Friday, January 16, 2009

Review: Rid England of this Plague by Rex Batten

Rid England of this Plague
Rex Batten

Published by Paradise Press

Reviewed by John Dixon

‘Rid England of this Plague’ declared the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, and Mr Justice Goodfellow, among other legal worthies, set about the task, taking it into the remotest corners of the land, right down to the Dorset village of Lower Budleigh.

That was the early 1950’s, but as Rex Batten reminds us in his enjoyable and salutary novel ‘The past is only just over your shoulder.’

The plot is briefly told. On the outskirts of a small village Ashley Ashley-Jones holds discreet court. Tom, the novel’s hero, meets up and for a time lives with him, but later pairs off and moves to London with another house guest, Michael. They lose contact with Ashley-Jones, who a few years later is arrested for gross indecency. Tom’s address is found by the detectives; he and Michael are ‘visited’ in London, questioned separately, and kept in a state of inanimate suspension, the doubt and uncertainty affecting their careers and relationship.

Batten doesn’t relate the story chronologically. He starts with the dramatic appearance in the Dorset village of two police cars, and goes back and forth in time and place, comparing and contrasting different attitudes and practices in town and country, both before, during and after this Plague Purge. What he reveals is that for the most part a live-and-let-live attitude existed. Things went on unspoken in the country, a great deal went on during the war. The Purge, in fact, appears as a futile attempt to restore a ‘Manliness’ that certainly never existed during war-time. The people who knew Tom and Michael well – relatives, neighbours, landlady – had few concerns. And only when the Purge started did transient, peripheral characters – train passengers, etc – begin to make disparaging comments. Tom and Michael’s relationship did not falter because of the people around them, but because of an atmosphere of intimidation, the fear of being accused, on the most tenuous of evidence, of having done something pretty innocuous, years ago, and at the other end of the country.

Batten, as a former actor, has a good eye for the borderline between farce and melodrama. Several choice vignettes and anecdotes show that what now seems as teetering on the brink was once held as gospel. He also evokes the period extremely well. He doesn’t flinch from an aside, a comparison, nor a set piece on such venues as the White Bear and the Salisbury. He includes little-known facts; for example, that in the Yank army camps, the whites lived in huts, but the blacks had to make do with tents. There are also handy tips, such as the army cure for crabs was boot polish.

Despite all the stress undergone a positive outlook is maintained throughout. Not for Batten the stale old attitude that it was better in the Old Days, when it was discreet, exclusive, cliquey, with furtiveness making it more exciting. Yet Batten now fears the younger generation are unaware both of previous persecution and of the struggle to get to the present level of acceptance. He emphasises that freedom isn’t just won and automatically kept; it is often ‘granted’ on sufferance, with many opponents ready to exploit loopholes in the law.

The novel was published in 2006. It is an essential plank in the growing study of a particularly nasty era in gay history. It pre-dates the launch of the Proud Heritage Online Museum, and other works on the same theme such as Nicholas de Jongh’s play ‘Plague over England’ and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ‘The Pride.’

John Dixon has had several poems and short stories published, including in Chroma. He has won a prize in the Bridport Short Story competition, and was editor/contributor to Fiction in Libraries. He is a member of the Gay Author’s Workshop and is on the editorial board of and contributor to the forthcoming GAW short story anthology ‘People my mother warned you about.’ He hopes shortly to have his novel ‘Push harder Mummy, I want to come out’ published by Paradise Press. He has read his work at launches and several local LGTB events.



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