Matthew Norman: Welcome back, Ray Gosling – the voice of humanity

The broadcaster committed a noble act of civil disobedience - as well as of mercy
Click to follow

This is a worrying first, but a twitterer encapsulated my reaction to one of the odder interviews in the history of the Today programme yesterday better than I could have hoped to do myself. "Lovely to hear Ray Gosling on the radio," tweeted a certain Mike Power shortly after this memorable broadcast. "(even if it was about him killing his lover)".

Hand on heart, I'm not entirely sure about the brackets. Hint at elegant comedic touch though they do, the seemliness of relegating an act of killing to a parenthetical afterthought must be questionable. For all that, I felt just the same as Mr Power. The sheer nostalgic pleasure of being reintroduced to an earthy, querulous and raw East Midlands brogue with which some of us in middle age grew up far outweighed the surprise at hearing it confess, with pride, to murder or manslaughter, or some other form of homicide. Which offence he committed, if any at all, will probably not be clarified by the investigation rapidly announced by his local police force.

First on the regional TV show Inside Out, for which he made a report on mortality, and then speaking with Sarah Montague yesterday, Mr Gosling claimed to have smothered an Aids patient with a pillow as he lay in a hospital bed, in drug-resistant agony and very close to death. He said the man wasn't even his partner, but "my bit on the side"; and that a doctor tactily colluded with him, nudge-nudge, wink-winkingly nipping away to faciliate an act of euthanasia that he says was the subject of a pact between the two should either find himself in that monstrous position.

The crack detectives of Nottinghamshire have very little to go on. Mr Gosling was suitably vague about both the date, mentioning only that it was in the early days of Aids (presumably the mid-late 1980s), and the location (placing the hospital outside but not too far from Nottingham). He offered no other detail, and assuming he declines to help the police with their enquiries, they will soon be free to close the file and return their attentions to the gun crime of which Nottingham is said to be our capital.

They may even conclude that Mr Gosling made the whole thing up, much like the magazine publisher Felix Dennis when he mentioned in an interview how he summarily executed a wife-beater of his acquaintance by shoving him over a cliff.

On the few facts provided, Mr Gosling's tale sounds almost as unlikely. If cutting such a deal with a "bit on the side" is curious enough, the failure of the post-mortem to identify the cause of death is more so. Furthest-fetched of all, perhaps, is the alleged mode of killing. In the assisted suicide debate that endlessly rumbles and occasionally rages, asphyxiation takes a distant back seat to conventional chemical methods. Suffocation by pillow is how Caligula sent his uncle Tiberius off to pay the ferryman. It is not a notably merciful or dignified form of death, and psychologically rings false for as sensitive a soul as Mr Gosling.

So it could be that, wandering through what he called "me own graveyard", reflecting on the wife of a violent Alzheimer's sufferer who had spoken to him of wanting to end the misery, an overwhelming empathetic urge tempted Mr Gosling to share a confected memory.

Or perhaps the story – and this is purely a hunch – was a smokescreen to disguise the fact that the man in question wasn't that casual lover, but his beloved long-term partner Bryn Allsop, who is presumably buried in that same graveyard, and whom Mr Gosling nursed until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1999. Mr Gosling's references to how doctors leave more morphine lying around than pain relief strictly requires sounded more personal than general; and more intimate than a nod towards doctors accelerating the process.

"Some know, some don't," he said when asked about the deceased's family. "It's the best way. Let it be." Again, this is nonsense in the context of "a bit on the side" whose death he was in the midst of resurrecting on national radio. But whether he hurried the death of that unnamed man or Mr Allsop, or no one, he managed to crystallise the essence of the argument exquisitely. There are times when the law, however intentioned and wisely drafted, is no match for compassion and common sense; times when it falls to individuals to show the courage to assume a duty delegated in a less enlightened age to the Creator; times when justice – a different and mightier entity than the law of the land – must not only be blind but must turn a blind eye and let it be.

Some will attack Mr Gosling for damaging the cause of legalising euthanasia by disinterring the case of someone who was not his next of kin and who appears not to have requested his death at the time he claims he brought it about. But he was careful to explain that he has no interest in promoting that cause, either sensibly like Terry Pratchett, or flippantly like Martin Amis. All Mr Gosling did was state, with compelling pungency, the primacy of love, humanity and individual responsibility over legislation and religious intransigence. What, asked Miss Montague, gave him the right? "Human... rights," he answered. "I'm sorry.... If it happens to a lover or a friend of yours, a husband or a wife, I hope it doesn't... but when it does, sometimes you have to do brave things, and say, to use Nottingham language, bugger the law."

What a glorious expression of personal liberty that is. What magnificent boldness publicly to make releasing another from unimaginable pain a noble act of civil disobedience as well as of mercy. And what an unmitigated delight, as Mike Power so succinctly tweeted, to turn on the radio and hear an authentic voice of British, English and even regionally Lawrentian cussedness; a voice that refuses to ignore the moderate, self-consciously balanced and self-protectively nuanced lingua franca of the Today interviewee, in favour of telling it as he believes this anguish-laden moral dilemma to be.

For decades Ray Gosling made outstanding documentaries for TV and radio, using a faintly anarchic perspective ("Er, er, er, you're talking to me, Sarah," he rebuked when pressed on his criminality. "I've broken the law many times in my life") and untamed curiosity to illuminate the minutiae of British lives and regional variety, until time and the mediocrity-worshipping homogenisation of British broadcasting, sent him out of vogue. If the result of that was the bankruptcy about which he made an award-winning film, followed by a move to sheltered accommodation, it didn't dull his wits, suppress his fearless clarity or compromise his integrity one iota.

What was so shocking about hearing him yesterday was that his is a strikingly original voice... "one of those singular and particular voices," as a Radio 4 controller long ago described it, "that we need to cherish." That was then. The scandal now is not his possibly tall, possibly transposed and possibly true tale of foreshortening a ravaged life. It is that telling it with such moving starkness was the only way a broadcaster of such rare talent could secure himself the BBC platform he deserves.