Herbert P. ‘Rex’ Batten, 1928-2017, RIP

RexIn 2014, we read his book for Gay history Month.

Rex was born in rural Dorset in 1928. He moved to London to take up a scholarship at RADA as a contemporary of Joe Orton and Alan Bates. His dashing good looks earnt him the name ‘Rex’ in touring companies. After bit parts in films and free-lance writing for radio, Rex decided the acting life was not for him and spent most of his working life in teaching.

He was the author of ‘Rid England of This Plague’ a semi-autobiographical account of the persecution of homosexuals in the 1940s and 1950s . Rex Batten studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, as a contemporary of Joe Orton and Alan Bates.

In later life, Rex suffered from cancer which Ron Woollacott recalls he ‘never once complained’ and ‘remained cheerful and opti­mistic’. Following a period of remission the cancer retuined. Loved by all who knew him, neighbours rallied around to care for him at his home in Landells Road, East Dul­wich, but after a short period Rex passed peacefully away on the evening of Tuesday, 7th November

His partner John 1944-2017 died a few months before.

Rex was interviewed in.2012 by an academic for a book Queer 1950s: Rethinking Sexuality in the Postwar Years edited by Heike Bauer, Matt Cook

RBChapter 7 deals with the significance of the home, about which Batten writes much. ‘Home’, writes Richard Hornsey, was ‘one of the most contested sites in the concerted drive for social reconstruction and renewal in post war Britain in the 1950s: As a material place and as an ideal, it represented what could go right for the nation. It alluded to a companionate and nuclear form of family to which men and women brought their respective and highlv gendered skills, and to a coming gereration reared with a clear set of values aligned with respectability and good citizenship.’ The new welfare state was based on presumptions about the tight form and functioning of this unit, further ingraining it as the obvious and ideal base for domestic life. Home had long held this pivotal status in British culture, but it was given a fresh impetus in this period in ways that we can trace through novels.

Batten’s book ‘is valuable for what it suggests about the 1950s and about the complex dance men like Rex had to perform in living out their daily relational,, social and sexual iive5. But what is especially telling in Rex’s testimony is the way home is writ large in his accounts and carries multiple meanings and associations. It is, I argue, one of the key ways in which he oriented himself then and remembers that period in his life now.’

“Rex was 20 he moved I from his family home in Dorset into his lover’s house in a nearby village, Ile lived with Ashley not his real name) for a year and (when in the same house with his subsequent lover, John, moved to London when he got a place at the Royal Academy of of Dramatic Art. He and John lived first in a bedsit near Russell Square and then in another in Camden. In 1957, the couple moved into a house in East Dulwich in South East London and lived there together until John’s death on Christmas Lye 1994. Rex still lives in the same house and has a new partner., also called John, to whom his novel is dedicated.”

He’d come from “a rural slum was an apt description…. Hew in Lower Budleigh was another world. Torn was impressed._ The transformation Ash had worked moved the man into a realm well beyond sirnple sex. He had created a show­piece…the perfect recreation of the archetypal cottage that never existed.”

Ashley’s interior transformation is a partial articulation of upper-middle class and self-consciously tasteful homosexuality whereas Rex’s parents’ home is characterised by emotional bonds.

When Ash divorced, it had been the ‘better pieces of furniture’ he had clung to tenaciously, hiding them in a barn. toprevent her family getting their hands on them.

Ashley ‘would casually mention country house parties in the days before the second world war’, writes Rex. At these parties and in these homes, “footmen served dinner nude with their cocks and balls painted gold.”  These were like the Mayfair apartments “where worrking-class men and guardsmen might be corrupted.’

But these contemporary activities of a decadent queer past seemed out kilter with postwar austerity. The war had blown the smart world of the 1930s into the past.

“Tom’s new boyfriend. Michael, is, meanwhile, shown in the novel to be more equal in terms of age, class and moneyand the compan­ionate domestic relationship is apparently more in tune with the new era. Michael moved into the cottage with no consultation and ostensibly ‘no great plans’ – the move to cohabitation itself signalling the desire for a relationship with Toni (he did not want to ‘risk being turned down);’ Ashley meanwhile, went to ‘take care of his ailing widower father’ and left the two younger men to it.’ Rex characterises this time as ‘a simple domestic period’ with little intrusion from the outside world, he emphasises repeatedly the equality of the partnership in terms of sex and domestic chores especially, and in the novel and

in interview the home is pivotal to the way Rex describes the initial and subsequent stages of their relationship. At moments of crisis, the domestic represents normality and continuity and comes as a mode of reassurance.

“… the narrator remarks that ‘both. in their different ways, had been bought up to conform’. Their shared experi­ences and understandings of home provide a means of speaking to each other and to family; friends and neighbours about their relationship and intimacy in ways which might not have been easy to articulate directly. For Tom and Michael/Rex and Tom the domestic space offered a haven in which discretion was not a burden, and the unspoken was not seen as oppressive or repressive. The men were held bythe benign inarticulacy of those around them and the ongoing ordinariness of the day-to-day. In the nonel, when John returned to Dorset in the
wake of Ashley’s arrest, his mother was waiting’: She cooked him breakfast while his father was at work. Everything was fine. Vic wagged a welcome and jumped and barked insisting he would take Ton for a walk.  After their brush with the law, he turned more to his family because ‘support was there without having to ask or explain. Rex  an John didn’t tell any of their London friends about what had happened to them; the wartime slogan ‘careless talk costs lives perhaps found new resonance…for queers in the early to mid-1950s…….. the escalating arrest and prosecution rate reaching an all-time high in 1955,

Tom took care not to put his family in the line of homophobic abuse”; he ‘valued them far too highly’ – it was relatively easy for him’ to do, partly because of his own domestic circumstances and “his validation of home and what it represented. This engagement with the domestic and familial, which tugs against wider press. characterisations of those ‘evil men’  haunting street corners and public toilets, resonates with a 1950s reformist discourse which stressed domestic accord as a way of legitimising homosexuality.

“What Rex and John sought in their East Dulwich home was the space to conduct their relationship without standing out from those around them. They ‘just wanted to he accepted in the new street’. The two felt a sense of local community which did not stop at a bedsit next-door. ‘It was very much a south London working class street he said. Within a week, ‘half a dozen bread puddings’ had arrived from neighbours who doubted the ability of two men to look after themselves and the couple were subsequently invited to local parties.

Deliberately or not, their home was not flamboyantly different, from those of other postwar couples with limited disposable income. ‘All the furniture when we moved in was second hand, pre-war’, … They bought Homes and Gardens and ripped out the Victoriana (it was old fashioned, past a joke: you did not take it seriously’); covered a door with orange formica…..fashions change) and, like others of their generation, did not only use the parlour for best ‘

Whatever local knowledge there was about Rex and John remained tacit, and only in 1967 a full ten years alter they had moved in did they buy a double bed.

Aside from continuities with the local community there were ongoing connections with Rex’s Dorset home and village. The East Dulwich house belonged to a close family friend who had moved to Dorset, so allowing            and John to move in, ‘this was not only a piece of good fortune but a sign of the importance of familial networks. That Rex had this connection might also have helped in their integration into the neighbourhood; there was a sense. of continuity. Maps of his home county still hang on the wall. “These west country links embraced both Rex and John, and once, when Rex visited Dorset alone, his mother berated him for not bringing John with him: ‘he IS family, she had said, and don’t you ever do that again?’

They were the kind of couple addressed by the Wolfenden recommendations and the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 relating to the permissibility of sex between two men over 21 in private and they fitted into a refashioned postwar domestic culture which was seeing more and more (though far from all) couples living independently together, This is a more distinct and privatised version of homosexual identity than had been apparent., or possible before, especially tor men ‘without much money.

Previously, queers became resigned to living alone because for social reasons it would be difficult or impossible to live with another man.

When they ” gave me permis­sion to photograph it, he asked that I did not include the door number for fear someone might come and smash the glass.”

In the book, Rex “fictionalises his story, renders it in the third person, and uses pseudonyms. He thus preserves a distance between himself and the events he describes and so replays what was a felt necessity for many men in the 11950s who were queer themselves or who were writing about queer men.”

“Rex himself describes not having the language to describe himself or the subcultural “type’ he encountered as a younger man whilst at the same time ‘knowing’ what he wanted and was. He did not ‘come out to neigh­bours or his parents, but they knew and exercised those values of discretion, respectability and propriety which were…prized the postwar generation and did not necessarily signify a lack of care.”

It was a cold climate for gay men under Home secretary  David Maxwell Fyfe . The “sense of anxiety and fear about Rex’s documents was real and warranted.
And yet, running alongside this in Rex’s testimony is another set of memories: of prolific sex; of intimacy; support; and, the clincher, of home …..it provided a connection to the outside world and a mode of achieving legitimacy within it, and yet also functioned as a place of retreat as it did for a wider public. These understandings intersect and run together in Rex’s final comments in my interview with him.

he said, ‘you can’t buy a home, you’ve got to make it,…and I think home means to me. a place you can be together and you feel not cut off from the world outside but you are part of it and that great mass can do what they want outside.'” Rex’s ‘evidence of experience brings us into close touch with the resources and identifications of one queer man and one queer couple in the 1950s. These are unique to them, but they also help us to draw out broader circulating ideas and experiences about queer identilication and aspiration – and indicate the ways in which they often cling to family, to home as the basis of domestic life.

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