In his words: "I am just a professional writer, which means I don't do blogs and try and get money for whatever I write."

Cabbages & Kings: A cooked-up story that was true

Published Dec 10, 2016, 1:13 am IST
Updated Dec 10, 2016, 6:40 am IST
The person “handling” Ms Keeler’s trade was Stephen Ward — not exactly a pimp but an enabler for the great and the “good”.
Journalist Dilip Padgaonkar (Photo: video grab)
 Journalist Dilip Padgaonkar (Photo: video grab)

“When green runs to yellow and brown
The fig leaves fallen, inevitably down
We await the white, the frosty turn
Oh heart, oh heart, how you do burn!”
From Katy My Matey by Bachchoo

O Henry, the American short story writer, whose books adorned the bookshelves of our Pune home, wrote a story about a couple who had languished in guilt for years, only to find that they needn’t have. I shan’t recall the plot of that story here, but it came to mind when I received two emails last week in response to my Cabbages and Kings column published in this newspaper last Saturday. In that column, occasioned by the death of my friend Dileep Padgaonkar, I recalled how, as teenage reporters for the newspaper then called the Poona Herald, we wrote an article about a character called Stephen Ward. He was an osteopath at the heart of a scandal that broke out in London in the early 1960s. John Profumo, the defence minister in the Tory government of the time, shared the professional services of a prostitute called Christine Keeler with the then naval attaché of the Russian embassy. It was naturally suspected that Britain’s defence secrets were in danger of being leaked to the Cold War enemy through pillow-talk.

 

The person “handling” Ms Keeler’s trade was Stephen Ward — not exactly a pimp but an enabler for the great and the “good”. Dileep and I read in the newspapers (there was no Internet!) that Ward had been in India during the Second World War. We set out to prove that he had sojourned in our then small town, the Raj military base of Poona. We checked records of the military hospital in our journalistic quest. We found nothing. I wasn’t giving up. I persuaded Dileep (yes, I take all the blame) to make up the “facts” and “interviews” and offer the article to the Herald. Of course, the editors were delighted with our lying efforts, saying very clearly that they would turn a deaf ear and blind eye to our sources, and the story was prominently published. It caught the attention of the national newspapers and was taken up by Blitz and then went, as we now say, “viral”.

I have lived with the guilt of having misled Dileep, the future editor-in-chief of the Times of India, into this dishonest journalistic escapade and, partly to tell a funny
story and partly to assuage this guilt, I wrote it up in my last column. I insisted that he was the Faust and I the devil, though we both profited from the invention. Lo and behold (which I think means “look and see!”) I received two emails in response to my column, one from my old and best friend, poet Adil Jussawalla, and the other from cricket commentator and writer Gulu Ezekiel. They both said the same thing. Stephen Ward was in Poona at the time we had claimed he was. He wasn’t at the military hospital as he hadn’t been wounded on active service, but he was using his skills as an osteopath.

Both Adil and Gulu directed me to biographies of Stephen Ward, one of which claimed that the English establishment had framed him and that he didn’t do what the newspapers libelled him with. In Pune, it seems, he went to the nature cure clinic of Dinshaw Mehta. It was perhaps at the clinic or elsewhere that he was brought into the presence of Mahatma Gandhi. It was the Mahatma’s day of fasting and silence, but on being introduced to Ward he excused (or “recused”, as we Indians say!) himself from the vow of silence and said: “It’s refreshing to be introduced to a British officer who hasn’t come to arrest me.” Ward’s biographers claim that he went on treat the Mahatma’s neck for stiffness.

On his return to Britain, ever the well-connected socialite, Ward was introduced to Winston Churchill, who required his osteopathic services. He told Churchill that he had treated Mahatma Gandhi in Pune, attending to his neckache. Churchill, according to the biographies, replied that it was a pity he didn’t break it! And that’s all I gleaned from the emails, but they have directed me to the biographies which I shall find some excuse to read, if only to deepen my shame at our teenage folly. However, when I came to Britain and had done with university and was living in London in the early 1970s, I used to hang around with very many disreputable fellows in Notting Hill where there was a café where one could have a drink and perhaps meet contacts who sold several, not quite legal, substances.

One of these personages was called Aloysius Gordon, an Afro-Trinidadian whom everyone called by his nickname “Lucky”. His only claim to fame was that he was the ex-boyfriend of Christine Keeler, the girl at the centre of the Profumo scandal. He used to hang around The Rio, the Caribbean and South American restaurant in Notting Hill which Ward and his circle frequented. By the time I met him, Lucky was a man of a certain age who had been adversely affected by the experience of being, at first, the serious boyfriend of Christine and then a rejected bystander as she began, through Ward and the Rio’s clientele, to mix in heady circles. Lucky persisted in his claim to be the only lover who didn’t pay for her services. But as Christine mixed in high society she left him behind. He used to walk the streets of Notting Hill and hang around the café to which I referred always carrying a photograph album with snaps of himself and Christine in better times — some in risqué postures. He would buttonhole anyone who would listen — and, yes, one day with a friend who knew him I fell victim to his persistent narrative — and would end his sad story of being rejected in love with the phrase “and they call me ‘Lucky’!”

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