Growing up in working class Britain in the 70s and 80s meant being submerged in a soup of -isms. My family were deeply racist, sexist, and even though my father was seriously disabled by polio as a child, he and all his friends and family had a deep and abiding hatred of the disabled. They also hated children. “Children should be seen but not heard” was a catechism in my extended family, along with a wide range of repulsive opinions about black people, Asians, and any other foreigners. Special hatred was reserved for women from any of these groups, and their many failings were a common topic of conversation. This wasn’t some kind of background opinion, dragged up only to comment on e.g. news items, or the particularly bad behavior of a specific member of these many classes of people. Rather, it was a kind of current of hatred flowing just below the surface of ordinary life, something that could bubble up into conversation unbidden, so that race and gender were inserted into even the most banal of conversational topics. The sex and race politics of my kith and kin were not just a kind of theoretical infrastructure; they were the dressing on the stones, the decoration on the walls, and the general substance of every day life. It was hard for any time to pass before someone declared a judgment on someone else, usually someone not white or not male, and that judgment was born of fury and hatred, not just clashing political perspectives or remote ideals.
When I was a child all this seemed normal, and after I left my childhood behind and my family and class with it, I was mystified by the intensity of my childhood’s racial and sexual background, but I assumed maybe it was something aberrant about my immediate environment, or maybe I was just too sensitive to it. Some of the more reprehensible aspects of my childhood just seemed normal and it took me a long time to realize they weren’t, and although I eventually started discovering a lot more sexual abuse and violence in my friends’ family pasts than I had originally expected, I didn’t put it all together.
Then the Jimmy Savile case happened, and I think I started to understand at least some of where I came from. Jimmy Savile was Britain’s most prolific child abuser, sexually assaulting at least 200 people, at least 6 of whom were under the age of 10 and the vast majority of whom were children. He was a famous DJ and television superstar, a household name in the UK and much-loved, but he turned his fame into a tool to assault and rape hundreds of girls. He also used his fame to secure protection against prosecution, destroying any case against him and becoming good friends with highly-placed police and politicians. He had regular meetings with Prince Charles, and was on good terms with a great many powerful figures in the NHS, where he used a few hospitals as his personal hunting ground. He had a set of keys to one hospital that he raised a lot of money for, and his own room, and used his freedom of movement to sexually harass nurses and assault sick and disabled children. Were you to write a crime novel about this man its sheer preposterousness would make it unpublishable, but his crimes were definitely real, they spanned the whole country and his network of sycophants and supporters was spread through the police, the criminal justice system, the health service and even the royal family.
If you watch any video of Jimmy Savile now, it should be perfectly clear that he is a freak, a weird and disturbing man with a creepy manner and obvious signs of personality disorders. The way he speaks is so completely disengaged from the interviewer, so self-aggrandizing, so threatening, that there has to be something deeply wrong with him. But in the 1970s and 1980s this poster-child for sexual abuse and misconduct was a household name in the UK.
How did that happen?
It wasn’t just Jimmy Savile, though. Other DJs and public figures connected with him have now been identified as prolific child abusers, and the UK parliament is finally getting around to considering an inquiry into a sex abuse ring amongst parliamentarians and judges that may have been implicated in the murder of a child in housing set aside for high profile political figures. Jimmy Savile was good friends with senior figures from the South Yorkshire Police Force, who are infamous for their attack on miners at the Orgreave mine during the miner’s strike, and for concocting fake evidence about the Hillsborough tragedy – the documentary on Savile claims he hosted them at his house, and that they quashed investigations into his activities. North and West Yorkshire police have also been implicated in this cover up of his activities, and of other paedophile rings operating in their areas. The South Yorkshire police were also responsible for investigating the Rotherham child-exploitation ring that ran through the 1990s and 2000s; unsurprisingly, they did not just fail to break this ring, but dismissed sexual assault complaints from children because these children were judged by the police to be consenting to the assaults. Of course the victims of the Rotherham abuse were homeless children – poor and in protection, just like Savile’s primary victims.
In many ways these children- Savile’s victims and those of the Rotherham scandal – were very similar to me. I avoided being put into protection, but I came from the kind of family background where this kind of thing was all too common. At the age of 10 or 11 I was wandering the streets alone (or in the company of my brother) with much older girls until very late at night, perhaps 10 or 11; on one occasion when I was perhaps 10 or 11 I went on a double date with my brother and two girls perhaps two years older than us, who told us about a recent date one of them had been on where she was directly asked to give head. We didn’t think this unusual because we were all sexually active by then, though none of us had any clue what we were doing. Many of the girls were involved with much older men, and all of us were completely unsupervised. My brother ended up becoming entangled with criminals, and was taken from my family into care for four years – my family abandoned him and took me to Australia, a decision I thought was completely normal until I spoke about it with Australians years later and they expressed shock and amazement at my parents’ callousness.
Were my parents callous, or were they normal?
I think I grew up in a culture steeped in child abuse, where children are considered a burden and exploitation of children is normal. I think our society had no protection against predators at all, even lauded them, and the social structures of my society were set up to ensure that predators found and protected each other. It’s no coincidence that the people who protected the Rotherham rapists also protected Jimmy Savile, fabricated horror stories against dead soccer fans and striking workers who they attacked brutally. This is why Johnny Lydon knew about Jimmy Savile for years and did nothing, and when he openly stated in a BBC interview that he knew what was happening it was cut and nothing was done. This is why Jimmy Paige was openly fucking a 14 year old and bragging about it in interviews, and no one was doing anything. Children were to be used – Savile himself was a Bevin boy, and there are rumours of a bad relationship with his mother that he may have found recompense for in necrophilia – and there was no protection or regard for their safety. Sure, if you were a rich and powerful person you could protect your own children, but this was just a personal effort, a rock against the tides.
My parents were not rich and powerful. They were poor and weak.
I think British culture in the 1970s and 1980s was built around power, abuse and exploitation. Not just economic but real, immediate and physical, of the weak by the strong. This is the society in which my parents were adults, the society I was raised in. I think that this environment of open abuse, disempowerment and corruption informed the attitudes my parents and peers had – it was a society built on the open, naked exploitation of others, on finding someone who was lesser than you and fucking them, metaphorically or better still physically. It was a society of men and for men, but especially for the rich and powerful men who could fuck, take and kill. Somehow I managed to slide through this without getting hurt, even though I was the prey in this environment – they got my brother but they didn’t get me. I think this was just luck. I made it to 13 unscathed and my parents moved to Australia, and it was like a burst of sunlight into a shadowed life, though I didn’t know it then. I don’t have any evidence, but I think Australia’s attitude towards children was different, more loving and cherishing. I was still unsupervised and wild and at risk, but I think Australia was more protective. I was better educated in the risks, and teachers at my school noticed me and tried to help me. They didn’t just see me as working-class cannon fodder, but as an actual human with aspirations and a future. Later, when I started working in drug and alcohol, the Woods Royal Commission identified patterns of sexual abuse and cracked down on them, introducing wide-ranging protections against child abuse (in 1996) that were still lacking in Britain when I moved there in 2008. Jimmy Savile was still alive when Australia introduce full-powered, fully-supported mandatory child abuse reporting requirements for teachers, medical staff and police. Had he been Australian his legacy would have been dragged down and destroyed long before he died, and he almost certainly would have died in prison.
I don’t know, of course, and this blog post isn’t really intended to be a comparative study in fuckedness. What’s clear to me now though is that there was something deep and dark flowing beneath the surface of British society when I grew up – a society of power and exploitation, where one’s worth was set by who one was better than, and people exploited those they were better than – some kind of toxic mixture of class, crippled sexuality, shame and horror. I don’t know how it came about or how it can be fixed, but its central symbol is Jimmy Savile, a sick, cigar-reeking old man stalking the halls of a cancer ward, trying to fuck desperately sick children, while politicians and royals and police and judges and television celebrities all protect him. This is a man who put his hand up a child’s skirt on live TV, you can see her recoil and try to get away, who was never touched by the law for even the smallest of his crimes. This environment of exploitation, rape and power is the reason my family and peers were so deeply, negatively and pathologically hateful of anyone beneath them: because they and their children were the hated, vulnerable victims of multiple tiers of society lying above them, that were protected by multiple layers of legal, professional and class power, and the only dignity available to them had to be stolen from someone else.
Rotherham shows that Britain hasn’t come to terms with this yet, and won’t for some time to come. I hope the coming inquiry into political sexual abuse will help them to drag this stuff out into what little light there is in British life, but I doubt it: British high society never punishes its own. I think it will be a long time before Britain can solve these problems, and I think until it does its working class will continue to have a rich and deep vein of hatred and racism running through it, because without people to sneer at and hate the working class of Britain – and especially its poorest, unemployed class – have no path to dignity that they are able to comprehend within their own social context.
Until Savile was revealed for the sham rapist that he is, I hadn’t really thought about the cultural context of my own childhood sins and vulnerabilities. I still don’t know how to put it all together, those confused fragments that I experienced by myself or with my brother in the wilds of Britain’s post-industrial wasteland after dark, and how they relate to that bigger, larger and much darker world of power and exploitation that was crouching just out of my field of vision. I wonder if anyone else has or can. But I think until someone does, Britain will remain broken.