On the defacing of books

‘Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves for rubbish and hardly any space for good books.’ Joe Orton, 1967

orton kittensPulling together a previous post on Adrian McKinty’s Dead I Well May Be, I took a pencil and underlined a few key passages in my copy, which got me thinking about writing in books. I’ve never had a problem with it, although if they belong to someone else (including the library), I’d be wary about leaving any marks that can’t be rubbed out. I’m damn sure I wrote in plenty of library books while I was at Uni; and maybe those lines in the margin helped someone else (I certainly remember reading anyone else’s highlighted passages much more carefully; they had to be on to something, right? Probably a completely different essay, but still).

Whilst potentially helpful, I doubt that my additions will last long or ever find their way into a Museum of Marginalia. And yet, this is not the case for every book that has been defaced and/or improved (depending on your point of view). The best example that I can think of is the writer Joe Orton, and his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who in 1962 were convicted of stealing and damaging 72 books from their local libraries in Islington. Both men were sentenced to 6 months in prison, and order to repay costs and damages amounting to £262 (about £5,000 in today’s money).

Now let’s just read that last sentence again, and in particular the bit about both men being sentenced to 6 months in prison. Isn’t that extraordinary? To be sent to jail for stealing and damaging library books? I just can’t imagine that happening today, and it’s an indicator of just how far British society has come over the last 50 years. Maybe it also indicates a completely different attitude to books. Orton was convinced that the sentence was down to his own lack of remorse, but also the fact that ‘we were queers.’ 

The harshness of the sentence also disguises the fact that Orton and Halliwell’s ‘defacement’ of the library books was somewhat more creative than the charge suggests. Before reading more about this case, I’d assumed Orton and Halliwell had written in the books themselves, but in fact they were engaged in something with a great deal more purpose. Their campaign was as a result of Orton’s rage at ‘so many rubbishy novels and rubbishy books‘ that were clogging up the shelves of his local library; and an attempt to shake readers from their Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers-induced slumbers.

orton roses

Orton and Halliwell took images from elsewhere to create collages on the book covers, as well as doctoring titles and adding new text to the blurb. Looking at these volumes today, what strikes me is just how playful and childish many of them seem – hardly the work of hardcore anarchists, intent on over-throwing the state. More like something out of the pages of Viz. I’m particularly fond of ‘Gorilla in the Roses’, as the Collins Guide to Roses was renamed courtesy of a headline in the Daily Mirror at the time of the trial. A copy of Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys shows two cut-out kittens, towering over the Venetian skyline, and reminds me of The Goodies’ ‘Kitten Kong’ sketch.

There’s a terrific overview of the case here, which features lots of photographs of Orton, Halliwell, and their handiwork, and describes how they were finally caught. Remarkably, the defaced books now form part of Islington Library’s ‘Joe Orton Collection’, suggesting that someone within the Library service was sympathetic, and felt they were worth keeping (a decision that proved to be right as Orton’s star began to rise in 1964). Many of the books were put on display in 2012, to mark the 50th anniversary of the court case. What Orton and Halliwell would have thought of the exhibition is anyone’s guess.

But there is no doubt about the profound effect that prison had on both men. Speaking a number of years later, Orton said ‘Being in the nick brought detachment to my writing, I wasn’t involved anymore and it worked…I had a wonderful time and wouldn’t have missed it for the world.’ Contrast this with Halliwell, who struggled whilst inside, and tried to commit suicide on more than one occasion. This rift between the two men continued to grow after they were released, and was no doubt exacerbated by Orton’s growing confidence as a writer, and his subsequent success with the plays Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) and Loot (1965). The end came on 7 August 1967, when Orton was killed by his lover, bludgeoned to death. Halliwell took his own life, and the two men were found the following morning.

Despite his short career, Orton’s influence as a writer continued after his death, and his plays are still produced regularly today. It’s fascinating to think this legacy stemmed from the guerrilla (Gorilla?) artwork he created with Halliwell, work with consequences that were so far-reaching, unpredictable and ultimately tragic.


  1. Really interesting to read about these two. I remember seeing the film about their relationship. I think Alfred Molina played Halliwell.

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