Sunday, June 09, 2013

Profumo Redux

It’s fifty years this year since l’affaire Profumo. The daily revelations about who had slept with whom, and who had said what to whom, seem as portentous today as they were then. The dramatis personae.......Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, Stephen Ward, Peter Rachman, Yevgeny Ivanov, Bill Astor, Johnny Edgecombe, Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon, Harold Macmillan, John Profumo.............seem as alive today as they were then.

And the way Richard Davenport-Hines’s book - that I’ve just finished reading - “An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo”, portrays the England of circa 1963 - so awash in avarice, corruption, materialism, mendacity, cutthroat journalism - that it seems the England of today, not of then. Yet,
 .........England was a country where the gravy served at main meals made everything taste alike. Dominated by the memory of two world wars, it was more drilled and regimented than at any time in its history, and more strictly regulated. Restaurants and pubs were controlled under onerous rules derived from the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914; audiences stood in respectful silence when the National Anthem was played at the end of any cinema performance; pedestrians still doffed their hats as they passed the Cenotaph memorial to the war dead in Whitehall; family-planning clinics did not dare to give contraceptive advice to the unmarried; every foreigner had to register with their local police station, and report there regularly; businesses needed clearance from the Bank of England for the smallest overseas expenditure......
And, England was still an important manufacturing power. Growing up in one of its tropical colonies, I can remember that the cars on our roads were nothing but Morrises, Austins, Wolseleys, Vauxhalls, Fords (the ones from Dagenham), and Rovers, that had come off England’s assembly lines.

I still recall my first car, a 1960 Ford Prefect, light blue, and with an external sunvisor. No car I’ve had since, has meant quite as much to me as that little Ford Prefect. Whatever became of it? I sometimes ask myself these fifty years on.........

My first bicycle was an English bicycle, a Raleigh. It had a chainguard and a three-speed. It was, at the beginning, too big for me to use completely safely, since my Mother and Father wished not to waste money buying me a bicycle I would soon grow too big for. They could, though, have bought me the English-made Rudge bicycle instead, for the Rudge and Raleigh were the only two brands of bicycle available.

All the knives and forks I ate with were made in Sheffield, as were all the china plates I shovelled my food off of, as were all the china cups I drank my tea out of........

There seemed nothing there that wasn’t made in England. On my asking why, I was told things like “Imperial Preference” and “Sterling Area”.

Such was the world-wide reach of England’s influence that nearly all of us in this tropical English colony who were lucky enough to live not only in a house, but a house with a wireless, listened to the BBC News on the wireless every evening. The broadcasts were preceded by pip pip pip sounds - the sign that the BBC news was about to follow. On some evenings the voice of the man from the BBC was intermittently drowned by hissing noises, because the news broadcasts came in on shortwave, and shortwave is affected by weather disturbances and suchlike, the more so the longer the distance.

So it was mainly because of the BBC News that l’affaire Profumo was as immediate to me as it was to the people of England six thousand miles away. I could hardly wait for the next installment the next evening.

What, then, was l’affaire Profumo all about? Sex, it seems. The people of England were as obsessed about sex-in-high-places then, as they are now, because they were as Puritanical about sex then, as they are now. You may think this surprising. You should remember, though, that the infusion today of sex into just about every conversation, film, television programme, book, newspaper article, and whatnot, is a reaction to yesterday’s Puritanism. It’s the same dynamic, you might say.

The Sexual Offences Act that was enacted in 1956, had a section that said if a man introduced another man to a woman between 16 and 21, and they subsequently had sex, the man who introduced them was a criminal (as a procurer) and could go to jail.

A ridiculous law I’m sure you’ll agree. Worthy of a Third World theocracy. On the other hand it was 1956, not 2013. Here, though, is the pièce de résistance: this section wasn’t abolished until 1995. That’s right, 1995, just eighteen years ago.

As long as this section was law, it made criminals of hundred of thousands, if not millions of Englishmen, and could be used by the police to prosecute anyone the government didn’t like.

In l’affaire Profumo, a man the government definitely didn’t like, was a Harley Street osteopath called Stephen Ward, who had been going around boasting about his friendships with men in high up government places, and also with the Russian naval attache, Yevgeny Ivanov.

Stephen Ward didn’t help himself by having both Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies stay with him at various times. So he became easy meat for the police to hang several sex-related charges on, including the infamous procuring charge.

To ensure nothing got in the way of Stephen Ward being convicted, the police pressured prosecution witnesses to give false testimony, and threatened to plant incriminating evidence in the home of at least one man, a quite important man, who wanted to give Ward a good character reference in court. This man got the message and changed his mind.

So the English police were not quite like Dixon of Dock Green. And, if you are an Englishman of today, how can you be sure the police don’t get up to the sorts of things today that they did in 1963. A dank jail cell may await you even though you’ve done nothing. You could be taken there in handcuffs at any time, maybe even this evening.

L’affaire Profumo, despite being for all intents and purposes a storm in a teacup, did contain a tragedy - Stephen Ward’s suicide. His persecution by the English police became too much for him and he cracked. In the opinion of experts, the trumped-up charges on which he was convicted would have been overturned by an appeals court.

There was such a mountain of happenings surrounding l’affaire Profumo, you can only begin to get a complete picture of it by reading Richard Davenport Hines’s account. It’s page-turning reading.


  1. I feel a little guilty in that I have not read the book which gave rise to your post, but I know I can rely absolutely upon your representation of it.

    I spent my childhood in the 1950s and do not recognise the England you describe. We were by no means rich. I recall how in 1952 my father borrowed £52 from my mother's modest inheritance to buy her a washing machine and paid her back in two years of monthly instalments, how we were without a telephone until 1954, a TV until 1958 and a secondhand car until 1960, how the cold winter winds were sucked under the door by the meagre coal fire, how I clutched my water bottle to my chest on going to bed at night and woke to chilblains on my ears and frost patterns on the window, how my father worked Saturday mornings in the City.

    Yet I did not feel oppressed by those conditions. In fact, life was very full and happy. There was unacceptable squalor and poverty but the Conservative record on housing and the easing of individual finances - Harold Macmillan himself was something of a Socialist - and the liberation of the late 1950s and early 1960s was the legacy that the Wilson Labour Government inherited in late 1964 after thirteen years of Conservative rule. Many of our present ills, including the decline of manufacturing, can be traced to the leftist political ambitions of the worst aspects of the trade unions in the days of the Cold War.

    The Profumo Scandal rested not so much on the sex, as suggested, but that Profumo lied to the House of Commons about it, a matter significant in itself but worsened by the security aspects and the fact that he was Defence Minister.

    The offence of procurement was directed at pimps, men who cruelly exploited young women for gain, and the law remains on the statute book in a more directed form.

    To suppose that ordinary Britons were not aware of high jinks in high places is naive. Remember much of the adult population had known the days of Hitler and many had lived through two world wars. My father made me well aware of the corruption in government and elsewhere and of the dissolute lives of the over-privileged. Dixon of Dock Green was simply entertainment and few took it as seriously representing the real world. There is far more gullibility these days about soap operas.

    One thing I am sure we agree about is the value of integrity and fortitude in our rulers - too rare a commodity.

  2. Your account of your childhood makes the implicit point that happiness doesn't depend on material things.

    I have, in fact, come across surveys showing that people in poor countries today are generally happier than people in the rich countries.

    Another memory from my 1950s childhood is seeing my father mailing off bags of sugar to his own father (my grandfather) who was English and lived in England. I had been surprised to learn there wasn't enough sugar in England then, for Englishmen to put in their tea.

    As for the Profumo Affair, the official importance of it was, as you imply, that Profumo lied to the House of Commons.

    However, when you read his words carefully, you'll see he didn't actually lie, for he said merely that there had been no impropriety in his acquaintanceship with Christine Keeler.

    So, in his mind, whatever it was he did when with her (remember, we don't know exactly what it was) may well have been within the outer reaches of propriety, despite it possibly not being so in the minds of most Englishmen. How, though, was Profumo to know this?

    Although you feel guilty at not having read Richard Davenport-Hines's book, it's not too late for you to set out for your nearest bookshop to acquire it. Better still, you can order it from the Daily Telegraph bookshop!!!

  3. New to the law in 1963, I read the Denning Report with a modicum of understanding and uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Unfortunately, I no longer possess my copy, otherwise I would refer you to the salient passages.

    What I do recall, perhaps mistakenly, is that there was never any doubt that Profumo lied to the House. It is worth mentioning that after leaving politics he led an exemplary life of good works out of the public eye.

    Britons were never as bashful, condemnatory and secretive about sex as the mythology suggests. It is true that they observed a well-balanced propriety which would not go too far amiss today: we are all aware of the increasing evidence of the malign effects of free-for-all hard porn on the internet. I, for one, recall the mixed gender discussion groups for teenagers and early twenty-year-olds at my church, presided over by the minister, and the very open expression there of sexual matters. Maybe the minister was liberal, as was my father, but they were by no means unique. It is telling that a judicial inquiry was commissioned and the report published in such frank and detailed terms. The dissolute and selfish lives of some in the pop industry were not the influence for good that is so often supposed.

    Yes, sugar was on ration, as was other food, clothing and so on. The Conservatives, elected in 1951, gradually lifted all rationing by 1954. Previous to that, in the austere days of the Attlee government, my mother would send me shopping with precious cash and coupons. I still remember the Co-op divi number, although my mother preferred the small family grocer.

    Happiness, I am sure, is inversely proportional to wealth, provided all are provided with basic nutrition, shelter, hygiene and medicine. Hunger, disease and exposure to the elements are not conducive to either happiness or peace. I am glad that Britain leads the world in meeting the targets set by the G8, despite these straitened times, although I am well aware that this is not exactly popular and that the motives are somewhat mixed.

    I cannot think that the book can do more to stimulate thought on these subjects and the tangential considerations than your excellent exposition.

  4. Of the Denning Report, Richard Davenport-Hines in his book, says it (the Report) was:

    “......awash with the spite of a lascivious, conceited old man........Denning's prurient thrill is almost audible as one reads his calumnies of Ward. Civil servants working in nearby offices when Keeler and Rice-Davies were questioned recall the frisson in the corridors.....

    ......He (Denning) sent his shorthand writers out of the room while he questioned some of the young women about their business. A dominatrix who explained that she never had intercourse with the men she flogged was asked by Denning why her clients had these tastes: he may have squirmed inwardly with tut-tutting excitement as she replied that it 'went back to their nannies. Bus drivers and people like that who don't have nannies don't ask you to whip them.......'

    .....Denning was avid for salacious rumours, and sinners to pillory. When he interviewed George Wigg, he asked if he knew anything about the Duke of Argyll's divorce, which had nothing to do with security.......

    ......Denning prided himself on what he called his 'sophisticated mind', but as Lord Annan observed, 'the sanctimonious tone of Denning's report suggested that, like many a judge, he was not all that aware of how men and women behave'.......”

    The book has lots more in this vein about the Denning Report.

    Seeing as you, at the time, did read the Denning Report, you owe it to yourself to read Davenport-Hines's book, which deals with so much more than just the Profumo Affair itself. I highly recommend it.

    While, as you say, ”.....Britons were never as bashful, condemnatory and secretive about sex as the mythology suggests......”, this was nonetheless also the time (1961) of the Lady Chatterley's Lover trial, at which the prosecutor (the very same prosecuter at the Stephen Ward trial), asked the jury whether the book was of the sort that they would leave lying around the house, ”'....a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read.....'”.

    And it was also the time (1962) in which Ian McEwan's very sad novel, “On Chesil Beach”, was set.

  5. Methinks the author protests too much. He seems to deal in stereotypes and speculation. As a judge, Lord Denning would have been thoroughly familiar with like material and even bored by it.

    Remember it is the jury of which you speak that released Lady Chatterley's Lover from censorship, much to the delight of the man on the Clapham omnibus.

  6. " is the jury.....that released Lady Chatterley's Lover from censorship, much to the delight of the man on the Clapham omnibus....."

    Was it much to the delight of his wife and servants too?

  7. All I can say is that from reading your original post Christopher and then the comments, I have learned a great deal about the English.

    I'd like to read more about your childhood in one of England's tropical colonies. I think I remember somewhere in a comment that you grew up in Africa but I do not remember which country.

    Much more interesting than my suburban California experience.

  8. The tropical colony in question was Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

    For me, life there, when I grew up, would have been not unlike growing up in the American Deep South in a middling to small town. So you'll get an idea of how soporifically boring it was.

    Your suburban California growing-up experiences would have been far more interesting.

    In general, growing-up experiences when written about many years later, always sound more interesting than they actually were, for the mythologising invariably begins as soon as we put pen to paper.......

  9. Please do as Cheri says, Christopher, I am most interested to learn what it was like for you growing up in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. How do you regard the Lancaster House Agreement?

    I always regarded the "colonials" as privileged. Was I right or was I wrong?

  10. The Lancaster House Agreement was many years after I had departed for overseas, so I knew of it only from the papers. You would, then, doubtless know as much of it as do I.

    The biggest mistake Britain made with Rhodesia was granting it self-government in the 1920s, so that Rhodesia was for all intents and purposes an independent state with the 'whites' totally in charge, although legally it remained a British colony

    Britain, as the legal colonial power, always had the right to suspend Rhodesia's constitution and impose another one. Fear that Britain would do this led to Rhodesia's illegal declaration of independence in 1965, which in turn led to the tragic guerilla war, with consequences that resulted in Zimbabwe's very sad history over the last thirty years.

    Had Britain ruled Rhodesia as directly as it did its other colonies, and brought it to independence under black majority rule in the early 1960s as it did with its other African colonies, Zimbabwe may well have become post-colonial Africa's big success story.

    ”.....I always regarded the 'colonials' as privileged. Was I right or was I wrong?.......”

    If by 'colonials' you mean the 'whites' in the Rhodesia in which I grew up, you are both right and wrong.

    They were economically privileged. In other aspects of life they weren't. If 'white', you grew up always aware that 'crunch time' would one day happen, and where would you go then? The old Rhodesia being as racially segregated as apartheid South Africa, you didn't, if 'white', grow up normal because you were a product of an abnormal society whose distorted values became part of who you were.

    Economic privilege came therefore at a psychological and spiritual price...........