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Ray Gosling's Final Interview (1939-2013)

20 November 13 interview: James Walker
photos: David Parry

Over 1,000 radio documentaries and 100 for the telly. A pioneer of gay rights. Community activist. Anarchist. University drop-out published by Faber in his early twenties. Ray Gosling has spent his entire life fighting the system and standing up for ordinary people. Then it all went horribly wrong after that confession on live television. Suddenly people forgot half a century of broadcasting. It’s time to remember.

When I first met Ray Gosling it was after the 2010 riots. I wanted to hear what he had to say about it all, given he’d been around St. Anns during the race riots of 1958. That night more than 1,000 people went on the rampage, with many stabbings. The Evening Post described the area as a “slaughterhouse”. A few days later it kicked-off in Notting Hill and the media swiftly focussed their attentions on the more important story happening in the capital. As we chat about this, Ray is winding up his watch. I get the impression I’m on a timer and if I’m not interesting enough he’ll be off. But as I will learn over the course of this three-year interview, he just likes winding things up.

The riots of August 2011 were very different to ‘58. This time blacks and whites went on the assault together. Five police stations were fire-bombed. One was in St Anns, a place close to Ray’s heart. These protests seemed senseless in comparison, having no common goal. For most it was just an opportunity to vent. Yet this attitude was also prevalent in 1958, though is perhaps less remembered. A week after the riots, 4,000 youths descended on St. Anns, but with no visible Black faces to attack, they turned on each other. “It’s a rough old town. I absolutely love it.” He stamps his fist down on the table.

So what did he make of the riots and the protests against the cuts? “I’ve met two of the looters already. I’ll tell you what could help. If John Collins said he’ll give up £10,000 quid of his £82,000 a year if everyone is having cut backs. Don’t ask for it to come from the bottom. Why do you think the castle was burned down in 1831? Because the same thing was in kids then. I met these two almost dysfunctional, incoherent rioters. They didn’t know why they’d done it in coherent terms. I knew why they’d done it. You can’t live in a society where the Duke of Newcastle lives...”

There are long pauses during the conversation as he ponders, trying to recall facts. At other times he simply needs to catch his breath. I roll up a cigarette and am told, “stop trying to make out you’re working class.” He is distracted by anyone that walks past, wanting to know about their shoes, the book they’re reading, where their accent is from. It’s like he’s still making his documentaries.

Gosling is more experienced at being the interviewer and so our roles change throughout our meetings. His mood swings are equally unpredictable, flitting between screams, tears and a laughter that rattles in the jaws. He tells how he left Northampton for Leicester because it was a bigger city: home of the first Tescos outside of London, a drive-in post office and bank, as well as the first automatic multi-storey car park in Europe. If only he’d known back then what was buried beneath. These observations were recorded in his first documentary Two Town Mad (1963), a kind of psycho-geography of the East Midlands.

He went to university in Leicester. “It used to be a mental home (laughs) I couldn’t bear it. I really liked the lecturers and became friends with them. But I couldn’t stand the other students. They all had ideas of wanting to get on. I didn’t have ideas like that at all. I wanted a life.”

Ray has planned on writing his memoirs for a few years now but never quite gets round to doing it. “Life is for living, not for writing,” he says. But life is also for drinking and he’s knocked back his fair share over the years. “I’ve been drinking since I was twelve. I drink brandy and wine now. In those days I drank ten pints a night. There were fifty pubs in my St Anns. I’d have a drink in every one.” I raise an eyebrow. “Not every night.”

He dropped out of university and started up rock ‘n’ roll dances instead. “We did this club and it was wonderful for two years, 24 hours a day. You can’t imagine a youth club open for 24 hours a day.” The club would eventually close down due to gang trouble and fighting. Were people more violent then? “No!” he exclaims. “There’s always been a bit of violence and there’s always been a bit of trouble. I absolutely love the world as it is now. I’m enormously proud of how kids have come on.”

Nottingham became a temporary refuge from the troubles and would become his eventual home. He would take up the cause of the St Anns Residents and Tenants Association and spend fifteen years fighting city planners who threatened to flatten the 340 acres that was home to 30,000 people and 500 shops. He argued for selective demolition and simple improvements for the better parts to make it a more liveable place. This was the beginning of ‘new urbanism’, but without the trendy label.

During a snowy weekend in February 1967, 15,000 leaflets were posted to residents. Despite only two replies from those with ‘leadership material’, the movement began to gain momentum and was later helped by the publication of Ken Coates, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishman. “I think people made a lot of money about books on poverty in those days,” he scoffs, though this is only because he wants any credit to stay with the community. “All we wanted was ever so simple things like a pedestrian crossing, an adventure playground, the allotments. Now it’s commonplace but it wasn’t then.”

When I ask how the leaflet shoot was funded he becomes irate. “Money is always the easy thing, courage is the difficult thing to find.” He begins to well up. He doesn’t want to talk about the places he saved. He can only see the battles he’s lost. It still hurts.

I ask whether he’s optimistic about the future, suggesting the internet has made it easier for interest groups to mobilise and disseminate information. He tells me, not for the first time, that I’m talking absolute rubbish. “There was a greater sense of solidarity when you had to be very close to people. You had to be drinking with people, sharing space with people, living in tiny rooms with people. It’s never been the same since they altered the pattern of the streets.” There’s truth in this, his close friend Alan Sillitoe described it in that book: “The maze of streets sleeping between tobacco factory and bicycle factory drew them into the enormous spread of its suburban bosom and embraced them in sympathetic darkness.”

But Gosling’s fondness for nostalgia makes him overly dismissive of modernity, though he is right about the internet. Immediacy shouldn’t be confused with intimacy. I try a different tact, mentioning the good done by local organisations like the Sumac Centre. But I’m wrong again. “Absolutely wrong,” this time. “The Sumac Centre is a specialist centre. What I’m talking about is an ordinary place, like pubs. That’s what has gone from our lives. There’s only one pub left in our city centre and that’s The Dog and Partridge. It belongs to the whole of people. Anybody can go in. Yobs can go in.” But it’s for these very reasons that it’s not for the whole of people.

In our drinking sessions together, Gosling bemoans the death of the British pub, oblivious to the fact that people leave when he starts shouting about it. I don’t point this out and instead return back to collective action, asking whether he ever visited the Mushroom Bookshop. “Oh dear, I’ve got to be very careful about this” he says. “I’ve always found those trendy, lefty things – some of which I’ve worked for and they’ve paid me money, some I’ve worked for and they haven’t paid me any money – I’ve always found them a bit of a club for people who all think alike.” The radical bookshop wasn’t radical enough with its orderly shelves and helpful staff. “I am an anarchist,” he points out. “Not in the sense of throwing bombs at people. That’s got nothing to do with anarchy at all. I’m very suspicious of all governments and I want people to be free. It’s very simple.” He was once asked to give a talk on anarchy to university students at the Bell Hotel and was thrown out halfway through due to his foul language and what could politely be described as non-conformist behaviour.

The next time we meet up I place my dictaphone on the table. “Tony Wedgwood Benn records everything when he’s being interviewed to make sure nobody can misquote him. I guess you get paranoid when you’re a politician, especially when you’re Tony Wedgwood Benn.” He laughs. I’ve been given a subtle warning. He says he’s been up to St Anns since we last spoke, that the public space “is an absolute disgrace”. John Collins has been sent a letter. I suggest that we’re living in times of austerity and am reprimanded. Money has got nothing to do with it. “We used to organise our own rubbish service. We’d hire, for free, a rubbish vehicle from the City Council and we’d go around ourselves clearing up the backyard rubbish. It was just a community operation. These days of course they nearly all get grants for things but in my day there wasn’t really grants.”

This sounds dangerously like the ‘Big Society’ and it’s not for the first time that this radical, working class anarchist reveals himself as an old school, pull-up-your-sleeves, Conservative. It is befitting of a man of his complexity to be blessed with such contradictions. He wants things run on a local scale with minimum intervention. He laments the loss of personable politics, recounting how politicians of his day worked day jobs and you could swing by and ask them questions, sort out repairs. “They weren’t career politicians, they were ordinary blokes who could get yer lights fixed.”

I don’t ask him about the BBC euthansia documentary but he brings it up, perhaps he’s bored of waiting for me to ask. For those unaware, Ray admitted on a pre-recorded television documentary in 2010 that: “I killed someone once. He’d been my lover and he got Aids. I picked up the pillow and smothered him until he was dead. No regrets.” This caused a national scandal, where he was arrested and then released when the police investigated it further and realised his story was completely made up.

But there’s nothing new in his account that you haven’t heard already. What is more interesting is his description of the detective who interviewed him during his two days holed up in cells at Oxdale Lane police station. Just listen to the hiss behind the sartorial compliment, “The Chief copper, detective, was beautifully dressed, real Marks and Spencer suit (long pause) bought out of Nottingham Constabulary money.” We’re all as bad as each other is the message. His biggest disappointment is that at this point he knew his career was coming to an end. His portraits of ordinary people were no longer in vogue and had long been replaced by the extraordinary tales told by Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson.

During the sixties and seventies Gosling was one of the best known faces in television documentary programming. During his weekly slot on Granada with On Site, he visited a different town each week, enabling members of the public to voice off their concerns at officialdom. On the radio he offered quirky portraits of people and places in Britain. “I lived in a glorious era. I could do anything and dictate terms. You don’t get that anymore.”

Of all the people he’s met, one person stands out in particular. “We did a man in Warrington. He was an engineer. We always wanted people who were normal. He took us to his shed and said (putting on a Lancashire accent) “the wife’s never been in shed.” Sometimes my mouth would come out of these interviews with blood because I’d be biting me lip. “What have you got in there? In your shed,” I asked. “I collect stones” he said.” He sees me grinning and warns that “you mustn’t laugh at such things because this is how people are”, but I’m laughing at him because he loves putting on accents. “Stones” he said. “I’ve got some from the Peak District, some from the Lake District” and they were all numbered. We went in this shed and it was unbelievable, like the crown jewels. If my office was like his office it’d be magnificent. He’d catalogued it all on his computer. All done properly. He had a story about them all.”

Gosling has won numerous awards for such programmes. His documentary Ray Gosling OAP won a Jonathan Gili Award in 2007 beating off The Apprentice to win Most Entertaining Documentary. His film on Joe Orton was part of a programme which won the RTS Midlands Best Regional programme in 2008. When I ask him where these awards are he shrugs. “God knows. They’re somewhere in the sty of my flat or the house in Manchester or London. I don’t glory in anything like that. I’m not interested. I love the work.” Can he remember any of the award ceremonies? “I got pissed.” When collecting an award from Princess Margaret he was asked by a “shirt and tie” to address her as her Royal Highness. “I gave him two fingers and told him to fuck off. She doesn’t mind me calling her Margaret. I couldn’t say your grace. I’m just a poor peasant boy. Besides, they wouldn’t want you to.”

What makes him happiest now? “This sour Midlands county that I’ve become very close to. People are very hard in Nottingham (grins) It’s a wonderful attitude.” I ask him to be more specific. “You haven’t got any eyes on your dictaphone but there’s a big bloke up there (points to the top of the bar) and I bet he in’t gonna smile. He’s just gonna look. There’s a real roughness about this city and I really admire it.” Later on we experience this when doing the photoshoot. An electrician refuses to move his van to allow us to take the photograph, before complaining “this place is a shithole. What’s the matter with you lot? Why the fuck would you want to take a picture of an old man sat on a manky sofa?” Gosling loves it. He asks where he lives and when the man replies Lowdham, Gosling nods his head. “Very posh. I didn’t know working class people could afford to live in Lowdham.” The guy softens. “I don’t. I rent. I’ve got to go to Bestwood next. That’s even worse.” He nearly runs us over when he reverses, which Gosling treats like a peck on the cheek.

Where does this roughness come from? “Bloody hell. You know where it comes from,” he tuts. “It comes from the pits. It comes from the eighteen people who died at Markham Colliery in 1973. Work. It comes from the factories. Alan Sillitoe’s Raleigh.”Gosling and Sillitoe were good friends, both fighting the system in their own way. Sillitoe fought through the flat Radford vowels of Arthur Seaton, creating a realistic portrayal of working class life which would take its place alongside the more familiar middle and upper class domain of literature. Gosling continued this process through the poetic realism of his broadcasting, giving voice to ordinary people about subjects that were important to them. They made a powerful double act. “I miss Alan, he was a thoroughly good bloke.”

Sillitoe was given the keys to the city and perhaps now it’s Gosling’s turn. Today perfectly illustrates why he should be recognised. It’s 17 July, the day that same sex marriage has been given Royal Ascent. Typically, he doesn’t even want to discuss it. “I had me gay day yesterday I don’t want another.”

Gosling has had quite a few gay days during his life. He was an early pioneer of the gay rights movement, working with Allan Horsfall in the sixties in what would later become the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). They set up the website Gay Monitor, detailing cases of discrimination. He opposed the controversial Section 28 legislation - that banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality – which was repealed on 18 November 2003. In his home there is a framed photograph of Lord Wolfenden, whose report on 4 September 1957 made the recommendation that “homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence”. Same sex marriage must mean something. It is the final vindication of a lifelong struggle to justify his sexuality. But Gosling is a fighter. He needs an enemy to define himself against. Of course the judgement is important but now there’s another issue to consider: “I don’t like marriage. I’ve never seen the point of it.”

He’s no stranger to the political arena, “I was the first person in this country to stand as a loony, which I did in Lenton. I think it was 1963. ‘Vote for a madman’ was the campaign. I got more votes than Screaming Lord Sutch ever got.” This may be true of when Lord Sutch stood at Stratford Upon Avon after the fall of Mr Profumo but not of the Bootle by-election in 1990 when he secured more votes than the candidate of the SDP. Within days the SDP dissolved itself. Gosling certainly inspired Lord Sutch, who sought him out for advice way before leading the Monster Raving Loony Party from 1983 to 1999. When I mention it was tragic that Sutch committed suicide he doesn’t believe me. He looks hurt and confused. “You’re wrong,” he says. Suddenly Gosling looks like a frail and dishevelled old man, born in 1939. 

When I ask Gosling who his heroes are his memory is sharp again. He lists every single person involved in the St Anns projects. D H Lawrence was incredible “but just because we can’t all be Lawrence’s doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our bit, like LeftLion is doing.” But his real idol is Colin MacInnes, the author who depicted London’s youth and black immigrant culture during the fifties. Absolute Beginners (1959) “was the first novel of teenage times. I think I was the model for it, really. This kid who wasn’t sure of anything and wanted to change the world.” MacInnes, a bisexual, took Gosling under his wing and lovingly nicknamed him “junior,” though “we never slept with each other.” He introduced him to coffee bars, jazz clubs and celebrities. “He taught me how to dress. You always wear something smart and something scruffy.” He shows off his Paul Smith shirt and casual trainers. He’s still got it. The only problem is that he smells unwashed and there’s a beer stain on his cuff.

I ask if there’s anyone in his life and I’m told, “it’s complicated.” Then he adds, “you get to a certain age and it’s difficult to have a wank.” He starts to smile, perhaps considering this or could it be the fun he had with his partner of thirty years, who passed away in 1999. Whatever the thought, he suddenly has this lovely gentle glow about him and it’s infectious. “I’ve had a tempestuous love life in many ways but then I’m an enormously emotional man. It’s a quality. You take part in life, that’s what you do. You mustn’t be wrapped up in your own self-importance. Importance sometimes happens to you. I had that in St Anns or on radio and the telly. Should I have been more serious, like a vicar? Nah. I’ve had a lovely life. I’ve earned money and I’ve spent money. The only thing I’ve got left to do is die.”

Personal Copy: A Memoir of the Sixties is available from Five Leaves, £8.99.

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