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Baby Oil and Ice:
Striptease in East London

by Lara Clifton (Editor), Sarah Ainslee (Photographer), Julie Cook (Photographer)

Do Not Press
April 2003
ISBN: 1899344853

It's about a porno Julie Andrews
In Debbie Harry suspenders
A wrenching Barbarella
Queen's infamous Great Pretender
- A.J. Shark, from "Baby Oil & Ice"

I'm fascinated by this idea that there are worlds beneath our own, these subterranean cultures that exist not side-by-side with the waking world but below the everyday veneer of modern life. Like H.G. Wells' Morlocks, there are always going to be people who cannot abide by the rules and restrictions of societal manners and instead choose to inhabit the smoky ballrooms and bars where citizens often fear to tread.

Lara Clifton's engaging exploration of the shadowy world of British striptease offers a glimpse into a trade that is older than commerce itself. Baby Oil and Ice is unique among its contemporaries. Unlike the steamy tell-all books about the pornography industry or the salacious photographs that are passed off as coffee-table erotica, the book brings together real photographs of the striptease artists along with - shockingly - their own thoughts.

Clifton takes the proper role as an editor by gathering writing by the strippers, staff and customers of London's East End pubs and presenting them not only in their original language but superimposed over the photographs in the handwriting of the girls themselves. The technique gives the book an immediacy and ring of truth that has seldom been seen in the genres of either photography or erotica.

"I put a note in the changing room requesting written contributions in any form from my colleagues," writes Lara Clifton, the self-described office temp by day; erotic dancer by night, by way of introduction. "To my surprise, and terror, lots of people started submitted work. Suddenly this was real."

The entries in fact range from painful honesty to sublime observation, from delicate poetry to absurd truths like Roxanne's muse on page 38 that, "I always feel 10 past 1 is a bit early to be sticking your ass in somebody's face." Clifton has also wisely kept her focus on London's pub scene and the British witticisms and setting are clearly marked in the book.

"First we have the lads," writes Dawn. "Out to get drunk, in groups of 5 or 6 or more. Smaller groups lack the combined bravado to be lads. The criteria necessary is cheap clothes, no capacity for alcohol and the ability to talk about something they know nothing about - very loudly." While one might expect the girls to take the piss out of their often ridiculous customers, there are also entries from bartenders and bouncers.

"It's three pounds entry into the venue," writes Eric, a doorman at Ye Olde Axe. "When I charge the guys the entry fee, some of them ask me what do I get for 3 pounds? I usually say, what do you expect for 3 pounds? I usually say, to the ones who ask me this question, if you can get a shag anywhere for three pounds, come back and tell me where."

Clifton capitalizes on her collection of prose by joining it together with photographs by Sarah Ainslie and Julie Cook, two London-based female photographers who were able to capture not only the stage antics but the behind-the-scenes lives of the dancers. As Ainslie writes, "In the very intimate area of the changing rooms, there were stories about their lives, laughter, banter, boredom, drinking and camaraderie. I was there when outfits were carefully chosen for each strip…and still there when the girls returned naked holding their discarded clothes."

In fact, some of the backstage photos of women touching up makeup, finishing a quick fag, or wrestling with absurdly complicated outfits are much more exotic than even the shy dancer on the snooker table. In these moments, they are not the ferociously stirring strippers of lore or the quiet office worker on their way home, but somewhere in-between. In these images, they represent the strange dichotomy between the cartoonish sexuality of the strippers and the quiet nerve of the women behind them.

"Baby Oil & Ice" was originally published in England by The Do-Not Press but is available through Dufour Edications, Inc., in the U.S. and Canada. While it's a bit of an effort to track it down, the book is well worth the money. More erotic than any men's magazine, far smarter than Cinemax and more intimate than the typical strip club, it's as close as you're going to get without buying the girl a drink yourself.

S. Clayton Moore - Staff Features Writer

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