In London in the 1980s and 1990s, public telephone kiosks used to be full of “tart cards” (sometimes called “slag tags”), by which sex workers advertised their services. They were often brightly coloured and sometimes luridly illustrated, designed to catch the eye of the discerning punter by listing services and specialities, or plugging their (possibly assumed) exotic origins. They certainly caught my eye, and being the sort of person who collects, or has collected (at various points in my life) beer mats, stamps, miniature liqueur bottles, small rubber swamp creatures, skulls, gloves, handbags, records, books, DVDs, CDs, blu-rays etc – I started to collect them.
I hope I didn’t deprive any impoverished sex workers of much-needed income, but the practice of “carding” public places was generally frowned on by local authorities and – according to Wikipedia – was finally made illegal in 2001.
Here is some of my 1980s collection, which I stumbled across recently. I have retouched the cards so the telephone numbers are illegible. I daresay those numbers are no longer in use, or have changed hands, but I suspect there are a lot of readers out there who simply can’t resist calling up any old number they see in print or on TV, and I know from personal experience it’s no fun being on the receiving end. When I moved to Notting Hill in 1985, I got so many wrong numbers on my new telephone that I attempted to interrogate the callers to find out where they’d seen my number and why they were ringing it.
Most of these attempts came to nothing, since as soon as I started asking questions the callers would get embarrassed and hang up, but eventually I happened across one guy who was willing to talk. Apparently they’d all been trying to reach a number listed in a gay magazine called “Meet Street” – or possibly “Meat Street”; I didn’t get round to asking him about the spelling.
I was so tickled (metaphorically) by these cards that some of them made a guest appearance in my second novel, a ghost story called Stiff Lips, when Clare, the narrator, is making a telephone call from a public booth. (This was in the days before mobile phones.)
“I hung on. My ear was tickled by a distant buzzing at the other end of the line. While I waited, I read the suggestive stickers plastered all over the Perspex booth. ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE. IF IT’S PAIN YOU WANT, IT’S AGONY YOU’LL GET. THE GATES OF HELL ARE NOW OPEN.”
You can see some of the originals below.