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Customer Review

28 April 2014
I was born in Rochdale and still live there. Two of my siblings went to school with one of the youths Cyril abused at Cambridge House in the 1960s. I knew to a greater or lesser degree some of the people who are mentioned in this book or provided information about Cyril, and I crossed swords with him on a number of occasions in the letters pages of the local paper. I have known about his penchant for spanking since it was revealed in Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP) in 1979. My knowledge that at least two of the now old men who had been on the receiving end of Cyril's unwanted attentions were prepared to come forward dates back to July 2012.

Writing about recent history is difficult. If the subject is already dead there is a temptation to adopt the view that `the dead cannot sue' so you can write anything you like. Witnesses to what happened perhaps 50 years ago are fallible. Some things stick in their memories others don't. It isn't safe to take everything they say at face value. Good authors know these things and recognise the need to test and evaluate what they are told, and where possible to seek corroboration.

If you are going to make exceptional claims you need exceptional evidence. This book makes some big claims. The biggest of which is that Cyril was protected from prosecution by the security services for at least forty years. So how does the evidence stack up?

In a book like this a good place to start looking is the bibliography. what we find is a `Select Bibliography'. Of the fourteen books listed eight are memoirs of or about politicians and one of these is Cyril's autobiography. Two others are a book about Gracie Fields and a book about the 1930s. There are two periodicals listed. One is a report from the Home Affairs Select Committee and the other is Rochdale Alternative Press. I assume they mean Rochdale Alternative Paper. Given that the authors say they spoke to David Bartlett and his co-editor John Walker, this is a strange mistake to make. Sloppy some might say.

Later on they call the now deceased leader of the Conservative group on Rochdale council Pam Horton not Pam Hawton. You would expect they would get this right because she also chaired Rochdale health authority and in April 1991 Ian Davey, acting director of social services, wrote to her about what had been happening at Knowl View School, a school to which they devote nine pages of the book.

Conspicuous by its absence is any reference to the cultural and political magazine Northern Voices of which John Walker wrote in spring 2013, `The re-emergence of the 1979 RAP story owes its appearance to Northern Voices. This magazine kept the Smith story running and led to Westminster blogger, and former Rochdale lad, Paul Waugh picking it up, last November. Working with the ex-RAP editors Northern Voices was able to track down two of the 1960`s Cambridge House victims and introduce them to Paul, who ran the story on his national blog.' Another example of sloppiness or a deliberate attempt to take ownership of the story of the `outing' of Cyril?

Apart from four TV programs that is the full list of source material we are told about. So what about the numerous interviews the authors say they conducted, what about the many unpublished documents they had access to?

Anyone writing a credible study of Cyril's activities and especially of the claims of a security service cover up would recognise the need to be meticulous in detailing for potential readers when an interview was conducted, whether it was face to face, by telephone or by e-mail, and the titles of all documents consulted would be listed. Of these things there are none. In their place we are offered `trust me I'm a politician'.

In a couple of places in the text we get an insight into the nature of some of these interviews. One took place in the canteen of Rochdale town hall, another was over coffee in east Manchester. That's fine if you are looking for a bit of gossip but not if you are going to accuse the security services of a cover up.

There are problems too in figuring out just how many of the people abused by Cyril were interviewed by the authors. The nearest we get is a reference to meeting `a good number of victims'. Stories of abuse by Cyril pop up throughout the book but we are left in the dark about whether they are a rehash of a previous story or yet another example. But the authors still feel they can write `Cyril had left a trail of shame and misery in Rochdale and elsewhere as he'd abused any boy he fancied.' Any evidence for this OTT bit of prose is conspicuous by its absence. At the very least any serious study would include a chronology of Cyril's abusive activities so far as they are known.

This is important because one school of thought is that before he became an MP and a figure on the national scene, his interest in very young men was confined to spanking, fake medical examinations and voyeurism.

Three brief chapters of the book are devoted to what we are asked to believe are the authentic voices of some of the young men abused by Cyril. The first two are strangely similar in that they contain a number of references to pop music current in the 1960s. Now call me a cynic but I think that if fifty years ago I had just had my backside wacked by a man twice may age and twice my size, pop music isn't the first thing that would be on my mind.The third has a ring of truth but even this manages to make reference to a piece of music which just happens to fit the story.

In the second is to be found 'We drove out to Hollingworth Lake and smoked fat joints as we watched Canada geese flying over the boats while the sun went down.' Not true! There were no Canada geese at Hollingworth lake in the 1960s though there are plenty now. And would a self confessed `Mod', who in the previous sentence had been `racing up St Mary's Gate on the back of a scooter', really write `drove' rather than `rode'? Like the references to pop music this piece of gratuitous drivel seems to have been added by someone to make the account seem more authentic. Journalistic licence perhaps? But not necessary. Once it has been established that they are true, first hand accounts of abuse don't need any embellishment. They stand by themselves.

The writing style adopted is to let the narrative drive the evidence not the evidence drive the narrative. And what is the narrative? In essence it is that Simon came to Rochdale, found that we had all been turning a blind eye to Cyril's abuse of young people and said `No more!'

Informants pop up, say something derogatory about Cyril and then vanish for two hundred pages. Nothing is too absurd for inclusion. At one point we have Cyril running an, `I'll spank your child in the comfort of your own home', service for the parents of naughty children. I think even the most apathetic Rochdale resident might have noticed this.

But this fitting of the evidence into the narrative has its dangers for Simon. One chapter relating events before he became our MP ends with `So you want to be MP for Rochdale?' one person said with a knowing smile. `Come in for a cup of tea and let me tell you as story.' The next chapter is headed `Silent Voices #1. The victims from Cambridge House'. Now is this just another example of journalistic licence or is Simon trying to suggest that he was being told about Cyril's abuse of very young men even before the 2010 election? If it's the latter then some people will wonder why he attended the unveiling of a Blue Plaque bearing Cyril's name in October 2011.

Not all the book is about Cyril's sexual proclivities. It covers his activities as the mouthpiece for the asbestos processors Turner and Newall, and makes a good attempt to understand the reasons for him becoming an instantly recognisable national figure and his ability to maintain a power base in Rochdale.

But even here there's a tendency to `over egg the pudding' and exaggerate his influence in Rochdale outside of his own Liberal party. Certainly it never seems to occur to the authors to ask, why, if Cyril was really such a powerful figure in the town able to call in favours at will, he never used this influence to take any action against the editors of RAP who had revealed his activities at Cambridge House. As employees of the local authority they took enormous risks in publishing their story. In the end Cyril proved to be a paper tiger.

I'm not sure this book would have attracted half so much attention or been serialised in a newspaper if it had not linked Cyril's antics with the grooming of young girls in Rochdale by nine men who were subsequently jailed, and to the somewhat tenuous thread which sought to link some key figures in the Labour party with giving succor to the Paedophile Information Exchange via the National Council for Civil Liberties.

As they say `Sex sells', but was it really necessary to write, `... Cyril, he said, liked them young with tight sphincter muscles. When their sphincter became looser as they got older, he would ditch them.' If you're not faintly troubled by this bit of prose try imagining how this would have read if it has been young women who been the subject of Cyril's attention.

I'm told that one reader described this book as a `Ripping Yarn', a term usually reserved for books like Erskine Childers' `Riddle of the Sands' or John Buchan's `The 39 Steps'. I'm tempted to call it a `Cock and Bully' story but that would wrongly imply that I thought none of it to be true. So a `Ripping Yarn' it is. That fits perfectly because, apart from some unbelievably clumsy sections which are supposed to be the unheard voices of those on the receiving end of Cyril's unwanted attentions, it reads like a novel. It's certainly not a serious well documented study of just how Cyril managed to keep his dirty secret so long. It's just a lightweight `potboiler'.

I've no doubt that in 20 years time someone will dust it off and turn it into a drama documentary. Which will be good news for Simon's pension pot!
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