The Ward: No More Secrets
When I first saw Gideon Mendel’s photographs (part of The Ward exhibition) of John, Stephen, Ian and André, I thought how beautiful they are, and how brave. The pictures were taken in 1993, the same year a friend of mine died. He was an Irish artist. I wouldn’t ever have got to know him had he not had AIDS. From the time I met him, I knew and I didn’t know what would happen. He was about the same age as John, Stephen Ian and André, and, like them, if he had lived long enough to start on the treatments that were coming in, he might have been alive today.
Privacy and openness
My second thought was, should I be looking at such pictures that are so private? I find the combination of openness and intimacy in Mendel’s photos shocking, in a good way. You see, I trained as a volunteer buddy with the Terrence Higgins Trust in 1989. The buddy trainers drilled us on the importance of maintaining confidentiality and managing interpersonal boundaries. They needn’t have worried. I learned how to keep a secret when I worked for an intelligence branch of the Ministry of Defence. When I became a buddy, I just added a new category to my index of secrets.
I volunteered for two reasons: because I wanted to come out, and because I wanted to be part of the community of people fighting AIDS. It’s one of the best things I ever did. I’d never met (and haven’t since) such a glorious mix of people working together to make a difference. Explaining why he had volunteered, a guy in my cohort summed up his motivation as wanting to have a ready answer if he were ever asked: ‘What did you do in the war, Daddy?’ To me, that was it.
Going to the heath
The PWA (person with AIDS) I buddied, later PLWA (person living with AIDS), lived up the road from me in a flat that felt empty. He wasn’t like John, Stephen, Ian and André, living like a family on The Ward. He lived alone, frequently redecorating his flat, always the same shade of white. I went to see him in the evenings, and he gave me tea and biscuits. Sometimes he thought out loud about maybe getting a taxi one night to Hampstead Heath. And when he’d been to the heath, he would throw me a look that was half-pleased, half-rueful, and say something like ‘got what I wanted’. He always found someone, which I admired.
Knowing and not knowing
I don’t remember there being any pictures or books in his flat. But on the shelf by the chair where he sat, there were two or three small black and white photos of a young boy, maybe less than ten, and possibly a girl. I didn’t ask who they were, and he didn’t tell me. I was well trained. After a couple of years, I got a paid job at the Trust and another buddy took my place. About a year later, I got a call to say he was in a hospice, and would I go and see him. When I got there, he was having a barney with a young man I’d never seen before. I realised the young man was his son. I knew before he told me. He told me his son didn’t know he had AIDS.
AIDs helped me to come out and learn to be myself. Thirty years after Diana opened the first AIDS ward in London at the former Middlesex Hospital, I think it’s important we ensure that as many people as possible get to know how people lived and cared for each other on The Ward. The story of John, Stephen, Ian and André mustn’t be a secret.
Trustee, the Fitzrovia Chapel
You can visit The Ward exhibition:
November 5, 8, 12, 15, 19, 22, 26, 29
It is open from 11:00 to 18:00 on these days and is free.
(Photo of Edward is by Claudia Leisinger.)