“At the moment I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later and thus we don’t have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”
The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume Three, 1925–1930
It’s World AIDS Day again. Like any such event, it has multiple meanings. They are not mutually exclusive. No one who survived the first phase of the epidemic which seeped into our midst 40 years ago wants anything other than the disease to abate, and to support those on the frontline of that cause.
History is unending. And as Covid-19 has reminded us, it repeats itself. The past is not a foreign country. It is the place we live now. Still, the beat goes on. Still, the fight goes on.
But for some of us, whatever the preoccupations of the present, whatever the future holds, December 1st has become our own 11–11–11 moment. I do not make that parallel to suggest equivalence of experience, only of remembrance.
As David France writes in After Surviving: A Great Gift:
‘Those of us who rode the white water of the plague, that unrelenting decade and a half before 1996 when finally the miracle pills did their miracle work, know only the deepest and broadest kind of grief, a cumulative loss so staggering that little more can be recalled than the stark and throbbing fact of it.’
And yet for so many years, our remembrance hovered in a liminal space away from the public gaze. Ours was not a noble or worthy cause, but an ignominious one.
We had brought it upon ourselves. At best it was unmentionable — and we were untouchable — at worst we had been swirling around in a human cesspit of our own making.
The incomparable Larry Kramer, who died during the early days of the current pandemic, though not of Covid-19 (or indeed of HIV), and others like him, had the presence of mind to write history in real-time.
A month ago, I went to see his howl of a play, The Normal Heart. Recently revived at the National Theatre, it is a searing story of love, loss and activism from the early days of HIV.
Kramer got the repetition of history too. He wrote the play after a visit to Dachau which he learned had opened as early as 1933, and the horrors of which had remained unchecked with apocalyptic consequences.
Now his own government, Ronald Reagan at the helm, steadfastly ignored the unfolding epidemic because the people caught in the eye of the storm simply did not matter.
‘What am I ever going to do without you?’ Ned asks Felix after breaking down by his hospital bed in the final scene of Kramer’s play. It was May 1984 and Felix only had moments of life left.
My late partner, Lawrence, had just been diagnosed with HTLV3(HIV) then. It was the year before we met. It would be 11 years before I blurted out almost the same words to him one Saturday morning in St Bartholomew’s Hospital.
Lawrence held me wailing in his arms. He was pretty near the end too, just four months to go. We had stopped pretending anything else would happen.
The Normal Heart, which spans the years 1981–1984, came to London’s Royal Court in 1986. I can’t remember why we didn’t go. Perhaps it was Kramer’s marmite moralising in his earlier novel Faggots?
More likely we simply eschewed all that stuff. Or Lawrence did at least, and I followed his lead. We were too busy living the epidemic to want to see it played out on stage. Our own drama — and trying to avoid it — was quite enough.
That’s how Lawrence dealt with his diagnosis. Not denial, but a refusal to let it define who he was or what he was going to do with his life. Even how long he would live. And the odds were shockingly short.
I had been an early AIDS activist before we met. But his activism was living openly with the virus, refusing to be cowed by it. That was an act of defiance in itself back then. It wouldn’t have been enough for Larry. And yet they shared something unmistakable — rage at their plight and an absolute refusal to soft soak it for anyone else’s benefit.
As I stood at the entrance to the National, waiting for a friend, I watched others arrive. There were those who were young enough for what we were about to see to be a historical drama. Earwigging a bit, I heard some of them were actually there because they were studying it.
And then there was the old guard, the ones whose lives feature in the epidemic’s real-life credits. They were not hard to spot. And neither was their anxiety. Their etched faces gave away more than they imagined.
Maybe mine did too. Who had they lost, I wondered? Partners, lovers, friends, colleagues? A full house for many of them, I suspected. And the empty houses that followed.
As I hovered pensively, I couldn’t help going back to the evening in October 1985 — 36 years ago — when Lawrence and I sat on a bench just yards away on the Embankment.
‘I’m positive,’ he told me.
‘It’s okay,’ I replied.
I had decided to stay. My life changed forever in that moment.
‘If I had it, would you leave me?’ Ned asked Felix earlier in the play.
‘I don’t know. Would you if I did?’ Felix replied.
‘No,’ came Ned’s response.
‘How do you know?’ Felix continued.
‘I just know…’ Ned answered.
I just knew too. But Lawrence and I had ten years to their two. And to both our costs my certainty was rumbled along the way.
And then I mused on another moment. In the early, heady days of our relationship, we had been to the National with my mother. What we saw I cannot for the life of me recall. Or quite why she was there.
But I can picture the scene. A sunny, summer evening, Lawrence and I sporting Lacoste polo shirts, 501s, and Doc Martens — probably wearing Paco Rabanne. It was 1986 — that’s my excuse anyway. We were just making a go of it. There was nothing else for it.
To borrow Eliot’s words, as I did at his funeral nine years later, here and now had ceased to matter. And yet, Woolf’s words resonate so truthfully too. Our emotions, for all their intensity (and by God, there was no shortage of it), like our burgeoning relationship, were incomplete.
Only now, half a life on, do I really have any perspective about quite what it all meant.
Only now, half a life on, can I grieve with pride at the life he lived, and the one we shared together.
Only now, half a life on, thanks to the audacity of Kramer back then, the brilliance of Russell T Davies today, and the indefatigability of AIDS activism, are the shutters to our memorialising finally being opened up.
But that’s the point about memorialising. It is far from stuck in the past. Rather, it is about the present’s — often troubled — relationship with that past. And, just as significantly, its challenges to the future too.
Memorialising is about the dead. But it is also about the living. History is now. There is so much still to do.
Kramer got it, of course. The Normal Heart takes its name from Auden’s poem, September 1, 1939, with its final command:
‘We must love one another or die.’