Mort has produced an excellent work of social and cultural history, overflowing with anecdotes and illustrations, exhaustively researched and thoroughly insightful. The tragedy is that to get to all that, readers will have to wade through the humourless cultural studies waffle that surrounds it. Like some literary equivalent of the Eighties revival shows on our television screens this spring, Mort’s book often reads like a throwback to some terrifying textbook from 1984, in which space is always contested, identities are always in flux and chapters have titles like “Pathologies” and “Governance”.
So when a policeman tells the Wolfenden Committee about cottaging, taking them through the process of going into a public toilet for sex, he is “promoting a cognitive shift” and “encouraging them to see urinals as liminal spaces”. Later, discussing the Profumo affair, Mort announces that he will pay “attention to the scandal’s urban locatedness” and “complex negotiation of the themes of sexual and cultural modernity”, and claims that the affair “generated a dynamic and unresolved atmosphere of cultural and geographical disturbance”. This sort of stuff was bad enough twenty years ago. These days, it is not only ugly and frustrating but downright dated. Academics often complain that too much attention is paid to “popular” histories rather than their own works. But if they continue to write like this, can they really be surprised?
Dominic Sandbrook reviewing Frank Mort's Capital Affairs: London and the Permissive Society (Yale University Press) in the Literary Review July 2010; the review is not online but was noted in Art Words.
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.
Christopher Bray, reviewing the same book in The Independent on Sunday.
- Why,oh why, do academics persist in writing like that?
- Who's that girl? It's Christine Keeler
And this is Alison Stratton: