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Showing posts with label Profumo scandal. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Profumo scandal. Show all posts

Sunday 12 January 2014

Review: Douglas Thompson, Stephen Ward Scapegoat

Stephen Ward was born in 1912 and died in 1963. Except for Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, nearly all his friends and acquaintances who were of the same generation are dead and so can be written about freely without fear of British libel laws. Douglas Thompson's book contains much gossip about the Forbidden Pleasures once enjoyed by the now deceased.

There would be more gossip available if the Public Records were opened but those relating to the Profumo Scandal (Ward, Keeler, Rice-Davies, Ivanov, Profumo) have been sealed beyond the normal period of fifty years. A week before I am writing this, Richard Davenport-Hines (author of An English Affair reviewed here a year ago on 13 January 2013) suggested that this is partly to protect the reputation of Prince Philip who met Dr Stephen Ward back in 1947 over lunches at the dissolute Thursday Club - a sort of older man's Bullingdon Club - and was later sketched by him.

Thompson's book and Davenport- Hines' (which does not appear in Thompson's Bibliography) are chalk and cheese. Hines is not an academic but writes at the academic end of the genre of political biography and political history. Thompson is a journalist who writes in sentences which aren't. He doesn't footnote the claims he makes and often you do not know whether you are reading cut and paste from newspaper gossip columns going back to the 1950s or whether you are reading interview material of  unknown vintage. Occasionally, he dates a claim and attributes it to an interview he has conducted but not often enough for anyone interested in getting closer to the truth.

Every society forbids some Pleasures, either by Law or Public Opinion or both. Every society makes the prices of transgression higher for some citizens than others. Often enough, it is the poor and powerless who are punished hardest but quite often the rich and powerful are hardest hit - if they are found out and if police or press decide (or are persuaded) not to turn a blind eye.

The desire to experience Forbidden Pleasures affects members of all classes and in any big city, there will be rich and powerful individuals seeking the forbidden. And where there is demand there will always be a supply. The rich and powerful soon find themselves in contact with criminals and lower class individuals on the make. And in the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s, they also found themselves in contact with the Spies of the Other Side.

Drugs, Gambling but above all Sex provided the soft underbelly of the post - 1945 British Establishment and it was through it that Soviet spies hoped to extract juicy morsels of intelligence and even to recruit Agents willing to go in search of their own country's secrets. It was hardly Soviet rocket science which propelled Soviet Naval Attaché Yevgeny Ivanov into the hedonistic set around Dr Stephen Ward. It was the bleeding obvious.

The people around Ward could not protect themselves by Coming Out. What they were doing was either illegal (homosexuality, for example) or regarded by Public Opinion as incompatible with holding any position in politics or government administration, not to mention the Church and the Law. The British War Minister John Profumo and his wife the actor Valerie Hobson may have agreed between themselves to have an open marriage, but in the court of public opinion, that still left Profumo an adulterer - and, of course, a security risk the moment Christine Keeler began to share her pillow talk with Colonel Ivanov (and she says she did).

All this is well-known and much-written about. More importantly, Thompson agrees with Davenport-Hines' and others (including most recently Geoffrey Robertson QC) that the prosecution of Stephen Ward  for living on immoral earnings was a frame-up initiated by the then Home Secretary the very-Christian Henry Brooke, eagerly executed by officers of the Metropolitan Police (using quite a bit of intimidation of witnesses), assisted by the security services, hurried along by the Judiciary, and finally whitewashed in the Enquiry conducted by the very Christian Lord Denning. The whole affair shows the Nasty side of an Establishment fearful of being discredited in the eyes of its overseer, the US government, and, more specifically, fearful of Conservative electoral defeat.

Things have changed. When 48 or 49 year-old Stephen Ward first asked Christine Keeler for a dance, back in 1961, he had false teeth (this titbit from Douglas Thompson). Like his entire generation, his mouth tasted of tobacco and his clothes were impregnated with cigarette smoke. Cologne would have disguised lack of personal hygiene.

Nowadays, Ward would not have false teeth and might well not smoke. Some of the Forbidden Pleasures are no longer forbidden and can be talked about and enjoyed, most obviously, the homosexual ones. But overall, I doubt that much has changed. From time to time, the Gossip columns still finger government ministers they suspect of enjoying Forbidden Pleasures, occasionally a Minister still falls on his sword, whistleblowers are still given a nasty ride - and as for the spies, well, that's the biggest change; they have gone electronic.

Note: Normally, the books I review here are bought from bookshop displays. On this occasion, the publishers of Douglas Thompson's book (John Blake) wrote to offer me a Review Copy.

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.