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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David Fuller

David was the second longest-standing, regular member of our group, having joined in 2006. He had moved from London, where he had worked as a designed but found difficulty in getting relevant work here because automated online application forms require a degree before one can complete ad David’s good reputation was based on his portfolio.

We used to meet in a pub on the centre but, when this closed, he offered us the use of his beautiful flat nearby. For the next six years, that was our home.

The book group was very important to him, especially since his job wasn’t very fulfilling. “It pays the bills.” He said. He spent his lunchtimes reading the books we were to discuss.

He was a gracious host. I once spilt red wine on his white sofa. Whatever he felt inwardly, he told me not to worry – houses were meant to be lived in.

David designed our poster and book marks. David used to turn up at Pride and other events to disseminate the bookmarks whilst covered in a sandwich-board displaying the poster, front and back.

David was a perfectionist. Although it was ‘no trouble to host our meetings, I am pretty sure he spent a lot of time preparing for us… When numbers grew and I suggested that people should RSVP on a first-reply-first-seat basis, he said that he didn’t want to turn anyone away and that he could squeeze ever more people in. When likely top be late, he trekked across town to give me his spare key so that I could let people in. When visiting somewhere new, he tended to check out the journey by bus the day before so as not to be late.

David Fuller He has fond memories of his family’s Baptist Church in Balham where he’d been a member of the Boys Brigade and enjoyed ‘camping and dressing up.’  Not so happy were his school days. Instead of going to the local Grammar School with his friends, he was sent to the prestigious Alleyn’s School. His unhappiness there might account for his leaving at age 15 and not going to uni., something that dogged him later in life. He fell on his feet through a string of coincidences, being in the right place at the right time and getting to do the design job that he loved.

A few months before his death, David retired and moved to a delightful flat in Cliftonwood overlooking South Bristol as far as Dundry; a view which sustained him during his last days.

Our group was very good at visiting him, right up to the evening before he died. We were very impressed with the care given by St. Peter’s Hospice.

Members of our group commented thus on David: “always enjoyed his company.”

He provided “a ‘Friendly’ safe space”, “a lovely home and [was] an attentive host”

“I have much enjoyed his contribution, his humour and his insight.”

“David usually had a strong opinion on the book”

“his energy, his enthusiasm, his knowledge and his warmth and friendship…..The thing that I will remember most is his ability to always have something interesting and constructive to say about a book, even when criticizing it. If discussion flagged on a particular book, we could rely on David to always have something incisive to say, which stimulated more discussion. He leaves a big gap in our Group.”

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Michael Williams

MWmsOne of our regular members died, at the age of 79, on Monday 4th November 2013 of a heart attack (his third).

I have known Michael for thirty-five years. I was new to Bristol, knew hardly anybody, and his partner, Lionel, invited me for a meal. Hospitality was a major part of their life together.  On Christmas Day, over an hundred neighbours would pass through their doors, (I often washed up the glasses afterwards!) a custom that went back to the days when being gay wasn’t fashionable and often not acceptable. Christmas dinner in the evening was a delightful event. It was a fairly small gathering of those gay men who were on their own and who chose not to go home to their families, for various reasons. They say you can’t choose your family but you can choose your friends. I always felt that to be true – we set up an alternative community based on choice and like-mindedness. Boxing Day (Boxmas, Mike always called it) saw a bigger crowd, couples who’d had enough of other by then and were desperate to get out; people who’d been with their families the day before and felt the same.

Mike and Lionel’s home had been a hub for many gay men back in the day when the only meeting places tended to be cottages or seedy pubs. By contrast, here people could meet for food, chat and friendship. It was also a refuge. I stayed there for a few days when I was going through a very rough patch in my life. Their company and care is something I have always treasured.

His rebellious streak showed up early when he refused to stand up for a teacher who he didn’t respect.   Mike was a conscientious objector to National Service and worked as a porter at Southmead Hospital  instead. He trained to teach science at King Alfred’s College, Winchester, and taught at a secondary modern school and, later, as an FE college teacher and librarian. Education and pacifism were two of our many shared concerns.

He loved Italy, architecture, opera and music and directed plays. He played violin and piano and his house was full of books and CDs – if you picked up something you liked, he’d most usually give it to you. He was a volunteer at the Aled Richards (now Terence Higgins) Trust and, because he was also interested in local history served as secretary to the Brunel Society for twenty-one years. Here is a review of one of his books.

Mike had been adopted and bought up by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which gave him a sceptical but tolerant view of religion. He was in great demand, after his retirement as a Humanist officiant. As one who conducts funerals myself, I know how much time goes into preparing them. His preparation was thorough and meticulous. I also shared many of his humanist values, having more in common with him that with many of my co-religionists.

He was part of OutStories oral history project and can be heard describing how he met his life partner.

He attended our group regularly, from 2008 onwards. He welcomed one of our new members to the city. Other members member said, ‘My first visit to the Book Club was to a Christmas meal at Michael’s. I shall remember him with great affection. He was an amazing man, with such warmth and compassion towards those around him. I am sure that he will be greatly missed by a great many people.’  ‘I enjoyed meeting him and having him tell me what a ‘nice young man’ I was.’ ‘He always struck me as a very warm and kind person, and when he used to have something to say about the book it was always to look for the positives in it.’ ‘Very smartly dressed but didn’t seem very orientated as to what we were talking about, but did say on leaving that he had had a very nice and convivial evening. RIP.’ ‘Even in the brief period that I knew him he showed himself to be a kind, gentle loving man.’

We began to worry two years ago when we were on a bus into town for a book group meeting and he told me that one of our members was in an am dram production. Two stops later, he told me the same thing again. On another occasion, he asked me why I wasn’t using my bus pass. I explained that I wasn’t yet old enough to possess one. Then, a little later, ‘Why aren’t you using your bus pass?’ Towards the end he forgot the book we were discussing. He seems to have enjoyed our company and said that he loved this group – it was a safe space where he didn’t feel scared. He also attended two other book groups, one of which was for ‘straight’ men but he dropped those groups while keeping ours on.

Dementia seems very cruel to many of us. However, Mike used to say that problem with getting old is that ‘bits start dropping off’. Having led a very active life and having kept healthy by daily exercise until prevented by diabetes perhaps he has been spared further illness and dependency.

Mike’s funeral was standing room only at the crem. I reckon there were about 150 people. He had so many friends – yet whenever I saw him it felt as if I was particularly special – as did all the others, I expect.

From The Guardian – Announcements: WILLIAMS, Michael, died 4th November in his 80th year. A dedicated teacher, librarian, socialist and humanist. He loved life and the arts, especially music. He was a loyal and generous friend who gave great support to many organisations including the THT. He remains in the heart of all who knew him. He is survived by Lionel Reeves, his partner of 48 years. Funeral at Canford Crematorium, Bristol, 2:30pm 22nd November. No flowers, donations to the British Heart Foundation.

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