Joe Orton was brought up in an ordinary family, on an ordinary estate, in ordinary Leicester. He became one of the most extraordinary, startling writers ever. Orton was also a ragingly promiscuous homosexual, at a time when it was disastrously illegal. And in 1962 he and his lover, Kenneth Halliwell, went to prison. For defacing library books.
They had been acting out an elaborate prank at their local library in Islington. Incensed by the poor choice at Essex Road Library, they began stealing books. These were smuggled out, dust jackets altered, new blurbs written on inside flaps and then surreptitiously returned. 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 which much of Orton’s later written work would rail. 'Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves for rubbish and hardly any space for good books,’ Orton said in 1967. They had been under suspicion for some time and extra staff had been brought in to catch the culprits, but with no success. They were eventually caught by the careful detective work of Sydney Porrett, a senior clerk with Islington Council. A letter was sent to Halliwell asking him to remove an illegally parked car. Their typed reply matched typeface irregularities in the defaced books and the men were caught. One of the blurbs they replaced with their own was in Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness: There was an Orton exhibition a couple of years ago at the New Walk Gallery in his home city, which included a couple of these book covers, but a new exhibition of them has recently opened at Islington Museum. I wonder if there are any books at all now in Essex Road Library?