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New podcast about living with HIV is a memorial to a tragic past

It is 40 years since the first known cases of HIV were identified in the UK — or, as it was known then, “Gay-related Immune Deficiency”. In We Were Always Here, from Broccoli Productions, the 52-year-old health campaigner Marc Thompson recalls the early days of the Aids crisis in London and hears from those who were most affected by it. “This isn’t the definitive history of the UK HIV epidemic, but it’s our history,” he says. “Moments from our lives that defined the epidemic for us.”

Underpinning the series are Thompson’s own experiences as a young gay black man in the 1980s. At first he was in denial: Aids was something “that happened to rich, white gay men. Not men like me or anybody in my community.” Thompson was diagnosed with HIV at the age of 17, having been tested only because his friends were doing the same. “And I just remember silence,” he says. “The thing about shock is everything just goes quiet. I don’t recall asking [the doctor] if he’s sure. I didn’t cry. I was just absolutely stone-cold stunned.”

He compares learning he had the virus with looking through a kaleidoscope where the colours and shapes have suddenly changed. At first he went out and danced; fun became a means of survival “because I didn’t know when that life was going to be taken away from me”. As the virus spread, he would hear of friends becoming ill or having died, news that arrived as “little pinpricks in the fabric around you”. He recalls the defiant manner in which he came out to his mother at 15, a contrast to the devastation of telling her he had HIV two years later.

Thompson also hears from others living with HIV, in particular those whose voices have long been overlooked, among them trans people, sex workers and people of colour. The latest episode examines the public health campaign in the UK that saw leaflets delivered to every home telling people “Don’t die of ignorance”, and TV adverts that showed a falling tombstone.

In his introduction, Thompson calls himself an activist but the focus here is less on ideology than individuals. Swathed in elegant yet unobtrusive soundscapes, these stories are vividly and poignantly told. Given the subject matter, the podcast could have been unassailably bleak but, as well as reporting on the suffering, it conveys the love and camaraderie among embattled communities. HIV treatments have evolved and a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. As such, We Were Always Here acts as a memorial to a tragic past while underlining how much has changed.

In the US, an airline steward called Gaetan Dugas was named as “Patient Zero” during the Aids epidemic, though the Radiolab episode “The Cell That Started a Pandemic” tells a startlingly different tale about the origins of the virus. It’s a story that takes listeners to a colony of chimpanzees in south-eastern Cameroon in 1908.

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