The work of a sick mind: plumbing the depths of teenage humour. With help from Joe Orton, Kenneth Halliwell, Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens and Madness!
In 1962 budding playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were sentenced to six months in prison for defacing books from Islington libraries. They stole the books a few at a time, rewrote the blurbs on the book jackets and stuck strange photos on the front covers. Then they replaced them on the shelves and sat back to watch library goers react with horror or mirth when they discovered the defaced books. To put their punishment in perspective, they weren’t sent down for doing this to a couple of books- they had given the treatment to several hundreds. Maybe what tipped the balance between the judge deciding against a few hundred hours community service, in favour of handing down a spell at Ford Open Prison, was what Joe and Ken did to the works of Dorothy L Sayers and that Grande Dame of British theatre, Sybil Thorndike.
Joe Orton claimed he had a marvellous time in prison, and went on to be a hugely influential playwright. No doubt Orton would have found it hugely ironic when he was invited to appear on Eamonn Andrews’ prime time TV chat show with Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sister Eva. I went to see the film of Orton’s life and death, Prick Up Your Ears, at The Screen on the Green in Islington: only a library book’s throw from where Joe and Kenneth lived and died. The cinema was packed, and when the chief librarian spots Orton and Halliwell skulking around in Essex Road Library and says to his female colleague, “Look. They are a couple of chorus boys.” To which she replies, “What? In Islington?” this nearly brought the house down. The massive irony is that for many years all the defaced books were kept firmly under lock and key, on strict orders from Islington Council. Now the book jackets are lovingly framed, catalogued and displayed as works of art and valuable historical artefacts. Orton couldn’t have made it up.
I was blissfully ignorant of all this in 1973. Our school had a new library, for the benefit of anyone interested in serious study. Unfortunately the school must have been short of cash, or vision, or both, because it was stocked full of the most awful trashy textbooks from the 1950s. Apart that is, for a section on rowing, which was a shrine filled with the latest illustrated books and glossy magazines extolling the virtues of rowing a boat. You see, our Brother Principal was a free-thinking liberal (within the broad confines of Catholic dogma) and he believed in equality. All boys, as far as he was concerned, were born equal. But some were more equal than others, and particularly those who joined his beloved Rowing Club. Brother Principal was obsessed with two things: being seen to be as holy as Pope John XXIII… and rowing. No one really cared about the Pope John thing, but there was deep resentment over the preferential treatment given to the boys in the Rowing Club.
It was a rare treat to be allowed out beyond the walls surrounding the school, and going on a sports fixture to play football or rugby against other schools gave us a chance to see the world, or at least visit local towns like Carlisle. Our school food was unbelievably awful, (One boy once looked in horror at the foul-smelling mince in front of him and said, “I think a cow has just shat on my plate!” Unfortunately he said this within the hearing of one of the Brothers and was forced to eat six huge portions of it.) So any variation in our diet was pounced on. If you were going on a sports fixture it was a perk to be allowed something extra at breakfast; i.e. another bread roll. However, the creeps in the Rowing Club were guaranteed to be offered sumptuous portions of fried eggs and bacon, washed down with as much coffee as their bladders could hold. So while the Under 16s Rugby Team were being dragged through the mud and pummelled on wintry afternoons in some God-forsaken town in the back of beyond, the Rowers were sailing up and down on some beautiful river in a posh city. We hated them.
Bad blood will out, as the saying goes, and soon all the seething jealousy finally reared its ugly head and vented its spleen in true Ortonesque surrealism… in our school library. I was involved in some serious study in the library one day, leafing through some dust-covered tome about the origins of Ohm’s Law, when I noticed that everyone else in the room was reading about rowing. I knew that many of us would do anything to get extra food, but it beggared belief that a library-full of boys would consider going over to the other side and feign interest in rowing just to get the occasional plate of eggs and bacon. Then I realised that all the readers’ faces were cracking up with either laughter or sheer horror.
Someone had done an Orton-Halliwell on every single rowing book and magazine on the shelves. You had to look very hard, but many of the photos in each of the books now contained speech bubbles and thought balloons with language and ideas inside that would have made Chaucer laugh and Pope John send for the Inquisition. Take the above photo of harmless male bonding and jubilation after a hard ride against the chaps from the rival varsity. The original caption had been scratched out and instead Rupert was now saying to Jerome, “Gosh old chap! My b@ll*cks are really aching!” to which Jerome replies something so crude that no amount of asterisks will spare your blushes. And that was one of the more printable ones.
Though many of us were delighted with this brilliant prank, we were dreading the consequences of these actions, when Brother Principal inevitably found out. Would there be the usual whole-school enquiry, complete with interrogations and wholesale punishments until the culprits either owned up or were grassed on? And what would happen when they were eventually rumbled? Expulsion? Beatings? Being forced to eat mince?
After breakfast the next day a very large crowd of unruly boys was gathered outside Brother Principal’s office. In front of the office were two glass cases, fixed to the wall on either side of the office door, at eye level. They usually contained the latest Rowing Club trophy, or the Bible opened at a pertinent page, for our edification. Usually no one gave this case a second’s heed, but today lads were pushing and shoving and jostling each other to get a good view of what lay within. Being a small fella, I managed to squeeze to the front. The Bible and trophies had been removed and there, in all their glory, were displayed four books and magazines with examples of some of the more obscene additions. Underneath each book was a small piece of card, with the inscription, written in Brother Principal’s own fair hand, ‘THE WORK OF A SICK MIND.’
And here for your edification, and to prove that I share no ill will towards anyone who likes rowing, is Rod Stewart dressed as a sailor. If that doesn’t want to make you heave, then wait until you see the Portuguese sardine trawler being pounded by the surf.
Following the nautical theme, here’s Madness at the very beginning of their career, with a very posh Annie Nightingale sounding all hoighty toighty about a few crazy lads from Chalk Farm having a laugh. Very Ortonesque.
And my favourite Cat Stevens song: ostensibly about aliens watching us on Earth, but containing possibly the most exciting lines that any teenage lad banged up in a religious boarding school, being accused of having a sick mind, would want to hear… ‘Mary dropped her pants by the sand/And let a parson come and take her hand.’
Heave away boys and take care out there.