‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’
Before Joe Orton became famous as a writer, he and boyfriend Ken Halliwell had already gained public notoriety together. In 1962 they were jailed for six months and fined for theft and malicious damage, having been convicted of stealing books from Islington’s Central and Essex Road Libraries.
Orton later hinted they had been sparked off by the poor choice of books available at the Library. “I was enraged that there were so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books. … Libraries might as well not exist.” An early novel co-written by Orton and Halliwell suggests another alternative. In The Boy Hairdresser, one character describes his own library transgressions: “We’re public benefactors in a way. We steal—the shops order more—the publishers are pleased—everyone is happy. We finance literature.”
Over three years they had been altering book covers, adding lewd new blurbs to dust jackets, swapping heads and pasting in surreal and satirical collage – then replacing books secretly on the shelves. They also used torn out illustrations to decorate the walls of their Noel Road flat with a growing collage.
These acts of guerrilla artwork were an early indication of Orton’s desire to shock and provoke. His targets were the genteel middle classes, authority and defenders of ‘morality’, against whom much of Orton’s later written work would rail against.
“The two spent every moment together, reading, writing, and living cheaply off brown bread and baked beans. Halliwell was older, middle-class and better educated; Orton his handsome young protégé, given the foundations of a classical education from the confines of their apartment, with its yellow-and-pink checkered ceiling. They shunned electric light to save money, sometimes going to bed at 9:30pm, and lived a puritanical, even hermetic, life.
They had been lovers, friends and co-conspirators for over a decade when they began doctoring the library books, using stolen pictures and their Adler Tippa typewriter.”
For over two years, Orton and Halliwell smuggled books out of their local libraries, and then returning them, er, slightly edited…
Orton hid books in a satchel; Halliwell used a gas mask case. They would take them home, redo their covers and dust-jackets, and then slip them back onto the shelves.
The couple added collages and new text ranged from the obscene – a Dorothy Sayers whodunit acquired blurb about some missing knickers and a seven-inch phallus, with the warning “READ THIS BEHIND CLOSED DOORS! And have a good shit while you are reading!” – to the bizarre or merely mundane…
To a collection of plays of Welsh dramatist, Emlyn Williams, new and exciting apocryphal titles were added: “Knickers Must Fall,” “Olivia Prude,” “Up The Front,” and “Up The Back.”
“The collages on the covers were no less subdued, and often overtly queer. On the cover of a book of John Betjeman poetry, a middle-aged man glowers in scanty black briefs. His body is covered entirely in tattoos. A now mostly forgotten romance novel, Queen’s Favourite, was redone with two men wrestling, naked to their navels.”
The walls of their one-bedroom apartment, were adorned by a collage Halliwell had made from thousands of stolen pictures; while another 1,650-odd pictures were stashed around the apartment.
Mythical beasts jostled for space with tabloid headlines and Renaissance high art: a grotesque ape-horse hybrid wore a map of Australia as its tutu.
Other covers showed a monkey, gazing astonishedly from the middle of a flower, on the Collins Guide to Roses, and giant cats on an Agatha Christie novel.
Possibly the sharpest comment though, in “an act of queer as well as class protest” (Emma Parker) can be seen on their detourned cover of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII – the king, who introduced a law in England making sodomy a criminal offence, punishable by death. The old mad bastard gets the full Orton-Halliwell treatment – he has had his arms cut off at the elbow, while his army swarms away from him.
Many other of the improved book covers celebrated queer love, one way or another: On the cover of Othello, Othello looks past the naked Desdemona, whose hand hovers suggestively above her crotch. Behind him a man points an arrow at his backside.
But the subversive and groundbreaking artform Orton and Halliwell were creating was not to everyone’s taste… Other readers of Islington’s library books had begun to come across the altered books and complain to the library. As the pair gleefully retouched book after book, the librarians at Essex Road library, began to observe regular users in an attempt to expose the culprits.
As a librarian later wrote in the Library Association Record, “it was possible to observe individual readers more closely and to notice which possible culprits had been in the library before ‘finds’ were made.” The head librarian’s suspicion settled on Orton and Halliwell, who were generally seen together in the library, and whose shared address was easily discovered.
Once they were under suspicion, the investigation expanded – the library staff called in the cops, who suggested staff from other library departments keep Halliwell and Orton under observation at Essex Road, to try to catch them red-handed replacing books on the shelves. However, this proved unproductive. “After several weeks of unproductive observation,” chief librarian Alexander Connell wrote, “we contrived to obtain a sample of typewritten matter.”
This was the work of Sidney Porrett, the Islington Borough Council legal clerk, who made this something of a personal vendetta. “I had to catch those two monkeys,” he later said. “I had to get results.” Porrett seems to have sussed the ‘queerness’ in the case, not hard from the obscenities on the covers; he observed after the trial, “They were a couple of darlings, make no mistake.”
Porrett composed a scam letter, addressed to Halliwell, urging him to reclaim a car parked in the street, apparently registered in his name. As intended, this provoked Halliwell into a stroppy reply: “Dear sir, I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information? Whoever they are, they must be a liar or a moron: probably both.” The letter was signed, triumphantly, beneath the salutation: “Yours contemptuously.”
But examining the typeface and idiosyncrasies in Halliwell’s reply, police were able to , match it to the transformed book covers… Suspicion became certainty…
Police came to the door of Orton and Halliwell’s flat at 9 a.m. on 28 April, 1962.
“We are police officers,” one said, “and I have a warrant to search your flat as I have reason to believe you have a number of stolen library books.” Orton replied: “Oh dear.”
The Metropolitan Borough of Islington sued Orton and Halliwell for damages: 72 books stolen and many more “mutilated.” The total damage was estimated to be £450—over $12,000 today.
Halliwell and Orton were sentenced initially to six months in prison, an unusually savage sentence that reflected the apparent shock of the magistrate, Harold Surge. “Those who think they may be clever enough to write criticisms in other people’s books, public library books, or to deface them or ruin them in this way,” should understand it was “disastrous,” he said in court, denouncing their actions as “sheer malice” toward other library-users. Orton later commented that the court had realised they were gay and that the severity of the sentence was ‘because we were queers’.
Orton’s family were not told he had been arrested and found out from a story in the Daily Mirror. Titled The Gorilla in the Roses, it was illustrated with the altered Collins Guide to Roses. William Orton had stayed up to read the paper and on reading the story ran upstairs to his wife with the exclamation ‘Our John’s been nicked!’.
Porrett didn’t think six months in prison was a sufficient punishment for the men’s crimes. On their release in September, he threatened them with a charging order for the remaining £62 of damages they’d not yet paid. This would have given him power of sale over their mortgaged apartment to meet the unsettled debt.
The £6 a month Orton and Halliwell paid to this came out of their benefits—around a quarter of their income. For a comparatively mild crime, they had lost their jobs, gone on benefits, spent six months in prison, and “paid practically all our pathetically small bank accounts.”
Within a year, Halliwell tried to slit his wrists.
“Orton, on the other hand, channeled his rage into his art, and began pumping out plays. “[Prison] affected my attitude towards society,” he said, later. “Before I had been vaguely conscious of something rotten somewhere, prison crystallised this.” First, a radio play for the BBC—then plays performed around London, which attracted the attention and praise of British dramatist Terence Rattigan. Rapidly, he became well known and then quite famous, mingling with celebrities and asked to write a script for a Beatles film.”
In the way that acts of rebellion that in one decade get you sent down, but a few years pass and it becomes a fond memory… The book covers that Orton and Halliwell vandalised have since become a valued part of the Islington Local History Centre collection. Some are exhibited in the Islington Museum. The same local authority that prosecuted them now lionises them… A cynic might say that of course, Joe Orton later went on to become famous, and died, so he can be used to sell Islington a little as a tourist attraction, while if someone did the same as Ken and Joe today they’d still get prosecuted. Rebellious acts of any stripe can be acceptable – as long as they’re safely in the past.
It has been suggested that the two different prison experiences of Halliwell and Orton mark the beginning of the diverging of their fortunes that would end in Ken bludgeoning Joe to death in a depressive jealous rage, five years later. Orton found prison useful in pulling together his view of the world, and the lesson seems to have set him on his way to his onslaught on social mores. Ken’s already depressive nature only grew more marked and more morose; Orton’s increasing success as the ’60s went on highlighted to him both how he was not making something of himself, but also how Joe was drifting away from the relationship. Although the murder and suicide of August 1967 casts a long shadow backward… I always think of them both when I visit Essex Road library…
There’s a good website on Joe Orton’s life and death: http://www.joeorton.org/
Some of this post was sourced from here
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar