Scandalously good writing

Next time you get given a daunting writing job, spare a thought for Lord Denning. In 1963, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, asked Denning, a judge, to lead an enquiry into the Profumo affair and report back on what he’d found.

Serious stuff. Not only had Profumo’s dalliance with Christine Keeler destroyed the credibility of the government, it had also posed a threat to national security at the height of Cold War paranoia (Keeler was involved with a Russian naval officer at the same time).

So you’d think Denning’s official report would be uber-formal, stiff and dry. But, surprisingly, it isn’t. In fact, it’s a thumping good read. No wonder it was described at the time as ‘the raciest and most readable Blue Book ever published’ – the lurid subject matter obviously accounted for much of its appeal, but it’s also really well written.

We’re always telling people they can be serious without being formal. And I think Denning achieves that brilliantly. He never seems like he isn’t taking the Profumo scandal seriously. But, for the time, his writing sounds straightforward and relaxed – certainly more so than a lot of legal or government writing you could read today. 

Here are three things I think Denning does particularly well. Give them a whirl for your next corporate report. If Denning could do it, so can you.

1. Using informal words and phrases

Denning throws in some pleasingly informal phrases considering he was writing an official report for the Prime Minister. He often refers to Christine Keeler ‘sleeping with’ both Profumo and the Russian: in the context, the euphemism sounds positively racy. And elsewhere he writes about someone taking out a lease on a house to ‘do it up’. 

In other words, he’s writing more like he’d speak, and that makes his report much easier – and more fun – to read.

2. Borrowing literary tricks

Just because you’re writing something serious doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself. Denning certainly did.

At times, his report reads more like a thriller: ‘The newspaper kept their photographs of the letter. After all, they had paid Christine Keeler £200. Maybe the letter would come in useful one day,’ ends one chapter tantalisingly.

Who wouldn’t want to read on? Meanwhile, the last chapter – a gossipy dissection of various rumours involving government ministers – boasts subheadings that sound like the titles of mystery novels, like ‘The Spaniard’s Photograph’, ‘The Man in the Mask’, or, most intriguingly, ‘The Man Without a Head’.

3. Starting sentences with ‘and’, ‘but’ and ‘so’

In case you needed any further proof that it’s okay to start sentences with conjunctions, here’s Denning doing it three times in the same paragraph:

‘It would be a security matter if Mr Profumo was sharing a mistress with a Russian Naval Attaché – if it meant that there was a flow of secret information passing through her from one to the other. But Ivanov had now left the country. So any present risk had gone. And there was no reason to suppose that any information had passed from Mr Profumo through to the girl.’

He does this throughout the report, and it adds real pace and urgency to the writing. So next time someone tells you off for doing it, just tell them that an eminent High Court judge did it – way back in 1963.

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