Monday, January 26, 2009


I planned this to be an occasional blog i.e. a posting frequency of once a week roughly. But here I am putting up two posts on the same day. But yesterday I got word of the death of Colin Griffiths in Newcastle. I’d been emailed the night before that Colin was in hospital and not expected to live very long.

Where to begin with Colin? Maybe right at the very beginning. I don’t think Colin or I ever worked out when or where we first met. We had too many overlapping circles of friends, which was a fact of Brisbane gay life and a fact consequently of the Brisbane HIV/AIDS ‘community’ in those days. But one thing Colin and I worked out pretty quickly was that we were astro twins, born the same day, same year, same city – Sydney 5/7/1952. I had a pretty good idea of when I was born – my birth, it turns out, was a bit of a medical emergency and so my father remembered the nurses saying the time I was born when he went in to the hospital to visit Mum. However Colin only knew that he was born around lunchtime. His father remembered getting the word when he came home for lunch. I ran up a chart for him on for the time 12.10pm. I’m not into rectifications and the time was sort of a compromise based on Colin’s recollections of what his father had told him but the chart seemed to make some sense. But I guess the interesting thing about astro twins is we represented to each other different possibilities of what our lives might have been given that birth, our own birth, is something over which we humans have no control whatsoever. But while we might represent different possibilities to each other we also had some uncanny instances of parallel tracking. I remember still to this day when we were first alerted to this fact. I can’t quite remember the year, 1989 or 1990. I was then working for the AIDS Council and Colin worked for the Injectors AIDS organisation, QuIVAA. We both went to a meeting in Qld Health, it might have been a World AIDS Day planning meeting or maybe a meeting re the non-English language speakers national AIDS campaign that the federal gov’t launched in 1989. But anyway Colin and I turned up at the meeting wearing exactly the same shirt. We were also wearing blue jeans and sneakers. Jeans and sneakers were fairly standard dress in the community sector and while jeans come in a variety of colours blue is pretty standard. But the same shirt! Everyone commented on it as did we ourselves who had a bit of a giggle about it. Neither of us knew we had that shirt – think I might have bought mine not long before. I don’t know when Colin bought his.

In 1996, Colin moved into the house I was living in, in Brisbane’s West End. The house belonged to Stephen Brown who had also worked in the AIDS Council in those days and was studying social work at Uni of Qld. Both Steven and I had started our doctorates. Colin, Steven and I lived together in that house until late 2003 when Colin moved to Newcastle. By that stage Steven had dropped out of his doctorate and was back working at the AIDS Council. The following year major funding changes meant the end of QuAC as we knew it to be rejigged in ’05 as a community based health promotion organisation, Qld Association of Healthy Communities (also pronounced quack). Steven took the change as an opportunity for ‘early retirement’ (he was younger than me) to be partly financed by selling the house. In retirement, he would live between Pattaya, Thailand and Brisbane. It was in Thailand, two years ago that Steven died suddenly of a stroke, pretty much on this day or the day after. So it is quite uncanny that Colin, whose health had been deteriorating markedly over the last year, should die at this time. It’s also very strange to realise that the two people with whom I lived for 7-8 years are now both dead.

So I’m thinking about Colin and thinking about Steven and thinking about death. Curiously next month will mark 24 years since my first experience of a friend dying from AIDS. It will also be three years since the death of an old ex of mine in Wagga, also from HIV disease (it seems Marc could not respond to the treatments cocktail being given to him – but given that his sister had died in the year before, reopening all manner of family wounds I suspect he might have died of grief). Like most gay men my age, I got used to the ways of death and funerals a long time ago. What was strange for me was the lull that occurred from the late 90s onwards with the kicking in of the new treatment regimes. But the last four years have been marked by a rising tide of deaths and funerals, the only difference being that most are now not HIV related.

I prayed for Colin this morning and will pray for him over the coming days. For some time now as part of my spiritual practice I pray for those who’ve died. It’s a very Catholic thing to do – also very Buddhist, especially for those in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. I remember a film I saw many years ago in my AIDS Council days. I can’t remember the name – maybe it was Longtime Companion? – but it was about the pandemic and it’s impact on a community of gay men in New York in the 80s. There’s a beach, probably at Fire Island, that recurs throughout the film. Early on it’s a place of much gay abandon – the favourite summer haunt of these New York queens. The final scene, which stays with me still, is set on the beach. A couple of surviving characters are on the beach talking about the last few years remembering all those who have died. All of sudden great crowds of people surge onto the beach. They are all the dead, and the living, back together in an amazing moment of gay eschatology, recapitulation, reconciliation. It reminded me of the final chapter in D M Thomas’s White Hotel, itself a remarkable evocation of life, life within death, life beyond death. Following the bayonet rape/death of the main character at Babi Yar in the previous chapter, this chapter opens with the arrivals of all these trainloads of people, including Lisa, the main character, at the end of their journey of 'resettlement in the east', in a dreamscape Palestine beyond, which is rapidly filling with all manner of folk as the massacres of World War 2 progress. And while the initial arrivals are Jewish this Palestine is a place open to all and hence not marked out by borders and fences, not owned/claimed by anyone.

The German Marxist philosopher, Ernst Bloch, asked how can we live when the Revolution comes knowing how many countless generations did not make it to the new age of justice and freedom. How can one live in the new age knowing that it rests on the bones of the countless dead? An AIDS musical from the 80s ends with Vaccine Day celebrating the eventual end of the reign of HIV. But what of those who never made it? A Russian theologian/philosopher, from the 19th century I think or maybe early 20th century (his essay is in an anthology on Russian spirituality, which I might have packed away but even if not, I’m housesitting and so don’t have access to my books), wrote that the only task of Christians is to raise the dead. He doesn’t actually say what he means by that, at least not in any sort of logical, rational way. His essay is mystical, poetic. Intuitively, poetically, I know what he means but to put it in dry mundane speech is not possible. At best I can only say – to raise the dead means to remember them, to value them, to live and hope for a time of recapitulation, reconciliation, restoration. Vaccine Day, the Revolution can only be fully realised if the dead themselves somehow share in that moment.

One text that turns up frequently on ancient lists of New Testament texts is the Apocalypse of Peter. If people think the Book of Revelation is scary (I don’t, actually) then they should read the Apocalypse of Peter. It’s really nasty stuff. But in my readings of and around this text I stumbled across a reference to a scholar (whose name escapes me now) who argued that despite its horrors, the Apocalypse of Peter originally included the notion that at the last judgment those who are consigned to damnation are saved by the prayers of the saints (i.e. Christians) that indeed those saints will be praying for all those others, that it is a natural thing for saints to do. The idea is definitely found in the 2nd century Epistle of the Apostles and also in the Christian Sybillene books. And I wonder if such thinking lies behind eastern and western catholic traditions of praying to the saints, especially the Virgin Mary, and asking them to pray for us. And does such thinking lie behind the extraordinary medieval accounts of how Mary saves so many reprobates (read ordinary people trying to get through life in all its day to day fucked-up-ness) who have kept up praying to her despite all else? (Some of these stories are quite delightful and would make the fire and brimstone set wince) In other words, far back in the Christian tradition there seems to be the notion of a universal reconciliation and restoration. I should add that in 2 Enoch, at the last judgment all the animals are there to give testimony on human behaviour, to call humans to account. In other words it’s not just humans who are included in the new era of the eschaton. For those who don’t know it, 2 Enoch is part of a whole library of ancient Jewish literature that was only preserved by Christians (in 2 Enoch’s case, Slavonic Christians).

And so Catholics pray for the dead. We pray in part because we recognise we are part of a community that transcends time and space including the walls of death. (That is why Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic churches are adorned with images icons paintings statues of the saints – to acknowledge and affirm that community) We pray for the living and we pray for the dead and (the hope) the dead pray for us too. It is part of what it means to work together, to help each other, to support each other. It is part of justice making, of community making, of what in Judaism is known as tikkun olam, the spiritual repair of the world, a repair that comes through, to coin a term of Peter Kropotkin, mutual aid. Mutual aid is the mark of the Revolution, of Vaccine Day. It’s how the Revolution is waged. It’s how to raise the dead.

And so I pray for Colin and I hope he’s saying a prayer for me. And I look forward to catching up with him sometime, somehow, perhaps on a beach, or a beachside terrace. We can share a few camparis and soda and some joints (my stash runneth over). And he’ll laugh and say ‘it was a bit fucked up sometimes but we did it fine’. (And I hope, even though he didn’t like parties, that Steven will come along for a drink too).

Solidarity forever!

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