By the beginning of 1987, Jonathan Grimshaw had established himself as the UK’s most visible HIV-positive man. He looked striking: He was 32, bald and he often wore a bow-tie. He spoke eloquently about a terrible disease, something he’d been diagnosed with soon after the tests became available at the end of 1984. With no specific treatments, his prognosis was not good, but he believed his best chances of survival lay within the realms of activism, honesty and education. So he wasn’t at all surprised one day to be seated on a sofa for an explicit live television program with agony aunt Claire Rayner.
It was National AIDS Week, the first of its kind, and all the channels had given up airtime to support the government’s unprecedented public health campaign. Everywhere one looked, there was a nervous health minister explaining that we were all at risk and how best to protect ourselves. In the ad breaks, there were images of icebergs and tombstones and the voice of John Hurt imploring us not to die of ignorance. And as the UK sat down to dinner, it was greeted with the sight of an agony aunt with a condom in one hand and something else in the other.
“She had been sent a very peculiarly shaped wooden phallus by a fan,” Grimshaw recalls, “and she was trying to get this condom on to this very fat phallus. First take, she couldn’t get it on. KY all over the place. She had this blouse which she was getting black marks on because of the KY. Second take, she couldn’t get it on. Third take, she finally forced the condom down on this wooden monstrosity.”
Claire Rayner, alas, is no longer with us. And nor are almost all of Jonathan Grimshaw’s friends from that time. But at the age of 56, Grimshaw is still in fairly good health, one of the UK’s longest-surviving, HIV-positive men. After a period of retirement, he is once again engaged with HIV work and, as we approach the 30th anniversary of the first AIDS case in the UK, he finds himself reflecting with a mixture of sadness and wonderment.
‘DON’T LOOK BACK’
“It’s so horrific looking back. I don’t look back very often. It’s hard to conceive that it was actually all happening — you’d get phone calls to say, ‘So and so is ill,’ and it wasn’t that they were ill — they were dying. And you would see them dying. Over the course of a couple of years, you would see them wasting away, you’d go to see them in hospital and you’d go to their funerals,” Grimshaw says.
“And it was one after another. I don’t know how we did it. Most of the people I knew, most of my friends, died. I was talking to another friend of mine recently who’s also got HIV, and who’s also one of us long-term survivors, and he said that although we’re well and there are treatments, there isn’t a single day that goes by without you having been affected by it.” He laughs, as he often does, as a release. “That’s all I can say about it really.”
But of course there is more. Grimshaw lives with his long-term partner in an elegant, 18th century, beamed house in Tunbridge Wells, southeast England. He says that he first became fully aware of HIV the same way many Britons did — by watching a 1983 BBC Horizon program about the epidemic in New York. He had lived in New York a few years before and not long after his return to London he began to see stories about a mystery illness in the newspaper Capital Gay. “But I didn’t know anyone personally affected by it. It seemed to be in America, remote, and it didn’t seem like anything that was going to affect me very much.”