Choir member recalls heartbreak of seeing AIDS claim lives in the 1980s

  • Video report by ITV Wales News reporter Mike Griffiths

A gay men's choir member has shared his experience of losing close friends during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

Singer Nigel Lewis, 63, from Bridgend, recalled how many of those diagnosed endured prejudice, discrimination and even rejection by their families and friends.

It comes as the South Wales Gay Men's Chorus releases a new track paying tribute to all those in Wales who died of the virus.

Globally, around 35 million people have died from AIDS since the 1980s.

The song drew inspiration from the 'Red Ribbon' AIDS Memorial Tree in Gorsedd Park, Cooper's Field, Cardiff.

Nigel remembers the tree being planted in 1994 by Cardiff man Mike Phillips and his friend Martin Nowaczek.

"Mike is now in his fifties having lived with HIV for many years, but Martin died, aged just 27, not long after the young sapling was planted," he said.

"It is now a fully mature tree. The idea was always that it would be a place where people could come and remember lost loved ones and on World AIDS Day red ribbons are tied to the tree in their honour."

The government produced awareness campaigns to try and combat the spread of the virus. Credit: PA Images

Nigel ties a ribbon for his own lost friends, including neighbour Graham Fleetwood, who Nigel only discovered had been diagnosed with AIDS when he saw him at the local hospital.

"I had gone there to get tested, which I still do regularly to this day," he explained.

"I saw Graham sitting in the waiting room. I asked how he was and he said 'not good Nige, I've got AIDS'.

"It was such a terrible shock. I had no idea. He said no one knew and he made me promise not to tell anyone.

"I could see the sense of loneliness and isolation was agonising and that was in addition to the virus itself.

"He only lived across the street and I'd had no idea what he must have been going through. He was such a lovely, quiet, unassuming man.

"When it was his 50th birthday I took him a cake. I told him if ever he needed anything to call me any time, don't hesitate, but not long after he was gone."

The 'Red Ribbon' AIDS Memorial Tree was planted in 1994 in Gorsedd Park. Credit: South Wales Gay Men's Chorus

'This Tree, This Man' is one of 10 songs on a new charity album, with refugees in Cardiff, care home residents in Anglesey, school pupils in Gwynedd and care leavers in Swansea also taking part.

Jordan Price Williams, one of five musicians involved in the project supported by Live Music Now Wales, said lockdown brought extra challenges.

He said: "In one way it echoed some of the anxieties and fears that were ever present during the height if the AIDS crisis.

"But of course there were stark differences too. The determination of the whole world to throw everything possible at fighting COVID-19 was not there with AIDS.

"In many quarters it seems there was almost an attempt to brush the virus off as a 'gay disease' which didn't really affect the wider community."

Jordan confessed that until working on the project he had not fully appreciated what previous generations had endured.

"As a younger man living in a more tolerant era we enjoy legal rights and freedoms which were simply not there in the seventies and eighties.

"It is only through talking to some older members of the chorus that I have gained a greater understanding of how much they suffered and the isolation these men felt."