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Posted on 5 Mar 2013 in Non-Fiction |

RICHARD DAVENPORT-HINES An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. Reviewed by Peter Corris

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english affairLies, puritans and hypocrites: England’s class system and the notorious Profumo Affair of the early 1960s.

I can safely say I’ve never read a book with as many hyphenated names in it as this. As the author, with his own double-barrelled name, plots the comings and goings of the upper crust in early to mid-20th-century England, the hyphens are sprinkled like confetti. And bizarre top-drawer names bob up. It’s hard to imagine how he kept a straight face when dealing with journalist Peregrine Worsthorne and Lord Astor’s sister, Wissie Ancaster. Wissie?

The book charts the parts played by the English nobility and gentry, London spivs, journalists, politicians, intelligence agents, cops and party girls in the interlocking events that became known as the Profumo Affair.

The outline is pretty well known. When John Profumo, Minister for War in Harold Macmillan’s government, lied to the House of Commons by saying he had not had an affair with glamorous, abused Christine Keeler and the lie was exposed, the Conservative government was finished. But Richard Davenport-Hines has been able to draw on a wide range of material, some of it only recently made available, to show precisely how the class system worked to at first protect and then destroy Profumo.

Also destroyed were Stephen Ward, a sexually unconventional osteopath; Lord Astor, a dim multi-millionaire with good intentions and appallingly poor judgement, and sundry MPs

Although the country was changing in the aftermath of World War II,  much remained the same as it entered the swinging sixties. Astor’s establishment at Cliveden employed a chef, an assistant cook, a housekeeper, a butler, a valet, a laundry maid, a serving maid, three housemaids, two footmen, two secretaries, two stablehands, two chauffeurs, two carpenters, a night watchman, a handyman and eight gardeners. Little wonder that editors and journalists, typically from lower down the social scale, were merciless when Astor’s indiscretions, mild though they were, became known.

London was both puritanical and hypocritical at the top. One Conservative lawyer opposed vasectomy because it enabled men to enjoy sex without responsibility, while others of his class kept mistresses or were covertly, or not so covertly, bi- or homosexual. And it was corrupt further down. An architect recalled getting instant approval for a planned development from an official who studied the plans upside down.

No one emerges from the story with credit, not Macmillan’s successor Sir Alec Douglas-Home, formerly the 14th Earl Home, deemed ‘a very ordinary boy’ by his Labour-voting mother, nor Harold Wilson, who made the most of security aspects of the Profumo Affair, knowing that the allegation that Keeler had bedded both Profumo and a Russian KGB man was nonsense.

Among the cast of characters was Mandy Rice-Davies, whose line deflating someone who had denied sleeping with her – ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he?’ – has entered dictionaries of quotations. Also prominent was the egregious Mervyn Griffith-Jones who, when prosecuting Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley case, had thought jurymen would find the need to protect their servants and wives from unseemly reading matter a telling argument. Unchastened by that humiliating defeat, he took the same high moral tone in prosecuting Ward on the trumped-up charge of living off immoral earnings. Griffith-Jones could barely bring himself to address the louche characters who had been cajoled by police into perjuring themselves in their testimonies against Ward.

Davenport-Hines, who writes in a racy, sometimes flowery style, makes large claims for the impact of the imbroglio on Britain, if not immediately on its politics. His view is that Labour’s electoral victory in 1964 only meant:

One network of egotists with an intricate history of mutual obligations, murky pacts and tacit promises was replaced by another alliance no more qualified or efficient, held together by similar bargains, ambitions and vanity.

The book’s central argument is that the ‘outlandish events of the summer of 1963’ spelled the end of the English ‘traditional notions of deference’. Not altogether a bad thing, one might think, if only deference had been replaced by honesty and respect. As celebrity stalking, paparazzi rampages and the phone-hacking scandal have shown, it wasn’t.

Richard Davenport-Jones An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo HarperCollins 2013 PB 352pp $19.99

To see if this book is available from Newtown Library, click here.