17 February, 2015

Malicious Damage: The Defaced Library Books of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton, by Ilsa Colsell [Claire G, Grey Lynn Library]

In 1962, an extraordinary court case in London resulted a prison sentence of six months for two “frustrated actors and frustrated authors”. They were guilty of stealing and damaging books from Islington Libraries – crimes that brought them to the attention of the press and hence a wider public than the irate customers of small libraries.

Five years on, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell would again be in the headlines, but that is another story and, to author Ilsa Colsell’s credit, only a small part of Malicious Damage. Instead she describes the artistry shown by the men in their remarkable book collages, such as the Collins Guide to Roses, the cover of which was altered to feature the face of a monkey. “Thus anthropomorphised,” she writes, “the rose’s stem took on the guise of a saucily arched back, its unopened buds the raised paws of a provocative exclamation. It was this book that Orton later thought had tipped their case from prank to iniquity.”

Colsell reflects on the social context that resulted in the punishment of Messrs Orton and Halliwell. That these creative collaborators were (illegally) homosexual is never far from people’s minds, though only “a very strong emotional relationship between the two” was mentioned in the press.

They maintained separate single beds in their tiny flat, and decorated the walls with an intricate collage of pictures taken from the library books they borrowed or stole. Orton was a playwright; he would become famous as such for Entertaining Mr Sloane. Halliwell was an under-recognised artist and editor;* his best-known work would be the eventual murder–suicide that cut short both their lives. Together they gained further posthumous fame as a result of Prick Up Your Ears – a biography and an Alan Bennett screenplay,** and a film.

Following a foreword by Orton’s sister and an introductory essay (‘A Genius Like Us’) by Philip Hoare, Malicious Damage visits the scene of the library-book crimes – the flat – with fold-out photos taken that year by the Islington police, then Ilsa Colsell’s interesting and insightful text ensues. The later, full-colour pages of the slim volume show surviving book-cover collages and rewritten blurbs in their satirical, subversive, surreal glory: this is an art book, after all.

The transparent jacket is not, as I first thought, a library-supplied barrier to multiple sets of sticky fingers, but a feature of the finished product. On the one hand it gives the designer’s nod to the look of a common library book; on the other it suggests sophistication and rarity. The hard cover beneath that jacket is almost entirely unadorned. It’s a pale grey that gives particular impact to the narrow black capitals of the debossed title, creating a sense of austerity, even severity. The end papers, though also plain, balance the black and the grey with a lilac blush, perhaps approaching the light pink that (we’re told) a young Kenneth Halliwell chose for the walls of his bedroom.

Malicious Damage is the first release from Donlon Books.*** It was printed in Spain, published in London by an Irish bookseller, then judged one of “The Most Beautiful Swiss Books” of 2013 – a title for which it was eligible thanks to designer Roland Brauchli.

The book is meticulously prepared and presented, and I recommend you borrow the single copy that our network of 55 public libraries has acquired. But please, dear reader, bring it back – and do refrain from using Auckland Libraries books (apart from those we’ve withdrawn) to create collages of your own.

* Perhaps to remedy the lack of recognition, this book’s subtitle puts Halliwell first. 

** Is it superficially apt that both of these are held in the basement of Auckland Libraries' Central City branch?
*** “Donlon” could be an outsider/invert anagram for “London”, in keeping with the company’s interest in countercultural books. In fact it is the owner’s surname.

Title: Malicious Damage – The Defaced Library Books of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton 

Author: Ilsa Colsell
Published: 2013, London
Publisher: Donlon Books
ISBN: 9780957609501

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