For those few who don’t already know, Jimmy Savile was a flamboyant, eccentric, and a (once) much-loved celebrity, with a successful career as a DJ and his own long-running TV show, Jim’ll Fix It. But he was mainly revered for his astonishing ability to raise millions of pounds for charity.
He was honoured and feted, and during the 70s and 80s was part of the background to our lives. It was Jim who told us to ‘clunk click every trip’. He wanted us to stay safe. He made dreams come true. He was as ubiquitous and as non-threatening as wallpaper.
It wasn’t until after his death that he was revealed to be a predatory sex offender.
The full scale of his abuse is awful and almost unbelievable, with over 400 individual complainants. His victims were predominately female but included boys. They range in age from 8 to 47, with half being under 18 at the time of the abusive incident.
When this news began to break, I was truly shocked. Jimmy Savile had always seemed an odd figure and, in later life, rather sad in his perpetual efforts to court public attention. But a paedophile? With so much access to children – via his TV shows, charity appearances, hospital work – how on earth had he got away with it?
I read, somewhere, that Jimmy’s dark secret was hidden in plain view. We had a blind spot and couldn’t see it. He had even admitted in his 1974 autobiography to having sex with minors.
Really? I wanted to check for myself.
The contents of this book
When reading the autobiography, I tried to separate the experience of the writing from my knowledge of the hidden man. It was an impossible task but I’ll set out here, as I do with all the books I review, what I liked and didn’t like about the writing.
This book is, essentially, a collection of anecdotes related in roughly chronological order, covering the span of Savile’s life from childhood until the early 1970s.
I assumed in advance that Jimmy Savile had used a ghost writer. But, after reading a few pages, it soon became evident that these were his own words. The style is rough, colloquial and disregards normal grammatical constructs. It captures both the idiosyncrasies of northern speech, and Jimmy’s own verbal mannerisms, far too faithfully to be the work of a professional writer. Also, there is something curiously nebulous about the text. There are no dates, little scene setting, no establishing of context.
Interestingly, Jimmy reveals his writing process in the final chapter. He wrote in longhand.
“[The book] simply wrote itself, using me, several pens and about eight cheap exercise books… Going back to the start and tracing slowly along through the years, I spent far more time daydreaming than writing…”
He wrote as the memories came to him, without using diaries or resorting to his extensive collection of newspaper clippings. This explains the absence of dates and the sparseness of background detail. When recalling events, we tend to remember how we experienced it, but not necessarily exactly where and when it happened.
What I liked about it
I didn’t want to like the book, but it had many good qualities. Here are some of them:
- The voice is unmistakably authentic and unmistakeably Jimmy Savile.
- By concentrating on anecdotes and not worrying about context, it misses out the mundane background stuff. This can be frustrating at times – but makes for a fast-paced narrative.
- Life is messy and our personalities are messier still and this book didn’t disguise that complexity. It was at times engaging and at other times infuriating. One moment modestly self-deprecating, the next outrageously boastful.
- Primarily, it was easy to read and seemed to be disarmingly candid – exactly what you want in an autobiography. If I didn’t know better, I would have said it was an astonishingly honest recollection and gave us a true insight into the author’s personality and beliefs.
In the final chapter, Savile talks about how much he enjoyed writing the book.
“My fluid, fluent style enormously surprised the publishers – but not me, for writing stories, or composition as it was called then, was the only thing I excelled at in my elementary school.”
The above sentence is a typical example of how the narrator switches effortlessly from supreme arrogance to endearing humility. But there is no doubt he is a natural story teller.
The text is written as you would expect in the first person and past tense. But, when recounting an anecdote, Savile occasionally switches to the present tense, a surprisingly effective technique, and one that I am sure was completely unconscious.
What I didn’t like about it
- The lack of dates, or context, made events frustrating vague in places and the timeline difficult to follow. For example, given later revelations, I wanted to know old Jimmy Savile was when various incidents happened.
- There is no disguising the fact that the man had a monstrous ego, and he focuses the narrative almost exclusively on the main protagonist – himself. This means there is no third party viewpoint, no objective assessments, no external voice. This is Jimmy’s life as seen by Jimmy. And nobody else’s opinion matters very much.
- In places the roughness of the language made it difficult to understand what was being said. This was particularly so in the final chapter. (In fact, I wondered if this final section was added as an afterthought and so escaped from the publishers’ editorial input.)
Jimmy Savile as person
Of course my primary intention in reading the book was to try to understand the mind-set of a man who could behave in such an appalling manner. I was also interested to see how much, if any, of his true character, he gave away in this autobiography.
In fact, he revealed a great deal. In places the book reads like a stream of consciousness.
There is no doubt the man was an extreme egoist, a narcissist even. He was willing to lie, manipulate and cheat in order to promote his own ambitions. And his ambitions were based around the twin aims of (a) making money and (b) self promotion. As the money flowed in, the first aim assumed less importance and the second came to dominate his life.
Some people cite Savile’s charitable work as the one admirable part of his life. Others say his charity work was a form of penance for his hidden misdeeds. My impression from reading the book was that everything he did, including all his charitable exploits, was done in the interests of self promotion. Charity work drew in people. It made him friends. It garnered the attention of the press. “Jimmy Savile makes another £100,000” is not a likely headline. “Jimmy Savile raises another £100,000 for charity” gets him front page columns and a photo splash.
He was also a man who believed in God, a Catholic who went to mass. Astonishingly, subsequent to this book, he wrote a further autobiography and a book about religion entitled God’ll Fix It. Wow! How did he square that? I have no idea.
Jimmy Savile as predator
Savile talks about his sexual exploits in the book, but in rather vague language. With the benefit of hindsight, we can read between the words, but he was careful not to expose himself too much.
He does recount the incident in which he takes a young female runaway home with him for the night before turning her over to the police. He implies the girl gave her willing consent after considering the “alternative option”. The nature of this alternative is somewhat hazy. Whilst the book doesn’t tell us how old the girl was, it is likely that she was underage, because of the reaction of the female police officer when he handed her over. And, tellingly, this anecdote makes clear how unhealthy his relationship with the local police had become.
“The officeress 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.”
Three things are obvious.
- He liked the girls young. Although he is careful not to mention the ages of the girls, there are frequent references to irate parents coming round and dragging their daughters away. Clearly these were teenagers, not adult women.
- He had cultivated a relationship with the police that protected him against accusations of wrong doing.
- He regarded females as objects, while professing to admire them. They are “lovely ladies”, “real beauties” or “dolly birds”, but not real people. One plate shows him standing on a stage with his turntables and a group of very young girls staring up at him. The caption reads: “Sylvester Cat plus Tweety Pies”. The predator and the victims. Which just about sums it up.
Jimmy Savile and women
Of all the references to female characters he has met, she is the only one who has any real status in his story. And, in his own words, “my only real true love to date.”
The rest of the women and girls in the book – and there are many mentioned – feature neither as friends nor as companions. They are prizes or rewards, not real people.
At various points in the book he paints himself with pathos as a lonely figure, who could have been married if he wished but decided not to – as though you can simply choose to get a marriage partner in the same way as you buy a pair of socks.
In the final chapter Savile addresses his reader directly.
“So let us be off to attend to our affairs. For those lucky ones who will stay at home with the wife and kids, I salute you and envy you more than you think.”
Why have I drawn your attention to this quote? The female readers of this blog with have noticed the subtle sexism in this remark – Jimmy Savile makes the assumption that his readers are men. Strange, because it was, apparently, yearning females who made up the largest part of his fan club. But in this simple sentence he excludes them as his intended audience.
I think this is very telling. In Jimmy Savile’s world, women didn’t count for very much.