One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square Michael Cashman
Early doors: Michael Cashman is called ‘one of them’. He realises pretty soon what that means and the truth of it. He cannot keep his eyes off the bodies of some of his schoolmates and, before big school, he has been picked out by men who do not hold themselves back from taking their pleasures with him. He has to find a way, as many abused children do, to ‘switch off’ and go to another place. Before too long, however, Cashman is an equal partner in the seduction stakes and few others, even in the swinging sixties, were in such a good position to take advantage of opportunities.
One of Them tells the story of Cashman’s life. Times were different when he was born, at the end of 1950, in the East End of London. In those days there was no connection between his home place near Cable Street and the glories of the West End. The word ‘queer’ had yet to be abandoned before being defiantly taken up again decades later. And the adjective ‘gay’ had yet to be applied to sex. Unlike anyone else, because of his very specific talents, young Cashman was able to leap from one world to the other, East to West and back again, generally on the top deck of the red, no. 15 London bus. He could dance, sing and act, landing at age 12, the part of Oliver, in the fourth year of the musical.
As a very young woman I moved on the edges of the same scene: Soho, Mayfair and Earls Court and I knew about cruising and cottaging as some as my best friends were doing it. But I don’t think I knew Cashman and I certainly had no chance of becoming a star of stage and screen. I am grateful, however, for the few years that formed an interlude from ‘normality’. You can be a long time living a respectable life and it is good to look back to walking on the wild side.
Cashman has plenty to look back upon. Cast in every part for which he auditioned. Photographs with Elizabeth Taylor. Intimacies with celebrities. Countless liaisons. Schmeissing with a long raffia mop in the Poplar Baths. Don’t ask.
In 1967, when he was 16, Cashman moved in with his 24-year-old lover, Lee who was 24 at the time. It was still illegal for homosexual men under 21 to have sex, even in private. One night a straight man came round to the flat intent on raping Cashman. Using an ‘incessant pouring out of words’ as his weapon he managed to dissuade the physically stronger man from a penetrative assault. Afterwards, afraid to go to the police because of his age and sexuality, he wonders if it would have been better to turn off the switch in his head as he did when a child. The affair with Lee lasted several years but was always dogged by his partner’s infidelities and suicidal tendencies.
After one such attempt involving a shotgun, Lee was hospitalised and whilst visiting him Cashman witnessed two doctors saving a woman’s life. Aged 25 he decided it was time to train as a doctor. Using his savings and working as a hospital porter, Cashman started to cram for O and A levels. Physics proved an intractable problem. After two attempts at achieving the necessary high grade the dream of medicine eluded him. But the foray into a world of public service foreshadowed later directions in Cashman’s career.
Before he began his life in politics there were stints at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scunthorpe and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford upon Avon. Cashman got to work with brilliant directors such as Trevor Nunn and also, encouraged by the legendary literary agent, Peggy Ramsey, busied himself with writing plays. In 1986 he joined the cast of EastEnders playing the gay character, Colin Russell. The first homosexual kiss on TV was a chaste peck on the cheek but it was more than enough to cause a furore. Cashman, or Colin, was now a household name and it was difficult for him to move around London unremarked.
Around that time there was a fair amount of hysteria enflamed by press coverage of HIV/AIDS, termed the ‘gay plague’. In Westminster Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced and passed an amendment to the Local Government Act (1988). Known as Clause or Section 28 this deplored the ‘pretence’ of homosexual families such as those depicted in the children’s book, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. It outlawed the award of taxpayers’ monies to any institution supporting gay men or lesbians. One would have thought that politicians had never heard of the pink pound or realised that homosexuals pay tax at the same rate as heterosexuals.
Along with, the newly-outed, Ian McKellen Cashman became a figurehead for the campaign against Section 28. As the movement grew so did the realisation that there should be an organisation to promote LGBT rights. West End actors, directors and writers involved themselves in fundraising galas to establish premises and staff for Stonewall – then, as now, a controversial institution. At this stage in his life Cashman had been in a long term but crisis-ridden relationship with his future husband Paul Cottingham.
Both men were working as actors, although only Cashman had real success. Their interest in politics was growing and in 1997 Cottingham was employed as a ‘celebrity catcher’, or High Value fundraiser, at the Labour Party’s HQ in Millbank. By1999 Cashman was MEP for the West Midlands and he and Cottingham had to live separately most of the time. Cashman’s career in Strasbourg and Brussels was lauded and, almost before he had been awarded the CBE, he was on the list for a baronetcy. He met the Queen, Prince Philip and Charles.
But the best of times was over. Both parents died and although he and Cottingham bought a villa in Turkey looking forward to happy years of retirement it was not long before a vicious cancer ended their relationship. Cashman nursed Cottingham – they had entered civil partnership in 2006 – and watched him take his final painful breath surrounded by friends and family. Lonely and lovelorn, he took his place in the House of Lords, four days later.
Now living in the area where he was born Michael, Lord Cashman can take the river bus to work. On the way he sees the places on either bank of the Thames where he spent time with Paul Cottingham, the love of his life. He sails under the bridges over which they crossed hand in hand laughing or arguing as they conducted their fine romance.
One of Them will please many whilst bringing a tear to the eye of some. Cashman can namedrop for England and his story recounts changes to the great city of London as well as the manners and mores of its bustling citizens as they navigate the streets and the customs. It is not literature, being merely descriptive, and there is no sense of intimacy with its cast of thousands, or indeed with the two central characters. It is a case of and then … and then … and then … but then, he has lived a very interesting life.
Cashman, M. One of Them: From Albert Square to Parliament Square. 2020. Bloomsbury.
A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 22nd February 2020. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.