Part 2 of David Graham Scott’s harrowing portrayal of
a junkie’s life on the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland’s
capital city and in 1985, known as the ‘AIDS CAPITAL OF
Written by David Graham Scott (pic above – back in the day…)
(part one is the blog below this)
The only reason people went to ‘The City Hospital for Infectious Diseases’ was essentially for their methadone and free needles which at the time were very hard to come by. It was the carrot they dangled in front of us in order to encourage all the city’s junkies to attend, and thereby get tested for HIV/AIDS.
So data could get collected, clumsy attempts at healthcare would be given to all those with a positive result, and then we would all leave clutching leaflets about safer injecting together with possibly the first needle and syringe packs in Scotland.
This methadone and HIV testing clinic was really isolated from the main hub of Edinburgh city and was surrounded by vast woodlands.
To get there we would have to board a public bus that took us towards the hospital which we shared with housewives heading back to their genteel homes in the wealthy southern suburbs of Edinburgh. Each time they disembarked they would glance back at those of us left on the bus; the dregs of humanity, and everyone knew exactly where we were going; The Infectious Diseases Clinic at The City Hospital.
As the bus drove us further down the narrow meandering roads towards the clinic itself, it only seemed to exacerbate our sense of alienation and fear, heading towards ‘that clinic’.
There was an incredibly deep climate of fear at this time which is hard to fully explain today. It was 1985, the height of the HIV/AIDS ‘panic’. People may remember the time, and God knows we all remember it was confusing and frightening enough, but actually living within it, being terrorised by the label AIDS JUNKIE in your own community, there really are few words to describe what living through that time was like.
There were two ostracised communities (gay men and IV drug users) and sadly in those days neither group managed to find common ground with the other, such was the fear , ignorance and stigma from all those involved. People stuck tightly to what they knew.
A Slow Death by Newsnight
By early 1986, my girlfriend and I were asked if we wanted to appear on Newsnight to talk about being an injecting drug user in Edinburgh. Newsnight is the well respected current affairs programme which was (and still is) broadcast across the UK. The journalists involved offered us money, a paltry (but useful) £50 each to basically sell our souls to the ignorant masses. To be fair, the money wasn’t the reason we did it, it merely sealed the deal, both of us being broke and on heroin.
Naturally, we got totally stitched up. They edited the show to make us look irresponsible as they could. The idea was not to expose our status either way, but just to talk about the reality of life for drug users confronting the spectre of HIV/AIDS in Edinburgh.
However, the whole thing rapidly turned into a nightmare that had immense repercussions for us for months and years to come.
My girlfriend’s ex boyfriend was also appearing on the show, claiming to be the man who brought ‘AIDS’ to Scotland from Canada. He had kind of given up on himself I think, and although a very talented guitarist and session musician known by many major bands of the time, I think he ultimately felt jealous and lonely. It felt like his exposure on Newsnight was designed to draw my girlfriend and I into his own private hell. He knew he was dying…
We thought we were just trying to explain to viewers what was going on in Edinburgh among drug users, however pointed questioning from the journalist, who, looked from their body language to be quite fearful and disgusted by these three Scottish junkies sitting before them, soon had us saying things we didn’t set out to say.
True to the Style of Jeremy Kyle…*
My girlfriend soon began to respond to her ex boyfriend’s issues goaded by the journalist, which meant she began feeling the need to explain her own positive status, something neither of us anticipated. I was negative but it didn’t matter. We had ‘AIDS by default’ of being junkies.
Today, I am a documentary filmmaker and as such, as I sit here and reflect back as I have done many times over the years, I know we were manipulated in an irresponsible, careless and insidious manner. Christ we were only 20 and 22 years old!
As for repercussions, they were horrific. We were both abused and spat at in the street regularly. The local police always gave us a hard time and because we lived around the corner from the local police station, regularly we would get a battering ram smashing through our door and our flat turned upside down for no reason. We were on prescription methadone and they never found anything. It was shameful.
It was a different era. We were vilified by the public. Even though I didn’t have HIV, I was positive just by association. When I went back to my family’s home in the highlands I was quickly approached by the local environmental health officer and rudely advised not to have sex with any women in town and it would be a good idea if I left town as soon as possible.
Even years later I was arrested on a trumped up charge when i returned home again, kept in jail overnight and later told that the cell was literally fumigated after I left. Completely unbelievable.
I haven’t put in to this story some of the worst things that happened to us because it is just to difficult to talk about and I don’t want to drag things up especially for my ex girlfriend who is happily still well and is really getting on with her life.
I think now in my life as a documentary film maker I continue to try and write the wrongs of that kind of shoddy, sensationalist journalism by trying to be as sensitive as I can and letting the person feel comfortable enough to talk freely but never to feel that false sense of security that people can do when they let their guard down. It is a big responsibility and I know personally how it feels to be completely exploited and to suffer the repercussions when one goes back into their community.
It was a terrible time for so many of us back then. So many deaths, so much fear, so much gossip, people drowning others to save themselves, all pressured by an insane media appetite for sensationalist stories that just ruined people’s lives and spread fear and hate like poison. We cannot forget these days. We can never forget these days. We must all do whatever we can to stop the kind of scapegoating society is so apt to do when it is frightened by some unknown quantity. At the end of each day, it is always about people’s lives.