31 December 2012

Rita Levi-Montalcini Dies at 103

April 22 2013 would have seen the one hundred and fourth birthday of a remarkable woman. Born in 1909 and the oldest living recipient of a Nobel award, she worked past her centenary and put her remarkable longevity down to her own discovery – NGF (Nerve Growth Factor).

So astonishing was her vitality beyond her hundredth year that many asked the question – did this woman have the secret of eternal life? On 30 December 2012 Levi-Montalcini departed this world so we know the answer to that particular question - but what times she had seen...and made. Here is a glimpse in to the life of one of the most astonishingly gifted people of her time, Rita Levi-Montalcini

As a Jewish European woman her own life took many dramatic turns in the times of Hitler and Mussolini - and beyond.

It was a life which, if depicted in a movie, would have many people incredulous that the makers would think they could get away with something quite so unbelievable.

29 December 2012

The Silver Fox

The Ark in Space today has a feature on the Silver Fox.  A rare creature, many assume this to be a sub-species of the red fox but in fact they are one and the same – good old Vulpes vulpes, the most widely spread of the carnivora on the planet.  Yet this color variation occurs due to melanism and the silver foxes live quite happily side by side with the red one.  Pop over to the Ark in Space to see more wonderful pictures.

Image Credit Minette Layne

Le Marais

Le Marais is a district of Paris which, were you to choose, could be a holiday destination in itself.  Although it seems to be seen more and more as simply the gay quarter that should tell the seasoned traveler something – gay districts usually take root in neighborhoods which are diverse, cultural and historic (and therefore interesting to the curious). Le Marais is all of those – and more.

So, take a tour through Le Marais on something typically French – a skateboard.  Seriously. Filmmaker Thomas Guerrin followed an (unnamed) boarder through the streets of Le Marais (using a glidecam + 5D III) capturing, in this unusual way, the architecture and feel of the place. He captures the people too – Le Marais has long been home to Jewish and Chinese communities and he captures these as well as other categories more typical of French life, such as the older lady with her host of pampered dogs!

It is difficult enough to capture the spirit of a place without being on a skateboard, but Guerrin  artfully captures the essence of Le Marais in all its variety. I have yet to see a better advert for my favourite Parisian district.

Substitute Teacher

If you live outside of the US then you may not have heard about the latest stateside comedy phenomenon.  Key & Peele comprises Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele who before getting their own show were regulars on MADtv.

It (gently) takes the rise out of movies such as Dangerous Minds and its like by swapping the generic roles of inner city kids and metropolitan teacher around – to very funny effect.

As far as I am aware, Key & Peele are only broadcast in one country outside of the Americas, and that is Australia.  However, I don’t think it will be long before they are household names around the world.

The Squirrel and the Swallow

It seems an unlikely friendship, one between a squirrel and a swallow but sometimes the most improbable of relationships are those which end up working the best. This very sweet but surreal animation, directed by Arjan Boeve and based on the short stories of Dutch writer Toon Tellegen is a wonderfully understated piece of work. Once the friendship is formed the swallow must leave for the winter and then she finds herself in jeopardy. The squirrel, so many miles away, must find a way to save her but all he has is his books…

I have said it once, I have said it a thousand times: literacy saves lives!

28 December 2012


Are you one of those people who, once you have seen a movie, revisit it but only watch the parts you really like? For me it’s often the last few minutes I go back to again and again and so Catzilla is perfect in that respect as it seems to be the end of a much longer piece – even though it stands up well enough on its own too.

Catzilla is rampaging through a city and there is only one person who can stop this marauding ferocious feline!

27 December 2012

Doctor Who - A Visual History - 1963 - 2012

A few days ago there was a feature on IO9 by Charlie Jane Anders about Doctor Who and how the experience is so much different for those of us who watched it when we were children (the original series). As you might imagine it caused something of a debate to which I was more than happy to give my own very fond memories of watching the show as a child.

As Doctor Who edges towards its fiftieth anniversary I thought I might share the video above with you, lovingly put together by Joe Siegler. I originally shared it a few years ago but Mr Siegler has now updated it, up to and including the Christmas Special we all watched just a few days ago.

Although it is over forty five minutes long (which means slightly less than your average modern episode) it gives a whistle-stop tour of each and every single adventure the Doctor has had on the television. As there are so many you will only get a brief glimpse of each but it is enough to give even the newest of Who neophytes a taste of what has been happening to our time traveling Time Lord over the last forty nine years.

Each and every regeneration is included plus you get to see all of the companions, old and new. Of course you will get to see how your favorite monsters looked in the 60s, 70s and 80s too – before CGI and the BBC bothered to give the show an effects budget.

My advice is go get your preferred beverage and snacks and settle in for a real treat!

25 December 2012

Stanley Pickle

Stanley’s life works like clockwork – literally.  He lives within his own self-contained world but everything changes when he spots a girl from his bedroom window.  This charming stop motion short movie is something of a bittersweet tale – one of loneliness, isolation and, finally, freedom.  I am sure that the end will put a smile on the most cynical of faces but I still have to wonder how Stanley’s life came to be as it was in the first place!

Stanley Pickle was shot entirely on a stills camera on 2 sets and 2 locations. The film premièred on to the festival circuit in June 2010 at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it picked up the McLaren Award for New British Animation, followed by Oscar qualification at the US première LA Shorts where the film won Best Experimental.  It was directed by Victoria Mather and stars Drew Caiden who surely has the most expressive face on film since Jim Carey.


This is a beautifully made animated short with a twist in its tail.  You do have to watch it from beginning to end and once you do it will leave you somewhat nonplussed perhaps.

Whatever, it is an interesting animation, that is for sure - and a cautionary tale for children, perhaps (though perhaps not the more sensitive ones)!

A little girl stumbles across a doll shop that has, in its window, a doll that looks incredibly like herself.  What happens next?  You have to watch it to find out!

Bad Night for the Blues

If you are having one of those Christmases where you have the nightmare relatives around (you have to do your duty) then spare a thought for Chris (played by Kieran Lynn) who has Aunty Glad (Jean Boht, a marvelous British institution if ever there was one) to cope with for an evening.  You may think, to begin with, that Chris is not a terribly good nephew – doing his once a year duty to an aunty who surely deserves more. Yet on their entry to the South Norwood Conservative Club Christmas Dinner, Aunty Glad helps herself to the wine and a monster is unleashed…

Bad Night for the Blues is one of those car crash comedies that, despite or because of the nature of the lead character, makes for compulsive viewing.  If you are offended by strong language, then it is advisable not to watch! Bad Night for the Blues is a Slinky Pictures Production for the BBC Film Network and UK Film Council in association with Vision+Media. It was directed and written by Chris Shepherd.

The Twelve Days of Christmas - Animated

If you fancy a sing along then here is something which might strike a note (ouch) with you today – an animated version of the 12 Days of Christmas.  You get all your favorites, whether they are the drummers drumming, the pipers piping, the dancing girls (the what?) and of course all those animals, more than you can fling a tray load of burned stuffing at.

The animation was created by Mummu, who flex their collective creative muscle to produce an animated Christmas card. This year with the help of The London Chorus, Mummu animated the 12 Day of Christmas in true traditional and festive style.  Makes me want to do a Scrooge the morning after and run through the streets of London giving out goodwill and prezzies. Almost.

Forever Ago

An old man (who looks something like Father Christmas) sits on a park bench.  His attention is drawn to the sound of music, tunes from long ago which stir memories.

He follows the music – but what you make of the rest of this contemplative animated short from BZ Gibson and Stephanie Harlow is up to you.

It is somewhat inscrutable but if you are in a thoughtful mood today you may give your musings more material.

24 December 2012

Neptune’s Sea Horses Drag the Roman God through a Skyscraper

You don’t see something like this every day – but if you walk through the Hanshan district of the Chinese city of Shenzhen you will come across this remarkable sculpture which seemingly explodes out of an office building. Two wild sea horses in full gallop leap from the building in pursuit of who knows what. Yet there is even more to this extraordinary piece of urban art....


If you are feeling a little melancholy at the moment then this may perhaps suit your mood.  Kontakt tells the story of a lonely electrical outlet. He has his uses but there is one thing he lacks in his life – and that is love.  Whether or not this is what he gets is another thing – you will have to watch this stop motion/ animated short by Florent Tarrieux to discover his fate.

Tarrieux is now based in California but has a background in snail farming – which may just be French irony or it could be true.  Either way he has a very groovy website which showcases a lot of his excellent other work.


Life can be boring up in the clouds when you are all alone.  Podical Solutions Solar Collection Employee Sam (he isn’t really given a name, I think that suits him though) is bored out of his mind until, one day, a stray robotic dog turns up on his doorstep with something of a crash, bang and wallop!

Directed by Andrew Atteberry, Stray is a collaborative short film project initiated during his time at iAnimate, a series of online animation workshops created by Dreamworks animator Jason Ryan. Magnetic Dreams Animation Studio also helped Andrew bring this film across the finish line by allowing him use of their render farm and a large portion of their staff. It’s a charming animated short, perhaps just right for this time of year!

23 December 2012

Voyage: Interactive Light Installation by Aether & Hemera

London’s Canary Wharf has become home to a gorgeous fleet of three hundred boats which can be controlled by the mobile phones of onlookers. They may look like origami boats but they are not made from paper. Each boat is lit via a wireless network which people can join from their phone and then change the color of the lights.

22 December 2012


Just in case you thought I had been a little too optimistic of late then here is something that put me back on track.  Man tells the story of, well, man – but through the somewhat jaded but nevertheless keen and penetrative gaze of London based animator and illustrator Steve Cutts.  We get to see half a million years of human history in just a few minutes and, one must admit – if you look at it this way then perhaps we deserve everything we get as a species.

Man certainly works as an antidote to all the faux Christmas bonhomie doing its yearly rounds in the media and if you are looking forward to a gloomy rather than a gleeful Christmas then this animated short may very well (without irony or maybe just a little) make you feel a little better about life, the universe and everything.  I realise that I am not selling Man very well here – but watch it for yourself.  It is very, very funny despite the fact that it paints you, me and everyone else in history as a despicable species with only one redeeming feature – the capacity to be treated the same way in which we have treated the planet and its environment for the last half a million years….

If this has piqued your interest in Steve Cutts, then visit his website and/or his Facebook page.

Apocalypse – A Happy Ending

Now that all that Mayan malarkey has passed and civilization remains as intact as it was beforehand perhaps it is time to consider what apocalypse really does mean. In the original Greek, ἀποκάλυψις is the lifting of a veil – a revelation. Zombies and meteors and the like didn’t come in to the equation for many centuries.

So, in terms of something revelatory, this animated short by Sara puts forward a somewhat different version of the apocalypse than we are perhaps used to. Maybe, just maybe it could be that the true apocalypse is the dawn of a new age of enlightenment – thanks in part to the internet. Take this with a large dose of optimism and forget for a minute or two about the obstacles in the way, but it is good to see apocalypse treated in a utopian rather than dystopian manner for once!

17 December 2012

Pig Out

Bacon. Pork. Ham. Lots of people love all three, but particularly bacon if you believe certain websites… However, have you ever thought about the animal behind the bacon? Animator Deborah Tudtud (that is the best last name in the world, incidentally) has and this is her offering to the world – one pig that really does not mind being eaten… indeed is absolutely convinced that you should.  Right now.

This particular porcine performer is a little reminiscent of the Ameglian Major Cow from Douglas Adam’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, so keen is it to be eaten!

Tudtud created Pig Out as part of the Classical Animation program at Vancouver Film School.  Not only did she direct and animate this very funny short, but she also composed and performed the song as well.

16 December 2012

Galapagos Giant Tortoise Bounces Back from Extinction

Many thought that the days of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise were gone.  On one island of the Galapagos, Espanola, there were only fourteen left. These were evacuated in the 1970s and a breeding program was started on nearby Santa Cruz.  Although things looked bleak for the species there are now over 1,000 giants back on Espanola – plus they have started to breed there too! The Ark in Space has this heart-warming story about how these once lonesome creatures aren't so lonesome anymore, including some great pictures of the giant tortoises.

Image Credit Flickr User Kath B

The 20 Coolest Christmas Trees of 2012

The people of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, may well think that they have the coolest Christmas tree of 2012.  This abstract light installation has somewhat usurped tradition, as a 65ft pine tree from the forests of the Ardennes usually takes pride of place in the city's central square, the Grand Place.  Of course, depending on taste you may hate this seasonal replacement, which many Belgians have dubbed The Pharmacy because of the resemblance it bears to the green cross outside chemists the world over.

Yet is it truly the coolest Christmas tree of 2012? We have scoured the globe for trees, from the traditional to the ultra-modern which might compete against the Brussels tree if there were a Coolest Christmas tree competition. See what you think of our yuletide discoveries.

15 December 2012

Bennett School for Girls: College which Taught America's Privileged Set for Demolition

The founders of the Bennett School for Girls were decidedly aspirational.  Founded in 1890 it was soon attracting the daughters of a number of prominent American families. Yet while some educational institutions persevere and thrive for sometimes hundreds of years, the fate of the Bennett School and its grandiose buildings was somewhat different. Now it faces imminent demolition: yet how opulent times once were.

To say the school has changed since its heyday is something of an understatement. Take a look at this remarkable series of then and now photographs.

One Night in Stockholm

If you are a fan of the vintage cool vibe which movies like Charade, Pink Panther and Ocean’s Eleven (the original of course) possess in spades then the chances are you will enjoy Brian Parker’s One Night in Stockholm.  It is a dark romantic comedy telling the story of four people – the type you and I might think of as unsavoury but who nevertheless has a somewhat glamorous allure – either despite or because of their criminality.

Simmons wants to give in to his desires, while Roxy wants her assassination business to be successful – and stay successful.  Ella would like her profession, killing people, to be meaningful again. Then there is perhaps the most dangerous of this cool quartet, Jack. Jack just wants Ella. The movie was made as part of the Whitestone Motion Pictures Protege Program.

The film stars Mark Ashworth, Quynh Thi Le (above), Caroline Granger and Jim Chandler. If you are a regular reader of Kuriositas then you will have seen Jim Chandler in a short movie set during the American Civil War we recently featured, In The Grey.

10 December 2012

Nimbus II: The Indoor Cloud

There is no photo-manipulation involved in this photograph. Dutch artist Berndnaut Smilde has invented a method to form a small cloud in the middle of a room.  It’s a case of now you see it, now you don’t as the cloud does not last more than a few seconds before it dissipates.  Yet caught on camera the effect is startling to say the least.

8 December 2012

Death Scenes – Bloody Cuts Episode 7

Don’t let the little ones watch this – unless of course you want nightmares for the next six months and therapy in to their teens.  Death Scenes is the seventh episode in the Bloody Cuts anthology of short British horror films.  As such, it does not disappoint! In this we open at Lynnsmouth police station where Detective Inspector Collins has a suspected mass murderer in custody.  Yet the man adamantly refuses to reveal his name or his motives for the crimes until the time that suits him – and that is fast approaching…

The Bloody Cuts team hope that altogether there will be thirteen episodes in the series. However, unfortunately they have not run out of funds.  Although they plan to start production of episode 8, Don’t Move, early in the New Year they need an injection of badly needed funds.  I will keep you posted as to when the Kickstarter UK campaign begins, so if you enjoyed Death Scene, please consider contributing to the rest of the series.

The Girl is Mime – Starring Martin Freeman

Clive Buckle is in trouble. His wife has been murdered and he is the prime suspect.  As he is interrogated by the police memories return to Clive of his relationship with this wife: how they met and fell in love but then how, one day, she changed.  The police can’t prove anything until they find a weapon but what makes this interrogation different is that Clive is a mime artist. Did the mime commit the crime?

Starring Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit not to mention Dr John Watson in BBC’s Sherlock, The Girl is Mime was created for the London 48 Hour Film Project in 2010.  Directed by Tim Bunn who wants to work for a Hollywood producer who always wears a suit and is constantly smoking a cigar (honestly) this little gem is more proof (if you need it) that independent film making is alive and kicking and possibly entering a golden age.

Gothenburg 1913: Get That Camera Out of My Face!

Almost a hundred years ago an unknown filmmaker took to the streets of Gothenburg and just filmed the streets – upsetting at least one gentleman in the process. The city, founded in 1621 is the second largest in Sweden and so even a century ago its population was hardly what you could call provincial.  The Barber's Shop in the Village, the first-ever Swedish film drama had been released to acclaim in 1897 and by 1905 most Swedish towns had their own cinema.

Yet even though, when this found footage was made, eight years later – this was still new technology.  Although many Swedes were regular cinema goers they were not regular witnesses to filmmaking, particularly in the middle of a busy street.  So, the way that many of the men in this footage react (found by Anton Withagen), staring straight at the camera and engaging its operator in conversation, is not surprising: this would have been a huge novelty for them.

Most seem quite happy to be filmed but there is a point at 00:58 where one middle-aged gentleman (picture above), clearly unimpressed with the intrusion, pulls his tongue at the camera (it might even be that he is baring his false teeth, I’m not quite sure) while several youths happily wave their hats at the camera behind him.  What leaves a lasting impression on me, however, about this found footage is its incredible quality: it is after all almost 100 years old.  That, and just how dapper the people of Gothenburg were in 1913.

The Overview Effect

Fred Hoyle, the English astronomer said in 1948 “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”  Twenty four years later the Blue Marble photograph was taken by astronauts on the Apollo 17 mission and has become one of the most extensively circulated photographic images ever taken. 

The photograph has stirred a sense of wonder in countless millions of people. Yet what must it be like to be the photographer?  Over the decades since we first ventured in to space, astronauts have recounted the perspective-altering experience of seeing the Earth from the outside.  Reactions vary, of course, but a common feature is one of awe, a new or renewed understanding of how all life is connected and – perhaps most importantly – an acute sense of responsibility for the environment. It is called The Overview Effect.

Overview by the Planetary Collective is a short film which recounts how The Overview Effect altered the outlook of five astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, Ron Garan, Nicole Stott, Jeff Hoffman and Shane Kimbrough. It’s twenty minute long but every second is worth it.

5 December 2012

Pale Blue Dot

This is lovely.  Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is one of the most resonant pieces in English of the late twentieth century so it is great to see it put to such wonderful effect in this short animation by ORDER.  Flawlessly animated, it is obviously a highly personal project and is created with a lot of affection both for Sagan and his wise, wise words.

ORDER is a video and animation from a studio in East London.  They produce promos, virals, documentary, adverts, stop-motion animation, interview profiles, short films, titles and motion graphics and have worked in the past for clients such as Creative Review, Tate, the V&A and The GLA.  Pale Blue Dot is both very cool and technically immaculate, so even as a personal project is possibly the best advert an agency could have!

Jungle Brawl – Episode 2

Blue Chimp is back! We’ve waited a while for the second installment of Lee Daniels' web series Jungle Brawl and now it’s here I can tell you that the wait was worth it (as far as waiting is ever worth anything, of course, if you are as impatient as I am). This episode is called ‘Kit’ and that pretty much sums up the immense amount of technology that the The Hunter has brought along with him in his next attempt to capture his simian nemesis.

Yet even with all the kit, can he outwit the wily blue chimp? You will have to watch to find out but we are promised more episodes in the future so….

Lee created everything you see, completing every production task himself so this is quite an achievement. He used Adobe CS5 Master Collection
After Effects, Premiere, Illustrator, Photoshop, Element 3D, Soundbooth and Apple Garageband to create Jungle Brawl Episode 2. If you didn’t see episode 1 then a) where have you been? And b) click the link to watch it!

3 December 2012

Kuratas – The Giant Robot Controlled by an iPhone

Do you remember the scene from Aliens when Ripley, confronted by the queen which is about to mince up poor, tragic Newt, screams Get away from her you bitch! and proceeds to fight the monster in her exosuit cargo-loader? Fortunately for us, perhaps, the alien is still classified as fiction. The exosuit, on the other hand, just came a little closer to being reality. This is Kuratas.

This leviathan is currently being exhibited at a Maker’s Faire at Miraikan, The National Museum of Engineering, Science and Innovation in Tokyo.  It was created by a team which combined science and art. Kogoro Kurata (above) is the artist behind Kuratas, and so has named it after himself (adding an s and why not). Wataru Yoshizaki is the engineer (aka tech guy) who helped Kogoro make Kuratas come alive.

2 December 2012

The Girl and The Siren

A young girl lives, parentless, in a Swedish sea port. In order to survive she works in a tavern run by a vicious one-armed brute. Yet, surrounded as she is by a life full of drudge and casual cruelty the girl retains her imagination – not to mention ambition.  Unsurprisingly, given her upbringing, she wants nothing more than to be a pirate and join the sea-faring rogues on their adventures. Yet who will take a young girl seriously? 

One evening, however, a seagull comes crashing through her bedroom window and a chain of events is set in motion – one which will change her life forever.

If you are a fan of stop motion animation then you will love The Girl and the Siren, directed and animated by Jacob Petersson and Cristoffer Ålund with production credits going to Jakob Arevärn.  Don’t be put off by the length – seventeen minutes is long for an animated short but this is one which will, if you are like me, bring you in to the story right from the beginning.  Please, too, don’t be put off by the subtitles you see in the first minute – they lay the scene and the vast bulk of the action is wordless.

What did I particularly like about The Girl and the Siren? Pretty much everything, but the overall design stands out – meticulous and evoking a whole old but new world in its attention to detail.  It is also very difficult to invest puppets with emotion but it is so well done here, a small tilt of the head and an entire range of emotions is conveyed. Go make a coffee (or beverage of your choice), get yourself comfortable and just enjoy this beautifully crafted adventure.

1 December 2012

Vhils: Graffiti Art as Architectural Archaeology

Disintegrating walls and peeling posters may not be everyone’s cup of tea. In fact I would venture that to most people they are a rather dispiriting sign of urban decay.  Yet to one artist the sight of crumbling architecture and aged billboards posted one atop another atop another are a creative spur. Vhils creates art not by adding but by taking away.

Vhils, born Alexandre Fartos in 1987 in Portugal, chips, slices, cuts and hammers his remarkable art out of the sides of buildings.  It started when he was a youth in Lisbon.  Portugal’s recent history meant that billboards advertising expensive consumer goods could be pasted directly over posters of socialist ideals left over from the 1974 revolution in a layer which could, depending on the amount of posters, centimeters thick.

In the Grey - Short Film

Can anyone ever say with any certainty that, in a given situation, they would be able to take the life of another? If your own life, or those of others, was in danger – could you kill another human being? Fortunately most of us have never been in a situation where we would have to answer that question but the young Confederate soldier at the center of In the Grey, faces just such a decision.

Directed by Justin Peter and produced by Dillan Forsey, In the Grey focuses on a single imagined circumstance in the American Civil War. The makers could truthfully have set this during any conflict in our human history, whether modern or antique, and still the same question would have to be answered in its seven short minutes. The great power is this story is that it transcends history and is one of the human condition rather than a particular time and place.

In the Grey stars Tony Anobile as Adler and Jim E. Chandler as Walt. If Chandler seems familiar it may be because you saw him in Abraham Lincoln vs Zombies from The Asylum.

29 November 2012

Introducing 2wenty4se7en

In my other life (or perhaps I should say the real world?) I teach Information Technology and English at a South East London college. This year I have a particularly web savvy cohort of young students aged between 16 and 19 who are just beginning to make their first real impression of that monster we call the interweb.

Part of their college diploma demands that they set up individual blogs, which they have done. Now they have (under their own steam but with moral support from yours truly) decided to pool their talents to launch a professional blog. Although it is still nascent, more features have yet to appear on the site and they need to further tweak the HTML, 2wenty4se7en is looking good for a newborn. I know, I would say that but go check it out for yourself!

The primary aim is to attract advertisers to the site so that they can generate some income with which to go on trips (the college does not have huge funds available for this and besides, they want to fund any excursions themselves). They have set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account to go with the site too.

Please take time out to visit the site if you can – and don’t be afraid to offer any tips and advice you may have to my students. All positive guidance is very welcome! Oh - and if you are a potential advertiser, please get in touch!

Changing Landscapes: A Story about Living with HIV 30 Years On

On December the 1st 2012 it is World AIDS Day; it is thirty years since the beginnings of the HIV pandemic.  

Guest writer Danny West (left), trainer, coach, mentor and leadership consultant, reflects on thirty years that changed the world.

In October 1985 at the age of 24 whilst at the beginnings of my career path I was one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed as being infected with HIV, the virus now known to cause the medical condition AIDS. My doctors gave me a life expectancy of 18 months.

In 1985 whilst at the beginning of what appeared to be a bright social work career I attended a routine appointment at a leading London hospital sexual health clinic. During my consultation the doctor suggested to my horror that along with the usual blood tests for syphilis and gonorrhoea I should also have as he termed it ‘the AIDS test’. He subsequently explained that as I was gay I was likely to have the disease. This was to be the extent of my pre test counselling where upon I was advised to return in two weeks for the test result.

At this point in my life I had only just begun to hear about this new disease and had never considered that I may be at risk or that I myself could possibly have the virus. I spent the following two weeks in a state of high anxiety; I shared my news with a few close friends and gathered together as much information as possible. The two weeks passed and I returned to the hospital with a friend to receive my results, my doctor sympathetically informed me that my results were positive and that in the absence of a cure I had 18 months to live. I left the hospital in a state of shock and returned home to an awaiting group of friends who shared my state of anxiety. I was initially unable come to terms with this information and was unable to work; I remember feeling completely immobilised, helpless and terrified by new circumstances.

Eventually a close friend came to me and informed me that she had heard of an organisation called ‘Body Positive’ and that it was to hold a social evening at a gay venue called ‘The Market Tavern’ in London. I was extremely anxious on the evening of the social event and along with my supportive friend found myself in a room filled with other gay men who were also HIV positive, this event was to be a turning point in my life and it was on that evening that I met my first partner who was also living with HIV and was to die of AIDS two years later.

During my journey I have experienced many losses and many inspirational acts of strength and courage. My career and life paths have taken many unexpected turns and I have lived an unimaginable life. From the moment of my diagnosis I refused to accept an impending death sentence. I rejected the possibility that I would die at an early age as a result of HIV and strategically set about creating a vision for my life; a life that would have purpose, meaning and impact.

The backdrop of this article is set against the medical and social responses and models to HIV/AIDS and a landscape of death, suffering and dying.

At the beginning of the 1980s when the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United Kingdom, AIDS was considered to be a gay men’s disease. This assumption within the developed world and the medical profession led to both hysteria and an overt rise in homophobia. The cause and origins of AIDS were as yet unknown, the “Human Immunodeficiency Virus” had yet to be isolated and the medical world had only just begun to grasp the concept that AIDS was linked to a breakdown of the immune system. Large numbers of gay men began to get sick and die on both sides of the Atlantic and the medical world was impotent in its attempts to explain or cure for this new and frightening disease.

The general population’s response to AIDS was one of blame, fear and ignorance this was reflected in the apocalyptic government health campaign in the UK, we were bombarded with dark images of tombstones, graveyards and the Grim Reaper. Society was frantic in its search to find the origins of this new disease and blame the assumed perpetrators. These assumptions lead to a rise in prejudice and the mistreatment and isolation of the gay community.

This was also demonstrated by the medical profession’s response to AIDS by isolating gay men in side wards and the gowning up in space suits by medical and domiciliary staff. Within local communities there was an increase of violence against gay men on the streets and within their homes. Social services departments were refusing to provide services to gay men or anyone suspected as having AIDS.

As the AIDS epidemic grew other people began to present with symptoms of AIDS, some of whom were also from marginalized groups such as IV drug users and people from the BME communities. In the early 80’s the ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus’ was isolated and was recognised to be blood born virus and to be the cause of a medical condition called AIDS. Transmission of the virus was identified as being through blood and blood products, vaginal and seminal fluids and from mother to child during pregnancy or child birth.

AIDS confronted society with all of its taboos and opened a very large can of worms which required the caring professions, local and central governments, the third and public sectors to review their equality policies, staff training, employment practice and client service provision.

Issues of equality had to be addressed for the groups who were becoming affected by HIV ensuring that people living with HIV received services, which specifically met their needs and enabled and supported their well-being, human dignity and upheld their human rights.

Society was being confronted with many issues which ordinarily it chose to ignore such as Death, Dying and Bereavement, Confidentiality, Addiction, Sexuality, Racism, Disability and Illness (my caps). For those of us affected or infected by HIV these issues were high on our agenda. We were gaining confidence and becoming proactively involved in developing health and social care programmes and the new HIV third sector which were to empower and meet the needs of people living with the HIV.

Within weeks of the gay and lesbian community becoming aware of the first cases of AIDS in the UK amongst gay men ‘Body Positive’ and the ‘Terrance Higgins Trust’ were formed. Soon social groups, counselling and education services began to develop. These groups were being formed and developed by predominantly well educated, relatively affluent, politically aware gay men and lesbians from a broad spectrum of professions who were increasingly confident and effective in getting their voices heard both locally and nationally and were to become the leading force in the development of services for people infected and affected by HIV.

The gay community responded with courage and intelligence in the face of this frightening new disease and was able to join forces as a response to stigma and societies prejudiced reaction.

In the hospitals and clinics around the country large numbers of gay men were presenting with symptoms and opportunistic infections associated now with the virus and the medical condition AIDS. In hospital wards gay men were dying and in the absence of a cure symptoms could only be treated as and when they appeared.

Death was now on the agenda for a group who had spent their lives believing they were immortal, in a society where death and dying is a taboo subject, rarely discussed and explored. Friends, lovers and on occasion families became the primary careers of the sick and dying men both at home and in hospital settings and in the absence of a cure, death was seen as inevitable. Gay men began to make decisions about their health care and treatment and supported by their loved ones began to challenge both doctor patient relationships and the manner in which they utilised health care and social care support services.

I remained in social work until May 1986 whereupon I retired on medical grounds as I felt unable to cope with the associated high stress levels and because I wanted to commit my time to supporting and working alongside people living with HIV. In October of 1987 I moved to Brighton (TAY, the AIDS memorial there is pictured above) to work closely with a friend and founder of ‘The Sussex AIDS Help line’ and for the following 18 months helped operate the telephone support service, raise funds and provide one to one mentoring/counselling in this pioneering support service.

In 1986 Graham Wilkinson, founder of the Sussex AIDS Helpline and I were amongst a small group of gay men convened by Christopher Spence OBE to explore a vision of a innovative new centre for people living with HIV. The centre was to become the London Lighthouse and Christopher Spence its director.

Our vision for this innovative project was to establish a unique holistic centre and residential unit offering respite and hospice type terminal care, a place where people living with HIV and AIDS could receive care, support and treatment in an environment where people living with the virus could embark upon a self empowered and dignified journey of recovery or death and dying. When London Lighthouse opened it become the first centre of its kind and though it received initial opposition went onto become a leading campaigning and educational centre, which provided extensive training and awareness to local government, third and medical sectors throughout the UK and Europe.

Within local authorities, especially the inner cities, large numbers of gay men were for the first time requesting services such as domiciliary care, social work input and housing support, yet local authorities had no experience of this new client group and had no policies, guidelines or trained staff to provide services. Staff within local authorities reacted to this new client group and new medical condition with fear and apprehension and many refused to carryout their duties.

The London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham is historically home to a large gay community and is of geographical proximity to Earls Court a traditional gay ghetto in London and close to the Chelsea & Westminster hospital a leading medical centre in the research of and the treatment of people with HIV infection. Within the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham one of the first local authorities to provide services to people with HIV and AIDS the first local government officer was appointed with responsibility to develop strategies and services that were responsive to this new challenge.

I was subsequently appointed as training officer for HIV and AIDS and set about establishing an extensive HIV/AIDS awareness and training programme for all the local authority staff. An HIV unit was established and further officers were appointed with specific responsibility to address issues for women, housing, drug use and the black minority ethnic (BME) communities. The development of the largest HIV training programmes within the UK was developed and established within the borough which addressed all the taboo subjects raised by AIDS such as Death and Dying and Sexuality. This training programme ensured that staff were trained and supported to provide high quality services to people living with HIV and AIDS.

Over the next few years I was to experience my own deteriorating health, the dying and the death of hundreds of gay men in the wider community, two partners, my two closest friends and a young child who I mentored for a number of years. In the gay and lesbian community everyone knew someone who had died and everyone knew someone who was dying. Expressions of grief within the pubs and clubs were commonplace and attending funerals became a frequent occurrence.

At every turn someone was involved with the care of someone with HIV or AIDS and this consequently meant that many of us were involved on some level in the empowerment of someone who was dying of AIDS. The gay and lesbian community had confronted its denial of death and was actively involved in talking openly about death and dying. The community was challenging the professions ordinarily associated with dealing with death such as doctors; community based nursing services, the church and undertakers. We were now taking a proactive role in the care of the dying and the dead.

HIV charities were increasingly offering or supporting education and training on Dying, Death and Bereavement, extensive support group and counselling services were being developed for those living with or affected by AIDS and HIV. Counselling services were specifically developed to assist those who were dying or who were in grief or bereavement.

The development of similar counselling and support services was to be reflected across social services departments and within medical services throughout the UK in addition to the development of numerous independent locally based HIV charities and treatment centres across the UK.

In modern day Britain the extended family was in decline; replaced by the nuclear family it was unable to maintain responsibility for extended family members especially the elderly, sick or dying. People with long term or terminal health conditions were now placed in hospitals and the elderly in residential homes where they were cared for by strangers with whom they often died. Within the UK 58% of us die in hospitals and yet the hospital was intended to be a place of treatment and recovery from illness.

The hospice movement in the UK, which is primarily charity funded and organised is only able to provide a small number bed spaces for the terminally ill and dying throughout the UK. The gay hospice movement began to demonstrate a mutual sharing of values and principles for the care of the terminally ill and dying and included the rights of the dying to be supported by close friends and family, to be pain free, to die with dignity, to have peace and privacy and to have options and choices of treatment and care.

The gay community set about establishing its own resources for the sick and dying, these places include ‘London Lighthouse’, The Mildmay Mission’ and ‘The Sussex Beacon’. In hospital settings the introduction of “Palliative Care Consultants and Teams” began which provided holistic care packages for people dying as a result of HIV.

Medical and Scientific advancement throughout 1990’s resulted in the early introduction of antiviral treatments which are able to interrupt virus activity and slow down the progression of HIV, these drugs could not be tolerated by everyone but they did began to change and extend the lives of people living with HIV and AIDS.

New drugs such as AZT and DDI were both toxic and had a number of unpleasant side effects; I personally had an extremely violent reaction to AZT and so it was at this point in my treatment history that I decided to take a treatment vacation and only consider treatment that would provide me with quality of life as opposed to quantity of life. I have now been on “Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy” or highly active antiviral therapy (HAART) for eight years and have found a combination of medication which has few side effects and has boosted my immune system and given me a blood count or (CD4) count of 750, an undetectable viral load and a new lease of life.

Government health and safer sex campaigns declined in the mid 1990s, along with funding to local government and smaller, local HIV charities. Within society a misconception that HIV and AIDS treatments were a cure and that HIV remained the problem of the traditionally affected groups led to a perception that HIV and AIDS had ‘gone away’.

In 1997 the respite and residential unit of the London Lighthouse closed and gradually training and education around issues relating to Dying, Death and Bereavement began to fall from the agenda of the caring professions.

Combination therapy is a lifeline to people living with HIV; the numbers of people dying from HIV and AIDS in the UK has declined dramatically, many (though not all) people living with HIV are now expected to have an almost normal life expectancy. This raises new challenges; many people like me who are living long term with HIV are confronted with the impact of HIV and the ageing process, as well as the physical, emotional and psychological impact of living with and managing a highly stigmatised complex chronic health condition into the future. There is an increasing group of older people living with HIV who face more uncertainty in the future. Many of us have been in long term unemployment, have no financial security, live in isolation, have limited support networks and face a range of complex health issues as we age with HIV.

 Recent evidence suggests an increase of syphilis and other sexually transmitted diseases not only amongst gay men but also amongst the general population. World Health Organisation statistics report that HIV is now considered a predominantly heterosexual disease with world figures currently estimating that there are 33.3 million people living with HIV worldwide and a calamitous total of 114,766 people have been diagnosed with HIV in the UK. By the end of 2010 more than 30 million people in the world had died of AIDS.

In 2006 I returned to work following a fourteen year period of living with my partner and relying on the benefits system, I enrolled onto a back to work programme with the UKC and was appointed my own life coach who enabled me to develop a business plan and eventually set up my own coaching and training consultancy. To my surprise I quickly realised that there had been a significant shift in focus in the HIV community; people infected with HIV were now living with HIV, there was a new sense of hope and people living with HIV now had a future.

Based on my experience of being coached I decide to train and qualify as a coach myself with a view to developing coaching services and projects that would enable people living with HIV. I approached The Coaching Academy, Europe’s largest coaching school and was refused my initial request for a free training place on their diploma level coaching course. Not being discouraged I approached the CEO of the academy and explained my vision of utilising coaching to enable people living with HIV and people living with disabilities to achieve their goals. I was offered a scholarship and qualified at distinction level in 2008.

It was whilst working as a trainer at the United Kingdom Coalition of People Living with HIV (UKC) I picked up a leaflet in the lobby which advertised a leadership programme delivered by the then Disability Rights Commission. I was successful in my application and introduced myself to the then chief executive officer (CEO) Mike Adams who trusted in my vision and skills and was to later appoint me as a leadership coach on subsequent leadership programmes. I have continued to work in partnership with Mike Adams in his current position as CEO of the Essex Coalition of Disabled People (‘ecdp’), and amongst other initiatives have been commissioned by Mike to co-design and deliver an innovative leadership programme called ‘LeadingAbility ‘for people living with long term health conditions, injuries and disabilities (IID) which has included working with veterans of the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Parallel to my work with Mike Adams I have worked as a lead coach and advisor to the former Royal Association of Disability and Rights (RADAR) which was recently renamed ‘Disability Rights UK’ who now provide a range of highly successful leadership programmes for people living with disabilities and long term health conditions across the UK, these programmes have become increasingly inclusive of people living with HIV. Additionally I have continued to work with my former coach in developing coaching projects and successfully sourcing funding through the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) which has enabled us to deliver a number of significant coaching projects in partnership with key HIV organisations in the UK.

As we remember 30 years of the AIDS epidemic and the many people who have died we see a move towards marginalising HIV and people living with HIV even though the majority of those infected worldwide are heterosexual. We are also experiencing an increase in negative and damaging stories portraying disabled people as scroungers in the media.

Additionally I am concerned about recent reports and evidence which demonstrates that there has been a significant increase in sexually transmitted diseases and HIV in the general population and highlights the fact that there has been an absence of any significant government HIV or sexual health related campaign over the past 20 years.

The introduction of the 2010 Equality Act has finally addressed our employment and equality rights yet there is a real danger that the values and principles contained in this essential piece of legislation may fall from the agendas of our government in a current climate of recession and uncertainly . Many organisations are experiencing significant cuts in funding or the complete withdrawal of funding as we have witnessed with the disastrous loss of UKC and The Positive Place and other charities across the UK. With radical changes to the benefits system and changes in the way people living with HIV are supported by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) anxiety levels are high and the future uncertain; I am currently proactively supporting the ‘Hardest Hit Campaign

I believe that the time is right to readdress HIV and its associated issues and place HIV firmly at the forefront of our society’s awareness and our nation’s health and human rights agendas.

In August I celebrated my 51st birthday and in October another anniversary, 27 years of living with HIV. As I look to the future and semi-retirement I am sure that I will encounter many potential challenges associated with growing older with HIV.

I am now live in a landscape of living with HIV and I am determined to continue to contribute to the HIV community to enable people living with HIV to achieve their potential and develop their leadership contributions.

As an advocate for ‘NAT’ I am committed to ensuring that I continue to address our rights until people living with HIV experience their human rights as an actualised reality in their everyday lives.

As for my future I intend to continue to work tirelessly to secure funds for coaching and leadership projects to this end and support organisations such as a National Long Term Survivors Group (NLTSG) for whom I have served as trustee and vice-chair. I have recently decided to join the new Opening Doors London support group for older gay men living with HIV and I hope to be able to offer them some of my skills and experience into the future.

Whilst I lack the ability to foresee the future I am determined to make some sort of difference otherwise my life would have been without meaning and I would have failed in my own endeavours to inspire at least some of the people that I have met on my journey. I have become the person that I am because of and in spite of my HIV status; I know that my life has been shaped by HIV and that though it has often been heartbreaking and challenging I also acknowledge that it has also been an amazing and now continuing journey.

A lot has happened over this time; I have learnt to remember and value many significant dates and the faces of many loved ones who have gone on ahead of me. I dedicate this story to the many friends who have gone before me, they include Graham, Gary, Chris and Mansour and to the friends who have remained by my side and have supported me and encouraged me on my journey these include Carl, Sue, Yvonne, Trish, Mike, Isaac, Kiki, Sanna and Josef..............

By Danny West – Coach, Trainer & Leadership Consultant
Email - danny.west944@btinternet.com
Website - http://www.dannywest.co.uk/

Additional Image Credits
First Image Credit Flickr User ttfnrob 
Girl with ribbon - Image Credit Flickr User Seemak
Red Ribbons - Flickr User Sibley Hunter
Ribbon mosaic Flickr User alephnaught
Red ribbon beige background, Flickr User Auntie P 
Christmas tree ribbob Flickr User ginnerobot