Notes From the Margins…

Savile Country

  • June 30, 2014
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The more we learn about the horrendous crimes committted by the creature that was Sir James Wilson Vincent Savile, the more it becomes clear that the former ‘national treasure’ was one of the most prolific and psychopathic sexual predators in British history – a man without a shred of pity, compassion or human empathy.   Last week Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt ‘apologized’ for these crimes and said that they should   ‘shake this house and the country to the core’.

Somehow I suspect that both the house and the country will remain resolutely unshaken.     Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Savile’s crimes is the stunning discrepancy between the essentially revolting and horrific nature of the man himself, and the public perception of Savile during his lifetime.

Too many people glorified, honoured and revered him.   Too many either got him grossly wrong – or ignored evidence of his wrongness and turned a blind eye to his crimes, or at worst, actually colluded in them and covered them up.   In this sense,   Savile’s crimes tell us somethingabout the kind of country that Britain was – and to some extent still is, and the institutions and attitudes that made them possible.

1) Britain was – and to a large extent still is – a country dominated by men.   Whatever his personal sexual pecularities and proclivities for babies, old people and the dead, Savile exhibited a certain sense of male entitlement that regarded female bodies of whatever age as objects for his sexual gratification, and nothing else.   Nothing specially British about that – but Savile’s views on women – and minors – were clearly shared by many of his BBC colleagues and by other men too, or were at least not deemed worthy of challenge.

2) Britain is a country in which power confers carte blanche in certain circles to do whatever you want, to whomever you want.   The West Yorkshire police officers who were members of Savile’s ‘Friday morning club’ and may have helped cover up his crimes; the BBC managers who failed to investigate Savile and did not even have the guts to allow a documentary about his crimes to go out on air; the hospital managers who ignored complaints about his behavior – all of these were individuals in positions of public responsibility who grossly failed in their duty to enforce and uphold the law, to care and protect the weak and vulnerable, or tell the truth about Savile because the truth was too unpleasant for them.   So far none of them have been exposed or paid a price for it.

3) Britain is a country filled with people who are essentially deferential towards those above them, who will always shut up and be silent when told to, just as some police and hospital staff did when they made complaints about Savile to their line or senior managers and were ordered not to mention them again.     Some may do so out of fear of being libelled or losing their jobs, others subordinate their moral principles to the overriding goal of advancing their own careers and ‘getting on’.   Savile was a particularly horrendous beneficiary of such cowardice and moral turpitude.

3) Britain is a society where too many people regard the rich and famous with the dim-witted reverential fascination once reserved for viscounts and barons.   Some of Savile’s starry-eyed admirers clearly saw him a source of money, status or prestige, and his power also stemmed from his fame and his proximity to other famous people.

Savile was a flashy trashy product of the celebrity pseudo-aristocracy that emerged from the crossover of pop music and fashion in the 60s.     He used that position to worm his way into the heart of the British establishment, and also to exert sexual power over the wannabe young girls who gravitated towards him.   Like his sleazy peer Max Clifford, and some of his BBC colleagues, Savile used his proximity to the stars to extract sexual ‘favors’ – and there were clearly those who were willing victims.

4) Britain is a society where fame makes people credulous and stupid.   Granted, Prince Charles and Princess Diana didn’t know that he was a sexual predator and a necrophiliac who wore jewellery made from dead people’s glass eyes, but you have to be a pretty poor judge of character to believe that such a man could counsel you about your marriage.

But they weren’t the only ones with poor judgement.   Margaret Thatcher once condemned the ‘permissive society’ and claimed that ‘ A society must have rules if it is to be civilised.’     Yet the necrophiliac paedophile who raped brain-damaged young girls was her friend, and became a Christmas guest of the Thatcher family for eleven years.   And then there was   Mary Whitehouse, the arch-puritan and defender of childhood innocence, who praised Savile’s show for providing ‘wholesome family entertainment’ in 1977.

And the millions of tv viewers who preferred to believe in a pop-eyed peroxide fairy godfather who went around ‘fixing’ things, rather than looking for ways to ‘fix’ things themselves, and ignored inconvenient facts that contradicted that image.   We are, after all, talking about a man who publicly expressed his fondness for dead people and who once joked to a young paraplegic patient ‘ now I can have my way with you’ in an interview with a national newspaper.   Yet this utter creep was regarded by a large swathe of the British public as some kind of secular saint.

5) Britain is a Tory country, steeped in Tory ideology.   Savile was lionised by Tory governments and the Thatcher government in particular.   Hunt is quite right to criticize his predecessor Edwina Currie for allowing a DJ free access to a top security mental hospital because Savile promised to break a union strike and impose new working patterns on the staff.   But his   appointment took place at a time when the Thatcher government was closing dozens of mental hospitals under its ‘care in the community’ program – closures which made thousands of mental patients homeless and without any care at all.

For Currie and her colleagues, closures were accompanied by a drive to impose   new ‘working patterns’ on hospital staff who were still in their jobs, so why not get someone like Savile to help ‘fix it’ for them?     The Tories always love to bring in unqualified outsiders when they are trying to break up or ‘discipline’ the public sector.   To the Thatcher government, the mentally-ill were little more than a burden on the public purse, powerless and therefore worthless deviants who were natural victims of public sector cuts.     Why would such a government look too closely into who had responsibility for them, if that person was singing from the same political page?

Savile’s appeal to the Tory party also stemmed from his charitable work.   To a government that viscerally loathed the whole concept of a tax-funded health service, and upheld ‘Victorian values’ as a model for ‘post-industrial’ British society, Savile’s philantrophy and   corporate fundraising was also a model for the NHS – a future-in-the-past in which health and education were no longer dependent on state funding but on the whims of entrepreneurs and self-made men.

At Stoke Mandeville, for example, Savile raised millions of pounds from Japanese corporations to pay for a hospital that should have been financed publicly.   No wonder its   management team let Savile run it as if it were his own personal property and turned a blind eye to complaints and rumours.   How many of ‘Savile’s hospitals’ did the same thing, in order not to jeapordize their funding streams?

So yes, let Savile ‘shake the country to the core.’     Because a country that allowed such things to happen deserves to be shaken.   And let us name those who should be named and ask the questions that should be asked, not just about him, but about those who made his crimes possible.

That would be pretty much the only good thing that could come out of this infinitely sad and disgusting business.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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