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Hostage to fortune
on 26 August 2014
I was nearly 14 when the Profumo scandal broke, and I can remember most of my school salivating over it. The Establishment had already been assailed by the slings and arrows of TW3, and was now literally caught with its pants down (whether in congress with Stephen Ward's protegees, or - as Thompson tells us - as Ward's patients, e.g. Prince Philip and Churchill). Half a century on, young readers may find this tame stuff, but back then politicians were, supposedly, above reproach, and older generations were outraged. Thompson gives a fair amount of coverage to this, but is mainly concerned to build up the picture of how Ward developed a double life as fashionable osteopath and amateur procurer, eventually for it all to backfire on him.
The bottom line is that the public love a scandal, but the Establishment are always keen to use a scapegoat (there are parallels such as the conspiracy theory about the tragic death of David Kelly over the Iraq WMD dossier; there are many others, including of course Oscar Wilde). It has always been accepted that the Profumo scandal helped the Labour Party to win the 1964 election, but I hadn't realised until reading this book the role of George Wigg (described by Thompson as "Wilson's witchfinder-general") in stirring the pot on the Profumo case, and thus unintentionally contributing to Ward's downfall. Of course, had Profumo done "the decent thing" and not lied in the Commons, he might have gone quietly, and Ward might not have been brought down with him.
Thompson has evidently taken advantage of Cabinet papers released under the 50 year rule in 2013.
I haven't read any other books about the Profumo/Ward case, though I have seen the excellent film Scandal, which rang true for me. I am, therefore, prepared to take most of what Thompson says on trust. He quotes several sources, including extended interviews with some of the now elderly who were actually there. Christine Keeler's liaisons with both Profumo and the Russian agent Ivanov were seen as a security risk, but Thompson makes the fascinating claim that Ward proposed to MI5 that he use his connection with Ivanov to pass positive messages to Moscow with the aim of defusing Cold War tension. This would have turned Ward from a security risk into a security asset!
Philip Larkin famously alleged that sexual intercourse began "in 1963 between the end of the `Chatterley' ban and the Beatles' first LP." Be that as it may, Thompson highlights an ominous parallel between the Chatterley case and the Ward trial; they had the same prosecuting counsel. Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who had made himself look an out-of-touch snob in the first case, had no intention of repeating the failure, and tore Ward to shreds with an approach best described as prurient violence. Thompson skilfully portrays how Ward, already abandoned by all but a few genuine friends, suffered under this last hurrah of austerity morality.
My main reservation about this book is its salacious style. It's hard to tell neutrally a story with this much sex in it, and Thompson is justified in cataloguing the details of Ward's louche secret life from the 1940s onwards. However, in trying for effect he occasionally lapses into gutter press style, e.g. "Mandy Rice-Davies was in Rachman's pants and his Rolls-Royce the next day". There is also the gimmick used for chapter titles, all of which begin with "Doctor .."; the first three chapters actually use titles from the "Doctor" film series!
However, credit to Thompson's efforts to show us how Ward was a "hollow man". He quotes two different people as saying that Ward was the life and soul of any party, but was never missed in his absence. One of Ward's surviving friends makes this brilliant observation: "Going to his consulting rooms was like watching a Pathe newsreel; a famous face flickered past." Conversely, once Ward was gone, several well-known people heaved a sigh of relief, and it was almost as if he had never existed.