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Sunday 13 January 2013

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

The Conservative Party. The News of the World. The Metropolitan Police. The Judiciary. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

This is a highly readable account of a fifty year old scandal. Reading it in England in 2013 it is impossible not to have "just like" thoughts about phone hacking, Jimmy Savile, Cyril Smith,  Mr Cameron and the Chipping Norton set, Dr Fox and Mr Werrity - though none of these are things which Richard Davenport-Hines mentions.

There are other things he does not mention in his narrative, perhaps because there are people still living  - and in England, the laws of libel more or less ensure that the truth will finally out only when everyone is dead.

Davenport-Hines begins rather charmingly by identifying himself as a Posh Boy who may not have known the price of a pint of milk but who - at in the 1960s - was very keen to know the meaning of "Orgy" and "Prostitute". Thanks to the Profumo Scandal, those were words on the front pages of the newspapers which the servants read.

He then establishes his Cast of characters: Harold Macmillan, Prime Minister; John Profumo, Minister of War; Viscount Astor; Stephen Ward; Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice - Davies (though actually very little about the latter); Charles Clore and Peter Rachman (of Rachmanism); newspaper proprietors and journalists of the time (some of them able to double as burglars); MI5 and MI6 (able to double at anything).

This is all done with great panache over 240 pages. You get the feeling that Davenport-Hines could create a rounded character out of a very flat one. He knows how to use foibles to draw out character traits - he does this with great effect for Rachman. Though he is never "sociological", his portraits are certainly informed with an understanding of how the dynamics of class and power - as well as individual luck and trauma -  play out in making someone who they are.

Like Frank Mort in his deadly dull Capital Affairs, Davenport-Hines is focused on one of the many episodes which illustrate the sheer physical  proximity in London of High and Low, the Establishment and its underclass. Be entrusted to a Nanny and get scolded or worse; go to a Public School and get unofficially bullied and officially flogged - then you are going to grow up needing the help of prostitutes and drug dealers. You will have another side to your character to that you show the world in Parliament or in your Barrister's wig and the people who can help you express that side will be living just round the corner just because you can keep them in funds to do so.

But unlike Frank Mort, Davenport-Hines knows how to tell a story.

The danger for High when it mixes with Low is always that of Exposure, of getting caught. John Profumo got caught but tried to lie his way out - and failed. The final 100 pages of this book offer an account, shocking even now, of the way in which the Establishment engaged in cover-up and damage limitation when the truth - such as it was - risked coming out and when excitable falsehoods - of which there were many - were everywhere.

When I was a teenager, we loathed Henry Brooke - Home Secretary in Macmillan's government - as a bleak reactionary. In this narrative, he appears as the Christian guardian of morals who sets the Metropolitan Police to work to fit up Stephen Ward as a criminal (pp 280 - 81).  The Metropolitan Police do as they are instructed - but to do it they have to intimidate witnesses and get them to commit perjury; they have to suppress evidence; and they even have to block would-be but unsupportive witnesses from appearing. If there are bribes to be had along the way, they take them. What is still shocking is the unfazed, methodical way they go about it, as if it's all in a day's work. It clearly was. Davenport-Hines:

One person to prosper from the scandals of 1963 was Samuel Herbert, whose strenuous, pitiless fixing of evidence was rewarded with promotion from chief inspector to superintendent [in the Metropolitan Police]. He died of a heart attack at the age of forty-eight in 1966. His character as a shameless rascal was fortified by the posthumous discovery that he had £30 000 squirrelled away - a small fortune for a policeman at that time
There is worse to come.There are the Barristers notably the evil Mervyn Griffith-Jones. He blundered to failure in the obscenity trial of Lady Chatterley but just managed, with the help of the Trial judge, to pin something on Stephen Ward - who in the end lay dying from an overdose as Mr Justice Marshall hurried up the Jury to get in a Guilty verdict before the man was dead.

And at the end of it all, another Christian gent of high morals and impeccable principles was called in to produce the official whitewash. It is some small justice that Lord Denning's memory falls into the hands of Mr Davenport-Hines.

If you want to understand what is going on in the phone hacking scandal and the Savile scandal and if you want to understand a bit more about Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne, the posh boys who really don't know the price of a pint of milk, read this book.

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