The 'Daddy' of the Metrosexual, the Retrosexual, & spawner of the Spornosexual

Tag: Kenneth Halliwell (page 1 of 1)

Cruising the Streets

Mark Simpson gets mixed messages on the High Street  

(Another ‘lost’ Attitude column – this one from 1999)

It was one of those indecently mild Winter days. The sort that makes everyone feel a little bit naughty. As if you’re bunking off school, or cheating on your partner.

Walking down the High Street enjoying the feeling of my sap beginning to rise prematurely—and probably pointlessly—I notice an eminently humpable fellow in his late twenties bouncing towards me on his box-fresh trainers, sports bag slung over his shoulder. Unusually for me, I didn’t spot his signature on my radar screen before he crested the horizon. He is almost right in front of me before I see him. And then he passes me.

So I do a 180 clock, a discreet beat after he passes, meaning to cop a sly butcher’s at his arse. 

And I catch him doing the same thing. 

Our eyes meet and lock. Fuck!

Now, I am, without a doubt, the world’s worst street-cruiser. Probably precisely because the street is exactly where I wish I could meet chaps. I’ve always found impossibly attractive those you bump into for a second in the social Brownian Motion that is city life before they disappear off to somewhere you fantasise is more interesting than where you are. Many’s the time I’ve lost my heart to someone on the Up escalator as I ride the one going Down. If it’s easy to love what you can’t have, it’s even easier to love something the longer you look at the further it recedes.

And it never gets any closer with me. Friends of mine seem to have no trouble though, and talk constantly of meeting people outside Boots, on trains and in supermarkets. Though, if it’s Tesco Metro I have to tell them that, like Old Compton Street, it doesn’t count.

Joe Orton was so successful at it, if his diaries are to be believed, that he didn’t actually need to do all that hanging around in toilets he was so famous for, the greedy, jammy bastard. Joe just had to take a bus or pop out to the corner shop to buy forty Woodbines and Bob was his Queer Uncle. No wonder poor stay-at-home Kenneth bashed Joe’s brains out after reading his diaries. I would have done exactly the same—after I’d made him tell me how he managed to pull all those punters on Her Majesty’s Highway.

I’ve tried to work out why I’m so crap at street cruising. Is it that I scowl too much? Perhaps, but a few years ago, behind the safety of a double-locked door, anaesthetised with half a bottle of whisky, I experimented with smiling in front of my bathroom mirror and rapidly concluded that if I ever did this in public I’d probably be sectioned. 

And before the letters flood in pointing out that I’m too ugly, let me remind you that one of the first rules of street cruising is that no one is too ugly to score on the street—another reason why I wish I had the knack. Am I not shameless enough? Well, I try my best, but don’t always meet today’s exacting standards. 

But how to be shameless but without being tasteless? I should probably model myself on Quentin Crisp, whose obviousness brought him open contempt, but more trade than he could handle. But then, I don’t think my pale skin tone would be best complimented by hennaed hair. 

It’s quite possible that I do in fact get cruised, but I’m so wrapped up in my own desire that I would fail utterly to notice anyone else’s. I think though, that the real problem is that I want things to be cut and dried in a way that picking people up on the street by definition isn’t. As Joe says to a hesitating Kenneth in the film of Prick Up Your Ears, after a young man in the street glances at him very briefly, “What are you waiting for? A bloody telegram?

Yes, I am. And a detailed CV as well, please.

So, imagine my shock when I get that written application, in my hand, on my own High Street. There I am, looking right into the eyes of a lad who has turned to look back at me just the way I turned back to look at him. Even I have to admit that, on balance, he probably is interested. 

After a second that seems to last longer than my relationships, we look away. At the same instant. Recklessly, I stop and half turn around. He stops and half turns around. I loiter. He loiters. 

What are you waiting for? A voice shouts inside my head. Perhaps the spirit of Joe, raised from his bludgeoned slumber by my slaggy ineptitude.

The lad pretends – not very seriously – to look in a shop window, all the while darting scorching looks at me. But I’m still dithering. I’m still looking for some other explanation for his behaviour than the obvious. That voice in my head again, angry now: 

Do you want a bloody telegram?

Okay, okay. Look, tell you what, I’ll conduct one last test. I’ll cross the road and see if he follows. If he does, then I’ll speak to him. 

I cross. He crosses. He then pretends to look in another shop window, all the time looking at me. 

Get over there and say something you silly slapper before he has to go and draw his pension! 

But I need to rehearse the line in my head first: “‘Scuse mate, do you know where the tube is?” No, that sounds too arch.

Maybe “‘Scuse mate. Do you know the way to the Underground?” But The more I think about my opening gambit the more obvious and obscene it sounds, however I phrase it.

Finally, somehow I find myself in front of him. “‘Scuse me mate,” I begin, but before I can even complete my redundant question he’s cricked his head away from me at an angle of no less than 100 degrees, the tendons on the side of his neck flaring like the gills of a landed trout.

“I’m not interested mate!’ he blurts out of the side of his mouth. ‘‘I’M NOT LOOKING AT YOU!” 

His whole body is rigid and trembling with the effort of not looking at me. He’s terrified, poor lamb.

The street is beginning to spin around my head. I seem to have forgotten what you do after you breathe out. The spirit of Joe has deserted me in disgust. “Oh… right….,” I gasp. “My mistake.” I walk off quickly.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit.

As I walk back up the street, feeling the Winter air again and zipping up my jacket, I curse myself for misreading the signals so badly and terrifying that poor lad. He must have actually been looking in those shop windows next to me, perhaps looking for a gift for his lovely young wife and their beautiful, but perhaps slightly disabled small child that he takes time off work and misses football practise to help care for. 

He probably only looked at me because he was wondering why I was leering at him. God, I’m such a lecherous old perve!

Then I notice out of the corner of my eye that Mr Not Interested Mate has followed me 300 yards up the street, and is peering intently at me again whilst pretending to look in another shop window. 

A funeral directors. 

Joe Orton’s Wallpaper: ‘The Visa Affair’ by Jake Arnott

Joe Orton has been pricking up my ears lately.

On a recent visit to London, thanks to the randomised wonder of ‘dating apps’ – or online cottaging – I found myself, as you do, visiting someone I didn’t know terribly well but wanted to get to know much better. He happened to live on Noel Road, Islington. This is the road where, at No.25, the 1960s queer playwright and keen old skool pre-internet cottager Joe Orton famously lived – and died, fifty years ago next year – in a bedsit with his rather less successful, less attractive, less popular, but possibly more talented, older partner and co-conspirator: the would-be novelist and dodgy toupee enthusiast, Kenneth Halliwell.

joe-orton-noel-road-jpg
Orton loitering outside No.25 Noel Road

Having walked the length of it on the way to my ‘meet’, and past No.25 with its plaque, I can report that Noel Road is definitely no longer the slightly slummy street of rooming houses it was in Orton’s time. Full of new Porsches and Jaguars, the street’s rooming houses seem to have mostly been turned back into very wealthy, if rather lonely family homes. With no doubt the very latest in Wallpaper magazine interior design and decor.

But I expect none of them have anything like the seriously classy wallpaper that Joe and Kenneth had in their bedsit flat at 25 Noel Road. Apparently angered by the ‘rubbish novels and books’ – and perhaps by the poor quality of the general culture they found themselves sentenced to in late 50s early 60s Britain – they used plates culled from books purloined from Islington Central Library to cover the dingy walls of their 16 x 12 room.

wallpaper-2
The offending walls

Public-spirited vandals, they selflessly improved the dust-jackets of some of the dusty books with their own collages – replacing them on the library shelves, Orton sometimes observing at a distance people’s reaction to their irreverent sabotage

‘I used to stand in the corners after I’d smuggled the doctored books back into the library and then watch people read them. It was very fun, very interesting.’

Queen's Favourite

The art deviant odd couple eventually had their collars felt by Lilly Law, and were sentenced in 1962 to six months imprisonment – a harsh tariff for first offenders which Orton put down to the fact that the judge had realised ‘we were queers’. The case made the national press, with Orton’s working class family in Leicester only hearing about it after reading a report in the Daily Mirror: ‘Our Joe’s been nicked!’ exclaimed Mr Orton to Mrs Orton. The custodial sentence, served in separate prisons, seems to have broken Halliwell, who tried to commit suicide, but was the making of Orton – who emerged determined to shock more than just a few fortunate readers at Islington Central Library.

John Betjeman as Tattooed Man

In a sense, their criminal collage was the only joint work which was a ‘success’, or at least reached a wider audience. It was also Orton’s first, minor taste of notoriety, before his first play Entertaining Mr Sloane became a huge hit and scandal three years later in 1964, with its dramatic ‘collage’ of British hypocrisies. It was also Halliwell’s last. Not counting his posthumous fame for murdering Orton by attacking his celebrity head with a hammer in 1967 in a drug-fuelled, possibly jealous and/or paranoid state – splattering his brains all over the collage-covered walls.

Last Sunday BBC Radio 3 also pricked up my ears, airing ‘The Visa Affair’ (which you can listen to for the next month) – a fine adaptation by the novelist Jake Arnott of a previously ‘lost’ and incomplete work of Orton’s about his Byzantine attempts in 1965 to obtain a visa to visit the US to oversee the Broadway translation/production of ‘Mr Sloane’.

The prison sentence he’d served for the collages, together with the nature of the crime itself – denoting, in disapproving American official eyes, ‘moral turpitude’ – meant he had to go through a series of darkly comic interviews with US bureaucrats and doctors at the US Embassy in London, which as Arnott points out in his introduction to his adaptation, closely resembles the kind of officious absurdities his own plays lampooned.

This is much more than just an adaptation, however. Partly because, as Arnott explains in his introduction to the play, The Visa Affair was incomplete, and partly because it could not, pre decriminalisation of male homosexuality (which happened in the UK in July 1967 – the month before Orton’s death) ever be really completed. Orton could not be ‘completely’ honest with either the US Embassy or the British public about the real nature of the ‘conspiracy’ between him and Halliwell, and the motivation for their cultural sabotage.

Hence Arnott adds scenes set in the infamous tiny bedsit that deftly and touchingly explore Orton and Halliwell’s conspiratorial (“‘breath together’ – that’s what ‘conspire’ means”) relationship. How Halliwell cultivated and tutored Orton’s talent, and their shared darkly comic – ‘camp’, if you insist – sense of humour. Anatomising their ‘crime of passion’.

orton-and-halliwell
Joe & Ken (Joe is the one without wig)

Although I very much enjoyed the film version of Alan Bennett’s play Prick Up Your Ears when it was released in 1987, I think Arnott captures something much more convincingly intimate. As well as a boyish vulnerability in Orton that Oldman’s swaggering, slightly renty portrayal obscures with bravura. Sexy bravura to be sure, but perhaps bravura all the same.

Arnott’s The Visa Affair achieves something remarkable, something that no one has really tried before: it lets you glimpse what Joe might have seen in his bald, impossible, unpopular and ultimately murderous ‘flatmate’.