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Reviews

In Plain Sight: The life and lies of Jimmy Savile

Stephen Tomkins

Dan Davies
Quercus, 584pp

The full extent of Jimmy Savile's crimes, three years after he was found dead with a smile on his face and his fingers crossed, is still not clear. Operation Yewtree heard 450 allegations of sexual abuse committed by Savile, formally recording 214 criminal offences, including 31 rapes, across 28 police force areas over 50 years, of which most victims were between 13 and 16. Even that may be an iceberg tip: Dan Davies quotes an anonymous source from the Dame Janet Smith Review of the BBC (expected to report later this year) reckoning that her report will put the number of his victims at a thousand at the BBC alone.

The point of a biography of someone like Savile, for me, is identification. Saying that you can identify with such an antisocial person who was guilty of such appalling crimes is something you'd want to be careful about, to be sure, but what is the alternative? Unless we have some sense of what went on inside him, unless we can make a realistic imaginative reconstruction of his thoughts and feelings as a man who sexually abused vulnerable young people, based on our knowledge of our own thoughts and feelings, how can we make any response to him that goes beyond booing a pantomime villain or throwing rotten tomatoes at a photo in a newspaper? The job of tabloids may be to give us a monster - which we can simply condemn and comfortably rail at because it is a different species of thing to us - but the job of a biography is to give us a human whose actions we can understand because of the common ground between us, and whose failures help us to know our own. We are not all the same as Jimmy Savile, thank God, but we can't understand how we are different if we don't understand how we are alike.

In Plain Sight, a long, detailed biography based on years of in-depth interviews with Savile, takes this task seriously. I didn't know Davies's name before coming across this book, and the fact that he is editor of Esquire did not predispose me to have confidence in him, but my prejudices were overcome. Davies's long connection with the subject began after seeing Jim'll Fix It recorded as a child and then as a teenager reading Savile's autobiography; Davies became obsessed with him, compiling a dossier of cuttings, fixated by the idea that there was something sinister about him others did not see. Between 2004 and Savile's death in 2011, Davies travelled with him and stayed with him, conducting endless hours of interviews. The result is a thorough, three-dimensional portrait: Savile emerges as a man with an extraordinary gift for self-promotion, capable of inspiring loyalty, with a streak of rock-hard ruthlessness, mountainous self-belief, and remarkable abilities for getting what he wanted out of people. After 68 chapters, you feel as if you've spent serious time with Savile.

And yet, when it comes to identifying with him, I was disappointed. I don't suppose this is any fault of Davies, who is thoroughly committed to discovering what makes Savile tick as a person, without demonising or exonerating. The problem is the subject, for two reasons. Firstly, the main project of Savile's life seems to have been to keep himself to himself, to a staggering extent. He seems to have had no friendships or loves at all, other than his mother, in his whole life. Whatever the reasons for that might have been, it was clearly of the utmost importance to Savile not to let his guard down and to keep his innermost nature absolutely private from everyone forever. That itself is revealing, but it is also entirely successful in obfuscating those inner workings. Whatever earlier damage may have driven his abuse is one of the secrets he took to the grave, and not one which has yet been disinterred.

Secondly, another of Savile's great projects was to cultivate a profound and deliberate oddness. Davies retells the story of how, working in the mines as a Bevin boy in 1945, Jimmy once had to rush to work in a suit and tie, and decided to go to his solitary post without changing into overalls, then strip, keep his clothes clean, complete his shift, wash his hands and face, and then emerge from the pit in a freakishly immaculate outfit. 'The effect was electric,' says Savile, and Davies concludes that he realised then that oddity has a kind of power over people. Power was certainly extremely important to Savile, but there also seems to be more to his love of oddity. For one thing, it was part of Savile's self-promotion, allowing him to stand out; more importantly it seems to be another way Savile kept people at a distance. Savile says of the mining escapade: 'They drew apart from me and I started to draw apart from the normal world'. A deliberately odd appearance was always part of his schtick, and no doubt made people less likely to question his unacceptable behaviour, but it makes the task of identifying all the harder if when we dig we find a man fully committed to being unlike the rest of us.

One secret that does seem to emerge is the development of Savile's sexual compulsion. As a 30-year-old dancehall manager in Manchester, he seems to have had a voracious, but otherwise not extremely unusual, sexual appetite for teenage girls. As he grew older, it became less socially acceptable, but his skill at manipulating people and situations grew, until the thrill of his power to defy society and get away with it became what drove him to abuse people. This tells us much about the trajectory of his career of abuse but less about the reasons for it.

The Christian idea that we are all in the same boat spiritually can be hard to swallow when we see one person inflicting so much devastation, but it is a profoundly humanising one. It's not that we are all equally bad, but that we are all in the same predicament: none of us are angels or monsters, we are all humans, and all alike victims and perpetrators of the universal human propensity to wreck things. After 584 pages, the damage that Savile did is still incomprehensible to me, but then so is my own. How nice it would be if we could put 'his kind' in a boat and send them out to sea and be rid of them, but there's only one boat and we're all in it.