Capital Affairs: The Making of the Permissive Society, By Frank Mort

Prostitution, Profumo and a real puzzler: a professor of culture reveals (shock!) we had sex before 1963

We've had the short 1950s, the long 1960s, the stubby 1970s, and various publishers are gearing up for an autumn of books on what I think we can call the just-about-done-with 1980s. Meanwhile, here comes Frank Mort's Capital Affairs, a turbid and tortuous account of what the Professor of Cultural Histories at the University of Manchester claims was Blighty's protracted bedroom revolution. Mort doesn't quote Larkin's "Annus Mirabilis", but the – ahem – thrust of his argument is posited on his belief in our belief that sexual intercourse really did begin in 1963. In fact, he argues, it began a lot earlier than Profumo and Paul Raymond, and there was a great deal of fumbling and foreplay in-between times. No one who reads his book could doubt it, though it is worth asking whether anyone other than Mary Whitehouse ever thought otherwise. Might Mort be clarifying problems of his own making?

If clarify he does. A lot of the time it's hard to know what he's going on about: "Characterized by a collapse of confidence in established rituals of civility, [Richard] Sennett has charted the way traditional forms of city life were challenged by the inexorable rise of intimacy and privacy." The hapless reader eventually reorders the modifier, but Professor Sennett has every excuse for wanting to kick Professor Mort in the danglers. Elsewhere we learn of "prostitutes... living on the fridges of crime" – surely not the best place to turn a trick – and of the "American dramatist Terrence Rattigan", who was actually English and called Terence.

Worse than the book's blunders, though, are its barrels of banana oil. In a chapter on the Rillington Place murders, Mort describes how Beresford Brown (the Jamaican labourer and handyman who happened upon the body of one of John Christie's victims) "rehearsed his story across a sensory borderline between smell and vision and through a spatial narrative that dramatized his discoveries as a journey from the external world into a small claustrophobic space or lair". In other words, the poor guy described what he saw and smelt after knocking a hole in the kitchen wall. Still, at least Christie's victims didn't die for nothing. Rather, their murders "performed significant cultural work... questioning... ethical and sexual values as a result of the activities of the main characters and the unravelling of their complicated plots." So they can rest in peace after all, then.

The best bits of the book are those given over to descriptions of early-1960s variety shows. Anyone bored by the honey-lit heavings of contemporary Hollywood will pine for one of those nights at the Revue Bar when feather-festooned fillies in diaphanous tops mimed along to Rodgers and Hammerstein's "I Enjoy Being a Girl" and the dancers John and Marsha stripped off to a Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald waltz. For all Mort's attempts to link such ephemera to Michael Powell's contemporaneous sicko-fest Peeping Tom, it all sounds so innocent.

So, Mort's best efforts notwithstanding, does Christine Keeler. All very well for the girl at the centre of the Profumo affair to style herself "one of the most notorious femmes fatales of the 20th century", but oughtn't a professor of cultural histories to know that she was just a moderately pretty airhead who chanced to find herself at the centre of a B-movie sex scandal? Nor, pace Mort's claims otherwise, has the episode ever been seen as one of high politics and espionage. The affair might have wrong-footed Macmillan, but right from the jump, the man in the street thought it no more than a giggle.

If Keeler really was "culturally and geographically mobile in ways that enabled her to cross and recross social and sexual boundaries", then so were the people who laughed at her. On private matters the public have long been ahead of the politicos, of course. These days they're ahead of the professors, too.