SO Jeffrey Epstein is dead. He procured under-age girls to satisfy the carnal desires of himself and his acquaintances. His crimes were committed on American soil. But they would have been equally illegal if he had committed them overseas. By any standards, whatever the location, Epstein was a paedophile. The only sorrow at his premature death is that it will make it harder to bring his acquaintances to justice.
The playwright Joe Orton had similar tastes to Epstein. Both men liked to have sex with children under the age of consent. The difference is that Orton’s taste was for boys. Orton was gay in Britain at a time when gay sex, irrespective of the age of the participants, was a criminal offence. So he used to travel to Morocco to satisfy his desires. Even when gay sex was decriminalised in the UK for consenting males over the age of 21 Orton protested, confiding to a friend: ‘It’s only legal over twenty-one? I like boys of fifteen.’
Orton was an iconoclast, in the mould of Wilde and Shaw. While Wilde lampooned the dignity of the upper classes and Shaw the habit of the professions to conspire against the laity, Orton railed against the hypocrisy of a morality that was imposed from above by those who did not practise it themselves. He pushed against cultural boundaries weakened by scandal and the end of deference. For this he was celebrated in life. His premature death at the hands of his lover Kenneth Halliwell only added to his fame.
There are calls to have a statue of Orton erected in his home town of Leicester. An appeal to raise £100,000 has attracted the support of numerous figures in the arts world.
What message does this send out to the victims of child sexual exploitation? Orton’s crimes were no different from those committed by Paul Gadd (aka Gary Glitter), Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford. Like Gadd, Orton committed his sex crimes overseas. Defenders of Orton might argue that his exploitation of boys was not a crime at the time they were committed, but that misses the point.
There is another kind of iconoclasm under way at present, with campaigns to remove memorials to figures from colonial history. ‘Rhodes Must Go’, demand the politically correct in Oxford. A foundation stone laid by King Leopold of the Belgians at a London university has been removed because of his colonial activities in the Congo Free State, which were the inspiration for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Authorities in Bristol are in the process of erasing local philanthropist Sir Edward Colston from the city’s history because he made his fortune in the sugar plantations of the West Indies, a fact that was well-known for over two centuries. If values can be applied retrospectively for these figures, why not to Orton?
There seems to be some kind of threshold for those in the world of arts whereby if a person rises to a certain level of creative excellence, their sordid private lives are excused. Arthur Koestler raped Michael Foot’s wife Jill Craigie. Lawrence Durrell’s daughter accused him of incest with her. Eric Gill also committed incest and bestiality. His sculptures still grace the exterior of BBC Broadcasting House. Jimmy Savile would pass under them every day on the way to work.
Joe Orton had more talent than Jimmy Savile, but both were guilty of sexual crimes by the standards of the day. Orton’s crimes, due to the location they were committed, seem to be ignored. It is likely that if Orton was heterosexual, this would not have been the case.
What is worse is that Orton’s sexual conduct is not worthy of comment, even by those who study his life and works, except to mark it. It seems to be acceptable because it took place over half a century ago, overseas, and the victims were Arab boys. None of these are reasonable excuses.
By our modern standards, Orton was a child rapist. He also wrote some good plays that have endured, perhaps because they archly challenged an already-crumbling social orthodoxy. If people wish to celebrate his life, they should do so in its entirety instead of being selective. But erecting a statue to him sends out the wrong message. Instead of immortalising a man already immortalised by his works, perhaps the money raised could be redirected to a charity for the care of those who had their childhoods ripped away from them at the hands of paedophiles.