vlcsnap-2016-10-18-22h23m36s55‘I remembered the stories that I had heard over the years working in newspapers about Jimmy Savile…I’d interviewed Savile back in the late 1970s and I thought he was a deeply unpleasant man, that his public face was very different from the face that he showed when it was just the two of us together…we could never tell the story at the time ‘cause we could never get enough weight of credible evidence against him. I thought, well this is a story I can tell in fiction.’

Those are the words of crime fiction novelist and former newspaper journalist Val McDermid, speaking about her 1997 book, ‘The Wire in the Blood’; in it, a famous TV personality is revealed as a secret serial killer who gets away with his crimes on account of his celebrity. The interview came from a BBC4 programme aired at the beginning of this week in which Andrew Marr focuses on three of the most popular literary genres – crime, fantasy and spy. He prefaced his chat with McDermid by making the connection between her horrific creation Jacko Vance and Jimmy Savile, reiterating ‘what we all now know’ about Sir Jim beforehand and letting the author reinforce the accepted post-2012 narrative as she discussed her novel. Oddly enough, this section of the programme made no mention of the incident that took place during a book-signing session McDermid participated in at the University of Sunderland in December 2012, when a member of the public asked her to sign a photo of Savile from a ‘Top of the Pops’ annual and then proceeded to throw ink at her.

McDermid ticks a lot of boxes in that she’s a lesbian in a civil partnership with a child born of donor insemination; she also writes books that specialise in graphic (some might say voyeuristic) depictions of sadistic violence and torture. We can’t condemn her for the latter on account of her being such a good egg when it comes to the former. After all, her conveniently suitable opinion of Savile as being ‘a deeply unpleasant man’ echoes the words of Savile’s former TOTP co-host Tony Blackburn when he quickly sought to distance himself from an ex-colleague by referring to him as ‘a horrendous man’; this was, of course, long before Blackburn himself was sacked from the BBC after being wrongly linked to an unsavoury incident from the 70s that had the popular image of Savile stamped all over it.

It was interesting that McDermid should use the excuse of creating a fictional character rather than falling back on her journalistic experience to tell ‘the truth’ about Savile because ‘we could never get enough weight of credible evidence against him’. No, she couldn’t; and nor has anyone since – unless hearsay and unverifiable accusations against a dead man count as credible evidence, of course. Oh, sorry, I forgot – they do. Coming from a journo like McDermid who was supposedly in search of a scoop 24/7, it does sound like something of a cop-out; the same could be said, however, for every journalist who is now wise after the event.

For a public figure who apparently spent the majority of his lengthy career surrounded by unseemly rumours, it was rather miraculous that Jimmy Savile was never exposed in his lifetime as the man he was exposed as posthumously. Since when have newspaper journalists ever shied away from exposing public figures as being contrary to the image they project to the masses? Even in the deferential early 60s they dared to go for the jugular of the Minister for War, someone ranking a little higher in the country’s social hierarchy than a TV and radio personality.

But Val McDermid is sticking to the story we’ve been told for the past four years and I don’t believe anyone would expect her to do anything else. Imagine if she’d described Savile as ‘a really nice guy I immediately warmed to’. No, I can’t imagine it either. It has become an unwritten rule that Jimmy Savile now has to be spoken of in such terms and the narrative cannot be questioned or contradicted. The numerous TV programmes he hosted on the BBC for over thirty years can now only be exhumed from the archives if they’re to be used in a ‘serial paedophile’ context on a news broadcast or documentary; otherwise, they must never be transmitted as mere entertainment again, lest the very sight of him provokes the awakening of a repressed abuse memory. Veer from the narrative at one’s peril, and forget ever getting to the actual ‘did he?/didn’t he?’ truth as a consequence.

The media that had lauded Jimmy Savile as a Great British Eccentric while he was still with us – despite the blunt fact that a lot of people never cared much for him at all – is the same media that now demands we accept the reverse opinion; whereas pre-2012, dissenting voices weren’t given a platform, the change to the narrative since then ironically sees an identical scenario. Few – if any – dared to go public with their suspicions when he was alive, and now few – if any – dare to publicly question the perceived wisdom on Savile now he has been reborn as the Great British Paedo. Oh, I know there’s plenty of it online; but good luck if you try saying it on the telly or the wireless. The ability to question the consensus free from persecution or litigation should be one of the foundation stones of a democracy, though it’s interesting to look back almost twenty years ago, when The Conet Project began releasing recordings of clandestine Numbers Stations on CD. The prophetic sleeve-notes penned by compiler Akin O Fernandez referenced the fear that greeted his decision to commercially release tapes of something every government denies the existence of.

‘The depth of fear we have encountered in otherwise psychologically normal people is incredible,’ he wrote. ‘What kind of nation is it that has people second guessing their every action to check its legal status?’ ‘We are living in a time of widespread fear,’ he continued. ‘This level of paranoia used to be exhibited (with good reason) in the Eastern Bloc states; now this virulent plague has crept into the western mindset. It has oozed in very slowly, which is how it seems to have been able to take such a firm and widespread grip on the population without anyone really noticing that anything has changed…in 100 years time when we are all dead and shortwave radio is a memory, our recordings and log books will be an invaluable resource to future researchers who will laugh out loud at the Wireless and Telegraphy Act when they study the insane asylum known as the twentieth century.’

Change the century and the subject, and those words could have been penned in 2016, never mind 1997.

© The Editor


TowerWhen the world was a far bigger (not to say more mysterious) place than it is today, information on a subject that didn’t receive mass media coverage was often acquired from some dusty volume in the local library – if you were lucky. Some subjects, it appeared, remained uncovered and unnoticed. Take what could be found on the outer limits of the wireless. Before the colonisation of the family home by FM units incorporated into swanky hi-fi sound systems, the humble portable radio had several options at the flick of a switch that FM ultimately downgraded.

There was medium-wave, which was the option of the masses – home to all four national BBC radio stations, not to mention the local BBC ones, wherever you happened to be in the country, and the ILR alternative. There was long-wave, primarily the choice of the cricket devotee tuning into ‘Test Match Special’, as well as providing the BBC with split slots when glamorous new FM began to reserve the popular programmes for itself. And then there was the enigmatic poor relation, shortwave. I was always intrigued by shortwave because its presence on the airwaves made no sense. Medium-wave, long-wave and FM schedules were listed in the Radio Times – nothing on shortwave was. It seemed to be a repository for the odd, the eccentric and the quirky; and, needless to say, I found it fascinating.

I remember early family holidays on the Continent, furtively moving the dial around the radio that had come along for the ride, trying to pick up Radio 1 or anything broadcasting in English; I usually located the World Service at various times, but it was prone to drifting in and out of hearing as though the transmitter was fixed to a pendulum. The snap, crackle and pop of the reception, the atmospheric SOS of the Morse code messages that could be discerned in the distance, and the strange stew of foreign tongues that babbled for a handful of seconds before disappearing again created a uniquely alluring and anarchic audio mosaic that seemingly had no structure whatsoever. Even when music was stumbled upon, it was usually in French or German and had more than a touch of the Eurovision about it.

Those wonderful old radios had the names of stations printed in a little panel on the front, where turning the dial moved what resembled the clapometer from ‘Opportunity Knocks’, gliding in and out of the stations listed without them ever actually being situated where the panel claimed. Nevertheless, the names themselves were in possession of a curious, archaic exotic quality that is utterly redundant today. FM rendered them redundant to a degree, and relegated the old family radio to my bedroom, where I had free rein to explore the parallel universe of shortwave. It was during this period that I began to come across some sounds that were disturbingly weird even by shortwave standards.

I wasn’t to know then that shortwave’s ability to broadcast across far greater distances than any other radio frequencies meant that I was picking up stuff from thousands of miles away, though what sounded to me like distorted Russian voices certainly suggested I was hearing something emanating from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I began to notice these voices regularly, usually in the early evening; sometimes they sounded more Chinese than Russian, but always they had a detached and chilly element to them that evoked all kinds of spy movie clichés, particularly as the Cold War was still in full swing. They were often infiltrated by what my imagination pictured as flying radioactive jellyfish falling from the sky and landing on the earth’s surface – well that was the image that entered my head whenever the voices were interrupted by an alien sound I had no reference point for. On other occasions, what I can only describe as Tom & Jerry incidental music being performed by a Krautrock band would break up the voices. At the time, I had no idea I was listening to ‘Jamming’; but at the time I had no idea what I was listening to at all.

The voices were almost robotic; even if I’d been able to speak the lingo, I suspect I’d have struggled to decipher what was being said. One thing I could make out, however, was that numbers were being recited and repeated with unwavering monotony night-after-night. I thought I was the only person on the planet tuning into this bizarre medley of spoken word gibberish, and though I often recorded some of it onto a cassette, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing likewise.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I now know I most certainly wasn’t alone. Thanks to the internet, I discovered the sounds I’d been tuning into were unofficially recognised as Numbers Stations, the means by which secret service agencies communicated with their spies in the field behind enemy lines. No government has ever publicly admitted they exist, but there is now a plethora of information and background out there on this clandestine phenomenon. And while many of the old ones have subsequently vanished from the airwaves, an outfit called The Conet Project have released several CDs of recordings over the last ten-fifteen years, many of which are far creepier than anything I heard when I used to tune in.

If some of us not involved in the spying game have just cause to sometimes suspect we’re being monitored by anonymous nosy parkers, the Numbers Stations can be viewed as symbolic of a more innocent age, an age when only those operating in an arena one entered into with full knowledge of its dangers could expect to be exposed to the all-seeing eye of the secret state.

© The Editor