Frank Mort: Soho - not just a market for sex

From a lecture to the Royal Society, by the professor of cultural history at the University of East London
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The Independent Online

Soho's traditional character as dangerous and compelling had become institutionalised by the 1950s. The district received quasi-official endorsement as a safety-valve for a range of irregular transactions that had come to define metropolitan life. Its nightclubs and bohemian ambience appeared in the leisured perambulations of the post-war man about town. Its nightlife also provided work for many young women.

Soho's traditional character as dangerous and compelling had become institutionalised by the 1950s. The district received quasi-official endorsement as a safety-valve for a range of irregular transactions that had come to define metropolitan life. Its nightclubs and bohemian ambience appeared in the leisured perambulations of the post-war man about town. Its nightlife also provided work for many young women.

In the summer of 1960, two young women appeared together in cabaret at Murray's club in Soho. Eighteen-year-old Christine Keeler appeared topless in an exotic assortment of feathers and sequins. Mandy Rice-Davies was slightly more fully costumed in the role of an Indian squaw, with feathered headband, short leather skirt, beads and ankle bracelets.

Their act cemented a partnership that became a potent symbol of the moral turbulence of the 1960s. The Profumo scandal which erupted three years later around them, the War Minister Jack Profumo, the Russian naval attaché Ivanov, and the society osteopath Stephen Ward was all about the gendered contradictions between traditional and modern stories of sex. As young women empowered by consumer mobility and Soho's pleasure economy, Keeler and Rice Davies enacted an assertive sexual performance in London's public culture that compromised the masculine culture of the Conservative political élite.

The Profumo scandal had diverse origins and multiple endings, but a significant part of its story was generated by Soho, not just its market for sex, but the whole peculiarly English repertoire of modern pleasures. This story was about a new and distinctive phase of cultural modernisation within English society, and about the repositioning of sex within the English social imagination.

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