Little things in life

Sum Total

Ray Gosling <em>Pomona, 224pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 1904590055

I have occasionally been involved in mini-movements lobbying to have ordinary (that is to say, not famous) people interviewed in newspapers and magazines. We sometimes make headway, but then the editor is summoned to a meeting with the advertising department and the feature pages are once again filled with famous, beautiful, boring people.

A name often dropped among the hacks I found to be of like mind was that of the demotic, iconoclastic broadcaster and writer Ray Gosling. Given the failure of our own battles against blandness, it seemed fitting that this figurehead was himself profiled in a recent TV documentary, entitled Bankrupt: Ray Gosling.

Gosling sums up the television and radio programmes that he has made in the course of 35 years as follows:

I was in the fields, so to speak, of the little things in life. Half-hour programmes to praise The Allotment, Sheds, and another half-hour - The Caravan. Portraits of places. Not London, Paris and Rome, but Goole, Weymouth. The little things of life are more important than the big things.

That comes from the new preface to Gosling's autobiography, Sum Total. First published by Faber & Faber in 1962, when he was 22, it is now reissued in an attractive edition by Pomona featuring a cover photograph of Gosling looking as foxy and incendiary as a young John Osborne. It is a terrific, if quite severely odd, book; a lost classic of the Youthquake, describing Gosling's childhood and young manhood as the world - and particularly his home town of Northampton - changed from being a place of Institute, Chapel and Co-op to a place of Tony Curtis haircuts and "Halfway to Paradise" on the jukebox.

Gosling was young at a time when youth was flowering; he was upper working class (his father was a mechanic with a taste for the plays of George Bernard Shaw) at a time when doors were opening for that section of society. Mix in his eccentricity and the result is a story of great volatility, full of sudden swerves. Admitted to grammar school, Gosling ran with the "lunatic fringe" of the local secondary modern; he moved from childhood snootiness, and Conservatism, to feeling scorn for the idea of bettering oneself. From being suspicious of church, he became, in adolescence, an Anglo-Catholic, liking its "lost" feeling, "no one ever turning up to the services". Later, he took a bus to Leicester where, after residing briefly in a monastery, he converted to Catholicism.

Between fifth and sixth form, he worked in a signal box near Wellingborough, with people's lives in his hands. "The idea . . . had a sense of charm about it. I'd be a key man," he writes, alarmingly. Here is his description of another signalman:

On sunny afternoons he'd put his hand in his leather belt, stand by the window that faced the road bridge, his lips puckered, sucking and chewing at the end of the rolled cigarette, spitting from time to time, and looking at the girls on their bikes, with their dresses being blown around by the wind as they crossed the bridge.

Gosling's prose is frequently as delicately beautiful as that. He writes as he speaks in his broadcasts, with looping repetitions and fragmentary afterthoughts. He may have been inspired by the "spontaneous prose" of Jack Kerouac, who is mentioned a couple of times here. He swoops into dialect ("That were the first time I come to Liverpool"), sometimes burbles away as oddly as the late comedian Stanley Unwin, and is particularly opaque about his sexuality, which perhaps you had to be in 1962.

After working in a leather goods factory (he describes a typical shift in hypnotic detail), he warily attended Leicester University. The students were mainly from the south. One even wore a cravat. "They leant back on their metal, modern chairs, all cold, and backslappish and cheery and ruggery." Afterwards, he got involved in rock'n'roll promotion, fretting about turning capitalist, but all that time he was pursuing his obsession with everyday life (as a student he would hitch-hike along the A6 just to hear lorry drivers talk) and following his watchwords of "observation" and "communication", getting things "across".

This book is about the development of a confident personality and, let's face it, an ego on virgin soil. At one point Gosling avers, embarrassedly, "I'm in a class on me own", but a little later he makes the point more confidently: "I'm in a class all of my own." He remains so, and his broadcasting career is apparently picking up again.

Andrew Martin's new novel, The Blackpool Highflyer, is published this month by Faber & Faber