Bringing the House Down by David Profumo

Emphatically vague father
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The Independent Culture

David Profumo first found out about the sex and spying scandal that carries his surname as a boy at Eton in the 1970s. When a fellow pupil taunted him about it, young David didn't know what he was talking about. "Is it something to do with The Man from UNCLE?" he asked in all innocence. He had been shielded from the truth by his parents, the actress Valerie Hobson and John Profumo, Secretary for War in Harold Macmillan's cabinet and the cause of the scandal after starting a dalliance in 1961 with Christine Keeler at Cliveden, the home of the Astors. It was a rude awakening. He headed for the school library to find out more. "This was an unusual way to discover the details of your father's sex-life," he writes in this memoir.

Jack Profumo - as he was universally known - was approached many times to tell his side of the story once he had resigned in 1963 from the government and Commons after lying on the record after his affair with Keeler. He always refused. I visited him in the 1990s at Toynbee Hall, the East End educational and social welfare charity to which he dedicated his post-fall career in an effort to atone for his sins. He was charming, entertaining but firm. He did not want to speak about it then, or ever.

It has fallen to his son, an award-winning novelist, to put the record straight now that his mother and father are dead. One always imagines that those who keep their counsel have secrets to protect, but on this telling we already know everything there is to know about the Profumo scandal. A few of the more fanciful theories - many of them put about by Christine Keeler in her regular and ever more lurid forays into autobiography - are dismissed, but no new facts are added.

David Profumo's main source was his parents' papers and question-and-answer sessions held with his father late in his life. Was Jack Profumo's memory going or was he being deliberately evasive, his son wonders repeatedly as he fails to pin him down. For example, he asks how long was the affair with Keeler? "My father was emphatically vague [nice phrase] on this point: 'I only saw her I think three times, but it doesn't matter'." David Profumo concludes that it does, and that the liaison went on for much longer.

It is a strange business rummaging through your parents' dirty underwear drawer. There are moments when Profumo's account brings you up short. His description of his mother's bosom as "useful" struck me as odd, as did the in-depth account of her unsatisfactory wedding night with her first husband, film producer Anthony Havelock-Allan. Parental bedroom doors are often best left closed but, in this case, David Profumo couldn't spare himself. There has to be a painful honesty about such memoirs for them to engage the reader.

As well as being his childhood memoir, Bringing the House Down is also a biography of Profumo's parents. They had lives before and after the spotlight fell on them in the early 1960s. Hobson made her name in the 1940s in films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets and on stage in The King and I. She was starring in that production when she married Profumo; a rising Tory politician of Italian ancestry. He insisted she gave up the day job to become a political wife.

She got scant reward for her sacrifice for, by this account, she, rather than Profumo, suffered most - in silence and in private - after she decided to stand by her disgraced man. She left her son a letter to be opened on her death, mourning the pregnancies she didn't carry to full term. She struggled more publicly to cope with a Down's Syndrome son at a time when such children were locked away and never spoken about. When, in the 1970s, she thought of restarting her acting career, she lacked both the confidence and support of her husband. Her notebooks show that the marriage was unhappy even before the scandal. "I love dancing," she wrote in a list of grievances addressed to him, "and yet not for a long while have you done anything except dance with me while casing the dance floor."

His father's remorse, David Profumo estimates, was genuine, but it was remorse for having lied to the Mother of Parliaments. "I feel that, a few years after his Fall, [my father] had pretty much forgiven himself for his sexual infidelity." Indeed he was, his son believes, to repeat it. Painful to write, moving to read, this beautifully crafted account will not be the final word on the Profumo affair, but shows that, behind its continuing fascination as the arch political scandal lies a long trail of human misery.