I entered the building and felt the joy of being among innumerable books. The sleekness of The David Wilson Library‘s electronic glass doors reminded me of how long it had been since I was studying. The man behind the counter produced a day pass on a square of green card and in the basement, I leafed through the archive of 1960s playwright Joe Orton.
Libraries were significant in Orton’s life; it was his behaviour towards his local lender which eventually landed him in jail.
In the mid 1960s it came to the attention of Islington Library that books were being returned to its shelves with very different covers to the ones they started out with. Piles of poe-faced 1950s blurbs had been replaced with summaries of the playwright’s own invention.
Author shots on inside covers became fantastical depictions of quite different folk, each one carefully stuck over in place of the original. The former drama student from Leicester was engaging in a covert – albeit literary – version of what 1990s Britain later termed ‘anti-social behaviour’.
This biting of thumbs at the English establishment held more than the intention to shock. Orton must have been angry. At what exactly, he never said. In a letter to his agent Peggy Ramsay, he mentioned that his crime ‘could never be justified. Or explained.’
Joe Orton and his accomplice, Kenneth Halliwell, were caught by the matching of his typewriter’s ink and style to the books’ outrageous additions. By engaging the pair in written correspondence on another matter, the library found their culprits.
In the sixties, Orton began writing in earnest, comedies filled with menace, the narcissism of his characters pointing to a later age. Orton’s work went simultaneously for the audience’s jugular and its funny bone. The playwright’s ‘outrages against a middle brow reading public’ hailing from, I’m guessing, the same brand of rage which had incited his assault on North London’s books.
Orton’s literary vandalism was the flipside to his talent and his brief imprisonment taught him to channel this, instead, into his writing. In the end Joe Orton would choose the thrill of British theatre above the dark lull of destruction. ‘I haven’t a conscience about many things’ he later wrote. Allergic to self-reflection it seemed but finally drawn towards creating (rather than destroying) great literary works.