Robin Ince: Kathy Burke’s A Good Read on Radio 4 drove me down the library

Kathy Burke's choice of Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square for Radio 4’s A Good Read made Robin Ince dig out his library card, and think of Joe Orton.

“Everyone’s very scared of Julie Burchill but I’m not.”

Of course Kathy Burke doesn’t fear Julie Burchill – part of the delight at hearing her talk or seeing her work is feeling that sense of fearlessness that marks her out as one of our most vivid and irrepressible actors. Lately, social media has delighted in the unearthing of her early 1990s riposte to Helena Bonham Carter’s comment: “If you’re not pretty and you’re working class you have an easier time in terms of people’s attitude to you.”

“As a lifelong member of the non-pretty working classes, I would like to say to Helena Bonham Carter: shut up you stupid cunt,” came the reply.

On Radio 4’s A Good Read, Burke chose Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square. Set in Earl’s Court during the build up towards World War Two, it is a populated by alcoholics, fascist sympathisers and George Harvey Bone, a kind man prone to blackouts.

George Harvey Bone is a beautiful character, summed up by Burke as “his heart is so big, I’m so full of love for him”.

Aged 12, Burke had grown bored with her children’s library card – she wanted a card that gave her access to the whole library. Two years before it was officially acceptable, the librarians took pity on her eager reading eyes and let her into a world of more twisted imaginations. I didn’t come across Hangover Square until my early 20s, when introduced to it by an actor named Robin who was adept at portraying Quentin Crisp and hung around with the dying embers of the disreputable Soho bohemians of the 1950s. It is still a dazzling novel and the chat between Burke, comedian Tom Allen and host Harriett Gilbert was rambunctious and delightful. If the purpose of A Good Read is to drive you straight to the library, then this succeeded and my nose is contentedly back in Hangover Square. George Harvey Bone is a beautiful character, summed up by Burke as “his heart is so big, I’m so full of love for him”.

Joe Orton
English playwright and author Joe Orton.

The library of Burke’s audacious borrowings is on Essex Road, famous for Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell returning their loans with improvements of new cover collages and surreal jokes. At the time, this was considered to be defacement, and both spent time in prison. Now, the books are on display at Tate Britain. It is 50 years since Orton was murdered by his lover, Halliwell. Radio 3 was the first station to broadcast his work in 1964. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death, they broadcast new productions of The Ruffian on the Stair and Erpingham Camp, with the addition of an introduction by Matthew Sweet and an interview with actor Kenneth Cranham. As Sweet stated, the playwright has joined “that small group of writers whose name has become an adjective – if comedy is dark and disrespectful and has its knickers on the wrong way round, then it’s Ortonesque.”

Now, I have to go back to the library again to reread The Orton Diaries, a book that made me blush as a teen reading it on public transport. I promise not to deface it – a librarian’s reprimand is a frightening thing.