In her book Ruth Ellis: My Sister’s Secret Life, Muriel Jakubait claims that her club hostess sibling (who was the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain) was set up by the security services after she’d performed various minor tasks for them, and learnt too much about things they didn’t want the general public to know. Drawing a broader picture, other commentators also make it appear that in the middle of the twentieth-century British intelligence was very interested in hostesses like Christine Keeler and Mariella Novotny. According to some observers, Keeler’s club crowd was manipulated for geo-political gain by the British and other security services; books such as Honeytrap by Anthony Summers and Stephen Dorril, or An Affair of State by Caroline Kennedy and Philip Knightley, cover this in some depth. While allegations of this type are often notoriously difficult to substantiate or disprove, it is nonetheless worth noting that alongside the Soho club world, the Notting Hill drug scene in which Keeler and other women from these hostessing circles were simultaneously immersed was also subject to undue influence by representatives of the British state, albeit it in the form of ‘bent coppers’ (see, for example, The Fall of Scotland Yard: A Penguin Special by Barry Cox, John Shirley and Martin Short).
My ongoing interest in Keeler and company is due in part to the fact that my own mother – Julia Callan-Thompson – was a part of their set in the early 1960s. She both worked at Murray’s and lived in Notting Hill, and was completely immersed in the drug subculture there. My mother’s problems with bent west London coppers didn’t really kick in until the mid-sixties, by which time she was working at Churchill’s Club, but while at Murray’s she did mingle in other spook connected circles; for example, the social scene centred on the University College London (UCL) philosophy department in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury. The dominant UCL philosophy figures of that time were A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire, both had worked in military intelligence during the war. They’d previously been part of the same social set as British Soviet spies Burgess, Philby, Blunt and MacLean; and of those more ambivalent and ambiguous Bolshevik sympathisers of the thirties typified by Coronwy Rees.
Roger Taylor, author of the late-seventies cult work of Marxist aesthetics Art, An Enemy of the People, met my mother through her UCL connections in September 1962, the day he enrolled for a philosophy PhD. I should explain here that after my mother settled in London at the age of 16 in 1960, she often socialised with art students from The Slade and through them developed friendships within the UCL philosophy department. Taylor emailed me the following recollections of UCL and my mother Julie on Thursday, May 22, 2003:
“In the early sixties UCL philosophy could be very seductive. Gordon Square was Bloomsbury, it had the “radical” traditions of Mill and Bentham, its philosophers generally were on the Left, many of them had a sort of celebrity status (Ayer on the Brains Trust, Hampshire writing in Encounter), they were manifestly clever (Bernard Williams had the reputation of being the cleverest man in England!). They were engaged with everything “advanced” in culture, they had all the “taste” and “discernment” of the haute bourgeoisie, they were public school and Oxford and the Foreign Office, their morality unconventional with a frisson of scandal. It was the world of Burgess and Blunt but in place of subterfuge they offered furious and ingenious debate about counterfactuals and the like. Entering Gordon Square was to have a feeling of having attained access to somewhere very elevated. Some of this would have been sensed by Julie. She was at home in Gordon Square. When I arrived from the North, very aggressive and very unsure, she was already there and well in. The students knew her, she was very familiar with the secretary and… socialised with faculty.”
While Taylor sees beyond the fake glamour of Gordon Square in the early sixties, his account of the atmosphere to be found there remains very much in accord with those of other observers who still view the place through the ideological blinkers of bourgeois idealism. For example, Alan Ryan in his Independent (17 June 2004) obituary of Stuart Hampshire, writes: “…in 1960… Ayer moved to Oxford, and Hampshire replaced him as Grote Professor at University College, London. There he presided over weekly seminars that offered glimpses of an intellectual heaven where the depth of the issues discussed was matched only by the elegance of the arguments with which they were addressed.” My mother was a clever and feisty working-class teenager from south Wales, and so she would have been more than able to hold her own against upper-class academics who were a lot older than she was at the time.
Likewise, in my mother’s relationships with these philosophers the element of seduction would have run two ways, since the logical positivists from Gordon Square were attracted to the bohemian Soho club world of which she was already a fixture. A. J. “Freddie” Ayer would get drunk and dance in the Gargoyle Club where his fellow drinkers included the painters Francis Bacon and Johnny Minton, publisher David Archer, writer Graham Greene and before they were exposed as Soviet moles, the double agents Guy Burgess and Donald MacLean. So if Julie was drawn to the fake glamour of Gordon Square, there were also those in the UCL philosophy department who felt a strong pull towards the world she worked in.
And as for the spookery, I should emphasis that I don’t think Ayer and Hampshire were still on the payroll of British intelligence while directing philosophical activities at UCL. But casual social ties would have been maintained, and while these were no doubt useful to the spooks, I don’t imagine they had any impact on my mother’s life. By way of contrast, the nefarious activities of bent west London coppers clearly did have an effect on my mother but that’s another story; and as for the shenanigans around the likes of Keeler and Novotny, as far as I’m concerned the jury is still out on that one!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!
Tags: 1960s, 60s, A. J. Ayer, Alan Ryan, An Affair of State, Anthony Blunt, Anthony Summers, Art An Enemy of the People, Barry Cox, Bernard Williams, Bloomsbury, Caroline Kennedy, central London, Christine Keeler, Coronwy Rees, David Archer, Donald MacLean, Francis Bacon, Gargoyle Club, Gordon Square, Graham Greene, Grote Professor, Guy Burgess, Honeytrap, Independent, Jeremy Bentham, John Shirley, John Stuart Mill, Johnny Minton, Julia Callan-Thompson, Kim Philby, Mariella Novotny, Martin Short, Muriel Jakubait, Notting Hill, Philip Knightley, Roger Taylor, Ruth Ellis, Ruth Ellis: My Sister's Secret Life, sixties, Slade School of Fine Art, Stephen Dorril, Stuart Hampshire, The Fall of Scotland Yard: A Penguin Special, UCL, University College London, west London