The other side of……..the 1970s


Understanding and explaining the depth of the ignorance in the general population about child sex abuse in the 1970s is one way of supporting the victims who may now be seeking justice. So that we understand why they did not say anything, or if they did why they were disbelieved. So we know how these things could have happened in plain sight but no-one did anything. So that we believe the victims stories could be true. So that the witnesses who look back and feel shame at their blindness are also supported in telling the truth without fear a younger generation will judge them too harshly for allowing it to happen.

Another way of supporting the victims is to tell the truth and to be personally prepared to defend  libel proceedings on the basis of truth, fair comment and public interest.

On Friday 7th June 1974 I was invited to a garden party at the home of Ivan Geffen, a prominent West Midlands human rights solicitor. He defended two of the Birmingham Six, he fought ground breaking cases promoting rights for travellers, gay men and battered women. He stood as a prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in a Wolverhampton seat. He is married with children.

Garden Party invitation June 1974
Garden Party invitation June 1974

He was also one of the leading criminal defence solicitors for those accused of incest, child rape and child pornography. There is nothing wrong with that, everyone deserves a fair trial and to be professionally represented, everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

I still have the garden party invitation stuck in an old scrap book that my mother kept for decades. My step-father was a junior clerk in the Walsall town centre offices of Geffen’s Solicitors. I had two older brothers, one of whom played chess for the county; they were not invited. I was a sulky 10 year old tomboy who just wanted to be treated like my brothers.  I wanted a geology hammer. People stopped buying me dolls when I was about 3 years old and I pulled the legs off to see the insides. I later studied Physiology at University.

I was told it was an honour to be invited and that I must wear a dress because “Geff loves little girls in dresses”. I don’t know where the dress came from that I was told I had to wear. I don’t think it belonged to me.

Stupid dress or not I was very excited to be invited to an adult party. I thought the house was just amazing, three reception rooms, a grand piano, patio doors leading to the garden – very modern and stylish, for the 1970s. They served grape juice to the little girls. I did not know that grape juice existed; fresh orange juice was a Christmas luxury at our house. Red grape juice; it was the most exquisite thing I had ever tasted in my life. There were other exotic luxuries galore. I was not particularly socially deprived it was just that most of us had liver and onions for our tea and one apple a day in the 70s. A few shops had started stocking kiwis, but I don’t think you could get them at the co-op. Wine and olive oil were only found in the poshest of kitchens.

The adult party goers were the intelligencia of the left. One man was pointed out to me and I was told in awe that he had been selected for a safe Labour seat and would be an MP soon. I felt so lucky to be there with all these important people.

Everyone said how beautiful all the little girls looked, there were about 12 in all, mostly aged between 6 and 9, all wearing light coloured short little dresses, quite old fashioned more 1950s style than 1970s. There were no boys at the party. I was one of the oldest but I was very short and skinny for my age and could easily pass for 7. We played in the big garden, that was split into different areas, and was exciting to explore. It got dark; it must have been late, but we were allowed to stay up because we had been favoured with an invitation to this dazzling social event.

There were bottles and bottles of proper wine selected by our host for the grown-ups, no bring your own party kegs. Mr Geffen and another man had seated themselves on upright chairs just in front of the piano with their backs to the outside wall next to a door into the garden. The little girls had to take a turn sitting on the gentleman’s knees. A turn seemed to last about 10 minutes. Geffen was about 50 years old and had a thin gaunt appearance and a beard. I didn’t fancy taking my turn. I watched one little girl turning pale and when Geffen’s hands reappeared and he said she could go now, she shot off into the garden looking terrified.

Everyone smiled and said that Geffen was such a lovely man because he had given this fantastic party and because he loved little girls and let them sit on his knee. The majority of people would not have thought the behaviour inappropriate and would have considered anyone who objected had a filthy dirty mind for such a thing to even occur to them.

I tried to keep out of the way but I was told it was going to be my turn next and I had to stay in the house. I was also told that he had put his hand inside one of the girls knickers and then inside her – there. I was told this just before it was my turn. The moment came and another girl slid off his knee and bolted out of the room. I was standing in the big room that went from the front of the house to the back, and Geffen was through an open plan area in the ‘music room’, I was about 15 feet away from him. I stood on the spot. I was cajoled – “come on up you get”. Geffen had his hands on the top of his thighs. I stared at his hands. I said I don’t want to. People tutted and said it was my turn. My mother was mortified – was I going to cause a scene? She told me to do as I was told.

I stood my ground and said “but I’ll have to sit on his hands” there was a gasp of horror from the room. Geffen actually blushed and moved his hands and waved them around and said it did not matter where his hands were, he had not even noticed where his hands were and beckoned me again. People suddenly felt angry and uncomfortable. Someone said there was nothing to be scared of and Ivan wanted me to sit on his knee so I should do as I was told. I stood my ground again and said emphatically “but I don’t want to sit on his knee”. A large older women behind me exclaimed that “it is always the ones with red hair who are the naughty ones”. Almost everyone in the room was frowning with disgust at my defiant behaviour. Geffen relented and chose another girl. I had escaped.

One young man, who was doing articles at Geffen’s Solicitors and who I had met many times at my mother’s house and I liked very much, was standing beaming at me with pride and admiration. I really did not understand that myself. I felt wretched. I was always in trouble. The other little girls were good little girls and I was an ungrateful, spiteful little madam who had embarrassed my mum in front of all those people. I believe that young man is a judge now.

A few years ago I read an old news story on internet. Ivan Geffen had been charged with indecently assaulting girls over a lengthy period of time. These alleged victims had been the daughters of his female clients, from very socially deprived backgrounds. It was alleged he had taken them on outings (good works for the poor, charity and philanthropy) and then assaulted them, some on many occasions. He was acquitted of all the charges in 2002. His defence was that the West Midlands CID were fitting him up because he had taken many cases against them and had defended the Birmingham Six, and that the women were motivated by wanting compensation, or owed the police favours. You can imagine they had not done very well in later life, and their characters were probably easily attacked.

I believe Ivan Geffen is still alive at over 90 years old. I have not read any obituaries, and he was always a bit of a left wing celeb in Birmingham. He was still writing articles about false accusations of child abuse being fuelled by the compensation culture up until a few years ago. I believe he will get the same analysis as Jimmy Saville when he goes: He hid in plain sight. He used his status to put himself beyond suspicion. He targeted the most vulnerable. I hope it is some comfort to his victims that they will be believed in the end because it is the inescapable truth.

Rachel Sharma