Michael Cashman Q&A: “I was once a ragamuffin, running wild in the East End”

The Stonewall founder and life peer talks Philippe Sands, Jon Snow's ties and why love would be his Mastermind specialist subject.

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Michael Cashman was born in London in 1950. As Colin Russell in “EastEnders”, he participated in the first gay kiss in a British soap opera. A former MEP and founder of Stonewall, he sits in the House of Lords.

What’s your earliest memory?

In my grandparents’ council flat overlooking the Rotherhithe Tunnel, watching my grandad writhing in pain as he tried to strap on his wooden leg. Then he sat down and played the piano.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, my mum – she always sorted something out. As an adult, my late husband, Paul Cottingham – he always knew how to sort something out too. 

What book last changed your thinking?

East West Street by Philippe Sands. Having the courage to question the past allows us to defend the future.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela. He lived with such conviction and endured so much pain, yet remained human enough to forgive and then to achieve.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

Love. It is elusive, compulsive, ever-present, enduring beyond the lives of those loved, and exists only in the present tense. It is only love that sustains, and it carries with it indelible memories.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Earth, after the realisation that beings exist elsewhere and that Earth is a small place among so many others. Only then will we dismantle borders and will difference no longer be something to be feared.

What TV show could you not live without?

Channel 4 News. I love Jon Snow’s ties and the show’s commitment to challenging its interviewees.

Who would paint your portrait?

Maggi Hambling – she’d show every side of me, including the inside. A close second would be the brilliant New Zealand artist Nick Cuthell, of whom I am a collector.

What’s your theme tune?

“The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha: it speaks of having the courage to challenge the darkness of opposition. It hasn’t left me since I first heard it at 16.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

“If you mind the answer don’t ask the question.”

What’s currently bugging you?

The lack of progress to legislation of my amendment to the Policing and Crime Act 2017. It should widen the pardons and disregards for LGBT convictions which are no longer crimes yet which still blight the lives of innocent people.

What single thing would make your life better?

Paul Cottingham. His hand on mine meant that the world was OK, that I was safe.

When were you happiest?

As a young ragamuffin running wild across London’s East End, not knowing that you could get caught for mischief.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

An usherette in a 1950s cinema, cigarette smoke curling across the screen, alone with my dreams and the power of my torch.

Are we all doomed?

I fear for how intolerance could grow post-Brexit, but so long as we have the imagination to walk in the shoes of those less fortunate, we will have the strength to achieve a better world for all. l

“One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square” by Michael Cashman is published by Bloomsbury

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out