Stephen McGinty: Dealing with the fallout from Savile allegations
REGARDLESS of the outcome of a probe into allegations against Sir Jimmy Savile, the aftermath will have a negative effect on scores of people, while the man himself rests in peace, writes Stephen McGinty
LIKE most children of the seventies I loved Jim’ll Fix It. A scrawny, white-haired old man clanking with gold jewellery, puffing on a cigar and ensconced in a rotating red velvet chair from whose arm rests emerged steaming cups of tea, for an eight-year-old, what’s not to love?
Every Saturday night, promptly at five o’clock Jimmy Savile made a child’s dream come true. While I was too lazy to actually put chubby stump to Basildon Bond and write in with a request, I can still remember that one of my wishes was to swim with dolphins and the Man From Atlantis and my contempt for the unimaginative young cretin who wrote in with a convincing impersonation of Uriah Heep and explained “ever so humbly” that his only wish was to make Jimmy a cup of tea. My jaw was on the floor when Savile announced that he should first be flown to India to pick the leaves.
As I grew up, the childhood desire for a chunky silver “Jim Fixed It For Me” badge on its distinctive red silk ribbon faded while my respect for the charity work of Jimmy Savile deepened.
It seemed to me, and I don’t mind admitting it, that Savile had indeed devoted a huge chunk of his life to helping others. I can’t confirm the figures, but, upon his death, it was reported that he had raised £40 million for charitable causes, primarily through his endless sponsored marathons.
Yet, unlike many celebrities, who, on occasion, are happy to lend their name or participate in a sponsored event that piqued their interest, Jimmy Savile gave up much of his free time. For decades, he was a volunteer porter at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, donning his white coat to push around patients in their wheelchairs and spending hours entertaining children, befriending the lonely and comforting the dying.
Perhaps because of his own fitness and love of running, he focused much of his fund raising on those who would never again feel the slap of the pavement beneath their feet, the patients of the Spinal Unit and the St Francis Ward for children and teenagers with spinal chord injuries. It was clearly work he enjoyed; charitable giving, it has always been said, is its own reward and, unlike an ordinary punter, it burnished his public image and resulted in a knighthood.
But did he cynically do these deeds to achieve such a result? I don’t think so, and you can judge me naive if you like. I think charity was at the core of his strange, twisted, disturbing and, as we now know, criminal life, but so was a lust for pubescent girls.
All week people have asked: how could this have happened? Or, how did he get away with it? They have clearly forgotten how entrenched the sexist attitudes of the past were and how, in the 1960s and 1970s popular culture toyed with what was perceived as the “frisson”of sex with young girls.
In 1968, Jimmy Savile presented Top of the Pops when the American band Union Gap performed their song, Young Girl, over footage of a girl wandering in the woods. The singer crooned: “You led me to believe/You’re old enough/To give me love/And now it hurts to know the truth.”
A few years later, Serge Gainsbourg serenaded his daughter in the video for Lemon Incest. In 1969, the cover of Blind Faith’s album was a topless pubescent girl, and as David Aaronovitch pointed out in The Times this week Eric Clapton was dating a 16-year-old and Jimmy Page was seen in the company of a 14-year-old.
As one of the contributors to ITV’s documentary on Savile explained: “In those days no one asked to see a birth certificate”.
The depressing fact is that it went on because, at the time, people didn’t think it such a big deal.
In many ways Jimmy Savile was cunning, for he hid in plain sight. He was clearly eccentric. He had lived with his mother until her death and then kept her room untouched for years, but for an annual dry-cleaning of the clothes that hung in her closet. He was incapable of forming a lasting relationship with a woman his own age and was sexually attractive to pubescent girls, as he would repeatedly make clear.
An indication of how little credence such behaviour was given at the time was what he wrote in his own autobiography, As It Happens, which was published in 1974. He describes being approached by a female police officer when he was DJing at the Mecca Locarno ballroom in Leeds during the 1950s. She showed him a photograph of “an attractive girl who had run away from a remand home”.
He then wrote: “‘Ah,’ says I all serious, ‘if she comes in I’ll bring her back tomorrow, but I’ll keep her all night first as my reward.’”
As it happened, the girl did visit the club and “agreed that I hand her over if she could stay at the dance [and] come home with me.” When Savile did visit the station the next morning “the lady of the law… who was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues, for it was well known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me.”
I take that last line to mean that half the male police officers would have had experience with underage girls. In the book, Savile also complained about the age of consent being 18 in California on the grounds that things “ripen faster in the sun”.
The ITV documentary revealed that he presented one of the 15-year-old girls he seduced with a copy of his autobiography inscribed: “No escape.” Yet one of the most chilling insights into his character was an audio recording of Savile discussing Gary Glitter and saying of the two ten and 11-year-old girls whom he abused in Thailand: “Cherchez la femme.”
He would even joke to journalists who phoned him up, by saying: “She told me she was over 16.”
When I worked in London, journalists would swear blind that Savile was a necrophiliac and that the sole purpose of his working at Stoke Mandeville Hospital was to gain clandestine access to the mortuary. Of course, he wasn’t, he was a pederast.
It is said to be a sign of maturity to hold two diametrically opposing views in your head at the same time. So we have Jimmy Savile the charitable “saint” and Jimmy Savile the sexual “devil” praying on the young and innocent. Over a lifetime can one balance the other?
There will be those friends of Savile who will be deeply upset that a good man is being cast down without the ability to defend himself. He’s dead and buried, they will argue, let it be. Or, they could point to the thousands of people whose lives he has brightened over the years, or the help he has provided and the money raised, for let’s be clear, they can factually argue that many people’s lives, particularly those who have benefited from his charities, are the better for Jimmy Savile.
Yet the difference is that smiles are quick to fade and even the most generous charitable deed is a gift, an act that raises a person up from where they once were, in comparison Savile’s crimes robbed young girls of their self respect, he lowered them down, took from them what he wanted and left them indebted to shame, doubt and in some cases, deep distress.
At first, when I heard the news that the Metropolitan Police were taking the lead in investigating these allegations my initial reaction was: “What’s the point?” The suspect is dead, there will be no trial, or the prospect of a prison sentence. How can it be construed to be in the public’s interest? But, on reflection, I now believe it is in the public’s interest and, more importantly, that of his victims. The allegations will be examined, accusations of a cover-up by the BBC aired and, most likely, dismissed and the towering figure of Sir Jimmy Savile found to have had feet of clay and wandering, malevolent hands.
Yet we should be in no doubt that the living will have to deal with the consequences of his crimes. What will people think of one of contributors to the ITV documentary who kept silent after seeing Savile with a girl he believed to be 12 and who he knew the presenter then bedded? Or Esther Rantzen, the founder of Childline, who heard all the “green room gossip” about Jimmy’s proclivities but took it no further.
Any charitable work that is still being carried out in his name is now a busted flush, donations will dry up, projects shelved and jobs lost. For the fact is that in the scales of natural justice, good deeds are but feathers beside the leaden weight of child abuse.
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