30 August 2009

Joe Orton and Leicester

The playwright Joe Orton (1933–67) was born into a working-class family in Leicester, UK, and is perhaps most noted for Entertaining Mr Sloane (1964) and Loot (1965). The family – his parents William and Elsie, John (later known as Joe), his brother Douglas and his sisters Marilyn and Leonie – moved to the Saffron Lane estate when the future writer was two years old. They lived in Fayrhurst Road, although the house has long since been demolished. A new house was built at 9 Fayrhurst about 20 years ago.

This house is occupied by Reg Salt, who used to know the Orton family:

Reg was the same age as Joe Orton, although he didn't go to the same school. He remembers Elsie's thick bottle-end glasses, and the City Arms pub a few hundred yards away from the house, at the end of Fayrhurst Road and on the other side of Saffron Lane, which is now the site of an Iceland supermarket.

Reg knew Joe when they were aged eleven and twelve, before Joe's sexual orientation was evident, although neighbours were obviously aware of a difference of some nature: the working-class child came across with a measure of superiority, and always carried pen and paper with him.

Leicester Town Council asked Reg if he had any objection to a commemorative plaque to Orton being erected on the house, Reg had none, and the plaque was put up without ceremony. And that was an initial problem, as Reg says that the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) objected to the fact that there had been no ceremony. As a consequence, Reg remembers, the GLF proposed, shortly after the installation of the plaque, that there be an official unveiling. Reg again had no objection to this, and the GLF unveiling took place, the only opposition being the wind. My sincere thanks to Reg Salt (who proudly shows his name tattoed on his fists) for his great hospitality, and for his appreciation of an outsider he refers to as 'a good lad'.

An exhibition entitled 'Ortonesque: Joe Orton 1933–1967' was shown at Leicester's New Walk Museum & Art Gallery from March to May, 2007, which included an event in which Joe's sister Leonie Orton–Barnett and Dr Francesca Coppa of Muhlenberg College, Allentown, PA, spoke about Orton's life in context.

Orton was a kind of anarchist who loved to shock people, and even in 2007 an advertisement for his exhibition had to warn: 'Please note: This exhibition contains strong language.' Best forewarned? How long is it since Lady Chatterley's Lover went legal? Oh yeah, four years before Orton died. Come on, please


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the Joe Orton article, my daughter has an open day at Leicester University next month and i plan on visiting joe's house.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thanks for the comment!