Malicious Damage: The Defaced Library Books of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton, by Ilsa Colsell

Donlon Books, £35 (hardcover)

By Oliver Basciano

Beautifully produced, this is an in-depth history, and annotated collection, of the library books systematically ‘defaced’ by playwright Joe Orton and his artist and writer boyfriend, Kenneth Halliwell. Author Ilsa Colsell runs through the story chronologically, intricately footnoting her almost entirely original research to a litany of primary sources, detailing how Orton and Halliwell met at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, lived together (this was prior to the 1967 decriminalisation of homosexuality) and would, for each other’s amusement and in a period between early 1959 and April 1962, steal books from Hampstead Central Lending Library, and subsequently the smaller South Library on Essex Road, and return them with the front covers altered through collage. 

Two men, stripped to the waist, wrestle, apparently before the Great Mosque of Herat

A history book titled The Great Tudors was revised, removing the faces of the various sixteenth-century royals that adorned the original dust jacket and replacing them with the more contemporary features of the stage actor Roger Livesey, military hero T.E. Lawrence and a chimpanzee. If this was gentle needling, then the work done on a romance novel titled Queen’s Favourite was more provocative to the unsuspecting late-1950s/early-60s audience: two men, stripped to the waist, wrestle, apparently before the Great Mosque of Herat. Likewise Bentz Plagemann, whose popular fiction often referenced his experiences in the Navy, was queered with a toned, jockstrap-wearing torso added to an edition of his 1959 novel The Steel Cocoon. On other occasions the duo turned their attention to the interiors of the lending books, typing alternative blurbs onto the dust jacket flap. A personal favourite is the subversive description for a Dorothy L. Sayers novel. Instead of describing the actual narrative of this clichéd murder mystery set among the English upper classes, Orton and Halliwell’s new inscription claims the book concerns the case of ‘little Betty Macdree’, who says she was been ‘interfered with’. It goes on: ‘This is one of most enthralling stories ever written by Miss Sayers. It is the only one in which the murder weapon is concealed, not for reasons of fear but for the sake of decency!’ In case this was not darkly, comically offensive enough, they end the blurb with the advice to ‘read this behind closed doors! And have a good shit while you’re at it!’ 

‘Read this behind closed doors! And have a good shit while you’re at it!’

Colsell pores over these artistic interventions, which would eventually lead to prison sentences for both men, examining them within the context of Orton’s flourishing career, Halliwell’s overlooked artistic output, their personal biographies (not ignoring, but neither dwelling on, the horrific violent end to their lives) and the wider cultural and social milieu. Colsell persuasively concludes her essay by suggesting that these guerrilla art actions were bellwethers to British Pop art and the social revolution that was around the corner; convulsive events that neither, tragically, got to see.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue