Wednesday, 16 March 2016

I Want to Hold Your Hand

by Dawn Sharpe, mother of Seb Sharpe.

David in a Bench Production of Bent
Having noticed on the PGS Twitter feed recently that Mr Frampton had given a talk about the devastation AIDS caused, particularly in New York City, during the 1980s, I was prompted to share my own, personal experience of those dark days.

I met my ‘best friend’ David when we were both eager 11 year olds showing up for our first session at a youth theatre group in Havant.  We bonded immediately. It’s an old cliché I know, but he really did seem larger than life, more vibrantly coloured in if you like; David had the kind of charisma that makes heads turn and everybody want to be his friend.  We didn’t attend the same school until Sixth Form College where we were able to give full reign to our inseparability.

Days studying for our A levels were the usual embryonic adult mixture of hard work and heady socialising.  This was the early 1980s and we had thrown ourselves wholeheartedly into the New Romantic movement.  Having suffered the, yes I will use the word, torment, of going through David’s long, slow ‘coming out’ to friends and family, the New Romantic music, fashion and licence to act as flamboyantly as was humanly possible years were the perfect setting for my eye-catching gay friend, with his brilliant talent for acting, singing, dancing and writing, to shine. I, of course, was only too pleased to bask in his reflected glory revelling in minor celebrity status amongst our peers.
But happy though they were, those days were underpinned with a growing sense of dread. Not just for us, but it for the wider world.  You may have seen the advertisements of the time warning in sombre, Hammer House of Horror voiceovers, of the dangers of unprotected sex, particularly in the gay arena.  We were being harshly made aware of a new disease, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome – or AIDS as it was more often known – or HIV/AIDS.

 I, like many of my friends at the time, was absolutely petrified of catching it; I was convinced that I would meet a terrible end, wasting away dramatically in a hospital bed, shunned by society. These were the images we were bombarded with in an attempt to keep us safe.   Most of us lived in the grip of fear.

 Pretty soon after leaving college in 1983, I became aware of people in the public eye falling prey to the disease, most shockingly perhaps 1950’s heartthrob, Rock Hudson whose homosexuality had remained a well kept secret until photographs of him looking painfully gaunt were released in newspapers just prior to his death on October 2nd 1985.  A climate of fear had well and truly gripped young people of my generation, both gay and straight.  Sales of condoms rocketed.
Sadly as it turned out, that fear had not pervaded David’s strong sense of carpe diem.  He was finally living, he said, the life he felt he deserved.  After years of attempting to be ‘conventional’, he left for London and drama school eagerly embracing every aspect of a new, thrillingly unfettered world.
Perhaps inevitably, the whirling merry go round of parties, dubious friendships, short lived affairs and sexual encounters mixed with that dangerous recklessness, led quickly and viciously to his harrowing demise at just 23 years old on Remembrance Sunday 1987.

On the last few times I saw David prior to his death he had begun to look ill; slightly shabby around the edges .Amazingly looking back now, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.  He seemed diminished in body, if not in spirit – blurred perhaps.  And yes, I did attempt to put the brakes on him; ineffectually asking if he was looking after himself, being careful, eating vegetables for goodness sake.  All too little and much too late.  Six weeks before his death, we set out for what turned out to be our last night out together.  He was unusually serious that evening.  Reluctant to talk about himself.  He was tired and putting on the usual David-style ‘entertainment’ seemed too big a mountain to climb.  We ended the evening talking quietly in his mother’s kitchen in Emsworth.  ‘Was he ill?’  I finally plucked up the courage to ask, afraid to hear the answer.  ‘Yes, but it was nothing... a few tests required, that’s all.  Probably nothing.’  Unbeknownst to me, he had already been attending respite care in The London Lighthouse, a residential unit in Ladbroke Grove which offered superb care for those living with, and dying from, HIV/AIDS.

I saw him once more after that.  Lying on his mother’s sofa watching old black and white musicals (typecasting, we laughed together).  His appearance had changed to a breath taking extreme. Gone was the young, smooth face, the shiny black hair fashionably cut in the style of Phil Oakey (look him up), the vigour, the enthusiasm, almost the life force.  He was terribly thin, his face covered in angry looking sores, and he looked at least a hundred.  I’ll gloss over the private details of our last time together which was, mercifully brief for both of us, but suffice to say, that final encounter has stayed with me.

Whoever arranged David’s funeral tried their best to make it a celebration; as colourful as he was.  Hundreds of young people, myself included, filed disbelievingly into the crematorium (I learned later that AIDS victims had to be cremated regardless of their wishes presumably for health and safety purposes).  We were sleepwalking through the proceedings, shocked to our essences.  AIDS stories were now constantly in every headline, on our televisions, well known people falling victim.  Now here was one such ‘story’ right on our doorstep. Close to our hearts. Very close to mine.

For a while afterwards, David’s mother, Sylvia, tried to claim that he had died of something else such was the climate of fear surrounding AIDS.   She was afraid of reprisals, she told me later. I had acquaintances, (I won’t call them friends), who snubbed me worried that I would somehow have caught the disease merely by having visited David, held his hand, breathed the same air.  They were petrified that they would catch it themselves in some third party kind of way and actually, I don’t blame them.  I admit, there were times I worried about that myself.

I don’t know when it was that we all released our collectively held breaths and stopped being so afraid of falling victim to AIDS. When treatments began to stop the killer in its tracks I suppose.  Hold it at bay.  But I do know that I will never forget my friend David and the impact he had on my young life.  Now having lived half a century, I hope that young people nowadays can enjoy their carefree years  without the fear, flaming torches and pitchforks, the name-calling and isolation that far too many of my generation had to contend with.  Of course, it is still eminently possible to catch AIDS, there are many good websites on the subject, but hopefully attitudes towards those living with the disease have been transformed.

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