- - Thursday, December 26, 2013

AN ENGLISH AFFAIR: SEX, CLASS AND POWER IN THE AGE OF PROFUMO
By Richard Davenport-Hines
Harper Press, $17.99, 400 pages, illustrated

Richard Davenport-Hines was an eight-year-old schoolboy then, but such things had even percolated into the cloistered world of his prep school. Asked to name a word beginning with a vowel, he innocently picked one he had seen in a servant’s newspaper — orgy — which promptly earned him a caning. Soon, the headmaster was lecturing the boys about banning Ian Fleming’s “Dr. No” from the school on the grounds that it was sadistic, a term our author also did not know. Half a century later, he has given us a marvelously lively and evocative account of that pivotal year, which saw the downfall of a prime minister and paved the way for a socialist government to be elected in 1964.

If you enjoy reading about the juiciest of scandals, there is a ton of delight awaiting you in this book. But even if such things appall you, do not miss out on its more sober parts, the serious and enlightening political analysis and the wise, humane but nonetheless unsparing portraits of the key players, two of which stand out.

Not yet 50, the dashing, womanizing Profumo (married to Valerie Hobson, a beautiful movie star of stage and screen) was thought of as a future prime minister. What the British call “a good war” left him a brigadier at 40 and his rise within the Conservative Party was no less meteoric. Mr. Davenport-Hines is as adept at illuminating his charisma as he is the flaws that brought him down.

Even better is his take on Macmillan, who hid a complex personality behind the appearance of Edwardian aloofness: “He donned a mask of indifference, but was instilled with the vengeful ambition and steely endurance which brought him to the premiership in 1957.” His seemingly placid marriage to a dowdy aristocrat was in fact a maelstrom of infidelity lasting decades on her part and tortured toleration punctuated by suicide threats on his. Mr. Davenport-Hines quotes someone who knew him well saying that “he was protean in his shape-shifting: ‘one moment you had a salmon in your hand, the next it was a horse.’”

Not surprisingly, sex was an embarrassing topic he preferred to ignore, an attitude that led to inaction at a point where the scandal might have been nipped in the bud. As things were, fed by a prurient press and an opportunistic opposition, it mushroomed to the point where even Macmillan was drawn in. A colleague found him “in a terrible state, going on about a rumour of there having been eight High Court judges involved in some orgy. ‘One, he said, perhaps two conceivably; but eight — I just can’t believe it.’” Clearly, from schoolroom to Cabinet room, such talk was in the air.

Mr. Davenport-Hines shows how much was just talk, and irresponsible press chatter at that:

“‘PRINCE PHILIP AND THE PROFUMO SCANDAL — RUMOUR UTTERLY UNFOUNDED,’ boomed a Daily Mirror headline of June 1963, above paragraphs that failed to specify the imaginary rumour.”

As a teenager visiting London with my family that summer, less than a year after we had emigrated to the United States, I couldn’t help feeling that a tide of filth was washing over what otherwise still seemed the same country we had recently left. “An English Affair” shows how the nation changed in the wake of the Profumo scandal, ushering in the swinging London that characterized the 1960s.

Or did it? Mr. Davenport-Hines shows this change was largely limited to the capital, leaving the provinces much less affected. But at the center, plenty of real damage happened, leaving not just the veil of respectability rent, but a wake of ruined and disgraced careers and lives, prison terms and suicide.

The scope of “An English Affair” goes far beyond Profumo and what he set loose. It brilliantly examines 1963 Britain, its economics as well as its sociology, with uncommon acumen and wisdom.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.