Carl Gallagher: Full Interview
Interviewed by Rachel Larman
21 November 2018
CG: Hello, my name is Carl, I'm 54 years old. I live in Leeds, I've lived in Leeds since the mid-1980s. I identify as a gay man. I have a partner, we've been together for… oh my god, 28 years. There we go.
RL: So Carl, can you tell me about your politics in the 1980s and what you were involved in in Leeds?
CG: Well, I moved to Leeds in the mid-1980s after I left college. I think my politics were pretty well formed at that point, or so I thought. So I'd decided that I was an anarchist and I sought the fundamental change to the way society was organised.
RL: OK, what sort of campaigns, activism were you involved in?
CG: All kinds of stuff really, I think we, meeting together with others who were just generally interested in looking at different ways of living, different ways of challenging what was going on. There were various strikes taking place at the time: small ones if I remember rightly. Things like Silentnight bed makers were on strike, French Connection workers were on strike, obviously there was the miners' strike. And then late, after that there were things like the dockers on strike and the printworkers on strike. So there was a lot going on, this was, kind of - we were in the thick of the Thatcher era and there were a lot of challenging things that were taking place at a government level and I think we were trying to respond to it as best we could.
There was also other stuff going on that was around more social affairs, I suppose. So there were attacks on the rights to abortion going on at the time, there was the David Alton bill, if I remember rightly, where he was trying to limit abortion rights, so there were marches around that in Leeds and elsewhere. There was lots anti-deportation campaigns, there was the Viraj Mendis campaign in Manchester, there was the Rose - I think her name was - I can't remember her name. But anyway, there was a woman from Bradford, I think, or even Leeds, who was in the process of fighting deportation - there was an anti-deportation campaign. There was lots of stuff about the British Nationality Act going on at the time coz the government was deciding to change the law in relation to that, so there were campaigns in relation to that.
So, generally speaking, there was a lot of stuff to campaign about and get involved in. And the activism usually took the form of physical presence at demonstrations or pickets or whatever. Sometimes there were marches, sometimes sitting down in the road, blocking things or just getting in the way, just being a little bit disruptive to draw attention to the situation.
RL: Were you involved in those sort of protests and activism in particular groups?
CG: Well, yes and no. There were specific groups in Leeds. There was the Leeds Anarchist Group, for example, but it was also more that if you became aware that there was a demonstration taking place, or one of your friends said, 'Oh, there's this happening or that happening', and you thought it was a good cause then you would go along and attend - so. At the time there was a lot of unemployment, there were even times when I was unemployed. I've never been particularly unemployed but [laughs] there were times when I was unemployed and of course if you've got three million people in the country who are unemployed and things that they're not happy about then there's time to do something about it. So I think that - those things together meant that people could get involved and do things.
On a practical level we were looking at things like housing cooperatives, alternative ways of living together, trying not to have a landlord but not wanting to buy a house, so there was all of that stuff going on. Most of your time was taken up with evening meetings or doing things like that.
RL: As a gay man being involved in this kind of activism and protest, erm, I mean, how were LGBT issues seen, were they kind of part of this - how.... ? [overlapping speech]
CG: Well, for me they never were. I suppose - when I first moved to Leeds I wasn't out, then I came out. I don't think - it was never particularly an issue, really, I mean most of my straight friends kind of just got on with the fact that I was a gay man. And it didn't - in terms of the politics, I suppose, it didn't seem as though there was that much going on in terms of politics other than Pride marches. That was all. It was only when, I think, I mean I think Clause 28 or Section 28 as it became, kind of surfaced, that's when it felt to me as though the rules of the game changed quite a lot because suddenly what we saw - or I saw, anyway - was a lot of lesbians and gay men - that tends to be how we identified ourselves at the time, I suppose, I wasn't so aware of the trans community making their presence felt, so we tended to define ourselves as lesbians and gays against, or lesbians and gays for this, that or the other - it was only at that point there was then a coming together, it seemed to me, of the various disparate groups. And so we had a Leeds Stop the Clause group which was made up of various little sub-groups.
And what was interesting for me I suppose at the time, is that the kind of anti-Clause 28 group that emerged, both locally and, it seemed, nationally, its organic structure was immediately one that was identical to the ones that I understood and recognised. So it was an anarchist way of organising, it was the libertarian way of organising. We tried to break things down, we had delegates, we created spaces where people could speak so you weren't overwhelmed by a room of 300 people. So we had like, you know, a direct action group and a press group and people could support in whichever way they wanted; a legal group, so if people had particular skills they could bring those skills to bear within the overall thing. And it was really interesting, from my point of view, I suppose, someone who'd been involved at that point in various political groupings, to see this all come to life within an almost exclusively lesbian and gay situation, I suppose.
RL: So, was there any support from the straight people that you were with... ?
CG: Oh god, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah.
RL: So, where would you be meeting around Leeds or the ... ?
CG: If I remember rightly – oh, well generally speaking, probably up until and around the Clause 28 scenario, the meetings would take place in the Trades Club in Leeds, which was at the bottom end of Chapeltown; a large building that was run by the local TUC or owned by the local TUC. There was a bit of a joke at the time that it was kind of under the - it was run by certain individuals who were very much wedded to the British Communist Party I think you'd say, who were fairly old-school but clearly very good at running things, running the bar or whatever it is. And then we had small rooms in the basement and then there was a large room upstairs and there was kind of a pub area on the ground floor. And all kinds of groups, you know, people who were interested in the environment or political groupings, or any other kind of grouping really, providing they weren't right wing, were welcome to make use of the resources of the Trades Club. And I think the idea was that you either paid, you know, £5, or you paid nothing at all for a hire of the room, and then, providing you bought a few pints, it kind of paid for itself, so that was kind of the thinking there.
If you didn't use the Trades Club then you would meet or try to meet in other places. There were pubs around town, you would use the back rooms of pubs where you could meet, or upstairs rooms of pubs you could meet. Typically, there was the Victoria at Sheepscar, the Roscoe, the Astoria - I think there was even a meeting there once. There were women's discos at places like the Dock Green in Harehills, remember? I think it came as a surprise to the owners of that pub, after a number of years, that there was a women's disco going on upstairs, I don't know if they ever fully understood what was going on there! But anyway, there were a range of places, it tended to be pubs and perhaps sometimes people's houses, if that became necessary. Other than that, you'd meet at the Trades Club.
RL: OK, could you tell me a little bit about the Common Place and what was going on there?
CG: Ok, well, my take on - well, I wasn't directly involved in the kind of day-to-day running, or anything like that, of the Common Place. At that point I'd, because of my work, I'm in the legal profession, I'd become a bit of a go-to person, for some people, anyway. And I'd got some friends who were involved in the kind of thinking or developing of the Common Place. And I think it - the creation of it came from a number of places. I think it was partly to do with the fact that the Trades Club had shut down and there wasn't anywhere to meet, for community organisations to meet, charities to meet, or political groupings to meet, really, I think. There was the Bradford 1 in 12 Club, which seemed to be a model of what ought to happen, that you should have a kind of self-run, self organising members' club that could do its own thing and organise and create a place for people to meet, over in Bradford and of course there was nothing like that in Leeds.
And then I - and that coupled with, I think, some of the anti-globalisation, environmental campaigns that developed at the turn of the new millennium meant that people were interested in creating spaces where people could meet and I think the idea was - or some of the thinking was - that if you could create spaces where people could meet, even if though they didn't necessarily share the same ethos or ideas, you'd get an exchange of ideas. And most people who are progressive are trying to go in the same direction, some people might be more interested in tackling racism, other people might be more interested in protecting the environment, women's groups obviously are going to be interested in developing strategies for improving the lot of women, and so I think the idea was if you can create space for those people to meet then you would get some, a general movement for progress. And so that was the kind of backdrop, and the absence of somewhere in Leeds together with the growing awareness of the need for that kind of thing was the catalyst.
I think at the time the local authority were very keen to develop the commercial aspects of the city centre. We were seeing more and more of what I'd describe as vertical drinking establishments, which basically means you can cram as many people as possible in there with a pint in their hand rather than having places where you could sit down and chat. And so the Common Place was seen as a bit of an antidote to that.
I came in, I think, when I got approached by them because they wanted some advice on the lease. They'd identified a building but they weren't quite sure how to move it on, what the lease needed to look like, what they were supposed to be responsible for or not responsible for. So I helped with that side of it and kind of got that going and had a bit of a chat about what a members' club might look like and what the legal requirements of a members' club were and what the structure should be and so on.
RL: Can you tell me a bit about the activities that were taking place at the Common Place?
CG: Well, at the time there was all kinds of stuff going on, it was a very creative space. It probably still is to some extent, I don't know. But I think the idea was that it was going to first of all create a space for people to sit in, chat and have a drink and whatever. I think the idea was that the bar would be a source of revenue to keep the place afloat. They would have a space where people could perform, just somebody with a guitar or you could show a film or if there was a video that you'd seen or a CD that you wanted people to listen to, you could use the space for that. And then in terms of political issues, there was the idea that we would supply or organise language classes for newly arrived asylum seekers, perhaps have a meal around that, just to increase, or make it easier for people who were newly arrived in the city to engage with the city and meet people who lived in the city and make connections and so on. And also, let's be clear about it, make it go the other way. So the idea was that people who are living in Leeds and who had never experienced someone from east Africa or somewhere, a troubled spot of the world, giving them an opportunity to learn a little bit about that area, you know. So, open up the dialogue, I suppose, between two groups who wouldn't necessarily be talking to each other.
It also gave, created space for people to talk about a whole range of issues, which are actually about the important social networking and fabric of a city. So, you know, people can go there and can talk about health issues, women's health, they can talk about, the local Greenpeace group can talk about river pollution and suchlike. So it's about improving, I think people call it the social capital, but basically improving the strength of the city by making sure the people who live in it have got somewhere to meet and talk about what's important.
RL: So were there any kind of LGBT groups that met at the Common Place, or was that not ...[overlapping speech]
CG: I don't think, I think that came a little bit later, I don't think... there was definitely, I mean, there were clearly, coz I know, lesbians and gay men who were, that I knew, who were using the venue. And then there was - I think it's fair to say - there was a younger grouping - I'm in my 50s so it wouldn't be difficult for them to be a younger grouping, but there was a younger grouping of people there who were clearly exploring or were comfortable with not identifying necessarily as a man or as a woman, or as a gay man or as a lesbian, from the way they spoke and also from what they wear. So the impression I got at that point was that people were being comfortable, or felt comfortable, about exploring that side of them in that space. And I never felt at any stage, although I think it's fair to say that I'm in a privileged position, I'm an older man, I'm a man, I'm a white man, so - and I'm fairly comfortable in my own skin, so I never at any point felt threatened or challenged by anybody. If I had done, I would have made my views pretty clear, it's probably fair to say. But I never felt as if I was in that place, obviously I can't speak for anybody else. But certainly, when meetings took place it felt to me as though anyone who wanted to say something had a chance to say something. There were many, very many, vocal women there as well as men. And sometimes meetings were broken down into smaller groupings if it was felt that would make the situation more conducive to involving everybody being able to speak.
RL: What happened with the Common Place?
CG: Well, as sometimes happens - all organisations are organic, I suppose, and they have lifecycles. I think what - my feeling was, what happened was, there was a view, there was a decision taken by a particular group that was using the venue at the time to show a video, which was actually a video that had been made by a group in Brighton, which was running a campaign against the local arms manufacturer. And the, and I think the video was intended to publicise the campaign group which was around Brighton, it was somewhere around Brighton anyway, the south coast. In that video, the police, there were images of the police being violent towards some of the demonstrators on particular occasions. And I don't think the police came out of it in a particularly good light. When the video was made, the people who'd made the video decided to have a roadshow, and I think they identified half a dozen places around the country where they were going to show the video so that people could see it, and the Common Place, clearly to them, or to somebody, seemed an obvious place to show the video. So the video was going to be put on in Leeds. Clearly the video became something that somebody in the Metropolitan Police, became aware of, or whether its kind of Special Branch or whatever that's called these days, became aware of. So they became intensely interested in it. So immediately, I think what happened was, before the video was even shown, Leeds City Council was receiving letters from police officers in London asking Leeds why they were allowing the video to be shown. It transpired that the video, because it was a home-made movie, effectively (I'll call it a video, I mean it'll be a CD or something), it was a home-made movie, it had not been, it had not gone through the British film classification organisation and it had not been given a parental guidance rating. So, in the old days it would have been an X film or a U film or now it’s a PG or suchlike or an 18, it had not been given any of that classification, it wasn't that different to someone's wedding video as far as I could make out, but anyway ... it was probably cut and made on a handheld camera.
Anyway, as a result of that, correspondence was sent by the local authority's licensing committee to the Common Place, telling them that they couldn't show it. I then got drawn into that, and there was a debate about whether or not that film could be shown. I didn't know this at the time, but I soon leant, that if you have a film that you want to show publicly and it has not been classified by the film classifiers down in London, then the alternative way of dealing with it is you show it to a committee of local councillors, and then they have to say whether or not it's fit to be shown within the local authority. So, a copy of the CD was sent to the Leeds City Council licensing committee. I gather two or three of them watched it, I think their response was, it wasn't the sort of thing they would choose to watch but they couldn't see anything that was wrong with it. So it was authorised to be shown. So the consequence of that, it was then shown on an evening at the Common Place.
That then prompted, it seems, anyway, from what I understand, some interest by West Yorkshire Police, who then made a series of visits unannounced, taking issue with the club's membership book on the counter not having been signed by all of the visitors, or, if visitors attended they had not been signed in by members. There were some members there who had not got their membership cards, I think some people had signed in using silly names like Mickey Mouse or whatever it is. So this all then got reported back to the licensing committee of Leeds City Council with the police making a recommendation that the license should be withdrawn.
There was then - satellite activity was then taken, started by the local authority. The local authority then started prosecuting members of the committee because the bins round the back were not closing fully and so rubbish was being put in the bin, but you could look at the bin and you could see the rubbish that was sticking out of the bin, so this was in breach of environmental legislation. Which at the time I remember finding quite alarming because I was, you know, I walk around the city centre quite a lot and if you go round places like Bedford Street or Greek Street in the city, rubbish is overflowing from commercial drinking establishments all over the floor and no-one ever seems to do anything about it. So, it seemed to me that someone had taken a decision somewhere within the local authority to make life more difficult for the Common Place, or at least remind the Common Place they should run a tighter ship.
The consequence of all of that was, there was a licensing appeal at the magistrate's court. The magistrate's court withdrew the license for the Common Place, because it wasn't happy with the way the club was being run. But things were tidied up at the Common Place, the application for a license was renewed and the Common Place got its license back. And then, I think, not long after that, it then, a new organisation took over, which is Wharf Chambers which is a completely separate legal organisation. I think the personnel had all changed at that point.
I feel, because as is often the case with these organisations, they are run by volunteers and they become a bit battle-weary or worn out by this whole exercise. And it doesn't take a great deal, I don't think, if you start putting pressure on people on top of their daily lives and their jobs and all the rest of it, it becomes quite difficult and unmanageable, sometimes. And of course there are people who are trying to make life difficult, they are doing it as their full-time job.
It then transpired that within the Common Place there was an undercover police officer, somebody called Lynn Watson, who was clearly, I suspect had become involved as a result of the showing of the anti-arms manufacturer video. That's probably, that's when I think the police became interested in the organisation. I mean, it is slightly ironic because of course the reality is that there was nothing going on at the Common Place that really, in my view, would have been of any real interest to the police. And I can see the poor police officer that had to sit through hours and hours of meetings discussing whether we need to change the layout of the toilets or whether we needed to change the colour of the toilet paper to something that's more environmentally friendly, I don't know. But anyway, clearly they had their reasons for it. The extent to which the police officer involved hastened the demise of the Common Place or made it more difficult for it to function, I don't know, and that's probably for others to consider, I don't know.
RL: So, were you involved in Wharf at all, how does Wharf ... ? [overlapping speech]
CG: No, no. I mean basically, as I've said, I wasn't really, to be honest, I wasn't really that involved in the Common Place. I kind of, I went there from time to time, I was a member, along with thousands of others, who saw it as a force for good. And obviously, in all organisations that are a force for good, there are going to be elements of it that aren't of particular use to anybody and there are always elements that always make life difficult. And if you're an inclusive organisation, inevitably you are going to include people who are troublesome and difficult. But I wasn't - so that's partly why it came unstuck. But I wasn't that involved, I was never on the management committee, I was never involved in the day-to-day running of it. The Common Place, that is. Then Wharf Chambers, other than being a member and kind of going to events there from time to time, that's as much as I'm involved in that.
What I have seen, I suppose I should say, is interesting. I've watched, I know that Wharf Chambers now seems to have had a few problems of its own recently, and I understand that it’s working its way through them. But it seemed to me the lesbian and gay presence and particularly the trans community presence within Wharf grew. I watched it grow through the Common Place and then I watched it grow even more through Wharf Chambers, and it felt to me as though, as Leeds Pride became, or it seemed to become, more commercialised, then the interest in Wharf Chambers - or the Common Place and Wharf Chambers - grew as a kind of antidote to that.
So Leeds Pride, without going into, the Hyde Out, the early days of the kind of, what has become Leeds Pride, was a kind of again, a volunteer, kind of organisation that grew post-Clause 28 or whatever it is, the need for developing alternative ways of meeting and whatever on the Leeds scene that didn't involve going to bars and clubs. That started out as a picnic, and then it kind of grew into what has become Leeds Pride, which has moved it from a picnic at Hyde Park into something that's now focussed around the commercial scene in the centre of Leeds which was the very thing that the Hyde Out event was set up to be an alternative to.
So I think what's happened is, the Common Place and Wharf Chambers has become a useful focus or a place to meet for people who are interested in being gay or lesbian or identify as trans or in other ways. It became a place to meet that wasn't the commercial scene. And Leeds still has very few places, it seems to me, for people to meet like that.
So even though, I think there are people, there are elements at Wharf Chambers that people aren't at all happy with, they still go there, because [laughs] there isn't actually anywhere else to go! And that's not necessarily a bad thing, because sometimes it's better, I think, anyway, it’s better to have an organisation, have a place to meet, have problems, argue about the problems, work through the problems, reinvent yourself and carry on meeting, because there isn't necessarily an advantage, I don't think, in changing the bricks and mortar. Because, you know, if you're a progressive organisation, it implies that you're progressive, which means you have to change and develop and listen and think. So, don't change the place, change the ideas, that's my way of thinking about it.
RL: Going back to what you said about the Hyde Park picnics, did you go to those?
CG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RL: What were they like?
CG: They were tiny! [laughs].
RL: What did it feel like?
CG: Well, it was basically a small disparate group of people who just took their own food and sat on a blanket in Hyde Park in Leeds. And I got - I had a gripe about it, I suppose. I did feel as though it should be more ... what did I think at the time? I think I'd got more of a political head on and less of a social head on and so I saw it less as a social occasion and more of a political thing. I could never understand why we were doing it on a Sunday, we should do it on a Saturday. And I thought we should do it somewhere in the middle of Leeds rather than tucked away in the park. But it had its role, so, you know, Sunday's the day when people traditionally have a picnic and there's no reason why everything has to be political, so maybe we should just do things that are social as well. And so, and I think the idea was that it would just become a bit of a fun thing to do, but also, obviously, just by being there and being present and being out, it had a political element to it. So just by being somewhere, you're creating, you're making a political statement. And if it meant that people felt more comfortable about being there, that was not such a bad thing. I think, I suppose if you're at any Pride event I think it's easy for you to do it when there's thousands of you. When there's ten of you and you're marching round your own town, immediately outing yourself to anyone who happened to be in town that day, maybe your boss or, you know, your family, or whatever it is, then it's more difficult. So having a more friendly, slightly less out social event that means all you have to do is turn up with a sandwich and your dog, or whatever, then sit down on a blanket, maybe that's OK too.
RL: Bearing in mind your politics, what do you think about Leeds Pride now?
CG: Well, I suppose I have a mixed, yeah, I have a mixed relationship. It is what it is, I suppose, is what I think. For me, Pride has always been about politics, I suppose, as much as - with a small 'p' not a big 'P' - but basically, it is about making demands and developing as a community, I think we should develop our politics.
I don't think we - people have fought long and hard to get us some of the privileges we've got now, and because we've got there I don't think we should just then turn our Pride event into a party that feeds the coffers of the Leeds commercial scene. I think we should carry on. I think we should maintain our political presence, I think we have to recognise there are places in the world where people aren't as fortunate as us. I think we should support them. I think these people are living in those countries and have to get out and come and live here or get anywhere to be safe. I think we should support those people. I think we should make sure we're open as a country to people who are seeking asylum and who are at risk of their lives sometimes. I think there are still lots of attacks and challenges on us, I think not everywhere in the city is safe, I don't think Leeds is safe for women at night-time, still. So, there's an unofficial curfew that gets a lot of women off the streets of an evening and I think we need to challenge that. I think men's attitudes need to change.
So there's an awful lot of work to do and I think we need to reclaim some of - I think - reclaim some of the politics of our community or communities and inject that back into the Leeds Pride scene, so it isn't just simply a spectator sport, which is what it’s almost become. Something else that's going on recently, which I'm not so sure about, which is, for me, Pride has always been about being able to put the best of your community in front of the rest of the city, in a slightly confrontational way, I think. We have to say, 'We're here, don't forget us!' - and that's all of us. What it isn't, is just simply an opportunity for commercial establishments to pay for floats or you know, Asda and suchlike to pay for floats, get some of their employees to wear pink sashes and throw sweets at people, with a bit of music, while everyone stands and applauds the outfits. I actually think it's about giving ordinary lesbians and gay men and trans people, whoever they want to be, a right to march through their city and say, look, I'm here and this is my city just as much as yours. And that's kind of what I think it should be about.
RL: Thank you! [both laugh]. Anything else?
CG: [Laughs] I've got loads to say, but that's probably enough for now!
RL: OK, thank you very much.