Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton
by John Lahr
This book tells the comical, outrageous and ultimately tragically short life of the 1960s English playwright Joe Orton. His life begins in working class Leicester dominated by his eccentric mother and his determination to escape his humble origins by taking up the theatre which he does by throwing himself into amateur dramatics and ultimately gaining a scholarship to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), where he meets his lifelong lover and partner Kenneth Halliwell. From this point the book takes two themes.
Initially his strange relationship with Halliwell with the two of them setting up in a one bedroom flat in North London where they lead a strange isolated life for 12 years trying to become writers and instead end up in prison for defacing books from the local library by pasting pornographic images on borrowed books. Joe becomes increasingly promiscuous, spending much of his time having sex in ” cottages” …public toilets .While Halliwell becomes increasing neurotic and drug dependent.
The second theme is Joe’s sudden transformation in the mid 60s. His hidden talents become apparent and he produces several successful West End plays including “Entertaining Mr Sloane” and ” Loot ” both quite outrageous and in keeping with the ” swinging 60s ” in London. He is even asked to write a film script for the Beatles. Everything seems possible for Joe but fate has a sad and tragic ending in mind for him. One night in 1967 overcome by jealousy of Joe’s theatrical success and his over the top sex life Halliwell bludgeons him to death while he is asleep and then kills himself with an overdose. Joe is only 33.
This is a very well written and researched book. Some might find the chapters outlining his plays not so interesting but overall it is a good read and gives an insight in to gay life in England in the 1960s before homosexuality was legalised.
The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)
Twenty-five, good-looking, wealthy, a grandson of a Lord, and a man of leisure – welcome to Will Beckwith’s world. It’s the summer of 1983 in London, and Will spends most of his time picking up guys at the “Corry Club”- a male-only gymnasium and swimming pool frequented by plenty of eye candy.
While trying to hook up with a young guy in a park toilet, Will ends up resuscitating Lord Nantwich who is having a heart-attack, and thus starts an association that runs throughout this novel. Charles Nantwich, an 83 year-old queen in the early stages of senility, encourages Will to write his life’s story by giving him his diaries to read. Will discovers that despite their age difference, they are not all that different.
Intermingled in the story are Will’s 18 year-old boyfriend, a murder, a gay-bashing, police arrests for lewd behaviour, lots of hot trade and quite a few family secrets.
Will’s very grown up 6 year-old nephew Rupert steals the scene every time he appears, as in the following conversation with Will.
“Am I one?”(homosexual) Rupert asked intently.
“It’s a bit early to say yet, old fellow. But you could be you know.”
“Goody!”he squealed, banging his heels against the front of the sofa again. “Then I can come and live with you.”
Hollinghurst’s prose is beautifully constructed, particularly the scenes of a much younger Lord Nantwich in the Sudan, and despite preponderance for some quite obscure words, Wills carefree pre-AIDS London is richly created.
In “The Swimming-Pool Library” erotic scenes and subtle wit mix nicely with a quite dense plot to create a gay classic – one I wish I had read earlier.
The Blue Star by Robert Ferro (1985)
Florence 1963, and a 20 year-old American, Peter, is living for a year in a pensione when he meets Chase – beautiful, worldly and willing to show him the queer delights the night has to offer. An aging Italian count searches for pretty young things to bring to his castle with a dungeon and built-in torture equipment! His patriarchal mother presiding over the ancient lineage of their family creates an ingenious scheme to marry Chase to a teenage Italian princess. Meanwhile Peter is infatuated with Lorenzo, a 17 year-old with the most perfect looks in all of Florence.
And thus begins the next 20 years in which these characters lives unfold, leading to a Mediterranean cruise fit for royalty aboard La Stella Azzurra, “The Blue Star”, a 200-foot yacht. A sub-plot involving the Freemasons and the construction of Central Park in New York in the 19th century, reads a little heavy, but is necessary to tie all the stories together.
Ferro’s prose flows beautifully, his characters are larger than life, and the situations dynamic. I had a lot of fun reading this book, especially with the scenes set in Florence in the 1960’s – a great place to visit. You never know who you might meet!
So set sail for Italy aboard The Blue Star.