Twin faces of a fast decade

An icon at university, all Helen Pennant-Rea really wanted was to be a homemaker, says Lesley Garner Helen is the Sixties swinger who turned out to be an old-fashioned girl. Rupert is the banker who became a Sixties romantic
Click to follow
The Independent Online
lT IS always a shock to see somebody you know in a newspaper. There is the moment of uncertainty, the double-take, the disbelief and then the eager scanning of the newsprint to see what it can be about. The shock of seeing Helen Pennant-Rea, better known to her peers from the University of Sussex 1963-66 as one half of the Jay twins, was worse than it might have been because the tabloids had caught her so unfairly in the role of wrongfooted wife. Could it possibly be her - rumpled sweatshirt, jeans, glasses, just another faded middle-aged woman in unflattering circumstances? Sic transit a classic Sixties beauty.

What a relief to open the papers the next day and see a flash of the old Helen, groomed and polished, determinedly power dressed, legs as good as ever, behaving impeccably and all the more impressive for standing on her own two feet and not, like some previous wives in this awful position, pale-faced and trembling in her husband's shadow.

Nevertheless, putting a brave face on it is not the same as being the face of a decade. Was this how we thought life would be 29 years ago when we walked up the steps of the Dome in Brighton to collect our degrees, showing as much leg as possible under Biba mini dresses and black academic gowns, secretly glorying in being clever, fanciable and fashionable all at once? The tabloids were there then too, to catch Helen and her sister Catherine at their exit from a high-profile student career which began in black knee-length Anello and Davide boots, took in the Sixties middle- class equivalent of Club 18-30 - Sussex, sociology and sex - and ended in those little Biba dresses. They had already been featured in Tatler, Honey and the Sunday supplements. David Bailey and immortality in a book called Birds of Britain were waiting. If they could have looked years ahead and seen the photographers on the family doorstep, could they have smiled with such pretty insouciance?

There is slightly more to the Pennant-Rea affair than another privileged middle-aged man suffering a temporary career setback because of indiscretion and betrayal. Rupert Pennant-Rea was gone before the columnists had time to draw breath and this took them aback. Denied the chance of urging him to resign, the columnists stood on their heads and said that puritanism had gone too far. They found it absurd, they said, that a man who had not been elected and had not uttered pompous pronouncement on family values should have to lose his job because of infidelities which, while not admirable, were human and commonplace.

I am quite sure that Mr Pennant-Rea didn't see the affair as a resigning matter either - not at first. Mary Ellen Synon must have looked like a class apart from other high-profile mistresses of the tabloids. In the event, she proved to be no more discreet than Bienvenida Buck. But she was different from other highly publicised mistresses in one important respect and this must have led him to trust her. She came out of an intense part of his past. She and her lover had shared roots and values. They had been students together at Trinity College Dublin in the Sixties.

Yes, the past is a foreign country. They did things differently there and how the three protagonists in this drama must wish they were still there. Mary EIlen claims that Rupert first caught her eye in 1976 when he apparently pursued her between marriages one and two, without success. But Rupert's memory is different. According to press reports, his letters to her referred to the shared idealism of the past, their student days together. He wrote from the wreckage of his middle-age - "three failed marriages, emotional dislocation" - to somebody he associated with the bright launching party of his life.

But however bright Rupert Pennant-Rea's experience of the Sixties, I can't believe it was as charmed as Helen and Catherine Jay's. Some girls epitomise a period by the way they look and the gossip columns caught on to the Jays even before they arrived for Fresher week. They had long legs, classically rounded Sixties faces - think Patti Boyd, Cathy McGowan, Jean Shrimpton - and the obligatory silky straight hair which flipped magically at the ends. Wasn't it amazing, a male fellow student said to me, the way the Jays' hair just grew like that. I told him kindly about good haircuts and hairdryers and styling brushes.

They also had celebrated parents in Douglas, a Labour frontbencher, and Peggy, a pillar of the old London County Council. They had to be told by Margaret Brooke, a fellow student and daughter of the deeply unpopular Tory Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, of the flak that waited for the daughters of politicians at university. But life since has shown what became clear at the time, that for all the left-wing connections, the degree courses in politics and sociology, the striking good looks and celebrity, deep down the Jays were old-fashioned girls. They never, to my memory, became seriously involved in the politics of a liberal, fashionable university which offered an hors d'oeuvre of the left from Trotskyites to the ANC contingent who, in Thabo Mbeki, have produced the man tipped to be the next president of South Africa.

They weren't wild, though they could have been. They had boyfriends but, unlike some fellow students who felt obliged to carry the banner of the advancing sexual revolution, they weren't known for sleeping around. It tells you something about Helen that her first serious student boyfriend was Sussex's only Etonian. This is a girl who went on to a very social life in the company of well-connected, sometimes rich men before marrying David Kennard, BBC producer.

The truth is that the Sixties, no matter how radical in other respects, was not a very feminist decade. A friend of mine told me early on that she'd come to Sussex to find a husband. I don't know if the Jays were so calculating but certainly all the naked career ambition in the family seemed to flow through the twins' brother, Peter, who was to become British Ambassador to Washington.

For all their glamour, the twins were typical of a generation before power suits and glass ceilings. Neither could be called committed career girls. Catherine has been steadily married to Stewart Boyd QC and has chosen, even on returning to the BBC, to avoid the high-flying path in favour of balancing home and work. Helen was always heading towards marriage and motherhood. I caught a glimpse of her a couple of years ago, pulling into a local petrol station with a wagon full of children - she presides over five, two each from a former marriage and one produced by her and Rupert. There was even a rumour that Rupert married her partly for her maternal qualities at a time when he needed to take care of his children. Some of us wouldn't have believed it back in the Sixties when we thought we were the first generation of girls who could have it all, but Helen really likes staying at home.

But Rupert didn't. Helen is the Sixties swinger who turned out to be just an old-fashioned girl. Rupert is the establishment banker who turned out to be a liberal Sixties romantic. When he was working for Giles Radice at the General and Municipal Workers Union, he was apparently seen as a flower-shirted left-winger. He has always been attracted to what the hardline lefties at Sussex would have scorned as woolly liberalism. He supports the legalisation of cannabis and he was a member of the SDP. He even retains enough student aura to be noted for scruffiness. Helen apparently warmed to his shabby clothes. Mary Ellen Synon declares that she tolerated his bicycle clips. When I read that I knew that the woman had really been in love.

For the real Sixties flavour I suspect you have to have read Rupert Pennant- Rea's letters to his mistress. He told her that he had started to listen to songs by Chris de Burgh, a fellow student from Trinity College, and that they even made him cry. Does Helen, I wonder, take out her old Beatles and Stones records and shed a nostalgic tear as she remembers dances in the Refectory at Sussex? I don't think so. She will be too busy getting the children's tea, walking the dog, running two houses and helping with French irregular verbs. Rupert, on the other hand, even fantasises in Sixties' colour schemes. When he imagines making love to his mistress in her yellow bedroom with the red bedspread, I wonder if he includes a poster of Che Guevara.

So the values of the Sixties let them all down in the end. Could they have believed at a time when everything seemed possible, when society only went in one direction, which was up, when exciting jobs were available to anyone with a degree, when sex was free, that 30 years on into this golden future life would be so rigidly old-fashioned? A man would have to resign over infidelity, a woman who tried to be liberated would still be scorned and a girl who, on the surface at least, epitomised the word "swinging" would have dwindled into a betrayed wife? The greatest shock about the future, if you come from a revolutionary generation, is that when you get there it turns out to have been so predictable.