One Sunday in March 1963, I was having lunch with some friends who I had been teaching to sail their expensive yacht. I was 15 and aspiring; they were all posh and 20 years older. Talk turned to the orgies in the woods surrounding the house. My host's wife tried to distract me, but I sat agog as they described the racy scenes glimpsed through the undergrowth.
As what became known as the Profumo Affair unfolded, a saucy story turned into a ghastly reality of confession, public humiliation and perjury that devoured many lives down the years. The whole squalid business was exhumed in prurient detail by the media last week. What saddened me most was how little attention the accounts of John Profumo's death gave to the second half of his life.
After his political demise, Profumo spent the rest of his life working as a volunteer at Toynbee Hall in Tower Hamlets, one of the 19th century university settlements in which privileged Oxbridge students worked for the poor and dispossessed. He continued the tradition, bridging the gulf between society's poorest and most powerful. At the time, Toynbee and similar foundations looked anachronistic in a prospering Britain whose welfare state was beginning to extend its safety net. Even now, these important agents for social innovation have a far lower profile than they deserve.
Many of the settlements were financially strapped when their original support died. But as social divisions deepened in east London and elsewhere, they acquired new importance as catalysts for social cohesion and enterprise.
Profumo understood this and rebuilt his networks to secure fresh support, using the qualities that had made him a successful politician to provide leadership for the renewal of Toynbee Hall's mission.
Profumo abandoned any pretensions he had as a brigadier and Minister for War, cleaning the toilets at Toynbee before later becoming chairman and, until his death at 91, president. He deliberately set out to atone for his transgression but, unlike most public figures involved in scandals, he continued the atonement for the rest of his life. His work eventually gained recognition and an honour, though he remained modest and retiring.
But in the eyes of the media and the public he was tarnished by sex scandal until he died. In 1963, the affair generated as much self-righteous rubbish as genuine censure: it never lost its potential to make hypocrites of us all.