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Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society

Matt Houlbrook believes a new survey of post-war sexuality in London is destined to become a classic

Published: September 2, 2010 at 8:59 am
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Reviewed by: Matt Houlbrook
Author: Frank Mort
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25


Capital Affairs interweaves a compelling story of sex, scandal and social change in 1950s London.

Frank Mort takes us on an evocative journey through a rapidly changing metropolis. In Soho we encounter prostitutes and wealthy men-about-town and provincial visitors (gay and straight) enjoying all the pleasures on offer.

Following a plainclothes policeman we take a seat at the infamous Raymond’s Revue Bar and watch the exotic erotic spectacle of striptease. Wandering through Notting Hill, Calypso provides a postcolonial soundtrack to a decaying yet vibrant neighbourhood being transformed by Caribbean migration.

Repeatedly we return to the corridors of power – in which questions of sex and morality erupted with such explosive force in the postwar years. This is where the permissive society was made.

In this often-seedy world, politics and private life, High Society and low sexuality, were inextricably entwined. Whitehall and the West End were within easy walking distance. MPs were arrested in Leicester Square urinals.

Most famously, in 1963 boundaries between Soho, Notting Hill and Whitehall collapsed when Conservative Secretary of State for War, John Profumo, resigned after tabloid revelations of his affair with Christine Keeler – a beautiful ‘party girl’ also involved with a Soviet naval attaché and recent migrants from Antigua and Jamaica.

This, Mort suggests, was one of a series of thoroughly modern scandals that help us to understand the transformation of sex and society after the Second World War.

Concentrating on the 1950s is counterintuitive given our clichéd idea of the 1960s as the permissive moment. After 1963, we are told, the legislative reforms enabled by enlightened politicians, and the contraceptive pill turned Britain into a freer and more open society. In 1967, after all, male homosexuality and abortion were partially decriminalized.

Yet obsession with the 1960s, Mort insists, obscures both the drawn out nature of such changes and their limited effects. It also distracts from the more complex and gritty changes that occurred in the previous decade.

Profumo reflected tensions between emerging and traditional ideas of sex and morality that emerged in 1950s London. It was driven by the appearance of new figures on the metropolitan scene: young assertive women like Keeler; flamboyant entrepreneurs like Paul Raymond, making their fortune by selling sex to an affluent society and turning Soho into the commercial spectacle it remains; men and women from the Caribbean and beyond who made London a multicultural city.

Strikingly, aristocratic elites retained their prominent role in shaping social attitudes. Above all, scandal was driven by the media – journalists orchestrating sensation through their chequebook journalism.

Scandal was fuelled by and contributed to debates over the pace and nature of postwar social change. Yet the making of the permissive society was never unequivocally positive: in a deeply unequal society “casualties and victims abounded”.

Like the other scandals on which Capital Affairs focuses, Profumo “generated an atmosphere of moral confusion and social turbulence that reflected the dilemmas and possibilities of permissiveness”.

These are challenging ideas – not least because they confound so many of our comfortable assumptions about the shift from the austerity of the 1950s to the ‘swinging’ 1960s. That this book manages to be intensely readable at the same time is thus testimony to Mort’s adept storytelling and exhaustive research.

Capital Affairs is ambitious and panoramic but also deeply intimate. Original, engaging and important, it will become one of the classic histories of postwar Britain.


Matt Houlbrook is the author of Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-1957 (Chicago UP, 2005)


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