Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 18 Oct 2018

Sum Total by Ray Gosling

I wonder who remembers Ray Gosling now? I suspect you have to be my sort of vintage – over 60 – or working in the media industry to recall this idiosyncratic journalist-cum-television documentary maker who popped up now and then with gritty Granada-made reports from the front line of working class Britain. To be honest, I have only the flimsiest memory of the man’s work but a little digging around uncovers the bare bones of just what an interesting, unique, character he was and not someone who dodged or ducked controversy.

In their 2013 obituary of Gosling, the BBC had this to say:

‘Gosling was born in Chester in 1939 and was educated at Northampton Grammar School and the University of Leicester. He was a youth worker in the St Ann's area of Nottingham and wrote Sum Total, his autobiography, at the age of 23. The book detailed his work in the city. During the 1960s and 1970s Gosling hosted Granada TV's On Site programme. He made many TV and radio documentaries about his personal life as well as about sheds, gnomes and windmills. In one of his last documentaries he discussed old age, bankruptcy and moving into sheltered accommodation.

(Tony) Roe (BBC editor) said: "[He made] Films about people and the places they lived. He wrote like he spoke. Direct. Said what he saw. Said what he thought."’

It’s an obituary that, for me at least, tells only a tiny part of the story and doesn’t really capture what seems to be an extraordinary life and, just as importantly, an extraordinary philosophy of life. The BBC article does at least acknowledge his rather bizarre last years and the scandal that dominated them – he claimed to have been involved in the mercy killing of his gay lover who had AIDS and was, briefly arrested. It turned out not to be true in fact and he was prosecuted for wasting police time.

What the BBC oddly enough fail to say was anything much at all about his work as a gay rights activist. Wikipedia notes:

“Gosling was an early pioneer of the modern British gay rights movement, first becoming involved in the 1950s, and working with Allan Horsfall in the North West Homosexual Law Reform Committee of the late 1960s, which later became the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE).[4] Horsfall and Gosling ran a website together called Gay Monitor which is partly a history of CHE and partly an account of more recent cases of discrimination against gay men.”

Gosling was very much a man who did things his own way – he never succumbed to the blandishments of television stardom and he insisted on keeping his reporting real and partisan, always on the side of the marginalised and the excluded.

His first book Sum Total was written at the age of 22 and is either a precocious autobiography or – as I’ve seen it described elsewhere – an autobiographical novel. In all honesty after reading it I have no idea how much of this is ‘true’ and how much of it is only true in spirit and the detail selectively embroidered. What I can say with some confidence is that he clearly approached this project in very much the same way he approached his journalistic tasks – by refusing to take any notice of convention.

The first thing to get to grips with is the style – abrupt sentences, use of the vernacular and an almost experimental dispatching of conventional narrative. Take this, for example, from the beginning of the book:

" I read the paper standing over the marble-topped bar I read the paper. Says I’m tired, played out; that I’ve shocked parents, stirred nationwide publicity, and that I have left this city. This paper, it tells me I’m on an extended holiday with friends in the North. Int that nice – bloody lie. I’m here, still in this city, waiting for a train to take me south. At last I’m going away. I don’t know where. I bought a ticket for London, but I don’t know. I fancy going home for a start. Whisky – feel it burn all the way down. Cigarette – feel the nicotine cling. That woman in green, she needs some lessons in how to pour beer. The bloody trains they’re late again. Not surprising, everywhere there’s fog. I love You. I love You. Write it with the wet beer on the marble. I love You. That’s why it’s taken so long for me to get out of this place. When Leicester went bust, there was only You to keep me here. But now I’ve got to go. I can’t stay any longer. But I tell you this: when all this is over I’ll be back. Don’t worry I’m coming back; back to Banners and The Ratcliffe, Le Gourmet and The Marquis and The Old Barley Mow, and all them places I can’t really name. I have, I do, I love You."

Gosling guides us in this way through his lower-middle or blue-collar family and school life in Northampton; his growing emotional and intellectual alienation, how he fell in love with books, his early part-time job as a signal-boy, becoming a Teddy Boy, trying to break free of Northampton by going off to University, his early return ‘home’ to work in a leather finishing factory and his burning urge to get away again and work with ‘real’ people. Early on in Sum Total he tells us:

“I was for the working class, for the underdog, for the seedy, the left behind, for the Spain that wasn’t and the life that could be, and the England that seemed and still seems an impossible dream.”

Sum Total is a real oddity but I don’t mean that in a bad way – there are passages of prose that seem almost hallucinogenic, passages where the young author interrogates himself – as if he’s interviewing himself even – and other passages where we slip quietly into more conventional structures.

So just what is this book? About half way through Gosling decides to tell us:

“What am I trying to do, in this book I mean? Write an autobiography, some documented description of what I have done? No, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want this to be fact as fact. It isn’t. It’s only based on fact. I don’t want it to be an autobiography. Yes, yes, it’s personal, self-centred. I want it that way. I think that’s the best way I can get across. Get across what? The moves and wandering of the Me towards some point of definition, some lines of discipline, some way of living.”

The book burns with the intensity and commitments of a young man who is discovering himself, peeling back the layers and looking for the meaning, the heart of the being. I’m not sure it wholly succeeds in its objectives but it’s a pretty admirable attempt and unlike anything else I’ve read for some time.

I have a copy of the Faber first edition from 1962 but the book was reprinted (with an extended forward I understand) in 2004 and so is available in paperback from Pomona Press.


Terry Potter

October 2018