Thursday, 6 June 2013


It was with some sadness and some bittersweet nostalgia I heard the news of Tom Sharpe's death, and I wonder now why more isn't be made of the career of this great comic novelist.

Looking back, I suppose I might have been foreshadowing my own life, but when I lived in Montreal in 1975-76, I was addicted to Tom Sharpe novels. I can't remember now if I discovered them there, perhaps through my English girlfriend, or if I had already been reading them, but I do know I found quite a few of them in The Word bookstore, the Pan editions whose covers were as chaotically attractive as the books, and I do know they were laugh-aloud funny, especially in the middle of French Canada. But one thing for certain, is that I came to Britain from Montreal half-expecting it to be a comic paradise reflecting Sharpe's writing, and finding myself only barely half wrong.

Once in the green and blessed land, however, my attachement to Sharpe soon faded. Some of it was his own losing some edge--after all, the underlying savagery of the satire in the early books was always going to be diffifcult to draw upon--and some of it was my realising the the reality of living in this country was almost as satirical as satire itself. Sharp often adopted a Colonel Blimpish persona, but when in the writing you begin to feel the hand of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, you might well turn elsewhere.

As if to illustrate the point, it always intrigued me that Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, his first two books, both of which were set in South Africa, weren't anywhere near as respected in this country as, say, Wilt, Blott On The Landscape, or Porterhouse Blue (not to diminish either of those books, which deserve their comparisons with Wodehouse and Waugh). But the South African books have a much more cutting satire behind them, as befits Sharpe's own experience in the country (and indeed as the child of a British fascist father and a South African mother).

I think, however, that he was hugely influential. I don't think Malcolm Bradbury's academic satires would be half as funny without Sharpe's influence, for example. Bradbury did the adaptation for the excellent TV version of Porterhouse Blue, and you can see the Ian Richardson House Of Cards set-up taking place right before your eyes. Sharpe was anarcghic, and could write slapstick, which is a very hard thing to do well--you have to create characters who are both real and absurd, and you have to maintain enoughh sympathy for the the audience to anticipate what's coming, and regret it as well as laugh at it. He was a master of that.

Trying to think of who has come along since Sharpe, I can't really come up with an equivalent, though in sf both Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet might be considered in the vein. I wonder if it's because self-satire has become too facile a vein to mine--or perhaps because there's so much of it about. Sharpe's best work, to an outsider, cut to the bone. But to the Brits themselves, it simply reinforced the sense of a pleasant eccentricity, which in the end would ensure everything continued as it always had. So Sharpe became a sort of 'national treasure' as the modern term goes. But at his peak, I think Tom Sharpe suggested something different--and the power of his humour came from that.

1 comment :

David Logan said...

You are right about the two South-African boks being the best - their satire cuts sharper than anything before or since. I was less enthusiastic about the 'academic' books, but have a great soft spot for 'The Throwback', don't think I have laughed out loud so much since.

He was a wonderful talent and I am glad you found Britain to be not too far removed from his caricature.

He could have done a fantastic satire on the NFL. Such extreme characters - and the names! Barkevious Mingo could be straight out of his pages!