The Year That Was
News of the death of Jack Profumo the other day had the same effect on me as the scent of a cookie famously had on one of Marcel Proust's characters. The years fell away, and I was, in imagination, back in the mother country at the time of the Profumo scandal. "Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three," observed Philip Larkin. I don't know about that; but for early British Boomers like myself, a great many other things began in or about that year.
Politics, for example. I had been aware of politics in childhood, but only as a sort of incomprehensible game that adults played. National elections had appeared to me a matter of cars going busily back and forth in our street, each car identifying its party affiliation by either a red or a blue window sticker. We did not often see so many cars, since no one in our street owned one and the street itself led nowhere. These Election Day vehicles belonged to party supporters from better-off neighborhoods. They made themselves available to ferry voters to the polls. We kids sat on our front walls like so many NASCAR fans, watching the cars race to and fro, cheering our parents' party and hissing at the other. My father, who loathed trade unions and Communists, looked down on the colored races, and thought the country would go better if it were run by a board of successful businessmen, was of course a Labour party voter, and so I cheered the red-stickered cars and hissed at the blues. (This was before the colors got reversed by a faulty computer program, or its history-illiterate programmer, in the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign.)
By 1963, the year I left home to go to university in London, I had attained a higher level of understanding. Something was rotten in the state of Britain, I perceived, and I felt pretty sure I knew where the problem lay. Too much power was in the hands of old-school-tie cliques, of the wealthy and privileged, of the entrenched upper classes, of Throne and Altar. The nation needed something brisker, more up-to-date, more efficient, less cobwebbed and tradition-bound. It was so obvious! I was, in short, a prototype Tony Blair: I believed that Britain needed re-branding.
The Profumo scandal seemed to validate all that. Here were the smug, corrupt elites in all their decadence. The roots of the scandal went back two years, to the moment in the summer of 1961 when a 19-year-old showgirl named Christine Keeler had emerged naked from the pool at Lord Astor's country house into the gaze of Jack Profumo, an old-school-tie type who held the splendid, now alas defunct, title of Secretary of State for War. Profumo was smitten, and an affair ensued. Unfortunately one of the other names on Ms. Keeler's dance card was Eugene Ivanov, an attaché at the Soviet embassy. British Military Intelligence got wind of both affairs and warned Profumo to stop seeing Ms. Keeler. Profumo dutifully stopped. Rumors gradually leaked out, however, and Profumo spent the second quarter of 1963 insisting to his government colleagues and to the House of Commons that there had been no affair. At last he confessed his lie and resigned from public life; this happened in the middle of that year, just as I was finishing my secondary education.
It was all of a piece with much else that had been happening, with the beginning of the changes encompassed by the title of Peter Hitchens's book The Abolition of Britain. If the hapless Jack Profumo represented the old, decadent, don't-alarm-the-servants establishment on the way out, Christine Keeler was a harbinger of the celebrity culture to come, in which individuals of no gifts or accomplishments attained extraordinary fame. Taking the long view, I am inclined to think, like Peter Hitchens, that the older dispensation was the better one. At the time, though, we believed ourselves to be engaged in asserting ancient liberties. We did not deign to notice that the establishment we loathed was as keen on those liberties as we were. Freedom from compulsory military service, for example, had been restored in 1960, to the great glee of my sister's boyfriends, three or four years older than I. Jack Profumo had in fact overseen the transition from a conscript military to a volunteer one, and had done so with such skill and imagination he has as much claim as anyone to be called the father of the modern British armed forces.
Much of what was happening first became visible as humor. The subversive tendencies in British society had always found humorous outlets; now the subversion was as naked and brazen as the young Ms. Keeler stepping out of Lord Astor's pool. A TV show named That Was The Week That Was, aired late on Saturday nights, openly poked fun at established institutions. The satirical magazine Private Eye had embarked on its long campaign against good taste and the laws of libel. From across the Atlantic wafted occasional strains of American irreverence: Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer. A few of the more avant-garde of us knew the name Lenny Bruce, though I don't recall hearing any of his material until much later. The Profumo affair made its own contributions to the rising tide of disrespectful jollity: Ms. Keeler had just got undressed for bed when the cabinet fell on her, etc., etc. (Though the true comic muse of the affair turned out to be Ms. Keeler's perky Welsh companion in vice, Mandy Rice-Davies, who, when told that Lord Astor had denied any acquaintance with her, uttered the immortal response: "Well, he would, wouldn't he?" Just as quotable, though less well-known, was Mandy's pithy apologia pro vita sua made some decades later: "My life has been one long descent into respectability.")
John Profumo did extraordinary penance for his one lapse. Soon after resigning, he showed up at a charitable foundation serving the poor and homeless Cockneys of London's East End. They set him to menial chores; but he soon became one of the foundation's most able organizers and fundraisers. This rock of what one of his fellow trustees called "the old, decent, Tory virtues" worked for the charity into his late eighties, while Britain metamorphosed all around him into a nation where those virtues counted for nothing. Nowadays the East End is populated mainly by Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh. Christine Keeler is 64.