Thursday, 10 July 2014

Book review: An English Affair - Richard Davenport-Hines

Remember Stephen Ward, the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical with the artistic and musical merit of a discarded crisp packet?

I do. I hope the night terrors will stop soon.

Anyway, Stephen Ward  was based on the true story of, funnily enough, Stephen Ward the ‘society osteopath’ who was unjustly scapegoated during the Profumo affair, when Minister for War Jack Profumo was caught having an affair with young party girl Christine Keeler who was also alleged to be sleeping with a Russian naval attache. With the press, and the Labour opposition in Parliament, playing the whole sorry mess out to be an issue of national security, the ‘Establishment’ - police, press and politicians - decided that they needed someone to take the blame and, crucially, distract attention. Stephen Ward was that man, with a blatant police fix up and a horrific show trial leading to his eventual suicide.

It’s a fantastic, disgusting, story which should’ve made a great show. Except it obviously didn’t. On any level. It did make me aware of the story though even if, given how awful every other aspect of the show was, I was sceptical about its veracity.

Fast forward a couple of months and I got Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo for my birthday. As the title perhaps suggests, it’s unfair to present this as just another book on the Profumo affair. What An English Affair sets out to do - and does - is set the wider societal context that allowed the affair to happen in the first place, offer some biographical commentary on all of the key players and only then tell the story. As such it’s split into two parts: the first about the people involved, whether individuals or groups (the press, the intelligence agencies, slum landlords and party girls all get their own chapter alongside more obvious individuals such as Profumo himself and Stephen Ward), the second telling the story.

There’s been so much written about Profumo, but this book still feels like it has new things to say. I think the structure is a big part of that. After reading part one of the book, I certainly felt like I had a much better understanding of how and, crucially, why the events happened as they did. In particular the story of the Vassall Tribunal (which concerned a civil servant who was a Soviet spy, a groundless allegation of impropriety - sexual and political - against the Minister for whom he worked, the imprisonment of two journalists for refusing to reveal their sources and the needless resignation of a Minister whom Macmillan really liked and valued) clearly had a huge impact on the way that the politicians and press reacted. The press became more hostile to the 'Establishment' in general and Macmillan's government in particular. Macmillan and his colleagues became overly defensive of their ministers, especially where allegations involving sexual impropriety were concerned. Combined, this provided the basis of a toxic cocktail that allowed the Profumo mess to become as big as it did. The book is excellent on this story and it's background. 

It also gives a fantastic overview of some of the key players. I found the chapter on Stephen Ward in particular really interesting for obvious reasons. I was not surprised to learn that ALW’s version of Ward wasn’t entirely accurate! In the musical (using the term loosely) Ward is basically presented as a 100% good guy who only wanted to help other people with little regard for himself. The reality that AEA presents is markedly more nuanced. Ward was basically a good guy, and he was certainly unfairly treated, but the idea that he was anything but self interested seems naive. In fact, he managed to drag himself into the Profumo mess by not being able to keep his mouth shut about the fact that Profumo and Keeler were seeing each other and that he’d introduced them, as well as being desperately keen to talk to anyone who’d listen about his close ties to Soviet naval attache Yevgeny Ivanov. His relationship with Ivanov is illustrative of his personality as a whole - he volunteered to pass on anything Ivanov told him to MI5 without having the self awareness to realise that MI5 saw him as something of a joke (and a disposable one at that) or that the information Ivanov was giving him was exactly what the Soviets wanted the British to know. He was a man who loved to feel important and desperately wanted other people to see him that way too. He seems to have been largely and tragically unsuccessful in the latter.

The second part of the book, that concerned with the events of the Profumo affair, is equally eye-opening and pleasingly polemic. The author is clearly, and rightly, sickened by what happened and successfully exposes a number of the most common myths and outright lies involved in every stage of the case. For example, there's no credible evidence that Keeler and Ivanov ever actually slept together. Isn't that crazy? This whole palaver is based on that central event and it just never happened!

The book also exposes the dirty tricks, manipulation and outright lies that the police, press, politicians and judiciary were prepared to go to to 'get' Ward to devastating effect. Some of the best passages of the book are these - the material is infuriating (the press manipulation of Keeler, the disgusting intimidation of potential witnesses in Ward's trial were subjected to by the police, the ridiculous theatricality in his trial, the list goes on and depressingly on) and Davenport-Hines is angry without sounding like a crazy person. A difficult balance. 

An English Affair is a great read - a pleasing antidote to Stephen Ward! - and is widely available in your book selling repository of choice. Highly recommended. 

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