February 22, 2013
My play with Mandy Rice Davies, Well He Would, Wouldn’t He, is broadcast tomorrow, Saturday, at 2.30pm on Radio 4. It’s about her part in the Profumo scandal, which helped bring down Macmillan’s Tory government fifty years ago. Mandy was eighteen at the time, and her friend Christine Keeler only a couple of years older. As you probably know, Christine had an affair with John Profumo, the Minister for War, and was also said to have slept with Eugene Ivanov, an attache at the Russian embassy. This being the height of the cold war, the press had a field day when they found out. Profumo resigned in disgrace. In retaliation, the establishment hounded Stephen Ward, a society osteopath and libertine, charging him with keeping a brothel. (Stephen had introduced Christine to Profumo). The trial attracted massive media attention, and was an appalling miscarriage of justice. The ferocious sexism of the remarks made by the judge and the prosecutor during the trial are beyond belief – this was 1963, not Victorian Britain! (Mervyn Griffith Jones, the prosecutor, was the same barrister who announced in the Lady Chatterley trial that ‘you wouldn’t let your wife or your servants read this book’.) During the trial, Ward was so viciously bullied that he committed suicide before the jury could give their verdict.
Mandy, along with Christine and others, was pretty much forced to give evidence at the Ward trial (she’d been imprisoned in Holloway on a trumped-up charge beforehand). When she took the stand, she was questioned about her sex life, which was rather ‘steamy’ at the time (as she puts it), and which she seemed quite unabashed about. During the questioning, Griffith Jones told her that Lord Astor, one of Ward’s friends, had denied ever meeting her, let alone sleeping with her. She famously retorted, ‘Well, he would, wouldn’t he’. The remark went down in history not just because it was so surprising – this confident, glamorous eighteen-year-old refusing to be intimidated by the powers that be – but because it marked a turning point in Britain after the war, where ordinary people were no longer prepared to take orders from an arrogant, hypocritical, and out-of-touch establishment.
This is a truly fascinating story about class, money and sexual politics in Britain. While we were writing the play, I kept thinking, so much has changed (for example, in those days, homosexuality was illegal). Yet so much, in terms of gender divisions and social attitudes, remains the same. Mandy is a terrific raconteur, intelligent, witty, and warm. She’s also had an extraordinary career; she was the mistress of Peter Rachman, the ‘slum landlord’ (but that’s a whole other story – as it turns out much of Rachman’s reputation was down to British anti-semitism , since the church and the aristocracy treated their Notting Hill tenants a good deal worse). After the scandal, she toured Europe as a singer, settled in Israel, and became a successful businesswoman with a chain of discotheques, later returning to Britain, writing two novels, and appearing on the West End stage. She now lives in great style in Surrey, has a wonderful collection of artworks, is extremely hospitable, and great company. A true survivor. Much of the play is recounted by her, and she makes a great narrator. So do tune in, either on the day or on i-player, where it will remain for a few days after the broadcast.
February 10, 2013
This week I went to the Bristol Museum with my friend Paul to see the No Borders exhibition. I’d seen it before, at the opening, but with so many people there, it was hard to concentrate. This time I found it more absorbing.
The most striking images for me were those of Yto Barrada, an artist who had taken photographs of economic migrants sleeping in the parks of Tangier, as part of her project ‘A Life Full of Holes’. These are men waiting to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to work illegally in Europe. Each of them lies alone, head covered, having shed their identities in the hope of remaking their lives. Very moving, I thought.
Also memorable were Imran Qureshi’s images of blood, blossoms, and contemporary miniatures.
The best known piece in the exhibition is probably Ai Wei Wei’s Ton of Tea. It’s a block of compressed puer tea, a dark purplish brown in colour. I was surprised how small a ton actually is. I suppose we use the word metaphorically so often one imagines it to be a massive amount. It’s actually not much bigger than a large guitar amp …
If anything, there’s too much in this exhibition – covering the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, is a tall order. But it does repay going back, perhaps to focus on each artist one at a time.