Writing in the Sunday Times recently about her devotion to the musical Hair, Emma Soames's nostalgic gush was a good reminder of how institutionalised faith in the historical fact of the Sixties sexual revolution has become. It's a precious perception to challenge, but Frank Mort does it with aplomb in Capital Affairs. The prevailing narrative claims that "swinging London" exploded into a social and sexual liberation that transformed Britain in the 1960s. Instead, Mort makes a case for "the longue durée of sexual and social relations" over the pre- and post-war period. He argues that changes in sexual attitudes and behaviour did not mark some liberal/conservative watershed. On the other hand, from the Caribbean immigrants of North Kensington to the suburban girl on the make — the likes of Christine Keeler — Mort demonstrates how the post-war metropolis generated a variety of transgressive urban personalities who disrupted the elite's monopoly of London as a site of sexual privilege.
Mort begins with the Coronation in 1953 and challenges what he sees as the myth of the post-war demise of the upper classes. Instead, he argues that the Coronation reaffirmed London's metropolitan dominance and invited a resurgence of the social elite. It took an American professor, Edward Shils, to start the debate about this shift in post-war British society in his essay, "The British Intellectuals", published in Encounter in 1955, which argued that the re-emergence of an "aristocratic-gentry" culture in the 1950s was linked to London's ascendancy. This introduces a recurrent device of Mort's analysis — the framing of Britain's social change during this period through the eyes of Americans. From Alfred Kinsey's testimony at the 1954 Wolfenden Inquiry — that London was second only to Havana in the proliferation of its prostitutes — to the New York journalist Piri Halasz's Time article in 1966, only a society unencumbered by a deeply entrenched class system, it seems, could show that ours was changing.
The city, Mort argues, was not just the stage on which key players acted out their intrigues, but a crucial character in the genesis of the Permissive Society. Postwar London life was "heavily urbanised and manifestly porous". The Establishment (as it was just becoming known) worried about the proximity of the West End (including Soho) to Westminster, but meanwhile an emerging masculine identity, the "man about town", was relishing his role as roving metropolitan flâneur. As class became more permeable, this elite archetype soon generated lower-class variations in the form of the Teddy Boy. But there was also the subaltern anti-hero John Christie, who in 1953 was hanged for the murder of his wife. He had also strangled at least five other women, including three prostitutes, at 10 Rillington Place in North Kensington, where some of their remains were found.
Mort deftly shows how the Rillington Place murders encapsulated an incendiary blend of British anxieties about social and urban fracture, sexual freedom and immigration. Rillington Place was owned by a Caribbean landlord, and the sense of Christie living and operating in racially demeaned circumstances was crucial to his lawyers' defence testimony during his trial at the Old Bailey. Mort's nuanced, non-judgmental depiction of the sexual lives of Christie's victims, focused on at the trial, demonstrate how the urban circumstances of the many young single women who came to work and live in the capital were disrupting conventional notions of sexual decency. That the gruesome media accounts invoked the legacy of Victorian murders such as Jack the Ripper is evidence, Mort says, that sexual mores were still regressively framed by the media and social perception at large.
While it now seems archaic and even offensive to lump together the "morally threatening" issues of homosexuality and prostitution, Mort's account of the Wolfenden Committee that followed in the mid-1950s challenges one of the most basic assumptions about post-war society — that Conservative governments have necessarily been censorious and anti-liberal in the attempts to legislate for sexual morals. Setting the benchmark for similar government attempts ever since, Wolfenden made the crucial distinction between the morality of actions and their legality. The committee was vital for advancing gay rights, both in its decriminalisation of certain aspects of homosexual behaviour and its attempt to ascertain a morally upstanding homosexual archetype.
Crossing boundaries: Christine Keeler in her pomp