Book Review – The Orton Diaries by Joe Orton, edited by John Lahr

First published, 1986

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I watched a lot of documentaries on the 1960s when I was younger, and came across many stories of Joe Orton. Just from the sound of him, I liked him immensely. When the opportunity to read his diaries came along, I snapped it up.

The introduction by John Lahr is well-written and the footnotes are informative. The diaries themselves are funny, explicit, quirky and reveal an awful lot about the dynamics between Joe Orton and his partner, Kenneth Halliwell.

In his descriptions of Kenneth Halliwell, we get to know a man thwarted by his own ambition, a man who had started as the senior partner in the relationship but was soon eclipsed by the young and talented Orton, a man who wound up needing a lot more support that he received.

In his descriptions of sexual conquests, of which there are many, Joe Orton is to the point, very detailed and specific. He doesn’t romanticise but he enjoys himself. In Orton, we find a man who celebrates his sexuality at a time when the primary relationships in his life are with men (Halliwell and Williams) who feel revulsion and guilt when confronted by their own desires.

It’s quite a strange thing to read these diaries from the perspective of this modern age. I grew up in the eighties and nineties, and so in reading about Orton’s celebration of self, I felt enormous pride. And if he had worked his way through all the gay men in the country, that feeling would not have been dampened. However, Orton admits in his diary that his type is a fifteen year old boy. That came as a surprise and was hard to read.

There was a moment, quite early on, when I felt that I probably shouldn’t be reading this book. It’s a diary and as such, was never intended to be read by anyone but the author. However, when we take into account that the first person to read the diary, besides Orton, was his murderer, there is an absolute compulsion to finish the book, if only to try to understand why he did it.