Memories can’t wait

Harry Hillery talks about his Brighton AIDS Memorial
project and the need to keep the light shining

In Brighton on World AIDS Day, many of us huddle together at the vigil in New Steine Gardens to “hear the voices of dead friends.” 

Two hundred souls claimed by the virus are remembered as their names are read, one after another. When I hear my friend Andrea’s name, memories flicker like the candle cradled in my hand, but what settles in my mind is the smile of the bright-eyed Brazilian florist who made me laugh every day. For me, it’s important that my thoughts linger on his life and exuberance, however short, before the disease choked the life from his lungs on an AIDS ward. I remember many of the people whose names are read at the vigil, but there are fewer faces I recognise in the crowd each passing year. 

Brighton has always been a transient place, an oasis many use to find their queer identity before moving on. Sometimes I worry I might be the only person left in the crowd of candles who remembers Andrea (pictured in 1989), and it saddens me to think all that might eventually remain of him and the other souls, are names forever bound to a virus and death. 

In 1989 I trained as a volunteer at the Sussex AIDS Centre and Helpline to help, but also to learn about the disease and stay alive. The Brighton area was hit hard by AIDS and due to the age and number of victims, many likened the experience to being in a war. When I opened the Evening Argus and read the hate or walked up St. James’s Street and saw GAY – GOT AIDS YET sprayed on a wall, it definitely felt like we were under attack and losing. But as writer and activist Neil Bartlett once reminded me, using war as a metaphor for AIDS is dangerous because it suggests an end. World War One stopped at 11 o’clock on the 11 November 1918 with an armistice, but HIV, AIDS and the stigma that surrounds it continues still. So many died, but so little remains to tell the story, just ghosts, shadows and a few buildings turned into more luxury flats. 

I created the Brighton AIDS Memorial collection to record stories, capture memories and trap the light before it disappears. Any remembrance must acknowledge the horror and the pain, but must also celebrate those we lost and provide a cathartic release. My journey has unearthed so much already, but I know there’s so much more that needs to be curated, archived and made accessible for future generations. My aim has always been to create a safe home for remembrance, recognise the queer heroes, trailblazers and organisations, and bring together all the photos, writing and ephemera in one place. 

So please take a look in those shoe boxes under the bed, open the scrapbooks and photo albums and help me build the collection. Or if you have a story to tell or someone to remember please get in touch and let the light back in.

The Brighton AIDS Memorial collection can be found on Instagram (thebrightonaidsmemorial) and 

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