"You alright mate?" says the concerned barman.
It is 7PM on a sunny Friday night and we're in the street outside The Flying Scotsman, one of London's most down-at-heel "striptease pubs". A few regulars – football shirts riding over their soft, distended guts – watch as I sway woozily, holding my hand to my jaw, which is pumping blood out onto the King's Cross pavement. I have just embarked on a crawl through London's dingiest strip-joints, keen to discover what, if anything, can be learned about the human condition by hitting eight of them in one night, before a bottle to the face nearly scuppers my plans.
"Come back inside, mate. You should get that seen to."
An older woman with spiky blonde hair and a leather coat at the bar had done the damage. Presumably she'd already pissed someone off, because while I was waiting to get served, a wave of cold lager doused us – a drink had been chucked. The next thing I knew, amid shouts and falling chunks of jagged glass, she had lashed out randomly and I received a blow to the chin that nearly floored me. Satisfied that it was only a minor cut, and with the irate woman turfed out, I continued as I'd started.
Being bottled in this particular corner of London didn't come as any great surprise. Sitting at the top of the Caledonian Road, the Scotsman is one of the oldest surviving pubs in the area, offering red-faced, tooled-up football away fans flat lager and semi-naked women. Inside, it looks like a set from The Sweeney. Reputedly one of the last pubs in town to put sawdust on the floor, it has decaying wood panels and paintings of hunting scenes on the walls, and smells of stale alcohol and farts.
On stage, a blonde girl in stockings and suspenders swings a pair of leopard skin knickers around to 50 Cent's "Candy Shop". A crowd – including a group of Polish lads in builders' attire, a defeated-looking businessman and an old geezer in a dirty vest and an MA1 jacket – watch raptly.
For those unfamiliar with how a strip pub works, basically, as each girl dances, another parades around with a pint glass eliciting pound coins from the assembled punters. Anyone refusing to contribute gets forcibly ejected. There's something strangely English about a woman in Ann Summers underwear chugging loose change under your nose in exchange for a spot of stage-writhing. It's also a fantastic business model, with customers effectively paying a tax every ten minutes they're in the venue.
"How long you been here?" I ask the old geezer.
"Since before you were born," he says, fixing me with a rheumy stare. Judging by his clothes, this might well be true. His outfit is every bit as dilapidated as you would expect from someone who has spent most of his adult life putting all his pound coins in a pint glass.
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8PM: The Griffin, Farringdon
"You been here before, mate? You know the rules?"
Just a mile down the road, but leagues away in terms of ambience, is The Griffin. Here, I'm greeted by a unresponsive bouncer who hulks moodily at the door. Given his intimidating bulk, I'm less concerned about bottles being thrown than of my chances of getting out alive if I run out of loose change.
First opened in 1993 "in the heart of London's law district", the venue was refurbished a couple of years ago from a shabby fruit-machine-and-dart-board pervert's paradise into something that now looks like an All Bar One with added naked people. Welcoming "high profile celebrities" like "NFL Stars and Premier League Footballers to World Famous Actors and Singers", the venue allows no touching between patrons and dancers. Like the Flying Scotsman, which has its own Twitter feed, the Griffin's website advertises its daily line-up of girls on a handy calendar.
As Alex from Romania gyrates around the venue's smeary pole, I don't see any stars. But the crowd – largely composed of after-work media executives in suits – is definitely less shabby than that at The Flying Scotsman. They're being hyped up by Tony, a chuckling DJ who introduces each of the girls over the records ("Welcome the very lovely Taylor from Bethnal Green to the stage") and sings along to the Alexander O'Neal track he's just put on.
"I was thinking about The X Factor, but I don't want to give this job up," he smirks, nodding at the scantly-clad dancer beside him.
Aside from a Japanese guy reading a book in the roped-off VIP section, the crowd is stag-do merry. Guys with their arms around each other sing along to "Wonderwall", pissed on Stella, as a pink spotlight illuminates a dancer's arse. When she gets mad with an office worker, accusing him of taking photos on his iPhone, and the bouncers pile in, I decide it's time to leave.
"Perverts!" shouts a girl passing by outside, as her boyfriend stares longingly at the door.
9PM: Venus, Farringdon
"There's nothing going on in here. It's shit!" a tattooed bloke with a TOWIE haircut complains loudly.
He's talking to one of the polite Greek waiters who show customers to their tables here, to buy expensive champagne and get fleeced by girls offering "private dances". Unfortunately, he's right. Apart from him and his mates, the place is dead. After his rotund friend has had a go on the pole in his suit, a girl begins dancing dolefully to Usher's heartfelt paean to a stripper girlfriend, "I Don't Mind", without actually taking any of her clothes off.
I leave, glad that I refused to shell out the £20 they tried to charge me for coming in.
9.30PM: The Nag's Head, Aldgate
"Who's more important – Bill Gates or the President of the United States?" asks Phil, a city boy who looks a lot like Ben Stiller, to Inga, his Latvian companion, presumably trying to impress her with this contemplation on the true essence of power.
A cab over to Aldgate and I've hit the Nag's Head, a busted-up old boozer of pungent toilets that rivals The Flying Scotsman in terms of that very unique form of dilapidated charm. Here, a tall, Charles Dance-lookalike, East End hardman in an ill-fitting pinstripe suit looks moodily on as a girl masturbates onstage to Turkish music.
The women take it in turns to dance, and the pound-in-the-pot rule is strictly imposed. But the atmosphere is relaxed and the girls find ways to entertain themselves, searching eBay for shoes on iPhones and apparently pulling the punters. Phil, for instance, seems to be getting on very well with Inga. I wonder whether I'm finally witnessing a real human connection in this world of mirrors, dry ice, cheap perfume and exceptionally tall transparent high heels.
11.30PM: The Rainbow Sports Bar, Shoreditch
I've now been joined by Jake, the photographer, and my friend Dave, which is fortunate – I need the company. Five venues in and I'm beginning to wonder whether this trawl through London's strip pubs is actually going to teach me anything about humanity, or simply force me to part with a week's worth of wages.
The Rainbow is a hot, crowded little neon box on Shoreditch High Street that shows fights on TV along with live stripping, thus satisfying the requirements of the most machismo-fuelled guys in town, all of whom are gathered around me.
Inside, you're grasped at by a series of girls with sharp, polished talons, and little conversation beyond: "You wanna dance?" Dave succumbs almost immediately and is led away by a thin-lipped lady in white lingerie. After batting off a number of similar interlocutors, Jake is reflective.
"The thing I hate about these places is that no one is genuinely interested in you."
Apparently, he's not the only one in a philosophical mood. From our vantage point by the private room I see a man sitting at a table gazing deep into the anus of his nude dancer, who's bending over in front of him. He is rapt, as though staring into Nietzsche's abyss, searching for God.
1AM: Browns, Shoreditch
Browns is operated by the same company who own The Griffin. Once a dodgy 1970s dive, it now has the same gastropub-lite décor as its sister venue, which means no atmosphere and oddly incongruous half-naked girls.
As ZHU's "Faded" plays – a big tune on the strip club circuit – a fat bloke in a _Brideshead Revisited_-style blazer creates a space in the sparse crowd before the stage and begins breakdancing to the enjoyment of absolutely no one.
We sit down at a table.
"It's champagne only there, lads," says a moody bouncer.
Dave is tempted to buy a private dance with Jenny, a small brunette, but we dissuade him and move on to Hackney Road.
2AM: Ye Olde Axe, Hackney Road
By the time we reach Ye Olde Axe, everyone is wasted, buoyed only by the neon "Striptease" sign on the side of the building and the promise of more warm lager.
In many ways, the Axe represents the spiritual nirvana of our journey – if you're looking for tawdry East End strip pub heaven, then this place delivers in spades. A Grade II listed building – like the Flying Scotsman – the interior is stunning, with what the British Listed Buildings website refers to as "highly decorative deep-coved cornice frieze patterned with lion's heads, winged creatures and shells". There are also those cut-glass mirrored panels common to old-school pubs. And a lot of girls in neon thongs.
It's not that busy, but there's more of a club vibe, with people dancing to a DJ who is spinning a Jagged Edge slow-jam, including a few girls who are here as customers.
As soon as we enter we are grasped at roughly by a girl in white lingerie with hard eyes who wants to know – with alarming predictability – whether or not one of us wants a private dance. We decline and make for the bar. My jaw is still hurting and I'm confused, wondering what significance is to be drawn from all of this. That some men enjoy seeing random girls get naked so much that they are willing to pay for the pleasure, even though any sexual desire they may have won't be sated? Hardly a stunning insight. What is clear, though, is that these are places where a normally intimate human interaction has been codified and reduced to a cold, commercial exchange. The girls are not unempowered, but they are smiling money machines, out for all they can get, while the guys who objectify them pay for the privilege. It's not very sexy.
But while the scene can feel fake at times, that's not the full story. There are also moments of genuine friendship and camaraderie between the girls and their customers, and plenty of humour and Carry On banter, too.
3AM: Metropolis, Hackney
"For a hundred quid you get the full carwash experience," explains Kandy, an Asian girl who's fresh off stage after dancing to Rihanna's "Where Have You Been" in black feathered knickers. We're in Metropolis, a three-floored venue that looks a little like an 80s disco, with video screens showing silhouettes of nude girls all around.
We stare at her, bleary-eyed and knackered, our incomprehension shining out as bright as a neon sign.
"There's a real carwash upstairs. And a car," she explains brightly. "The girls get naked and wash it while you're inside. You can even hose us down if you want."
So there you have it. The main thing I learned about humanity from my trawl of the capital's late-night strip clubs? That there are men who are willing to pay good money to simulate automobile cleansing in the early hours if there are a couple of naked women involved.
Passing up the opportunity for a nocturnal Dukes of Hazzard experience, we make our excuses and leave, snaring the nearest Uber on the way out for home and an ice pack.
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