You know those memoirs where you think: that person really needs to live a few more years or do something of real consequence before they even think of writing their life story? This fabulous memoir is the shining antithesis of such books; in fact it’s a book I’m billing as “the memoir that has everything”: a working-class childhood, Butlin’s, child abuse, West End theatre, Abba, sex, drugs, prejudice, travellers’ tales, EastEnders, activism and bravery, gay kissing, gay nightlife, gay pride, tabloid skulduggery, a shedload of committed politics, parties galore, more enjoyable gossip than you could shake a rainbow flag at and a cast of characters that takes in Mo Mowlam, Barbara Windsor, Elton John, David Hockney, Tony & Cherie Blair, Elizabeth Taylor and David Bowie to name but a very few.
Now 68, Michael Cashman, aka Baron Cashman of Limehouse tells his well-lived life story with great verve and fluency; from East End boy and child actor on the West End stage, to soap star, Stonewall founder, Member of the European Parliament and now of the House of Lords. This is a memoir with a beautiful, beating heart too: that is Cashman’s relationship with the love of his life Paul Cottingham, his partner and later husband of 31 years, who died from cancer in 2014. Alan Johnson loved it, Armistead Maupin adored it, and so did I.
This coyness is frustrating, robbing the story of specificity, but it serves a purpose. Eton (which I also attended, several years before Okwonga) occupies a peculiarly charged place in the British imagination. Hugging its power close to itself, it inspires a kind of appalled fascination from onlookers, often imbued with perfervid notions of aristocratic vice. One of Them does not feed these titillating fantasies. Instead, the book outlines Okwonga’s complex formation as an outsider moulded by the ultimate British proving ground for insiders.
The chapters covering his youth are the most vivid. This real-life East Ender’s memories of growing up in post-war Poplar are reminiscent of another BBC drama, Call The Midwife. He’s strong on the sights, sounds and smells of working-class family life, peppering his prose with brand names and evocative specifics. His mother scrubs him with Lifebuoy soap and Vosene shampoo. He eats tinned pilchards and arrowroot biscuits... Now 69, Lord Cashman of Limehouse still lives in the East End, 50 yards from where he was born. He can justifiably claim to have changed British attitudes – from that landmark screen kiss to his tireless work for civil liberties. His warm, wise book might be a mash-up of styles – social history, showbiz tell-all, political memoir, soppy love story – but it’s rarely less than riveting.
There is brilliance in his memoir, One of Them, and darkness, too. These elements are intermittent but enough to raise it far above the normal standard of celebrity biography. There are times when Cashman wanders off into recollections of steam baths and gay pubs, speed and booze, promiscuity and excess. But these seem quaintly confessional rather than deeply shocking. There are the celebrity moments, with the best revealing Alastair Sim as a great, humble and principled man.
However, above all this is a biography of a life of substance.
His first-hand testimony is illuminating, bright and breezy, lightly scattered with exclamation marks, fairly relaxed about grammar. But it is not the heart of the book. That is to be found at either end of it, when, in the first 100 pages, he writes about his East End childhood through the eyes of his own young self, then again in the last 100 pages, when he tells of the illness and death of Paul from the point of view of an anguished onlooker. In both of these long sections, perhaps because he is at the mercy of events and not driving them, he allows himself a level of emotional recall that crystalises and distills experience into unforgettable images.