by Les May
Editors Note: Les May wrote this review exclusively for our current edition of Northern Voices No.15, which was published in April of this year. He had in 2014 also written a review on Amazon. The interesting thing about these reviews is that, with the exception of a review by Nicholas Blincoe* in the Daily Telegraph also in 2014, they are so far as we know the only critical reviews of the book 'Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith' by Simon Danczuk and Matthew Baker.
Since the book by the Rochdale M.P. Simon Danczuk was publish there has been much acclaim for what Mr. Danvczuk has had to say from pundits in the media and politicians of all complexions. The effect of Mr. Danczuk's book when it was first published by Biteback publishers was massive and almost unbelievable given its patently poor quality in research terms. John Walker who was the former co-editor of the Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP), which in May 1979 first exposed the ultra vires conduct of Cyril Smith at Cambridge House, described the prose of Danczuk and Baker as 'flowery flannel'.
I must declare an interest here because the idea to produce a biography of Cyril Smith was mine which I disclosed to my friend John Walker and he then suggested we get Simon Danczuk to write an introduction and to help us find a publisher. I am an anarchist and ought to have logically exercise prudence whe deal with any party politician, but John has been a lifelong supporter of the Labour Party and has already published one book, I therefore left it to him to negotiate with Mr.Danczuk. Neither of us had had any previous dealings with Simon Danczuk, but it quickly became apparent that Simon Danczuk was interested in making money out of the Cyril Smith book and this appalled John Walker, when he later at my house in Castleton, Rochdale, told me of it how Simon would mimic Cyril's gate rolling across the screen for a docu-drama. In January 2013, as we ate our paella a la valenciana at my house following John's meeting with Simon and Matthew Baker, we struggled to come to terms Simon Danczuk's idea of turning the whole child abuse scandal into a melodrama for television. Up to that time John had met with Danczuk about six times in London, on at least one time in the House of Commons Bar. John told me that during their meeting, that Matthew Baker had seemed to be mainly interested in trying to squeeze information out of him, and that judging by Karen’s body language there seemed to be some animosity between Karen Burke (Danczuk’s wife) and Matthew Baker.
The visit to Danczuk’s office had not been successful, and sometime later in London, John Walker was approached by Mr. Baker and asked if he still intended to produce a book on Cyril Smith, to which he said that he wasn’t. Then we waited to see how they would handle the material, especially with regard to the fact that when he was at Cambridge House he was a prominent member of the Labour Party in Rochdale, and that when in the later 1960s Cyril had been investigated by the police Jack McCann the then M.P. for Rochdale had intervened on his behalf with the DPP. There is also even speculation that perhaps the then Labour Home Secretary, James Callaghan, got involved, as Mr. McCann was close to him.
Brian Bamford (October 2015)* Nicholas Blincoe is an English author, critic and screenwriter. He is the author of six novels, Acid Casuals (1995), Jello Salad (1997), Manchester Slingback (1998), The Dope Priest (1999), White Mice (2002), Burning Paris (2004). Blincoe was born in Rochdale, Lancashire in 1965. After briefly studying art at Middlesex Polytechnic he attended the University of Warwick where he studied Philosophy, gaining a PhD in 1993. The thesis was entitled Depression and Economics. The thesis explored the relationship between political sciences and economic theories, with particular reference to the philosophy of Jacques Derrida.
'Reviewing Cyril Smith's Lucrative Smile' by Les May (First published in print in Northern Voices No.15):A half a century ago an overweight Labour councillor in his mid thirties took it upon himself to act as disciplinarian and medical inspector at a hostel for young men. The man's name was Cyril Smith and the hostel was Cambridge House in Rochdale. The consequences of this decision took some sixteen years to emerge in the form of a detailed and well researched article in Rochdale Alternative Paper (RAP), one of those non-mainstream newspapers which emerged in the 1970s.
In the 1979 pre-election issue of RAP the story of Cyril's penchant for looking at young men's genitals and spanking their bare backsides was revealed to anyone in Rochdale who could afford a few new pence for the paper. Cyril threatened to sue, then quietly backed down, Private Eye and New Statesman ran pieces, and the rest of the press ignored it. At the election, Cyril, who by now had defected to the Liberal party, was returned to Parliament.
I bought 'Smile for the Camera' by Simon Danczuk and Matthew Baker having been taken in by the hype surrounding it. So confidently did Mr Danczuk present his story of 'Cyril Smith the paedophile' at book readings, at press conferences and to any media outlet that would listen, that I assumed it was filled with solid evidence that Cyril continued and extended his sordid activities after the closure of Cambridge House in the mid 1960s. It isn't.
Instead what we have are a series of assertions and opinions by the authors, gossip, second and third hand stories which originated in pub bars, supposedly verbatim accounts of conversations which took place thirty odd years ago, accounts which we are led to believe are the authentic voices of men who had unpleasant encounters with Cyril yet which have a strange sameness about them, few definite dates and a garbled chronology, the same story apparently told more than once, misquotation of documents, a seeming absence of proper methodology and no indication of how many men they interviewed who claimed to have been abused by Cyril.
Feeling somewhat peeved at having wasted my money on such dross, I twice challenged the authors in a local newspaper about the apparent lack of methodology and how many men had been interviewed before this book was written, who claimed to have been abused by Cyril after the closure of Cambridge House. Having received no answer on either occasion I wrote to Mr Danczuk on 9 October 2014 asking him the same question. Again he declined to answer. On 24 October at one of his book readings he was asked the same question. Still Mr Danczuk refused to answer. Why the coyness? Perhaps the answer would be embarrassingly small.
The question of 'how many' comes to mind repeatedly, because some of the stories about Cyril's activities appear to be recycled. For example the same story about one resident fleeing the hostel after being beaten by Cyril appears on pages 51 and 93, leaving the impression that they are separate incidents. Another example, complete with garbled chronology, appears on pages 50 and 109.
We now know Lancashire Police investigated Smith's activities at Cambridge House in 1969 and that in March 1970 a file was submitted to the DPP containing complaints from eight young people about indecent assaults by him. The GMP update containing this information does not detail any other group of complainants. But similar stories about 'police files' appear in the book on pages 45, 47 and 51, again leaving the impression that they refer to separate complaints. But do they?
Some of the strangest passages in the book appear in the three chapters headed 'Silent Voices'. Ostensibly these are accounts in their own words of the experiences of three men at the hands of Cyril Smith.
Here are a few samples ostensibly from two men assaulted in the 1960s;
It was said that Leonardo da Vinci would gaze at the stains on walls and imagine vivid battles and landscapes. That day cheap exuberant motifs gave way to a swarm of angry locusts bringing a load of plague and pestilence. p87
The all-nighters at the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester were legendary. Hard rhythm and blues, rare soul and American imports: it was the best music you'd hear anywhere in the north of England. p119
You may wonder whether, if you were reporting having your backside wacked by a bully when you were a teenager half a century ago, you would include passages like these in your account.
It doesn't stop there. Contrast this description by the first of these men describing the assault by Smith;
Above his heavy breathing I could smell his rancid body odour. It was like cabbage boiled in vinegar. As his heavy breathing slowed, a continuous low sound rose in his chest like a purr of contentment. p92 and a few lines later
His humming was louder now, broken every now and then by strange squeals of pleasure. p92
with an account which does not appear in the book but was sent to me in June 2014 by a man who was also assaulted at Cambridge House;
During the time I was a resident, (from late ‘61/early ‘62 to late ‘63/possibly early ‘64), on two occasions I was subjected to Smith’s bogus ‘medicals’. During one of these I was asked to take down my trousers and underpants, turn round with my back to him, bend over, then hold my buttocks apart, while he ‘inspected’ me. On another I had to, again, lower my trousers and underpants and Smith started poking and prodding and I was then told to cough while Smith held my genitals.
These two men may even have met each other at Cambridge House and are describing similar events. But whilst the account in the book is dramatic, 'white knuckle' or even vaguely pornographic, the second is hesitant and matter of fact.
Now I do not doubt the two men at the centre of the accounts given in the book were spanked by Smith just as they say they were. But I don't think that we are reading their own unvarnished words on the subject. One of them says;
Cyril couldn't have abused all these boys on his own. He had a team of people behind him. They were all in on it. p131
How convenient for the authors that he volunteered his opinion in this way! How nicely
it 'corroborates' the opinion of another of their informants;
Digan, like others, is of the view they (paedophile gangs that is) were encouraged and protected by Cyril Smith. p115.
We'll meet Mr Digan later. But for the moment we'll note that these are opinions not facts.
The third 'Silent Voice' is perhaps the strangest. Essentially it is a 'kiss and tell story', though it is not presented that way.
In 1979 a young man of 16 meets Cyril and becomes involved in Liberal politics. The RAP article spilling the beans on Cyril's antics at Cambridge House appears just before the election, but he is happy to join Cyril's election campaign and soon becomes 'a close member of his team'. Payback time comes when Cyril starts to grope him. So what does he do, walk away immediately? No! He continues to work with Cyril until 1982. Now he feels a sense of shame for letting it happen, but to his great credit refuses to let his life be taken over by hate.
This is a sad story. Cyril does not emerge as a very nice man, even in the dirty world of party politics. But not being very nice isn't a crime. At a personal level he is exploitative and clearly takes advantage of this young man. Yet, like the two earlier stories, it's not paedophilia.
So why do the authors use it to treat us to passages like this?
In the years that followed, Cyril repeatedly used me to satisfy his perverse cravings. He treated me like a sex object. p153
As we read this would our feelings be the same if it was about a fifty plus Celia Smith with her 'toy boy'? Are we being subtly invited to a bit of 'queer bashing'?
If you find such an idea offensive how about this?
Cyril, he said, liked them young with tight sphincter muscles. When their sphincter became looser as they got older, he would ditch them. p210
'I can't forget the graphic detail,' Foulston tells me, 'I was disgusted.' p210
Was the intention to leave the reader 'disgusted'?
Knowl View was a residential school which opened in 1969 and had a troubled history. In the years following its closure in 1994 it was the subject of claims of a 'cover up' going back to an Independent on Sunday (IoS) article in 1995. Strenuous attempts are made in 'Smile for the Camera' to associate Smith with sexual abuse of boys at the school. But they largely rely upon the suppositions and opinions of a single individual, social worker Martin Digan, and it is difficult to find any independent evidence for them. Again there is no chronology.
According to the authors Mr Digan started work at the school in the late 1970s p109. In what must surely be one of the most remarkable statements in the book they tell us, 'For many years he was oblivious to what was happening in the school – until he was promoted to head of care and began to realise that things weren't quite right.' p109
The authors don't think it necessary to tell us when this was. But a Manchester Evening News (MEN) article from 2 December 2012 indicates Mr Digan became head of care in 1994.
So what had been happening in the school? What no one disputes is that in 1991 an Aids worker, Philip Shepherd, spent a day in the school talking to staff and then wrote a report, (of which more later) which was sent to the Director of Education, Diana Cavanagh. In response to what he wrote a clinical psychologist, Valerie Mellor, was commissioned in late 1991 to investigate the reported sexual activity involving the boys at the school. Mellor's report presented in February 1992 confirmed and expanded upon the Shepherd report. It included the comment, 'It is very difficult to believe that this behaviour had not come to the attention of at least some members of staff.' Also in 1991, Rodney Hilton, who lived nearby was convicted of sexually abusing boys at the school.
Responding to a letter sent to her by the Knowl View staff in April 1992 Diana Cavanagh was strongly critical of care staff. With reference to boys aged 11 to 13 at one unit of the school being involved in homosexual activities at the Smith Street toilets in the centre of Rochdale, she is reported to have said, 'Those supervising the boys in the evenings appeared either not to notice that they were missing, or not to communicate their observations.' and, 'There is insufficient evidence to prove culpable neglect, fraud or incompetence by any single member of staff.'
If, as the authors tell us, Mr Digan had been at the school since the late 1970s, this seems to be a lot for anyone to be oblivious of. As for how Mr Digan had the scales lifted from his eyes you can choose between the prosaic versions from the MEN of 2 December 2012 and 30 November 2013, that he was given access to the reports when he became head of care or the melodramatic version from 'Smile for the Camera' in which he slipped into the headteacher's office at night, 'Then, just as he was leaving, he caught sight of a file of papers spread out on the desk under an adjustable lamp.' p112
This is what Mr Shepherd had actually written in 1991:
'One boy who is homosexual has contact with an adult outside the school. Several of the senior boys indulge in oral sex with one another.
Reputedly five of the junior boys have been or are involved in 'cottaging' in and around public toilets. Men as far away as Sheffield are believed to be aware of this activity and travel to Rochdale to take part.
'One eight-year-old is thought to have been involved. The police are aware of the problem. What action has been taken is not known.
'One rent boy has been removed from the school. The suggestion that he may return soon has angered the staff.
'Some boys have been "forced" to have sex with others.'
and this is what Danczuk and Baker claim it says:
'In matter of fact language, the report described the extreme sexual abuse that young boys had been subjected to. Boys were beaten and raped continually by men as far away as Sheffield who had travelled to Rochdale to take part.' p112
A few lines later they quote Mr Digan as saying, 'These boys were sold to paedophile gangs.' Of course neither they nor Mr Digan provide any evidence for this.
A page further on they imply that Cyril Smith's and Harry Wild's names appeared; when in the Shepherd report when they did not; 'This file was eventually made public by Digan but Cyril Smith and Harry Wild's names were not mentioned.'
This was the IoS article in 1995.
When the authors resort to misquoting documents in this way, presenting opinions as facts and implying that something is true when it isn't, then it casts doubt on much of their book. Being named as Sunday Times politics book of the year and being listed as one of The Telegraph's best politics books to read in 2014, does not make it a reliable document if you want to know about Cyril Smith. My dad used to say, 'You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all the people all the time.'
I hope he was right!