We could learn from a woman who nearly brought down a government yet got on with life rather than milked her fame
Mandy Rice-Davies. ‘She didn’t try to make a mint with a kiss-and-tell. She carried on singing, and dancing, and living her life.’ Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty
Mandy Rice-Davies didn’t go to Eton. If she had – which might, it’s true, have been tricky, since she was neither male nor rich – she might have learned that pupils at Eton are “expected to take a risk”. And she might have learned that they “have the freedom to make and then learn from their own mistakes”.
I learned these things about Eton, and other “schools of character”, at a conference hosted by the thinktank Demos to look at the role that policy can play in building character. Lots of people in politics, on both left and right, have started talking about character. An all-party parliamentary group has even published a report on “resilience and character”.
“Character” sounds like a lovely idea, as does “resilience”, and “grit”, and “self-control” and all the other “virtues” discussed by eminent politicians, charity leaders and academics. A Tory minister talked about the need for good parenting. A charity leader talked about the role of volunteering. A Paralympian explained what was like to get up at 4.40am to swim 16,000 metres every single day.
The keynote speech was on “character in the classroom”. It was given by a striking blond who hopes, if Labour wins in May, to be in charge of the country’s state schools, even though he didn’t go near one until he was an adult. “Failure,” said Tristram Hunt, quoting Winston Churchill, “is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.” Hunt didn’t talk much from personal experience, perhaps because he didn’t have all that much experience of failure to draw on. It would have been nice to hear from someone who did. It would, for example, have been nice to hear from the striking blonde who told a packed court room at the Old Bailey in 1963 that a viscount she’d had sex with seemed to be lying.
When Mandy Rice-Davies, who died last week, and her friend Christine Keeler nearly brought down a government, they may or may not have been “call girls”. They had both worked as “show girls” at a cabaret club. They had both been to at least one orgy, where guests wearing masks and carrying whips were served roast swan. They had both accepted money from men they’d had sex with. But they were, says the writer Tom Mangold, who reported on the trial at the time, really just “good-time girls”. “I slept with less than 10 men over two years,” Rice-Davies told him in an interview last year. “By today’s standards, that’s monastic.”
It can’t be that much fun to be world famous as a prostitute. It certainly wasn’t much fun for Keeler, who has lived most of her life as a recluse. But if Rice-Davies was ever tempted to hide away, she didn’t show it. After the trial at the Old Bailey, she joined a German cabaret, had a relationship with a half-French, half-Italian baron, moved to Israel, married an Israeli businessman, and then a Frenchman and then a British businessman called Ken. She and Ken, who was a friend of Denis Thatcher’s, even went on holiday with Denis and his wife. The woman who almost helped bring down a government went on holiday with one of Britain’s longest-serving prime ministers.
What Rice-Davies didn’t do, as a Tory politician recently did after a hoohah involving naked selfies and Twitter, was tell journalists that she had been “mentally raped”. She didn’t try to make a mint with a kiss-and-tell. She carried on singing, and dancing, and living her life. “As far as I’m concerned,” she said, “the Profumo affair was just a pimple. I made mistakes, but I never quite tripped up or fell down.”
Character and resilience, as one speaker at the conference said, “are major factors in social mobility”. The policeman’s daughter from Solihull, who spoke truth in a court room, kept her dignity, and didn’t milk her fame for gain, could give us a lesson or two in resilience and social mobility – and in how to pick yourself up and have a damn good time.