by Russell Christie
I wanted to walk in a plague city, through the streets of a ghost town. But London was not deserted. On Wednesday, people were still going about their business. Through an office window, I saw a man curl closely around a colleague to manipulate her mouse, to show her how to do something on screen. Another man stood close beside the desk, talking over their heads, the heavy parts of his breath descending on their hair. I thought I was taking risks, venturing in. They carried on regardless. I pressed the key of the pelican crossing with the knuckle of my middle finger, and then rubbed that on my jeans until the friction burned. Not out of fear, but because I enjoy sensible precautions and like to pretend I know what I’m doing. What was I doing? I was walking in a plague city to contrast now and then. My fear then with my fear now.
As a young man, as is typical of young people, I felt I was mortal and destructible, my body in the world was paper thin and life tenuous, always momently sure to come to an end, my sojourn here insecure and brief, liable to be snuffed out at any moment, my flesh so fragile as to be almost absent. This is typical of the young, they believe they are mortal and live surrounded by fear, they panic. My fear of death now has gone. I am calm as I walk through its valleys. As an older person, well established here, I am as invincible as the world around me, unsurpassable, my life indestructible, my body, the ever living mountain. The young are deluded in their mortality.
I wanted to contrast my fear then with my lack of fear now. I wanted to compare this plague city now with the plague of my youth, so I went into town against advice. I wanted to feel nostalgia and victory, knowledge and sadness, to page back through the stack of intervening years. To look at the long corridor of my life between that plague and this.
I arrived in San Francisco in 1990. Half the city was dead or dying from AIDS. The mortality rate of that disease was 100%. It was harder to catch but, equally, if you confined yourself and took precautions for a decade, you’d be okay. I was a gay man and intravenous drug user, my death was categorically guaranteed. From the repeated heart attacks of my father to endless homophobic calls of derision, I’d lived my whole life with the ever imminent threat of death in one form or another. The mortuary of San Francisco rose to meet me, confirming my advance intimacy with its pre-ordained legacy. I was familiar with streets of imminence and anxiety. The city greeted me like an old friend, a compatriot in anxiety consoling my anxiety with its acceptance, normalising me in multiple ways. It resonated with my self in its plague, every mortal street spoke to me. I had met my own exact absence, death. It was fitting. San Francisco converged upon my multiple exiles, my homelessness was home.
I had just been venturing out of my insecurity in the UK, my interior apartness, the bipole to my external homelessness — just coming out of the shell/fortress I’d hidden in as an escape from homophobia and the precarity of life as it had been largely advertised to me through the ever present threats of demise around me as I grew. Just coming out again, into the world. I was eighteen or nineteen when the undercurrent to the building wave of HIV began. A disease that came to be relished by the UK government and the right wing press. People with AIDS were ‘swirling in a human cesspit of their own making,’ according to the much publicised pronouncement of James Anderton, Chief Constable of Greater Manchester. Some still lick their lips at the prospect of the death of others they despise. Homophobia doubled in the UK and my fear was reinstated, seemed reasonable in the face of all, justified and not just my own condition. Again I returned to the absence of life, withdrawal from the firm ground of the world: death and precarity. The media mobilised HIV to create a balloon of death and isolation for a decade. For a decade, my 100% mortality rate and my contagion, if I was to be who I was, was proclaimed.
Myself and my friends walked in and out of this air for ten years, many dying along the way, until medication was found and anti-virals made headway in the mid to late 1990s. But for more than a decade, little of this struggle was acknowledged or helped. Instead, gay men, with or without HIV, were mostly shunned as vectors of disease. HIV was confirmation of our pariah status. We were shrouded from the day we were born until we met our inevitable destiny. The TV said repeatedly: You will surely die of this disease, unless you stop your interactions: stop this, and this, and this. We will control your behaviour or you will be the death of yourselves and us all. The ‘gay plague’, the ‘Chinese’ virus.
So now I compare. There are globes of difference, but memory and triggers are only natural. All I can be is transparent about memory’s information of now and its origins in the configuration of my life in this planetary history. Two viruses, two times, two cities. Other feelings and perspectives are no more nor less valid, some feel it’s egregious to compare and will not speak of similarities. They must be heard also in the depth of their silence. The coexistence of opposites is available through authenticity and acknowledgment, a two way path in which difference is no contradiction. Openness to provisionality and allowing diverse experiences of the same events, is all. I make no universal statements. Now, walking through London, echoes of the ghost towns of the gay bars of San Francisco flock around me, memories of the deserted End Up on a Sunday afternoon in 1991. From The Mission District to Greek Street and Oxford Circus.
I went into London on the Wednesday before the lockdown became a legal obligation, to hear and taste again my own death and resurrection, to see the phantoms of my memories and the ghosts of my life; its could-have-beens walking and not walking these streets, from Soho to Trafalgar Square. And to feel the weight of myself now, no longer precarious but embedded in the turning of the world. That we are flies in history is our grandeur. But it was not yet as advertised, the streets were not yet deserted. And, major things have changed.
The government did not rally to our aid then, hospitals were not geared up, the resources of the world were not mobilised. Employers discharged us as soon as they knew of our categorisation for contagion and there was no special support. No sympathy was advertised for this demise of our own making, which we deserved at the hands of god and the Bible and the common sense of the press. We were left to walk alone in the hundred percent valley of death. ‘What does GAY stand for?’ My brother wasn’t the only one to tell me this joke: ‘Got Aids Yet?’ We were called names and abused and ostracised in the midst of our pandemic, while we coped with the ever present spectre of death.
After eight years of this atmosphere while growing up, I left England in 1990 to find the gay Mecca and epicentre of my tormenting world.
So I wanted to walk again in a plague city, the streets of a ghost town, to contrast my fear then with my fear now. To see if my acquired immunity to mortality is real, to practice again my familiarity and relaxation when death finally hits the fan. The more imminent death is, the more relaxed I am. As well as flocking contagions, I have had a real gun to the back of my head (a hard steel gun) and know what it is like for me. And exactly because of that, and its contradiction of commonplace presumptions, I would not monopolise the experience or claim that this is how you would feel in the same situation or inhibit others from imagining how it may be for them with peremptory, regulatory phrases like, ‘Young people believe they’re indestructible, don’t they? You feel immortal when you’re young.’ Tell me your reality, not this abstract speculation of other people, the policing of emotion, the peer pressure of emotional regulation. I don’t controvert your reality, you don’t controvert mine. If you say, ‘I feel immortal,’ fair enough, that is you. We exist in a shared world, that is not required to be identical for each one of us. A world in which we recognise each other because it is shared in its difference. Don’t close it down. Its ever available ground is the very vector of our communication. We are the world’s diversity in our seeing of it, its unity is our seeing of each other, an openness.
It feels better for me now, in this plague, when people help each other out and no single social group is blamed for their behaviour, for their merely holding hands – now we are in it more thoroughly together, as we stand apart. This is the contrast between then and now.
I find it hard to generate fear, whatever the percentage mortality. I am tired of my history of fear, but not tired of pushing through the other side to the expansive relaxation that for me arises most in the face of certain death. I would have made a good soldier. But it would be a strange curve, on which everything below 100% was worse. This virus is easier now, when I find all acquaintances saying to me and each other equally, the phrase gay men alone used to exchange with the pertinence and deep, mortal knowing of their time: ‘Stay safe.’
Russell is currently studying part time at Brunel for a Masters degree in Screenwriting. Originally from Nottingham, he spent several years in the USA, some of his experiences being documented in his semi-autobiographical novel, The Queer Diary Of Mordred Vienna, published in 2015. After a late start in academia, he hopes to be able to continue into a PhD at Brunel.