4 March 2015

Ray Gosling: Personal Copy: A Memoir of the Sixties (1980; rep. 2010)

How can I write coherently or in any way meaningfully about Ray Gosling (1939–2013), a man best known for his former television appearances, and whose face on the cover of this book means nothing to me? Because I'm one of the 500,000 people the supremely arrogant and fascistic BBC believes are liars when they say they don't have a television receiver. And yet I certainly don't have a television receiver, because I'm convinced that virtually all that television companies throw in people's faces is tedious, childish, right-wing, time-wasting shit. Reading Ray Gosling's book, though, I'm very willing to accept that his contributions to a generally horrendous medium were extremely rare examples of fascinating television.

There aren't many dates mentioned in this autobiography – which is in part a collection of previously published articles – to pin events down, and much seems to come from the smoke of memory, so I suppose it's fitting that this re-publication comes from Five Leaves, a small publishing company which indirectly (via Nick Drake) alludes to a small reminder, a slip of paper that was used in Rizla cigarette paper packets: only one more five-skinner to go!

However, the book tries to avoid temporal digression by being divided into a number of sections, including an early one called 'The Americans', dealing with Gosling's representation of them in the war years, and they certainly seem (in Wim Wenders's words), to 'have colonised our [i.e. Europeans's, and certainly Gosling's] subconscious': there's a quotation from Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans in Part One ('A great preamble into nothing').

But it's not the American smoke of memory from the Beat writers that Gosling's first part concludes on, but Buckminster Fuller, which amazed me, and – like a number of things in Personal Copy – sparked off recollections. There are even two chapters here on Fuller, even including a mention of '[Fuller's] own university at Carbondale, South Illinois'. Carbondale is a tiny paradise where in summer a blanket of heat enwraps you, huge multi-coloured butterflies brush your face, chipmunks scamper around, American robins are everywhere, and people jog up to you on the sidewalk and stop just to say hello, ask you what you what you've got planned for the day, and then merrily jog off. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was where Bucky lived with his wife for ten years in the geodesic dome he'd built. I was reminded of the two occasions I'd spent in Carbondale researching Lionel Britton, two months in all, and of how on the first occasion I couldn't find Carbondale's only (and unadvertised) 'tourist attraction': Bucky's little dome, which the (at the time) director of the Special Collections Center in the Morris Library drove me to see on learning that I couldn't locate it.

Personal Copy worked on my mind like that, forcing me to peel back the layers of the onion, memory (yeah, I couldn't resist alluding to Craig Raine, as well as Iain Sinclair above) that made up my search for Buckminster Fuller: first, many years ago, by reading I Seem to Be a Verb; searching for his modest 'Call me Trimtab' grave in Mount Auburn, Cambridge, Massachusetts; the glory of his geodesic dome in Montréal; and the disappointment on learning from the Information Center that the former Black Mountain College near Asheville, North Carolina where Bucky once taught is now occupied by a religious group which doesn't allow people to visit the grounds.

Gosling doesn't say much about Leicester, where I too went to Leicester University (French for the first degree), although he didn't stick it through, his stay there was in an era before mine, and I don't recognise any of the few places he mentions. But, odd though it may seem, he's not joking when he says that this used to be a – as the expression went at the time – 'mental hospital'  although I believe its former incarnation is now largely represented by a few office buildings.

But there's much more on Nottingham, particularly the drinking spots, and I too have spent many hundreds of hours in pubs in the heart of the city. He mentions the rather bohemian nature of the (non-licensed) Kardomah café. I only just remember this place, and that it was still then populated by oddballs but mainly student types, and everyone in those days simply called it the KD to express their (usually false, I think) great familiarity with it.

A number of pubs Gosling brings up had gone in my day, although I was very surprised that he briefly mentioned Veronica, the sturdy gruff-voiced barmaid at the Albert Hotel. She must have aged considerably by the time she (begrudgingly, I thought: maybe because she knew I was underage, or perhaps she was just that way with everyone?) used to serve me pints of Younger's in the Scotch Bar at the back of the hotel. By that time she had developed a moustache, of which she seemed very proud. Gosling says nothing of barman Bert who also worked there, and who behaved in a deliberately camp manner, but I suspect Bert came after Gosling's time.

I get a strong impression – surely backed up by the lack of dates here – that Gosling's 'sixties' are more generic than date-stampable, more in the mind than held fast to any particular period. So it seems slightly odd that such an essentially anti-establishment person should say nothing of the Scheme club, held from the sixties onwards: The Scheme were a (mainly alternative) folk group with (probably only occasionally) Paul Waplington – who later became an artist – and Stephen Morris reading poetry. I believe it began downstairs at the Fox on Parliament Street (now No. 10), moved upstairs, and ended its days at the Bowling Green (now gone).

Part Two is titled 'Battle of the Slums' and is shorter than the first part. It's concerned with Gosling's role in the struggle to save parts of the working-class St Anns area in Nottingham, which was doomed to failure. The strength of this part is the affection he shows for the people who lived there, his admiration for their spirit. Initially he has a few good words to say about Ken Coates, although Coates's co-author of the book Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen (1970) is simply recorded as Billy or Bill, and I didn't notice either a mention of Bill's surname or the name of the book itself: the name is Silburn, and his forename on the title-page is Richard. Which reminds me that I once met Bill Silburn with a couple of other students and that at the time (by way of a reference to Marshall McLuhan) he said something to the effect that the working class would die without television, which I suppose in a sense takes us back to the beginning of this rambling post.

Ray Gosling was obviously a great character, a lovable kind of anarchist, and someone who could get away with a number of things on television that he would be unable to do in these stage-managed, fame-obsessed, trivia-pursuing days in which anything goes only as long as it's glittery, beautiful, young, famous or potentially famous: in other words anything that leaves me cold and reminds me how wonderful it is, of how I've privileged myself, to live in a world without the mindless hype of television.

Oh, and the book ends in 1979, shortly after the fateful elections, when Thatcher and later her spiritual son Blair would set about destroying the country, ploughing eccentricities into oblivion in an insane rush to kill all the social progress that had been made over many years, a rush to make greed the omnipotent ruler and the world in general a much more dangerous place to live in. There could never be another Ray Gosling, and I can't help fearing that his kind is fast becoming an extinct breed.

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