Friday, 28 March 2014
My Experience with Erotica Writers on Social Media
As a blogger I have been using social media for almost half of a decade. I have crossed paths with various bloggers who cover different subject matter utilizing various styles.
Lately, I have worked my way in with any number of erotica writers on Twitter. This is interesting to me because although I have written about subjects that do include human sexuality, I have never explored erotica as a genre.
Many of these erotica writers are very talented and produce not only tantalizing tales but also include posts about sexual health, sexually transmitted diseases, and social commentary related to sexuality.
It seems to me, as an outsider on the subject of erotica, that the challenge for many of these authors and bloggers is how to connect with a wider group of potential readers who are not necessarily seeking out sexual stimulation. Many of these potential readers may not realize that the erotica genre encompasses a great deal of information and displays a wealth of writing skills worth perusing. One of the hurdles attributed to this disconnect is the word “porn.”
It has been said that one man’s music is another man’s noise. Much the same can be said about erotica and pornography.
Erotica to me, in the classic interpretation of Eros in regard to love or desire, is an artistic depiction of human sexuality that celebrates the instinctual sexual attraction we all share. Pornography is a more graphic and in your face (no pun intended) representation of explicit sex acts. It should be worth noting that some people recognize little distinction between erotica and porn.
Andy Warhol once infamously stated that, “Sex is the biggest nothing of all time.” Much has been inferred by what he may have meant by this but for me the take away is simple.
We live in a society that represents an odd dichotomy in regard to sex. We both celebrate and suppress sexuality. In this process sexuality becomes more than what it really is. At its core sexuality is just another natural part of life.
We certainly enjoy cooking and trying new recipes to help us enjoy eating. A little spice here and there adds zest to meals we have eaten a hundred times before. In the same vein sometimes a relationship needs a little zing.
For example, within the context of an adult consensual relationship where trust and respect abound, a woman may enjoy submitting to a bad boy and a man may enjoy the shaky breath of fear coming out of his damsel in distress. For the less adventurous the old fashioned game of the cable guy visiting the lonely wife may be in order. Erotica can help conjure up ideas and fantasies for many couples. Good sex, as they say and I believe that it is true, is largely mental.
Porn may have its place too. Just about everybody at one time or another has checked out porn. My only caution with porn, as with so many other things in life including eating and drinking, is to keep it in moderation. For too many people porn is becoming a replacement for real sex. Just as socially we often tweet people on the other side of the world but may not know the name of our next-door neighbor, technology is providing better and increasingly interactive virtual realities where we can have sex but is also creating a situation where we can forget about how to deal with real human relationships.
My experience with erotica specifically on social media would lead me to believe that the human experience in regard to erotic content should be presented in a creative and positive way. I believe there are a fair number of potential readers out there who could be brought into the erotica genre never before having considered it.
Again, erotica is not my forte. But to reach fuddy-duddies like me I would recommend these few suggestions.
Keep avatars and bios modest. If your avatar is a picture of human genitalia I will not follow you. If your bio is an exhibition of four letter words in regard to your sexual exploits I will not follow you. Many of my followers are professional writers and marketers who do not expect a picture of a woman with a penis jammed into every orifice of her body showing up in my timeline.
Do not lead with posts that are designed to shock. People who are seeking jaw-dropping material will find it on your site if you decide to offer it. The last thing you want to do is scare away a somewhat potentially interested reader.
Appeal to women. A set of breasts crammed into an avatar will attract men but not necessarily the best followers. Where women go men will follow. It doesn’t necessarily work the other way around. My years around the nightclub industry taught me that male review nights attracting women were a lot more fun to work than female review nights attracting men. Women just don’t care about a bunch of horny guys coming out to watch strippers. That is the whole point of Lady’s Night and not Men’s Night. If women are tweeting about you, male followers will also appear and those men will be more interested in your content.
Erotica at its best should enhance the way people enjoy love and sexuality. Erotica should be about people and the human experience. Erotica should put a naughty smile on your face as much as a warm spot in your jeans.
Thought provoking stuff this week from Billy Dees. I think that all writers, and readers of the erotica genre should read this. Billy contacted me on Twitter, a while ago -- expressing much of what he says here about the erotica genre – it is to Billy’s talent as a writer that he managed to convey, very succinctly, his complex ideas in a Tweet. (To those of you who don’t understand Twitter, that’s a message in only 140 characters.) I asked Billy if he would write something for my blog and here it is.
Billy can be found at his journal and on Twitter @billydees
Friday, 21 March 2014
These days, we’re used to the term “moral panic”. But in case you haven’t come across it it’s “an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order.” We’ve seen it happen in our own times; the threat of immigrants, the threat of asylum seekers, the threat of paedophiles, homophobia…the threat of homosexuals. At some point in our present, and recent past, all of these “folk devils,” have been seen as a threat to our social order.
And fear appears to be the catalyst. The status quo is sensitive and protective of itself. The status quo is suspicious of difference; it doesn’t like criticism. It doesn’t like change.
Rewind the clock back to Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s and we have the anti-Semitism which resulted in the holocaust and the horrors of the gas chambers; resentment against the Jews had been simmering for centuries. According to popular thinking at the time, the Jews were responsible for everything that was wrong in Germany. Failure to win the First World War was the catalyst for the horrors that followed. Germany had been demoralized once too often and it was the Jews’ fault.
“Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tensions and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its centre is taboo. The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.”
I think that probably the earliest example of a moral panic is the 16th century witch hunt.
“Before 1750, they were legally sanctioned and involved official witchcraft trials. The classical period of witch hunts in Europe, and North America, falls into the Early Modern period of about 1480 – 1750, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the 30 Years’ War. The trials resulted in an estimated 40,000 to 60,000 executions.”
It appears not to matter whether they fall into a time of plenty, or a time of frugality, a society can be susceptible to a moral panic at any time. It’s 1918, the final year of World War I and there was an atmosphere of gloom throughout England. The sight of so many men with grotesque wounds was a dispiriting reminder of a war that seemed to have no end. And the mood was no better in the trenches. Britain was not doing well. The German troops were flourishing.
Some wondered why we seemed incapable of victory. Might it somehow be our own fault? Could there be something rotten at the heart of the British ruling class? One man certainly though so. The maverick MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing.
Billing was a colourful self publicist, who believed that Britain was being sabotaged by thousands of perverts in the pay of the Hun. He alleged that powerful figures in Britain had been corrupted by perverted German spies.
“They have used,” he claimed. “Practices that all decent men had thought had perished at Sodom and Lesbia.”
These astonishing allegations found a ready audience by a people frustrated by their failure to win the war. They would also land him in court.
On the morning of 29th May 1918, a great crowd gather at the Old Bailey, for what promised to be the most sensational court case in Britain for many years. It was a newspaper man’s dream and it involved an exotic dancer, high politics, enemy spies and sexual deviancy. It threatened to blow the lid off the British Establishment.
According to Billing, 47,000 British people had been corrupted. Their names had been written in a secret dossier which Billing called “the black book”. He claimed that the black book held the names of Cabinet Ministers, Privy Counsellors, Newspaper Proprietors, even members of the King’s own Household. And he said that the wives of senior public figures were in especial danger because in the throes of lesbian ecstasy, the most sacred secrets of the state were betrayed.
So where were these degenerate traitors to be found? At the theatre of course! Specifically at a private production of Oscar Wilde’s banned play, “Salome” starring the voluptuous actress Maud Allan.
In an article entitled, “the Cult of the Clitoris”, Billing asserted that the actress was having an affair with Margot Asquith, wife of the former Prime Minister.
Billing was charged with Criminal Libel.
Conducting his own defense, he used his trial as a platform to reveal to the nation how far the moral rot had spread. He called, as a witness, a woman who claimed to have seen the black book, listing all the people who had been corrupted by the filthy German agents.
“Is Mrs Asquith’s name in the book?” he asked.
“Yes,” the witness replied enthusiastically
. “It is!”
“Is Mr Asquith’s name in the book?”
“It is!” she responded.
And Billing pointed to the judge. “Is the Judge’s name in the book?”
“It is!” she screamed.
There was complete chaos in the Court. It was all nonsense of course, but Mr Justice Darling was out of his depth and rapidly lost control of proceedings. This absurd trial lasted for 6 days. On 4th June 1918 the Jury returned their verdict. Pemberton-Billing was not guilty of Libel. He left the court to thunderous applause and when he got onto the street outside the Old Bailey his supporters threw flowers at his feet.
And Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous rantings had struck a chord -- people were worried. And at this stage of the war there was much to be worried about. The balance of power was with Germany.
(This blog post has been put together using sources from the Web and the BBC/Open University documentary series, Britain’s Great War, presented by Jeremy Paxman. If you are in the UK and have access to BBC IPlayer you will find the series there.)
Friday, 14 March 2014
Sometimes, something snaps inside our heads. We become disconnected; we can’t find our way. We are lost. We may be confused, babble, see visions. Sometimes, people take us away. The world whispers about us; around us. People say that we are mad.
And it is madness that inhabits the world of Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. Not just madness, fear inhabits that world too.
I can’t claim, by a long way, to have read every novel written in the twentieth century, but I’ve read a helluva lot, and I really do believe that Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, published in 1962, is one of the finest. It’s startling in its originality; Kesey’s use of language is stunning in his poetic prose. He twists metaphor until it strains like tortured metal, and threatens to snap, and all the while, instantly, the reader knows exactly what Kesey is talking about. His novel deserves its reputation as a classic work of literature.
The narrative takes place in “the Big Nurse’s” ward in a mental institution. It sounds as if you are in for a tough read, but you’re not. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is funny, Kesey’s sharp sense of humour rescues the book from bleakness.
The novel is also poignant and ultimately heartbreaking.
The two main players in Kesey’s novel are McMurphy and “the Big Nurse;” Nurse Ratched.
Kesey has gravitas. His writing has dignity. Our emotions may be miniscule, set against the great profundities that human beings have to pit themselves against, but any writer who can make us think; “yes, I have felt like that too,” is worthy indeed.
Kesey demonstrates this understanding after McMurphy observes in the group therapy session, how the residents turn against Harding. “Pecking at him, like he was a wounded chicken”, all under the eye of Nurse Ratched and the doctor. McMurphy says that Nurse Ratched is a “Ball breaker” -- she sits with a small smile on her face as Harding is emotionally castrated.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is told in the first person, by Chief Bromden. The Chief is a patient on the Big Nurse’s ward. He has been there the longest of all the patients, and despite being considered a hopeless case, he has learnt to carve out a life for himself. He knows how to survive. The staff and patients all think that the Chief is mute; deaf and dumb. He isn’t; he can hear as well as anyone, and if he chose to, he could speak. Through the Chief, readers are treated to a cynical look at society and its rules. He refers to the authority figures in the book as “The Combine”, in reference to the mechanical way they manipulate individuals. The story is really a modern day parable about the abuse of power.
The Chief describes Nurse Ratched;
“Her face is smooth, calculated, and precision made, like an expensive baby doll, skin like flesh coloured enamel, blend of white and cream and baby blue eyes, small nose, pink little nostrils -- everything working together except the colour on her lips and fingernails, and the size of her bosom. A mistake was made somehow in manufacturing, putting those big womanly breasts on what would otherwise been a perfect work, and you can see how bitter she is about it.”
The Chief introduces us to the ward. We immediately understand that this is a domain of lost souls. People with no power, who at some time in their lives have had their grip on sanity slip, never to regain their footing.
Enter, Randle P. McMurphy.
Faking insanity to get out of prison for a battery charge, McMurphy immediately begins upsetting Nurse Ratched’s routines, embroiling the two in a power struggle. As an upbeat character, McMurphy easily convinces the other patients—including the stuttering Billy Bibbit, the effeminate Dale Harding and the germaphobic George Sorenson—to gamble, to vote to watch the World Series on TV, to take a fishing trip and to start questioning the demands of the hospital staff. McMurphy is a strong, but flawed character; one who, at times, struggles with the expectations he has manipulated and the consequences he has brought about.
McMurphy represents the freedom that the patients have voluntarily given up – and it is McMurphy who shows them how to find the courage to reclaim their place in the world.
When McMurphy first enters the ward, the thing that immediately distinguishes him, aside from his lack of fear, are his jokes. He laughs out loud at everything, and makes fun of everyone. Laughter is very rarely heard in the ward, and by not taking anything too seriously, McMurphy is able to exert power over it. He manages to avoid any sort of insult or invasion by making a joke of it. And laughter is something that men do. McMurphy’s gut wrenching belly laugh is absolutely male. The Chief notices McMurphy’s calloused hands; his sunburnt skin. McMurphy is a man; a concept that the men in the ward have forgotten. Even through the pervasive odour of hospital smells, the stench of incontinence, the Chief scents on McMurphy;
“…the man smell of dust and dirt from the open fields, and sweat, and work.”
McMurphy, having bet the rest of the men that he can get the Big Nurse to crack within a week, makes his first step by the use of a long joke. The Big Nurse is unable to fight back because it takes her by surprise. By making fun of her, he subverts her authority, and eliminates any power she might have over him.
McMurphy tells the other men jokes in an attempt to get them to laugh, but such an act smacks of rebellion, and the other men are unable to accomplish it. Laughter is equated with strength and an ability to not take everything seriously. It also means having an emotional reaction to something that isn't fear, an idea of which the men of the ward are terrified.
When for the first time, the men take part in the joke, pretending to be dangerous mental patients, they frighten the people around them into treating them with respect, giving the men a feeling of power. They become a team against the world, which they always were, but a team with an ability to actively fight back. For the first time, the joke is at the expense of the society that has terrorized them.
McMurphy laughs at seeing the men the way they are, both laughing at them and with them. He is able to survive for so long against the world that has destroyed the rest of them because he can laugh at it. He takes everything seriously by taking nothing seriously. He doesn't deny that there is pain and hardship, but he refuses to let that define and ruin him.
But McMurphy misunderstands the enormity of what he has taken on. He is playing a dangerous game. These men, really are people who are very ill. They are emotionally frail and while McMurphy reminds them of what it is like to have fun, there is danger ahead. And Nurse Ratched is a formidable foe.
The Chief muses;
"I thought for a minute there I saw her whipped. Maybe I did. But I see now that it don't make any difference.... To beat her you don't have to whip her two out of three or three out of five, but every time you meet. As soon as you let down your guard, as soon as you lose once, she's won for good. And eventually we all got to lose. Nobody can help that."
McMurphy slips up and shows the danger of constant jokes. The Big Nurse warns him of the possibility of a lobotomy, but instead of taking it seriously, he turns it into a joke about his testicles. McMurphy has no intention of backing down at this point, but by turning the warning into the joke, he increases the chances of it being acted upon.
Friday is the day that the men go to the X-Ray room to get checked up. While they wait, McMurphy notices another door and asks where it leads. Harding tells him that it goes to the Shock Shop, and explains the theory behind electro-shock therapy. Once again, it is revealed that the Big Nurse has the power to order such treatment as well as lobotomies. McMurphy realizes that it's the system that's behind everything, and tries to explain this to the rest of them; how even if they got rid of the Big Nurse, things wouldn't change, really. The men don't understand, and Harding finally admits that they've noticed that he's stopped fighting against the Nurse. McMurphy agrees, and tells them he realised he had as much to lose as the rest of them. Harding tells him no, McMurphy has more to lose, since all the Acutes are there voluntarily. McMurphy can't believe this, and he starts accosting all of them, until Billy Bibbit breaks down.
"'You think I wuh-wuh-wuh-want to stay in here? You think I wouldn't like a con-con-vertible and a guh-guh-girl friend? But did you ever have people l-l-laughing at you? No, because you're so b-big and so tough! Well, I'm not big and tough.'"
It’s the beginning of a downward spiralling tragedy, that for the Chief culminates in triumphant liberation, and ends in disaster for others.
McMurphy gets the doctor on his side, and they organise a fishing trip. It’s a chance to remind the men of who they are, outside the confines of the hospital. On the fishing expedition the patients laugh and feel complete humans again. This happens with McMurphy's guidance, his laughter booming in the face of chaos.
But later, all the men who went on the boat trip have to take a special shower, because Nurse Ratched thinks they might have caught some sort of bug. While they're in the shower, the black aides attack George, trying to get him to put on salve. George refuses, because of his neatness obsession and pathological fear of germs. McMurphy steps in to defend him, and he gets in a fight with the aides. The Chief helps throw them off, and the two of them get strapped down and sent up to “Disturbed”.
Things are dangerously out of control for McMurphy. This passage, where they are driving home from the fishing trip, stands out for me. The Chief narrates;
“Then -- as he was talking -- a set of tail-lights going past lit up McMurphy’s face, and the windshield reflected an expression that was only allowed because he figured it’d be too dark for anybody in the car to see, dreadfully tired and strained and frantic, like there wasn’t enough time left for something he had to do…While his relaxed, good natured voice doled out his life for us to live, a rollicking past full of kid fun and drinking buddies and loving women and barroom battles over meagre honours -- for all of us to dream ourselves into.”
This is a story of sacrifice. While the Chief and McMurphy are waiting for Electric Shock Treatment, Kesey sprinkles his prose with Christ images.
McMurphy arranges himself willingly on the table in a crucifix; arms outstretched, his ankles clamped together, he’s clamped down at the wrists.
“They put graphite salve on his temples. ‘What is it?’ he says. ‘Conductant.’ the technician says. ‘Anointest my head with conductant. Do I get a crown of thorns?’”
Electro Shock Treatment is an obscene ritual and Kesey tells it so casually and that’s what makes it so horrifying. It is only when the Chief describes McMurphy’s body arcing, as the volts slam through him, that the reader offers up a silent scream.
“…light arcs across, stiffens him, bridges him up off the table till nothing is down but his wrists and ankles…”
The Chief is brought back to the ward, and the rest of the men greet him like a hero. They ask him all sorts of questions about what's going on with McMurphy, and when he responds, no one thinks it odd that the Chief is talking now.
The Big Nurse sees that McMurphy's legend is growing, and while he's away he's just getting bigger and bigger, so she starts making plans to bring him back down. The men anticipate this, and work out a plan to get McMurphy out of the ward that Saturday, forgetting it's the day that McMurphy has set up for Billy's date with Candy. They tell their plans to McMurphy when he returns to the ward, but he refuses to leave until after that night. He says to consider it his going away party.
McMurphy bribes the night aide, Mr. Turkle, with the promise of “booze and broads“, in order to get him to open up a window that night. Candy is late, but when she arrives, she's got a friend with her, the woman, Sandy, who was supposed to be with her earlier at the boat trip. The group hides from the night supervisor, and proceeds to get drunk on the liquor the women brought with them, along with whatever medication Harding can get out of the cabinet. Billy and Candy eventually sneak off for some privacy, and Harding tries to get McMurphy to leave. McMurphy asks why the others don't come with him, but all of them need a little more time. He asks Harding what made them so scared. Harding isn't able to say, exactly, just that they were beaten down by the rest of the world for the things they did, and who they were, and that they didn't have the strength to fight back. McMurphy says that he's always had people bugging him, and it's never brought him down that much. Harding admits that this is true, but that he's figured out who drives strong people like McMurphy to weakness.
"'Yeah? Not that I'm admitting I'm down that road, but what is this something else?'
'It is us.' He swept his hand about him in a soft white circle and repeated, 'Us.'"
It's five am, and McMurphy decides to get some sleep before leaving. He says goodbye to Harding and the Chief, then settles into bed. All of them fall asleep and don't wake up till the black aides come on the ward at six-thirty.
Harding tries to get McMurphy to leave in the morning, but he claims that he's too drunk to move. When roll call shows that Billy is missing, the aides and the Big Nurse do a room check. They find him and Candy in bed in one of the rooms. Nurse Ratched is shocked, and keeps telling Billy how ashamed she is for him, but Billy doesn't seem to notice, just gets his clothes together and comes out into the hall. He responds to her questions without a stutter. However, the Big Nurse knows what buttons to push in the end. "'What worries me, Billy,' she said- I could hear the change in her voice- 'is how your mother is going to take this.'" Billy immediately panics. He begs Nurse Ratched not to call his mother, and when the nurse refuses, he starts to blame the fact that he was in bed with a woman on everyone else in the room, saying they made him do it. He is taken away to wait alone in the doctor's office.
All the men sit down in the day room, and they tell McMurphy that they don't blame him at all, they know it wasn't his fault. He just relaxes and looks like he's waiting for something. The doctor yells for the nurse from his office, and she and the aides go running. She comes back alone, and speaks directly to McMurphy. She tells him that Billy cut his throat with some instruments in the doctor's desk.
"'First Charles Cheswick and now William Bibbit! I hope you're finally satisfied. Playing with human lives- gambling with human lives- as if you thought yourself to be a God!'"
She goes back into her office. The Chief knows that McMurphy is going to do something, and at first he thinks to try and stop it; but then he realises that he can't stop it, because he and the rest of the men of the ward are forcing McMurphy to do it. They force him to get out of his chair and go over to nurses' station. He rips open the Big Nurse's shirt, revealing those too large breasts, and tries to strangle her.
When the doctors and aides rip him off her, he cries out. The Chief describes it as;
“A sound of cornered-animal fear and hate and surrender and defiance, that if you ever trailed coon or cougar or lynx is like the last sound the treed and shot and falling animal makes as the dogs get him, when he finally doesn't care any more about anything but himself and his dying.”
McMurphy’s fate is sealed. When he is returned to the ward, he has had a lobotomy. The mythology of McMurphy lives on. The men on the ward discuss whether this ruined spectacle is really him.
“After a minute of silence, Scanlon turned and spat on the floor. ‘Ah what’s the old bitch tryin’ to put over on us anyhow, for craps sake. That ain’t him.’”
“‘Nothing like him,’ Martini said.”
“‘How stupid she think we are?’”
The chief knows it is McMurphy and he tries to think of what McMurphy would have done.
“I was sure of only one thing: he wouldn’t have left something like that sit there in the day room with his name tacked on it for twenty or thirty years so the Big Nurse could use it as an example of what can happen if you buck the system. I was sure of that.”
Nurse Ratched may think that she has won the game, but the Chief’s final actions before he leaves the ward, make it a hollow victory.
The title of the book is a line from a nursery rhyme.
Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo's nest.
Chief Bromden's grandmother sang this song to him when he was young, and they had a game about it.
The inspiration for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came while working on the night shift (with Gordon Lish) at the Menlo Park Veterans' Hospital. There, Kesey often spent time talking to the patients, sometimes under the influence of the hallucinogenic drugs, with which he had volunteered to experiment. Kesey did not believe that these patients were insane, rather that society had pushed them out because they did not fit the conventional ideas of how people were supposed to act and behave. Published in 1962, it was an immediate success; in 1963, it was adapted into a successful stage play by Dale Wasserman; in 1975, Miloš Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman).
Kesey was originally involved in creating the film, but left two weeks into production. He claimed never to have seen the movie because of a dispute over the $20,000 he was initially paid for the film rights. Kesey loathed the fact that, unlike the book, the film was not narrated by the Chief Bromden character, and he disagreed with Jack Nicholson being cast as Randle McMurphy (he wanted Gene Hackman). Despite this, Faye Kesey has stated that Ken was generally supportive of the film and was pleased that it was made.
Friday, 7 March 2014
It was the scandal of the decade, if not of the twentieth century. The year was 1963, an austere time in England. We were still recovering from the devastation we had suffered during WWII. Rationing had only ended in the late 1950's. It was the height of the Cold War, when spying was rife and the threat of war was imminent, with the outbreak of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
And fear of spies was a reality. Britain was reeling from the revelations that Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean were Soviet spies. There was sexual intrigue involving men high in the social scale. A Minister of the Crown; an eminent Harley Street doctor. Sex and lies from those very men that we looked up to. The idea that a British politician was not only cheating on his wife with a call girl and sharing the call girl with a Soviet diplomat, sent the public reeling.
This scandal of sex and betrayal saw the resignation of one Cabinet Minister, the retirement of a Prime Minister and I don’t think I am exaggerating, when I say that the scandal eventually caused the downfall of a government.
The 1960’s was the decade that the publisher Penguin was prosecuted for publishing D.H. Lawrence's racy novel Lady Chatterley's Lover. Penguin won the case and was able to publish 200,000 copies as people raced to get their hands on it. The old order was being challenged and a new order was just beginning. The children born just after, and during the war were coming of age. The Beatles still had mop haircuts and had just released “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, Ian Fleming's spy novels had hit the screen starring the very sexy Sean Connery as 007. The newest actors in Britain were not Hollywoodized versions of British men, but actors like Albert Finney and Michael Caine who were working class.
New magazines like “Private Eye” which poked fun at everyone and everything was established. Beyond the Fringe starring Peter Cook, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller hit the West End. And David Frost became a national celebrity hosting the hit TV show That Was the Week that Was (a more topical version of VH-1's Best Week Ever).
Yet for all the changes, Britain was stuck in the 1950's. This was still the era when unmarried girls who found themselves pregnant, were packed off to places where they could have their babies in secret and then give them up for adoption.
And politically things were not good. Although Harold Macmillan had swept into office in 1959 with a majority in the House of Commons, there was discontent in the country. While Japan and Germany had recovered nicely from the war, the economy in Britain was stagnant. There was inflation and labour unrest. Unlike America, with its young, vibrant president, Irish-Catholic, war-hero with a beautiful young wife, and two adorable children, it seemed that politicians in office reflected a by-gone era, the era of Churchill and Lloyd-George, old school politicians.
So at the height of the cold war in the early 60s, as the established order was challenged as never before, Britons paid rapt attention to a sordid little affair which involved a cabinet minister, a showgirl and a Soviet naval attaché. It was an era in which anything was possible and nothing was safe; a time when the established order was being challenged, subverted, and ultimately buried.
Even today, in our peculiar society, we get excited when ministers and other public figures are caught with their pants down. In 1963, the very notion was deeply, deliciously shocking.
It was still mostly a pre-pill, pre-promiscuity age, when unmarried pregnancy was a matter of deep family shame, and back street abortionists thrived. The tabloid newspapers were already brash but not yet sex-crazed, and were by and large polite to politicians. But when the storm broke, it was not simply driven by sex; there was a deep, dark context of rank treachery.
The chief players in the unfolding drama were;
John Profumo - Secretary of State for War, married to the actress Valerie Hobson.
Harold Macmillan aka Supermac - Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Christine Keeler - goodtime girl and model
Mandy Rice-Davies - fellow goodtime girl and model
Stephen Ward - osteopath and panderer
Lord Astor - A member of an old, respected, aristocratic family. He was the owner of Cliveden, a large country house where sexual intrigues took place.
For months, rumours had circulated about the private life of John Dennis Profumo, secretary of state for war. Educated at Harrow and Oxford, he was a quintessential high Tory who had achieved cabinet rank after serving in a number of junior posts. He and his wife moved effortlessly in the crème of society.
In the deferential spirit of the 1950s, the rumours may have been restricted to salon gossip. Now, in the new age of iconoclasm, the whispers were amplified in the media. “That Was The Week That Was” scored a telling blow with a splendid parody of the old music hall number, “She was Poor but she was Honest”. The words of the new version went: "See him in the House of Commons / Making laws to put the blame / While the object of his passion / Walks the streets to hide her shame."
The "object of his passion" was a young woman whose name is now embedded in British political folklore: the incredibly beautiful Christine Keeler.
Christine Keeler, unlike Profumo, had had an extremely undistinguished life. Born in 1942, she left home at 16 after an unhappy childhood in the Thames Valley, and gravitated to London where she found work of a sort at Murray's cabaret club. There she met and befriended another showgirl, Marilyn "Mandy" Rice-Davies. Soon, both young women had drifted into the racy circle around Stephen Ward, a fashionable West End osteopath and socialite.
Christine’s relationship with Stephen Ward was both torrid and rocky. They broke up several times, but he seemed to exercise an almost mesmeric influence on her, and always she drifted back. Soon both young women were celebrated players, albeit with bit parts, in Ward's sexual circus.
Not all the action was centred on Ward's Wimpole Mews flat, equipped with two-way mirrors and other aids to lubricity. Soon, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies were circulating in more exalted milieu, including Lord Astor's country mansion of Cliveden. It was there that John Profumo first laid eyes on her. A brief but passionate affair ensued, and tongues began to wag.
Even then, it might have been brushed under the carpet in the time honoured English way, but Profumo made a fundamental error: he lied to the House of Commons. In March 1963 he told the chamber that there was "no impropriety whatever" in his relationship with Christine Keeler. Ten weeks later he appeared before MPs again to say "with deep remorse" that he had misled the House, and would resign.
What brought Profumo down even more than his deceit of the Commons, was the startling revelation that Christine Keeler had also slept with Eugene Ivanov, the naval attaché at the Soviet embassy. It was that detail which captured world attention, notably in the United States, where the FBI compiled a detailed report called Operation Bowtie.
In Britain, Profumo's downfall naturally caused a huge sensation, inflated by the establishment's crude and cruel attempts to find scapegoats for its own embarrassment. As usual, official wrath was turned on those least able to defend themselves. Stephen Ward was prosecuted for living on immoral earnings. On the last day of his trial, he killed himself with an overdose of sleeping tablets.
In his suicide note Stephen Ward wrote; “I feel the day is lost. The ritual sacrifice is demanded, and I cannot face it. I’m sorry to disappoint the vultures”.
Some people think that Stephen Ward’s death is a little too convenient. They believe that he was murdered.
Christine Keeler was also tried and imprisoned on related charges. Mandy Rice-Davies, who escaped prosecution, earned a dubious immortality when, during the Ward trial, she was told that Lord Astor disputed her version of events and replied: "He would, wouldn't he?"
Less than two months after Ward's tragic and mysterious death, an official report was produced by Lord Denning, master of the rolls. It was a hot number: hundreds queued to buy a copy when it was released at midnight. But there were few juicy bits in Denning's findings. He criticised the government for failing to deal with the affair more quickly, but concluded that national security had not been compromised. And, to the dismay of the reading public, he failed to identify the man who, naked except for a mask, had served at Ward's dinner parties. There had been rumours that the "man in a mask" was a cabinet minister but Denning, who interviewed him, denied it.
There it ended, though it never really went away. The 1989 movie, Scandal reignited some of the controversy, and Christine Keeler raked over the embers in her autobiography, “The Truth At Last”, published early in 2001. In it, she revived some of the more startling claims made at the time - though alas she was unable to offer convincing new evidence to back them up.
John Profumo died in 2006. Christine Keeler is now in her 70s. After her prison term, she
repeatedly tried to restart her life, but the scandal continued to hang over her head like a sword of Damocles. She married and divorced twice, and has two sons. Over the years, she's held various jobs as a receptionist, and as a dinner lady in a school in London, all under an assumed name.
Mandy Rice-Davies traded on the notoriety the trial brought her, comparing herself to Nelson's mistress, Lady Hamilton. She married an Israeli businessman, Rafi Shauli, and went on to open a string of successful nightclubs and restaurants in Tel Aviv. The restaurants and nightclubs, which bore her name, were called: Mandy's, “Mandy's Candies” and “Mandy's Singing Bamboo”. Mandy Rice-Davies also parlayed her minor fame into a series of unsuccessful pop singles for the Ember label in the mid-'60s, including “Close Your Eyes” and “You Got What It Takes”. I am sure that I have seen her on television too.
Few attended poor Stephen Ward’s little funeral on that day in August, but a number of leading figures such as the writers Kenneth Tynan and John Osborne clubbed together to send a wreath of a hundred white carnations bearing the message 'To Stephen Ward, Victim of Hypocrisy'.
Check out my own version of Christine Keeler's famous chair pose at Francis Pott's lovely blog...here
This post was prepared using sources including Wikipedia and Derek Brown - 1963: The Profumo Scandal And from what I recall listening to my parent’s conversations about the case. A few years later, when I was 14, I wanted to go to London to train as a fashion model. My father would not let me go, citing Stephen Ward, Mandy Rice-Davies and Christine Keeler as his reasons.