This week I followed the leadership of that extraordinary Japanese home organizer Marie Kondo, by cleaning out my father’s extensive library, papers and records, dating mostly back from the 1960s (although we found one from the 1350s). My father is recovering admirably from a stroke in February 2018, and is very much alive thank you. But the piles of bags and boxes that litter the path to his bed are themselves a death trap, and this week’s task was to eliminate them as a threat.
It is one of the few occasions where I can express real gratitude to Her Majesty’s Government, as most of his personal records refer from his career at MI6’ Joint Air Reconaissance Intelligence Centre are stored elsewhere and thankfully are thus unavailable.
As an air reconnaissance intelligence specialist, he has many well-thumbed technical books describing the shapes and specifications of Soviet, Chinese and American planes and helicopters (for no apparent reason a particularly well-thumbed edition of Jaynes, property of the UK Embassy in Laos in 1966, opens on a description of a Soviet helicopter personnel carrier, with many notes, not all apparently his). He holds extensive professional histories of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Services from between the end of World War 1 and the start of the 1980s. Our family “is not at liberty to know” what minor role, if any, he played in the gentle outing of the last of the so-called “Cambridge Spies” sometime between the late sixties and eighties. As we all quote, from the original House of Cards, “You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment”. At School, I never understood what he “did.” My Maths teacher, Lieutenant Commander Owen demanded the information from me once, and I replied, in all sincerity, “I think he paints the Cliffs of Dover white.” Later, whatever views he may have had about Cambridge, they bore no bearing on his upmost support for my application to Cambridge. University, and to everyone’s surprise I gained entry to Churchill College, which prides itself on being an MIT in the fells. Mathematics and I barely maintain the most distant of relationships.
This week we relentlessly discarded hundreds, maybe thousands, of empty A5-sized brown sliced-open envelopes and experienced horror at unearthing car financing agreements with Vauxhall motors for one new car, and then another, and then another. We unearthed meticulously stored banking records from “Midland Bank” (which was taken over by HSBC at some point in the lunacy of the Thatcher era).
Feeling extreme irritation was pointless, so I relaxed and welcomed every exclaimation of “let’s not throw that away. I cannot think of what one might do with it (“It” being a drill bit, a small circle of architect’s tape, or the plastic contexts of a McDonald’s Happy Meal kit) but you never know!”
Back home in California, I have twelve boxes of personal papers and illegible notes from my time in the AIDS response. They include unfathomable long faxes from former bosses, faxed from Africa or China, and the boss becomes increasingly incensed, referring explicity to previous instructions in a previous draft some of which may or may not have reached headquarters in central Europe. Depending on the vagaries of early 21st century connection.
My papers include my own notes on a very stressful early 2000s UNAIDS Program Coordinating Board session to develop a common HIV prevention rights and policy program for the Joint UN Program. I now see that was a pointless exercise, but one interesting features is the way in which two large countries that had formerly been superpower-opponents took inept shots at each other, and how masterfully they were avoided by the then Head of the Brazilian Delegation, and on whose team I had been commandeered onto.
In my boxes I also store my notes on the UNAIDS “Three In One” successful negotiations. The “Three Ones” – one national authority, one national plan, one monitoring and evaluating strategy” did not have the purpose or glamour of the WHO’s “Three By Five” (Three million people on HIV treatment by 2005), but the need for such coordination remains relevant. I played a visible role in the development of “Three Ones” having had the benefit of two strong British internationalist guiding hands, the late Julia Cleves (who I miss sorely and daily), and Robyn Gorna, who is still very much alive and making waves in the sexual and reproductive rights movement.
I know some people have found ingenious ways to record their lives – one dear friend I know peels the labels off wine bottles at dinners, the venues where they do most of their productive business. Yet another keeps the list of people at conferences or meetings they slept with, or as we would say in the modern vernacular “hooked up with.”
Alack, the same is not true for me. Certainly, I tend to disappear early from evening meetings and parties. In recent years, I haven’t had the energy to keep going much beyond 8pm regardless of the time zone we find ourselves. In previous years, the hours between 9 and 11pm became my time to reflect and grieve for the people we had lost to the epidemic either recently, and who could not come to that particularly conference, or who were much in my mind at that particular moment. And I would also experience shame and fear at my incapacity of being intimate with any other the beautiful, inspiring people around me.
It is no doubt apocryphal, but I had heard that one of my nicknames of the time was “Ice Queen”, which would, in some ways, be rather amusing and appropriate
Which brings us back to the sparkling of joy. While I was in the UK, my partner, meanwhile, was attending a funeral in Northern California for his aunt who had reached a ripe of age of around 90. He had collated photographic and video footage of his aunt and the lives of his Filipino American family as they relocated to California and began building their American dream. I said to him, and he will disapprove, but I strongly suggested that he and his brother create a documentary narrative to demonstrate an inspiring and joyful journey of an immigrant family establishing itself in the USA. It is the story of our country’s future.
The Plumleys are doing something different. In the late seventies and early eighties, I was not aware of video technology existing, let alone our having access to it. And we were not creating. Rather, whether consciously or not, we were signing out of a way of life that had briefly brought a small island on the northwest corner of Europe to global prominence. And then, from England, from Australia, from South Africa and from what is now Zimbabwe (I refuse to say its former name) we began de-constructing ourselves into our constituent parts. Maybe the 1 million person march and the 4 million person petition opposing Brexit mark the end of something. Perhaps they also mark the start of something new. To become part of the next exciting thing - Like what is happening 20 miles across La Manche.