Growing up, Sex in The Sixties

Peter Doggett                                                                                      Bodley Head £25


London In The Raw was a disturbing documentary that premiered at Piccadilly in July 1964. 

The film’s producer hired two sisters, Marion and Valerie Mitchell, to attend wearing a fashion item that was all the rage: a dress that exposed the wearer’s breasts.

Paparazzi were happy to have their way. The paparazzi were not able to print the photos and so the sisters were taken into custody and indicted for indecency. ‘It’s all a storm in a B-cup!’ quipped one of them.

Marion and Valerie Mitchell (above) were hired to attend London In The Raw's premiere wearing a fashion item that was all the rage: a dress that exposed the wearer’s breasts

Marion and Valerie Mitchell (above) were hired to attend London In The Raw’s premiere wearing a fashion item that was all the rage: a dress that exposed the wearer’s breasts

With a conditional discharge, they were released.

Marion went on to operate under the name Janie Jones as a pop singer, TV star and – in the end – brothel-keeper. In 1974, she was sentenced for procuring prostitutes to be used by BBC executive members.

The Affair Of The Topless Dress is one of many stories recounted in a book that doesn’t quite know whether to condemn the 1960s or drool over its most salacious episodes, and so instead does both, and rather successfully, too.

Peter Doggett uncovers some of the tales that lie outside of the era’s ‘well-trodden ground’. Nevertheless we encounter familiar names, from Nabokov’s Lolita to The Beatles and Germaine Greer.

We meet serial killers, sexologists, pornographers and – of course – Mary Whitehouse.

Also, we see a lot young girls who are being exploited.

Topless tops are not meant for matronly breasts. Their designer, Rudolf ‘Rudi’ Gernreich, described the perfect breasts for the occasion as ‘young, firm, small’ and (of course) ‘adolescent’.

Adolescent breasts regularly took centre stage in a popular culture newly enthused about sexual freedom – for men, that is.

Doggett pays attention to all the possible costs for women who take up the sexual freedom promise.

In rich and playful prose, Growing Up knits together material from newspapers, women’s magazines, films, television and pop music to create an account of the 1960s that, unlike most popular histories, does not edit out the grim bits. 

The Ruin Of All Witches

Malcolm Gaskill                                                                                      Allen Lane £20


Mary Parsons, her husband Hugh, and their small hometown of Springfield, New England were taken to Boston on March 24, 1651 to wait for trial. 

Their suspected crime – witchcraft. But far from the black-cat-and-broomstick carry-on of our modern imagination, this was the most sinister of crimes.

Mary is believed to have murdered her baby boy while she was under the control of the Devil. Hugh, on the other hand, was believed to be plotting against the whole town. 

And, as they were carted away for one of America’s first witch trials, the couple will have been fully aware that the punishment for guilty witches was death by hanging.

Malcolm Gaskill traces the Parsonses’ story with novelistic power. You will hear their stories of how each Parson arrived in America, and then how they got married in Springfield. After a short, happy marriage, things went sour. 

Gaskill believes that Mary and Hugh were paranoid schizophrenia, or postpartum psychosis, and they both managed to disengage the townpeople. 

They are suspected of witchcraft by their neighbors, who turn against each other one after another.

Gaskill, however, provides the context and culture that allow this powerful story to unfold.   

The 17th Century witnessed political and religious revolutions, as well as civil war raging in Old England. There were also witch-hunts all across Europe. 

Gaskill skilfully weaves this backdrop into the Parsonses’ story, showing how in an America of strict religious orthodoxy, book-burnings and witch-hunts were the result.

This masterpiece is micro-history at its best, a genre where a single event can illuminate an entire time period. 

Gaskill’s meticulous research, combined with a profound empathy for the past allows us to understand how superstition can hold power in a modern world.

Nicholas Harris