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A racy read on the Profumo Affair

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo - review.

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo
Richard Davenport-Hines
HarperPress, 416pp, £20

This year will be the 50th anniversary of the death of the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, of Charles de Gaulle’s veto of Britain’s first application to join the European Economic Community (as the European Union was then called), of the resignation of Harold Macmillan and his replacement by the 14th Earl of Home, and of the assassination of President John F Kennedy. It is also the 50th-anniversary year of the Profumo affair, the least significant, though not the least written-about, of the big events of that tumultuous year.

Yet in the summer of 1963 the political classes were working themselves into a lather over the extramarital doings of the then war minister, John Profumo, who had enjoyed a brief dalliance with Christine Keeler, described in the parlance of the time as a “good-time girl”; Richard Davenport-Hines claims convincingly that she was not, as Lord Denning in his report on the affair suggested, a prostitute. In a vain attempt to protect his family, Profumo made a personal statement to the Commons denying “impropriety”. When this was discovered to be untrue, he resigned. It is, of course, a firm convention of the constitution that ministers must not deceive parliament, except, naturally, on major matters of public policy.

It was claimed on little evidence that Keeler had been simultaneously enjoying the favours of the Soviet naval attaché Captain Yevgeni Ivanov, and that Profumo was therefore a security risk. It was implausible to imagine that a good-time girl’s repertoire of foreplay would include inquiries concerning the precise location of US nuclear missiles in West Germany. But, as Macmillan complained in his diaries, the new Labour leader, Harold Wilson, hoped, “under pretence of security, to rake up a ‘sex’ scandal and to involve ministers and members of the ‘upper classes’ in a tremendous row which will injure the ‘establishment’ ”. It was not the Labour Party’s finest hour.

Many books have already been written on the affair. The best of them is Bringing the House Down, a sensitive and thoughtful biography of Profumo by his son, David, a talented novelist. It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation. Davenport-Hines claims that the affair exposes hidden truths about British society – its class rigidities and prurient attitudes towards sex. It is true that the popular view of homosexuality, for instance, was un - informed. In 1963 the Sunday Mirror was even able to provide for readers a helpful, two-page guide on “How to Spot a Homo”. The main signs, apparently, were “shifty glances” and “dropped eyes”, but the clincher was “a fondness for the theatre”.

Still, these are well-worn themes and it seems that the main purpose of An English Affair is to rerun all the old stories: how Profumo stumbled upon a near-naked Christine Keeler in the swimming pool at Cliveden; the rumours of a cabinet minister cavorting at dinner parties naked except for a mask; and orgies supposedly involving eight high court judges. “Eight,” Mac - millan commented, “seems a bit much.”

The public showed more phlegm than the politicians or the press and refused to get too excited. And there is no evidence from opinion polls that the affair cost the Conservatives any long-term support. There were, admittedly, important political consequences, but the conventional view that the affair hastened Macmillan’s retirement has been shown to be false by D R Thorpe in his masterly biography Supermac. Indeed, as Thorpe shows, the affair delayed Macmillan’s departure. He had intended to go in the summer of 1963 but refused to be driven out by the gutter press. He therefore clung on until October, when illness gave him the excuse he needed.

Had Macmillan gone in the summer, he probably would have been succeeded not by the Earl of Home, but by his chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who would undoubtedly have proved a more formidable opponent to Wilson than Home could ever be; and, without the shenanigans accompanying the “customary processes of consultation” over the succession, the Conservatives might well have won the 1964 election. In that case, Labour would have had to modernise itself 30 years before Blair. These consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport- Hines analyses in somewhat lubricious detail.

As for Profumo, he deserves to be remembered not for what he did in 1963, but for what he had done in 1940. As a newly elected MP, aged just 25, he was courageous enough, in his first parliamentary vote, to side with the Tory rebels in the “Norway” debate, a rebellion that led to the downfall of Neville Chamberlain and his replacement by Winston Churchill. Profumo had been serving in an army unit in Essex and had to travel up to London to vote. As he entered the division lobby against the government, a Conservative minister of health, Walter Elliot, spat on his shoe.

After the vote, Profumo was summoned by the Conservative chief whip, Captain David Margesson, and treated to an expletive-rich denunciation. “And I can tell you this, you contemptible little shit,” Margesson raged. “On every morning that you wake up for the rest of your life, you will be ashamed of what you did last night.” But his vote helped make possible Britain’s victory in the Second World War. That is his true place in history; it should not be obliterated by any subsequent peccadilloes.

Davenport-Hines is an accomplished writer with a good eye for human weaknesses. Although An English Affair has little long-term importance, it is a racy read that should sell well. Indeed, if it were not liable to give rise to misunderstanding, one might say that it is just the sort of book to read in bed.

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide