A play I wrote and performed in the 80s came into my mind today. It was called Falling Prey.
In the mid to late 80s i was living in Central London and we were right in the middle of the AIDS pandemic. For a while many people pretended not much was happening. This is a natural response when something you feel is wonderful and helps define you (in this case, a free-and-easy approach to sexual encounters) is under threat. We tried to brush it aside and say things like, “well don’t have sex with Americans” as it had been rumoured to originate there amongst the gay community. Or you might say there were certain things you could and couldn’t do. A whole raft of theories came up ; some correct, some completely unfounded. Many people would cling onto anything, as long as they could just behave as they had always done, for a while at least.
On the other side, people were all too prepared to exercise their prejudices and hate. People were blamed immediately; the usual suspects; gay men, prostitutes, drug addicts and Africans. (I was deeply saddened by the Italian ambassador to Britain pleading with the British population not to target Italians as the corona-carriers the other day.)
In the 80’s the blaming was overt and inflammatory, because the targets were the object of vilification to start with. AIDS was “The wrath of God” against sexual perverts. Even when it was clarified that straight people could get it too, that vilification did not go away. The Evening Standard newspaper was one of the worst offenders. Gays should be monitored, tagged, and sent to camps. You could catch it from kissing and from swimming pools they said and a whole raft of rumours spread. It was very very scary.
in 1987 I wrote a play set five years into the future (1992) called FALLING PREY, presented at the Man in the Moon Theatre in King’s Road London predicated on the idea that the police were given powers to round up the homeless and test them, there was mandatory testing for high risk groups and that only those tested from high risk groups with a ‘clear’ status could work in caring professions. The play was pretty epic in scope and was as much about Thatcher’s divided Britain as it was about AIDS. Thatcherite policies such as , “There is no such thing as society” one of her particular pronouncements encouraged the kind of division and nastiness such as exists even more at the moment. I already am appalled by the way I feel some politicians are using the current emergency as a smokescreen to consolidate their power.
In Falling Prey, there were three interweaving stories: Mel, (Liz Richardson) an unfocussed lonely middle class housewife who became paranoid about AIDs and became gradually politicised by a right wing group; a soft ‘liberal’ trendy gay spokesperson Colberton (Charles Grant) for the oncoming identity card campaign; and a young primary school teacher Joseph (myself), who because he suspects that he might be HIV positive goes underground and ends up homeless, who endures all sorts of deprivation only to discover at the end of the play that he is not, that he has endured that persecution for nothing. At the end of the ordeal he completely goes mad , attacking the policeman who brought him in saying “you’ve got something! You’ve got something!” Joseph’s journey might be hard to understand today but it spoke very much to how people were feeling at the time. You were dealing with a feeling that you might be guilty of something (after all, the media intimated you were) and there was no cure then, in fact even the remedial drugs were very experimental . I knew a few people who killed themselves rather than endure years of suffering and pain. It is sad and shocking to think of it now.
But whilst there is still no adequate vaccine for AIDS(though it is getting there) , the ‘holding drugs’ have allowed people to engage in full lives and the prejudice that seemed so imminent then did not manifest itself in quite that way thank goodness. In many respects, not least Ireland, there has been excellent progress. Lest we get blasé even about this however , Poland, a member of the EU no less, is still horrifically setting up LGBT free-zones. (The EU should be threatening them with expulsion for this behaviour in my opinion).
thinking about now,
Right now I feel like a minor character in an Old Testament story in the midst of the Deity’s Wrath: plagues of locusts, War, out of control Fire and Flood. Globalisation, greed, inequality, murder, rape, trafficking and of course the rebelling angry climate.
In my house, the Anchorhold, where I live with my partner I have always felt like I live on a ship. (On windy days like today it seems especially so).The first year we arrived here was 94/95 which, for those reading this and alive then, was a wild and fractious winter here in Ireland . Our house feels like the Ark, ploughing through the wind and rain – in movement itself, rather than still. It feels as if we are on a voyage in it,
which of course we are.