The first column I
wrote, in 1998, just after starting at Positive Nation.
lazarus 1: born again
Lazarus moment, the exact minute I realised I would live and not
die, was when, speeding on the vampiric fix of six pints of
other peopleís blood, 48 hours after being barely able to walk
into the ward at St Bartís, I found myself singing on stage at
the Black Cap pub in Camden.
Sunday afternoon drinkers were unappreciative; they wanted the
stripper, not some gloomy songwriter. I didnít care. I felt like
my own monument, at once as crumbling and as indestructible as
the Sphinx. I had risen. I had survived AIDS.
week had started with a sick headache and a thundering pulse in
the back of the neck. The effort of climbing stairs made me
vomit. By Thursday my skin had turned chalk-white. Awareness
wallowed in a buzzing fog. ďYouíve got AZT anaemia,Ē said my
doctor, prospecting under a lower eyelid for residual
There was a gig on the Sunday. Since I can persuade someone to
let me sing in public about once a year, I was going to do it,
even if I had to wheel the drip stand on stage. It was not the
first time in my career as AIDS victim that I had apparently
clawed my way out of the grave, but it was by far the most
surreal crisis, and, I sensed, the last.
felt two completely opposite things.
emotion was just dandy: a lust for more existence that didnít
feel like courage, or determination, or self-congratulation, or
any of the things people whoíve never had a shotgun wedding with
Death imagine his jilters feel.
it was rage. Pure, organic, toddler fury. How dare a virus - or
its treatment - annihilate me before Iíd climbed Kilimanjaro; or
had Leonard Cohen cover one of my songs; or got successfully
fisted (none of these achieved yet, but trying).
other feeling, though, like the dark shadow of the first, was
one of infinite weariness. There was no more snap in the
elastic. Christ, I was 41: my life might only be half way
Since then, living has felt like a vertical crawl up the same
cliff I had gratefully dived from several years earlier - or,
like the obstinately limp dick of the stripper as he fluffed
himself next to me in the dressing room, it has reflated to
something like its previous size, but still droops. Why this
lack of stand-up-and-spit?
Well, firstly: middle-aged man, out of the job market seven
years, nasty gap in the CV. Maybe I should have just committed
one of the more enjoyable crimes - running a brothel, say - and
spent the time inside. The effect on the job prospects would
have been the same. ďThe successful candidate will have had
AIDS.Ē Yeah, right.
that can be overcome. My self-analyst - The Shrink Inside - says
that the real trouble is that, having descended the Death
Escalator, I have no puff left to run back up again. The Death
Escalator is the idea that dying people run through a
predictable series of reactions in dealing with their mortality.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance - a sequence
now so familiar that they make jokes about it in The Simpsons.
In my own lumpy way, with many protests and reversings, Iíd gone
pretty far down this path, to the place where I was discussing,
with total equanimity, my own funeral with my mumís vicar.
Unfortunately there is no model for the reverse of this process.
How do you dis-accept? Re-deny? How do you stop your head
ringing from the hammer-blow of fate, like Tomís after Jerry has
gradual, grinding attrition of AIDS really is like war, and I
felt like a hair-trigger Vietnam vet. You donít trust peace. You
know the snipers are still there in the trees. The result is a
kind of existential anaemia. Every step up towards health feels,
paradoxically, like itís going to kill you.
also, if Iím honest it was because AIDS was fun. Iíll say it
again. Having AIDS was fun.
Before the martyr corps start waving shrouds and quilts and dead
lovers at me, I would just like to say, all that happened to me
too, actually. I watched a handsome lover shrivel to a twisted
shadow and die at 29. I too awoke in my own shit too many times.
in between times - when the doctors had mixed their antibiotic
cocktails just right and the anti-squits medicine was working -
it was a delicious early retirement. Oh, Iím too driven a
character to have blown it all on holidays. No, I went on this
new age self-improvement jag. Swimming with dolphins, wild men
drumming in the woods, bittersweet tears at encounter groups.
the freedom. How do I feel today? A little fragile, but still
interesting. So Iíll have a late breakfast, hop into my free
government car, pootle down to the Darby and Joan club, I mean
the HIV centre, have a gossip and a free lunch, a bit of gym, a
cruise with the dog in the park. Life was sweet.
as for the invincible self-righteousness...I may be a
maladjusted queer but Iím a dying maladjusted
queer, and that makes me better than you. Iím Wise Before My
Time, it says so in this book.
And now here I am back on civvy street, slaving for pennies,
baggy-eyed with stress, floundering through the swamp of office
politics. Give me one good reason why I should feel better.
AIDS, like war, was hell. But it was the time of my life.
Afterword: The Lazarus effect is reaI. I was talking to Pepe
Catalan, chief HIV psychiatrist at the Chelsea and Westminster
Hospital in London about it only the other day, and he said heís
seen it time and again: hideous fear and depression striking
people exactly at the time they start to physically recover.
strikes people at the time in their life they are starting to
become powerful, make money, to achieve, to shrug off the
follies of youth (which, in their case, has given them HIV).
Instead they become this little sick old person. And then
they become well or well-ish again Ė with those years of
achievement snipped out and having to start again on the lowest
row of the snakes and ladders game, with a bunch of pills to
take and a stigmatised monkey on their back.
know so many people who donít even try, but instead stay in a
permanently arrested Aids-druggy-on-the-dole mode. And I donít
blame them. Coming back to life was the hardest thing I ever
Since I wrote this, however, as youíll see elsewhere on this
site, I have climbed Kilimanjaro - Gus