The Ruffian in the Stacks: a short history of library book defacing

The Up Against It: Islington 1967 exhibition

Last month, a library assistant at Bristol University’s Arts & Social Sciences Library was shelving returned books when he picked up a copy of D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, only to notice something unusual about the cover. After sharing a laugh over it with colleagues, it was suggested that he send it to the library’s social media team to put on their Twitter page; the tweet subsequently went on to receive nearly 2,000 likes and over 1,000 retweets. Following the discovery, library staff issued a gentle warning over social media to other users not to emulate the original “prankster”, and return books in the condition they were taken out, but referred to the act as an “alternative binding” rather than an outright case of vandalism.  


D H Lawrence's The Rainbow


But despite this affront to library property, responses from followers were overwhelmingly effusive in their praise, with several followers leaving such comments as “Joe Orton lives!” and “Kenneth Halliwell would be proud.”  This year marks the 50th anniversary of the deaths of Orton and Halliwell (both on August 9th 1967 in a gruesome murder-suicide), when Orton was at the peak of his career, one of the most famous and successful playwrights in the country with several critically acclaimed productions to his name.  However, only a few years prior to this Orton and his lover Halliwell had both been notorious in the community for a very different reason: from 1959 to 1962 they had smuggled books out of the local library, taken them home and made humorous alterations to the covers. Having done this, they would then return to the libraries in question and surreptitiously slip them back onto the shelf.

The Visitors

While the more recent Rainbow incident was received with nationwide good humour, retweeted by celebrities such as Gyles Brandreth and even other library accounts, Orton and Halliwell’s antics back in their day were much less appreciated. While Bristol University Library receives hundreds if not thousands of visitors through its doors every day, Islington Central Library and Essex Road Library (the two libraries that formed the main focus of their activities) had a much smaller clientele to consider; as their “creations” were discovered by other readers, complaints were made to the library staff and suspicion soon fell upon the “two men who always visited the library together and shared the same address.”

The police were called in, and a major manhunt was launched to catch the offenders, with library staff from other branches going undercover to try and spot them in the act; eventually apprehended and brought to trial, Orton and Halliwell were sentenced to six months in prison. The damaged book covers were returned to Islington Public Library Service where they passed into the hands of the Special Collections Librarian, and in 2003 they were passed on to Islington Borough History Centre, which holds them as part of The Joe Orton Collection, along with news cuttings, publicity materials and other literature about Orton. Islington Museum, housed inside Finsbury Library, is currently running an exhibition called Up Against It: Islington 1967, where the book covers are on public display for the first time alongside Halliwell’s infamous collages, including his “World of Cats” screen. As well as the tragic deaths of Orton and Halliwell, 2017 also marks the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the exhibition looks at the lives of notable gay men in Islington at the time, and particularly the role that homophobia played in their trial.

The Good and Faithful Servant

It certainly seems evident today that homophobia was one of the influencing factors behind this investigation; Orton always attributed the severity of their sentence to the fact that he and Halliwell were “queers”. But it was the intervention of a legal clerk at Islington Borough Council called Sidney Porrett, who held a particularly vehement grudge against Orton and Halliwell, that was responsible for finally apprehending them. “I had to catch these two monkeys,” Porrett later reported. “I played them a slightly dirty trick. I thought “OK, I’ll let my ethics slip a little bit. I wanted to get them aggravated.” Porrett sent Halliwell a letter demanding that he move an abandoned car in their road that was claimed to belong to him; to which Halliwell promptly replied, with a contempt worthy of Ignatius J. Reilly: “Dear sir, I should like to know who provided you with this mysterious information?  Whoever they are, they must be a liar or a moron: probably both.”

There was no car of course, but by comparing Halliwell’s letter with the alterations added to the book jackets, Porrett was able to link him and Orton to the crime; clever investigating, but one has to wonder whether Porrett would have been so committed to his search had he not already earmarked “a couple of darlings” as the potential suspects. Even after their release from prison, Porrett was on to them again to pay up for the damaged books, and many years after Orton’s death he recalled with a smile how he had left the couple “financially pretty rocky”. Whatever vengeance Porrett had planned ultimately backfired; for although Halliwell was permanently scarred by his time in prison, Orton was energised into writing by his anger and contempt for respectable society.


It is worth remembering that while the mystery offender at Bristol University restricted themselves to modifying the book covers (presumably while still inside the library), Orton and Halliwell were found guilty not only of stealing the books in the first place, but also causing more irreparable damage, namely removing 1,653 plates from certain fine arts books, later found adorning the walls of their rooms or incorporated into Halliwell’s collages.  With electronic security systems not being introduced until the 1970s, stealing library books in Orton and Halliwell’s day would have been a crime of opportunity; Orton would carry books out of the library in a satchel, while the elder Halliwell deployed an old gas mask case.

Vandalism of library property is a common enough occurrence, and one that has been the subject of many academic studies by library professionals. Orton and Halliwell claimed to have acted in protest at the “endless shelves of rubbish” they claimed took up so much space on the library shelves, although one of the probation officers described them as “frustrated authors”, presumably attributing their actions to a form of spite or jealousy. While the couple were more all-encompassing in their approach, defacing everything from books about flowers to collections of John Betjeman, some library vandals choose to target specific types of books, though not always for obvious reasons; while the motives of a man in San Francisco dubbed “the Library Slasher” who attacked the LGBT collection with a knife in 2002 can be easily explained, especially as he tried to replace the damaged items with religious pamphlets, another man in Tokyo who was arrested after repeatedly tearing and cutting pages from books about Anne Frank in 2014 was unable to explain his actions, despite confessing to the crime.

Up Against It

In academic libraries, vandalism can often be the direct result of student needs and the library’s failure to fulfil it, either as a form of protest against the service or simply an act of desperation; often in a film or TV programme we see a character finding some information they need in a book, and either unwilling or unable to take it away with them, they quickly rip out the page they need and stuff it into a pocket. Orton later took this line in an interview with the Evening News, claiming that one of the Islington libraries had been unable to provide him with a copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “This didn’t start it off, but it was symptomatic of the whole thing […] Libraries might as well not exist; they’ve got endless shelves of rubbish and hardly any space for good books…” There are of course those who consider the act of writing in a book an act of vandalism, particularly if done in biro or when certain sentences are marked with a highlighter.

But what unites the case of Orton and Halliwell and the Rainbow incident, in contrast to other forms of “vandalism”, is the amount of thought and care behind them; rather than pointless and crude assaults, these were carefully planned out operations. As John Lahr says in his excellent biography of Orton, Prick Up Your Ears, “most perturbing to the court was not the abuse of private property but the care and intelligence with which Orton and Halliwell tampered with the books.” While the press at the time acknowledged the humour in Orton and Halliwell’s adventures, if only with tongue firmly in cheek, the Bristol Post was unashamedly complimentary of the more recent Rainbow incident, describing it as a “hilarious rebranding of a classic”.

The Ruffian on the Stair

Not content with simply doctoring the books, Orton and Halliwell described how they would linger amongst the shelves, to “watch people’s reactions when they pulled out a title with a defaced cover.” In the case of the Rainbow incident we can’t say if the culprit was watching when their own creation was discovered, or whether there are other similar works out there waiting to be discovered; but with thousands of students as possible suspects, not to mention staff, unless the modern-day Orton and Halliwell strike again it is unlikely the mystery will ever be solved.

In a diary entry from 23rd July 1967, the comedian Kenneth Williams recalled discussing the proposed bill for reforming homosexuality laws with Orton and Halliwell: “We all agreed it would accomplish very little, that it was the climate of opinion that really counted more.” It would seem that despite their harsh treatment at the hands of the law, the recent incident at Bristol University, as well as the Islington 1967 exhibition shows that today the climate stands firmly in their favour.

Having said that, staff at Bristol University Library wish to remind any budding collage artists not to practice on their books; and while they won't be expected to do time if apprehended, they can rest assured that the consequences will be more serious than a few retweets...


The Up Against It: Islington 1967 exhibition is at the Islington Museum until 21st October 2017

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