Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Tricks Campaigns

Magazine article The Spectator

Dirty Tricks Campaigns

Article excerpt

The real scandal of the Profumo Affair, says Lewis Jones was the rotten state of Britain at the time.

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines HarperPress, £20, pp. 400, ISBN 9780007435485 There are already two excellent books about the Profumo Affair - An Affair of State (1987) by Phillip Knightley and Caroline Kennedy, and Bringing the House Down (2007) by David Profumo - as well as five not-so-excellent ones by poor old Christine Keeler. Now Richard Davenport-Hines has marked the scandal's 50th anniversary with An English Affair, which is set to become the standard work.

He has found new material - the police files on Perec Rachman and Charles Clore, for example - and, as his subtitle suggests, he is big on historical context. His book is elegantly arranged in two parts, the first and longer of which is devoted to setting the scene and introducing the cast ('Good-Time Girls', 'Hacks', 'Spies' and so on), before the curtain goes up on the drama itself, which he calls a 'corrupt, contemptible sequence of events', involving prurience and snobbery, 'insolence, envy and the politics of revenge'.

For all its perspective and nuance, though, it is a surprisingly personal and angry book.

Davenport-Hines grew up in Marylebone, where his rich father kept a mistress on the Edgware Road. In 1963, when he was nine, he learnt a new word from the cook's Daily Express - 'orgy' - and when he repeated it at school he was caned. Soon afterwards - ten days after Jack Profumo's resignation as Minister of War - the speaker at his school prizegiving warned the boys about the 'deplorable breakdown of public morals'. Davenport-Hines decided that public morals meant pompous hypocrisy, and that he urgently wanted their breakdown. It became inevitable then, as he now sees it, that he would one day write about 'the sexual oppression, guilt and bullying, the whitewashing and blackballing, the lack of irony and absurd confused anger' of Harold Macmillan's England.

It was an England, he recalls, 'more drilled and regimented than at any time in its history', where ubiquitous gravy made everything taste alike, and women were either 'gentle daughters or dewdrops', or 'Wimpy Bar sluts or bossy-boots'. 'Who has not felt, ' wrote James Morris in 1962, 'the deadweight of that worn-out, disillusioned, smug, astigmatic, half-educated generation, weighing lumpishly upon the nation's shoulders?'

It was against this England that the Profumos of Chester Terrace were in 'glamorous revolt'. Jack was a rising politician, the youngest of the rebel MPs who had fatally wounded the Chamberlain government in the historic Norway vote of 1940. Valerie was a beautiful former actress, with a skirt made from python skin, who resented her husband's assumption that any pretty woman was 'fair game', and objected to the cut of his trousers - 'surely there must be some way of concealing your penis, ' she complained.

As it turned out, of course, there wasn't, and it became the ignition point of what the author calls Britain's 'modernisation crisis'.

Davenport-Hines writes with perception and sensitivity about Macmillan, whose temperament - 'nervous, subtle and theatrical' - set the tone of the crisis; about Lord Astor, part-magnate, part-idealist and part-playboy, though 'a man of pillow fights and romping', as Grey Gowrie recalled him, 'not some kind of sex maniac'; and about the scapegoat Stephen Ward.

Lord Denning, whom the author calls 'a lascivious, conceited old man', was so keen to suppress criticism of Ward's trial that he proposed a change in the libel laws to allow the families of dead lawyers to sue authors who brought them into ridicule or contempt. …

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