Thursday 25 February 2021

James Anderson (1956 - 1994), The Opera Queen

A brief and enduring encounter

James Anderson was a friend of mine, we met one evening some 30 years ago at the old Brief Encounter pub on St. Martin’s Lane in London’s West End. I cannot say why he took a liking to me, but we got chatting, he got me a drink and then invited me back to his place.

Quite an intriguing guy, he lived in Bermondsey and his little apartment was crowded out with vinyl albums, 5,000, he told me, mostly to do with opera and operetta, he was a walking encyclopaedia of that genre of music and entertainment, long before I had any liking for it.

I left his place in the pouring rain to return to an apartment I shared with others only to find that I could not get in because I did not have the keys and I could not rouse anyone to open the door that late in the night. I went to find a phone box as this was before mobile phones became commonplace and called James about my predicament, still wet from the rain.

He kindly invited me back, gave me warm clothes, made me tea and we went to bed. That is how we began a friendship and I learnt that he was HIV+ with his health just about holding up. Over the next few years, I met up with James on all sorts of occasions. A humorous wit, a cheeky smile and almost always up to mischief.

Praying for the time

He also had a sense of urgency, he wanted to finish the second edition of his published book, The Complete Dictionary of Opera & Operetta and he did not know how much time he had left to get it done. He did get it all done and published.

In July 1993, we had a big 37th birthday party at his place in his honour, quite a few common friends were there, some I had also met before at the Brief Encounter. I did not realise that it was almost like a farewell party. James had been ill and developed AIDS, he seemed his jovial self but was probably putting up appearances. It was a rather jolly time.

A life cut short

Sadly, in early 1994 there was a two-page spread, a recognisable picture of a handsome and youthful man in a newspaper, I think the London Evening Standard, and there was a long tribute to the man we fondly knew as the Opera queen, James Anderson had died the night before due to complications of AIDS at the young age of 37.

I did not find out any details pertaining to his funeral, I just mourned privately, sad that such an amazing man had been taken from amongst us, like many others who I met and befriended after James. I cannot find anywhere James has been memorialised, not even on the UK AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Remembering the times

Of recent, I have been viewing memorials that have garnered some interest after the airing of the television series, It’s A Sin which documents a decade of lives of some young gay men affected by the AIDS crisis in London in the decade from 1981 to 1991. I have from time to time also searched online for James’ book, just to see if it was still in print.

However, this morning, reading a review of the book posted by a buyer in 2013, they complained the book was dated and some information was incorrect. This was a book researched long before the days of the Internet and I was almost ready to respond, that the only reason why the book had not been republished, updated and had current events and personalities were because, the author, died some 27 years ago.

All I have now of James Anderson is pictured in my mind, flashes of moments that defined our friendship, the danger that in my naivety I was unaware of and then accepted. He was the first person I knew who had the disease, it did not make him any less a wonderful person, he just passed on at a time when there was little to help his situation, as did many in the 1990s into the early 2000s.

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