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 (firstname.lastname@example.org) 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 Café 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.