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OPINION - If you think London doesn't need an Aids memorial you're wrong and this is why

 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

The first gay couple I ever met were a witty pair with a lovely, terraced house not far from where I grew up. They were in their mid-twenties; I was 17. One of them worked at a gay club I’d just started dipping a tentative toe into. He’d give me a free pint if the manager wasn’t looking, his way of saying, “it’s OK, I know you’re nervous in here, but you don’t have to be”. It was a little rite of passage that’s gathered gorgeous extra layers of generosity with each passing decade, the more I understand it.

It was the late Eighties. Being gay was not just marked by a stigma you had to reject, in order to accept who you were, a destabilising social double bluff many of us failed to master. There was no proper guidance on how to do it. Then there was the omnipresence of HIV/Aids, making bedfellows of death and desire. This couple rented their spare room to a garrulous Scouser dying upstairs. He’d been diagnosed HIV-positive the year before, dead within three months of my saying hello. Because it was the first gay household I’d stepped into, I assumed all others were like that too.

I thought about the duality of these two teenage firsts — the happy and the sad — when the shortlist was announced last week for the artists competing to craft a permanent public London Aids memorial, on Tottenham Court Road. The location has been chosen specifically, close to the site of the old Middlesex Hospital on Goodge Street, a stolid Gothic edifice which housed the first dedicated London Aids ward, since knocked down.

The monument must be both a sorry and a thank-you, a consolation prize and also a trophy for the fightback

I once interviewed a gay doctor just round the corner, still practising in Bloomsbury, who introduced the idea of gay men using condoms for penetrative sex, to try to stem the HIV virus in its initial wave, effectively inventing safe sex. That felt fitting, too.

Aids Memory UK, the charity behind the forthcoming monument, have been fighting for a London public memorial since 2016. That year, the permanent New York memorial at St Vincent’s triangle was unveiled. Ours is long overdue. HIV/Aids changed the fabric of London, for better and for worse. The monument is a first permanent stake in the city we helped define as a leader on the world equality map.

There is a lot for an artist to think about here before accepting the responsibility of the memorial commission. Impermanent monuments, particularly the Aids quilt, a patchwork of blankets to friends passed laid out in front of the White House, or the Red, Hot and Blue tribute record, of artists covering Cole Porter songs, have become imperceptibly immortal. The Aids Memorial Instagram portal, a digital render of the quilt idea, is one of the singular cases for the defence of social media. The artwork and literature of Derek Jarman. The songs of John Grant. Popular films, including Oscar winners by Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia), Robin Campillo (120 BPM) and David France (How to Survive a Plague) have set in stone certain angles of the story.

Then there are the philosophical considerations. The monument must work as both a sorry and a thank-you. A consolation prize for the appalling way the establishment demonised us during the HIV/Aids pandemic, hangovers of which can be seen everywhere now. And a trophy for the resilient fightback, driven by a forcefield of LGBT+ community action, an example of agit-prop politics at its most livid, potent and inspired. Our recollections of that time can be calcified, but often the atmosphere was too electrified to be just sombre.

This was a time of revolt, action, hedonism, change. Old social structures rendered themselves inert and useless. Everyone protecting “family values”, the Thatcherite watchword of the moment, appeared to have forgotten that we had families too. Sometimes they rejected us. Often they didn’t, fighting side by side alongside us on the road to justice.

The artist needs to think about the concurrence of joy with pain, the juxtaposition of community force against maudlin victimisation. The first 10 years of the HIV/Aids epidemic was frequently a frightening time to come of age through, but it engineered a renegade spirit in a community that was deemed weak, hopeless and tragic. A permanent monument needs to honour heroism without forgetting humanity. For whoever gets the commission, good luck. You have a thankless task ahead, but one that cannot come soon enough.

Paul Flynn is an Evening Standard columnist