In the early 1960s Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell – then both obscure writers inhabiting the demi-monde of a scruffy and very much ungentrified Islington – seem to have spent much of their time defacing books from public libraries. I say defaced, but that’s the wrong word. The appeal of their creations after all these years indicates they are exactly that: a form of creation rather than destruction. They collaged the covers, sometimes with one or two additions, but sometimes transforming them completely. Their cover of Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys is unrecognisable for the original late 50s Bodley edition, replacing its sober and static still life with a riot of colour and incongruity, as giant cats tower over the tiny inhabitants of a venetian scene. Its sheer silliness lies not only in the clash of scales, but also the meeting of high and low; the Renaissance cityscape and the kitsch Victorian animals.
When police raided the couple’s bedsit in Noel Road, following a sting operation masterminded by the unforgettably named Detective Sergeant. Harry ‘The Hermit’ Hermitage, they found 70 books and well over a thousand plates carefully cut from them, awaiting reuse, either on the couple’s walls, or in their dust jacket collages. Clearly, they were going about this not only with some determination and organisation, but also with thought and care in what they produced. The results were funny, outrageous, sometimes scatalogical, but never clumsy. There’s a skill and precision to the placement of their visual punchlines, which can still produce a belly laugh. Male nudes, musclemen, monkeys, budgies and other visual detritus of popular culture adorned the covers of once serious tomes, and biographies of the great and good. Sybil Thorndike, the grande dame of British theatre is replaced by a bare-breasted Henry Moore sculpture, and John Betjeman is a tattooed man in his underwear. The Great Tudors have their portraits replaced by apes, skeletons and gurning vaudeville actors.
Orton and Halliwell were convicted of ‘malicious damage’ in 1962 and each received a six month prison sentence, a harsh penalty which, Orton said later, was not because of what they’d done but ‘because we were queer.’ He was undoubtedly right. But the two things – queerness and cutting up library books – seem entwined. Both were a kind of social deviance, but more than that, both involved illicit mingling, and things out of their proper place. Orton and Halliwell seemed intent on popping the bubble of smug parochialism that characterised postwar British culture but, more than this, the act of collage involved moving things around and mixing them up. The report in the Daily Mirror, following their arrest, seems inordinately preoccupied with this theme of disarrangement: ‘Old ladies found pictures of gorillas in books about roses. Mythology readers found passages of Edgar Wallace in middle of chapters about Greek Gods. Art-lovers found that faces in reproductions of great paintings had been replaced by the faces of cats and birds and frogs.’
‘Queer’ has become an infuriatingly elusive yet overloaded term in recent years. But surely if it signifies anything it must mean precisely this kind of intervention; a kind of cutting up and rearranging, not building a new structure but fucking with the existing one. It’s the kind of mischievous, sidelong subversion which Orton and Halliwell specialised in, not immediately noticeable, sometimes, but all the more potent for it. The system of the library, its separation of genres, its ordering of knowledge was what was compromised by these book hybrids. They introduced gorillas into horticulture, farce and silliness into serious subject, fiction into fact, popular culture into the high brow, and sexual suggestion into everything. What they queered was the book, not just the individual book, but its culture, the organisation of printed knowledge in which books circulated. Interfering in the library was a particularly charged activity, and they flaunted its sacred rules of the Dewey Decimal system, the endlessly repeatable system which segregated and ordered books in the library.
Their modus operandi, too, was decidedly queer, a form of collective and anonymous anti-authorship that involved subterfuge and secrecy rather than the valorisation of the individual artist. It’s interesting that in many ways their library pranks anticipated the avant-garde gestures that would characterise the Art world in the later years of the decade, but the consequences were very different. It was only four years later that John Latham chewed up Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture - also a library book - and tried to return it in distilled form, in a glass vial. There were consequences for Latham also, but not nearly so severe. He was dismissed from his lecturing post at St Martins School of Art, but the provocation was rewarded by his increased notoriety as an enfant terrible, rather than punished as a deviant. The comparison highlights the fact that whatever Orton and Halliwell were doing, there was no place for it. It was positioned outside the art institution. They were, in fact, outside of ANY institution, with the temporary exception of HMP East Church in Kent, and HMP Ford in Sussex, where they were respectively sent. Unlike Latham’s avant gardism, there was no context in which their library subversions could make sense, other than a criminal one. If this was art, it was art for an audience of two: They would put the doctored books back on the shelves, then watch and wait to see people’s reactions. It was an in-joke: more ‘Carry On in the Library’ than Conceptual Art.
Fast forward to the present, then, and these same collaged book jackets are now held in the local history archives of Islington Museum in St John Street, Clerkenwell. Retained by Islington libraries as evidence in order to convict the perpetrators, they are now its prize possession, and a lucrative one at that, since they also own the copyright to these images. You can view them on the website of the Local History Centre, buy postcards, and regularly see the real things exhibited. Framed and mounted on the wall at Islington Museum’s ‘Up Against It’ exhibition in 2018, they were the star attraction, iconic images of the borough’s queer past, symbolising the struggles and sexual subcultures of its inhabitants prior to the legalisation of homosexuality. Here the collages were captioned as ‘artworks in their own right’. Long after the ignominious, sad deaths of their creators, and all the prurient scandal that accompanied them, Orton and Halliwell have been been coopted into the very institutions from which they were once excluded. Their work has become not only art, but also history.
Of course, recognising queer histories can only be a good thing, and no one begrudges libraries making money in this era of swingeing austerity. But there’s more than a little savage irony in the way the meanings of these collaged jackets have shifted over the years as they sat in storage. Their newly welcoming embrace by the archive shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it was precisely the archive they threatened. With scissors and glue Orton and Halliwell reassembled the cultural record and hacked the library. Richard Hornsey calls their work ‘queer bricolage’, and both terms are important here. Where the etymology of ‘collage’ simply refers to their medium, (from the French for gluing), bricolage has more of a sense of Do-It-Yourself, an ad hoc bringing together of mismatched detritus. Orton and Halliwell were true bricoleurs in the sense of creating something makeshift out of the materials available to them. What they created was their own absurdist aesthetic, as visually distinctive and radical in its way as the pop art creations of Richard Hamilton or the work of Terry Gilliam. They assembled it from the materials in the municipal library which, in the context of semi-impoverished bedsit existence, was the one resource free and open to all. It was also a ritual of civic life, and one in which they partook, but on their own terms. They left their mark in the library, leaving a trail of exuberant, gleeful havoc behind them, refusing to be erased.