At the height of the Aids epidemic in the 1980s, the management and staff of the Terrence Higgins Trust, now Britain’s leading HIV and sexual health charity, met to agree a new HR policy: how many funerals it was acceptable for employees to attend in work time – and how many had to be taken as leave.
“Every year between 1985 and 1997, at least one of our trustees would get sick and die – and then so would our volunteers,” says Sir Nick Partridge OBE, chief executive of the THT. “That creates a tremendous pressure, but it also forms the bedrock of our understanding of the epidemic and our determination to make a difference. It both drives what you do, but is also very challenging.”
It was out of these twin pressures – the trauma of seeing friends dying and the need to do something about it – that the Terrence Higgins Trust was formally established in 1983. Partridge joined in 1985 as one of only two full-time workers addressing the impact of HIV/Aids in the country. At that time the headlines screamed of a new disease – the “Gay Plague” – and a new, anti-gay morality was emerging. “The levels of fear, stigma and discrimination were enormous,” Partridge says when we meet in his terraced house in south London.
The impact of Aids on a generation of gay men cannot be underestimated. Talking to several HIV/Aids activists before meeting with Partridge, the refrain “we went to so many funerals” was a common one. And it remains a global problem. Worldwide, more than 34m people live with HIV, more than a million of whom die from Aids each year. In 2011 alone, there were an additional 2.5m new HIV infections. But while these figures seem bleak, since 2001 the transmission rate has been decreasing, particularly in Asia and Africa.
A turning point came with the advent of effective antiretroviral therapy in the late 1990s, which saw HIV/Aids move from being a death sentence to a chronic life-long infection. “If effective treatment had not come along in 1996-97, then I would not be doing this role now,” Partridge says. “I couldn’t have continued to cope with the level of illness and death.”
Partridge’s house, a modest two-up, two-down terrace that has gained an extra floor thanks to a loft conversion, became a place to breathe, free from the trauma of the job and the times. He bought the house jointly with a friend in 1988, and now lives there with his partner of 27 years, a counselling psychologist. “I knew that the house needed to be a place of safety, a place of sanctuary away from a very busy and very controversial life.”
Inside, the house does have a Zen-like calm to it, helped by the spotless carpets and the light streaming in through the front bay window and the glass door to the small rear garden. I am sure Partridge has tidied up in advance of our visit, but the house is almost unnervingly neat – not a book or a cushion out of place, somewhat in contrast to the street in which it sits.
The south London district of Peckham is often referred to as “up-and-coming”, a common estate agent’s euphemism for “still a bit dodgy”. In fact, the street on which Partridge lives – which comprises two rows of slightly dilapidated Victorian terraced houses – causes both myself and the photographer to wonder whether we’d come to the right address. But Partridge wouldn’t change a thing.
“I know my butcher, my fishmonger, my greengrocer, and I know my vintner. It is a proper little village,” he says. “It is a wonderfully diverse and mixed area racially, and there are a great number of artists living here. Every year there are two Artists’ Open House weekends [as part of the annual Dulwich Festival] where you can do exactly what you’re doing here – nose around people’s houses – and buy some art.”
I take my cue to ask Partridge about the art hanging on his walls. We start with YBA controversialist Marc Quinn, drift past Turner Prize nominee Mark Titchner and stop at his favourite: 1980s pop artist Keith Haring. Most of the art – “these are all prints, of course”, Partridge shrugs – which also includes Beryl Cook, Chris Ofili and Maggi Hambling – has been bought at charity auctions for the Terrence Higgins Trust.
The British artist Tracey Emin has acted as auctioneer at the THT Christie’s auction for many years. “She has been the most wonderful supporter of the THT for many years. She has been incredibly generous, both with her art, but also in terms of speaking out about HIV and Aids and sexual health.” Partridge owns one of her prints, which hangs in the newly built “posh shed” at the end of the garden, which he and his partner had built 18 months ago to serve as a study.
We return to the house, and the subject of one of the current THT campaigns – THIVK (or Think HIV) – which encourages proactive testing. “It is targeted at those most at risk,” Partridge explains. “The dilemma we face is that there just isn’t the money to do big campaigns for the whole general public.”
The incidence of HIV transmission in gay men in the UK has remained stubbornly static at about 2,300-2,400 a year between 2001 and 2010, according to the Health Protection Agency, leading many to question whether the THT’s message is actually working.
Matthew Todd, editor of UK gay magazine Attitude, writing in the Guardian, said: “These figures cannot be seen as anything but a failure for all of us – including the trust. Perhaps nervous of raising bloody murder with the government, which provides the lion’s share of its funding, the trust is not talking loudly enough about the damaging ways that many of us – including myself – often live our lives.”
Others are blunter. One HIV/Aids activist called the current THIVK campaign “terrible – and what’s worse, I think they know it’s terrible”. Partridge, however, is keen to stress the trust is focusing on drink and drug issues among the gay community – and that the broader message is working. He cites research from the HPA and UCL that showed consistent condom use by gay men has prevented more than 80,000 new HIV infections between 2000 and 2010.
We skirt around the controversy and wander up to the first floor, pausing to admire Hambling’s drawing of Derek Jarman, the film-maker and artist who died in 1994. “He was an extraordinary man,” Partridge says simply. Jarman was another one lost to Aids.
“Too many of us were getting sick and dying, but even more of us were actually doing something about it.” HIV/Aids politicised a generation of gay men and women. “That laid the foundations for the response to Section 28 [which prohibited local authorities from promoting homosexuality] and all of the wonderful law reform that has led, pretty much, to equality under the law and the huge change in social attitudes.”
Ultimately, it has also determined Partridge’s own course into the mainstream, serving as a commissioner on the Healthcare Commission, an independent body that reviews the quality of healthcare in the UK. You’ve already been knighted, I say. At some point could we see Lord Partridge advising the government on healthcare issues?
“Ha ha!” he laughs. “I have no idea, but I would be immensely flattered and would think about it very carefully.” And while he is reluctant to talk about leaving the THT, Partridge – a youthful 57 – is keen to ensure when he does move on that he still retains enough energy. “It has been very, very intense,” he says. “I’ve seen so many people who work through to 65, stop and then have a stroke or a heart attack. I really want to avoid that. I have far too much I want to see and do.”
“I knew Keith [Haring] and each time he came to London in the late 1980s he would come to the Terrence Higgins Trust. I have two pieces by him. This one [pictured above, right] – I just love its swoosh and its optimism and its brightness. The other Haring I own is from his Apocalypse series. My other favourite thing would have to be Ferdinand the Bull (1942) by Arnold Machin, which was one of my parents’ wedding presents, and is postwar Wedgwood.”
The Terrence Higgins Trust’s 30th anniversary auction will be held at Christie’s, 8 King Street, London SW1, on March 21 More details at ww.tht.org.uk/auction