I grew up in Scarborough, where Jimmy Savile, British TV and yoof radio God of the 1970s and 80s, had one of his many and various abodes. I believe he also owned houses in Leeds, London and on the south coast. Over the last week Savile’s reputation as a charitable TV eccentric has taken a premier league battering. If you’ve missed out on the story this is as good a introduction as any. In the week since the story broke the allegations have come thick and fast, and the perception seems to be that Savile’s abuse of young girls was something of an open secret for a large part of his career.
Now, like many people who live, or have lived, in Scarborough I have my own Jimmy Savile anecdote. He was (sort of) at my wedding reception. EngineerBoy and myself got married in Scarborough and our reception was at a large hotel on the south cliff, not far from Savile’s flat in the town. Essentially, that meant that the hotel bar was his local, and, on the night of our wedding, there he was resplendent in shell suit and string vest. This was 2002, a good 15 years after the height of his TV fame, but Savile’s presence was still enough to cause some small excitement amongst those guests who’d grown up with “Jim’ll Fix It” as a Saturday tea time fixture. Various people got him to pose for photos, including one in which he cheerfully licked a plant (for reasons known only to himself). I’m told that when invited to come and join our party, Savile declined, commenting that he, “didn’t like being around happy people.” I was also told, by more than one female guest, that Sir Jimmy had taken a vigorous feel of their bottom while posing for pictures. Generally, the women involved shrugged off the fact with a kind of world-weary, “typical, dirty old man,” attitude.
And that seems to be symptomatic of the way that a lot of people over the years responded to Savile, and it’s an attitude that most of us have probably adopted at some point or another. I suspect there’ll be very few women reading this who’ve never had their arse pinched or slapped by a stranger or distant acquaintance, and simply shrugged it off. I certainly have. In the moment it feels more pragmatic and a lot easier than saying something and being accused of being shrill and over-sensitive.
Many of us will also have had situations where we’ve heard rumours of something more sinister going on. For example, a teacher at my former secondary school was jailed last year for sexual relations with students dating back into the 1980s. The shocking point about that story was that it hadn’t happened sooner. There were constant rumours, when I was a pupil, about that particular teacher sleeping with students. Some of those rumours must surely have made it back to the staff room. Maybe not, or maybe, without a clear accusation in front of them staff and governors found it easier not to dig too deeply. No-one wants to be the person who is seen as taking things too seriously and making unnecessary fuss.
And here’s where I manage to generate and hold two potentially contradictory opinions. Firstly, I absolutely applaud anyone finds the courage to speak out and try to take action when they’ve experienced abuse, whether they do that immediately, a week later, or several years later. It’s completely understandable that young girls don’t speak out about abuse at the time. Part of the psychology of an abuser is in the ability to convince the victim that they’re special or chosen, and that they’re party to secrets that must be held close. It can take years, if it happens at all, to break down the mental and emotional bindings created by an abusive elder.
But secondly, there is one really big difference between the case of Jimmy Savile and the teacher I mentioned. The teacher was still alive when the allegations came to light. He was arrested, charged, tried and found guilty, after the opportunity to defend himself in court. Savile will never have that opportunity, and with no opportunity to defend himself I don’t see how he can fairly be proven guilty. Does that mean he remains innocent? Well, clearly not from the point of view of the women who say they were raped or sexually assaulted by him, but legally it probably does. It may be that there are other people who conspired to assist or hide any abuse that occurred and there may be criminal charges that can be brought against them. That might offer some small very sense of resolution to the women involved.
I don’t think that even Jimmy Savile’s closest friends or (rapidly diminishing group of) defenders would argue that he wasn’t an odd man. But odd isn’t the same as guilty. Eccentric isn’t the same as criminal. Weird isn’t the same as abusive. Any woman who experienced sexual abuse, by Jimmy Savile or anyone else, should always feel able to speak about it. Their stories are important, and they form a, too often ignored, part of our cultural make-up. We need to learn when it’s not ok to turn a blind eye, when the other adults around and about need to be awkward and shrill and make a fuss. But we can’t try a dead man.
This is an almost overwhelmingly sad situation. There’s a group of women who experienced incredible trauma and only felt safe to speak out when the man they believe abused them is cold in the ground. There’s a man whose reputation is comprehensively destroyed with no means to offer a defence. And there’s little hope of justice for anyone.