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Books: Review - Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society. By Frank Mort

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Published: 15 July 2010

DEMOB suits did not quite cut the dash Douglas Sutherland was after. But help was at hand: his friend, the New York impresario and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein sent him two suits, and after some nips and tucks by his Mayfair tailor, his walk had a little more of a swagger about it.

Sutherland, a young Fleet Street journo and aspiring socialite, was shocked by the austere feel of London’s post-war streets, the disappearance of the 1930s set who had made the Café de Paris in Regent Street the place to be seen.

Yet, as cultural historian Professor Frank Mort points out in his new book about sex and the city, Sutherland was “optimistic about life in the capital”.

Sutherland worked for the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary, which required him to hang out in the pubs and clubs of the West End. It was from the booths in these private drinking dens that the young Sutherland chronicled life in London, and saw first-hand the sexually liberated at play.  

Professor Mort, a former Islington Labour councillor, charts the rise of a liberal society and our changing attitudes towards sex.

Mort believes Soho’s role in the cultural history of sex can be traced to the fact it was offered cheaper rents to neigh­bourhoods bordering it: Blooms­bury, May­fair and Westminster provided the clientele while Soho offered the drinking dens, prostitutes and seedy stage acts for those with spending power to frequent.

“If you walk through the West End today, it’s essentially Victorian in its layout, design and architecture that logically influenced how it developed in London,” says Professor Mort. 

Side streets and alleyways provide hidden places to decamp without too much fear of being caught by your respectable peers. 

“It is just a short walk from Westminster, and offered a collision between high and low cultures.”

He uses a cast of interesting characters such as Sutherland, and the tragic story of the Rillington Place murders that saw Soho women killed in a Notting Hill flat, through to those involved in the Profumo scandal to tell his story.

Professor Mort calls it a square mile of vice – a place Sutherland could hunt for tales at the Colony Rooms in Greek Street, then presided over by the flamboyant Muriel Belcher, or Frisco in Shepherd’s Market. Drunken lunches held at Wheelers in Old Compton Street, boasting such guests as Prince Philip and Lord Mountbatten, Tory MP Iain Macleod and numerous newspaper editors are described. Actors David Niven, Peter Ustinov and Larry Adler are joined by bowler-hatted civil servants whose notoriety would one day become widely known – Kim Philby was a regular in the Soho streets, as was the osteopath Stephen Ward, who would be a key figure in the Profumo affair, when the then Secretary of State for War, John Profumo had an affair with Christine Keeler (pictured), the reputed mistress of an alleged Russian spy. 

But the idea of Soho and the permissive society being something that was just a post-war trend is, of course, ridiculous: While our Victorian forefathers are considered today to be prudes, this was far form the case. The author Arthur Ransome, who would later write the Swallows and Amazons books, wrote a guide in 1907 to London and while not describing in great detail its wilder pastimes, he still compared it to Paris for its “extravagant conversation”.

Sex in the 1920s and 1930s has been reported through the novels of  writers like Patrick Hamilton, whose nocturnal wanderings through Soho, Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia gave him intimate knowledge of the clubs to go to and the associated vice trade. 

As Professor Mort puts it: “Late 19th-century social explorers pictured Soho as a dark and foreign labyrinth, a babel of foreign tongues and a flesh market.

“I am trying to question the idea that suddenly in the late 1950s and 1960s there was some kind of permissive sexuality. The argument goes it was socially beneficial and good for us, but I would say permissive­ness did not start in that period – it has a much longer trajectory, with Soho at its centre.”

Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society.
By Frank Mort. Yale University Press £25



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