Thursday, 27 February 2014

The story of the failure would be very much more interesting

From Philip Hoare's article in The Guardian:
In January 1959, Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell began their campaign of theft. Starting at Hampstead Central Library on Finchley Road, north London, and moving on to libraries in Islington, they stole books of every genre, but with a particular taste for what Orton called "rubbishy novels and rubbishy books".

Back in their flat, the pair pasted pictures of male nudes, toys and budgerigars into surreal positions on the book jackets. Musclemen vied with monkeys on staid theatrical memoirs. Sybil Thorndike, the grande dame of British theatre, was replaced with a bare-breasted Henry Moore sculpture...They also added outrageously rewritten copy to the book's dust jacket flaps. Orton's humour is particularly evident in these typed blurbs. The overheard conversations that he would weave into his plays were rehearsed in what were capsule Orton dramas in their own right. Dorothy L Sayers's Gaudy Night is perverted with "Lord Peter Wimsy" urinating behind a bush after visiting a "Transvestite Den". Other would-be Sayers readers were promised underage sex and dildoes rather than a cosy detective story.

"Adding text to pervert and to ridicule became easy play," writes Ilsa Colsell in Malicious Damage, a new book analysing the collaborative art of these two men – a unique partnership that has been hitherto overshadowed by Orton's later success as a playwright. Colsell, an artist herself, sees Halliwell as Orton's mentor, the man who introduced him to aesthetic and literary theory. Indeed, Halliwell referred to themselves as "a genius like us", like a kind of Gilbert and George before their time.

Halliwell, six years older than Orton, met his partner at RADA in 1951. The men soon moved in together and began writing novels and plays – as well as pursuing their library transgressions. But as Orton's celebrity and success took over, Halliwell increasingly came to see himself as an artist, and he expanded their collages into the room the two men shared in Islington.
Mr Halliwell later attempted to introduce collages of his own creation into the serious art world - with disastrous consequences, as the art world largely pooh-poohed his works. One of his surviving pieces [many are lost, presumed destroyed after the pair's deaths] has been purchased for the Halliwell-Orton collection at Islington Museum, and it was with this as a backdrop that I went along [on Tuesday 25th February, as part of Camden and Islington LGBT History Month] to the launch of Ilsa's book - and for a fascinating discussion (in conversation with esteemed LGBT historian Dr Matt Cook, whose fab lecture I attended for IDaHo in May 2013) on whether it is time, at last, for a re-examination and "rehabilitation" of Halliwell's reputation.

'Untitled' - Kenneth Halliwell

As Ilsa and Matt acknowledged, all perspectives on the lives of Joe and Kenneth are intractibly marred by the way the pair met their end - Orton's head smashed in by Halliwell; Halliwell's suicide - but those close to the pair, including Joe's agent the indomitable Peggy Ramsay, his sister Leonie, and friends including the award-winning actor Kenneth Cranham [who was in the audience and contributed to the discussion], always pointed out a simpler reality: their love, and the longevity and mutual interdependence of their relationship. Joe was the younger man, in awe of Kenneth at first - the man who introduced him to great gay literary works by the likes of Firbank and EF Benson, et al - and they collaborated on most, if not all, of the plays, scripts and even the collages that made them famous.

In hindsight, Ilsa argues, Kenneth's collages themselves were unnecessarily derided by art snobs - motivated in part, no doubt, by the perception that Halliwell was somehow trying to "cash in" on Orton's success - and should be seen as inheritors of a great tradition of work in this style, echoing others such as Kurt Schwitters and Peter Blake. In summation, Kenneth Halliwell - the person rather than the killer - is unfairly maligned.

As Peggy Ramsay observed: [Joe and Kenneth's] lives were destroyed, one through success and the other failure... [yet] the story of the failure would be very much more interesting".

This was a brilliant and absorbing evening, and one which I was very glad to attend.

Ilsa Colsell's 'magnum opus' Malicious Damage is available from Donlon Books, price £35.

Camden and Islington LGBT History Month 2014

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