Aged Six, Finding Joe Orton's Diaries Gave Me a Strange Education in Love, Sex and Death

By Mossman, Kate | New Statesman (1996), September 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Aged Six, Finding Joe Orton's Diaries Gave Me a Strange Education in Love, Sex and Death


Mossman, Kate, New Statesman (1996)


When I was six years old and my brother eight, we found in our house a copy of The Orton Diaries, which had recently been published, two decades after his murder by his lover, Kenneth Halliwell.

Speedreading is a useful skill, and one that in adulthood I have never managed to master. But back then I was adept at scanning 265 pages of nine-point type for the words that mattered. Arse. Prick. Spit. Mohammad Yellow-Jersey. Frenzy. Hammer. Rigor Mortis.

We knew nothing about sex till that point, but it all became clear. Sex happened between two men--sometimes with 14-year-old boys in Morocco, sometimes with labourers in Piccadilly toilets. It could be an uncomfortable and sandy experience; often, no words were exchanged. How our own family unit, and our parents' marriage, played into the scheme of human relations, we didn't quite know. We had a code word for the book--"Ta" --which, on reflection, sounds like a kind of Polari. We'd pass it under our bedroom doors at night.

I was smitten with the boyish Orton, pictured in the diaries leaning against a wall of collages in a V-neck sweater looking intellectual. We cared nothing about his work or the famous people he met, and skipped those parts. We were too young for that. Yet we weren't too young to understand that he'd driven his lover crazy, and got murdered for it. We weren't too young to know there was something wrong with the way he talked about his mother's corpse; or to think that stopping in a deserted building site to shag a builder, en route to the funeral, was a normal thing to do. Children are natural editors: they see the important stuff.

Looking at Orton and Halliwell's defaced library books in Islington recently, it was clear to me why the two men appealed to the six-year-old mind: The Collected Plays of Emlyn Williams includes "Knickers Must Fall" and "Fucked by Monty"; the blurb for a DL Sayers thriller advises the reader to "have a good shit while you are reading".

In my twenties, I found myself living round the corner from their flat in Noel Road and, looking up at the top floor, I thought what a claustrophobic space it must have been; how Kenneth's collages must have eased his mental pressure-cooker with bursts of childlike absorption--and, possibly, longed-for collaboration with Joe. …

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