In praise of older books: And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts (1987)

Week 7: Julie Parsons reflects on her favourite books: here, a magnificent work that charts the Aids epidemic

Randy Shilts attends the screening of The Band Played On on August 31st, 1993 at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills, California. Photograph: Ron Galella /WireImage

Randy Shilts attends the screening of The Band Played On on August 31st, 1993 at the Academy Theater in Beverly Hills, California. Photograph: Ron Galella /WireImage

 

It started one morning on the Gay Byrne Show, RTÉ Radio One’s flagship programme. It was October 1981. Dr Austin Darragh had come into the studio for his weekly medical slot with Gay. In the course of the discussion he mentioned a new illness which was occurring among New York’s homosexuals. It was a skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. This, Dr Darragh said, was “nature’s reaction” to something unnatural, a commonly held view of the time. But the genie was out of the bottle. What would come to be known as Aids was at last being talked about.

1981. In the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Dr Sandy Ford was surprised by sudden requests for a drug called Pentamidine. It was used to treat a rare form of pneumonia, pneumocysti carinii. This pneumonia was usually only found in patients such as children with leukaemia, whose immune system was compromised. But the requests for the drug weren’t saying why it was needed; just that it was.

Randy Shilts’s magnificent book charts the rise and rise of Aids. It traces its inexorable journey from central Africa to America. It documents the initial apathy about this strange new illness which sapped the body of its ability to fight, leaving it open to all kinds of life-threatening conditions. It’s written like the best kind of thriller, detail upon detail, collecting clues, revealing apparently forgotten connections, documenting the assembly of evidence.

But it’s not just about doctors, scientists and politicians. It tells the personal stories too. Men who had only just come to terms with their sexuality. Who were beginning to live their lives openly and without fear. But who now had something else to fear, something which many people felt they deserved. It was called the gay plague and it hung over the gay world like a terrifying black cloud.

It’s hard to understand now, when HIV/Aids is an illness which can be controlled if not cured, when men and women, gay and heterosexual, can live a “normal” life with it. We know you don’t catch it from shaking hands or sharing a seat on a bus. We didn’t know that then. And The Band Played On, written from the front line in 1987, without the cool distancing of hindsight, is a salutary reminder of a time which, for now, has passed.

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