Rid England of This Plague – Rex Batten

REOTP( group review here but this written in a personal capacity.)

This book, though far from being a literary masterpiece, is one of the most absorbing things that I have read for a long time. The author (if there is an element of autobiography in this novel) went to the same school as me but he is twenty-five years older than me. Many of the places and scenes he describes are deeply in my memory too. I suspect that he has been wanting to write it for many decades and finally got round to it as he became increasingly aware of his mortality during his retirement.

I hope that his testimony isn’t in vain because it is important reading for all who need reminding that we should never things for granted. Freedoms fought for are always in danger of being eroded. Think Germany in the 1920s and the abrupt changes of the 1930s.

The title reflects words of the early 1950s the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyffe, who claimed he would ‘Rid England of this Plague’ – the plague of homosexuality. “Paradoxically,” says the author, “It was the reaction to the zeal with which the Establishment carried out the Home Secretary’s behest that resulted in the setting up of the Wolfenden Committee when the first steps were taken to rid of the plague of Homophobia.

Had this book been written forty years earlier, it would have been suitable as a credo for the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (much as the Dirk Bogarde film ‘Victim’ changed attitudes.). White the 1967 act partially decriminalised homosexual acts and marked an end to blackmail, few remember that more police surveillance of ‘cottages’, more arrests and suicides took place in the decade that followed the change in the law.

The police were ignorant, however. That a man could smoke a pipe was enough proof that he wasn’t gay. Too manly. (Maybe they’d read: Fifteen Ways to spot a Queer’ It is not difficult to pick out queers they invariably walk with mincing steps. Their walk is the reverse of a manly stride and causes the characteristic wobble of the buttocks. They often flick their eyes up to the right to emphasise a point

At the beginning of a conversation a man who is one of those will keep his hands still, but as he talks his gestures become more and more exaggerated. They wear suede shoes. Men of a homosexual disposition are often colour-blind, and they can rarely sing in unison. They often remain bachelors. They look effeminate and have high-pitched voices. Homosexuals are mummy’s boys and later in life are good to their mothers. Such men rarely drink pints of beer in mugs. They prefer half pints in glasses. They smoke- cigarettes in holders. They never smoke pipes. They adore operatic sopranos, and like the theatre in general. A man who is a lady’s hairdresser is invariably one. Boys allowed to play with dolls often develop female tendencies in adulthood. They cannot whistle. The index finger and the fourth finger are, invariably, the same length.

Imagine living in a village where the nearest phone box is half a mile away.

Imagine being unable to send vital information by letter since it might be incriminating.

Imagine: Penicillin had liberated sex. Sexually transmitted diseases, diagnosed in time, interrupted one’s activities for a few weeks but they were not life threatening. AIDS was years away. As far as the clinic was concerned, if you did land yourself with a dose of the clap, you caught it from a female. To admit it was a male would have been unthinkable, even if the doctor knew better. Though one lab technician told Tom a bloke claimed he got the clap, gonorrhoea, on a railway station. How or where on a railway station? The patient would not admit it was in the GENTS…… Michael had broken the law and his crime would have been seen as being greater than using drugs to commit a robbery. The powers that be would have put the blame totally on Michael. Had he not been soliciting for an immoral purpose the watch would not have been stolen.

To be slightly indelicate, Brylcream was the usual lubricant and circumcision was favoured because of lack of hygiene in those days in tin baths once a week.

People got pleasure wherever it was to be had during the war. You never knew if this day were your last. Attitudes changed post war, yet: In later life, Tom Adamson felt that though he had never worn a uniform, or marched carrying a gun, he did do his bit for the war effort Though official recognition will never be given, he is certain his visits to the various GENTS did help to keep up morale. It must have been much easier for quite a number of serving men to face the macho barrack room after a, not bad looking, country lad had lightened the load in their underpants.

It is frequently asserted, nowadays, that the labels which previous generations ascribed to themselves are meaningless to today’s young people. They like sex, regardless of the gender of their partner. Kinsey’s 5% applied to a former generation. However, it is quite clear that many young men in previous generations ‘dabbled’ before they settled down and got married. They are labelled ‘TBH’ = ‘to be had.’

I am sure there is some anachronism in suggesting that parts of the Health and efficiency magazine were airbrushed out. Wasn’t airbrushing a technique that came in with computers? Along with ‘recycling bin’ that also gets a mention?

Of the ‘criminal’: If charisma is the result of genes Ash had inherited a warehouse full of Levis. I was somewhat miffed to find him being described as ‘old’ when he reached age fifty.

Were the police merely vindictive homophobes or did they believe that they could ‘help’ people? Were they lying when they said: You are young with a future. Are you going to let this man destroy it all? I don’t need to spell it out Young men do grow out of it and we think you may have. That is why we want to help you. You help us and we will help you.

“Most religious bodies would have been horrified at any admission of homosexuality. As repentant sinners they might be accepted but only on condition they kept absolutely silent about their sins. A reformed alcoholic, a blasphemer or even an adulterer could be accommodated but a (the word no decent lips could speak) came in a very different category.

Tom could see no point in thinking further ahead than each day. Michael was different. He had read that some defendants in homosexual cases were to receive treatment. Apparently, a cure was available. A very up to date medic advised aversion therapy, involving an electric shock every time you were shown a picture of a naked male. Treatment designed to put you off wanting to look at men, or that bit of the male body you found most attractive. Then to assist the cure you were given something you really liked, maybe a sweet, when you were shown a picture of a naked female. Sometime later an acquaintance of theirs did opt for such treatment and ended up an alcoholic.

With Michael’s strong Anglican background, silent prayer offered hope. The plea each night, kneeling by their beds, was for forgiveness and absolution. Again it was Michael who took the initiative and they went to a church in Camden Town a couple of times, but sat at the back without any contact being made with either the clergy or members of the congregation. Tom was lost in a maze of conflicting ideas and emotions. Then, apparently out of the blue, Michael began to talk of a High Anglican church off Oxford Street and insisted they should go. Tom had no idea what High Anglicanism meant but was receptive to any idea. He never asked how Michael had learned of this particular church or how he discovered the Reverend Father would welcome them knowing the trouble they were in….The theatricality offered escape into a realm, high up in the bright blue yonder, where there were no prison bars. In face of the impending disaster, Tom’s father’s pragmatic Methodism seemed so totally inadequate. Tom had no difficulty in rationalising that when worshipping the great creator of the universe the informality of the village chapel was almost irreverent If one would bow to an earthly monarch what then should one do to ‘Him’ who is above all?”

The role of Anglo-Catholicism is important. Gay men would be hard put to find a lawyer to represent them if in court. They’d have to lie to a doctor if they caught an anti-social disease. The Samaritans had yet to be founded. Yet we know, from works by the Victorian Society, that churches such as All Saints Margaret Street, which features in this book, were havens for gay men – not just because of the theatricality of the liturgy but because of the availability of sacramental confession. Way back in the late Nineteenth century, men were advised, able to speak in confidence, heard non-judgementally. (Minor niggle: living in Camden, the couple would have found many Anglo-catholic churches on their doorstep instead of having to travel to the West End. Likewise many of the oldest gay pubs. Also a query: the priest in the book publishes a ‘Letter to a homosexual’.  Such a letter was published very early in the Twentieth Century from All Saints Maggie Street – is this an anachronism?)

This needs to be heeded in today’s Anglican Communion.  Many of these Anglo-catholic churches are now mired in misogyny and homophobia. In Uganda and Nigeria, Anglicans are supporting tougher laws, brutal policing and even the death penalty. Who says that history always results in progress?

As for a ‘cure’, what an amazingly stupid psychiatrist who charged 4/5ths of a weekly wage merely to say that if you fantasize about men in trousers it is easy to switch to women in trousers, now that that is acceptable.

There are quite a few flashbacks – is this to provide titillating stories to entire the reader to stay with the book? If so, then I hope they succeed in making younger people aware of their history.

A lovely, true story. John Guilgud had been arrested for cottaging so everyone was wondering what would happen when he next appeared on stage. He received a standing ovation. Alleluia!

Some puns and some childish misunderstandings – some amusing, some not: Sodomy is when the paths of rectitude lead up the rectum tube”

“Lying one man with another is an abomination.”

To the ten-year-old Tom that was simply stating the obvious. For one man to lie was bad enough but when two did it together, well, they deserved to get into trouble. No wonder this man went wild.

“Man’s duty is to go forth and multiply.”

Tom was quite good at sums so that was all right Then the preacher man added a complication; “To waste your seed on the ground was a sin.” Tom’s dad always put his seeds in the ground.

Such mixed metaphors were confusing to the lad. What sums and gardening had to do with being paid, and being paid to sin, was more than he could figure out; and if all this sinning made you so miserable, as he heard with boring regularity, why not do something to make you happy? ……It did not enter Tom’s head that what the older boy had shown him in Lovers Walk Wood had anything to do with the tears being shed in the pulpit Why should it? Neither of them felt miserable after, and he had learned a lot, and it couldn’t be sin since neither he nor Derrick was old enough to be  paid any wages.

A pun with a purpose: ‘Go and sin no more.’ A lifetime of keeping one’s penis soft was going to be hard. (If such a rule is part of the ‘game’ of sacramental confession, is it time to give up the game and live by one’s own conscience?)

After all: It was a very confused Tom Adamson who sat in the Reverend Father’s study. He was feeling lost He had actually enjoyed remembering the encounter with G.I. Joe. Time had most probably glamorised the incident but he did realise it was the point where his attitude to sex changed. Simple animal sex can be great fun. It can satisfy a very real need and get rid of a mass of frustrations but something more than that is needed. The G.I. showed him that two men can give each other warmth and affection and it was this Tom’s whole being was screaming for. That contact and warmth was now denied him. It had been replaced with fear and guilt, generated by unjust attitudes and laws. He was penalised because he wasn’t made the way society said he should have been and that was his fault and his hard luck!

It is not true that those who are ‘promiscuous’ care nothing for their ‘prey’ but are merely using people for their own selfish ends: Tom often thought of his G.I. He met others who were more handsome, more manly but it was never quite the same. His G.I. was not in the hunky male class. His body was light and delicate. He was special. Tom often wondered if he survived the war.

Would a teenage boy, on joining in gossip about a girl made pregnant by an American GI, retort thus?: “That is what comes of playing around with officers.”

To which Tom interjected, “I always thought it was the privates that caused the trouble.”

I was torn between eking this book out so as to savour these people who I now thought of as fiends and racing to the end to see what happened to them. The race won.

There is a parallel with today’s debate about gay marriage. Fear of arrest and blackmail meat that many had one night stands, resulting in sex addiction and a fear of stable relationships. The very law that persecuted gay men perpetuated their ‘crime’.  If gay marriage blesses ‘living in sin’, how much more is its denial encouraging the ‘sin’ of ‘promiscuity’?

For those who say that we’ve come a long way, why is it that three times as many gay teenagers attempt suicide as straights?

return to the home page

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: