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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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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis