Orton scribbles are the 'works'

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The Independent Online
JOE ORTON and Kenneth Halliwell went to prison for six months in 1962 for stealing 72 books from Islington libraries and "wilfully damaging" others, to a value of pounds 450, writes Tim Minogue.

They were brought to justice by the wiles of Islington Borough Council's legal clerk, Sidney Porrett. After several weeks in which crack teams of undercover librarians had spied on the pair, hoping to catch them in the act of replacing doctored books on the shelves, Mr Porrett wrote a cod letter to their flat in Noel Road, Islington, threatening to remove an abandoned car which he had "been given to understand" that Halliwell was "the owner thereof".

The bureaucratic jargon was calculated to provoke the pair. It worked.

Halliwell penned an abusive reply on the same typewriter Orton had used to write spoof blurbs in the defaced books, so giving the council the evidence it needed to mount a successful prosecution.

The magistrate, Harold Sturge, castigated the pair for their "malice towards fellow library users" before sending them down for six months and ordering them to make good the cost of the damage.

The affair confirmed Orton in his hatred of policemen and magistrates, which was later to be reflected in his plays. He attributed the severity of the sentence to the fact that he and Halliwell were gay.

Certainly people have been jailed for more heinous and less schoolboyish offences. The cover of the Collins Guide To Roses had a monkey's face skilfully inserted in the centre of a beautiful bloom. The contents of a collection of plays by Emlyn Williams were amended to include works such as Knickers Must Fall, Up The Back and Fucked By Monty. The dustjacket of a Lord Peter Wimsey story by Dorothy L Sayers announced that it should be read behind closed doors while the reader was having "a good shit".

The attitude of Islington's librarians has changed over the intervening years. The 20 surviving defaced book jackets are among Islington Council's growing collection of Orton memorabilia . After - ironically - a series of thefts of originals, photographs of the "works", as Borough Librarian Liz Roberts calls them, are regularly exhibited in the borough's libraries.

Ms Roberts said yesterday: "In 1962, people could have had no idea just how significant these books were going to be in the future. Over the years we have become proud of Joe Orton as a leading literary figure with local associations."

The librarians seem to have won every which way. It would probably make Orton sick.