INTERVIEW / The lives and deaths of Christopher Spence: He has been many things to many people. Then something happened to a close friend that focused him on one clear goal

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LONDON LIGHTHOUSE, a centre for people with Aids, does not advertise the omnipresence of death. It is full of rose-pink brick, high, airy spaces, cheerful pictures, soft colours and comfortable furniture. Moving smilingly through this space are 500 staff, 350 of them volunteers, and a few dozen PWAs - the abbreviation for the politically correct term 'people with Aids': never patients, never victims. Lighthouse occupies a former school in west London, a dowdy old place that was transformed in 1988 into a stylish, light, modern building used by 1,500 people a week.

In three hours there I saw one person who was clearly gravely ill. Most of the others could have been anything . . . marathon runners, office workers . . . they looked just like anyone else. Not ill. Not gay. Not doomed. Normal. And that's the point, of course. Apart from the fact that they have Aids, they are normal. Sixty per cent of Lighthouse care users (another approved term) are gay men; around 15 per cent are women; the rest might have become infected through being haemophiliacs, drug users or by sheer chance. Hence the Lighthouse's careful terminology. No one is guilty; all are unlucky.

Christopher Spence, director of London Lighthouse, has witnessed literally hundreds of deaths in the last 8 or 10 years, ever since, in the early Eighties, Aids began to reveal itself. Yet some people tell Mr Spence that, paradoxical as it sounds, they are glad they have Aids. It has taught them to value life and time.

'You read accounts by those left behind of this very intense, very separate experience,' he says. 'It's all to do with the great difficulty we have in facing the fact that life is mysterious and full of uncertainties. People crave certainties, which is why Mrs Thatcher's message seemed so attractive for a while. We try to avoid the responsibility of working things out for ourselves; we're not very good at managing the great ambiguities of life and death. But here at London Lighthouse those great ambiguities are faced every day.

'Western societies' worship of youth and beauty made Aids a catastrophic thing. The everyday realities of deformity and old age, handicap, hunger and death are much more accepted in Third World countries. Our society colludes to deny death, although in fact it is absolutely omnipresent.

'I hope,' he says, fixing me with his mesmerising, film-star gaze, 'I hope people find here an environment in which they can manage the end of life, without being bullied or manipulated. I've found out over the years that death is different for every single person, every single time. If I think of the number of significant people in my life who've died because of HIV, I don't think I could draw a single conclusion. I just know I can't deny my emotional responsibility and loss. Unless the relationships we make with people in a setting like this are real - with all the usual components: like, dislike, love, hate, anger and tenderness - you may as well pack up. You must focus on living as best you can.'

Spence is, as my mother would put it, absurdly good-looking. At 49, he is blessed with a head of thick grey hair, almost too beautifully coiffed, and wears tactile fabrics - matt silk and crisp cotton and gorgeous polished chestnut brogues - in stylish colour combinations: an olive-green jacket with a striped blue shirt and an apricot tie. A computer could not design a more charismatic figure than Mr C Spence.

But do not mistake his seriousness. He was the driving force, the visionary leader, the fund-raiser (one of many), and is now the director of London Lighthouse. He attracts much adulation ('simply the most wonderful person I've ever known in my life,' one volunteer said as I left) and rather less criticism. Some of it is directed at his supposedly authoritarian style of leadership. Others question his own apparent sexual ambivalence. He still identifies with gay men but for the past five years has been happily married to an American woman, Nancy Kline. They have three step-daughters, all in their twenties, but no children of their own.

As a teenager, Spence seemed destined for the church, but changed his mind after a year of preliminary training. 'First,' he says, 'the other men on the course were mostly converts, zealots, with a quite different perspective from mine; and second, my homosexuality . . .' It was the first time he had mentioned it. He looks full at me with his big blue eyes: piercing, evangelist's eyes, and nods frankly - ' . . . which was the means whereby I was politicised. I was aware of that as a source of conflict, and I wasn't prepared to collude in burying it.

'My parents had a very difficult time over my homosexuality. I was 21 when I decided they had to know. I wasn't frightened of telling my mother so I told her first - I don't think it was a surprise - and said I needed her help in telling my father. She said, 'Oh darling, if it'll help, I'm quite prepared to tell him it comes from my side of the family]'

'It took him a long time, but after seven years he did accept it and came to think of my partner, Andrew, as another son. We'd been together since I was 20 and he was 28, and we lived together for 23 years. My father had the same difficulty all over again when I got married, aged 45.

'My wife was not the cause but the occasion for the separation from Andrew. She had become my primary investment in emotional support but the notion of marriage only snuck up on us later, to my great surprise. I married because I definitely chose to say, 'I want to grow old with this person'. '

Spence's life has swung with the mid-century pendulum; from the extremely rigid and conventional Fifties, via the liberal iconoclasm of the Sixties, to the present rigours of the recessionary Nineties. His parents came from naval families - their fathers had been lifelong friends in the Royal Navy. One of twins, he was born in 1944 in the Sussex stockbroker belt. He went first to a cathedral choir-school in Chichester and then to Bromsgrove, his father's old school. 'Suddenly I was plunged into muscular Christianity and the public-school system, and I hated it. I hated the conformity and lack of flexibility, and being no good either sportingly or scholastically, I had a very hard time.

'I was marked out for the church by my parents, particularly my mother, an ardent Anglo-Catholic. I went straight from school to a selection conference for training for the ministry, and was accepted. They sent me on to a preliminary course, during which I realised that I had no basis for this lifetime commitment. I had never lived in a town or done a job; it had been a very rarefied life.

'I decided to opt out for a period and I went to Liverpool and lived in a working- class area. I got a job as admissions clerk in the casualty department of a hospital and stayed for two years. There, for the first time, I discovered that I was competent at my job and people liked me. Every admission for this huge hospital came through me and I saw poverty and raw, messy life and it was a wonderful experience. From that moment I saw the church as an irrelevant institution and a terrible trap for me and I decided not to go ahead with it.'

Did he ever have a celestial experience?

'No. But I have had many extra-sensory experiences and I was always seen as a hyper-sensitive child. I was sort of tuned in to people. I used to have a very clear picture of what my life should be - I was probably about seven at the time - and I've never deviated from it. I knew that it would be to do with healing and ministry, so it's no surprise to find myself in middle life doing this.'

In Liverpool, Spence met Andrew, his first partner; but it may not have been by chance that at this time he chose to spend several months going round the world.

'My father had a friend who was big in shipping in Liverpool. My hospital time was up; I had to decide whether to go back and be a priest or not. 'Oh,' said this man, 'If you've got a decision to make you must take a trip in one of my ships.' So he got me a job as purser's clerk on a six-week trip from the Baltic to the African ports with a load of cement.

'When we got to Freetown, Sierre Leone, the ship was told to load for the US and come back to West Africa, so instead of six weeks it was headed for a nine-month trip. I had a choice: I could stay on board getting pounds 30 a month, or fly back. I didn't have anything to fly back to particularly - Andrew and I had not declared our feelings at this stage - so I stayed.

'They asked me to write an article for the shipping magazine when I got back, on the strength of which they offered me a job as a management trainee. I went to work in head office in Liverpool and simply hated it. It had nothing to do with the sea. Andrew was living in London and we wanted to live together, so in 1965, when I was 21, I applied for a job with Task Force, then a small, energetic voluntary organisation, and to cut a long story short, I got the job and within three years found myself its director. I had long hair down to my shoulders and wore flared trousers and smoked . . . I look back now in fear and trembling at my own audacity in trying to manage an organisation when really I knew nothing about anything.

'When I was 26 I became terribly ill with infective hepatitis and nearly died. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks, the ground completely cut from under me, and for the first time I was forced to stop and consider what I wanted instead of just letting life happen. I cried a lot, and knew that I wouldn't recover until I had sorted myself out psychologically and emotionally.

'At that time, Selwyn Lloyd was chairman of Task Force, and when he became Speaker of the House of Commons he invited me to come and run his private office. I did, and I loved it, but it cured me of politics. In 1976 he retired to the House of Lords, and I could see that there was no longer a real job there for me, but if I wasn't very careful I'd end up being a sort of nursemaid. He died in 1978, which was a seminal experience because I did nurse him at the end of his life and that got me interested in the issue of dying and loss, and in the way our denial of death was impeding social change. I had also done a three-year diploma in counselling skills, and - before the Aids thing had even begun - I set up a centre here in Lancaster Road called Lifestory.

'This provided a collecting point for people with HIV, and that was the start of Lighthouse. Around 1982/83 I was dimly aware of Aids as an American phenomenon that I remember' (he closes his eyes and pushes away with his hands in a vivid, unconscious gesture) 'absolutely denying. The American bath-house scene was not my scene and I didn't want to acknowledge that this might have anything to do with me. In March 1985 a close friend rang me up and said, 'I want to see you urgently', and I said, 'Come tonight'. He walked in and said, 'I've got Aids and I'm going to die'. By May he was dead.

'He was very ready to go, but at every turn his knowledge was contradicted and his choices were denied. I was so appalled by what happened to him in hospital, where he died on a trolley on a ventilator surrounded by people in masks and gloves that I thought, we must be able to do better than this. I just thought, this is horrible. It doesn't make human sense.

'I was aware I was in a strong position: in west London, a gay man with this particular interest in death and dying. After Frank died, I said to Nancy, 'I will not, if I can help it, let something like this happen ever again'. Within days Jonathan Grimshaw, who had just started a self-help network for people with HIV called Body Positive, rang me up . . . and then it just all mushroomed, and Lighthouse was the result.'

It is playtime in the children's school outside his window. Their shrieks and cries drift in, shattering the silence. In the main entrance lobby, two middle-aged men greet and embrace one another unselfconsciously. Which is well and which has Aids? It is impossible to know. Am I well or ill? When will any of us die? We know only that we hope to die well. London Lighthouse and Christopher Spence hope to enable people with Aids to die well. That's all.

(Photograph omitted)