A few weeks, back Liam and I watched a biopic of Kenny Everett on BBC4. ‘Best Possible Taste’ documented cuddly Kenny’s struggle to achieve personal happiness and professional recognition. The film was cleverly narrated throughout by the pantheon of Kenny’s comic creations. Kenny and his characters were brilliantly reconstructed by Oliver Lansley, who perfected Kenny’s high camp mannerisms and anarchic style. I’d forgotten just how funny and original Kenny was, and how far he pushed the boundaries. For most of his adult life Kenny was resolutely in the closet even when it was obvious to everyone (including his long-suffering wife) that he was as bent as a nine bob note. Abstinence wasn’t his game, just denial. For very good reasons, the closet was a crowded house back then. Like all of us, Kenny was entitled to his privacy and, as far as I know, he never said anything negative about gay people (unlike some of his closeted contemporaries). He came out just before the tabloids forced him out and he did so in typical OTT style. I didn’t know Kenny but I saw him occasionally, usually at the Sunday night gay gordons at the Dog and Fox in Wimbledon Village. He was always attended by fawning acolytes, as is the way for the rich and famous.
Kenny was an irrepressible one-off whose off-script ad-libbing frequently got him got him the sack. His ill-judged appearance at a Tory Party Conference where he urged delegates to “…kick Michael Foot’s* stick away,” did him no favours but he redeemed himself by telling a very rude joke about Margaret Thatcher live on Radio 2. He was instantly dismissed for the misdemeanour. Kenny died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. He was 50. That was the same year I met John. Those who have read my book will know that he died of an AIDS-related illness in 2003. John was 36.
Today is World AIDS Day. It doesn’t get the coverage it once did. In the rich world people aren’t falling off their barstools like they used to. It was not always so. One balmy evening in the summer of 2004 I was having a drink with an old friend in the Colherne, once the grand old dame of London gay bars (now yet another trendy gastro-pub). I looked around.
“Just a load of old uglies in tonight,” I said.
“That’s because all the handsome ones are dead,” he replied.
Cruel and cutting or just a bald statement of fact? The truth is, most of the gay people I knew in my twenties are dead.
When AIDS first hit the headlines the Reagan Administration across the Pond shamefully sat on its hands (well, it was divine retribution on fags and smack-heads after all) until it became blindingly obvious that, unlike Reagan, the Lord’s wrath wasn’t the least bit discriminating. Ironically, given the Thatcher Government’s abysmal record on minority rights, it was the Tories who chucked money at the problem – into research, awareness and care. From the mid-Eighties right through to the late Noughties, Britain had some of the best services for people with HIV and AIDS to be found anywhere in the world. These days, HIV is something you live with not die from (unless you have the misfortune to be born in much of Africa, but that’s another depressing story). But, AIDS is still with us, stalking the bars and the chat rooms. There is no cure, no vaccine – maybe one day but not yet. It pains me to see young people playing Russian roulette through some misguided notion that AIDS is an old queen’s disease or thinking that if they do get it, a pill a day will keep the Grim Reaper at bay. This is no way to think or to live. Heed the advice of an old pro who ducked the Reaper’s scythe by the skin of his teeth. Pick up the condoms that are still freely available in gay bars . Go dressed to the party. It may save your life.
*Michael Foot was the Leader of the Labour Party at the time and used a stick to help him walk.