Monday, February 3, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“AN ENGLISH AFFAIR – Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo” by Richard Davenport-Hines (Harper-Collins, $NZ24:99 ); “THEY EAT HORSES, DON’T THEY?” by Piu Marie Eatwell (Harper-Collins, $NZ36:99)
I do my best to keep on top of the latest books, but so many of the wretched things are published that some get away on me. Here are two that were released over six months ago, but that I got around to reading only in my long summer holidays. The first, Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair, was widely reviewed in New Zealand. I don’t recall seeing any reviews of the second, Piu Marie Eatwell’s They Eat Horses, Don’t They?
Subtitled Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair (350 pages of text and copiously end-noted and referenced) is a dyspeptic and debunking account of the Profumo Affair
What was the Profumo Affair?
As it all happened in 1963, when I was eleven years old, I have only the vaguest of recollections of it from that time. It was something that grown-ups talked about, it seemed to be about very bad people in England who were written about in the newspapers, and a couple of years later I can remember a few lame schoolboy jokes shared in the playground. (Q: “Why are members of parliament selling their yachts?” A: “Because they’re all getting keelers.”) Of course, some years on, I picked up the official story, which went like this: the War Minister (John Profumo) in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government had an affair with the call-girl Christine Keeler who was also sharing her bed with a Soviet diplomat. Therefore this was a serious “security breach” as the Soviet diplomat could be having state secrets passed on to him as pillow talk with the call-girl. These bonking parties had apparently been brought together by a Dr Stephen Ward, who was a sleazy figure who procured girls for the gentry and well-to-do playboys – in effect, he was a pimp. When questioned about his behaviour in the House of Commons, John Profumo denied having had any relationship with the call-girl, but later he was forced to admit that he had lied to the House. Big scandal. Harold Macmillan’s government fell at the next election. Oh yeah, and Christine Keeler had a blonde, loud-mouthed friend called Mandy Rice-Davies who was also on the game and who often fronted up to reporters making tart comments about the whole thing. The only one-liner anybody remembered from the affair was when Mandy Rice-Davies was told that a minor aristocrat, the viscount William Astor, denied her claim that he had slept with her. She said “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” This line was taken as indicative of a new scepticism about “official sources” and what the ruling classes had to say. Since then, it has often been quoted with approval by journalists.
So that, in a nutshell, was all I ever knew (or wanted to know) about this fifty-year-old scandal, though as a film reviewer I did see Michael Caton-Jones’ 1989 film Scandal, which depicted Stephen Ward (played by John Hurt) as a saintly and persecuted man and Christine Keeler (played by Joanne Whalley) as a naïve sweet young thing who happened to sleep with a number of men.
This whole affair has been raked over in books many times, often with the intention of telling us that Stephen Ward was completely innocent and the affair was, in effect, much ado about nothing. In An English Affair, Richard Davenport-Hines argues that it was a put-up job from first to last, but for him, the Profumo Affair is mainly the a peg on which to hang his views about British society at the time.
The first two-thirds of the book (to be precise, up to Page 245 of its 350 pages) don’t deal directly with the affair at all, but are a systematic analysis of the leading people involved and the social classes to which they belonged. First the prime minister and his war minister and the groups they moved in, where sexual morality was pretty lax and caused no scandal to those in the know – Macmillan’s marriage was essentially a ménage a trois as his wife Dorothy had a 30-year affair with the Tory MP Robert Boothby. Profumo was a long-time womaniser and before he married his wife he insisted she have an abortion as he didn’t want the scandal of her having a child too suspiciously soon after they were married. Documenting each case, Davenport-Hines essentially gives us in these chapters an account of who was sleeping with whom among the privileged classes, without any eyebrows being raised. The privileged classes, by the way, included Labour as well as Tory MPs, and many of those who later used the Profumo Affair to destroy Macmillan’s government.
Moving on to the chapters on “Bill” Astor and Stephen Ward, he depicts the first as amiable, naïve and a supporter of good causes who had bad luck in his marriages; and the latter as a harmless party-going type who had a string of influential clients for his practice as an osteopath – but they all deserted him when he needed them. There is no evidence that Ward ever ran a brothel or a service for supplying girls to the rich. The most illuminating chapter for me was the one headed “Landlords” about the property boom in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s; the fortunes that were made by property developers with no social conscience and a willingness to inflict architectural monstrosities on the city of London. And there was the lower end of the property market, where slum landlords (Rachman et al.) let and sub-let tiny and squalid rooms at exorbitant rates to immigrants who had to accept them.
The chapter headed “Spies” makes it plain that absolutely nobody in Britain’s intelligence service ever believed the minor Soviet diplomat (Yvgeny Ivanov) had had an affair with Christine Keeler, nor did any British spook think a security leak had ever taken place. It seems that the British spy service did, at once stage, get Stephen Ward to keep an eye on a Soviet diplomat, but that was as near as he came to causing a “security breach”.
It’s in the two chapters headed “Good Time Girls” and “Hacks”, however, that Davenport-Hines really lays out his thesis about why the “scandal” happened at all. He characterizes Christine Keeler and Many Rice-Davies not a prostitutes, but as a new type of young woman, promiscuous and free with her favours and accepting gifts from men and therefore “liberated” and deeply offensive to the conservative morality of the time. In order to make this characterization more plausible, the author speaks at length about the law’s punitive attitudes at the time towards both women and homosexuals. Raucous, censorious editorials and opinion pieces about morality, written at the time, are quoted at length to show what common attitudes then were.
As for the “Hacks”, Davenport-Hines outlines his thesis that the whole “scandal” was engineered by newspapers intent on hurting Macmillan’s government and its allies. Chief was the Mirror group of newspapers, associated with Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp, which liked to pose as the defenders of common decency and plain folks and therefore made a thing of belittling toffs, squires, grouse-shooters, tweedy fox-hunters etc. (But, as Davenport-Hines enjoys pointing out, the owners and editors of the Mirror group were only too eager to grab the trappings of traditional privilege when they were offered to them.). Following along was Beaverbrook’s Express group of newspapers, because Beaverbrook had a long-standing feud with the Astor family. Once the hunt was on, other newspapers joined in, never questioning the special agendas of the Mirror and Express groups that essentially fabricated the scandal out of next to nothing.
Davenport-Hines’ account of how the “scandal” played out (the last hundred pages of the book) is a woeful chronicle of police intimidating and browbeating “witnesses” into giving the evidence they wanted; a presiding judge (at the trial of Ward) who wilfully suppressed all the evidence exonerating Ward; and finally the hysterical “report” on the affair, written by Lord Denning and basically showing his talent for privileged libel based on next-to-no evidence. Incidentally, the author sees Harold Wilson, leader of the opposition Labour Party, as a particular villain with his sanctimonious comments on the affair. He notes that, for all the leverage the affair gave Labour, it only squeaked in at the next election with the smallest of majorities (four seats).
On the whole, I find Davenport-Hines’ version of events persuasive, and I have no quarrel with his fundamental idea that the “scandal” reflected a set of values that are no longer held. I also smirked along merrily as some of his obiter dicta, as when he refers to the 1962-63 BBC “satirical” programme That Was The Week That Was as “[launching] its stars on their route towards Mayfair flats, columns in The Times, ducal fathers-in-law, knighthoods and multi-millions” (p.214). Then as now, popular media “satire” tends to mean shots taken at status and privilege by people who simply aspire to the same status and privilege. The generations of David Frost and Jimmy Carr aren’t all that different.
But, methinks, Davenport-Hines is just a little too eager to exonerate Ward, Keeler, “Bill” Astor and their crowd. He appears to be quite right in saying that they did nothing illegal and nothing that offended public morality as it developed over the next half century – or private morality as it was widely practised (especially by those with money and power) at the time. But Ward’s friends still come across as a rather sleazy bunch. This is a moral judgment on my part, of course. I am not suggesting that anyone should have been prosecuted, and I can see the prurience, titillation and sheer malice in the way events were whipped up by the press. Still, we’re not talking about admirable people here. For Davenport-Hines, Mandy Rice-Davies’ quip “Well he would, wouldn’t he?” is a “slick evasion” which is “still recycled by the lazy, unscrupulous and prim” (p.278). This sounds a little prim on the author’s own part.
Another niggle. In quoting over-the-top opinion pieces and editorials, crude character assassinations and sensational news stories from circa 1963, Davenport-Hines appears to be telling us that these reflect the skewed morality of a past age. But as these media phenomena are all still with us, and as most journalists’ views on the world are still as superficial and band-wagonning as they were in 1963, my own conclusion is that it is simply the targets that have changed.
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I must admit that my heart sank a little when I first saw the title and subtitle They EatHorses, Don’t They? – The Truth about the French. I feared that Piu Marie Eatwell’s book would be yet another piece of that jaunty Francophobia to which English and American writers are periodically prone. Well do I remember some years ago having thrust into my hands a singularly silly book called Vile France – Fear Duplicity, Cowardice and Cheese by somebody called Denis Boyles (Encounter Books, 2005). Boyles’ whole thesis was that the French government and ruling class were self-interested, treacherous, had delusions of grandeur and superiority to the rest of the world, and routinely propped up Third World tyrants. Most of which is doubtless true, but it did seem somewhat pot-and-kettle coming from an American. And it was notable that Boyles’ real grouch was that the French wouldn’t play along with American foreign policy.
Now would They Eat Horses, Don’t They? be somewhere in the same ballpark? Mercifully not. Eatwell’s book is not a piece Francophobia, but it is not a piece of craven Francophilia either. An Oxford graduate and lawyer specialising in international law, married to a Frenchman and now resident in France for over ten years, Eatwell is rightfully scornful of Anglophone writers who spend a year or two in Paris and then knock off books claiming expertise in all aspects of French culture. They usually get it horribly wrong because they assume that the tiny portion of Paris they have experienced is the whole of France.
Eatwell’s purpose is to demolish, stereotype by stereotype, common Anglo-American misconceptions of the French.
Part One – are the French the best cooks in the world with perfect cuisine? Answer: It depends on which French you are talking about. Yes, they have terrific chefs, but also as many mediocre eateries as fine ones and the average French family eats the same sort of diet as people in other countries – meat and veg etc. Wine is habitually drunk with meals only by a small minority.
Parts Two and Three – Are Frenchwomen unassailably stylish and chic? And are the French obsessed with sex? Answers: Frenchwomen range from the chic to the dowdy as much as women do in any other country. On the whole, French people are more reserved about sex and (according to sexology surveys) less interested in “novelties” than most other Europeans are. And adultery is no more tolerated in France than it is anywhere else.
Part Four – Is French plumbing disgusting? No more than any other country’s. Does every French house have a bidet? No.
Part Five – Are the French both incredibly rude and copious smokers? No and not really.
And so on and so on. Having a son who habitually describes French films as arty, talky, static and pretentious, I was enlightened to see Eatwell’s statistics on the films the French really like to see according to box-office figures (usually light comedies) and her evidence that French critics themselves laugh at the static, intense ones that win prizes at Venice, Cannes etc. As she says, most of the French literati see such films as the equivalent of the English Merchant-Ivory “heritage” films – middlebrow bait for awards.
They Eat Horses, Don’t They? is absolutely and definitely not an apologia for the French way of life, about which Eatwell has the same mixed feelings as any sane person does about the culture of any country. She can be trenchant about French snobbery and the fact that France is more of a top-down hierarchical society than England.
I found this an entertaining and enlightening bedside book. And it is not mere op-ed stuff. Over 300 pages it documents its opinions and it has a very thorough index.
Incredibly Puerile Footnote: When you have a book which so much is concerned with food and gastronomy, and the author’s family name is Eatwell; and when you have a book which touches so much on cheese, and the author’s first name is Piu, you might be tempted to think the author’s name is a pseudonym. Apparently not. Piu Marie Eatwell is of English-Asian descent and I’ve seen nothing to suggest that isn’t her real name.