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Living The Dream: Interview With Rhidian Brook
You might think that we know all there is to know about the effect that AIDS is having in the world. Not so, apparently. God has had plans for an extra communication strategy involving heads of international corporations, the Salvation Army and an ordinary family from England.
And in divine style, he eschewed email or a personal appearance and went straight for the classic “tell-it-in-a-dream” policy that we know so well from the Christmas story.
The ordinary family includes Rhidian Brook, a screenwriter, who has written for the BBC Prime Suspect series and often presents their Thought for the Day, but who then had only just changed jobs from being a copywriter.
The dream came to part-time Salvation Army worker, Nikki Capp. She pictured AIDS being on the table at a meeting between media mogul, Rupert Murdoch; the head of GlaxoSmithKline, Jean-Paul Garnier; the head of the Salvation Army; and a micro-loans expert (who happened to be her husband).
Most dreams fade away with dawn and this one may have gone the same way, were it not for its divine provenance and a surprise meeting. A few weeks after the dream, Capp found herself in the same room as Murdoch's mother, herself a Salvationist and someone intrigued enough by the dream to use that indefinable maternal power to arrange a meeting with her son.
Bypassing the detail, the dream came true, Murdoch bankrolled a nine-month research visit by the family to several nations where AIDS has its most entrenched strongholds and the whole story can be read in Brook's travelogue More Than Eyes Can See.
Meeting up with him at the Greenbelt Arts Festival, where he had been presenting his story and advising young writers, I asked Brook how he set about getting people to listen to his message, when there has already been a host of people shouting it for the last two decades?
“I knew that I couldn't compete with those guys,” he replied. “In fact, a guy came to speak at our church – he's big in AIDS - and he bombarded us with stats. It was a very effective talk at one level, but on another level I knew that that was not the kind of book I was going to write. (He'd written a very definitive book about AIDS for the layman).
“I thought, 'I have my own voice. Part of my job is to make connections for people, put them in the situation, to have them where they can journey'. This book is an attempt to let people go on a journey that they obviously couldn't necessarily go on, and get beyond stats, get beyond facelessness, to engage with people and see the good stuff that's going on.”
That is just what he does. Maybe he is such a good communicator because of his sympathies. He writes in the book, after an exchange comparing Kenya with the UK, “If I had been a young man living in Africa in the mid-1980s and had my equivalent sexual history, I would be dead by now.”
As it was, facing death had been a factor in his life. He told me, “I was ill for two years before I became a Christian. I had quite a radical conversion from hedonistic good-time boy to someone who had to think about his mortality and work out what it was all about.”
As well as seeing the situation from both sides, Brook was the right man because he took his wife, Nicola, and their two children, Agnes and Gabriel. This enabled him to be accepted quickly into the local community in Kenya, where they were based, and so to understand the full dynamic of how AIDS affects the nations where it has its strongest roots.
Rhidian explained what his family brought to the trip, apart from opening doors for him. “It was a big deal that we went with a six-year-old and a nine-year-old. There was a thought,'Will this hinder my ability to do the work?' Of course it was the very opposite: the children gave us a favour that we wouldn't have had if I'd been solo as a writer. Added to that, we were family, so people warmed to us for that reason. They could see that we were doing quite a big thing. That spoke to them. Children obviously ask the right questions and help you see things you might miss. They connect to other kids. So they did help us see more in all sorts of ways.”
His introduction to the scheme was to join a salvation Army AIDS response team in Kenya, whose methods failed to make a good impression on him – at first. Often without retro-viral drugs or other medical supplies, a bunch of men would take a day to visit an AIDS patient and talk to them. Measured in man-hours this could be considered a waste of time, but Brook soon came to believe that such expressions of kindness were “holding the world together”.
One particular act of kindness that struck Rhidian was when they went to visit a woman in her fifties with cancer. His son Gabriel had slipped en route, leaving his foot covered in mud and ordure. She gave up her only water supply, kept in a gasoline flagon, to meticulously clean his foot, leg and shoe.
Between weeks in their “base camp” at Kitithumi the family moved out to other AIDS hotspots, such as Rwanda, Zimbabwe, India, China and the American West Coast, each with their own slant on the pandemic.
In India they visited Satara, where every night men paid to go to a field beside the bus station to watch and have sex, and to Mumbai, a city with a staggering quarter of a million sex workers. Later, they moved on to Calcutta “to see what unadulterated poverty and indifference really look like when they collide”. Brook was angered by the sheer scale of unfaithfulness, and its “bastard son” of AIDS.
In Rwanda, much of the disease came from rapes inflicted during the genocide; in China it was farmers selling their blood to get money; in Zimbabwe there was denial; but wherever they went, poverty was the lead actor in the play.
As we spoke, it was still too early for Brook to digest the whole experience, but he knew that he learned community from the Africans. “They're supportive of each other,“ he asserted. “It partly comes out of the way their culture developed, their lack of industrialisation. But it also at its best comes out of knowing your need. They're much less individualistic. The down side of western life is the emphasis on the individual. There it is communal. You live and die communally, whereas here that's not necessarily the case. So I think we have a lot to learn about that.
“The antidote to that is love and relationship. We are relational beings. We believe in a relational God. As a church, we've really got something to show the world how we should live. It's not so much just the culture that has something to teach us; it's the faith expressed in those cultures: simplicity and total reliance on God, as opposed to when it suits us.”
This has led Rhidian to re-examine his idea of church. “The church is completely necessary and it is God's answer to the world – I'm absolutely sure of that – but what that looks like: It's still up for grabs, but I think we need a second reformation.
“You could argue, of course, reformation's happening all the time, and actually it is - it's renewal. But I think we're getting to a point where the denominational references – and I'm not preaching bland unity here - churches worrying about their own, promoting themselves, those days are over for me. I don't want to have any part of that. I'm not interested. I'm interested in the people I have relationship with when we gather, How do you live out your faith? How do you really live it out now?”
At a more professional level the experience has made him more aware of how his art works. “I’ve got something to say, I need to say it and this (long prose) is the medium I’m saying it through. I’ve done that through scripts as well. It’s feeling slightly less hostage to being a guy who writes about faith and just being a writer who can write about faith.
“It took me a while to work that out. Without faith I don’t think I would have been a writer. Those two things have gone together for me, given me the propulsion, changed the direction of my life; faith made me able to think in a way that I wasn’t thinking before.“
More Than Eyes Can See is a highly readable account of the experience, published by Marion Boyars Publishers