❉ From queer to eternity: Michael Cashman’s courageous memoir reviewed.
Memoirs are a funny business: too much prevarication makes you a self-alienating bore whereas scandalous libel risks a costly day in court. We are live through moments in History, the blurry edges of the personal and Political can collide in many ways. Michael Cashman has approached his memoir as a real labour of love, where his sexuality is his perpetual epicentre. From a young age, he recalls his dad making the word “queers” sound “hard and nasty” but Michael already knew that, “a place that was full of queers seemed to me an interesting place to be.” Later when section 28 dominated teaching methodologies and prevented the promotion/encouragement of homosexuality in classrooms, Michael was protesting this homophobic pedagogy in street demonstrations alongside fellow thespian, Ian McKellen.
The beginning and ending of this memoir are both haunting and edifying in their beauty. There are some rather Dickensian descriptions of his East London upbringing and in particular some harrowing sexual abuse, that make for very uncomfortable reading. When he was cast as one of Fagin’s gang members in the West End stage production of Oliver at the age of twelve, he had already inadventedly completed his method acting training.
It is as Colin Russell – Britain’s first gay soap character in EastEnders, where he became vilified by tabloid newspapers and amongst others, Mary Whitehouse for the first onscreen gay kiss. His home address was printed alongside photos of him and his partner. The first kiss, screened in 1987 was a peck on the forehead; it wasn’t until 1989, where the kiss miraculously morphed into a (still quick by today’s standards) full mouth kiss. This wasn’t a Hollywood-style Gone with the wind passionate embrace but this was a watershed moment. Michael Cashman may have gone on to become a MEP, a co-founder of Stonewall and more recently a member of The House of Lords but it will be for that notorious kiss to onscreen boyfriend, Barry that he will be remembered for by many. Whilst HIV/AIDS was raging through America and Europe, with many hailing it the, “gay plague,” the scriptwriters gave a voice to Colin and Barry. In the now, infamous “laundrette” scene, Dot Cotton is disgusted to discover that Colin and Barry are sharing “one bed sheet,” between them. Barry is impatiently waiting for the single sheet to tumble dry and lamenting his lack of social mobility, dreaming perhaps of an upgrade to Egyptian cotton. Dot, drags on her ubiquitous cigarette damning their sexual union as an, “act against God.”
When Michael meets Paul Cottingham, who later becomes his legal civil partner in 2006, this quickly becomes the heart and spine of the memoir. Paul is the love of Michael’s life: his yang to his yin. Before marital bliss sets in though, there are periods of long-distance love, experiments with threesomes and an open relationship. There are subtle allusions to his dark childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent devastating impact on his issues with intimacy and trust. In the current climate of #metoo and the Harvey Weinstein trial, with the emphasis on reclamation of selfhood and wrongs being righted, there has been a sift in society where abusers previously protected by their powerful positions are being usurped. Michael was sexually abused as a child by the London Docks, then groomed by his “agent,” in plain sight of his family. By writing this memoir, there is a sense of therapeutic restoration, in the place of criminal proceedings.
The ending of the memoir, which details Paul’s battle with a rare type of cancer is heart-breaking: Michael’s grief is palatable, from the moment of diagnosis, the treatment and later hospital death. There are moments of humour interwoven, Michael inconspicuously smuggles bottles of wine into the hospital and they giggle like naughty schoolboys. Throughout you are willing Paul to make a miraculous recovery and for our courageous couple to head off into a rainbow sunset, reborn and with a renewed love for life.
There was no rainbow fairy tale ending. Paul instead had a rousing rendition of Mandy, by Barry Manilow at his funeral sang by an impromptu New Labour choir consisting of Ed Miliband, Neil and Glenys Kinnock, Tony and Cherie Blair, Margaret Beckett and Sadiq Khan.
This is a courageous, powerful memoir written by a man, still reeling from losing the love of his life, with poignant, personal memories shared of their relationship. It is also a memoir about growing up gay, surviving childhood sexual abuse and the fight to decriminalise homosexuality. Indeed, he has helped move the language of one of them to one of us.
❉ ‘One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square’ by Michael Cashman; Bloomsbury Publishing, RRP £18.99.
❉ When Liz isn’t working in Secondary education or tending to her two small children; she can be found near her typewriter, laptop or writing pad furiously writing articles or poems. Her poetry blog can be found here: https://