For centuries plant hunters had been drawn to nature's unexplored margins in search of prize new specimens, often travelling at significant personal risk through hostile environments and contested political spaces. George Forrest's 1905 expedition was one of the most fraught of them all.
They never saw it coming. In January 1985 the Irish Haemophilia Society (IHS) carried out an HIV screening for 133 of its members. It was a precautionary measure, as a haemophiliac child had been admitted to the National Children’s Hospital with AIDS-like symptoms. Of the 133 members, 54 were found to be HIV positive. More tests were held and the infections reached 112 – a third of the society’s membership.
We know the old phrase that ‘History is written by the winners’. In some cases, this is true. But when it comes to HIV/AIDS, a story which offers no winners, the historical narrative has been shaped by the affected group that shouted loudest. In Ireland, this was the gay community, as activist organisations like Gay Health Action played a prominent role in educating the public about HIV/AIDS. This is, however, only a small fraction of a much messier narrative.
Following the Buggery Act of 1533, same-sex relationships were aggressively outlawed in the United Kingdom for over 400 years before decriminalisation in 1967. Just five years prior to that, in 1962 the Sunday Mirror had published a two page spread with the title ‘How to Spot a Possible Homo’. To persecute a person on the basis of their sexual preference had been the norm for centuries; it was the same in much of the world.
It has been argued that culture is created by the accumulation of communication pathways. Whether the highly localised codes and mannerisms that developed as a way of circumventing the political and social repression of sexuality in the 19th and early 20th centuries contained the seeds of today’s LGBTQ+ culture is debatable, but it does leave us with a fascinating cultural miscellany of slang, dress codes and even entire languages that were developed in order that members of the gay community could interact with one another safely.
In 1878, Russian mail workers intercepted four postcards sent from Moscow to St Petersburg. Each contained a series of short codes relaying chess moves, paired with an innocuous-sounding message. One, dated 29 October, reads: ‘Our club is growing, but the players are all bad – we haven’t yet had a single decent game.’
Across a covering note describing the postcards as suspect, an agent of the secret police has scrawled: ‘Chess!!!’ – the three exclamation marks pouring scorn on the notion that the messages might have anything to do with board games. This Imperial policeman was convinced that the king these players were manoeuvring against was in fact the tsar himself.
Chess-themed conspiracies were one of many problems to beset the authorities following the arrival of postcards in Russia. Even before they were introduced, postal officials worried they might give rise to ‘unpleasant confrontations between government servants and the public’. But little could have prepared them for the onslaught of messages that followed.