Lucia, a long held dream of paradise. Or so she imagines. How quickly the tables are turned, for now it is Caroline Coon, who is the ‘rich’ tourist able to take her pick of the most desirable men on the Island. The juxtaposition of roles is brilliantly played as Caroline explores the discomfort of finding herself taken as a mark, not to mention her own naivety. The facade of ‘paradise’ is torn away like a canvas revealing poverty marred lives. Caroline returns home wiser by far: “My home and my studio are safe. I feel reformed. My understanding of the relationship between money and work has deepened significantly. I have been dragged through a thicket of transactions and grown emotionally as a consequence. I like myself for having been able to rise to the challenge of …Well, I have saved my life.”