“Tasteless, but a Gem” – Joe Orton, Graveyards and jellyfish

When I first went to Leicester, it seemed hunched and unhappy, whether it is king’s bones in a car park or football triumph, lately, it seems to have lost its stoop.

“Naught for your comfort, Aunt Edna. No rose-tinted memoirs of schooldays here, no benign providence to ensure a happy ending. Joe Orton’s Loot is a coffin comedy with a vengeance and not everyone’s idea of a joke”

It is 50 years since Joe Orton’s (probably) most often revived play and Leicester’s New Walk museum has a couple of glass cases containing Orton’s scrapbooks, scripts and a set of false teeth. These are the teeth played like castanets by Hal in the play. I don’t know if they are Orton’s mother’s teeth, I presume not. During the run of the play, Orton’s mother died and he handed her teeth to Kenneth Cranham (Hal) who was not necessarily pleased once the prop had been explained.
Orton wrote in his diary, “‘Here, I thought you’d like the originals.’ Cranham said, ‘What?’ ‘Teeth,’ I said. ‘Whose?’ he said. ‘My mum’s,’ I said. He looked very sick”.

When I was a teenager, Orton seemed at his most mythic. His diaries were published in 1986 and read flush-faced on trains from the home counties into London. John Lahr’s Prick Up Your Ears was made into a film, and Sunday newspapers colour supplements were not complete without a twice yearly feature on the anarchic life and brutal death by his lover’s hand, copiously illustrated with photos of those Moroccan jaunts, all tight trunked and accompanied by nasally beaming Kenneth Williams. As I walk through Leicester and past a deconsecrated public lavatory, I wonder why there is no plaque for Orton there. (I remember him talking of a cottaging break in a convenience on the way to his mother’s funeral).

His plays are still witty enough to avoid being museum pieces, and as the controlling powers continue their retrograde steps backwards into patriarchal bullying, their pertinence may be more pronounced again. Perhaps we are so distracted by our fripperies, and the opinion pieces that make progress appear to be oppression, that we have forgotten there are still things to rebel against. The recent popular rebellions have been illusory, predominantly led by a dominating mainstream pretending to be the outcast.
Also, Orton’s diaries contain a top tip for any male planning on being sketched naked. Orton reckoned that if you put off weeing for as long as possible, the artist had more impressive genitals to render.

Opposite the cased Evening Standard Best Play award, their headline that day, “Scandal! But loot has it”, is LS Lowry’s Industrial Landscape, River Scene.

How many of those figures walking in that landscape may have been dreaming of an escape from their industrial lives like the escape Orton managed from the factory future of Leicester? (which seems like an appropriate time to mention Arts Emergency, an organisation that aims to make sure that a future in art does not only become a possibility for those that can afford it)

The New Walk Museum also displays one of the loveliest paintings of someone knitting I have seen. Mary Isabella Grant by her father, Sir Francis Grant. Sadly, within four years of this being painted, she died.

The day before, I had been wandering around a cemetery, a habit I have had since before The Smiths. St Andrew’s Church had a very beautiful graveyard, the slate of the stones for the dead offset by the autumn colours and the leaf mulch that would soon be mixed up with corpse remnants. The 18th century engraver of the time carved interestingly ornate letters on the stones, and it is interesting to see the history of mortality and the number of those buried when far from old age. Then, I think about all of those who had no gravestone or whose simple splintered wood memorial would not survive a century. Most of the young and dead remembered here would have come from families who could have afforded a doctor. It is a good reminder, in times of anti-vax campaigning, that curious minds have helped usher children into adulthood, and hopefully old age.

Back in Leicester, I look at The Good Samaritan by William Hall. A doctor has come to the aid of a gypsy family with a poorly child. The caption at the side explains the difficulty of getting medical help at those times, and most especially for travellers. (and now you can add whatever footnote you’d like about the NHS)

On the other side of the museum, you can go further back and see the fossils and bones of Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs, including the Buckley Plesiosaur that “hasn’t got a scientific name yet as it has only recently been discovered”. Upstairs is a striking gallery of German Expressionism, including Ernst Neuschul’s Black Mother and Ludwig Meidner’s Apocalyptic Vision.

The gallery’s films on expressionism are projected on four walls and the floor, on second viewing you’ll see what you missed the first time around. One talks of the rise of post world war one decadence on the Weimar Republic and I wondered if now, in a 21st century of all night drinking and internet libraries of porn beyond the imagination of Caligula, if decadence, like Ortonesque rebellion, has become banal, a Friday habit.

To rid myself of these thoughts, I stare at Bryan Organ’s portrait of David Attenborough and then ogle the taxidermy, including a pasty and deflated jellyfish. This taxidermy might not quite add up to a Dead Zoo the size of Dublin’s Natural History Museum, but it is a menagerie at the very least.

It’s Halloween, so why not purchase or loan from the library the latest Dead Funny anthology, Dead Funny Encore, with ghostly and ghastly stories by Stewart Lee, Alan Moore, Josie Long, Isy Suttie, Alice Lowe, James Acaster, me and many more.

The latest Book Shambles stars Helen Czerski (we’ve also recently interviewed Alan Moore, Sarah Bakewell and Noel Fielding) and it also contains news of our Australian and New Zealand tour.

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