Monday, 16 December 2013

Dreaming the impossible: Ray Gosling 1939–2013, a guest post from Jeff Cloves

The broadcaster and, for one book only, Five Leaves writer Ray Gosling had a wake last week. I turned up with the after-work contingent just in time to miss Jeff Cloves, all the way from Stroud, who'd just left. Jeff writes a regular column for Peace News, a magazine that Ray used to write for. Jeff has written this column for a forthcoming edition of PN, printed here with thanks.
The last copies of Pomona's Sum Total were given away at the wake. Five Leaves Bookshop ( has a few of the Personal Copy book left, but they won't last long either.

Ray’s precocious autobiography Sum Total – first published when he was 23 by Faber – has this quote on the cover of the Pomona paperback edition published in 2004: I am for the working classes, for the underdog, for the seedy and the left behind….and the England that seemed and still seems an impossible dream.  In a dim corner of Ray's home from home, the Hard-to-find CafĂ© in Nottingham, where I attended his wake, I misread this twice: firstly as for the weedy and then as for the needy. I am certain Ray would have hurrumphed his approval of both readings and, had he been there, drunk his way to a tearfully romantic endorsement of his own life.
The photographs displayed told their own story too: young good-looking Ray, slight of build with attempted Tony Curtis haircut and defiant cigarette. Old Ray ravaged by  events and raging against the dying of the light. The singer-songwriter, Dan Whitehouse, came and played a couple of very touching elegiac songs. The first, composed largely from Ray’s own words with a repeated lament for ‘little Ray’, and the second prompted by Ray’s advice to Dan: ‘don’t be scared’. Perfect. 

Peace News has always attracted very good writers to contribute to its pages and in the 60s and 70s these included Ray. His first contribution may have been his magnificent piece about the Cuban missile crisis and although he never had a regular column he was an irregular contributor. He also wrote for  New Society, New Left Review, Anarchy and any other publication with space for a freelancer with unpredictable opinions. One thing I particularly liked about Ray was that he was hard to place in the orthodox Left/Right spectrum and he shed light in rarely illuminated corners. Ray was a favourite Radio 4 broadcaster who spoke his mind without pandering to 'balance'. His programme about the Keeper of the Queen's Racing Pigeons was a gem among many gems. In the 70s he somehow arranged for the rock band I was in to play an open-air gig at a St Ann’s Community festival in Nottingham. He put us up in his rambling ramshackle home and took us all out to a club in the evening. To our unsophisticated surprise it turned out to be a gay club and we loved the music there. Ray was absolutely committed to the ideals of mutual aid, community, and Gay rights. He lived up to all of them. His voice belonged to what increasingly feels like a lost golden age of BBC radio.

Ray never answered letters but wrote to me once after reading a piece of mine in PN in which I mentioned, in passing, shopping in London for yellow socks. Like the pigeons, the socks caught his endless fancy. He was eternally interested in 'the left behind' and fought tirelessly to preserve the St Ann’s area of Nottingham from the worst of ruthless clearance. On the radio his unmistakable regional voice was a rare treat among the very few: John Arlott, Andy and Liz Kershaw, Pam Ayres. There are still too few. In 1980 Faber published his memoir of the sixties Personal Copy which Nottingham's excellent Five Leaves Publications published as a paperback edition in 2010. Like Sum Total it deserves to be widely read. Both books reveal that note of grumbling optimism which distinguished his radio broadcasts and how desperately we need that tone now.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

I never got round to posting on that Sunday, but here's an event on Wednesday instead

Five Leaves presents:
‘Liberation in the 1960s?’
with Phil Cohen
Wednesday 4th December, 7pm, Housmans Bookshop, Kings Cross
Entry £3, redeemable against any purchase

Phil Cohen, author of ‘Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile’ (Five Leaves 2013) will talk about his involvement with various movements of the 1960s, including the mass squat of the Queen Mother's house at 144 Piccadilly with the London Street Commune, taking LSD with RD Laing, the early days of the Situationists, setting up Street Aid... and assorted run-ins with the police and gangsters.

In his memoir ‘Reading Room Only: Memoir of a Radical Bibliophile’, Phil Cohen, alias Dr John of the London Street Commune, and erstwhile Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of East London, re-traces his chequered career from blitz kid to public school dropout, from hippy squatter to cultural theorist, and from urban ethnographer to poet, through his obsession with books.

The first part of the memoir provides a vivid account of wt it was like to grow up in Bloomsbury in the late 1940s and ’50s and how its famous squares, buildings  and local characters  influenced  his imaginative life.  He describes  how he created  an alternative identity centred on his own  personal ‘reading room’ in counterpoint to the official  success story he was supposed to be,  as he rebels against the  ethos  of his  public school, with  its traditional emphasis on Classics and negotiates the  fraught identity politics of being a Jewish  ‘mitschling’.
The memoir goes on to detail the author’s  adventures as he goes up to Cambridge  to read History, runs away to sea  and then  becomes involved in the ‘underground’ counter culture  emerging in the London during the so called ‘swinging sixties’. Books were  at the forefront of his activities, whether ‘liberating’ them from bookshops, gluing them together in a situationist provocation against bourgeois culture,  or setting fire to them in an ‘event structure’  by artist John Latham.

The author relates how the British Museum Reading Room provided a much needed port in the political storm stirred up by his activities as a leader of the ‘hippy squatters’ at 144 Piccadilly in 1969,  helping him resume his  studies whilst continuing to  engage in radical  community politics over  the next decade.  Part One concludes with some observations about the culture of the reading room itself, discusses   ten books that shook the author’ world and  the impact of  new technologies of research linked to  the opening of the British Library at St Pancras.

The second half of the memoir  explores the  author’s life long love affair with books, and situates this consuming passion  in  relation to the issues   raised by  Walter Benjamin in his famous essay ‘On Unpacking a library’.  The author considers what books might have to say about how  they are  treated if they were allowed a voice; he goes on to  discuss  the place of collecting in a ‘throwaway society’ and  details   the strategies, both rational and irrational, that informed his  project of building a personal library. A concluding section  celebrates the pleasures of browsing, and  speculates about   what keeps bibliophiles acquiring books right up to the end.

Phil Cohen is also author of ‘On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics’ (Lawrence and Wishart, 2013)