Aged 6, finding Joe Orton's diaries gave me a strange education in love, sex and death

We cared nothing about his work or the famous people he met. 

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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. 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 including “Knickers Must Fall”and “Fucked by Monty”; the blurb for a DL Sayers thriller advising 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. As a grown up, I am almost annoyed by the ease with which Orton’s plays seem to come to him: “Saturday 8th July: Did nothing at all except type What The Butler Saw.”

When we were children, Loot was just a picture of a mummy in the pages of the diary, which I flicked passed in fear (sex was less scary than death). On 2 July 1967, just over a month before his murder, Orton attended the West End production (“very hot night, small audience”) and was highly pleased with it. Fifty years later, on one of the last hot afternoons of the summer, I saw the new uncut Loot at London’s Park Theatre – the first of his plays I’d ever seen.

The corpse was performed, expertly, by Anah Ruddin, stripped naked and thrown into impossible handstands. I’d always vaguely assumed it was a dark memorial to his mother but she was alive and kicking when he wrote it. The plays are funny, but the diary is funnier. Eventually, we told our parents we were reading it, and it quietly disappeared from our rooms. On reflection, I think I told them because I wanted them to take it away.

At a certain age, you realise you can have secrets, and that’s when life gets exciting. Like the two toads we transported, that same summer in the eighties, from their home in the Loire Valley after our camping holiday, hidden in a squash bottle, wedged between us on the back seat. When our father found them, he explained we wouldn’t get them through customs. We listened to Sgt Pepper the entire journey, taking turns to play the parts of John and Paul with our Beatles cap. Joe and Kenneth wore caps like that, too, in our book. And Joe had “A Day In The Life” played at his funeral, which had a small crowd – a detail that, at six, made me very sad indeed.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor. 

This article appears in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire