The BBC Today programme opined this week about the death of Christine Keeler, aged 75.The former good-time girl, along with her friend Mandy Rice-Davies, helped bring down the old fogey Macmillan government in 1963, when her affair with John Profumo, Secretary of State for War, was discovered.
The programme’s tone, grappling with a past most of the presenters didn’t remember, was shocked and censorious as if they were discussing the more depraved aspects of Ancient Rome. Their tight-lipped tut-tutting reminded me of my grandparents. I was aged six, at their house on the Wirral, when the scandal emerged. They were similarly shocked by the goings-on among their leaders but their response was based on something essentially different.
We were a lower-middle-class, C of E family and knew almost nothing of vice; it didn’t impinge on us any more than on the Edwardian generation that had gone before. We went to Morning Service on a Sunday and Evensong as well, which was still a popular service where we saw most of our middle-class neighbours, the elderly ladies in lacquered straw hats and gloves. The working-class folk of the village went mainly to the Methodists.
Christine Keeler, on kitten heels, stalked right into this safe, stratified world. Although my grandparents didn’t have a TV or a telephone, the image and idea of her shimmering, exposed thighs seemed suddenly to connect us to a terrifying world where sex, which had previously not been mentioned at all, except in emergencies, was now on everyone’s lips.
No one in my family had ever met anyone like Christine Keeler, who came from a poor background and was scarily close to being what BBC Woman’s Hour terms a ‘sex worker’. The word prostitute is now non-PC. For different reasons it was not said out loud in the 1960s by respectable people. I once saw my mother mouth it to someone silently.
To be involved in any kind of scandal was damning. Travelling without a Tube ticket could get a popular commentator banned from the BBC, but the name Christine Keeler worked like an evil charm on me. I was fascinated. It was certainly more interesting than hearing the grown-ups going on and on about the impending danger of ‘Wilson’, who I knew represented something bad but in a different way. Perhaps fearing that I would be corrupted, my grandmother, normally a very meek, quiet lady, suddenly issued some kind of decree against the name Christine Keeler ever being spoken in her house again. As she gave commands so rarely, it made an impact on all of us.
Christine’s mentor, Stephen Ward, had rarely been mentioned – that would have been going too far. The society osteopath introduced lucky young women into polite society, or in harsher terms procured girls like Christine for his rich clients such as Lord Astor. It was whispered that he even had royal connections, a rumoured friendship with Prince Philip. I heard Ward’s name from the radio with the kind of fear I would have later of murderer Ian Brady. From the tone of the adults around the dining table I knew he really was unspeakably wicked. When he killed himself I could tell they were
dismayed by the suicide but quietly glad he’d gone. They probably had the same reaction to the death of Hermann Göring; disgusted at the cowardly manner of his demise but relieved that a dangerous evil had been purged from the world.
I never heard my parents mention Prince Philip in connection with Ward. Neither the BBC nor respectable newspapers touched implied scandal of that depth. Soon afterwards the Beatles came into our lives, eclipsing everything else in the news and bringing joy to my austere childhood.
John Profumo was restored to virtue in my family’s opinion by staying with his marriage and going down the East End to do good works. But the image of Christine Keeler was still out there, forcing people like my family into an awareness of the new secular world fast approaching. The British people quickly came to an accommodation with this more permissive society as it was named, where crime and vice were seen as a trade-off for personal liberty, authority structures were allowed to fail and it became impossible to make decisions based on the old Christian morality, or to be, as the ugly new word put it, ‘judgmental’ about anyone any more.
After the ‘Swinging Sixties’, longing to swing I was disappointed to get to university to find that the student movement as seen in Paris was over, and sexual freedom quickly diminished due to AIDS. But I could not have foreseen that decades later we would be back in a society which my grandparents would recognise, not for its Christian precepts but for its secular-based curtain-twitching and finger-pointing.
In the years since Profumo, who was rehabilitated and honoured by the Queen for his charity work, we have moved from Christian empathy for the sinner to a cult of the victim, oddly in bed with ruthless punishment for a whole raft of newly invented sins.
I met Christine Keeler at a Yuppie party in Notting Hill in the early 1990s. It was almost too sad to see her then, a famished, unhappy-looking woman who had obviously not taken care of herself. I was told she was on hard times and no one really wanted to engage with her as she reeked of a distant past which was no longer of any interest. We were too busy living out our own exciting times, walking through doors into careers not open to her. But I do remember a certain pride about her. She was obviously resilient; still out there, socialising, taking an interest in people. Life had obviously been hard, her fame and succès de scandale didn’t last, but the same goes for any model or beautiful socialite. She’d been to prison for perjury and had been more vulnerable than her brassy friend Mandy, who’d married well and gone to live abroad.
She had not had a happy life but I wonder how she would feel if she could hear the reactions to her death this week, particularly from BBC commentators. For them she was never a willing ‘sex worker’, a spirited young girl working her way through the London demi-monde and having a lot of fun. She was no war baby making the best of her assets. She is now seen as a helpless creature abused by powerful men.
The snowflakes and new Puritans who think of her like that, just like my grandmother, are the real losers and will end up survivors of dull, hidebound lives. Their ‘judgmentalism’ shows that they secretly know it.