Saturday, 26 February 2011


I wonder what playwright Joe Orton would’ve made of the current plans to close our libraries.

Exactly two months before lover Kenneth Halliwell smashed in his skull with a hammer in August 1967, Orton told The Evening News “Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves of rubbish and hardly any space for good books.” Whether it their disgruntlement at the available reading material or their natural flair for mischief, Orton and Halliwell’s relationship with the libraries of Islington and Hampstead played an intriguing role in their lives pre-Orton’s success with Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot on the London stage.

Joe and Kenneth began stealing library books in 1959 and continued until their arrest in 1962. They doctored dust jackets with simple collages and placed them back on the shelves to watch people’s reaction as they’d pull out The Collins Guide To Roses and wonder why an open mouthed gorilla was staring at them or if Emlyn Williams really did write plays entitled “Knickers Must Fall” or “Fucked By Monty”. Both of these examples of their handiwork, and four others, have been displayed in the Ancient and Modern Gallery this week. Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys is decorated with a cutesy cats getting married and the author Richard G. Stern has his portrait replaced with that of a prim looking woman.

As well as “improving” books, they also removed 1,653 plates from art books which they used to create a collage across the walls of their Noel Road flat (something I studiously copied for my teenage bedroom - but from legit sources). For this terrible crime of theft and criminal damage totaling £262 they received a sentence of – wait for it – six months imprisonment, starting off in Wormwood Scrubs.

Adam Gillam, Joe Orton/Kenneth Halliwell at the Ancient and Modern Gallery, 210 Whitecross Street, London, EC1 until 26 February 2011.


  1. I have Ed Ball of The Times to thank for turning me onto Joe Orton, it's fascinating that Orton & Halliwell's "work" is still on hand to view!

  2. They'd love the fact 50 years later those book jackets are hanging in galleries. Vindication!

    Remember The Times doing a soundtrack for Up Against It but have never heard it. Think I've only heard two/three songs by the band ever.

  3. This piece is a timely reminder to watch Prick Up Your Ears again. Very well portrays the "crimes" described and their outcome. And the whole Orton/Halliwell lifestyle of course.

  4. Yes, been too long since I watched it too - although regularly dip into John Lahr's original book.