An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines

Stephen Halliday finds no heroes, only villains and victims, in a sordid tale

February 21, 2013

I was drawn to this absorbing account of the Profumo affair because I recall vividly the events that dominated the summer of 1963 and also because my wife, in her childhood, had a babysitter called Christine Keeler. Jane remembers her with affection, and Keeler emerges from this narrative deserving of more sympathy than censure. Brought up in a converted railway carriage, of limited intelligence but with striking good looks, she was exploited by men. A series of boyfriends assaulted her (one even shooting at her), impregnated her and abandoned her to an attempted abortion that led to the death of an infant son. John Profumo used her in a very brief affair that was over long before the scandal broke; and police bullied her into giving false evidence (she was later jailed for perjury).

Profumo comes out of Richard Davenport-Hines’ book quite well, too: a capable minister, popular with colleagues but unwilling to control the libido of which Keeler was but one of many targets. At the age of 70, at a dinner for the Queen Mother, Profumo was still humorously propositioning a 17-year-old heiress. He redeemed himself with years of service to the poor, for which he received a CBE. Stephen Ward, whose skill as an osteopath and networker gained him admission to high and low society alike, appears here as a harmless Walter Mitty fantasist, at one point offering his services to MI5, who wisely turned him down.

Other players in the drama, however, emerge as discredited or helpless. The prime minister of the day, Harold Macmillan, was swept along by events he did not understand. Sex was not his thing, his own marriage desolate since the start of his wife’s affair with his “friend” Robert Boothby 30 years earlier. The equally hapless home secretary, Henry Brooke, told the police to find something to pin on Ward. They obliged with the charge that Ward lived off the proceeds of prostitution. There was no truth in this, but perjured evidence was spoon-fed to the jury by the egregious Mervyn Griffith-Jones, QC, exceeding in his posturing even his performance in the obscenity trial over Lady Chatterley’s Lover (“Is it a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read?”). Ward, preposterously found guilty, committed suicide.

Harold Wilson, encouraged by the loathsome George Wigg, promoted the idea that Profumo was a security risk because a Russian naval attaché had supposedly also slept with Keeler. It is doubtful that the Russian,Yevgeny Ivanov, did more than give her a lift back to her flat, and no one, including MI5 and Harold Wilson, believed that secrecy had been compromised. Ward’s influential friends and patients, at a meeting at the Athenaeum Club, agreed not to testify for him, fearing that they would be tainted. Lord Denning, author of the report into the affair, is presented as a sanctimonious humbug: even he did not believe that there had been any security breach.

The press emerges worst of all. Two journalists jailed for refusing to disclose sources of “information” were painted by their colleagues as heroic champions of press freedom. The truth was more prosaic. There were no sources. They made up the stories. The press bribed Keeler to give fanciful accounts of her relationships with Ward and Profumo and abandoned her when she was prosecuted for perjury. The Daily Sketch, employer of one of the two journalists, in furtherance of its moral crusade, published Keeler’s telephone number and encouraged its outraged readers to harass her. Davenport-Hines’ book is a fascinating and revisionist account of a moment in our history with no heroes: only villains and victims.

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

By Richard Davenport-Hines

HarperPress, 400pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780007435845

Published 3 January 2013

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