Joe Orton, Fines, Prison, Vandalism
I am a library pariah. I’m deeply sad to say I owe Manchester Central over thirty quid for books I took out months and months ago. And still have. My university threatened to withhold my degree until I paid a staggering debt I owed them, for books I don’t think I ever really read. Some nonsense about Russian Cinema…maybe? It cost me about forty pounds.
As soon as those bad boys are on my shelf, something happens, and my brain thinks “these are now mine.” Stupid brain.
And then, when I come to return them, pay my fine, take the slap on the wrist, if a fine of thirty pounds can ever be called a slap on the wrist, I am met with the disapproval of librarians.
A friend of mine has studied to be a librarian and in a breach of the secret agreement they are all forced to sign (in blood) I have it on good authority that an entire term is spent teaching proper disapproval. It is a stylised, ritualistic art form, steeped in tradition, not unlike the Geishas of Japan. Each esoteric adjustment of the glasses, tilt of the head, tut of the tongue and arch of the eyebrow is a choreographed, symbolic gesture to shame and disgrace the tardy, the disorganised, the overdue.
I’ve been stung so much, so often, I’ve resolved never, ever to use a library ever again. It actually works out cheaper to buy the books.
But this is nothing. Small potatoes.
Joe Orton, one of my playwright heroes, writer of Loot and subject of the incredible “Prick up your Ears” (Screen play by Alan Bennet) had a bad run in with the library. The mischievous and subversive sense of humour that appalled sixties Britain, before finding an outlet in his work, was aimed squarely at Islington Library.
Over months and months, Orton and his friend, lover, and eventual murderer, Kenneth Halliwell, stole over seventy books, smuggled them out in a satchel. In their one bedroom flat they painstaking altered them. Monkeys faces, rude words, genitalia…anything that would offend and confuse polite society and delight the average twelve year old. Below is an exerpt from the brilliant BBC documentary A Genius Like Us. The tweedy irritation of the librarian ticks all my boxes, “Someone was attacking our books!” and the way he reads the altered dust jacket actually made me cry with laughter. Whoever made that man sit in front of that camera and read this hopefully received a huge pay rise.
Also, the guy who investigates the thefts and hunts Orton and Halliwell down actually comes across as being pretty cool. Like that guy from Life On Mars crossed with Arkwright from Open All Hours.
Trapped by a clever letter, a man with a hunch, and a bit of typewriter forensic science. They each got six months in prison. Six months…
This is another link. Joe Orton after being released from prison, smirking like he got away with it.
Interestingly, the altered books are now on permanent display at Islington Local History Centre.
The librarians versus Joe Orton. Who won? Joe Orton won.