The Profumo Scandal

In today's paper, an obituary (from the London Telegraph) of John Profumo who died, aged 91, some weeks ago. He is described as Politician, charity worker, because after the 1963 scandal that destroyed his parliamentary career, he devoted the rest of his life to Toynbee Hall, a charity based in London's East End; one of his co-workers there said We think he's a bloody saint. I can never see his name without a quickening of excitement.

I had just turned eleven when the scandal broke in London. I'd recently started a paper run, taking over from a boy who was fired for selling the papers he was meant to be delivering to random strangers and pocketing the money. His name was John Cole and he reckoned he was going to beat me up for taking his job but he never did. His father was the local taxi driver, with a fleet of two pink Ford Zephyrs; later he was to hang himself in his garage over some murky business involving his wife, John's mother, and another man.

Every afternoon but Sunday I'd ride my bike down to the local newsagency where, in a small back room that smelled of ink and newsprint, I'd count out eighty copies of the Wairarapa Times Age, just delivered by truck from Masterton. I'd put them in my paper bag, forty each side, then sling the bag over the bar of my bike and set out on my five mile run ... West Street, Kuratawhiti Street, Udy Street, Mole Street, Wood Street, Kempton Street, West Street again. Hawke Street aka Lover's Lane, was on my route, as were several apple orchards and berry fruit farms, so there were lots of opportunities to get up to mischief and I either took them or didn't depending on the day and the company.

But then, the Profumo Scandal broke, and I forgot everything else in breathless contemplation of the strange new world it uncovered. Every day, in the Times Age, below the fold on the front page, there would be a report of the latest revelations. Often, too, there would be photos of svelte, dark Christine Keeler or blond brazen Mandy Rice-Davies, both of whom I was head over heels in love with. Or of a ratty looking Stephen Ward, or Russian attache Ivanov, or of Profumo himself, the War Minister, with his domed head and sombre expression.

I'd cycle away from the shop with my load, deliver the first few papers, then lean my bike on a fence somewhere, fold a copy of the paper over the handlebars and read the latest about the salacious goings on in London - people whipping each other! swimming naked in Lord Astor's pool! having weird sex! in threesomes! - then spend the rest of my run in dizzy contemplation of these things. Much of it I didn't understand, and much that I thought I did I was probably wrong about, but that wasn't really the point. Here was a portal opening into an adult world I knew nothing about, that was enticing, wicked, sexy, wild and free.

It's odd now to reflect that many of the things that were going on a world away were also happening, literally behind the curtains of the houses to which I delivered newspapers, albeit without great wealth or power politics being engaged; the art teacher at the college, for instance, whose house was on my run, was engaged in a sexual intrigue with another member of staff, not his wife, who also taught (home economics I think) there, and was herself having it off with the Physed teacher. Or John Cole's father, whose wife's infidelity drove him to suicide. Or any number of other local scandals that unfolded during the four years we spent in that town.

I was what was called a late developer; perhaps I still am; I hadn't really started adolescing at age 11. Which suggests, I don't know, that my frisson of excitement at the scandal was emotional and intellectual rather than purely sexual. I don't recall being erotically excited by it, I think I was too young. But I sure was fascinated. Probably I learned more from that particular episode than I did either from the talk that went on among boys at school or the primly diagrammatic sexual education book, with green covers, that my mother wordlessly handed me some time after the scandal, to my great regret, passed from the news.

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