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Remembering Terrence “Terry” Higgins

7 min read

He was one of the first to die of AIDS and his friends founded a charity in his name both to honour him and personalise the fight to end the stigma of the disease. Forty years on, Vanessa Clarke remembers her friend and fellow Hansard scribe Terrence “Terry” Higgins.

When Terry Higgins applied to join Hansard half a century ago, homophobia was still rife and Parliament was no exception. At that time, the senior staff (exclusively male) reported the Chamber and worked downstairs, while the junior staff (almost exclusively female) reported the committees and worked in the “Wendy Hut”, a prefabricated structure bolted onto the side of the Press Gallery, ruled over by a supervisor who was in a long-term relationship with the reporters’ boss downstairs so she always had a bigger bully to set on you. 

Into this situation came Terry, not so much a breath of fresh air as a one-man tornado. But he almost didn’t make it – not because he hadn’t passed all the tests with flying colours, but because the chap interviewing him feared he might be “queer”, and if he was, we weren’t taking him. To resolve this conundrum, I was sent up to the Press Bar to join them and report back. Terry and I looked at each other, and as if by mutual consent I pretty much threw myself at him, and he enthusiastically reciprocated. Later, I had the joy of overhearing the interviewer tell the supervisor: “Well, I was quite wrong about that one – Vanessa was eating out of his hand and she’s the coldest shoulder in Westminster.” My first rather eccentric foray into gay rights.

Generous to a fault – he would give his shirt to anyone who needed it, and to his friends he would give not just his heart but his soul as well

So, Terry got the job, and set about fixing a few other injustices. Trade unions existed in Parliament, but they didn’t yet have proper recognition and direct access to the employer. It was more like an old-style staff association: you put your views to your boss and they represented them (or not) to the main employer. Naturally, the supervisor and her boyfriend had that carved up between them, and no one else got a look in. Terry disapproved, of course, and with the blessing of union headquarters a proper election was held. I was elected chair and Terry was secretary. 

There was hell to pay. Terry was a great big Welshman, six foot tall, and powerful with it. The supervisor’s boyfriend was the same size and weight, but 20 years older. One day I was in her office trying to negotiate some small improvement in conditions when in walked the boyfriend. “How dare you!” says he, grabbing me by the shoulders and shoving me out into the corridor with such force that my head hit the opposite wall. At which point, along came my loyal branch secretary. “What’s going on?” said Terry. I was so shaken, I just gestured towards the office and in he stormed. Marching up to the older man, I heard him roar: “You lay a finger on my union chief again and I’ll drop you right here in this room, so help me!” By this time, everyone was standing around watching, and staff relations were never quite the same again.  

Terry was terrific, hugely popular, especially with the women, but he did like a drink. He would sometimes go off on a Friday and by Monday have little idea what had happened in the meantime. One Monday, he didn’t appear at all, but he turned up as usual on Tuesday. “Whatever happened this time?” “You won’t believe this,” Terry said. “Try me,” said I, wondering how on earth we were going to get him out of this one. “Well,” said Terry, “I woke up in full evening dress on a double bed in the Rock Hotel, Gibraltar. No idea how I got there, but fortunately someone had paid the bill and left my passport and return flight ticket at reception.” 

When the House wasn’t sitting, Terry worked as a copytaker on Fleet Street – he typed liked the wind – and I believe also a barman. But halfway through the month he had always spent all his money. Could he borrow? Yes, of course. He always paid it all back, and at the end of the month would appear on my doorstep with a bottle of champagne and a bunch of roses wanting to take me out. I would say: “And where will we be halfway through next month, Terry?” But that’s just how he was. Generous to a fault – he would give his shirt to anyone who needed it, and to his friends he would give not just his heart but his soul as well.  

He was a lovely bloke and we had some fantastic times together, both in Parliament and outside. One place he took me to was a rather exclusive club not far from the House of Lords, full of MPs and peers, but I felt very awkward in there and got out as quickly as I could. We went to another really fun place, though, somewhere up Leicester Square way, I think, full of delicious young men dressed up to the nines. At one point, Terry said he was just popping out but he wouldn’t be long. It was perfectly safe and he always looked after me, I just wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do in there with all those gorgeous young men. 

Terry took pity, putting his hand in his pocket and pulling out a handful of shillings. “Here,” he said. “If you don’t know what else to do, just shove these in the fruit machine over there.” So I slunk over to the one-armed bandit, hoping all the guys would just get on with whatever they were getting on with, and not notice this rather ordinary looking female in their midst. And I quietly fed a shilling into the slot machine.  

Those things never ever pay out, do they? Except that this one did. And it kept right on paying out, clattering and rumbling away for what felt like an eternity. Everything else seemed to come to a halt, and there were shillings everywhere and still more pouring out, with all the lovely lads scooping them up and me holding out my skirt like a milkmaid while they shovelled them in. The expression on Terry’s face when he walked back into all this must have been a picture – I wish I could remember it. All I remember after that is trying to pay a cab with a heap of these shillings and the driver giving us a very weird look.

I don’t remember how long Terry worked for Hansard, as we remained friends long beyond then. I followed in his footsteps campaigning for better conditions, eventually broke the glass ceiling and finished up in the editorial room, having got gay rights written into the House of Commons equality statement along the way. Meanwhile, Terry worked for a while in the Middle East and visited North America, spending his money as fast as he earned it, but always turning up back on my doorstep with the customary champagne and roses.  

Until one summer he didn’t. One of our colleagues was seriously worried, pressing me to contact his friends to make sure he was OK. We were working flat out, night and day, so I promised to check later in July, as soon as the House rose for the summer recess. What I found then was that while my colleague had been getting so upset, Terry had been in St Thomas’ Hospital just across the river. For decades I felt guilty, fearing he had died alone and knowing he would never have let that happen to me. Only now, 40 years on, am I totally reassured that that was absolutely not so, and that Terry had finally found a partner worthy of the love he was always so willing to give.

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