The girl who rocked the Government

ck2We met on a summer afternoon in ’59, two 17-year-olds, Pisces born within days of each other. We discovered we had much in common. Both from fatherless backgrounds, lacking any proper home. Each had been granted a single talent, you might say, in compensation for the lack. As her father-figure Stephen Ward said, she had the beauty of a racehorse, which he set out to groom and train. My headmaster was the nearest thing to a father-figure for me. He saw an Oxford scholarship winner, a future academic. I went on to achieve neither.

On the day we met, Christine Keeler was sunbathing beside the Thames at Staines, where my mother and second stepfather lived at that time. I’d gone out on a walk to Penton Hook Lock, where there are two small islands in the Thames, either side of the weir. She was lying on the grass in a leopardskin bikini. I wore an outdated nylon tee-shirt and drainpipes, which my mother had sewed up at my request from the trousers of my stepfather’s demob suit.

My years at boys’ boarding schools, with parents who kept moving house, left me with no friends outside school. The only girls I’d met were daughters of my mother’s school friends. I have a younger sister but she lived with her father at the time. My school on the Isle of Wight was several hundred years old but taking on boarders was a new idea. I was granted a scholarship to become the first boarder, my parents having left the island. The idea of social events where girls could be met, such as dances, had not evolved. Nature stepped in to fill the void. On winter nights, we older boys walked a mile to Evensong at the Parish Church. I don’t know how it started or developed, but local girls would lurk in roadside hedges for assignations. I never got involved, nor in other practices I heard rumoured long after. For me, girls were imaginary creatures; or else worshipped from afar, according to the rules of Courtly Love.

None of this held me back from sitting a short distance away from Christine when I saw her, and saying hello. She was friendly enough; soon I was sitting beside her and we chatted. She was certainly an attractive girl as arm-candy, and a trophy to practise on; but I was not smitten. My imaginary girl would touch a subtle chord in my heart. She would hide a mystery. She would be innocent of the effect she had upon me, until things unfolded, significant looks and gestures exchanged.

I remember the gist of what Christine and I talked about that afternoon but not many details. As any teenagers might, we exchanged backgrounds and future prospects, with no aim in view but conversation. For my part, I had a recent trip to Paris to mention. I could never bear to stay with my parents more than two weeks at a time, knowing nobody, being a stranger in town. So my mother had arranged for me to stay with her schoolfriend Barbara, who’d married a Frenchman, and their son I’d known as a child. Cousin William was also in Paris, working at the British Embassy. He took me round the Musée de L’Homme, and asked me if I knew about Teilhard de Chardin, whose Phenomenon of Man had just been posthumously translated into English. I was flattered that he felt he could talk such high culture with this schoolboy who knew nothing of the world outside school and the books he’d come across. Through him, I discovered something of myself, as when you look into a mirror.

Then Christine told me her interesting recent encounters. She was thrilled to have been invited to Cliveden, the stately home of Lord and Lady Astor, and to have been introduced to Douglas Fairbanks Junior beside a swimming pool. I was duly impressed. She said that knowing such people, and others she hoped to meet soon, would help her out of a humble background & lack of qualifications. Not long ago she’d been a waitress. She said nothing about her stint as a topless showgirl in a cabaret club; nothing about the premature birth of a child a few months before I met her, who’d died after a few days. I imagine she would have mentioned Stephen Ward, but it didn’t stick in my memory. I realize now that he represented another thing we had in common, though we could not have known it at the time. My cousin William worked for British Intelligence, controlling “assets”—confidential informants. I only made this deduction after his death. Stephen Ward was himself a British Intelligence “asset”, but it didn’t emerge till long after his death.

I do remember asking Christine, in my earnest fashion, just how her contacts with the rich and famous would further her ambitions and provide, as she claimed, a leg-up to a more distinguished career. I wonder if she was using this conversation with a stranger to clarify her thoughts, see them from a different point of view under friendly interrogation from a naïve schoolboy. She said she was planning to take a secretarial course. Then with her developing network of high-class contacts she might get to be someone’s personal assistant, and thus meet a wealthy man, to love and be loved, and marry. Did she make this up, to present herself as a person I’d respect? As events have turned out, I imagine she had the skill of a chameleon, to embody the dream of the man she was with. Either way I found it fascinating, wanted to continue our conversation as long as possible. The English weather decided to cloud over and deliver a sudden intense downpour. She wasn’t wearing enough to be affected, but I was soaked. She went over to the riverbank edge and whistled loudly with two fingers. A rowing-boat quickly arrived from the other side. She was staying with her aunt in a wooden bungalow, not much more than a shack. She suggested we might have tea. So we sat in wicker chairs and I answered questions from her aunt and one or two others. Thus the interesting conversation with Christine terminated, and when the rain eased off, I went home.

Later, back at my parents’ bungalow, I wondered how we might meet again. The sensible thing would have been a casual stroll to the same spot in a day or two’s time, to look at the island and pass by the shack, on the off-chance. That wasn’t my style—I had no style. I went back that same evening to ask if she’d like to see a movie some time. Her aunt answered the door, relayed my message, came back to say that Christine was washing her hair.

I never thought of her again till four years later when I had just graduated from university, and she was headline news for a while. We learned she’d been dating John Profumo, the Minister for War, while also seeing a Russian naval attaché. Her friend Stephen Ward was accused of procuring and living off immoral earnings. All his friends turned against him. He was vilified in court and in the press, committed suicide before sentence was passed. Christine was sent to jail for perjury. Thus the Establishment had its revenge.

I thought of writing to her, silly idea, but never did. Not so long ago I bought her ghost-written autobiography, but weeded it out as part of a purge to free up shelf-space. I’d hoped to find something to admire, some wisdom gained, or seeds of redemption, as in my own life. Not a spark. But the film they made called Scandal, with John Hurt as Stephen Ward, is worth a view.

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8 thoughts on “The girl who rocked the Government

  1. Interesting! I wonder what would have happened if you’d gone on a date with her and a relationship developed? The plot for a thriller right there: fact meeting fiction and vice versa – spies, scandal, celebrities, young love, corruption, etc. etc.

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  2. Ha ha! There would have been no relationship, just a resumption of our chat, after rain stopped play. Thrillers have never been my thing, and hers had all the cast of characters it needed.

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  3. There’s plenty to look up. I had a job making sense of my own memories. The breakthrough came when I established without doubt that it was the summer of 1959, otherwise I would have suspected 1960 or 1961. What nailed it was Christine repeating snatches of a song which I’d not heard before: Living Doll by Cliff Richard and the Drifters, released as a single in July ’59. After that, I heard it on the radio pretty much every day.

    As to my visit to Paris, I dated that from a footnote in Wikipedia listing the English version of The Phenomenon of Man as dating from 1959. But when I look for the first published edition, I find nothing earlier than ’61. I’m also not sure that it was cousin William took me to the Museum of Man. I know I saw there an exhibition of the Zen artist Sengai, because I bought a catalogue the works displayed and kept it for many years. The Web tells me that the exhibition toured Europe in 1961. It was on the same museum visit that I saw an unforgettable plaster cast of the “Hottentot Venus”, since returned to South Africa.

    So I hadn’t just come back from Paris, but probably straight from school when the term ended. Thus I can’t think of anything I might have told this girl to impress her, and attempt to match her tale of Cliveden & Douglas Fairbanks Junior. I assure you that the rest is all true.

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  4. Thanks Ellie & first of all apologies that your comment had to be “moderated” – something I’ve never done and didn’t intend this time. It was a default setting (which I’ve now overridden) which dictated that if a comment had 2 or more links, this would happen. So I was briefly a pawn in WordPress’s game to defeat suspected spammers.

    Bob Dylan wrote his song in the same summer that “The Profumo Affair” hit the headlines. When Christine Keeler was 18 there were so many games, so many pawns, that it was chaos. As the Cuban missile crisis unfolded, her mentor Stephen Ward, who was already in touch with MI5, thought at one point he was the key man to prevent nuclear war, having met through Ivanov a messenger who could indirectly reach Kruschev; having also met at Cliveden JFK, whose brother Robert Kennedy worried whether he (JFK) had “slept with Christine, Mandy, Mariella or anyone else? Would he know? It was important, for President Kennedy was scheduled to visit Macmillan [prime minister] and Britain at the end of June”.

    (I’ve been reading a biography Stephen Ward, Scapegoat, which tells a tangled tale and makes out that “their game” is pretty bumbling and incompetent, as “their” main aim is self-preservation, which in the last analysis is “every man for himself”, and never mind innocent lives which get in the way.)

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  5. I remember the Profumo affair lurid headlines and constant TV news about it when I came to live in London.
    The notice of Jack Kennedy’s assassination was posted on a board outside a church in my neighbourhood and passing by that evening, I couldn’t believe it, it seemed like some sick joke. The Kennedy family’s names certainly came up often during discussions about Christine Keeler and the others involved in the whole affair. I always felt sorry for her and for Stephen Ward too, to some extent.

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  6. Yes, it would have been an extraordinary year to arrive in London: Beatlemania, Bob Dylan, The Pill, British Empire handed back piecemeal, Kennedy. Somehow the end of an era, the end of deference, satire on TV introducing the idea of making fun of established order. Each would have seen it from the trajectory of our own lives.

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