Lewis Jones

Spiv on a grand scale

Apart from his enormous wealth, the only interesting thing about Paul Raymond was his dishonesty, which was relentless and comprehensive, and always gave the game away.

Spiv on a  grand scale
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Members Only

Paul Willetts

Sepent’s Tail, pp. 479, £

He insisted that he was not a pornographer but an entertainer, and told the Daily Herald that the Folies Parisienne (sic) — one of his early shows, featuring the ‘Harlem Nudes’ and their ‘taunting, scantily clad Native Mating Dance’ — was intended for family audiences, and that children were taken along by their ‘doting elders’. When he booked a celebrated American stripper to appear at the Raymond Revuebar (‘The Athenaeum of Strip Clubs’ — Spectator), she was appalled to learn that he and his wife proposed to let their five-year-old daughter watch the show.

This family image was rather dented by such assurances as ‘this theatre is disinfected throughout with Jeye’s [sic] Fluid’. The actor John Standing took John Osborne to see Pyjama Tops: ‘… the ghastliness of all those tourists in raincoats wanking in the stalls. I knew John would love it.’ Osborne was so impressed that he returned for two more performances.

‘I would feel much less easy with myself,’ declared Raymond of his empire of smut, ‘if I sold cigarettes and booze, because they are actually commodities that harm people.’ Actually he did sell booze and cigarettes — stolen ones, bought from his gangster friends ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser and Eddie Richardson. And while he posed as an ally of the Soho Society, buying up freeholds ‘to keep out the Maltese’, he forced out dress shops and restaurants with exorbitant rent increases so he could lease to Maltese sex shops.

In Members Only Paul Willetts, author of the well-received Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia and North Soho 999, provides an extremely thorough biography of Raymond, who was born Geoffrey Anthony Quinn, in Liverpool in 1925, and educated by the Jesuits. At 15 he left school to work as an office boy in a Manchester cotton mill, then as a drummer in a swing band on the pier at Withernsea, under the name of Geoff Raymond, and then as ‘a self-confessed spiv’ in the markets of Rochdale and Oldham.

Conscripted as a Bevin Boy, he ran away to London, where he grew a pencil moustache and continued his spivvery in Soho. Rather than send him to prison, after the war the authorities called him up for National Service in the RAF, in which he ran rigged raffles. On his discharge in 1948 he established the Raymond Shirt Company, a front for black-market cloth, and in due course transformed himself into Paul Raymond, variety artiste. Having sired an illegitimate son by his assistant in 1950, he hitched back to London and became a barman in Walthamstow before setting up as a theatrical agent/producer with a winning formula he characterised as ‘the comic, the conjurer and the girl with her tits out’. The conjurer and the comic were soon dispensed with, though he later leased part of the Revuebar to the alternative comedians of the Comic Strip.

In 1952 he met Jean Bradley, ‘an auburn-haired dancer’, whom he married without mentioning his son; they had a daughter — poor Debbie, who died of an overdose in 1992, aged 36 — and a son, Howard, whom Raymond (who died in 2008) cut out of his will.

Despite his difficulties with magistrates, gangsters, bent coppers, Mary Whitehouse and Lord Longford, Raymond made millions from his strip shows, dirty magazines and such ‘plays’ as Pyjama Tops and ‘films’ as Let’s Get Laid. And he made many more millions from property — in 1977 he was buying Soho freeholds at an average of one a week. He was a tremendous pervert, with a penchant for threesomes; an alcoholic drug addict, snorting cocaine with Debbie; a miserly bastard, paying his clip joint ‘hostesses’ so little that they were obliged to prostitute themselves; and a crashing bore.

Willetts argues that he helped transform British sexual mores, but the truth is that he cashed in on a general cultural shift, as a spiv on the grand scale, ‘Britain’s foremost sexual profiteer’. The best thing about this book is its puns — ‘Phwoar and Peace’, ‘Crumpet Voluntary’ and ‘A Handful of Bust’.