An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines, (HarperCollins, 2013)
The Fun Stuff by James Wood (Jonathan Cape, 2013)
Writers, poets and philosophers, who have had a fair old lash at defining happiness down the millennia, have never quite come up with a term which captures the gleeful up-kick of emotion one experiences when one unexpectedly discovers a mislaid book voucher.
I found myself musing this, a month or so back, in the midst of a tidying-up frenzy, I stumbled across a book voucher from a birthday (or perhaps even last Christmas).
The old ticker did a metaphorical mini air punch, leaped around prancing “IN YOUR FACE, FISCAL RESTRAINT!” and generally carried on like an All Black who’s just scored a match winning try at the ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
These two books have nothing else in common other than their common voucher-driven purchase, unless you count the fact I read them, and they’re both, in their very different ways, excellent reads.
Dead Sea Fruit
First up is Rupert Davenport-Hines’ effort, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair.
Briefly, for those who need a potted summary: John Profumo was British Minister for War (that is, the Army) in the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan. Profumo was a compulsive playboy, with a string of affairs, abortions, and similar behind him when he had a brief fling with Christine Keeler, a young model, after a function at Lord Astor’s Cliveden House.
Unfortunately another guest at Cliveden around the time, also pursuing Keeler, was a Soviet Embassy “attaché” (read: “spy”), Eugene Ivanov. The whole thing got rather messy in fairly short order and the government found itself tottering. Although it is not true to say (as many still do) that the affair led to the end of Macmillan’s government, the handling of the whole mucky business did rather hasten Macmillan’s departure.
Davenport-Hines’s authorial history has been building up to this book: it is perhaps not such a big move from works entitled Markets and Bagmen, Speculators and Patriots: Essays in Business Biography, or Business in the Age of Depression and War to Sex, Death and Punishment: Attitudes To Sex & Sexuality In Britain Since The Renaissance or The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History Of Narcotics.
He has also written a lengthy history of the Macmillan family, but although the clan produced one of the world’s more prominent publishing firms, that book work necessarily was dominated by the family member who became prime minister of what was then still called Great Britain.
Like a blimpish Prospero with a hint of melancholy, Macmillan still ranks as one of the more fascinating and complex characters to occupy 10 Downing Street.
“Power? It’s like a Dead Sea fruit. When you get it, there’s nothing there,” was one of Macmillan’s darker asides. “Events, dear boy, events,” is the aphorism most quoted these days – a response to an over-earnest question about what had most determined his decisions as prime minister (his interlocutor had hoped for some elucidation of principle or philosophy).
You have to cherish a politician who, in the course of a live political broadcast, could elegantly draw attention to the ghastly falsity of the whole charade: “The camera’s hot, probing eye, these monstrous machines and their attendants – a kind of twentieth century torture chamber, that’s what it is. But I must try to forget about that, and imagine that you are sitting here in the room with me,” Macmillan told viewers during one such broadcast, a year or so prior to Profumo.
In this age of the sound bite, of chicken McNugget politics, can you imagine any political leader today making such a comment?
He told one staff member on one occasion that it was important not to have too sharp a distinction between what is serious and what is frivolous. This ability to see the humorous side, and draw attention to it, when other more limited personalities would not have dared, assuming they even had the ability to perceive such subtleties – he beautifully punctured Khrushchev’s famous shoe-pounding rant at the United Nations, at the height of Cold War tensions, with a drawling “I wonder if we may have a translation?”- was just one part of this intriguing, multilayered personality.
One journalist from the time suggested Macmillan was haunted by ghosts: from the 1930s, when as a backbench MP for the desperately depressed northern town of Stockton on Tees, he had been in permanent rebellion against his party. Macmillans published John Maynard Keynes and Macmillan was one of the first politicians to take up Keynsian economics.
Unfortunately, as prime minister he pioneered the kind of short term ‘bastardised Keynsianism’ which, when followed and bulked up by Labour successor Harold Wilson, led Britain to the verge of economic collapse.
There were also ghosts from two world wars: Macmillan, along with many contemporaries from Oxford, volunteered when World War One broke out and trooped off before finishing his degree (he was “sent down by the Kaiser”, he claimed years later, when asked about his academic career). Macmillan was badly wounded several times, and few of his contemporaries survived.
By the time the Profumo scandal rolled around he had presided over seven years of unparalleled prosperity and, in an unguarded moment, gave that era its slogan when he warned – and it was a warning – that most Britons had “never had it so good”.
The comment – in its context, a statement that the good times might turn out to be built on a build up of inflation and debt rather than solid economic performance – was hung around his neck for the rest of his life. When the Profumo business erupted, accompanied by a swag of rumours of other salacious goings on in high places it quickly became “you’ve never had it so often.”
He had, of course, plenty of enemies by then. Macmillan was made Conservative leader following the Suez Crisis to some degree because he looked the part, almost to the point of caricature – a moustached former Guards officer who had fought in the First World War and been seriously wounded: the drawling accent, the deliberately-cultivated old fashioned air; the general appearance of a crumbling façade of an old Edwardian building.
This came to hurt him, in the end, particularly when the satire boom took off at the same time as the Profumo Affair. In the kind of savage, multi-layered joke Macmillan himself would probably have enjoyed under different circumstances, what the satirists missed was that part of Macmillan’s persona was always an element of caricature.
There is a theory the reason Macmillan handled the Profumo business so badly was because adultery was a touchy subject with him. His own wife, Dorothy, had been involved in a 35-odd year affair with a Parliamentary colleague, Bob Boothby, and the only reason the marriage endured was Macmillan refused to grant her a divorce. The affair was widely known amongst the political classes and British upper crust generally and had, according to one source, even led Macmillan to a suicide attempt in the early 1930s.
Yet Davenport-Hines suggests there is little evidence Macmillan shied away from the issue of adultery – in fact, by the time he became prime minister he liked to affect a worldly wise attitude to the subject, at least as long as it involved other people. It is perhaps more likely those around him thought he would be highly sensitive to the issue and therefore were nervous about telling him of the rumours swirling around not only Profumo but other ministers as well. One of the perils of power is people anticipate what will, or will not, please the boss, and can often make some dangerous assumptions.
A more likely factor was simply fatigue: Macmillan had been prime minister for seven years, a senior minister for seven years on the trot before that. Besides, he was, after all, approaching 70.
His Conservative rival, Rab Butler, in a comment not quoted by Davenport-Hines but in several histories of that government, best summed it up: as tumult of scandal grew and Macmillan looked more and more out of touch and incompetent, Butler observed to a journalist that “Harold could have handled all this with his little finger five years ago. But when you get to the end of a regime, nothing goes right.”
The true villains of the scandal, for Davenport-Hines, are not Profumo (although he engages in some neat puncturing of the “redemption through good works” pat story which accompanied the remainder of Profumo’s life); nor “the Establishment”, nor good time girls Christine Keeler or Mandy Rice-Davies: rather, the real villain is the British press, especially tabloids News of the World and the Daily Mirror.
Certainly they were out to get Macmillan and his government: the previous year two journalists had been imprisoned for not revealing their sources over a largely bogus spy scandal.
Davenport-Hines outlines the skulduggery and mendacity of a group of media owners – the Mirror Group being the main one – who not only were out for revenge but who were determined to damage Macmillan’s government because they wanted Labour’s Harold Wilson as prime minister. It is not an edifying tale, and he traces much of the malignity, hypocrisy and outright corruption of the British press – about which we have learned much in recent years – to this period.
Rather more elevated in tone is literary critic James Wood’s ‘The Fun Stuff’. It starts, not with books, but with an introduction about Who drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978 after overdosing on drugs he was taking to combat alcoholism.
Why? Moon was his first artistic hero, it seems, and “Keith Moon-style drumming is a lucky combination of the artful and the artless…. There is no time out in his drumming, because there is no time in. it is all fun stuff… So alive and free is this drumming that one tends to emphasise its exuberance at the expense of its complexity.”
“You can hear him do something that was instinctive, probably, but which is hardly ever attempted in ordinary rock drumming: breaking for a fill, Moon fails to stop at the obvious end of the musical phrase and continues…over the line and into the start of the next phrase.
“In poetry, this failure to stop at the end of the line, the challenge to metrical closure, this desire to get more in is called enjambment. Moon is the drummer of enjambment.
“For me, this playing is like an ideal sentence of prose, a sentence I have always wanted to write and never quite had the confidence to: a long passionate onrush, formally controlled and joyously messy, propulsive but digressively self interrupted, attired but dishevelled, careful and lawless, right and wrong.”
That description – especially that last sentence – sent me back to my copy of Who’s Next. It captures, perfectly in prose, Moon’s style.
Wood has the great critic’s knack of sending you back to the originals, even when – perhaps, especially when – you think he’s being a bit fatheaded. Despite writing an entire book about laughter and literature (The Irresponsible Self) he sometimes doesn’t seem to quite get humour. Or rather, some of the material he finds funny seems strange. In a comment on a Lydia Davis short story ‘Wife in One Country’ he quotes “wife one’ talking briefing with “wife two and then imagining a future “wife three’ who would have to protect her husband “not only from raging wife one but also from troublesome wife two” and Wood adds that as elsewhere in Davis’s work “comedy always lines the sadness, a necessarily durable cloth”. While I love that image and phrase, I’m not so sure I see the comedy in what he is quoting.
But that is the one of the other thing about Wood: as well as making you want to hunt down what he is writing about (and I had never heard of Lydia Davis before, but I shall be checking out her works the next time I’m in Unity Books) he has a marvellous feel for language.
In an era when most of us skim read almost everything and in which it is all too easy to flitter over the words even when reading for pleasure, Wood has the knack of making you slow down, savour the language, and enjoy the moment.
One example: discussing Alan Hollinghurst’s work, he quotes a passage on someone watching a tennis match on television with the window open on a summer’s day and hearing on occasion “the sonic wallows of planes distancing in slow gusts above” –
Wood makes you stop and savour that passage: “Again, the power comes from nouns and adjectives placed in unusual combinations – the paradox of ‘slow gusts’ …and the almost onomatopoeic ‘sonic wallow’ which slow the sentence down.”
And goes on to put Hollinghurst in the English writing tradition – Shakespeare, Keats, Hardy, Larkin, but notes that “when a writer has an ear as good as Hollinghurst, the danger is a lush antiquarianism…ripening the sentences to bursting.”
But then criticises Hollinghurst for becoming too fixated on the style of Henry James; giving examples of several phrases Wood thinks reveal insufficient anxiety of influence (a set of stairs give way to the “confidential creak of oak” on the landing: another character makes “a low disparaging murmur”; someone else says something “with an air of monetary concession” and sex is described as “the unimagined and vaguely dreaded thing”.)
Personally, I love all these, with the possible exception of the last one – sex might or might not be many things, but “unimagined” seems unlikely to be one of them.
But for there’s a nice little joke here for those who recall Henry James’ last words are reputed to have been, “here it is, then, the distinguished thing!”
Elsewhere, Wood gently skewers Ian McEwan and puts his finger on one thing which I’d never articulated but which irks me about the Booker winner: he withholds too much in order to keep the reader wondering just what is going on and what the surprise will be: this sustains the reader’s
“narrative hunger, but surely at a cost. His addition to secrecy has a way of cheaply playing us…. if narrative secrets of this kind – narrative improbabilities – always become in the end, narrative predictabilities, then such novels will find it much harder to dramatise meaningfully the impact of contingency on ordinary lives.”
That was, for me, one of those moments when the brain goes ‘Zzing!’
VS Naipaul “the public snob, the grand bastard” gets a look in: so does Orwell, (who I revere) – upbraided, rightly I think, for a certain warped snobbery: ex-Etonian Eric Blair is more interested in tearing down his former aristocratic and upper middle class contemporaries than in uplifting the poor.
On Orwell, though, he rightly identifies the real terror at the heart of 1984: it is not the torture room or the rats, but the “abolition of interiority”. A society in which we have no interior world in and of ourselves – no privacy, in other words – is the truest and most subtle of tyrannies. This is true totalitarianism. Never was a sex scene so important to a novel than in 1984 – no, not even in D H Laurence’s florid offerings.
The thought-provoking aspect of this insight for today’s reader, though is this: the social media whirl now means many of us are in the process of voluntarily abandoning the sacredness of this interiority, and what does this mean for our own psychological and spiritual wellbeing? Wood doesn’t explore this thought, but it is one which sent this reader, anyway, down a few mental byways I am yet to feel I can report back on.
The Fun Stuff also looks at Tolstoy, Geoff Dyer, Paul Auster (about whom Wood verges on the brutal)….
It is a great collection to dip into, and to remind yourself, even when you are muttering “Oh, bollocks!” about some of Wood’s conclusions, about the rich, slow joy of reading.