A very important, powerful and detailed account of the early years of the AIDS epidemic, with a focus on how the British authorities dealt with it (or didn’t, as the case may be). First published in 1994 and re-issued in the wake of the TV series It’s A Sin – which was created by Russell T Davies, who re-read it before writing the show and who contributes the foreword here – this is quite a different kind of book to Garfield’s later work, such as Mauve, In Miniature and Timekeepers.
The main part of the book is a generally chronological narrative from the first warnings of a mysterious illness which was said to only affect gay men and which no one knew anything about, right up to the latest medical research and social attitudes in 1994. In some respects it’s out of date and you wouldn’t read it for current information. As a political history and as a resource for what things were like back then, it’s extremely impressive. Although there are some personal stories which are very moving, the focus is on the wider picture. Politicians, scientists, high-profile media personalities, religious leaders, advertising executives and heads of charities are interviewed. No subject is left uncovered where HIV and AIDS in Britain is concerned. The contaminated blood scandal, the concept of needle exchanges, the problem in prisons, the difficulty of communicating the message of safer sex to various groups, the attitude of the church, the media’s role in promoting homophobia, Princess Diana’s passion for meeting and helping people with AIDS, the use and misuse of the red ribbon symbol… there is a huge amount packed into this book.
The second part of the book is the ‘journal of a plague year’, in which the author records the events relating to HIV and AIDS which he attends from 1993-4. This includes meeting (and then attending the funeral of) Derek Jarman, talking to Tom Hanks (who had recently starred in Philadelphia), attending a conference on condom standards and following the trial of a man who knowingly infected women with HIV. There is an extensive afterword to the book from 2021, in which Simon Garfield gives some background to the book’s existence and tells us about the advancements in both medical treatment and social policy which mean that in Britain at least, people who are HIV positive can expect to have long lives which are free from discrimination. Inevitably some mention of the Covid pandemic had to be made and I have to admit that I found some disturbing parallels between the two, which are beyond the scope of a book review. There are copious notes for every chapter, an index and a small number of images.
The only aspect of the book which made it less accessible for me were the statistics-heavy sections and many tables, which would be useful for researchers but don’t contribute to a readable narrative.
In summary, this is one of the most impressive non-fiction books I’ve read. It’s not easy going or packed full of personal stories but I’d recommend it if you want detailed information on the background to It’s A Sin.
First published in 1994 by Faber and Faber, re-issued on 1st December 2021 (World AIDS Day).