And the Band Played On – Andy has no puns

December 29, 2015

Apologies to the one or two people who still bother reading this blog regularly – for a variety of reasons posting has been problematic for the past couple of months. Although given who those one or two readers are, they probably know why it’s been problematic, so there’s no need to be cryptic. Nevermind.

Given my age and the times in which I grew up, I probably came out a bit late – early- to mid-20s. Early ‘90s, anyway. At that stage, HIV meant AIDS, and AIDS meant death. I was living in London at the time, and I remember one night drunkenly telling a friend that I had absolutely no doubt I would end up positive at some point, and the day I got the diagnosis I would go out and get spectacularly shitfaced and the following day I would go vegetarian. To her credit she did not look at me with the complete and utter contempt I deserved; instead she said something along the lines of “Andy. what the fuck are you talking about?”

As it turns out, more than 20 years down the track, I am not a vegetarian, and I am negative – in a time when a positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. And that little anecdote is of no relevance whatsoever, really.


AIDSAnd The Band Played On (a reference to the musicians playing on the deck of the Titanic as the ship sank – in that story a symbol of humanity, here something far more sinister) takes us back almost 20 years before I came out, to Kinshasa, capital of what was then Zaire. Via Scandinavia, Paris, but mostly the United States, San Fran journo Randy Shiltz unravels the medical, political and cultural nightmare that unfurled over the ‘80s and was ultimately to claim his own life a few years after he finished this book.

It’s a few weeks since I finished it and so I’ll limit myself to a few vague observations. First off, and sorry if I sound flippant – but fuck this is a good read, especially early on. Early on it feels a bit like you’re reading a detective story – Shiltz’s construction borders on faultless. His research is meticulous (although apparently he took some “artistic licence” in reconstructing certain episodes – I don’t know which these are). As the story he has to tell unfolds, and the horror of what is occurring becomes more apparent – I thought I knew a bit about what happened in the ‘80s, but turns out I didn’t really know shit – the compulsive readability of the book sobers up somewhat; towards the end I found I had to read smaller and yet smaller chunks, so disturbing and upsetting does it all become.

This is mostly because so many fucking people are dying (mostly, in the US and the rest of the West, gay men, but by no means only gay men – one of the things Shiltz makes screamingly, infuriatingly clear was that this “gay disease”, from the outset, affected a far wider population). But it’s also because of the response of many in the gay community. So soon after gay lib people are being told, Actually, maybe you need to slow down, and people, understandably, initially, say Fuck off. But the fact that the owners of the “bathhouses” (better known in Australia these days as saunas) put their profits above the lives of their patrons is appalling; that attitude is also found in the operators of the US’s private blood banks.

And the bullshit that happened at a bureaucratic and political level is monstrous. Prioritising the “gay cancer” under a profoundly reactionary Republican administration? Good luck with that. Scientists write to each other lamenting the criminal lack of funding and then front Congressional committees and, to avoid pissing off their bosses, tell the Congressmen No, no, funding is absolutely adequate. We’re fine.

Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. So many people died because of this bullshit – and in the ‘80s, in the States, and in Australia, and in most of the West, most of those people were young gay men.

As I’ve mentioned, there’s the suggestion that Shiltz allowed his imagination a bit too much free rein in his depiction of some episodes. The only other criticism I would add is that the very last chapter, detailing the death of one of the people who played a vital role in much of what Shiltz has recorded, lacks any sense of dignity. Perhaps this is intentional. The vast majority of these guys died without a shred of dignity, one of AIDS’ most horrible attributes. Still, that last chapter jarred.

The Chimp and the River, by US science writer David Quammen, is an expanded extract on his much bigger book Spillover, about diseases that cross from animals to humans. The science that is available to us now, compared to what Shiltz had access to, is astounding. Kinshasa was not where AIDS began, but you could call it Ground Zero, to some extent – that city is where the virus was allowed to launch itself upon the world. That researchers can now pretty much pinpoint the crossover of HIV from chimp to human to a corner of the jungle on a tributary of a tributary of the Congo in about 1908 is just astounding. Chimp meat was (and possibly still is) a bit of a delicacy in the Congolese jungle; a hunter cuts himself as he’s butchering the carcass of a chimp infected with the simian version of HIV; and the world turns.

What’s infuriating is that had HIV/AIDS been confronted rationally in the ‘80s we’d probably have a vaccine by now (a vaccine, not a “cure”; to my knowledge there is no such thing as a “cure” to a virus, you vaccinate against viruses; but for Big Pharma, “cures” are more lucrative, and so … You know where I’m going here). We don’t have a vaccine. HIV may not be killing nearly as many people in the West as it was even 10 years ago, but in the majority world…?

Fascinating and enthralling, sure. But in the age of PrEP and PEP and [+u] (positive but undetectable), to look back on those first years of the holocaust is to be made sick with rage and grief.


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