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Reviewed by:
  • Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society
  • Lisa Z. Sigel
Capital Affairs: London and the Making of the Permissive Society. By Frank Mort (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010. 528 pp.).

Frank Mort has written an ambitious book that examines sexual culture in 1950s London. Using methods from cultural geography, post-colonial studies, queer studies, and the history of scandal, Mort seeks to "revise and complicate the histories we already possess" (20). London itself is the main character of Mort's story and, by creating a story of a place, Mort makes the people who move across the city—socialites, murderers, intellectuals, bureaucrats, immigrants, queers, queens, and queans—into players in a larger tale about the sexual strata of city life. In doing so, Mort illustrates the bustle of metropolitan existence.

Mort opens the volume with Alfred Kinsey's tour of London in 1955, simultaneously, acknowledging the professionalization of sexual knowledge and the growing Americanization of England. Mort's second turn around London focuses upon the coronation of Elizabeth II and articulates the symbolic connections between high society, the geography of the capital, and the imperial world. Both Kinsey's tour and the Queen's coronation spoke the language of worldliness and sophistication, though the two dialects stood in marked contrast to each other. This issue—the competing notions of worldliness—becomes a consistent theme throughout the book. Chapter 2, for example, looks at high society and then develops the idea of the "man about town," a figure that served as a post-war flaneur, according to Mort. Chapter 5 broaches the topic of cosmopolitanism by seeing Soho as a center of cultural knowledge. Chapter 7, entitled "Scandal," returns to the idea of "men about town" to explore the Profumo Affair. Themes like worldliness allow Mort to place dispersive elements together to illustrate his vision of London.

Of particular interest are chapters on the John Christie murders, on the publication of the Wolfenden Report, on the changing nature of men's sex clubs, and on the unfolding of the Profumo Affair. In each chapter, Mort pulls together his sources to offer readings of cultural events. To discuss the John Christie murders, for example, Mort situates the events within the discourse of post-war urban planning, the circulation of urban fears, and the tensions between white working-class families and West Indian immigrants. In Mort's account, the murders came to speak of a racial order and a sexual chaos caught in a "twilight zone" of blight and dangerous urbanity. In his chapter on the Wolfenden report, Mort does little recounting of the report or its impact and instead offers insight into the way that the committee arrived at its position on the decriminization of homosexuality by exploring [End Page 1137] the personal background of its members, the tensions within the committee, the interviews it conducted, and the intellectual climate that contributed to expert claims.

Mort charts the changing nature of erotic display in live sexual entertainment by detailing the fall of the Windmill Theatre against the rise of the Raymond Revuebar. The rise of a cabaret style striptease signaled the end of the theatrical burlesque. As the method of display changed so too did the models of both the showgirls and the patrons. The Windmill played up the wholesome beauty of the "girl next door" while the Revuebar emphasized the international sophistication of both its performers and its patrons. While the Windmill became part of English national lore with 10 million patrons attending 60,000 performances of popular eroticism, the Revuebar emphasized well-heeled, rich, and cosmopolitan heterosexuality for an imagined elite.

Mort pays particular attention to the performance of power. In his analysis of the Profumo Affair, Mort suggests that the "rapidly changing power balance of its major players" (24) including young women and Caribbean men make this story different from such nineteenth-century tales of scandal. However, in examining their histories, Mort implies that the major players had similar sorts of agency. Mort characterizes Christine Keeler as having "extended her sexual range well beyond the activities of a traditional showgirl and into more sophisticated territory," (308) as having "a constant desire for...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 1137-1138
Launched on MUSE
2012-06-25
Open Access
No
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