Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Spot marks the X?


In post-war, pre-Krays England, Jacob Comacho AKA Jack Comer — better known as “Jack Spot” — was the self-styled “Boss of the Underworld”.

There are all sorts of stories about Jack Spot — most of them told by himself and lapped up by tabloid hacks slavering for salacious copy. With each retelling of his tales, Spot would embellish, embroider and embarrass himself further. Today it’s next to impossible to separate the facts from the self-aggrandising fiction.

What is beyond dispute, though, is that Jack Spot in his pomp was a particularly vicious street thug. He had a special pocket sewn into his jacket for faster access to the tool of his trade, his straight razor. “Always cut down, never across” was his advice to wannabe vicious street thugs, because an inadvertently severed jugular would get you a murder rap, and, let’s face it, who wants that?

Between 1943 and the end of rationing ten years later, Jack Spot commuted regularly between the Whitechapel streets of his birth and his favoured out-of-town location: Chapeltown in Leeds.

He first staked his claim to the North’s “Sin City” (Jimmy Savile dixit) thanks to Jack “Milky” Marks, who ran a gambling dive there. The club was being shaken down by a cumbersome gang of persistent Poles. Milky had heard on the grapevine of an up-and-coming Jewish troubleshooter down in London who specialised in resolving such inconveniences, so he hired Jack Spot’s services. Spot duly arrived. The Poles duly departed.

The word was passed around the shadier circles of Leeds’s large Jewish community: if you’re getting any grief of an anti-Semitic bent, here’s the man to call. rationbookuseWithin a very short time all the city’s rackets were under Spot’s control. He had a piece of pretty much everything that was illegal, illicit or just ill-regarded by society. His main strategic business areas were granting and removing bookies’ pitches at racecourses and dog tracks, protecting clubs and backstreet spielers, and — most lucrative of all — the black market.

In an interview for The Independent last week, Paul McCartney recalled how in the early Sixties the Beatles would often give Jimmy Savile a lift across the moors in their van.

He told us all these stories about his wartime exploits — how he had been buying chewing gum and nylons and all that, and selling them. He had all sorts of stuff going on.

Leeds, 1943. Jimmy Savile was a seventeen-year-old spiv.

But we don’t have to rely on McCartney’s word alone to draw that conclusion. Savile himself admitted as much, and more, in his 1974 autobiography, As It Happens:

I was everyone’s mascot, pet, runner, holder of mysterious parcels and secrets. […] I was the confidant of murderers, whores, black-marketeers, crooks of every trade and often the innocent victims they preyed on.

Since all the “crooks of every trade” in Leeds at that time either worked directly for or operated under the beneficent umbrella of Jack Spot, is it fanciful to wonder whether he and Jimmy Savile might have been acquainted? We don’t know and perhaps we never will. But crooks seldom, if ever, are crooked in a vacuum. They all have a mentor, a father figure, a passer of the baton, a teacher of tricks and a teller of secrets. So who was Jimmy Savile’s?

Even if Savile didn’t know Spot personally, he would certainly have known of him. And judging by Savile’s off-camera boasts to Louis Theroux about his “zero-tolerance” policy towards troublemakers at his clubs — or “slags” as he called them — it looks very much as though the most likely candidate for Jimmy Savile’s rôle model would have been Jack Spot. Right down to the fat cigars.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Captain Beefcake

In 1966, the National Amateur Body-Builders’ Association voted in their new president for a five-year term. And in September that year Jimmy Savile presided, as presidents do, over NABBA’s showcase event: the amateur Mr. Universe contest.

“A special day,” as Savile later reminisced. “It was like Indian drums but it was the beating hearts of all the lads.”

One of those lads was a 19-year-old unknown. His sinews were like steel hawsers but his English was still ropy. Although he wouldn’t win the title until the following year, he still managed to come a close second at his first attempt (his weedy calves let him down, by all accounts) . arnie67useBut second is for losers, and Arnold Schwarzenegger was inconsolable. One of the judges, Wag Bennett, felt so sorry for him that he and his wife took him in as a lodger at their home on the Romford road. Arnie lived with the Bennetts for the next five years, on and off, eating seven meals and popping three ’roids a day, and pumping any old iron in an East End gym to pave the way for the Conan gig, the Kennedy wife and the California governor’s mansion that were to come. 

Sitting demurely in his pinstriped suit alongside the kaftan-clad Jimmy Savile in the front row at the Victoria Palace theatre that ultraripply and lavishly lubed-up evening in 1966 was another very strange man. Very strange and very, very rich, although in this case he’d made his pile by bringing up crude oil from beneath the sands of Kuwait instead of shaking down the dance halls that straddled the Pennines.

Enter J. Paul Getty.

getty-jean-paul-useGetty loved bodybuilders even more than he loved collecting classical statues of perfectly proportioned demigods with unfeasibly tiny penises. Despite making it into the 1966 Guinness Book of Records with his $1.2 billion personal fortune, he was notoriously tight with his money. He even had a payphone installed inside his UK mansion, Sutton Place, to stymie any house guests’ plans to make long-distance calls at his expense. Yet whenever NABBA pleaded poverty, which was a frequent enough occurrence back then, he never thought twice about writing out another cheque to save the day. Jimmy Savile was good at getting people to do that.

In 1967, the year Arnold Schwarzenegger won his first Mr. Universe title, but for reasons that are somewhat less straightforward to extrapolate, Getty would also finance the decidedly odd filmmaker and Hollywood tittle-tattle king Kenneth Anger, who was keen to get cracking on his new Aleister Crowley phase. The adventure lurched on for a few years with a few flaky projects that received next to no attention. It all ended rather abruptly when Jimmy Page’s wife threw Anger out and told him never to darken their gates of perception again.

What is this — some kind of joke written by David Lynch? “A peroxide-haired Yorkshire DJ, an Austrian bodybuilder, a gossiping gay occultist and the world’s richest man walk into a bar….”

No, it’s no joke. It’s just Savileana a-go-go: the gift — that’s the German word for poison, as Arnie might point out — that keeps on giving.

(Thanks to @TheOldBatsman for setting me off down this particular rabbit hole.) 

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Don Jimmy Gambino OBE

When Dave Lee Travis was released on bail last week he was keen to distance himself from Jimmy Savile in the public’s mind. Fair enough — to be accused of dolly-bird-groping rather than kiddy-diddling is probably a worthwhile distinction to make. But Savile and Travis go back a long way. The future Hairy Monster’s first job was at Manchester’s Mecca-owned Plaza Ballroom. He was only seventeen when the manager, Jimmy Savile, hired him as a trainee DJ. (His age wasn’t a problem because the Plaza didn’t have a licence to serve alcohol.)

LeedsMeccauseThe Plaza was just one of many dance halls and clubs that Savile oversaw, managed, disk-jockeyed at, wielded shadowy control over or had some kind of undeclared stake in, not only in Manchester but also on the other side of the Pennines — in Bradford, in Wakefield, in Halifax, over on the coast in Scarborough and Whitby, and especially in Leeds. In his hometown the joints he presided over included the Cat's Whiskers and the Locarno Ballroom in the County Arcade, known by locals simply as “the Mecca” (later rebranded as the Spinning Disc). That’s where, in 1958, his predilection for underage girls first came to the attention of the police. The matter was swiftly resolved by peeling a few hundred quid off the big roll of twenties that he always carried, right up until he died.

Meanwhile, in Manchester on any given night in the late Fifties and early Sixties, if you couldn’t find Savile at the Plaza at lunchtime, he’d surely be at the Ritz later on. Or, if not, try the Three Coins in Fountain Street. He didn’t even rest on Sundays; that was when he span the platters for upwards of two thousand jivers and twisters at his Top Ten Club at Belle Vue.

The man was everywhere — at practically every major dance hall and nightclub in the North’s heaving conurbations, as much of a fixture as the rotating mirror ball.

How did he do it? Criminally, it seems.


He’d started out in the early 1950s, putting on his pioneering “record dances” for any dance hall that would have him. Discreet beginnings, but he was soon Mecca’s “dancing area manager” in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and before the decade’s end he was a director of the company. Most of the fifty-two venues he ran were in the North, but not all of them. We’ll come back to that.

Dance halls back then were — much as today’s clubs largely still are — strictly cash-based operations. The books were easy to cook, and if Eric “Mr. Miss World” Morley had given you the key to the night safe, it was even easier to skim the take. Is that how Jimmy Savile made so much money so quickly? We’ll probably never know, but he already had a Rolls Royce by the end of the Fifties and would soon be parading around the streets of Manchester in an E-Type Jaguar too. Jimmy-Oscar-Savile-1950s-use How does that work, when he was still only supposed to be a wacky-haired weirdo who acted the yodelling fool and put records on for folk to shimmy and shake to? He already had his show on Radio Luxembourg by then, true, but it’d be another five years before he was a household name with regular appearances on Juke Box Jury, Thank Your Lucky Stars and Top of the Pops.

A clue to just how much clout Savile wielded on the Northern nightlife scene fifty years ago is casually dropped by an anecdote in his official biography. One night he twigged that the doormen at one of his dance halls were operating some kind of scam. Savile went apeshit — not because his staff were contravening company policy, but because they’d had the gall not to include him in on it. He challenged them to explain themselves. He demanded his “cut” (yes, that’s how the official biographer phrases it), or they’d be out on their cauliflower ears. They acquiesced. Jim had fixed them.

Say hello to László

Hang on. Isn’t it supposed to be the heavies on the door who put the squeeze on the management? Not under Jimmy Savile’s regime. He had a whole crew of moonlighting miners, Eastern European bodybuilders — the one at the Mecca in Leeds was called László — and wrestlers at his permanent beck and call. Proper wrestlers they were, an' all, not mere dilettantes like Savile was during his stint as a novelty grappler. savillewrestlinguseOne of the three wrestling Crabtree brothers, Shirley, was among them — then still a sheer cliff of muscle billed as Blond Adonis or Mister Universe, many years before he turned to fat and reinvented himself as Big Daddy. Whenever trouble broke out on the dance floor, Crabtree would pick up the miscreants, bundle one under each arm like rolls of carpet and carry them outside. "Yow've been naughteh boys. Very, very naughteh boys.” He mostly worked for Savile on the door at the Cat’s Whiskers in Leeds, and in 1965, when he launched a club of his own (or at least ostensibly his own) in Halifax, Savile duly pitched up for the grand opening.

Meanwhile, back under the glare of the brighter lights of the Mancunian metropolis, things were obviously very different. Oh, wait. No, they weren’t. It turns out that most of the doormen at Savile’s Manchester dance halls were not hardnuts from Harpurhey, Longsight or Ancoats, as you might expect. They were Yorkshiremen. Jimmy Savile had taken his crew with him for company on his trans-Pennine commute. TeddyBoysMeccauseHe kitted out the ones on the door at the Plaza with hair clippers to strip off any teddy boys’ offensive sideburns before they’d be allowed in. “Eether them sardboards go, or yow dow.”

Let nobody ever accuse Jimmy Savile of not running a respectable establishment.

What exactly is going on here? Being driven around in a succession of fuck-you flash cars, the big cigars, never spending two nights running in the same house, flitting from nightspot to nightspot with a posse of big-muscled minders, packing a big roll of banknotes to pay off the police, demanding and receiving tithes from his underlings’ illicit earnings.... What does all that suggest to you: the quirks and foibles of a wannabe showbiz personality or the typical trappings of a mob boss?

Beneath the veneer of a Mecca middle manager, it looks as though Jimmy Savile was running a large-scale protection racket at dozens and dozens of Northern dance halls and nightclubs for the best part of two decades.

A lippy little tyke with his hair in a tartan bob (Black Watch, as he liked to point out) is all that most people chose to see. But up North he ruled the night. How’s about that, then?

Smokeward bound

And not just up North. By the early Sixties he’d also secured what is now called a “significant presence” down South. One of the Mecca clubs under Jimmy Savile’s very-much-hands-on purview — he nipped down the A1 to DJ there on Monday nights — was the Ilford Palais. And although he didn’t take his Yorkshire bruisers with him for that gig, you can’t say he skimped on their substitutes. One of his doormen at the Palais was the boxer Billy Walker, who no doubt would have become the British pro-heavyweight champion had it not been for the immovable hegemony of Henry Cooper. Walker’s brother and manager, George, had been Billy Hill’s minder. If you can’t quite place the name Billy Hill, he was the Kray twins’ patron.

On his weekly trips to London, Savile ran a schedule as tight as when he was on his home ground back up North. Before heading out for Ilford, and perhaps to Mecca's flagship Locarno Ballroom in Streatham as well,  he recorded his Teen and Twenties Disc Club for Radio Luxembourg. Then he'd pop his head in at the offices of Decca Records. It was not a courtesy call. By the time he hit the street again, he’d not only replenished his stock of music but also fattened his wad. It was a sweet payola deal. He promised to play the latest Decca releases at all his dances in return for a reasonable consideration. Decca, like most other labels at the time, was very much a mixed bag in terms of the quality of their records (they famously turned down the Beatles, although they struck gold with the Stones soon afterwards). And for every future hit they gave Savile first dabs with, they saddled him with several real stinkers. He caned them all the same, one after the other at the start of his sets. Regular punters soon learned that they wouldn’t miss much if they arrived fashionably late, just in time for the decent stuff that they'd paid to hear.

Not the face!

wrestlingbilluseEven the wrestling was bent. And not just because of the sham fights, with heels and blue-eyes working out all their moves in the dressing-room. The promoters were at it too. The top end of the business — because a sport is something it’s never been — was ruled by a cartel called First Promotions, which in turn was dominated by a tight clutch of Yorkshiremen. They bagged all the public’s favourite wrestlers and froze out any would-be rival promoters. Before long, the cartel was raking in £15,000 a week from TV rights alone. Of that, once “expenses” had been deducted, a couple of hundred quid tops would trickle down for the featured wrestlers to split between them. Jimmy Savile’s own bouts were promoted by Relwyskow & Green, two of First Promotions’ leading lights. By the mid-Seventies one of the Crabtree brothers, Max, was running the whole show.

We may never find out who Jimmy Savile really was: whether the entertainer, the philanthropist, the discotheque pioneer, the loner, the Bevin Boy, the loyal company man, the daft-coiffed eccentric, the secure-mental-hospital administrator, the all-in wrestler, the sociopath, the counsellor to royalty, the morgue attendant, the marathon runner or the serial sex fiend. At various times he was all those things. But it seems that from the early Fifties until at least the mid-Sixties he was, above all, a crook.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

beatcityusethisRay Teret, 71, was arrested by Cheshire police yesterday for questioning about three rapes that allegedly happened before most of the cops who shook him down were born. He was described by the media, almost without exception, as Jimmy Savile's "chauffeur". But Teret — his name rhymes with ferret, not beret — was not only a good deal more than that to Savile, he was a good deal more than that in Manchester once the two had gone their separate ways.

Ray Teret kickstarted his career as Jimmy Savile's friend, flatmate, flunky and factotum. He stood in for Savile when he wasn't around and stood up for him when he was. He fixed things for the man who was destined to become Mr Fix-It. He was Savile's Mini-me, his H. R. Haldeman, his young ward Robin and his Squeaky Fromme all rolled into one. 

The two met and hit it off on the cusp of the Sixties when Teret won a singing contest run by Savile at the Palace. At the time, Savile drove a Rolls Royce but lived in a grotty council gaff on Great Clowes Street in the Broughton Bridge area. Teret soon moved in. rayfabsusethisHe worked as Savile’s backup DJ at his slew of Manchester residencies: the Top Ten Club at Belle Vue on Sunday nights, the Ritz Ballroom, and The Three Coins — or “The Three Cohens” as it would enter Manc lore because of its predominantly Jewish clientele. In 1964, no sooner had the club changed its name to Beat City than the Moptops themselves graced it with their presence. And Ray Peret was there to grab a snap for his scrapbook. Gear.

Perhaps naïvely, given yesterday's events, Ray Peret dropped some leaden hints in recent interviews about the fun and games that he and Savile got up to with teenage girls in the back of Savile's fleet of flash cars. Blanks duly filled in, Ray. But let's focus on the cultural milieu he moved in; any crimes are sub judice.

ugliusethisAs Savile’s success with Top of the Pops took him increasingly farther afield, Ray Teret was there to take up the slack back in Manchester. And when most of Radio Caroline's star DJs jumped ship for the BBC’s new Radio One, Teret was among the first intake of replacements, billed as "Ugli Ray". 

Back on terra firma, he became a local celebrity in the Seventies, thanks to his flagship three-hour daytime show on Piccadilly Radio. Not quite up there with Tony Blackburn or the Hairy Cornflake, perhaps, but in Manchester he was quite a bit more than just the bloke who’d driven Jimmy Savile around, let's put it that way. 

The former NME music critic Paul Morley has described Ray Teret as a "sickly Mancunian reduction of Sir Jimmy Savile", which is accurate enough but sells him short. In the Sixties and Seventies Ray Teret was to the Manchester pop scene what Tony Wilson would be to its post-punk reincarnation in the decades to follow. Indeed, his sub-Savilean style could even be seen strutting its strangely artless stuff when Joy Division performed "Love Will Tear Us Apart" on Fun Factory, the Saturday-morning kids' TV programme that he fronted. He introduced them as "not a female vocalist, but a band". Oh, how we didn’t laugh.

But back when bands were still called groups, Ray Teret had a finger in every Mancunian pop pie. DJ, MC, impresario, promoter, radio star, TV personality and the region's go-to raffle-drawer — he even wrote songs for several local acts, including “My Girl” and "No, No, No" (oh, dear) for The Toggery Five.  For two decades in Manchester, he was de rigeur. He was ubiquitous. A face. He knew everyone who was anyone and was quite somebody himself.

"Jimmy Savile's chauffeur"? Clearly, for the tabloids it's not who you were but who you knew.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Uncle Jim Cobley and all



A flamboyant big-chinned DISK JOCKEY, whose hairstyle is a peroxide reimagining of Laurence Olivier as Richard III, is at the microphone:

(chomping on huge cigar)
Now then, now then. Here's a nice slow
number for all yow loovleh guys 'n' gals
to get up close and let the romance flow.
It's ... smooch time!

INSERT – TURNTABLE: Tar-stained fingertips drop the needle onto a 7-inch record (blue Decca label).



A hard-faced YOUNG WOMAN with hard-lacquered big hair that's exactly the same colour as the Disk Jockey's. She's standing on the edge of the dancefloor, tugging at the jacket sleeve of her sour-faced, floppy-quiffed BOYFRIEND.

Coom on, Ian. Just one song. Please! Yer

(with a Gorbals growl)
Luke. I've tawld ye a thoosand times, Myra.
I dinnae dance.


Pfft.  No. Just no. Facile junk. Beyond belief. Bin it.

Except it actually happened, as it 'appens, more or less as scripted. According to extracts from Myra Hindley’s diary quoted in Emlyn Williams’s Beyond Belief, she and Ian Brady were indeed regular punters at the New Elizabethan Ballroom at the now-demolished Belle Vue pleasure grounds, in Manchester’s Gorton district. savilerolls-1She daydreamed about the two of them being billed as featured dancers there one day, and we know that they attended at least one of the many "Carnival Nights" hosted by the venue's resident DJ at the time, Jimmy Savile. Myra Hindley was a Gorton girl, living at her grandmother's house on Bannock Street. Savile’s big red fuck-off Rolls Royce was a local landmark, regularly parked on ostentatious display right outside the entrance.

Savile sequenced two "smooch times" in his DJ sessions (still called "record dances" in those pre-disco days): one before and one after the live group that he reluctantly put on as a sap to the Musicians' Union. The second smooch time would segue into an hour of rock 'n' roll, followed by a Ray Conniff-driven proto-chillout to end the evening and clear the room with as few altercations as possible. 

On Boxing Day, 1964, Brady and Hindley made an audio recording as they bound, gagged and photographed Lesley Ann Downey before they killed her. The tape ends with a snippet of the song "The Little Drummer Boy". It was the version by Ray Conniff.

Flash-forward fifteen years. Janie Jones, the tabloids' favourite sex-party hostess with the mostest, answers a summons to appear before Jimmy Savile soon after her release from prison. His grounds for demanding the encounter? To read her the riot act for having the temerity to campaign for Myra Hindley's release. Not for the reason why most people would have objected to the idea of freeing Hindley — you know, her having helped kidnap, torture, rape and murder other people's children and bury them on Saddleworth Moor, all that stuff — but because, as Janie Jones explained, "he said it was disgraceful that I was siding with Hindley against Brady." Ian Brady was Jimmy Savile's pal.

Where and when Savile first met Brady, whether at HMP Parkhurst or at Broadmoor Hospital, is unclear.Savile was famously — now infamously — associated with hospitals and care homes, but not with prisons, yet he definitely pitched up at Parkhurst at least once. That may well be where he met Ronnie Kray for the first time as well.And it's definitely where he first met Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, before going on to deepen their friendship at Broadmoor. Savile would "drop in" for some old-school Pennine bonding with Sutcliffe in his cell. Yorkshire-born and Yorkshire-bred, strong in t' arm and a ball-pein hammer in t' yed. 

All this is almost certainly a coincidence of little or no consequence, of course. Just because Jimmy Savile seems to have gone out of his way to break bread with two of the most notorious serial killers in British history doesn't necessarily mean he dug where they were coming from. Indeed, as a good Catholic lad and Knight Commander of the Order of St Gregory the Great, he may have just felt sorry for them. But if the Savile story that's still being teased out were a James Ellroy or David Peace novel, the critics would slate it for collapsing under the weight of all its laboured links and heavy-handed happenstance.

It's like Sick Degrees of Kevin Bacon out there.3

bigdaddySome of the coincidences are weapons-grade credibility testers, like Brady and Hindley falling in love to the strains of the latest Stateside pops blasting out from Jimmy Savile's "Power Sound Disc Deck" (oh, yes); or like Shirley "Big Daddy" Crabtree joining a crew of Hungarian émigrés to fine-tune his forearm-smash skills on the door at Savile's first string of dancehalls. Some of the coincidences are macabre, like those Ray Conniff fadeouts. But most are just messy and confusing, like Savile leaving home on Belle Vue Road in Leeds to work at Belle Vue in Manchester; or like the surname of the 15-year-old suicide being the same as that of a certain litigiously non-licentious peer; or like Peter Sutcliffe committing one of his murders just opposite Jimmy Savile's penthouse in Leeds, and another in Savile Park in Halifax.

Moors Murderers, Yorkshire Rippers, Kray twins, Ray Conniff Singers, Budapest muscle, Kensington madames — all are grist to the subsatanic Savilean mill. As to who'll be the next implausible but somehow inevitable name to be tacked onto the dramatis personae of this megametanarrative, it's anybody's guess. But my money's on Lord Lucan emerging, stiff-legged and blinking, from the secret cellar of Jimmy Savile's picturesque Glencoe hideaway.

1.     To assume that Savile and Brady's interaction in the Sixties might have gone beyond just breathing the same fagsmoke fug one unfateful evening at Belle Vue would surely be a stretch too far even for this farfetched melodrama. But you never know. 

2. Or maybe not for the first time. And there’s a whole new rabbit hole for us to tumble down right there.

3. No offence, Kevin — although it might be rash to discount an appearance by
Francis Bacon in some future chapter.

(Thanks to Dan Waddell for the Twitter-riffing session that spurred this.)

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Period Costume 101: First, dress the throat

I'm watching - hopelessly late, as usual - the BBC's adaptation of a novel that I love, Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White. It's very good indeed, transporting us in fine style to the coexisting extremes of splendour and squalor of Victorian London. All except for one jarring incongruity - or, more specifically,  a glaring anachronism - in the period setting: the way the characters speak.

Chris O'Dowd and Amanda Hale (as William and Agnes Rackham) make do with a sort of Modern Sloane or Contemporary Rah. It works as far as it goes, inasmuch as it does convey a certain degree of toffitude to modern ears, but the problem is that the London rich didn't talk like that 50 years ago, let alone 140.

Just compare the Queen's accent when she was young with the one she uses today - they're as different as Scouse and Brummy. All that "It makes us viddy heppeh" business, or "often" sharing its first syllable with "awful"? The Queen doesn't talk like that any more, and I'm sure that Kate Middleton never has. But Agnes Rackham certainly should.

I had the same problem with Colin Firth and, to a lesser extent, Helena Bonham Carter in The King's Speech. You'd think a film that doesn't just touch on but is actually about what a historical character sounded like when they spoke would go to some trouble to get this stuff right, but no. I'm sorry, Colin, a cracking stammer face and all that, but King George VI didn't, in fact, sound just like Jeremy Clarkson when he talked. He sounded - or, rather, he syne-did, like Harry Enfield as Grayson in the Mr Cholmondley-Warner sketches.

But, getting back to Crimson Petal, the actors playing lower-class characters don't do much better, I'm afraid. Romola Garai's performance is fantastic, except for her voice. A Cockney woman making an effort to talk a notch or two "above her station" should sound like Irene Handl, not like Victoria Beckham. In the shifting sands of the wacky world of accents, whiny Generic Estuary is a very recent comer-in indeed - as out of place in a Victorian period piece as a mobile phone.

The best of the bunch, the cast member who seems to have paid the most attention to the way her character would have sounded, all laced up in her corsets and swathed in crinoline, is the one who had the most work to do of all of them. Although Gillian Anderson spent several years in London as a child, she's still an American. Yet she pretty much nails that clipped, oddly sing-song sound of someone trying to "posh up" a proper Old Cockney accent.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Lenore Hart, the alleged plagiarist, and Edgar Allan Poe, the alleged nineteenth-century writer

I was pleased to see that a Salon piece on plagiarism published yesterday mentions the Lenore Hart affair, but disappointingly — and quite misleadingly — it refers to the evidence as mere "allegations". Since I get the impression that some people may still not fully appreciate just how clear-cut this case is, I thought it'd be useful to explain the mechanics behind my conviction that the media's fear of any comeback from calling a plagiarist a plagiarist is misplaced.

Here's a quick primer on plagiarism-hunting in the Internet age. It may once have all hinged on subjective judgment calls and grey areas but it's now advanced far beyond that. Today it's about examining quantifiable data and calculating probabilities — probabilities that offer a lot more certainty of making the right call than state-of-the-art DNA profiling.[1]

Here's how it works.

Last year, blogging about the glut of one-minute’s silences at Spanish football matches, I wrote this sentence:
Now no self-respecting Liga match can be without one to mark the passing of Alderman Mumble (sorry, the PA system isn't all it might be) 
Now let’s suppose a luckless hypothetical plagiarist (we'll call her “LHP” for short) came along and rewrote my sentence like this: 
This season, would any Spanish football ground worth its salt go without one to mark Councillor Somebodyorother's sad demise? (The stadium’s Tannoy is playing up again, I’m afraid.) 
LHP has been careful enough to cover her tracks by paraphrasing almost every important word or phrase. If we mark the text she's copied verbatim, all we're left with is this: 
This season, would any Spanish football ground worth its salt go without one to mark Councillor Somebodyorother’s sad demise? (The stadium’s Tannoy is playing up again, I'm afraid.) 
There’s no way Google could ever catch that, is there?

Yes, there is. Ridiculously commonplace though the words themselves may seem, the exact string “without one to mark" has only ever been used once by anybody on the whole of the Internet — by me. Type it into Google (including the inverted commas, to avoid hits for each individual word) and see for yourself

As if that weren’t "huh?" enough, now comes the really weird part. LHP could have stayed much closer to my original, like this, yet even so remained practically Google-proof:[1] 
Now no self-respecting Spanish match can forgo having one to mark the passing of Councillor Mumble (the PA system wasn’t all it might have been, sorry) 
It turns out that "now no self-respecting" has been used half a million times, and even the six-word string "one to mark the passing of" gets over a thousand hits, but put "without" before it and we find nobody has ever used that exact string except me and LHP.[2] And if, of all the possible contexts for LHP to have used that string in, it appeared in a piece that also happened to be about one-minute's silences at Spanish football grounds, and if we then factor in the extensive paraphrasing — changing "passing" to "sad demise" and "match" to "game" and so on  — then  ... you get the picture. 

That's how Lenore Hart came such a spectacular cropper. Presumably to avoid detection, she took great pains to change words that were of obvious semantic consequence 
 she must have worn her thesaurus to dust  but she failed to pay enough attention to those piddling little text strings that are of merely syntactic significance. What she did is like a burglar meticulously vacuuming the furniture and carpet to remove any trace of hair or fibre evidence, and then leaving a big fat fingerprint on the doorknob on the way out.

As Poe wouldn't have put it, just do the math 

There are fifteen million volumes in Google Books' database. Hitting by chance on a non-subject-specific text string — like our "without one to mark" or O'Neal/Hart's "privacy or as protection against" — in only two of them, which happen to deal with exactly the same topic, is several orders of magnitude more difficult than winning the lottery.

But if you end up with a tally of not just one but thirty-one exclusive string matches like this, we leave the realm of mere allegation behind us and stride firmly into dead-cert fact.

Expressed in the simplest, most conservative terms possible, the odds that Lenore Hart didn't plagiarise Cothburn O'Neal's novel are 1 in 1500000031. To give you an idea of just how big that number is, 15 million squared is 225 trillion, while 15 million cubed is 3.375 billion trillion. So 15 million to the power of 31 is ... you get the idea.[4]

Isn't it time to stop alleging that Lenore Hart is a plagiarist and start calling her what she is: a proven one?

1. A margin of error of 1 in 7000 is accepted as sufficiently conclusive for positive identification in crime-scene or paternity-case DNA analyses. 

2. I say "practically" because although Google allows you to use an asterisk to stand in for any word in a string (e.g. "now no self-respecting * match"), it's too cumbersome a method to be viable when checking for plagiarism, because you have to work blind, with no idea which words you need to turn into asterisks.

3. Jeremy Duns has tried the same exercise, typing text strings from his own novels into Google Books, always with the same results: either no hits at all or far too many for it to be practical to wade through them. Just one match is always a loud plagiarism alert.

4. It's actually an even bigger number than 1500000031, because you also have to allow for things like motive (Lenore Hart's first draft, on the same subject as O'Neal's novel, had been rubbished by her editor and she'll also have been under deadline pressure to get the book out before Poe stopped being a hot property because of the bicentennial celebrations) and opportunity (of the seven billion people on the planet, probably only a few hundred are alive who have read The Very Young Mrs Poe, but, on her own admission, Lenore Hart is one of them), etc.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Once upon a midnight cloudy and misty

(This one's pretty hardcore, so please bear with me. Test on Friday.)

We've already established that when faced with writing a scene for which no historical record was available, Lenore Hart cribbed straight from what Cothburn O'Neal had made up. But what about when the events she describes are documented?

Same thing. She mostly ignored the historical source and trusted O'Neal to have done his research properly.

Take the Poes' 1844 trip by train and steamboat from Philadephia to New York, via Amboy, New Jersey. Poe himself wrote about the journey in great, almost absurd, detail in a letter to Maria Clemm, who was his aunt and also his mother-in-law. This explains why, for instance, both O'Neal and Hart mention the 62-cent price of a certain umbrella. And this is the crux of Hart's defence: it's inevitable that she and O'Neal would both say the same things because both were working from the same historical sources. That's obvious.

Inevitable? Obvious? Really?

Let's look more a bit closely at how the two novelists chose to say those same things, because in many cases it was not the way Poe phrased it at all, and in some instances Hart filled in holes in Poe's account by choosing, oh-so-coincidentally, exactly the same words that O'Neal used in the bits he'd been forced to make up.

You can download a side-by-side comparison of the three writers' versions of this whole scene here. If you see something highlighted in red, alarm bells should ring, because it indicates words used by Hart that match O'Neal's version of the journey but not Poe's account of it.

If you don't have the time or inclination to download the document - I did warn you that this was pretty hardcore - then you can take my word for it: it's a veritable sea of red.

In one detail - what time it was when the train departed - we find that Hart completely misunderstood what O'Neal was trying to say and as a result screwed the time up, even though Poe had been quite specific about the hour. Hart says it was "seven fifteen". O'Neal doesn't state the exact time, instead saying that the train left "an hour" after their arrival at the station "a little after six". In that case, seven fifteen sounds about right, doesn't it? Yes, it does - or it would if Poe hadn't clearly said that the train left at seven o'clock, not seven fifteen.

Then there's the weather in Philadelphia the day the Poes left. Hart says it was "a cloudy, misty morning". O'Neal had it as "a cloudy, misty day". So both must have got that detail straight from Poe's letter, right? No, wrong. Poe doesn't mention the weather at all until the end of the journey, by which time it was raining.

The source she used was only "historical" inasmuch as it was a novel written fifty-five years before hers.

But getting back to that rain on their arrival in New York, once again we find Hart misconstruing O'Neal's version of events rather than drawing from Poe's original account. O'Neal just refers to "rain". Hart glosses this as "persistent drizzle", but if she'd actually used the historical source that she claims that she relied on and not just plagiarised another writer's novelisation of it, she'd have seen that the needle was in fact at the other end of the raininess scale. It wasn't drizzling at all but tipping down by the time they got to New York - "raining hard" were Poe's exact words.

There are several other tell-tale details we could mention (the definite article in "at the Walnut Street wharf" which is used by O'Neal but not by Poe, or both Hart and O'Neal saying "boarded a steamer" when Poe had phrased it as "took a steamboat" - dull but dead-giveaway stuff like that), but I'll leave it there and let anyone interested see for themselves in the line-by-line breakdown of the three versions of the scene linked to above.

The conclusion couldn't be clearer. Even when the events she describes are documented, Lenore Hart's "same historical sources" defence is hogwash. Time and time again she couldn't be bothered to turn to the relevant document as her primary source, relying instead on Cothburn O'Neal's interpretation of it.

After all, that 170-year-old prose is full of stupid ampersands and, like, weirdo capitalization and abbreviations; who needs to actually plough through all that turgid stuff when some dead schmuck from Texas has already done the donkey work for you?


Sunday, 8 January 2012

57 varieties of career over. . . or is it?

What this woman has done, clearly, is sit down with a book and rewrite it. —Lawrence Block
An 11-page document containing a side-by-side comparison of 57 improbably similar passages, revealing 31 text strings appearing only in her book and the one she stole from. That’s the extent of Lenore Hart’s plagiarism in The Raven’s Bride found so far by the blogger Undine, novelist Jeremy Duns and me.

Hart’s book is literally (one of her favourite words) rife with stolen bits of business, pilfered scenes, filched colour detail, purloined characters, nicked descriptions and lifted dialogue, looted from a novel that she not only neglected to mention in her acknowledgments but had the klutzy chutzpah to disparage in an interview.

You can download a PDF of the 57 passages here. I’m sure that St. Martin’s Press, her publisher, will be having a look at it. I bet that those responsible for the Wilkes University Creative Writing MA/MFA Program, where she teaches, will too. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a copy is plopped on top of her agent’s in-tray on Monday morning.

Fifty-seven compelling reasons for them all to … well, to continue to play la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you, most likely. Although under normal circumstances this would be a PR horror show to be dealt with as expeditiously as possible, these are clearly anything but normal circumstances.

Lenore Hart’s plagiarism of Cothburn O’Neal’s 1956 novel The Very Young Mrs. Poe was drawn to her publisher's attention twice, not long after The Raven’s Bride was published early last year. St. Martin's Press didn’t deign to reply to those who complained, but now claim that as soon as they learned of the allegations they got Hart to explain herself in writing — a commission she fulfilled by cooking up a rambling, surreal screed peppered with non sequiturs, obfuscation, dissembling and outright lies, which her publisher, in public at least, remains fully satisfied with.

Lenore Hart's own views on the matter can be judged only by a most-unfortunate-for-her exchange with Jeremy Duns that she engaged in on Facebook and has since deleted, although screengrabs are available on request. (Summarising, it's all a terrible misunderstanding, apparently, based on anonymous Web allegations that are not to be taken seriously.) Since then, she and St. Martin’s have kept schtum, no doubt hoping it’ll all go away. Nothing to see here. Move along, please.

Who are they trying to kid? Certainly not any of the other writers, like Lawrence Block or Steve Mosby, or the other publishers, like Melville House, who saw the bang-to-rights evidence and instantly came to the only rational conclusion. Certainly not anyone who commented on the story when it was covered by The Guardian or New York Times. And certainly none of the many people on Twitter who’ve been wondering pretty much every day for the last couple of months why the hell her book is still on sale. So who, then?

As for any debate on the merits of the plagiarism claims, there is no debate. There’s no need for any. The breadth and depth of her plagiarism is out there for all to see in those 57 passages. Indeed, only one person has come out to champion Hart’s cause, albeit under the pseudonym "Red Radiator", in another exchange with Jeremy Duns, this time on the Amazon page for Hart’s book. But as soon as “Red Radiator” was unmasked as a faculty colleague of Hart’s at Wilkes, Sara Pritchard, she suddenly ceased her offensive defence of her chum's integrity (the worst of which was deleted by Amazon), apologised for her previous tone and disappeared, never to be heard from again. So much for Team Lenore.

And that’s where things still stand.

One is forced to ask how it could possibly be in the interests of Wilkes University to keep on stubbornly refusing to address these 57 varieties of career over, instead of doing what Hart’s other professional home, the Norman Mailer Center, did almost immediately when they were made aware of a possible rotten apple in their barrel (or a festering raven in their cage, if you prefer): announce that they’ve suspended her from teaching duties until further notice.

And why doesn’t St. Martin’s Press do what Little Brown did last autumn within hours of learning that Q. R. Markham’s Assassin of Secrets was just a patchwork of pretty much every spy novel ever written: pull the book and quickly turn the page?

Those are very interesting questions.

Enter the salty sea dog
David Poyer is a U.S. Navy captain turned thriller writer. Like Lenore Hart, he teaches on the MFA-program faculty at Wilkes University. Like Lenore Hart, he is published by St. Martin’s Press. Like Lenore Hart, he is represented by ICM. And like Lenore Hart, he lives on the eastern shore of Virginia. With her, in fact. He’s married to her. He has also openly acknowledged acting as her “business manager”.

But most unlike Lenore Hart, David Poyer sells cartloads of books (not Lawrence Block–level cartloads, perhaps, but cartloads all the same). If St. Martin’s Press were to cut Hart loose, then Poyer — one of the most productive cash cows in their stable — might well feel aggrieved enough to turn to another publisher. And if Wilkes were to cut her loose, then Poyer — their showcase act, far and away the most commercially successful writer on their faculty — might well feel affronted enough to take his teaching elsewhere.

Let’s be plain about this: the Poyers are a duo, not just personally but also professionally. But they’re not a duo like Lennon and McCartney; think more John and Yoko. Fail to do right by her and you may notice the walls and bridges of your lucrative relationship with him beginning to teeter.

Is it all starting to make sense now?

Without Poyer’s hands-on management of Lenore Hart’s carefully constructed literary career, without his undoubted industry clout, she'd be unlikely to be published by the prestigious St. Martin’s Press or have an agent at swanky ICM. (The truth is that she’s a mediocre writer, as the exercise of side-by-siding her prose with Cothburn O’Neal’s has made only too clear.) If she was married to a drywall installer, she’d have been thrown to the wolves months ago — book quickly withdrawn, dishonourable discharge from her teaching post, curt letter from ICM: "we regret your profile is no longer in synergy with our strategy blah blah" — a toxic brand to be firmly and swiftly erased. Just like Q.R. Markham.

But she’s not married to a drywall installer. She’s married to “the most popular living writer of American sea fiction”. In short, follow the money. Ethics are fine as long as they don't mess with the bottom line.

(Of course, I may be completely off with these suppositions and extrapolations. But if there is no unseen hand rocking the cradle, then the drawn-out obduracy of St. Martin’s Press and Wilkes simply cannot be explained, because all that's being achieved with each day this impasse drags on is the steady undermining of their reputations.)

I may write another time about what on earth could have come over or driven a professional writer of certain critical repute, with quite a lot to lose, to do something so crass, so cheap, so lazy and so ultimately doomed to humiliating failure. Problems with her original manuscript and deadline pressure from her editor, maybe? (It was published a full year later than announced, under a changed title.) Writer’s block? A nosedive in self-esteem? I don’t know. And quite frankly I don’t much care right now. All that concerns me at the moment is that she never be allowed to do it again, and that she — or at least those who publish, employ and represent her — should own up to what she has done and accept that it is wrong.

Lenore Hart has been shown way, way beyond any shred of reasonable doubt to be a literary fraud, an intellectual thief and a shameless liar, and she mustn't get away with it. But unless enough pressure is exerted to counter her husband’s no-doubt-considerable pull, she just might.

Let’s not let her.