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Legal Am-Dram: Lawyers Retry Playwright Joe Orton

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Legal Cheek associate editor Emily Jupp reviews Friday’s re-trial of 1960s playwright and library-book defacer Joe Orton

“The old whore society really lifted up her skirts and the stench was pretty foul,” said criminal defence solicitor and Lib Dem councillor Greg Foxsmith on Friday night in Islington.

This wasn’t an indictment of modern society, nor a reflection of injustice in the English courts. Foxsmith – along with several other lawyers, including two from Hodge Jones & Allen – was performing in a dramatised re-trial of 1960s playwright and library book-defacer Joe Orton, and these were the words spoken by Orton following his conviction 50 years ago.

In 1962, Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for six months and heavily fined for stealing and damaging Islington Public Library’s books. They would take books from the library, replace the covers with sexual and surreal imagery, then put them back on the shelves. The couple also removed illustrations from library art books to wallpaper their flat (pictured) with.

Appearing alongside Foxsmith on Friday night was Mark Cotter, a criminal barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill chambers, and Sandra Paul, a partner at Hodge Jones & Allen. Deputy district judge Nigel Richardson, of the same firm, oversaw proceedings. There was some garrulous roleplay between the quartet as they tried to decide what sentence Orton would be given for his crimes today – an ASBO, perhaps? – in front of a full house at Islington library.

In considering the facts, Paul made us aware that Orton was convinced the sentences handed out to him and Halliwell were so harsh because they were “queer”. Perhaps coincidentally, the sentence of six months was the same as what gay couples received for “gross indecency”, and homosexuality was a crime until Orton’s death.

“I am always asked what would happen if he went on trial again today,” says Mark Aston, the current Islington Library librarian, who organised the modern-day trial to coincide with ‘Malicious Damage’, an exhibition of the defaced book covers. But Orton and Halliwell’s crime has not been repeated by anyone since, so it’s impossible to say if a modern day court would condemn them to a similar sentence, or treat their crimes in a similar way to that of, say, street artists who ‘deface’ public property.

At Friday’s re-trial the ‘court’ awarded a custodial sentence – three months for theft, two for criminal damage, with the sentence suspended for two years. One man in the audience, however, suggested an OBE might be a more appropriate award.

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Malicious Damage – at the Islington Library until February 25 – gives an insight into the cheekiness of Orton’s humour as he defaced the Islington library books. A book entitled ‘The Three Faces of Eve’ originally depicted three moods of a woman. Under Orton and Halliwell’s hand, it became a monster-like man, a man in drag and a cat.

‘The Steel Cocoon’ by Bentz Plagemann, originally with a sailor’s cap on the cover, became the torso of a man with a large penis. The torso itself was also a phallic image.

‘The Lunts’ (pictured below), by George Freedley, originally featuring a cover depicting a black and white portrait of a middle-aged couple, became a Disneyeque scene with a giant butterfly and a family of red deer (“I think they showed considerable self-restraint with the title”, joked Foxsmith at Friday’s re-trial).

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Tom Orchard

The six month sentences Joe and Ken received at the time were probably just since they did steal books on an industrial scale. Halliwell in particular should have known better – he was a former grammar school classics scholar after all. Books are in the library for everyone to read – if you pinch them to cut bits out then you deprive other readers of the opportunity of learning. I’m not sure the two miscreants should be judged again by today’s (changed) standards. I think it’s a bit like re-trying WW1 soldiers who were shot at dawn for alleged cowardice. Times have inevitably changed and our values and mores with them.

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