Until I read it in the Catholic Herald, I have to admit that I didn’t realise that Jimmy Savile was a practising Catholic, who attended Mass several times a week. Neither, or so it seemed, did most of those who wrote his obituaries. Some 0f them mentioned that he had a papal knighthood, possibly a clue (though since Rupert Murdoch also has one, it doesn’t necessarily signify). But they must have known it. I’ve written obituaries for the Times and the Telegraph: you can’t do it without quite a bit of research into a man’s life: his attending daily Mass must at some point have come on to the obituarists’ radar.
They all mentioned his generosity with both money (he gave 90 per cent of his earnings away) and his persistent and energetic doing of good. (It was interesting that no-one ever described him as a do-gooder; his sheer effectiveness made that impossible, somehow.)
This is how the Telegraph obituary recorded his remarkable charitable life:
Savile’s role as cheery national benefactor was further reflected in his tireless charity work.
It was once estimated that he had personally raised more than £40 million for various charitable causes, and that up to 90 per cent of his own income was given away, although Savile never disclosed the extent of his charitable donations. He took part in more than 200 marathons and innumerable “fun runs” for charity, without ever bothering to train: “I just turn up and run.” He completed the London Marathon in 2005.
He worked as a volunteer porter at the Leeds Royal Infirmary, and enjoyed a particularly close relationship with the Stoke Mandeville hospital near Aylesbury, raising £12 million to contribute to the rebuilding of the hospital’s National Spinal Injuries Centre, which opened in 1983.
He also worked as a volunteer at Broadmoor, the hospital for the criminally insane, where he was given his own room, and referred to the staff and patients at the hospital as “my people” and himself as “the Godfather”.
Savile once described his role at the hospital as honorary entertainments officer: “I ask them, what do you want to go round strangling crumpet for?” But his flippancy belied a shrewd understanding of inmates’ problems and how best to win their trust. In 1988 he was chosen to head a Department of Health task force to advise on the running of the hospital when it suffered a crisis of management and a nursing dispute. By some accounts, he ended up virtually running the place.
I love that remark to a Broadmoor patient: “what do you want to go round strangling crumpet for?”; there’s a touch of genius in that — also a reflection of the invulnerability of the truly innocent man, so much and so obviously on the side of everyone he talked to that he could only stay safe in any company.
The puzzle, I repeat, is just why there has been such a universal silence about his faith, which must have been the real source of such a gigantic charitable commitment. This is the nearest the Telegraph comes to mentioning it: he was, we are told, “the youngest of seven children in a Roman Catholic family… He attended the local school, St Anne’s Roman Catholic School”. That’s it. The Times came closer in hinting at the continuing, functioning, character of his belief: he was, we are told:
…born into a large Catholic family in Leeds in 1926. At the age of 2 he was declared dead of pneumonia before recovering — his mother Agnes hds prayed to her favourite Scottish nun Margaret Sinclair. (He was later to support a move for the nun’s beatification).
But why not mention that an important part of his life was attending daily Mass? There’s a deep dedication in the life of a man who gives away 90 per cent of everything he earns and so tirelessly does all the other things he did. You’d think that an obituarist would want to ask a simple question: where did all that come from? It’s almost as though they couldn’t bear to accept that the answer was his Catholicism: even that Catholicism itself could ever be the source of actual human goodness.
All the obituaries were happier when talking about his career as a distinctly peculiar disc jockey, his colourful eccentricities and also his less colourful human oddities. Here’s one account of all that:
Jimmy Savile, who has died aged 84, was a disc-jockey, television presenter and charity fundraiser who became an eccentric adornment to public life in Britain.
For almost 30 years, as the presenter of BBC’s ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, Savile was an ubiquitous and distinctive face on television — an improbable figure with a helmet of platinum hair, dressed in a lurid track suit and bedecked in ostentatious jewellery. As he waggled an outsize cigar, he would utter a series of catchphrases (“Howzabout that then”, “Now then, now then… “) which were usually punctuated by a bizarre yodel, and were a gift to even the most limited of television and nightclub impressionists.
His trademark mixture of gurning and garrulity, pioneered on ‘Top of the Pops’, inspired an entirely new genre of television presentation — what one observer called the “attention-seeking, nutty-prankster school” — but Savile also saw himself in a more serious role as the King Solomon of pop, dispensing words of wisdom and advice to young musicians. “I never forgot they were the talent and we were just presenters,” he explained.
The same account of his life simply ends with the sentence “But as a man who divided opinion without ever appearing to care much what anyone thought of him, he was simply an odd chap.”
There is no mention in this account, anywhere, of his faith. The source of that account? The Irish Independent.
Truly since the long-ago days when the Irish Independent published a series of booklets on the Catholic faith for children (my favourite — one of which I remember vividly since I much later based a children’s sermon on it in my days as a clergyman, to the fury of a very protestant churchwarden—was entitled “Tales of the Blessed Sacrament”) there has been a great falling away from that faith, which makes me very sad indeed.
As I say, the English quality papers say nothing about Jimmy Savile’s faith either. But they must have known about it. Is it too much to call this a “conspiracy of silence”? It must, at the very least, be a sign of the underlying almost instinctive hostility in England to the notion that anything good could come from a life whose foundation is the Catholic religion. I fear we still have a long way to go. Ah well; A Luta Continua.