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Frank Mort: Capital Affairs - London And The Making Of The Permissive Society (Yale, £25)

Morality and hypocrisy rub shoulders in the Soho of the 1950s

Sex, in all its many varieties, is never very far away in central London. Dens of so-called iniquity are only a short walk from the corridors of power and but a stone’s throw from the ­capital’s temples of consumerism.

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People who have just enjoyed an ­edifying night at the theatre or a hearty meal in Chinatown only have to turn a couple of corners and they’ll find themselves in the heart of the demi-monde. This ­curious urban landscape has its advantages. It attracts a certain kind of tourist (which helps to swell the city’s coffers) and it makes life a good deal easier (though, potentially, more perilous) for the politicians, captains of industry and media bigwigs who choose to indulge their libidos during their lunch breaks.

It is also a moralist’s wonderland, albeit of the dystopian variety. Whenever censorious social commentators have felt obliged to embark upon a crusade, they have never struggled to find a target. London’s vice has always been on the doorstep of London’s virtue. The 1950s and early 1960s -- the subject of Frank Mort’s superb new book -- provide a case study in this age-old process.

This was the era of the purity campaigners: the often acid-tongued zealots who despaired of the strip clubs springing up in Soho, the erotic antics at the Windmill Theatre and the succession of sexual causes célèbres that did so many favours for the sales figures of national newspapers, such as the Rillington Place murders, the trial of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the Profumo affair and many more besides. The nation, so the puritans suggested, was turning into Sodom and Gomorrah.

It is sensible to dismiss the excesses of the 1950s -- and early 1960s-moralisers, especially when their rhetoric crossed over into bigotry. There were many grotesque homophobic outbursts and, in response to the influx of Indians, Pakistanis and Caribbeans, some truly noxious exercises in racist stereotyping. The trick (one that Mort recognises and ably pulls off) is to look beyond the demagoguery and anatomise the true, muddled, anxious 1950s English attitude towards sex.

It is a fascinating subject and Mort’s analysis is outstanding. He writes very well, he melds broad analysis with telling tales of individuals and, along the way, he punctures more than his share of myths and lazy orthodoxies.

If you are in possession of a hackneyed vision of the 1950s (and I’ll willingly admit that such a vision was on my own mental shelf before reading Mort’s book) it might be time to throw it on the historical scrap heap.

We are all familiar with the notion of the permissive 1960s. Suddenly, ­everything became wonderfully promiscuous and liberating and this was just the kind of cultural fillip that England required. Mort doesn’t question the existence of Sixties’ exuberance, nor does he resent its positive consequences. He simply makes a few ­cardinal points.

First and foremost, supposing that a more liberal attitude towards sexuality simply fell from the sky on January 1, 1960 is bonkers. The roots of this paradigm shift (which wasn’t really a paradigm shift at all) were deeper than is commonly supposed. Second, the transformation was not ­without its drawbacks. As feminist thinkers have been pointing out for a very long time, the Swinging Sixties often blunted the cause of female equality. It is hard to think of an era during which female sexuality was more commodified and, while we should all celebrate the era’s new sexual freedoms, we shouldn’t forget the “reprobate and shady cast of characters” — the pimps and opportunists — who made hay out of what we’d now define as progress.

These are important correctives. They remind us that cultural transformations are a long time in the making and that even the best of them snare their share of victims. The crucial point is that if we strive to understand the sexual mores of modern Britain, we should immediately dismiss a schematic, overly gleeful interpretative trajectory. A close look at the 1950s is an excellent place to start.

The decade was brimful of epochal moments and developments. ­Government became inordinately interested in the morality and sexual behaviour of its ­citizenry. Sometimes this involved barking from a pulpit: the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, lecturing on public immorality at St Martin-in-Fields, for instance. ­Sometimes it meant setting up inquiries, most ­notably the famous Wolfenden committee, charged with examining (as its brief put it) “homosexual offences” and “offences… in connection with prostitution and ­solicitation for immoral purposes.”

Mort’s painstaking examination of this curious governmental process is ­undoubtedly the highlight of the book. He tells us all about the efforts to map sexual activity around the capital and the ­quizzing of prostitutes and gay men, but he also reminds us that the conclusions reached by the Wolfenden committee represented an important social advance. As the 1957 report put it: “It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private lives of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour.” There were still many battles to fight, and the Wolfenden ­committee’s idea of reform has rightly been seen as very limited, but it was still, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a step in the right direction.

Meanwhile, as the political luminaries gathered their evidence and calibrated their data, ordinary Londoners were making their own contribution to the tempestuous 1950s sexual climate. Socially engaged photographers snapped prostitutes and love-struck couples, the tides of ­commercialism (savvy advertising and marketing) swept through Soho, and titillating gossip ­captivated the nation. Needless to say, the best sex story was the toff’s sex story, and it was hard to resist tales of the ­libertine man-about-town who, after visiting the clubs and parties of Pall Mall and Mayfair, committed the occasional sexual peccadillo. As Mort writes, “historians have conventionally defined the years after 1945 as witnessing the near-terminal decline of the English social elites.” In fact, when it came to sex, elite behaviour continued to cast its spell. Its cultural impact was momentous. Plus ça change, and all that.

I’ve rarely read a more insightful work of social history. The Teddy Boys, the Dandies, the loose men and women, and the ­grumbling patriarchs are all here. I dare say that some of Mort’s conclusions will provoke apoplexies within the scholarly community, but this only makes him courageous. The general reader, who needn’t be concerned with such squabbles, will simply encounter a rich, well-researched and utterly compelling book.

It is London-centric, but this only opens up the possibility of Mort exploring the wider culture in future volumes.

Yes, he is slightly addicted to neat and tidy theoretical constructs, but he’s a self-styled ‘cultural historian’ — often a code for ­someone who flits between disciplines and isn’t especially interested in intellectual rigour — so what should we expect? Here, at least, reading too much Foucault doesn’t seem to have done too much damage. In fact, I’d happily define this, in my condescending way, as a proper history book. Truth be told, and against all expectations, I adored it.

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