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

Francis Beckett is enthralled by a study of the Profumo Affair – and what it says about England of the 1960

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Reviewed by: Francis Beckett
Author: Richard Davenport-Hines
Publisher: HarperPress
Price (RRP): £20

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There are authors who keep themselves and their views and prejudices discreetly out of their books, providing all the salient facts and not rushing off on irrelevant detours.  Richard Davenport-Hines has not the smallest ambition to be one of them.  

I have seldom read an account of anything in which the author is so constantly at your side, now telling you that Bill Astor was a decent old cove whatever that scoundrel Beaverbrook might say, anon hissing in your ear about what an unspeakable cad we had in Joe Matthews (manager of 1960s sex-goddess Sabrina); then suggesting that, if you can spare a few minutes, there’s a rather remarkable little factette at the end of that unpromising-looking overgrown path.

I have never met Mr D-H, but when I put down An English Affair I felt almost as though I’d just finished a well-lubricated lunch with him. You either like that sort of book, or you don’t. I like it, so long as it’s done by someone who can write, and he can. 

In a more straightforward account of the Profumo affair I might not have learned that a young Conservative MP, Timothy Raison, campaigned to allow more immigrants from eastern Europe, who he thought were more easily assimilated than Commonwealth immigrants, and Bill Astor lent it his support, saying: “We know perfectly well that with Europeans the Mr Shapiro of one generation becomes the Mr Shepherd of another, and is soon indistinguishable from people in this country.” Nor might I have discovered that the official from the lord chamberlain’s department charged with monitoring strip-shows was called Sir George Titman.

However, not every blind avenue turns out to have a nugget of gold at the end of it. I was surprised to stumble across a pen portrait of the 10th Earl of Selkirk, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1957–59, a man for whom Mr D-H evidently has a high regard. In the course of this, and apropos of nothing, he provides the following factette:“He was the only member of the staid Athenaeum Club to marry a captain of the British women’s ski team.” I am not sure what to make of this information, though it does occur to me that, since the British women’s ski team has only one captain, the 10th Earl might have bagged the only one going, leaving his fellow Athenaeum members bereft.

Mr D-H’s views are interestingly unpredictable. Sometimes he sounds like a reactionary caricature. A left-wing article attacking the excesses of the rich brings him out in splenetic fury: “The New Statesman prig disapproved of what he called ‘the leisured class’ and was tormented by the thought that somewhere people might be enjoying themselves. For the prim and pinch-lipped frowners…” and so on. And he rather remarkably claims that in 1956, it was the old Etonians in the cabinet who “had the courage to refuse blind loyalty to Eden’s blunders,” forgetting that Eden was an old Etonian.

At other times he’s sensitive and liberal, outraged by newspapers and commentators who demean women, writing angry prose about the treatment of Sabrina and Christine Keeler. He’s contemptuous of public-school ritual. Jack Profumo’s Harrow “upheld violence, but punished sex” and Profumo’s belief that he could lie his way out of trouble “was learnt in the stupid humbug of Harrow”. He’s outraged by kiss-and-tell journalism: “Until 1963 newspapers protected politicians who were detected in adultery, or caught in the bushes with guardsmen. After 1963, Fleet Street’s emetic brew of guilty joys, false tears, nasty surprises and dirty surmises seemed unlimited.” You never quite know what his view will be until he declares his hand.

An English Affair is about two-thirds background, painting the places and characters in detail – Cliveden, the Astors, Profumo, Keeler, Stephen Ward, the England they lived in – and one third a gripping account of the affair itself. It’s a thoughtful, stylishly written, intelligent, eccentric and unpredictable book, and I enjoyed it enormously.  

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Francis Beckett is the author of What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? (Biteback, 2010)