Writing

Little Sister — from Yorkshire to the Netherlands — that post in full

It was good of The Guardian to run my piece about the origins of Little Sister yesterday but inevitably the piece I gave them was a bit too long to use in full. So here’s the original.

Authors are always asked: where do your ideas come from? In the case of Little Sister, a story set in Amsterdam and the nearby seaside resort of Volendam on the shore of what was once the North Sea bay of the Zuiderzee, from some very old memories, rather too close to the place that was once my home.

Forty six years ago I abandoned school at the age of seventeen to take up a five-pound-a-week cub reporter’s job on the smallest evening newspaper in Britain. It was in the seaside town of Scarborough (above, at night), then in its heyday as a brassy English bucket and spade resort.

This was just before the masses had decamped to Torremolinos. Scarborough was fashionable. The Beatles had played the Futurist Theatre six years before — I was taken there by my dad as a treat for passing my 11-plus and he embarrassed the hell out of my by standing up and singing I Believe during one of the warm-up acts. The massive Victorian hulk of the Grand Hotel, once the biggest in Europe, overlooked the seafront, as fashionable as it had been in Edwardian times when Scarborough touted itself as a Yorkshire version of Nice. In the busy theatres the biggest TV acts in the country played summer shows alongside the Black and White Minstrels, a production few people think about these days though back then Welshmen in black face singing ‘negro spirituals’ was prime time BBC Sunday night material.

And the place was rotten top to toe. In a spacious flat just across the Spa Bridge from the Grand lived Jimmy Savile with his mother, ‘the Duchess’. Down below on the seafront the ‘ice cream king’, Peter Jaconelli, a prominent local businessman newly elevated to town mayor, was a big mate of Savile’s, someone with the same tastes for sexual abuse of anyone unfortunate enough to become their prey.

The squalid details of Savile and Jaconelli’s predatory habits are now public knowledge. In 2014 North Yorkshire Police publicly apologised to thirty five victims of the pair after admitting both men should have been liable to prosecution over charges of indecent assault, inciting a child to engage in sexual activity, gross indecency and rape.

I read that story while I was in Amsterdam thinking about the background to the book I was about to write. That moment I had it. Because to pretty much anyone living in Scarborough back in the 1970s that belated apology was old hat. I’d met Jaconelli and Savile several times as a local reporter and heard all the rumours and the warnings to steer clear of any invitations they offered. We knew already. We just did nothing about it.

The police were aware of what was going on from the very outset. Intelligence files that have come to light since Savile’s death, mostly through the efforts of a brave campaigning website, revealed that in 1972 Jaconelli was accused of indecent assault, only for the case to be dropped. All in secret of course — I was working on the paper then and never heard a whisper. Had the matter been made public even the craven Scarborough Evening News would have been forced to carry the story.

But it’s not enough to lay the blame at the door of the police alone. It was an open secret in the town at the time that Jaconelli assaulted boys in his ice cream parlour when he had the opportunity, and that Savile, sometimes with him alongside, liked to cruise around in his Rolls Royce looking to pick up any gullible kids willing to ride with them. If they got awkward they were threatened or paid off. Scarborough, like most seaside resorts, had a ready underclass of youth looking for money. Most of the jobs were seasonal and tied to the holiday trade. Winter was long and cash was always scarce.

The crime in crime fiction is often banal and uninteresting, squalid, tawdry acts the work of squalid tawdry people. Jaconelli, it seemed to me, was little more than a devious opportunist determined to work the system of a society that gave him free rein to pursue his victims. Savile was an altogether more complex and frightening individual, charmless and vaguely threatening beneath the permasmile, gold jewellery and stinking cigar. He was oddly obsessed with his mother, and a Catholic too, given a Papal knighthood in 1990, and fond of attending daily mass. One can only wonder what the confessions were like. Did Savile see his devotion to his mother and his work for charity — which was very real — as ways of offsetting the evil he did elsewhere? Or did he do good in order to avail himself of the opportunity to find his victims? We’ll never know and I wonder if the man understood himself.

For me ‘why?’ is always a more intriguing question in fiction than ‘what?’ Deeds are all too often plain, blunt fact while context — the prolix set of factors that allow evil to flourish — is much harder to pin down. The question that raised its head when I started writing Little Sister, was the one that had puzzled me whenever I thought back to Scarborough: why did we acquiesce? Why do good, decent people who’d never dream of committing such monstrous acts themselves stand back and allow others to get away with it?

On one level we had no choice. I worked for a newspaper that was part of the collective blindness. The title was then under private ownership, run by a terrifying individual who, among other things, chaired the local magistrates court. It was later sold to one of the big British media conglomerates and is now closed altogether. I learned early on that, whatever its skills at reporting flower shows and those unfortunate enough to come before our owner in the courts, Watergate would never have been broken by the Scarborough Evening News.

One of the first big stories I was sent on — or so I thought — was to get a statement out of an important local businessman after an incident at one of his properties. I walked into his office, pen and notebook at the ready, trembling a bit about the questions I had to ask. It turned out I’d nothing to worry about. He told me in no uncertain way that I wasn’t there to talk to him but to take an envelope back to the executive on the paper who’d sent me to see him in the first place.

Being seventeen, on trial, fearful of losing my job, that’s just what I did. The executive in the office grinned when I returned, took the envelope, ripped it open, waved the cheque in front of my face and said, ’That’s the school fees paid for.’ I wasn’t so much a journalist as a carrier of baksheesh.

That was Scarborough back then. We turned a blind eye, all of us. Out of fear, out of acceptance of our place, and probably out of some misguided belief that, however awful the gossip about this unsavoury pair might have been, surely it couldn’t have been that bad. In truth it was all much worse than any of us might have imagined.

The lie that Peter Jaconelli was a warm-hearted and amusing spokesman for a seaside town rapidly falling on hard times kept being told. This continued even after his death in 1999, when among the glowing obituaries was one in the Guardian for the ‘unshakably jovial ice cream magnate’ which concluded, ‘The best possible memorial for him would be a Jaconelli play by Scarborough’s other most-famous face, Sir Alan Ayckbourn.’

I’d like to see that play too, but I doubt it would be quite the hagiography the obituarist imagined.

Today the Futurist is a miserable closed wreck and the Grand Hotel, which once wouldn’t let you through the door if you were wearing jeans, is a rather shabby £29 a night stop for budget coach parties. Like seaside resorts everywhere Scarborough’s struggling to survive in changed times, though it’s still blessed with a gorgeous geographical location, a handful of decent hotels, and one of the best Italian restaurants in the land. I love going back even if there are dark memories in those streets.

There are victims of Savile and Jaconelli still alive too, still angry, still in pain. Still, in some cases, weighed down with blame because victims of crimes like these are so often convinced that, in some way, they brought it on themselves. Sometimes shame and guilt haunt the innocent much more than they dog the guilty.

This was the context I wanted to explore in Little Sister, the story of two young sisters who might be both victims and perpetrators, and are unsure of which themselves. It’s all fiction, though it happens in another brassy seaside town, just thirteen miles outside Amsterdam. But its roots lie on the Yorkshire coast forty years ago and still resonate there to this day.