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Scarlet Ribbons

Republishing a family memoir after twenty years

Scarlet ribbons

My brother, the Rev. Simon Bailey, was diagnosed with HIV at the age of thirty, just a few weeks before he was due to take up his first post as the vicar of St Leonard’s in the South Yorkshire mining village of Dinnington. It was 1985. The ‘gay plague’ was still only a frightening rumour.

He had arrived in Dinnington, a bookish graduate of Oxford and Cambridge, determined to put his faith into practice. We had been brought up by an evangelical Baptist father and Simon originally studied for the ministry. Then he went over to the Church of England – where he perhaps felt more comfortable as a homosexual – embracing its poetry and liturgy. At Cambridge he accepted his sexuality, fell in love, and was glad to be gay.

Simon believed in inclusive ministry and immersed himself in the parish, getting to know everyone from the miners to the schoolchildren, the butchers to the hairdressers. He planned a permanent memorial to the miners in the church, involving many of the community in the project. And he deepened their spirituality, with parish retreats to Holy Island and other sacred places. He was not asked if he was gay when he was interviewed for the priesthood. Today no doubt it would be more likely. He said he chose not to tell them partly because he didn’t want to become a single-issue priest. The irony is inescapable.

Slowly people – the women above all – came to accept that he was gay but he told no one his diagnosis until he became visibly ill in 1992. By then there was a core group of parishioners who loved him and declared their willingness to support him. There was no question whether he should leave the parish. He was one of their own. ‘Of course we’ll look after him!’

As he became more ill, they even formed a rota to care for him. A visiting archdeacon came to a prayer meeting in the rectory, astonished to see everyone seated comfortably round Simon on his IV drip. He suggested that the story could be made public. There was anguished debate, but eventually it was agreed to make a BBC TV documentary. The programme, broadcast in January 1995, produced a phenomenal response — hundreds of letters, most sympathetic and supportive but also pouring out their own problems, from gay and straight, the bereaved, carers and people with AIDS themselves. An avalanche of suffering was detonated by Simon’s own pain; he had become the wounded healer, able to articulate and understand the pain of others.

I realise now more than ever what a critical moment this was for me as a writer. When I declared myself a journalist to the TV producer I knew I had made a decision to engage, that it was going to be impossible to sit on the sidelines and let someone else tell the story. The journalist and the bossy elder sister combined inexorably. I wrote a 7000 word article for the Independent on Sunday to complement the TV programme and we talked about the possibility of a book.

Simon and I talked, and I interviewed parishioners, friends and family. It seemed very important to put on record what had happened there, the symbiosis between Simon and his parish which had produced such a surprising response to a situation which most would have expected to end in scandalous tragedy. When I told my atheist friends what was happening they were astonished. It didn’t sound at all like the church they had rejected.

This was of course pre-internet. The media presentation defined the story, and how people initially heard about it affected their response. A negative tabloid story would have damaged Simon, and it remains an extraordinary fact that, despite an anonymous phone call to the Sun, their local reporter declined to write the ‘Yorkshire Vicar with AIDS’ story. I feel sure social media today would have undermined any chance of control.

I visited Dinnington often during the period of Simon’s decline, discovering that piece of ice in my heart that Graham Greene said every writer needed. I got to know my brother better than I ever would have done had he lived. When he died, in November 1995, I wrote a detailed account of his deathbed scene, and it felt right to do so. The process of writing, the effort of articulating one’s feelings, helped greatly. It was of course cathartic.

It was also a good story. When I try to analyse my motives for writing I have to acknowledge that Simon became interesting to me as a dying man in a way that he wasn’t before. It was a good story. Maybe that sounds terrible but it is the truth.

Scarlet Ribbons was published by Serpent’s Tail in 1997 and stayed in print for ten years. But it was before e-books and, once out of print, looked likely to be forgotten. Twenty years on it seemed important to return to the story, the courage of my brother and the profound sympathy and support shown by his community.

Initially I went through my agent, and we found an e-book publisher who was interested. However, I was keen it should also be available as a printed book. I had met Peter Stansill, the editor of Jorvik Press (based in Portland, Oregon), a few years before; he also happened to be a transplanted Yorkshireman. He wanted to publish the book, and we embarked on a new edit, photos and cover. Publication was scheduled for July 2017 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967.

The response was excellent, with interviews on the Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ programme, and other, local, radio stations, as well as articles in the Independent, the Mirror, and elsewhere. I wrote a piece myself for the Daily Telegraph, and participated in a commemorative service at St Martin-in-the-Fields, reading from a liturgy of names of those remembered in the fight against AIDS. My list included my brother. The story was shared on Twitter and Facebook.

Recently, the Church Times ran an excerpt. The book is out there again and as an e-book will always be available. Most important was the response to the story — so much progress has been made regarding the issue of homosexual clergy. The idea of a gay priest now seems acceptable in a way it wasn’t twenty years ago, and there seemed no likelihood of any negative reaction.

And perhaps the supportive community story chimed more than ever in this austere world. There were even offers for film rights — a prospect I relished briefly. But in the end I said no, feeling that Simon had controlled his own story and that we could not expect much control over a sensitive family story if it were to be made into a film.

I owe my brother an enormous debt for his trust in me. Twenty years later as I re-read my book and his own journals, I felt that more than ever. I drew freely on all his papers, quoting from private journals and letters.

It was of course sad to revisit the experience. I re-read the book twice, both for the sense of the story, and then as an editor. I really hesitated as I neared the final chapter. I knew that reliving the experience of his death would be very sad, and I needed a special place to read it. So I went to the rose garden in Regent’s Park, a favourite place. I sat under a rose arbour and read and wept as I plunged back into the past.

Perhaps only now do I appreciate how much the experience helped me develop as a writer. I think my brother saw that. His illness and death provided me with a story which helped develop my skills and future direction.

I decided that I would simply try to be as honest as possible. At that time – 1994 – the misery memoir was not the popular genre it is now. I was on my own and simply wrote it as it felt right. Since then I have written three further non-fiction travel memoirs, mostly about France. Somehow Simon found a place in two of them — recalled as a priest as I wrote about the medieval monks in the monastery we attempted to restore in the Pyrenees, and for his sense of the sublime in nature as I watched a sunrise over the Pyrenean peaks.

As he wrote in his journal, ‘You only die when you fail to take root in others’. He took root in me for sure. In the end Scarlet Ribbons remains perhaps the most meaningful and personal of my books, and I feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to publish it again.

Rosemary Bailey is an award-winning author of memoirs and travel books. She has been partly based in the French Pyrenees for many years, and has written a non-fiction trilogy, Life in a Postcard, The Man who Married a Mountain and Love and War in the Pyrenees, about a region she has grown to love.

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