:: Article

Goslo Journalism

By John P. Houghton.


Ray Gosling, Personal Copy, Five Leaves, 1980/2010

The police aren’t the only ones who should be prosecuting Ray Gosling for wasting their time. Personal Copy, his memoir of the 1960s, will leave many readers equally confused and frustrated about the story he is trying to tell and his inspiration for doing so.

While Gosling’s age may explain his unfortunate recent behaviour, Personal Copy was published in 1980, when the author was 41 and building the career in documentary making for which he is widely respected. The book is the last full volume he published before focusing his career on radio and television.

The book is made up of two largely unconnected sections. The first is a potted autobiography, in the form of a very loosely structured series of reflections on influential moments and people in the author’s early life. The second is an account of Gosling’s lead role in a campaign to halt the destruction of working class home in the St. Anns neighbourhood of Nottingham.

The first section, ‘A great preamble into nothing’, can be summarised in one sentence: “things were better back then”. For a period of his life when Gosling was mixing with an array of radical cultural and political movements, working in various ways to upend the status quo, his interpretation of those times is oddly yet resolutely conservative.

Every aspect of life, it seems, was to be preferred in the old days. Village life (“a way of greeting gone”). The cafe lifestyle (“that world has gone”). The skills of social observation (“before the sinecured professional sociologists monopolised the market”). The habit of hospitality, that “I’m not sure anyone one has today”.

There was even a “better class of tramp than you seem to get today”. I paused at this point, to wonder at the assessment system one should use to assess the quality of tramps.

When Gosling isn’t reflecting on the good old days or subjecting itinerants to comparative evaluation, there are some tender moments, including the lyrical description of his working class childhood in Northampton. With Andrew Collins writing in a similar vein today, there must be something in the Northants water that induces this kind of tender reflection on life in a family that is thankfully and lovingly normal.

Gosling’s own exercise in personal revisionism, re-valuing the solidity and dignity of his parents’ “deep life” (work a virtue, credit a vice, consumerism an alien concept) which he was once so keen to rebel against, can partly explain the “better back then” habit. It’s hard to tell because, as so often, the point is half made and then dropped in time for another observation.

In between the distractions, there is another meditation on the Northern cultural resurgence of the 1960s, when “regionalism was just coming into fashion” and “provinciality began to be proud”. Bands with their roots in skiffle were changing the musical landscape. Writers for the theatre and cinema began to portray the dramatic and the mundane of working class life, challenging the dominance of genteel comedies and jingoistic war movies.

There are some interesting reflections on how these cultural statements formed an important part of a wider attempt to challenge the political assumptions of the immediate post-war year. But it was only later in his career that Gosling was able to properly explore this theme through the documentary.

As a whole, the first section reads like it should have been re-worked and re-edited a few times before dispatch to the printers. Some chapters barely last a page long before ending arbitrarily. The liberal use of dashes to stretch out sentences reflects a permanent confusion about whether the following point concludes, conditions or contradicts the one preceding. And there is a lot of ‘and’.

As well as tightening up a generally pell-mell style, a bit of extra re-working work would have deleted the occasional stylistic clanger. My favourite was the description of a protestor against the Vietnam war who “died, ironically, after the war with America was won”.

It must be so hard on the relatives when people die “ironically”.

The second part of the book is more rewarding. The campaign to save condemned homes in the working class neighbourhoods of Nottingham, and force the local authority to treat its tenants with more respect than that offered by the swing ball and bulldozer, gives Gosling the story arc that is so badly missing from the first part.

It provides the author’s reflections with a structure just as much as it gave him at the time “a new theme in my life: something to do that would be real, and engage me and have meaning and that I could do” (see what I meant about all those ands?)

With Gosling acting as a welcome if slightly alien organiser and provocateur, the residents campaigned to get a better deal from the council’s proposed redevelopment programme. Instead of mass demolition and re-settlement, the tenants called for selective demolition of the worst slums and redevelopment of the better parts, with parks and other amenities to accompany the new homes in order to create liveable new places.

This was a battle fought over and over in the post-war years in neighbourhoods across the country. As I’ve written in Jigsaw Cities and elsewhere, the planners and developers usually won out, replacing neighbourhoods with industrially-built follies in isolated overspill plots that would soon be condemned. Although it’s worth pointing out that others have challenged the assumptions behind this narrative, most notably Owen Hatherley.

The tenants were articulating the basic elements of what we now call “new urbanism” – an enthusiasm for dense, busy neighbourhoods that encourage interaction, support for mixed use developments, and an opposition to grand schemes predicated on mass demolition and reconstruction that do not operate on a human scale.

The tenants were, in part, successful. The agitation and press coverage which Gosling stirred up forced the council to listen, to engage, and to smooth off the most destructive parts of the plans. In the process, however, a great deal was lost. The books ends with the death of Arthur, one of the most committed, if obstreperous, tenants.

The loose connection back to the first part of the book is the tenants’ determination to protect their hard-lived but respectable and mutually supportive working class lifestyle. A way of life that Arthur symbolised, that his neighbourhoods nurtured one to another, and which Gosling so respectfully describes in the opening chapters on his childhood.

Gosling has lived a fascinating life, but there should be a better account of it than this. On finishing the book, I felt the same as those friends who had been offended by Gosling’s unintentionally offensive description of them in a newspaper article: “You’ve let us down, they said. Your words, your writing”.

John P. Houghton is a writer and adviser on neighbourhoods, cities and social exclusion and is the author with Prof. Anne Power of Jigsaw Cities.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, October 10th, 2010.