The Crimes of Joe Orton

The playwright Joe Orton and his partner Kenneth Halliwell spent six months apiece in Her Majesty’s prisons for defacing library books.  Far from representing crime, these were acts of civil commentary and genius, sadly ahead of their time.


Here’s Orton discussing his acts of creative vandalism in a 1967 interview:

Well, yes I used to do very strange things on library books.  It was really a joke.  I used to take lots of books out of the library — I used to smuggle them out in a satchel, and then I used to paste a picture over the picture of the author …

…  I remember one of them was by Lady Lewisham, a book on ettiequte actually, and um …  it showed a picture of lady Lewisham in her garden.  And I pasted in a picture of a great nude woman cut from a nude book … people must have been very surprised.

Also, I didn’t like libraries anyway.  I though they spent far too much public money on rubbish.  I didn’t like the books, I mean I don’t think people need books on etiquette anyway.

I have no regrets at all, I had a marvelous time in prison.

You can read more about Orton’s life in and out of the theater in John Lahr’s excellent biography.

The Crimes of Joe Orton


Did you know that until a few decades ago there existed a secret gay language called Polari?   More properly a cant, Polari is thought to have originated in East London as a private means of communicaton among gay men.

In the old days — meaning any time before about forty years ago when being gay in any open sort of way could get you locked up or worse no matter how famous and important you were — Polari allowed gay and bisexual men to communicate with each other in safety, without the straight world knowing what they were saying.

along with Hugh Paddock, the actor Kenneth Williams somewhat popularized Polari in the late 1960s in the UK through his character on the BBC radio show Round the Horne 

The code’s vocabulary was somewhat tilted toward the practical:  parts of the body, times of day, words for sex and words covering social matters.  It included quite a bit of backslang (English words in reverse) but also borrowed in a loose way from various romance languages, particularly Italian and certainly a decent amount of nonsense.  Here’s a sample sentence (via Wikipedia)

As feely ommes…we would zhoosh our riah, powder our eeks, climb into our bona new drag, don our batts and troll off to some bona bijou bar. In the bar we would stand around with our sisters, vada the bona cartes on the butch omme ajax who, if we fluttered our ogle riahs at him sweetly, might just troll over to offer a light for the unlit vogue clenched between our teeth

which translated is

As young men…we would style our hair, powder our faces, climb into our great new clothes, don our shoes and wander/walk off to some great little bar. In the bar we would stand around with our gay companions, look at the great genitals on the butch man nearby who, if we fluttered our eyelashes at him sweetly, might just wander/walk over to offer a light for the unlit cigarette clenched between our teeth

There are certainly older men still living who can still speak Polari — though in a few decades this may no longer be the case.  Here are two such men, Stuart Feather and Bette Bourne:

Bourne in particular is pretty unsentimental about the language and its purpose:

So it’s good to have your own language, and those things are not … they’re forced.  They’re forced upon you by circumstances, they’re not just invented as a camp joke.  They’re very practical.

I have various feelings about Polari — reverence and respect for the ingenuity and survivorship of those who used it, sadness that all first hand knowledge of it may be lost (though there seem to be some attempts to preserve it), surprise that I’d never heard of this language before.  But I think I’ll take a cue from Bette and focus on gratitude — mostly for the fact that it’s no longer required for survival.


If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high

Extreme wisdom from Dorian Corey, born Frederick Legg, who featured prominently in the great 1990 documentary film Paris is Burning, and died of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1993.  She literally had a skeleton in the closet, but she’s right on here with the makeup wisdom:

I always had hopes of being a big star
and then I looked …
as you get older you aim a little lower
and you say well, yah I still might make an impression.

Everyone wants to leave something behind them
some impression, some mark upon the world.
And then you think —
you’ve left a mark on the world if you just get through it.

If a few people remember your name:
then you left a mark.
You don’t have to bend the whole world —
I think it’s better to just enjoy it.
Pay your dues, and enjoy.

If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high?
Hooray for you.

If you shoot an arrow and it goes real high

Ginsberg: don’t smoke


When I was 19 or so, I remember watching Allen Ginsberg in his corduroy jacket on the Today Show promoting his book Cosmopolitan Greetings which had just come out.  I had just come out too — at least to a few people — and had taken to wearing second-hand army jackets and carrying around a shoulder bag with a big pink triangle on it, at least while I was away at college.  Ginsberg just sat there, somewhat wild-eyed, cornered on the gaudy set, grandfatherly-but-suspicious, suffering through an interview with Bryant Gumbel or someone like that.  The distain and incomprehension on the interviewer’s face were lacquered over by politeness and a kind of forced reverence, but I knew as if by a sixth queer sense that the reason why this old dude was making Gumbel nervous was that at any minute he might rip off his frumpy jacket and the collared shirt underneath and run in madness and ecstasy around the studio banging together his wisdom sticks.  This began a so-far-lifelong affinity for the man, the beats, and all of that. Here he is banging those sticks, with maybe the most famous poem from his last collection… Put Down Your Cigarette Rag 

Ginsberg: don’t smoke