Britain's new moral guardians
If men won’t be ruled by one blasphemy law, they’ll be ruled by 10,000
In 1962, a year before sexual intercourse was introduced to Britain, playwright Joe Orton and his lover Kenneth Halliwell were sent to prison for causing damage to around 70 library books. They had taken the books home, defaced the covers with various rude drawings, and then surreptitiously returned them to the libraries.
The authorities didn’t find it amusing, and the two men were jailed for six months, a little sign of just how drastically sentencing norms have swung since the 1960s, going from one extreme to the other. Well, Orton never offended again and he and Kenneth lived happily ever after.
As well as shining a light on old notions of punishment, Orton’s book-defacing also illustrates a running theme of mine, that the cultural revolution of that decade has come full circle, with the anarchic elements giving way to the authoritarian. Today you wouldn’t go to jail for damaging a book — although the publisher might have already done that for you — but if it’s one particular book in question, you face punishment more archaic than anyone in Orton’s time could have dreamed of.
Imagine explaining to someone from the 1960s that, a few decades after their experiment in creating a permissive society, you would have a situation where an Englishwoman had to appear in a headscarf, dressed as a penitent to be publicly humiliated because her autistic son had mildly scuffed a holy book. How, they might wonder, did hardline breakaway Presbyterians end up in power?