Paperback review: An English Affair - Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, By Richard Davenport-Hines

Shamed by our nation's dirty laundry

Those who like to claim the Fifties and early Sixties as a "Golden Age" of moral behaviour, before counter-culture, women's lib, and hippies chucked it all up in the air, really should read this superb history, in which Richard Davenport-Hines goes way beyond the affair between John Profumo and Christine Keeler. This is a shocking indictment of an entire society – from city planners to politicians, journalists to slum landlords – full of the hypocrisy and criminality that pervaded the era.

In his very first paragraph, the author mentions "the cook's Daily Express", deliberately invoking a class consciousness reminiscent of the 1960 obscenity trail of Lady Chatterley's Lover, when the prosecution asked if it were "the kind of book you would wish your wife or your servants to read?" As Davenport-Hines shows, the classes were publicly mixing more and more – "good time girls" such as Keeler, who came from the most miserable of backgrounds and had little to protect them when things turned nasty, found themselves partying with cabinet ministers at stately homes.

What he also highlights is the breakdown in marriage. Page after page gives up one deceiving marriage after another, from Harold Macmillan's own to John Profumo's. Saving face was everything. Profumo's real crime, in the eyes of many, was to get caught and expose the whole game. This detailed and necessarily disillusioning history catches a sense of damage done by a generation of damaged men (Macmillan's war experiences had left him physically, and possibly emotionally, damaged). It seems we really never had it so bad.

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