By Simon Garfield
Faber & Faber
ISBN 0 571 15353 4
Is it really only 12 years ago that the nascent Terrence Higgins
Trust published a poorly produced A4 size information leaflet
advising gay men: ‘Have as much sex as you want, but with fewer
people and with healthy people’?
Since then the long shadow of AIDS has been cast across
everyone’s consciousness. New aspects have emerged: paediatric
AIDS; the disease as it affects women, heterosexuals, people from
black and ethnic minority communities, haemophiliacs, and IV drug
users. How the ceremony of innocence was drowned but how the best
did not lack all conviction is the subject of Simon Garfield’s
compulsively readable and wide-ranging piece of reportage. He has
drawn together the political debates, discussion of advertising
strategies, arguments about funding, developments in treatment and
scientific research, often by speaking to those involved directly
from ministers to doctors and people with AIDS/HIV.
There are few villains here. The religious right were never
strong enough to have much impact, and commercial amorality had
nothing like the disastrous impact it had in the USA. But there was
plenty of official sloth and indecision, much of it over the
monitoring of imported blood and the failure to target gay men
Mrs Thatcher is not a villain unless haughty and ignorant
indifference is villainy. Former Social Services Secretary Sir
Norman Fowler and his junior ministers David Mellor and Edwina
Curry emerge with more credit than the current Health Secretary
Virginia Bottomley. The villains were the tabloid and middlebrow
press, stoking up prejudice and disseminating falsehoods, and the
Sunday Times with its shamefully irresponsible campaign to
(effectively) reinvigorate the idea that it was all a ‘gay plague’,
and to dissociate HIV from AIDS.
Why AIDS so captured the imagination is not always easy to say.
In terms of numbers of deaths, it is far below those of other
diseases. Perhaps it is its inevitable mortality, or its striking
so many very young people (but what about childhood leukaemia?), or
perhaps the association of sex (and sexuality) and death. Also,
Phil Collins and Madonna do not wear ribbons for cancer patients.
Even the failure of the apocalyptic numbers to be realised (and 73
per cent of heterosexual HIV cases are contracted overseas) has not
lessened the interest.
Simon Garfield fails to discuss the role of local authorities
and scant attention is given to the plethora of most voluntary
agencies in favour of frequent references to groups like the
Terrence Higgins Trust, London Lighthouse, Body Positive and the
National AIDS Trust.
But he has written a book replete with statistics and figures,
which is also infused with the humanity of anecdote and personal
testimony. It is also a book to which future generations will have
to refer if they want the real flavour, which the academic tome or
the textbook can never give, of what it is like to live – and die –
in the age of AIDS.