London and the Fornicating ’50s

Capital Affairs: The Making of Permissive Society by Frank Mort

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. 

That the committee drew only on the testimony of notorious men about town such as the Daily Mail journalist Peter Wildeblood highlights how transgressive sexuality still needed to be tempered to suit official standards of propriety. Aimed at sweeping up the street-walkers, the committee’s decision to reclassify prostitution as a public-order offence illustrates the inquiry’s significance for all sex work legislation since. Wolfenden, a former public school headmaster and a Conservative, championed “an analysis of prostitution that could be converted into workable legislation”. By contrast, Labour’s legislation has often been is evidently grounded in a moral objection to prostitution itself. That no elite escorts, comparable to homosexuals such as Wildeblood, were called to testify when the committee discussed prostitution indicates that female sexuality was still seen through the prism of Victorian morality. 

The economics of sex has generally been absent from liberal assessments of the Permissive Society, but Mort’s chapter on Soho demonstrates how this historic sex quarter capitalised on a version of “metrosexuality” long before the concept was applied to the likes of Jude Law. 

Relating how the nude tableaux of that wartime favourite, the Windmill, morphed into the striptease culture of Paul Raymond’s Revuebar, Mort argues this shift in the economics of the sex-entertainment industry — from corporate paternalism to more free-market principles — made female performative sexuality in Soho as significant for sexual politics as struggles over homosexuality and pornography. That this may have anticipated today’s sexual free market where porn stars and glamour models earn far more than MPs makes for a pertinent comparison.

The book climaxes with Mort’s rereading of the Profumo Affair. As a melting pot of commercial and cultural ambition, Soho was the ideal launch pad for a socially disruptive siren such as Christine Keeler.  

What made this prototypical sex scandal so incandescent, he argues, was not the Tory War Secretary’s extramarital affair, but his “wilful disregard” for “society’s golden rule” of discretion. In Profumo, social anxieties over miscegenation, sexual transgression and seemingly amorphous class boundaries reached a crescendo. Mort shows how it was Keeler’s geographical and social fluidity, signified by her sexual association with Caribbean immigrants and the English elite alike, combined with her ability to surmount the boundaries of prostitute, showgirl and mistress, and her rare talent for self-publicity, which so violated social propriety. Today’s diluted media dollies just don’t cut it by comparison. 

But despite Mort’s nuanced reading of Keeler as “the active feminine subject”, there is one crucial question he doesn’t ask: was Christine Keeler on the pill? The word “contraception” doesn’t even appear in the book’s index, and it’s an oversight not to have mentioned something that transformed the sexual and social habits of both men and women. 

And while Mort emphasises the significance of the capital’s entertainment industry, he never deigns to explore the impact of pop culture, another influential transgressive phenomenon.

As subtle as it is suggestive, Capital Affairs is a valuable alternative social history of 1950s and ’60s Britain. Sexual intercourse may have begun in 1963, but only after a protracted bout of foreplay.

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