Serpent's Tail, £14.99, 320pp. £13.49 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond, By Paul Willetts

It must seen difficult for a younger generation, steeped nowadays in sex, to realise that in the 1950s nudism was illegal on stage. Or rather, you were allowed a nude but only if it didn't move an inch. The results were bizarre tableaux which the compere would introduce with words like: "First, ladies and gentlemen, the lovely Natalya and the charming little Renée offer you 'The Toilet of Nudes' by Diego Velasquez from the National Gallery here in London."

It all changed when Paul Raymond came on the scene. Wonderfully documented by Paul Willetts, Members Only tells of the career of Mr Striptease, the owner of the notorious Raymond's Revue Bar and, eventually, several semi-pornographic magazines and, it seems, half the buildings in Soho. The entrepreneur became, at one point, Britain's richest man.

Not blessed with good looks, he became a familiar figure around Soho, with his long black fur coat, draped found the shoulders of an expensive handmade suit, gold bracelet engraved with his initials, diamond and gold pendant worn over his tie, and his scrape-over hairdo. It was sufficiently long at the back to form a "vallance found his neck".

His beginnings were, of course, humble. Brought up a Catholic, he started life as a stage clairvoyant, but soon started putting on strip shows with his then wife, Jean, a stripper and choreographer. That was, of course, after fathering a son with a woman who earned a crust by selling horoscopes and riding the handlebars of a motorbike as it circled the Wall of Death.

Advertising his shows a "Sexciting" or "Sexsational", he would put on shows with titles like Hot from Harlem, or "See the taunting, scantily clad Native Mating Dance". One girl – Miss Snake-Hips - did an act with a boa constrictor. She had to be rescued from near-death once by Raymond, and a local ex-boxer he found next door, when the snake started squeezing.

One of Raymond's "girls" dived into a "golden tank" in which the chlorine had not been properly dissolved, prompting Raymond and Eddie Calvert, who happened to be around, to leap in fully clothed to rescue her. Another did an act with a panther who lived on the roof and was taken out on a leash every Sunday for a walk in Hyde Park with Paul and his friends.

As it documents a fascinating turning-point in social history – the transition between grim post-war Britain and the swinging Sixties - the story is full of old Soho characters and gangsters, from Frankie ("mad axeman") Fraser to the archetypical bent copper, Sergeant Harry "Tanky" Challenor. He described policing Soho like trying "to swim against a tide of sewage" but was also on the take. As he planted drugs and stolen goods on Soho's inhabitants, he joshed by calling them "me old darlin'." And who could forget the club's "padre", Canon Edward Young, who later became chaplain to the Queen Mother?

Beset by court cases, in which Lord Longford always played a star part, and usually involving judges who would say things like "And what, exactly, is a G-string?", Raymond somehow managed to stay afloat and prosper. Everything, in one of the more hilarious moments in the book, took a wobble in the middle of his career when a so-called IRA gang threatened his life.

Breaking with his wife, he took up with the stripper and columnist Fiona Richmond, and together they bought a boat called Veste Demite (or "get ' em' orf" in Latin). But Raymond remained devoted to his daughter Debbie, and his life was virtually wrecked by her death from a drug overdose. He became pretty much a recluse and died alone. The whole fascinating story is spiced with brilliant chapter headings, from "Phoar and Peace" to "Captain of Skindustry".

Virginia Ironside's 'The Virginia Monologues' is published by Penguin

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