how you never really know a story, do you? i was probably 11 when i heard about lord profumo and christine keeler, the spying scandal. he was a cabinet minister in the british government, important man. she was a high class call girl. they had an affair, while she was also seeing a russian diplomat. and she passed on many secrets to the russian. cost john profumo his career, the government nearly collapsed. what happened to her, who knows. but there was a song, provocative and come hither, that went “my name is christine… what’s yours?” inspired by it most likely, was written the frenzied “mera naam hai shabnam” from the rajesh khanna-asha parekh 1971 super hit film kati patang. my name is shabnam… what’s yours? rina, mina, anju manju oooooor madhu?
the profumo affair. i thought i knew the story. then yesterday afternoon, as we made our way down the quiet river at cliveden, on the newly varnished and beautiful 1934 slipper launch belmont, a shift of reflections.
as the portly, affable skipper told the tale, the story melted away in the softly swaying waters then coalesced again. but it was not the same any more. yes, here at cliveden, lord astor’s residence, stephen ward introduced lord profumo to christine keeler. high society type artist stephen ward lived in a cottage on the estate and often had friends over, including the 18 year old christine. (just 18? i’d never thought that.) they partied, had a good time… there were young girls having fun, happy to have someone pay for their champagne, but not hookers. ward knew the russian naval attache and christine met him, of course, but was there any spying? anyway, the scandal happened. stephen ward was thrown into prison and prosecuted. he was gay (some say). homosexuality was still illegal in 1963 in the uk. at one point, he just couldn’t take it any more, or he perhaps feared being outed. he killed himself.
the story took us to a completely different end point. a death. how tangled are the webs, how impossible to really know.
the water lapped the sides of the luxurious boat. we’d just had a very english high tea up in the house. we passed by the cottage where queen victoria would come visiting her friend lady sutherland… and there were the stairs with shallow steps built especially for her majesty. behind lay the house of josie rowland whose husband tiny had battled with al fayed over harrods… far behind, back in the 1600s there was lord buckingham with his mistress lady shrewsbury for whom he built cliveden, and was prepared to lose a king’s friendship for even. a mandarin duck swam by with his partner, a heron flew as we came close, the clouds moved and bright sunlight shone on the water. the stories crowded around watching us.
on 23 may, 2022, we went to cliveden for high tea and a boat ride, we were clebrating our daugter’s 21st birthday. i wrote this the day after.