An English Affair
Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 29th August, 2013
Fifty years ago this summer, British newspapers — which still had many millions of readers, especially on Sundays — were full of the Profumo affair, involving a government Minister (John Profumo), a good time girl (Christine Keeler), a society osteopath (Stephen Ward) and a Tory viscount (Bill Astor). When I gave a talk about it to around 60 mature ladies at a women’s club in Rainham, Essex, last night, it was striking how clear the scandal was in most of their minds, after all this time. For those people under 60, and therefore probably too young to have known what was going on in 1963, I can make no better recommendation that Richard Davenport-Hines’s book, An English Affair (William Collins, £9.99). Davenport-Hines — whose earlier books include a biography of the poet W H Auden — is scrupulously fair in his assessment of the main characters and clearly feels, as I do, that all of them were dealt with harshly, not least Dr Ward, who committed suicide under the pressure of a trial on the trumped-up charges of living off immoral earnings. The police clearly used underhand tactics that produced tainted evidence, and some in the judiciary were complicit, with the gutter Press harassing anyone remotely connected with the affair and cheering on what was in effect a witch-hunt. Davenport-Hines makes a convincing case that this was a last outraged stand by the British Establishment to preserve what had become outdated standards of behaviour and values. Hypocrisy pervades the sad story, and 50 years on it is startling to remember that straitlaced Britain then was a country in which male homosexuality was totally illegal, as was abortion, divorce was difficult (usually involving the man arranging a staged assignation with a woman so adultery could be claimed) and the upper classes still dressed for dinner. What makes An English Affair truly remarkable is that it is far more than just an excellent restaging of the Profumo Affair; it is in effect a social history of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, on a par with the work of writers such as the late social historian Arthur Marwick, but considerably more entertaining. There are some super photos in the book, and anyone who wants to see more of the main characters can still catch (until 15 September) the small but worthwhile “Scandal 63” exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, which includes the celebrated image of a naked Christine Keeler astride a chair.