I used to walk up and down Soho's Brewer Street regularly in the late 1970s, and frequently passed the Raymond Revuebar in Walker's Court, when I was a 16 year old messenger for a film company. I never went in but was always impressed by the neon signage in the evening, and the plethora of sex shops that were then a feature of the area. That said, I was more interested in the second hand record shops that also abounded in the same streets, however I always enjoyed the frisson created by the sleaze and neon. London's seventies sex industry grew up around Paul Raymond's iconic and groundbreaking bar.
Members Only: The Life and Times of Paul Raymond; Soho's Billionaire King of Burlesque was my second book by Paul Willetts (the first being the wonderful Fear And Loathing In Fitzrovia, his biography of Julian Maclaren-Ross).
As with Fear And Loathing In Fitzrovia, Paul Willetts does an entertaining and thorough job of evoking the life and times of his subject. I particularly enjoyed how Paul Raymond helped to erode the once stringent customs and laws around sex and stripping. When the Revuebar opened in 1958 the naked girls had to remain static and recreate classical tableaux. The place was regularly attended by plain clothes police trying to find a way to convict him, or in some cases extort money not to prosecute him.
His empire grew as the sixties began to swing accompanied by a wave of permissiveness. Raymond's astute business skills and opportunism helped to change Britain beyond all recognition. His legacy is now clear to see, as the sex industry has been transformed from an illicit enterprise into a vast, rapacious business that permeates and debases all aspects of modern culture. One of the book's real stars is London's Soho district. An area that has an enduring fascination for me. Raymond diversified into property in the late 1970s, acquiring numerous Soho freeholds, and it was this that ultimately made him one of Britain's wealthiest men.
The book also explores Raymond's extraordinary domestic life. His strict Catholic family, his controlling mother, his attempts at being an entertainer, doing National Service, his post-war period as a Spiv, his acrimonious divorce from his first wife, his illegitimate first son, his daughter's tragic death, an extortion attempt, familial infighting, a love of money, entrepreneurship, London, sex, drugs, tragedy, pornography, and ultimately his own rather sad and lonely demise which his vast material wealth could not alleviate.
Raymond was, in many ways, a repellent man, and yet the book exerts a strong fascination as it details the inexorable success that was so closely aligned to changing public attitudes to sex, pornography and business.