Being PrEPared

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I don’t know when I first noticed that the word “introvert” contains the word “invert” but if I require a shorthand self-identification beyond the vocational then “introvert invert” is a suitable candidate. Being an introvert isn’t always easy in a resolutely extrovert world, but being an introvert invert has considerable drawbacks, such as how you meet anyone like yourself when the available meeting places—club and bars—inspire severe loathing. Clubbing is no longer the only option now that we have online dating (and gay clubs have been dying off in any case…) but the options were few in the 1980s. It’s impossible for me to think about any of this without considering that if I wasn’t such an introvert I might not be alive today. I was 20 in 1982 when the AIDS epidemic was starting to travel the world; had I been more gregarious I might have been investigating all those wretched clubs and bars instead of sitting at home, listening to music and drawing pictures.

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The Thatcher government only started to get serious about HIV/AIDS in 1987 when this information leaflet was delivered to every household in Britain. (See scans of the whole thing here and here.) There was also an accompanying public information film narrated by John Hurt, and directed by Nicolas Roeg, of all people. It was quickly replaced with other films that were less apocalyptic.

Whatever your attitude to nightlife, if you were gay in the 1980s then AIDS was omnipresent even before it became an issue that politicians dared to discuss in public. I remember when Patrick Cowley died (November 1982); I remember when Klaus Nomi died (August 1983); I bought the Panic/Tainted Love single by Coil when it was released (May 1985), the profits of which went to AIDS charity The Terrence Higgins Trust (the first record release to make such a donation). Coil’s doom-laden Horse Rotovator album from 1986 was shaped by the group’s experience of watching many of their friends succumb to illness and death. There were many other such responses, one of the greatest being the monumental Masque Of The Red Death album cycle by Diamanda Galás, dedicated to Galás’s brother and her friends who were killed by the epidemic. I can’t think of artist and writer Philip Core without remembering the interview he gave to The Late Show from his hospital bed in 1989, a hollow-eyed ghost of his former self. The accumulated fear and paranoia of a dark decade lingered into the 1990s even after condom-use had become widespread and HIV became manageable with drug treatments.

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More from the fun decade. A government health ad from The Face magazine, February 1987.

The paranoia of the 1990s is one of the first things that Evan J. Peterson discusses in The PrEP Diaries, an account of growing up gay in America at a time when HIV was treatable but still something to be worried about. Evan is a friend whose previous books have been mentioned here (one of which I contributed to), but this is his first non-fiction title, a witty and enlightening combination of erotic memoir and public service declaration. “PrEP” refers to the drug marketed in America as Truvada, a pre-exposure prophylaxis anti-viral medication which has been gaining use in the US as a preventative treatment for HIV. The drug’s use is recommended primarily to partners of those who are HIV+ but it’s also being recommended to gay men with active sex lives as an additional safeguard against HIV. I’ve been aware of Truvada for several years but since it still isn’t easily available in the UK I’ve not followed the discussion around its use or effectiveness very closely.

One of the reasons for Evan writing The PrEP Diaries was to widen the discussion about PrEP/Truvada by showing how his own use of the medication has helped dispel the paranoia he felt about HIV risks, a paranoia that had been with him since childhood. He was born in 1982, the year that AIDS first began to make headlines so he’s of a generation that has never known a time without the risk of HIV. One of the notable things about his book is the way it shows the substantial differences of experience between the gay and straight worlds, differences that persist even as legislative equality grows. Sexual risk is one of these differences, something you’re always aware of if you’re gay or bisexual but which the straight world seldom considers at all. I have a half-brother who’s a few years older than Evan, and two nephews who are a decade younger; all are straight, and I doubt that any of them have given more than a moment’s thought to the idea that sexual activity could have life-changing consequences even though viruses don’t care about your sexuality. HIV can be kept under control today yet it continues to spread, in part because the serious concerns of previous decades are no longer prevalent. You can’t go on any gay dating site without eventually seeing someone with “poz” in their name or some other indication (usually a + symbol) of their HIV status. One of the benefits of PrEP that Evan discusses is its helping people who are HIV+ to find more partners as well as protecting those partners from infection. He also emphasises something you seldom see mentioned in general discussion of HIV, that positive status doesn’t describe a single condition; some people are positive but undetectable, meaning that their viral load is extremely small.

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Weekend links 345

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Wasted Alice (2017) by Sonia Lazo.

Brian Eno: “We’ve been in decline for 40 years—Trump is a chance to rethink.” An equivocal headline, and the usual misinterpretation from the hard-of-thinking, prompted Eno to issue a clarification. More Trumpery: Jonathan Meades wonders what kind of wall “The Lout” might want to build. Related: almost all of Meades’ smart and witty television essays may be viewed at MeadesShrine (click through to Vimeo for download links).

• “Once you’ve turned entire buildings into instruments as on Medium, and then you’ve made the ionosphere itself an instrument as on Signal, where do you go next?” Emptyset discuss their forthcoming album, Borders, and a change in their working methods.

Christopher Burke & David Davis at Weird Fiction Review talk to Valancourt Books about reprinting neglected works of horror and gay fiction.

• At the BFI this week: All about Jim Jarmusch’s leading men, from Tom Waits to Bill Murray, and John Hurt (RIP): 10 essential films.

• “Claude Arnaud’s biography of Jean Cocteau shows how the artist lived a life nourished by infinity,” says Ricky D’Ambrose

Sukhdev Sandhu on John Berger: “a pathfinder who was alive to the present”.

Theodore Carter on Doll Part Art: Visual Feasts Made of Plastic Bodies.

• Count Backwards from Ten: Peter Bebergal‘s Top 10 Occult in Media.

• Books from Strange Attractor will now be distributed by MIT Press.

Eero Saarinen, the architect who saw the future.

• Mix of the week: FACT Mix 585 by Niagara.

• RIP Maggie Roche.

Hammond Song (1979) by The Roches | Losing True (1982) by The Roches | Keep On Doing What You Do / Jerks On The Loose (live, 1990) by The Roches

The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima

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This is another of those excellent television documentaries that I have imprisoned on a video tape somewhere so it was good to find on YouTube. The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (1985) was directed by Michael MacIntyre for the BBC’s Arena arts strand. This was the year that Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters was released so the documentary had some topical value even though Schrader’s film isn’t mentioned at all (something that wouldn’t happen today). MacIntyre begins as Schrader does, however, with the events of the final day of Mishima’s life on November 25th, 1970, before rewinding to present a biographical portrait of the writer/actor/director. There’s more footage than I remembered of Mishima discussing his work (in English) while John Hurt reads from Mishima’s writings. Commentary is supplied by biographer Henry Scott Stokes, translator Donald Keene, photographer Eikoh Hosoe (creator of the famous Mishima beefcake poses), director Nagisa Oshima, and Mishima’s lover Akihiro Maruyama, an actor who the credits also describe as a “female impersonator”.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Tamotsu Yato’s men with katanas
Forbidden Colours
Mishima’s Rite of Love and Death

The Disappearance, a film by Stuart Cooper

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If you’re an obsessive cineaste there’s a good chance you maintain a mental list of the films you’d like to see, the films you’d like to see again, and the films you’d like to see reissued on DVD. The vagaries of distribution and ownership often conspire to make older films fall out of sight even when they’ve been produced and promoted by major studios, have had TV screenings and so on. This was famously the case with five of Alfred Hitchcock’s features—Vertigo and Rear Window among them—which managed to remain out of circulation for two decades; more notoriously there was Stanley Kubrick’s neurotic embargo on any screening of A Clockwork Orange in the UK which meant that my generation of Kubrick-watchers had to make do with a variety of pirate VHS recordings.

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Penguin edition, 1973. Photo by Van Pariser.

DVD reissues have chipped away at my “must see again” list with the result that Stuart Cooper’s The Disappearance (1977) recently found itself at the top of the catalogue. This film has never been as inaccessible as some: it received at least two TV screenings in the UK, and was available on VHS cassette for a time. There was also a DVD release although by the time I started looking for it the only available copies were secondhand ones commanding high prices. A year or so ago I read Derek Marlowe’s Echoes of Celandine (1970), the novel on which the screenplay is based, and as a result became more eager than ever to see the film again. Having finally watched a very poor-quality transfer of a VHS copy on YouTube I now feel sated, even if the experience was unsatisfying.

The Disappearance is one of those odd productions that ought to have all the ingredients to make a very memorable film but which never works as well as you might hope. The screenplay was by Paul Mayersberg, written between his two films with Nicolas Roeg, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) and Eureka (1983); there’s a great cast: Donald Sutherland, David Warner, Peter Bowles, David Hemmings (who also produced), John Hurt, Virginia McKenna, Christopher Plummer; Kubrick’s cameraman of the 1970s, John Alcott, photographed the film shortly after winning an Oscar for his work on Barry Lyndon; the source material is very good: Marlowe’s novel is described as “a romantic thriller” but when the quality of the writing easily matches any literary novels of the period such a description makes it sound more generic and pot-boiling than it is.

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Afore Night Come by David Rudkin

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RSC programme, 1962.

Not a review, this, you can’t really review a stage play you’ve never seen. Following the re-viewing of David Rudkin’s White Lady I’ve gone back to some of the published plays. If all you know of Rudkin’s work is his television drama, the plays are instructive for showing the consistency of his themes across the years. The recent resurgence of interest in Penda’s Fen and Artemis 81 has seen Rudkin’s work included among that group of film and TV dramas that Rob Young memorably labelled Old Weird Britain (after Greil Marcus and The Old, Weird America), a loose affiliate that would include films such as The Wicker Man and Blood on Satan’s Claw, and television works by Nigel Kneale, Alan Garner (The Owl Service and Red Shift) and the MR James adaptations, one of which, The Ash Tree, was also written by Rudkin.

If the Old Weird Britain lies at an intersection between different dramatic forms—ghost story, horror story, science fiction, historical drama—then not all of Rudkin’s work would fall into the intersection, but two of the plays—The Sons of Light and his first staged work, Afore Night Come—could be coaxed into the charmed circle: The Sons of Light, with its sinister human experiments taking place underground, has ties to Artemis 81, while Afore Night Come is another piece about (intentional or otherwise) human sacrifice in rural England. I hadn’t read Afore Night Come until last week, and was struck by its similarity to John Bowen’s Robin Redbreast (1970), a more deliberately ritualistic piece of work. In its first act Afore Night Come is an almost documentary-like account of a day in the life of workers hired to pick the pear harvest in an orchard outside Birmingham; the eruption of violence in the second act is certainly foreshadowed but seems less premeditated than in Robin Redbreast, a factor which has apparently shocked many audiences. During its performances in the early 1960s the tendency was to see the play in the light of Harold Pinter and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it’s only in retrospect that a connection with more generic works emerges. There’s also a connection to White Lady via the pesticide spraying about which the workers are continually warned, and whose advent coincides with the moments of violence.

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Sight and Sound, August 2010. Illustration by Becca Thorne.

A couple of other things are worth noting: until 1968 all the plays performed in Britain were vetted by the Lord Chamberlain’s office who would routinely strike out any material deemed offensive or irreligious. Knowing this I was surprised by the recurrence of the word “fuck” in Rudkin’s script, and also the hint of same-sex attraction between two of the male characters, a detail that would usually have been removed. It seems that plays pre-1968 could be performed without censorship if the theatre was declared to be a private club for the evening (a similar state of affairs helped evade some film censorship) which is what happened with Afore Night Come in 1962. Given this, and the incident of a decapitated head being rolled across a London stage (probably the first since the Jacobeans, says Rudkin), it’s easy to see why audiences at the time might have felt assaulted, although the play still won the Evening Standard Drama Award that year. Sexual ambiguity/ambivalence or outright homosexuality have been a continual thread in Rudkin’s drama yet he’s seldom been given much credit for this pioneering work. A year after Afore Night Come there was Rudkin’s first play for television, The Stone Dance, a piece which sounds like another potential addition to the works in the Old, Weird Britain catalogue. Rudkin describes it thus:

A Revivalist pastor pitches his crusade tent within a Cornish stone circle. His repressed son becomes sexually obsessed with an outward-going local boy, and suffers a hysterical loss of speech. A storm blows the pastor’s tent away, and amid the stones, their primal purity reasserted, by the boy’s accepting touch the son is healed.

I believe that, prior to this, no tv play had overtly treated homosexual emotions as a central theme. (In Britain at this time, any gay sex could incur a prison sentence of up to two years.)

Many of the TV plays from the 1960s are now lost so there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever see this, a shame considering that Michael Hordern and John Hurt were the leads. No guarantee either that we’ll see any staging of the more interesting plays like The Sons of Light and The Triumph of Death which seem to be too eccentric for theatre directors. The scripts can at least be picked up relatively cheaply. To date there’s only Afore Night Come that seems to be revived with any regularity. Michael Billington, a long-time champion of Rudkin, reviews the Young Vic production from 2001 here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
White Lady by David Rudkin
The Horror Fields
Robin Redbreast by John Bowen
Red Shift by Alan Garner
Children of the Stones
Penda’s Fen by David Rudkin
David Rudkin on Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr