The Great Pursuit by Tom Sharpe (1977)

Sharpe’s longest novel to date, a satire on the worlds of literary criticism and publishing. For the first time it contained what felt like genuine personal concerns and attitudes in the narrator’s fierce animus against the hypocritical literary critic, Dr Louth.

Plot

Frederick Frensic is a successful literary agent who has built his career on inverting everything he learned at Oxford, under the elitist (lady) literary critic, Dr Louth. Out of the blue he is posted an anonymous novel of breath-taking pornographic content describing the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman – Pause O Men For The Virgin – via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it.

Now Frensic has had on his books for ten years a no-hoper novelist named Peter Piper, a lost soul thoroughly misled by his literary education into thinking he must only write high-mindedly about ‘significant relationships’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘the soul’, who treats the very same Dr Louth’s masterwork of criticism, The Moral Novel, as holy writ, reading it every night before bed, and who every year rewrites his hopeless account of his sensitive adolescence in the style of one of the literary Greats.

So Frensic and his American partner, Sonia Futtle, decide to pass off the crude novel off as being by Piper and oh what a tangled web this creates, a web of deceits and contracts which determines the rest of the increasingly labyrinthine plot:

Piper is told he will get money and the wretched book he’s been working on for so long will be released as his second novel, so he reluctantly agrees. A firm of posh British publishers which is down on its luck is persuaded to publish the English version because Frensic, correctly, predicts that this high-brow imprimatur will make it easier to convince the American publisher Hutchmeyer, ‘the Al Capone of publishing’, to snap it up and publish and promote it in the States. This the bullish, illiterate Hutchmeyer does, paying an incredible $2 million advance, not least because Sonia flirts outrageously with him.

But things begin to veer out of control when Hutchmeyer insists that this Piper fellow does a promotional tour of the States to do TV and book signings. There is a very funny scene at New York’s docks where Hutchmeyer’s sidekick organises an ‘event’ for Piper’s reception, something that will get him on the news, by inviting activists from widely varying groups to meet him – Jews are told he’s an ex-Nazi Peipmann, Palestinians that he’s a leader of the PLO Piperfat, the Irish that he’s O’Piper the IRA leader, gays something else, with the result there is a massive riot, from which Piper barely emerges in one piece to scramble into a waiting ambulance, where the fixer – MacMordale – grabs a bag of blood from the bewildered nurse and breaks it over the dazed Piper’s head. Any publicity’s good publicity, right?

At the upstate Hutchmeyer residence, actually a vast tasteless mansion, a bloodied and bandaged Piper is introduced to his overwhelming host and his wife, Baby, one-time beauty queen in the 1930s, now the recipient of so many facelifts that, as Sonia points out, if she smiled, she’d scalp herself. In typical Sharpe fashion Hutchmeyer and his wife hate each other and, by a roundabout process, Baby comes to believe Piper is the real thing, a young man of genius and sensitivity who deserves protection from the cruel world.

Sonia, drunk, flirts with Hutch and persuades him to take her out in his yacht in bad weather. Baby takes advantage of the fact to act on impulse and reject the lies and frustrations of the past 40 years. Pack your bags, she tells Piper, we’re getting out of here, as she determines to act out a scene from one of the great historical novels. What makes it Sharpe is she decides to burn down the wretched mansion, so empties cans of petrol across it and sets them afire, but has brought the last one trailing gas down to the quayside and the cruiser where a very nervous Piper is waiting with his bags, so that the trail of flame follows her and leaps into the boat just as Piper accelerates the engines. They both leap off into the sea as the cruiser, now aflame, heads off into the bay where it collides with Hutch’s yacht and explodes. Hutch is rescued by the typically Sharpe Sonia, a big, strong, calculating lady, while Piper and Baby swim ashore further down the coast.

Baby realises she has burnt her bridges (and her husband’s house to the ground) and decides on impulse to head South, to the Deep South, of slavery and mangrove swamps and drags a reluctant Piper along with her. Everyone presumes they are dead and in scenes reminiscent of Wilt for a while Hutchmeyer is suspected of murdering  his wife. Instead Baby persuades Piper – his head still swathed in bandages from the New York riot, to write out a full draft of Pause O Men For The Virgin, which they photocopy and post to Frensic in London.

Frensic had become very nervous about Piper revealing the elaborate scam to Hutch who would doubtless sue for all his money back and more, but when he receives the manuscript of the novel in Piper’s own hand-writing he is very perplexed. He goes back to the firm of solicitors in Oxford who posted him the typewritten manuscript and winkles out of them the name of the secretarial company which typed it up, run by a Miss Bogden.

In the true Sharpe manner this Miss Bogden is a frustrated divorcee and, having had his phone enquiry flatly turned down, he realises he must woo her: so he sends her red roses then phones posing as a long-time admirer from a distance, then invites her to dinner, all the time probing for any proof of the author’s whereabouts. Miss Bogden drops that she had a phone number she could ring if she had problems with the manuscript but then evades the subject and Frensic finds himself forced to accompany her back to her flat and, well, to be engulfed in her consuming sexual appetites in the name of his quest. He goes so far as to propose to her and, next morning, finds himself going to a jewellers to choose a ring before he finally finally gets the phone number out of her and makes his excuses. It is a funny moment when, after all this build-up, Frensic rings the number and it is an Indian takeaway 🙂 He realises he’s transposed the numbers in his excitement, and dials again, A quavery voice answers and says it is is Dr Louth here.

Frensic puts down the phone thunderstruck. So the high-minded and elitist literary critic, whose insistence that her students only read novelists of her Great Tradition – Austen, James, Conrad, Lawrence – and who cast into the outer darkness all mere entertainers, anyone who wrote for money – Dickens and Trollope and Meredith, let alone the entertainers from an earlier era, Smollett and Sterne and Fielding – whose baleful influence ruined generations of would-be writers by making them aspire to an impossible, and irrelevant, high-mindedness, who misled Frensic in his early career until he threw off her influence, and whose damaging influence is embodied in Piper’s unreadable screeds – it was she who wrote this pornographic best-seller. Frensic’s anger at her is real, and bespeaks Sharpe’s own experience at Cambridge in the heyday of the elitist literary critic, Frank Leavis, who similarly insisted on the existence of a Great Tradition. In fact the title of this novel is a simple merging of two of Leavis’s most famous books of criticism, The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit. And of course, in none of these books or Leavis’s lectures or stern admonitions was there any place for the kind of well-crafted entertainments that Sharpe himself writes.

The novel hints at the journey Sharpe himself had to make, to throw off the stifling high-mindedness of Cambridge, before he could find his own voice and métier as a satirist and entertainer of genius.

Frensic goes on a hateful pilgrimage to Oxford, visits Louth in her ancient house, confronts her with the truth and forces her to burn the manuscript of the novel as going some way to making reparations for all the lives she’s ruined. Meanwhile, we learn that Hutchmeyer, liberated from his nagging wife, has made the umpteenth proposition to tough Sonia and – to his surprise – been accepted, and they get happily married.

In the tiny southern hamlet of Bibliopolis Baby and Piper come across Deep South prejudice and real hellfire preaching. In fact at the first service they are forced by their fanatical landlady to attend, the congregation get so carried away they insist on ‘bringing out the snakes’ which promptly go mad, biting lots of people, in fact killing the preacher himself while Baby, in an orgy of guilt and self-recrimination rips open her blouse a) to reveal her perfect (silicone) breasts b) to let a poisonous coral snake take hefty bites of them – to no effect. This so impresses the good folks of Bibliopolis that they promptly elect Baby their new preacher, and Piper finds himself giving hand-writing lessons to the locals, in time (ironically) setting up an official School of Writing.

Coda

As with many of Sharpe’s novels, you would have thought things could stop right here: The mystery of the book’s author has been revealed; Frensic’s quest is at an end; Hutch and Sonia are happily married; Baby and Piper have found their niche in a sleepy southern backwater.

But no. There is more. It’s a little hard to follow, but Baby has encouraged Piper to continue writing out Pause O Men For The Virgin in his own hand-writing, but each time, making it more in his voice, turning it into his version. Which Piper does, dutifully posting it off to Frensic in London, who is perplexed. Like everyone else, he thinks Piper and Baby perished in the fire at the mansion.

Meanwhile, Miss Bogden, jilted by Frensic (who had used a false name during his 24 hours of passion with her), is set on revenge and tracks him down. Frensic hears her voice on the stairs to his Hampstead flat, grabs his essentials and decamps to Corkadale’s house where he reveals the truth that Piper is not the author of this wretched book. He then takes a plane to new York, on to Miami, and hires a car to drive to this wretched place Bibliopolis. Here he finds Piper a part-time preacher in the Church of the Great Pursuit and there is space for another bitter screed against Dr Louth/Leavis and their deadening, anti-humane influence, before Frensic confronts Piper, lashing out at his wretched ambitions and telling him to stop sending him rubbish manuscripts of his awful novel.

But outside a ‘welcoming committee’ of the local sheriff and assorted hicks await Frensic; they’ve all heard him crticising that nice Mr Piper, a fine upstanding pillar of the community, and drag Frensic before the local judge who turns out to be — none other than Baby Hutchmeyer. She grimly dangles in front of Frensic the prospect of being sentenced to the local chain-gang, which he will survive for, ooh, maybe a month. The alternative is the final stitch-up in a book made up of crooked contracts and devious deceptions. He, Frensic, must allow his name to go on the succession of novels which Piper will send him, once a year, from Bibliopolis. He, Frensic, must arrange for them to be published and promoted.

And so it comes to pass. Frensic arranges for Piper’s first novel to be published, but under his name: he quits his literary agency and goes to live in obscurity in the South Downs and – the final cruel irony – the critics love Piper’s first novel, and it is a roaring success.

Anti-American

The entirely gratuitous excursion into the deep South reminded me a bit of the journey of young Martin and Mark Tapley to a disease-ridden swamp in Dickens’s funniest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which was criticised in its day for its surprisingly savage satire on the bad manners, appalling speech, filth and greed of contemporary America. Something similar is going on here. In Wilt the worst excesses of fashionable politics and trendy sexual openness are associated with the American couple, the Pringsheims, who are slowly exposed as hateful liars. The Great Pursuit moves almost all its plot to America the better to satirise the crass commercialism, philistinism, crudity, violence and shallowness of American life.

F.R.Leavis

That said, the real core of the novel’s anger is with Dr Louth, a transparent version of F.R. Leavis, the enemy is English through and through.

The Great Pursuit was Dr Sydney Louth’s latest, a collection of essays dedicated to F.R.Leavis and a monument to a lifetime’s execration of the shallow, the obscene, the immature and the non-significant in English literature. Generations of undergraduates had sat mesmerised by the turgid inelegance of her style while she denounced the modern novel, the contemporary world and the values of a sick and dying civilisation. Frensic had been among those undergraduates and had imbibed the truisms on which Dr Louth’s reputation as a scholar and a critic had been founded. She had praised the obviously great and cursed the rest and for that simple formula she was known as a great scholar. And all this in language which was the antithesis of the stylistic brilliance of the writers she praised. But it was her anathema which had stuck in Frensic’s mind, those bitter, graceless curses she had heaped on other critics and those who disagreed with her. By her denunciations she had implanted the inhibitions which had spoilt Frensic and so many others like him who had wanted to write. To appease her he had adopted the grotesque syntax of her lectures and essays. By their style Louthians were instantly recognisable. And by their sterility. (p.205)

F.R.Leavis was still alive when this novel was published. Was he made aware of its savage criticism of his life’s work? What on earth must he have made of it?

Related links

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the cover, above, depicting the riot which greets Peter Piper – centre, thin, looking scared, and being defended by the feisty Sonia Futtle – on his arrival at New York). You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Wilt is probably Tom Sharpe’s best-known novel. Its opening sentence is:

Whenever Henry Wilt took the dog for a walk, or, to be more accurate, when the dog took him, or, to be exact, when Mrs Wilt told them both to go and take themselves out of the house so that she could do her yoga exercises, he always took the same route…

It’s all here: the pedantic comic style; the stereotype of the henpecked, resentful husband; the wife in thrall to the latest fad (hard to imagine, but there was a time when yoga was new and widely ridiculed).

Setting Henry Wilt is a feeble failure of a lecturer at a shabby Fenland community college, trying to teach The Mill On The Floss to classes of apprentice gasfitters and plumbers, amusingly grouped as Meat One (butchers), firemen, mechanics etc. He is 35 and married to fat bitch Eva (as he refers to her), a misogynist stereotype who becomes brainlessly addicted to every passing fad in the faddish 1970s, and who Henry fantasises about murdering.

Campus novels of the 1970s Insofar as it is set in a college and deals with politics among the faculty and staff, Wilt sits alongside other campus novels such as Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (published in 1975; Bradbury adapted Sharpe’s novels Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue for TV) and David Lodge’s great Changing Places, also published in 1975.

Plot Wilt’s wife falls in with some trendy Californians who epitomise the shallow hedonism Wilt despises. At a swinging party Wilt refuses to have sex with the let-it-all-hang-out-wife (Sally Pringsheim), in evading her clutches slips and bangs his head, and awakens to find she has wedged his penis inside a blow-up sex doll. As he is trying to extract himself the partygoers burst in to the bathroom to discover and humiliate him, his wife included.

The next day the Californians maliciously post him the doll and, drunk, he decides to try out how easy it would be to murder his wife by breaking into the building site next to his college and throwing the doll down a hole. Unfortunately, the doll gets stuck half way down and the tipsy Wilt drops loads of handwritten notes about his lectures around the building site and is seen in the act by the college caretaker. The next morning the builders have just lined up a concrete mixer to fill the hole and it has begun pouring when the foreman and a builder spot the body far down waving feebly up at them.

The police are called and several witnesses come forward to wildly misinterpret what they saw as Wilt throwing a body down the hole and – because his wife has taken an unscheduled break with the Californian couple on a boat in the Broads and is nowhere to be found – the police arrest Wilt on suspicion of murder.

This leads to a farcically prolonged police interview in which the bloody-minded and over-educated Wilt is able to run rings round his police interlocutors, especially Inspector Flint who is driven to his wits’ end. The interrogation is intercut with the much darker farce of his wife’s adventures with the unscrupulous Californian couple on the boat which has run aground in the Norfolk Broads. Slowly the facade of the trendy Americans is peeled away to reveal that he is a plastic fetishist and Sally, far from the enlightened sex therapist she claims to be, is an ex-prostitute who agreed to accommodate his weird lusts in exchange for money and security.

The enmity between the couple descends to open violence when Sally tied up her husband in what promises to be a bondage sex session but in which she genuinely intends to drown him, only interrupted by the unwise intrusion of the local (alcoholic) vicar who saw their distress signals. Witnessing the bizarre sex set-up, he immediately flees back to his rowing boat and to his quiet bachelor vicarage only to find the bedraggled, big and quite naked Eva dripping in his living room. Eventually the police arrive, Eva’s identity is confirmed and Wilt – much to Inspector Flint’s chagrin – is released.

The 1970s The time of right-on Marxists (like Bradbury’s Howard Kirk), burn-your-bra women’s libbers, sexual liberation (all clitoral stimulation and vibrators), and the strong feeling among middle-aged white men that  the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Just as in Lodge’s Changing Places the story needs an injection of hyper-Californian trendy characters to set the plot rolling – here the loathesome Pringsheimers, there the über-academic Morris Zapp – in order to make England look the tired provincial backwater the author feels it is and yet which he loves.

The ignorance, the naivety: neither Wilt nor his one male confidant/friend know what a blow job is. Eva doesn’t know that a dyke is a lesbian. Wilt earns £3,500 a year. They reference holidays on the newly-fashionable Costa del Sol. Wilt despises parties where trendy lecturers smoke pot and talk about Hegelian dialectics (just as they do in The History Man). At the Pringsheimer’s party a group are sitting round listening to the Watergate Tapes on the novelty of a stereo tape machine.

40-something men The 1970s might have been the era of the rangy Howard Kirk and overconfident Morris Zapp, but were also the decade of Rigsby (Rising Damp, first broadcast 1974), Basil Fawlty (first broadcast 1975), Reginald Perrin (first published 1975) – of a cadre of frustrated, middle-aged men living by the ‘old standards’, who are affronted by the liberties of the younger generation, the sexual and linguistic permissiveness they associate with ghastly Americans and – often – the sympathy shown for all this by their shrewish wives (Sybil Fawlty, Eva Wilt).

It is the Comedy of Resentment.

Crude There is a lot of swearing. All the characters swear a lot, but particularly the police interrogating Wilt. The humour is broad, the farce absurd and extreme, the bitterness against the modern world savage.

Sergeant Yates leant across the table: ‘Let me tell you something. When we get Mrs Wilt out of there, don’t imagine she’ll be unrecognisable.’ He stopped and stared intently at Wilt. ‘Not unless you’ve disfigured her.’
‘Disfigured her?’ said Wilt with a hollow laugh. ‘She didn’t need disfiguring the last time I saw her. She was looking bloody awful. She had on these lemon pyjamas and her face was all covered with…’ he hesitated. There was a curious expression on the sergeant’s face.
‘Blood?’ he suggested. ‘Were you going to say blood?’
‘No’, said Wilt, ‘I most certainly wasn’t. I was going to say powder. White powder and scarlet lipstick. I told her she looked fucking awful.’
‘You must have had a very happy relationship with her,’ said the sergeant. ‘I don’t make a habit of telling my wife she looks fucking awful.’
‘You probably don’t have a fucking awful-looking wife,’ said Wilt, making an attempt to conciliate the man. (Page 115)

Crude? Yes.
Vulgar? Yes.
And very funny.

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe (1975)

Between Porterhouse Blue (1974) and Wilt (1976) Sharpe published Blott on the Landscape (1975). For some reason I found this funnier than the other two, maybe because I’m getting a feel for a Sharpe novel, what it does and does not try to do. In particular, a feel for the genre of Farce:

‘Farce – a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay… Farce is generally regarded as intellectually and aesthetically inferior to comedy in its crude characterizations and implausible plots.’ (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Plot Sir Giles Lynchwood, MP for the fictional constituency of South Worfordshire, hates his fat wife, Lady Maud, and is casting round for a way to leave her but without initiating a divorce – which would mean he loses the riches she brought to the marriage. He stumbles upon the idea of getting a motorway extension driven through her Family Seat, the home they both share, Handyman Hall – as husband he would get the substantial compensation the government would pay and Lady Maud wouldn’t get a thing. Perfect! However, having pulled the necessary strings in Whitehall to get the ball rolling, he makes every effort to appear to his wife and the local gentry to be leading the campaign against it, a feat of Machiavellian hypocrisy.

Thus starts a farcical sequence of events drawing in:

  • a senior judge tasked with running the public enquiry who is stoned and bottled out of town by the yokels of Worford – easily bought by Lady Maud with gallons of free beer
  • a naive man from the Ministry, Dundridge, who is swiftly made drunk at a local golf club party and photographed in compromising positions with an obliging local beauty, leading to contorted blackmail schemes as the photos change hands
  • the eponymous Blott, a German Prisoner of War who managed to stay on after the War as the gardener at Handyman Hall and who Lady Maud tasks with spying on Sir Giles and his mistress in London
  • Mrs Forsyth, the mistress in London, who is paid to (reluctantly) tie up Sir Giles in a variety of bondage outfits

and much, much more. We witness:

  • Blott getting the motorway demolition men drunk, especially the one in charge of the wrecking ball who he persuades to show off his skill and ends up inadvertently demolishing half of Worford High Street and setting on fire a row of historic almshouses.
  • Blott digs up his stash of World War Two weapons and transforms the triumphal arch-cum-lodge where he lives into a fortress, filling it with concrete, ringing it with barbed wire, from which he holds off both the local police and the Army with machine guns and rocket launchers.

So sucked are you into the crazy logic of Sharpeland that you accept it when Lady Maud gets the Hall converted into a safari park in seven days flat, so that when a tipsy Sir Giles returns from a sojourn in London he is surprised to find his home surrounded by a barbed wire fence and, once he has broken in, very surprised to encounter real-life lions in his rose garden. Hungry lions.

Farcical stereotypes 

  • the fat sexually voracious woman (here, Lady Maud; Porterhouse Blue Mrs Biggs; Wilt Eva Wilt)
  • her ineffectual male victim (here, Dundridge; Porterhouse Blue Lionel Zipser; Wilt Henry Wilt)
  • the Machiavellian committee man (here, Sir Giles Lynchwood; Porterhouse Blue Sir Godber Evans; Wilt Dr Board)
  • the Neanderthal but obstinate prole (Skullion, Blott)
  • the obtuse police (here, Henry Percival; Wilt Inspector Flint)
  • the inadequate Army

Sex farce The English are embarrassed by sex (well, the polite English middle classes are). Hence all those Whitehall Farces with titles like Run For Your Wife and Whoops, There Go My Trousers! Once you accept these novels as farce, it is easier to accept the multitude of excruciatingly embarrassing scenes which the plot generates. Thus the completely sexless nature of Sir Giles and Lady Maud’s marriage drives them both into farcical mishaps with other partners, Sir Giles into the chains and straps of Mrs Forsyth in St John’s Wood, Lady Maud into the hilarious attempt to seduce Dundridge. Both Dundridge and Sir Giles are stripped naked and photographed at their most abjectly humiliated. Something very Freudian going on with this humour.

Bureaucracy There is also something intrinsically farcical about bureaucracy, which so often fails or results in the opposite of what was intended. (When Kafka read his great novels about bureaucracy to his friends there were, apparently, tears of laughter running down his face.) Thus Sir Giles’ cunning plan to route a motorway through his own property for the compensation money drags in the Ministry of Transport, with its hierarchy of twitchy civil servants, each devoted to protecting their own backs right up to Cabinet level. Although it’s from a different era the accumulated nitwittery of the men from the Ministry reminded me of the wretched civil servants who have to cope with the girls of St Trinians (books 1948-53; films 1954-60).

Compulsory purchases This kind of fuss about a proposed bypass or motorway seems rather dated. The protests about the extension of the A30 which led Swampy to prominence were in the 1990s. I think it was during the 1970s that this kind of protest first became widespread, as the government hugely expanded the motorway and A-road network. The entire premise of The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is that Arthur Dent’s protest about his house being knocked down to make way for a town bypass is ironically mirrored by the entire planet being demolished to make way for a galactic bypass. That was broadcast in 1978, presumably written in 1976 or 77 ie the same time as his novel.

Prose style I love Sharpe’s prose. It is clear and unconvoluted. It is made up of crisp sentences which clearly describe the concatenations of cataclysmic actions and schemes. There is as much description of place as is required to locate the narrative’s hopeless puppets. The comic plot fits together like a Swiss clock, all the interlocking pieces immaculately clean and precise. In this scene Dundridge has been reluctantly forced to seek shelter for the night at the home of the sexually voracious Lady Maud. He thinks he has managed to be given a room of his own, but…

Dundridge went across to the window and opened it and then, moving carefully so as not to stub his toes, he went back and got into bed. As he did so he knew there was something terribly wrong. A blast of Chanel No.5 issued from the bedclothes overpoweringly. So did Lady Maud. Her arms closed around him and with a husky, ‘Oh you wicked boy,’ her mouth descended on his. The next moment Dundridge was engulfed. Things seemed to fold round him, huge hot terrible things, legs, arms, breasts, lips, noses, thighs, bearing him up, entwining him, and bearing him down again in a frenzy of importunate flesh. He floundered frantically while the waves of Lady Maud’s mistaken response broke over him. (Page 110)

The novel is like a series of Donald McGill postcards come to life, bawdy, crude, brilliantly inventive, wonderfully funny. Speaking of illustrations…

Jacket cover of Blott on the Landscape by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Blott On The Landscape – illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the ferocious Lady Maud dominates this cover, sprinkled with the incriminating blackmail photos of Dundridge, a rhinoceros horn peaking out form her left buttock and the buildings of Worford being demolished at top left). You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (1974)

Sharpe attended Pembroke College, Cambridge. His time there is liberally plundered to create this violent and crude farce about a hidebound institution caught between dusty tradition and pointless change, which is often very, very funny.

Plot Unpopular politician Sir Godber Evans is squeezed out of the Cabinet and rewarded with the position of Master at the hidebound Porterhouse College, Cambridge. Here he sets about trying to modernise things, coming into conflict with the crusty old dons and, in particular, the long-serving Head Porter, Skullion. Evans wants women undergraduates, a condom machine in the toilets, caterers brought in to do the cooking, and so on. There is a hilarious sub-plot about a sorry post-graduate student, Lionel Zipser, who for no very good reason has conceived a crush on his enormously fat bedder, Mrs Biggs and, in a sustained comic passage, goes for haircuts at a succession of barbers in order to buy the condoms he’ll need for their Big Encounter…

The book ends darkly: not only does Zipser’s comic sub-plot come to a premature conclusion when he and Mrs Biggs are killed in a gas explosion, but Skullion, a touching as well as a comic character, suffers a stroke and is paralysed. These aren’t really funny incidents. Sort of, but not really. They give the book a mean, nasty flavour.

The 1970s A haircut costs 30p. You can only get condoms at a barber’s. They moan about the Common Market.

Stereotypes Comedy relies on stereotypes, but it’s interesting to see which ones are used when and why. Again we have the henpecked feeble man (Wilt, Zipser), the voracious, man-threatening Big Woman (Eva Wilt, Mrs Biggs), the painfully earnest female do-gooder (Lady Mary Evans, Eva Wilt), the ludicrously self-serving committee members of both colleges.

Cover of Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (Wikimedia Commons)

Pan paperback cover of Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (Wikimedia Commons)

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe (1973)

The sequel to Riotous Assembly, the second (and last) of Sharpe’s ‘Piemburg’ novels, Indecent Exposure is also (loosely) based on the author’s time in South Africa (1951-61) and features the three catastrophically clottish policemen from the first novel: Kommandant van Heerden, LuitenantVerkramp and Konstabel Els.

The Kommandant, continuing his obsession with all things English, meets a flirtatious middle-aged English woman at the local golf club. She is Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon, wife of Colonel Heathcote-Kilkoon, they live at a big house outside the town of Weezen with a Major Bloxham, nickname ‘Boy’. They are, in fact frauds, chancers from South London who won the Pools and came out to Kenya where they reinvented themselves among the snobs of Happy Valley. Booted out of paradise by the Mau Mau rebellion, they have come to practice English snobbery in apartheid South Africa where they have set up a Dornford Yates fan club and have parties where they re-enact episodes from that author’s novels of posh 1920s society. Hence the house’s name, White Ladies, based on the house of the same name in Yates’s ‘Berry’ novels.

Attracted to the Kommandant’s coarse brutishness, Mrs H-K invites him to come and stay – which is downgraded to an invitation to stay at the local hotel by the worried Colonel who doesn’t like boorish Boers – and this leads to a classic cock-up when the Kommandant arrives in Weezen armed with a load of English clothes, jackets, ties etc, and a book of etiquette, only to be directed by unhelpful locals to what they insist is the only hotel in town but is in fact a health spa, stinking of sulphurous water, inhabited by whispering old ladies. After a series of misunderstandings, Mrs H-K finally tracks the Kommandant down and invites him to a posh English dinner party where he misunderstands everything that is said to him and takes offence at the rather camp and fey atmosphere.

There is a fabulous scene where Mrs H-K encourages the Kommandant to come fox hunting with the local Hunt and, when the Kommandant falls badly from the mad horse the Colonel has deliberately given him (infuriated by his Boer crudeness), the Kommandant is carried into a dark copse where he is tended a little too intimately by Mrs H-K. She is quickly naked except for her riding hat and crop and straddling the Kommandant in a very compromising way, when with a hullaballoo the hounds come bursting into the clearing and swarm all over the prostate Kommandant and around the naked Englishwoman, closely followed by the Colonel and ‘Boy’ and their guests. Luckily the Kommandant is invisible under the howling hounds and Mrs H-K displays the legendary British sang-froid: When her husband shouts, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ she roars back, ‘I am having a shit‘ and the men retire in chastened confusion…

But this, the bogus posh English circle, is the minor strand in the story. The main action is what happens in Piemburg in the Kommandant’s absence, having left his over-zealous and none-too-bright subordinate, Luitenant Verkramp, in charge. He immediately implements two long-standing ambitions of his:

  1. To put an end to inter-racial relations on the part of his men ie to stop them screwing black women, he puts into practice a theory he learned from the over-zealous and oversexed lady psychiatrist at the Piemburg prison, Dr von Blimenstein, viz. he has cohorts of policemen put in strait-jackets, their penises wired up to electrodes and shown slides of naked black women projected on the wall. Each new slide prompts a horrific electric shock. (Sharpe’s fiction is not subtle and not for the faint-hearted.) Grotesque as this sounds, the outcome is even more gruesome for the several hundred constables turn out to be put off not just black women, but all women, and become camp homosexuals – big South African rugby-playing cops reporting for duty wearing loud lipstick and garish wigs!
  2. Verkramp’s second plan is to flush out the communist subversives who must be causing all the unrest among the blacks (what other reason could there be?). He calls in a dozen secret policemen from out of town and tasks them with tracking down the secret communist cells and working their way into them, committing some limited acts of terrorism, if necessary, to back up their cover stories. The result is the secret agents – none of whom know about the others – end up infiltrating each other’s little set-ups, committing ever more egregious acts of violence in a bid to prove their seriousness and penetrate the heart of subversive organisations which don’t, in fact, exist.  Thus, the secret agents are responsible for blowing up the power station, the radio station, the town sewage works and much more, plunging Piemburg into anarchy. Things come to a head when two secret policemen, each convinced the other is a communist subversive, meet in the Piemburg zoo and conceive the bright idea of sowing panic by placing gelignite attached to timers inside condoms and getting the zoo’s ostriches to eat them, then letting them loose. This, after much embarrassment about buying the condoms etc, they manage to do, but the released ostriches turn out to be very affectionate creatures and instead of running off into the town at random, decide to follow the secret agents who’ve given them the nice meals, who start panicking as the timers inside the birds tick down to their explosive climaxes.

Eventually, the Kommandant is contacted and told about the mayhem going on his absence. Verkramp has finally realised all these nightmarish incidents are his fault, and has contacted all his agents and paid them to leave town. Van Heerden returns to deal with the knotty problem of finding a group of white men (the agents were seen by witnesses at some of the explosions) who can be blamed for all the mayhem… until Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon learns of his problem and suggests… the pompous Britishers of the Dornford Yates club! Yes, they offended the Kommandant with their lofty superiority and now he can get his revenge!

Which leads to the novel’s violent climax as various police agencies approach the unwitting home of the good Colonel and Major, in the midst of holding another gay and frivolous party, when suddenly shooting breaks out, the Britishers respond, and the whole thing comes to a fiery climax when the reliably psychopathic Konstabel Els floods the cellar of their mansion with petrol and throws in a match. Whoompf.

Slowly Piemburg is restored to normal. The terrorists all appear to have died in the inferno. The memory of the exploding ostriches dies away. Luitenant Verkramp is hypnotised by the large and fearsome lady psychiatrist, Dr von Blimenstein, into marrying him and Kommandant van Heerden adopts one of the habits he learned from the Yates society, fox hunting, having rescued their pack of bloodhounds and now regularly ties a bag of aniseed to a black prisoner, giving him a five minute head-start, and then – Tally Ho!

Civilisation – South Africa-style – has been restored.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (eg naked Mrs Heathcote-Kilgore straddling the Kommandant and surrounded by baying hounds – the red face of the Kommandant she’s straddling is to the left oof her thigh, with a hound’s foot in his mouth; the row of South African police with their penises attached to electrodes watching projected image of naked black women; the big woman in pink on the front is the voracious psychiatrist Dr von Blimenstein, waiting to seduce the (typically for Sharpe) skinny, scared male, Luitenant Verkramp, cowering just behind her buttock).

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe (1971)

A black man pretending to be a white woman, dancing steps of a ballet he has never seen, dressed in clothes made of a material totally unsuited to a hot climate on a lawn which was imported from England, and kissing the stone face of a man who destroyed his nation, filmed by a woman who is widely regarded as the arbiter of good taste. Nothing could better express the quality of life in South Africa. (p.143)

The word farce doesn’t begin to adequately convey the out-of-control extremity, the relentless savage absurdity of Sharpe’s very funny first novel. The story or, rather, the narrative stuffed with absurd and absurdly violent incidents, focuses on three thick-headed, cruel and blundering policemen in apartheid South Africa – Kommandant van Heerden, Luitenant Verkramp and Konstabel Els. The plot kick starts like a rusty motorbike when they receive a phone call from Miss Hazelstone, an elderly Englishwoman who lives in an old colonial mansion, her grandfather having led the forces which conquered this part of Zululand, her father having been a notorious hanging judge.

Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook. Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time shot any number of Zulu cooks. (p.16)

These three short sentences convey Sharpe’s style. Quick, effective prose which crisply conveys the ludicrousness, the heartlessness and the absurdity of the events with the maximum of biting humour. Comedy is in the timing and, when applied to comic prose on the page, this means sentences must run briskly and crisply up to a punchline – ideally one with an unexpected insight or comic thrust. As Sharpe’s prose does. Time after time.

In a much later scene, the tied and bound Bishop is visited in prison by a cynically detached English chaplain (who has only been persuaded to do this unpleasant chore because he was assured there some rare wild flowers to be seen in the grounds).

The chaplain paused, and looked at the manacles and chains. ‘Do you wear those all the time?’ he asked. ‘They must be frightfully uncomfortable.’
‘Only when I’m going to be hanged,’ said the Bishop.
The chaplain thought he detected a note of bitterness in the remark… (p.192)

Crisp, clear, ironic dialogue.

Back at the plot, the three police officers drive up to Miss H’s house to find her holding a vast elephant gun from the colonial era and a dead cook lying on the lawn by the statue of her dignified ancestor – and things quickly start descending into Sharpeland. Not wanting the criminality of such an honourable old family to be publicised, van Heerden orders the very stupid Konstabel Els to go down to the gatehouse and make sure nobody comes in or out. ‘Shall I shoot?’ asks the Konstabel and the Kommandant rashly says yes. Els finds a colonial-era blockhouse hidden among bushes and takes up position with the elephant gun, a revolver and lots of ammunition. Which is a shame, because the Kommandant has also called the police station and ordered everyone up to the house, fully armed and accompanied by the six Saracen armoured cars the force possesses, to back up the Konstabel.

On the way they are ordered to post large signs warning against rabies and – just to be on the safe side – bubonic plague, around the perimeter of the estate, and this has the unfortunate effect of creating a large-scale panic in the town in which a lot of the population get caught up and start fleeing.

But the main result is that when the policemen advance towards the gatehouse they are immediately fired on by the psychotic Konstabel Els, the elephant gun having truly awesome powers of destruction and mutilation. — Thus, the first half of the book is dominated by the rapidly escalating absurdity of this stand-off, with the armoured cars being brought up to attack the impregnable blockhouse, and a contingent of officers sent round the side camouflaged as bushes – only to discover the hard way that Miss Hazelstone’s military grandfather had prepared an elaborate system of defences including concealed trenches with sharpened spikes at the bottom onto which many of the hapless officers fall, shrieking with agony. Sharpe’s world is not for the faint-hearted. Many people die.

On entering Miss H’s mansion, Kommandant van Heerden discovers a naked man covered in blood snoring in a bedroom and takes him for the murderer, when it is in fact Miss H’s brother, the very Christian bishop of Barotseland, who had run from his bedroom immediately after the shooting to give Fivepence the last rites (hence the covered-in-blood).

There is a sequence of events which involve the bishop eventually waking, having a bath to wash off the blood and walking down to the luxury swimming pool in the grounds where he takes long relaxing lengths underwater, just as the police arrive at the mansion and start shouting for Miss H to come out. Being underwater, the bishop only dimly hears these shouts, which he mistakes for the voice of God announcing a new calling to him.

Meanwhile, Kommandant van Heerden makes a series of unpleasant discoveries about Miss Hazelstone which turn his (admittedly dim) understanding of the world upside down, namely that she has been having a sexual affair with her Zulu cook, in which they both dressed up in rubber fetish suits, Miss Hazelstone dressing as a man, the cook (named Fivepence) dressing as a woman; further, that the cook had premature ejaculation which could only be staved off if Miss H injected his penis with novocaine.

Unfortunately, Kommandant van Heerden only discovers this after he recovers from a blow on the head incurred while fleeing for her savage Dobermann Pinscher to find himself dressed in just such a rubber sex suit, handcuffed to a king-size bed, with Miss H bearing down on him, syringe in hand!

Eventually Konstabel Els realises the enormity of his actions in killing and maiming some 20 of  his colleagues, beats a hasty retreat from the gatehouse and stumbles across the swimming area in the dark (it’s night-time by now), discovering a handy suit of black clothes in the changing area whose pockets he promptly fills with his revolver, all his ammunition and the empty bottle of scotch which had been fuelling his orgy of shooting.

Thus it is that the bishop emerges from the pool and is just discovering something odd in his pockets when a whole load of policemen and their German Shepherd dogs fall on him, chasing him round the swimming pool, before finally arresting him for the murder of the black cook (not that anyone cares about Fivepence by now) and the massacre of 21 policemen. He is handcuffed and dragged off to the police station where he is amiably tortured until he admits to everything and a whole lot more.

And so the narrative goes, madly, absurdly, dizzyingly, on, having left all plausibility and verisimilitude far behind after the first few pages as it escapes into a completely new world of absurdist farce, bitterly satirical, savagely violent and very, very funny.

Autobiography and ‘impurity’

In the past month or so I’ve been reading novels by Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, which are characterised by a high degree of autobiography. Lodge’s novels in fact amount to a lightly fictionalised autobiography, very obviously based on the key milestones in his own life (boyhood in south-east London during the war, mind-expanding visit to post-war Germany, National Service, impoverished junior academic trying to support a wife and children, academic exchange with an American colleague, and so on).

Amis’s fiction not only hints at his autobiography (bolshie young academic, librarian in Wales, freelance writer) but is further ‘impure’ in the sense that, no matter who the central character is, and whether it’s a first person or third person narration, they all tend to have Amis-style thoughts (grumbles and exasperations), be prey to the characteristic self-conscious deployment of plans and strategies (generally to seduce women, or get revenge on enemies), and all couched in Amis’s deliberately throwaway attitude.

The impure text Taken together, the heavy reliance on autobiography, and the tendency of their characters to sound like their authors, make the work of both novelists ‘impure’ ie the texts relate strongly back to their authors’ tone of voice and obsessions. In any Lodge novel you are likely to come across a lecture about Catholic teaching on sex, in any Amis novel passages of the narrator wondering out loud about some quirk of his consciousness or why women are so ‘difficult’.

The pure text This is by way of contrasting them both with Tom Sharpe, whose comic universe is complete, perfect, and miraculously detached from the real world, like a zany balloon which has slipped its mooring and is floating up into an entirely new dimension, previously unknown to humankind.

No chief of police, trussed in a rubber fetish suit, has ever dangled from handcuffs attaching his wrists to the posts of a bed wedged in the second-storey window of a colonial mansion in provincial South Africa. No constable has barricaded himself into a Victorian gun emplacement and systematically slaughtered 21 of his colleagues with an antiquated elephant gun. No provincial bishop has been interviewed by police so stupid they take his mentions of rubrics, chasubles and orbs to refer to the sexual implements he uses in depraved midnight orgies.

And no elderly lady, confined to a South African mental asylum (as Miss Hazelstone is in the novel’s finale) has organised a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Islandlwana, with the black inmates impersonating their Zulu ancestors and the white inmates their Boer antecedents, and which goes disastrously wrong when they get their hands on live ammunition.

No chief of police has ever been promised a heart transplant from an Anglican bishop about to be hanged and has been anaesthetised and cut open in preparation – when at the last minute the hanging goes disastrously wrong, the ancient gallows collapsing and killing half the witnesses with only the bishop making a freak escape – so that the the embarrassed surgeons quietly agree to sew the chief’s chest back up and assure him the transplant was a complete success!

In a refreshingly welcome change, no character in the book is a ‘substitute’ for the novelist. Nobody in it is a writer or an academic. It is uncontaminated by the ‘infection of literature’. Although it is ‘set’ in South Africa under the laws of apartheid – both of which really existed in this world – the narrative itself is wonderfully free of the limits of logic or plausibility, it is as completely alternative and fantastic a world as Wonderland, and the reader staggers from one over-the-top scene to the next feeling like a hallucinating Alice, and experiencing a unique and powerful sense of imaginative liberation.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980)

This is another surprise from an author I’m getting used to being surprised by. Amis has the reputation of writing realistic comic novels about the contemporary world, skewering contemporary trends and types with a speciality in documenting scabrous and often misogynistic ‘problems with girls’ – but of the seven novels before this one, only two fit this description while the others are all experimental in one shade or another – ghost stories, detective stories, science fiction, alternative worlds – and this one, again, is an experimental or genre novel.

Russian Hide and Seek

The novel opens with an obviously Russian character named Alexander Petrovsky riding a horse through extensive grounds to a grand house, meeting his sister and mother, then preparing for a formal dinner, mentioning Tolstoy and Chekhov, and so I thought I was (unexpectedly) in a novel set among Russia’s bored upper classes before the Revolution.

It was disconcerting, then, when, after the formal meal Alexander, the young cavalry officer ‘hero’, goes for a stroll in the garden with Mrs Korotchenko, one of his parents’ guests, and she not only moves rapidly to kiss him, but asks him to help her take her dress off, and then invites him to make love to her on the lawn. Hmmm. Not very 1910. On page 30 there is casual mention of Northampton which is really jarring, making the reader realise this is all set in England. And then there’s an increasing flow of references revealing that we are not only in England, but some time in the 21st century, some 50 years after an event referred to as ‘the Pacification’.

1. So it slowly unfolds that the Russian aristocrats we are following are an occupying power who ignore or put up with the sullen indifference of the ‘native’ English.

2. Just as strikingly, the entire oil-based economy seems to have disappeared – has Amis accepted 1970s predictions that oil will run out? Certainly all the serf English are managing with horses and carts, Alexander uses a horse to get around, only very exceptionally is a petrol car referred to as an extreme luxury, and there’s a brief glimpse of a vast highway with other roads going under and over it, festooned with rusty old blue signs, now empty and abandoned, presumably a disused motorway.

Plot 1 – Context

The start of the plot is that a commission of the occupying forces has been set up to try and restore the English culture which was so completely obliterated at the time of ‘the Pacification’. Officially sanctioned, this leads to a set of scenes which are oddly comic-satiric-touching in tone. First we witness a concert of English music being staged (including numbers by Duke Ellington, obviously a member of the old English aristocracy). Then some ancient plays (Look Back In Anger has its audience in stitches all the way through, presumably a satirical dig at Amis’s contemporary, John Osborne). However, the next night the audience can’t make head or tail of Romeo and Juliet and get so restive that after much booing and yelling someone actually sets fire to the theatre.

Though comic in details (its mostly illiterate native audience have lost any context for such live performances, don’t know they have to keep quiet, completely misunderstand genres, plotlines and the antique language) this rather harrowing vision of a people completely disenfranchised from their own past, their own culture, is quite moving and eerie. Especially in the third of the three scenes where the Russian authorities encourage locals to renovate an old disused church and put on a ‘service’, led by a doddery old man, a ‘vicar’, who is one of the very few ‘prewars’ still alive ie English person who remembers the country before ‘the Pacification’ 50 years earlier.

We are shown the reactions of Alexander and his mistress Kitty and of Kitty’s father Dr Wright to the ‘service’ and then ‘sermon’ delivered by blind old Mr Glover. All of them are perplexed by the antique language and completely misunderstand the language of the hymns and puzzle over the relationship between the three gods referred to in this old pantheon. This amounts to a powerful and slightly haunting vision of what a genuinely post-Christian society would be like, in which Christianity has been completely forgotten and is now a puzzling oddity…

Plot 2 – the Conspiracy

From its opening pages to nearly the end, the novel – told in the third person – follows young, arrogant, unpredictable and self-absorbed cavalry ensign Alexander Petrovsky. We witness relationships among his fellow officers in the 4th Guards, quartered in a former private school in the country outside Northampton. We see him attending a number of formal dinner parties or summer garden parties at local grand mansions, his seduction by Mrs Korotchenko, mentioned above. This deepens into a sort of amusing sado-masochistic relationship in which, every time he visits her, she has thought up kinkier and kinkier scenarios – against the kitchen wall naked, tied and gagged spread-eagled in the bedroom, suspended by ropes in the barn, or joined by her equally naked and depraved 12-year-old daughter. Alexander quickly adapts to her appetites and to her regular demand that, after the actual sex, he tramples over her naked body, preferably wearing his cavalry boots.

About half way through the novel Alexander is sounded out by fellow officer, Theodore Markov, whether he wants to join ‘the Conspiracy’. Turns out there is a Resistance or Underground movement among the Russian occupiers, which plans to overthrow the existing authorities, hand England back to the English, and leave. From the start this plot development seemed unreal and implausible to me. It certainly lacks the psychological depth of something like Winston Smith slowly realising he is an opponent of Big Brother in 1984: Alexander is asked to join and says, Sure, OK. If it was intended to have the grip and excitement of a thriller, it didn’t. I wasn’t gripped, simply curious to see how Amis would play the thing out.

  • Alexander is introduced to fellow conspirators and – since Theodore is in love with his sister, Nina – this includes her and her friend Elizabeth. Everything is set for the revolution the following Sunday.
  • The conspirators become aware that the creepy Director Vanag, head of security, and his secret police may have infiltrated the Conspiracy. It is discovered that Mrs Korotchenko knows a key officer in Vanag’s office and so Alexander is tasked with persuading her to do whatever it takes to persuade the officer to hand over the Top Secret list of spies who’ve infiltrated the Conspiracy. Ie to give in to his requests for sex. This she reluctantly does, but only if Alexander is himself prepared to do what he had up till then refused to, and incorporate her daughter in their sado-masochistic sex sessions, which he shamefully agrees to, though no details are given.
  • A few days later, as soon as Mrs K hands Alexander the list he realises that some of the top leaders of the Conspiracy are in fact double agents. He also understands that his senior officer’s warnings a few days earlier about desisting from keeping dangerous company didn’t, as he thought at the time, refer to Mrs K. He realises the Conspiracy has been thoroughly infiltrated. He goes straight to Theodore and makes the impulsive decision to bring the revolution forward 72 hours. This seems futile and wildly improbable as we have heard that it is a co-ordinated strike, not only across England, but even in Moscow itself. One small cog doesn’t have the authority or contacts to alter a timetable so intricately communicated across such a far-flung network.

Nonetheless, next day Alexander orders his NCO and another soldier to accompany him to the Armoury where they bluff their way past the guard and take possession of the ‘projectile’ weapons which obliterate anything they’re fired at. (Shades of the futuristic weapon, the atom-bullet-firing rifle mentioned in The Anti-Death League). But his men jib at targeting regimental headquarters, as he intends. They point blank refuse to kill their comrades and so Alexander, in a rage which everyone who knows him is all-too-familiar with, rides off on his horse to carry out part two of his mission, followed in hot pursuit by his two mutinous soldiers until he reaches the house of his parents. He storms into the drawing room to confront his father who tells him it is pointless, the Conspiracy is completely infiltrated, every move and aspect of it has been completely anticipated and neutralised. Alexander, not a very likeable person, blusters that he doesn’t care, he doesn’t actually hope to change anything, by killing his own father he just wants to register  his anger and frustration at the way things are, to show his opposition to the smugness and complacency of the authorities.

As he raises his gun to kill his father – now on his knees begging for his life – one of the two soldiers who had followed him steps through the French windows and shoots Alexander dead. That’s it. That’s the end of the main plot and of the character we’ve been closely following for the past 220 pages. Was I meant to be caught up in the plot, gripped and thrilled and excited? Because if so, it failed. Amis throws in the fact that these final events are set on a hot humid stifling afternoon turning into night, amid an oppressively gathering thunderstorm, with flashes of lightning on the horizon, a melodramatic backdrop to Alexander’s futile actions. But to little or no impact on this reader.

Epilogue

As in his other alternative world story of a few years previously, The Alteration, there is an epilogue which gives the wider context of events and rams home the Author’s Message.

1. Director Vanag gloats to a hall-full of captured conspirators that the entire conspiracy was in fact dreamed up by Moscow purely as a way of flushing out anyone with even slight dissident tendencies. The list Alexander went to such lengths to get hold of was in fact a list of their own genuine leaders who some of the conspirators very usefully proceeded to murder. They were all puppets dancing on a string. They will all now be sent to forced labour camps. Goodbye.

2. Vanag has a one-to-one with Theodore, who had recruited Alexander into the Conspiracy and had been affectionately engaged to Alexander’s young sister, Nina. Both are now under arrest. A living death in the gulag awaits. After mockingly asking Theodore what on earth he expected to achieve, he – in passing – gives a bit more detail about the conquest of Britain, 50 years back.

‘There had been disorders here, runaway inflation, mass unemployment, strikes, strike-breaking, rioting, then much fiercer rioting when a leftist faction seized power. It was our country’s chance to take what she had always wanted most, more than Germany, far more than the Balkans, more even than America. And she took it…’ (p.241)

Author’s message

Is this the point of this odd novel? Is it a warning by an Amis who had swung through the political spectrum from sort-of leftish young man to reactionary old fogey? Is it part of the mind-set and the atmosphere of the late 1970s which thought that under a left-wing Labour party and ravaged by strikes in all sectors of society, Britain was actually collapsing into chaos and economic collapse? The atmosphere in which we know that MI5 bugged Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s office and there is evidence of the planning of a military coup to overthrow the government? Despite being set in the future, is this strange novel a kind of message from a period of really intense social unrest which most people have forgotten about?

Analysis

The list of ‘spies’ Alexander gets hold of is dated 2035 and, since it is repeatedly stated that all this is happening 50 years after ‘the Pacification’ that sets the Russian invasion of Britain in 1985 ie one year after what was, for many people, still the terrifyingly ominous date 1984, now just a literary footnote.

As in The Alternative the reader is impressed by the fullness with which Amis has imagined and populated this alternative world, fully imagined the psychologies of the occupied English and the occupying forces, imagined the rivalries and small bitternesses and resentments which grease all their exchanges. A distinguishing aspect is the drabness of this world: the Russians have brought their own Soviet shabbiness to bear: everyone’s clothes are badly made and fit badly; the flowers they take pride in are actually undercultivated weeds, the drinks are thin and tasteless, the food is poor, but nobody notices except the narrator because nobody has ever known any better.

On a larger scale the social life depicted in such convincing detail is an oddly diffracted, strangely distorted version of contemporary trends, in that the big parties in the grand houses have a strange 19th century formality, but are shabby and cheap (as mentioned above) and coarse: after a certain hour lots of the guests are fighting drunk, throwing up, crawling around, passed out, or openly fornicating among the bushes.

What makes it such a persuasive fiction is the very mundaneness of this future world with its bad clothes, drunk officers, ersatz drinks, poorly maintained gardens, roads full of potholes, nasty food for the mostly illiterate serf population, a powerful air of provincial humdrum boredom such as you do actually find in pre-Revolutionary Russian literature. Amis has successfully transplanted that world to England. It is an extraordinary and disquieting and completely unexpected feat.

However, the book’s strength is its weakness. The heaviness and dullness of the everyday establishes an ambience in which nothing happens so authentically that it is next to impossible to believe the sudden eruption of the Conspiracy. Especially when the psychological motivation of the young men involved is so shallow and casual. A very believable setting; but a disappointingly unbelievable plot.

The title explained

Russian hide and seek turns out to be a stupid game played by the bored officers in Alexander’s troop. they go out into the darkness with loaded revolvers at the end of an evening’s hard drinking, split up, find hiding places, then shout to give away their location and the others take pot shots at them. A sort of variation of Russian roulette. After one terrifying go Alexander realises he is no hero and never does it again. Towards the end of the book a session is held in which one of the officers, Leo, is badly wounded. He is brought into the barracks screaming with pain and fear where the troops’ commanding major, to my surprise, shoots him in the head like a horse. Is this some kind of satire? A comment on the heartlessness of Russians? Or just a cold sci-fi view of the future? Like a lot of things in this disconcerting novel, it is hard to tell.

Related links

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Penguin paperback edition of Russian Hide And Seek

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

Jake’s Thing by Kingsley Amis (1978)

The thing about you and your wife making love was that it made things all right, not often forever but always for a long time and always for longer than the actual love-making. In that it was unique; adultery could make life more interesting but it couldn’t make things all right in a month of Sundays. And as for booze you must be joking – as well expect a fairly humane beating-up to do the job. (p.180)

Jake Richardson is 59, a grumpy Oxford don who lives in London outside the short Oxford terms, with his ‘fat’ wife Brenda. It is a narrow, comfy, settled-down kind of life, trips to the supermarket, to the off-licence, dinner in front of the TV, never any entertaining, rarely going out to parties, never to the cinema or theatre. However, the novel opens with Jake seeing his GP because something’s wrong: he has of late lost all interest in sex, he knows not why, it has just evaporated – disconcerting for a man who’s had several marriages and countless affairs, a man hitherto obsessed with girls and sex. What’s his problem?

Answering that question sparks the quest which underpins this relatively long novel (280 pages) and whose main purpose, on the face of it, is to take us into the world of 1970s sexology for primarily comic purposes. Jake is passed from his GP to a sex psychologist (Dr Rosenberg) who prescribes various ‘wacky’ activities, like non-sexual stroking and companioning sessions (‘non-genital sensate focusing’) with his wife, to a hilarious scene where he is fitted up with a device to his penis in front of a number of medical students and shown various pornographic photos and texts to measure his (negligible) arousal, through to an encounter group (run by long-haired ‘Ed’) where he and Brenda are meant to share their problems with a selection of complete, and predictably off-the-wall, strangers.

Plot

A lot of the plot is taken up with Jake grumpily going about his usual tasks and responsibilities, punctuated by the escalating sex therapy ie trips to the psychologist, the humiliating trip to the lecture theatre, the first encounter group and so on. But three sub-plots emerge which flavour the narrative:

One Eve is the college secretary. He had a fling with her a decade ago (as did many men) but she’s been happily married for ages and is now very respectable. A casual, everyday hello leads to her spotting Jake is not, in fact, OK and this leads Jake to half-heartedly invite her out to dinner, where she makes her position as a married woman plain, he says of course we’re just old friends chatting and then, at the start of the next chapter, there is a long, comically inevitable and bitterly funny description of his shattering hangover and his slow realisation that he’s in an unknown bed, his head on an unknown pillow and he stretches his hand out to encounter – an unknown buttock. Yes, he got so drunk he ended up pleading to sleep with Eve but, once the deed was done, in true male chauvinist pig style, turned over and started snoring. The next morning Eve lets him have both barrels of her contempt and he crawls away feeling like a worm (although, in a not very funny follow-up chapter, we see him retelling the whole story to a gay don, maliciously exaggerating Eve’s awfulness and, more germane to the novel’s theme, wondering what’s gone wrong with his radar, with his normal sense of decorum, with his life?).

Two One of the more florid members of the encounter group, Kelly, follows him and Brenda home after the first session, invites herself in, and recounts a cock-and-bull story about trying to incriminate Ed, the encounter group facilitator – though when pressed on details she backs down and Brenda eventually persuades her to leave. Clearly deranged. Weeks later she turns up uninvited in Jake’s rooms in Oxford and makes a pass at him, which he vigorously rejects, whereupon she hurls an impressive array of modern abuse at him before collapsing in tears etc. Deranged and dangerous.

Later still it is through her that Jake learns that the encounter groups, which Brenda has continued going to, are building up to an encounter weekend. Mildly disquieted that Brenda hadn’t told him about it, Jake finds himself asking the shrink to be re-included in the group and invited to the weekend.

Barely have they arrived at the hotel-cum-conference centre than Kelly corners Jame again, making him promise to come up to her room soon after midnight. Jake wisely tells all this to Brenda who wisely advises him not to go – and so he doesn’t. Which is regrettable because in the early hours Kelly is discovered having taken an overdose and scribbled a suicide note; presumably she intended Jake to find her soon after she’d swallowed the pills and so his decision not to go put her life in real jeopardy.

a) This suicide bid ie real psychological pain, has a damping effect on the comic tone (as it does in Malcolm Bradbury’s classic of just a few years earlier, The History Man). Even before this development, Jake (and Amis) had found themselves noting the depth of Kelly’s misery with unsettling acuity. When Kelly bursts into tears after he’s rejected her,

Jake had come across lachrymose females before too, but never one who gave such a sense of intolerable pressure within, as if what was being wept over was growing faster than it could be wept away. (p.216)

Real misery is often uncomfortably close in Amis, despite the comic ranting, the bleakness of the human condition emerging into the light of day in novels like Girl, 20 and Ending Up. Being forced to see view world from this perspective forces the fully adult reader of this novel to see Jake as the spoilt, overgrown schoolboy he actually is; it is the triumph of Amis’s style and its vigorous, insulting humour to conceal this obvious conclusion for such long stretches of the novel.

b) Kelly’s suicide attempt prompts the climax of the main thread of the novel, because Jake is genuinely outraged at the matter-of-fact way his psychologist and the group facilitator blandly discuss the Kelly situation as just one more piece of interesting case study, even as she’s being rushed off to hospital in an ambulance. So he has a king-size go at both of them, a set-piece speech criticising their supposed ‘method’, the main thrust of which is his attack on the basic premise of therapy, that dragging everything out into the light of day will make it better when, he asserts, more often than not it does the opposite. He cancels all his sex therapy and storms out.

[In its way this big anti-therapy speech struck me as being as incoherent and unimpressive as the other set-piece scene, Jake’s ‘playing devil’s advocate’ speech in front of the college Governing Body. That scene is complicated because Jake starts out arguing (against his own beliefs) in favour of admitting women, but then finds himself being goaded by a few donnish questioners into eventually dropping his allotted role and delivering a fiery diatribe against women and against admitting them to male colleges. Jake’s rant boils down to saying, ‘Do you really want loads of nattering gossiping chattering women everywhere who will destroy the cosy, all-male cameraderie we all enjoy’? Hardly earth-shattering arguments and not a very persuasive performance and not particularly funny. For a woman reader, inoculated against its immature boyish humour, probably very offensive. The same happens here in the anti-therapy speech. Is this the best Amis can do, is this the strongest case he can make against the 1970s fashion for therapy? Jake is meant to be a clever academic, and Amis was a very clever man, but his attempts at consecutive argument are generally dire. He is always better, much more persuasive, powerful and funny, at his true métier, comic abuse.]

Three There is a very effective dramatic moment early in the novel when, after his and Brenda’s first joint meeting with Dr Rosenberg, Jakes continues about his day doing odds and ends and then goes to bed and various stuff goes through his mind and then, only as he is dropping off to sleep, has he got nothing left to keep him from facing the Big Revelation of the day: that after he had had his say to the therapist about not fancying women any more, Brenda had flabbergasted him by delivering a coherent and deeply-felt, fifteen-minute-long monologue about how he didn’t care for her any more, never showed any affection or interest in her doings, how any shared interests they had had evaporated, how their marriage had become an empty shell. The way this thought, and the anxiety it causes him, is held back and revealed only late in bed as something Jake has been repressing from himself all day, is very effective. But in terms of plot or theme it introduces the idea that it’s not just Jake who’s unhappy.

Therefore, when Jake drops out of the weekly encounter sessions after just one visit but his wife continues going, I thought, hello: suspicious. Other things happen (the fling with Eve, the don’s meeting and suchlike) but when, a lot later, Kelly tells Jake about the long weekend encounter meeting at a retreat in Gloucestershire and Jake realises Brenda hadn’t told him, aha, my suspicions revived. And although Brenda acquiesces in Jake’s decision to go along (once he’s learned about it) and although, once they’re there together, she sticks by him pretty firmly after Kelly’s suicide bid and even after the earlier stuff about Kelly trying to seduce him in Oxford (which Jake hadn’t told her about) comes out — well, even so, I wasn’t at all surprised when, once they are back in London, recovering after this traumatic weekend, Brenda simply announces she’s leaving him.

That she’s doing so to move in with the gimpy husband (Geoffrey) of her unbearable best friend (Alcestis) is a surprise and a kick in the teeth for Jake, but his emotional response is very underplayed: he is mostly concerned about who will do the housework and prepare the meals. Maybe he is the unfeeling, self-centred, male chauvinist pig everyone says he is. Oh well. So be it.

What was before him left him cold, and he didn’t mind. (p.33)

The novel ends with Brenda moved out, the awful friend coming round to offer to do their shopping together but – fortunately – nothing more, no hint of a pass or them shacking up, and Jake settling in quite well to living on his own and eating heated up dinners in front of the telly.

Attitude

So much for the plot which boils down to clever elaborations or examples of two related themes – male impotence and the battle of the sexes. Or the awfulness of middle-aged men…

But the engine of the book, the reason for reading it and the main source of enjoyment, is less the ostensible ‘plot’ but Jake’s Amis-like disdain, contempt and exasperation at almost every aspect of modern life and every other living soul, a rage expressed at numerous levels of the text, from long set-piece scenes designed to highlight the rubbishness of today’s youth or whatever, to conversations discussing the multitudinous forms of modern crapness or themselves demonstrating the inability of anyone to understand anyone else, down to casually satirical or dismissive turns of phrase – this attitude saturates the book on every page and is often very, very funny.

The fundamental comic trope is the howling disjunction between Jake’s well-educated mind, manner, clothes and pukka tone of voice — and the roaring, raging, spitting fury at the shabbiness of the modern world and the vast stupidity of everyone else which seethes inside his skull, constantly expressed in fantasies of Neanderthal violence:

To distract himself from restraining himself from kicking Geoffrey in the balls Jake said, ‘What’s whatsisname like, Ed, the fellow who runs these do’s?’ (p.158)

It was all that training with Miss Calvert and some of his other pupils, all that not going for them with the sitting-room poker at each new display of serene apathy, which restrained him now, he would have alleged, from jumping feet first at Ed’s face. (p.166)

It is exaggerated for comic effect but it makes it even funnier to think that Amis the author means it too, that such appalling curmudgeonliness and omni-directional enfuriated exasperation once walked the earth (as a glance at either his Letters or biography swiftly confirm).

Oxford

There is, of course, another big side or aspect to the novel: Oxford. Jake is an Oxford don and this entails scenes set in Oxford: a total of one (I think) actual tutorial, a lot of tasty lunches and dinners, high-falutin conversations with other dons etc. But the Oxford sections are, on the whole, weak and boring. Unless you are going to make them grotesques from the start (as Tom Sharpe does, in Porterhouse Blue his satire on Cambridge), then you have to spend a bit of time, and take reasonably seriously, dons and their subjects and the bitching and back-biting over sherry in their rooms or over rack of lamb at high table, and so on and so on. And this has all been done before, a thousand times: Jake’s irritation at college life feels clichéd (after all his debut novel, Lucky Jim, is one of the original taking-the-mickey-out-of-higher-education novels). It lacks the wild energy of, say, the opening scenes of Evelyn Waugh’s classic Decline and Fall and certainly lacks the originality and bite of his virulently expressed dislike of other aspects of modern life. The energy level drops in these scenes.

They are given coherence of a sort by making them address one of the ‘issues of the day’, the aggressive campaigning by young women to be admitted to all the (then) male-only colleges. This results in a string of would-be hilarious scenes based on this theme: for example, on his arrival back at Oxford for the new term, Jake has to run a gauntlet of bra-less feminists blockading the entrance to his (fictional) college, Comyns, who rub their breasts against him and tweak his pecker through his trousers. And, as mentioned, he then gets lumbered with representing the womens-admissionist point of view in the debate the dons stage. And the one tutorial we witness is him trying not to slap a slack, lazy, dim woman student of his. Interspersed are scenes of him discussing these incidents or others like them in rooms or over dinner with the other dons, which are a festival of sexist comments about women this or women that, the casual misogyny and sexism of male academics talking safely among themselves. Which we know were pretty similar to Amis’s own attitudes, the ones he exaggerated more and more coarsely as he grew older.

But, no matter how offensive, most of the Oxford scenes felt slack and half-hearted. For example, his college has a porter, Ernie, who talks with a funny west country accent and always manages to block the narrow gateway into the college whenever he’s in a hurry to get in or out. The accent is quite funny, funny voices having been an Amis speciality right from the start of his writing career, but the idea itself somehow doesn’t get traction.

Not only are the silly traditions of Oxford colleges remote from most people’s experiences, but the entire women’s-lib-era issue of whether to admit women to the male colleges is a fight which is of purely historic interest now, which seems immeasurably distant, like the suffragettes. This also dims its relevance for a contemporary reader.

Anger and energy

What the Oxford sections for the most part lack is the comic edge provided by the real anger Amis generates about his other targets: like young people, juke boxes in pubs, ‘convenience’ food, jet airplanes, the modern design of anything, modern architecture, modern trains, buses, bus conductors, shop assistants, children, trendy psychologists and so on. And on.

All the dishes were firmly in the English tradition: packet soup with added flour, roast chicken so overcooked that each chunk immediately absorbed every drop of saliva in your mouth, though the waterlogged Brussels sprouts helped out a bit there, soggy tinned gooseberry flan and coffee tasting of old coffee pots. (p.246)

In the pub, Jake pulls over a stool,

finding that its top was covered with the same stuff as the bench. Apart from being so covered it was too convex to suit a normal bum like his, pleasing as that convexity might well have been to the trend-blurred eye of whatever youthful fart had designed it. (p.91)

Not to say that some of the Oxford moments aren’t very funny. Before the Governing Body of his college gets round to debating the admission of women, they deal with other relatively insignificant issues, including the purchase of a new set of chairs for the library, an example being brought in and all the dons liking it, until they are told the cost – £125 per chair!

… and all over the room there were wincing noises, rather like but in sum louder than those made by Brenda on getting into a cold bed. For a chair! they all kept saying – for a chair? Not quite all. Of course it seems a lot, said Jake to himself, but haven’t you noticed that everything seems a lot these days, you fucking old fools? (p.205)

(The swearing, the intemperate use of language, is intrinsic to the comic effect, and it is noticeable that Amis uses the f word a lot in this book.) You almost wonder whether Amis had compiled a list of targets and was working his way through it with the aim of insulting just about every category of person and object in existence. Grumpy old man doesn’t begin to capture it.

Funny how everything horrible or foolish was worse if it was also American. Modern architecture – modern American architecture. Woman who never stops talking – American ditto. Zany comedian. Convert to Buddhism… (p.154)

Conclusion

Outrageously (ie rudely, abusively) funny for the first 100 pages, the novel loses energy in the Oxford scenes which appear in the middle, and then the group therapy weekend – which I was hoping would provide a farcical apogee – is instead a depressing anti-climax, Kelly’s suicide attempt too close to the bone and Jake’s ‘sod psychotherapy’ speech not as coruscating or persuasive as it should have been. Plus the fairly intense misogynistic sentiments expressed throughout the text might well put off a lot of women readers or reasonably-minded readers of any gender.

That said, it still contains hundreds of burningly funny, violently contemptuous, frustrated, angrily witty and humorous scenes, asides, turns of phrase or moments of dialogue which are hugely enjoyable. And the best joke is saved for the very last line of the novel, which wonderfully sums up Jake’s situation, his attitude, his plight, and his bloody-mindedness. You’ll have to read it to find out why.

The title

The apparently throwaway title, Jake’s Thing, has at least four meanings that I can think of:

  • the overt subject, his medical issue, his impotence
  • a slang expression for his penis
  • in the argot of 1970s therapy lingo, his thing, man, his (generally very negative) attitude
  • and his ‘issues’ with women ie his deep-seated misogyny

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976)

Counterfactual history

This is a startling surprise in Amis’s oeuvre, a counterfactual fantasy set in a meticulously-worked-out alternative England, an England in which Prince Arthur didn’t die and so Henry VIII never gained the throne, there was no Reformation, no Protestant tradition and no Industrial Revolution. Instead England in 1976 is dominated by the Catholic Church and its slightly sinister officials, from the great cathedral in Coverley (pronounced Cowley) outside Oxford to the various palaces of the Papal Curia in London. The streets are filled with horses and carts and serfs dressed in rough clothes who placidly accept their lowly status, while among them the princes of the church and the rich travel in luxury coaches. London has expanded nearly as far as Finsbury and there is distressing talk of new ‘manufactories’ being set up on the outskirts.

Counterfactual history jokes

This counter-history allows for all sorts of jokes, large and small. In this reality Martin Luther didn’t spark the Reformation but went on to become an eminent Pope, albeit a rather puritanical one: he put an end to the luxurious trimmings planned for St Peter’s basilica, driving one Buonarroti (ie Michelangelo) to suicide. Mozart didn’t die young and went on to develop a late style, unlike a younger colleague, one Beethoven, who amounted to nothing. The great cathedral in Coverley, the longest in Christendom, a Catholic masterpiece, was built by one Sir Christopher Wren. The unhappy Abbott puts aside the latest book De Existentiae Natura by Monsignor Jean-Paul Sartre. The airship which travels between England and New England is named the Edgar Allen Poe after the famous general who died leading his troops to victory against the Mexicans. And so very japefully on.

A totally Catholic world

Behind it all is the rather bigger point that, without the European civil wars – which is what the Reformation and Wars of Religion amounted to – the power of the Catholic church is never stemmed, there is no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era where the causes of freedom, democracy, liberalism triumphed over Christian repression. No Bolshevik revolution, no 20th century of holocausts and genocides.

Instead, Roman Catholicism rules supreme and unquestioned. There has been peace in a monoglot Europe for centuries, peace characterised by, on the one hand, the systematic repression of ‘scientists’, schismatics and deviants by a powerful Church backed up by a repressive Secular Arm; on the other hand, a continuous war with the Turks, with the muslim Ottoman Empire which continues to push at the borders established in the 16th century ie the Danube.

A different New England

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the New World was colonised but not by Protestant countries (as these never came into existence) so the colonisation was carried out by Catholic countries who divided up the continent piecemeal and, as there was no English tradition of Protestant democracy, the New Worlders have a rough and rude manner about them, with greater freedom of expression and behaviour (due to the rough culture of their log cabins hewn out of the vast untamed continent), but nothing like the economic and military might of our Americans.

There was never a slave trade. So the ambassador from the New World to England who we meet is attended not by blacks but by native American Indians. Nonetheless, no matter how free and easy their manners, the New Englanders devoutly believe the Indians are a different and inferior race, their brains smaller, not to be taught much because not capable of real intelligence.

Mise-en-scène

The novel opens at the high State Funeral for the dead King Stephen III, at which we meet various church figures who go on to discuss the fate of one particular ten-year-old boy, Hubert Anvil, a highly esteemed boy soprano in the choir at the service. So highly esteemed that the church and music school functionaries we are introduced to, go on to discuss in some detail the appropriateness of having him castrated so that he may continue to hymn the glory of God as a castrato.

Characters

A lot of time and effort is spent examining the responses, feelings and actions of everyone involved in this decision, in this alteration of just one boy. It is a plot device to explore this strange alternative world Amis has conjured and to meet a cross-section of its inhabitants:

  • the honest Abbott of the singing school Hubert attends, plus his composition teachers, who are upset that the boy will be steered towards singing and not composing
  • the three boys who share the dormitory with him: the oldest and most cynical, Decuman; the devout and timid Mark; the bystander, Thomas
  • Hubert’s father, Master Tobias, a well-off merchant in London, devout and worldly wise, his older, clever son Anthony, and rather cowed mother, Margaret
  • the rakish family priest (they are wealthy enough to have their own priest) who is swapping the glad eye with Margaret and will soon embark on a passionate physical affair with her
  • two eminent castrati who have traveled from Rome to ascertain Hubert’s skill

For the first hundred pages or so, very slowly, we are introduced to all these characters and it is Amis’s immense skill to imagine all their thoughts and emotions, their flickers of doubt, their sly smiles, their calculating each others’ motives, entirely within the framework of this imaginary world.

For example, when his father tries to explain to Hubert what an honour it is to be castrated for the glory of God, his mother cannot help hinting at the joys of physical love. It is only much later that Hubert realises she is channeling the physical ecstasy she is enjoying with the family priest-turned-fornicator.

Plot

After 120 or 130 pages or so of his predicament being considered from all angles by all characters – including a flying visit to Rome where they are shown round his apartments by the (Yorkshire-born) Pope himself, and Hubert is invited to have the operation performed in Rome and spend the rest of his life there; after all this build-up Hubert runs away. Helped by Decuman who finds a local pony and has saved money and food, they sneak out of the singing school dormitory and Hubert rides into Oxford and knocks at the door of the New England ambassador who he met on the day of King Stephen’s funeral. But the ambassador is in London.

The two native American servants take pity on him and one loads him, heavily disguised, onto an Express to London. Here Hubert catches a taxi but the taxi driver takes him into a warren of slum streets, then chloroforms him.

Hubert wakes up in the bare room of a Jew named Jacob who reveals his star, explains the persecution his people experience under Church rule, and then reluctantly explains that they plan to contact his parents and demand a ransom. He is a hostage. Hubert, more resourceful than he thought himself, pushes Jacob’s face towards the fire at the same second he throws brandy into it, causing the surge of flames to burn Jacob’s face, as Hubert runs out the room and out the house.

Some time later he taps at the window of his beloved older brother Anthony in Edgware Road, explains he’s run away, and Anthony helps disguise him and they walk together to the New England embassy where Anthony bluffs their way in. He is welcomed by the unconventional ambassador and his wife who are kindness and courtesy personified. Hubert sleeps, wakes, bathes, eats and then joins in the planning for his escape: they will smuggle him aboard the next airship bound across the Atlantic.

There is quite a lot of tense getting past security guards using forged papers involved in allthis, but finally Hubert is safely aboard the transatlantic vessel when – he is convulsed with pain and falls to the floor, screaming and clasping his groin.

Pessimism

The onboard doctor diagnoses Hubert with a twisted testicle; the blood supply to one has been cut off and it is swelling and will die unless operated on immediately. Hubert is taken off the ship and to the nearest hospital. Here he recovers consciousness to discover that, after all that effort, all that help and support from friends and those opposed to the totalitarian Church – fate (or is it God Himself) – has intervened in the most bitterly ironic way possible: the doctors had to remove both testicles. He has undergone the alteration willy-nilly.

Anti-Catholic

I am anti-Catholic for the same reason Amis was. a) There is quite obviously no God, so you judge these ideologies by their practical outcomes. b) Catholic countries have tended to be markedly unequal and repressive societies, lurching in the 20th century, from violent extreme to extreme of fascist junta or Marxist guerrillas. c) All the liberal freedoms we take for granted are Protestant in origin, deriving from the never-ending process of Protestant schism into countless non-conformist sects which eventually forced the authorities to accept that they had to concede their populations the right to freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and so on. This tradition flourished in the Protestant non-conforming Anglophone countries America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand; not so much in the homogenously Catholic and Fascist countries, Italy, Portugal and Spain and all the latter’s colonies.

The accusation against Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and all the other English Catholic writers of the 20th century is that they went on about the superiority of the Roman Catholic religion, while enjoying all the trappings of the peaceful, prosperous Protestant country they lived in. To put their money where their mouth was they should have moved to unambiguously Catholic countries and enjoyed the unquestioningly Catholic zeal of General Franco or Salazar.

Conclusions

Part of what makes this novel so brilliant is not just that Amis has imagined a complete alternative reality, but that he has done what so many science fiction writers fail to do, not seen it as a monolithic whole, but has imagined it so deeply as to grasp the various ways all the different characters respond to the heavy, sometimes violent, grasp of the Catholic hierarchy over their society. So drenched are all the characters in the Latin and terminology and prayers and iconography of their Catholic world, that it comes as a real shock when one of the characters admits he no longer believes in God. Others resent the oppressive control of every aspect of their lives by the Catholic Authorities. The boys in Hubert’s dorm present a little pre-teen cross-section, Hubert himself a wavering believer, Decuman the older cynic, Mark the zealot shocked at  his friend’s blasphemy.

It is a mark of the completeness of this imagining that Amis doesn’t present the New Englanders who rescue Hubert as perfect: the kindly priest who smuggles Hubert aboard the airship also very kindly takes it upon himself to explain that God made the Indians stupider than us so we have to treat them like children; one of the Indians explains that back in New England they don’t castrate just fancy singers, they castrate anybody found guilty of fornication, of broadly defined sex crimes. It makes this alternative reality all the more plausible to learn that man’s inhumanity to man crops up all over it, as it does in ours, even in the dwellings of our closest friends.

The Blemish

Of Amis’s forays into genre fiction, this is by far the best, the most complete and convincing. Only at the end is it let down by a crudely satirical chapter in which we witness the Yorkshire Pope and his closest advisers discussing His Holiness’s plans to control Europe’s runaway population explosion, and by really evil means. They review an experiment to put contraceptive chemicals in the drinking water which, alas, resulted in too many deformed babies being born – too noticeable. They then review recent experiments to introduce plague, carried out in Cornwall and the south of France. Alas, the victims died too quickly, before they could infect others, and so both outbreaks fizzled out.

No, His Holiness irritatedly dismisses the technical adviser who had developed both approaches (Cardinal Maserati) and is left moaning to his closest adviser that, oh well, looks like it’ll have to be another massive war with the Turks, then…

Up to this point, the oppressive and manipulative nature of the Church which dominates this alternative world had been implicit in the story, only revealed in the comments or behaviour of characters and their occasional, limited but threatening, brushes with authority. With this stand-alone chapter Amis rather spoils the integrity of the text by stepping out from behind the scenery and saying, ‘Look, the rulers of this Church are diabolically evil’. It is forceful satire – and maybe, for a teenager who isn’t familiar with the notion that rulers can be disgustingly Machiavellian, the pulling away of the mask right at the end of the novel to reveal the full scale of the Church’s wickedness in this parallel world might work as a powerful shock – but I found it rather blunt and crude after the carefully imagined subtlety of (most of) what had gone before. If I’d been his editor I’d have cut it.

Summary

This is certainly Amis’s best genre or experimental novel, his most astonishingly detailed, thorough and convincingly imagined work of fantasy, and deserves to rank with the top three or four of his novels as a whole.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

The Crime of The Century by Kingsley Amis (1975)

You couldn’t be our man, because it would have to have meant a bloke who writes detective stories had started setting up a detective story in real life, and that kind of thing only happens in detective stories. (p.129)

Amis was commissioned by the Sunday Times to write a detective serial to run in the paper in the summer of 1975. Just two years earlier he had published another murder mystery, The Riverside Villas Murder, suburban in setting, domestic in subject, historic in period (1936) and with much extraneous semi-autobiographical material about the lead figure, the 14-year-old boy, Peter Furneaux.

So, as he explains in the 1986 introduction to the paperback edition, Amis set out to use the ST commission to try and write something at the other end of the spectrum: grand, big public crime, hundreds of coppers called in, meetings in Whitehall, nation’s best minds on the case, etc. And, due to the serial nature and tightness of space in a newspaper, forcing him to drop almost all extraneous elements of his style in order to focus on plot, plot, plot (multiple red herrings) and more plot.

It’s his shortest text so far, at 130 pages in the Penguin paperback, divided into seven chapters, each with a cheesy cliff-hanger – ‘when they tore off the attacker’s mask, the two men stepped back in amazement’ / ‘At that very moment the two men in the hall heard the sounds of gunfire from an upstairs room,’ sort of thing.

Plot

Young women are being murdered in London, stabbed multiple times, then dumped with a couple of letters cut out from newspapers pinned to their clothes. First one has S and O. Next one U and T. Gruesomely, s-o-u-t-h-e-a-s-t is being spelt out.

Quickly a ‘committee’ of national experts is convened, including a top civil servant, a psychiatrist, a hang ’em and flog ’em politician, a famous barrister, several senior coppers and – a little unexpectedly – a famous rock star who turns out to have extensive underworld contacts and to have helped the authorities before, and Christopher Dane, the well-known crime writer.

Each chapter throws up wildly false clues and trails:

  • The barrister is seen returning home suspiciously late on the night of one crime, knowing his alcoholic wife is in a drunken stupor but will provide him with an alibi if required.
  • A gang of three chancers calling itself itself the British Liberation Army starts sending in blackmail notes – give us £200,000 or there’ll be another stabbing – and when they refer to unpublicised details of one of the victims, the authorities are forced to comply, a reluctant senior copper meeting one of them on an unnamed heath with a bag of loot, the heath completely surrounded with plain clothes men, but the crook astonishing them all by climbing on to a horse tethered nearby and galloping off faster than any man could pursue. This line of plot gets more complicated when one of the three says he plans to continue the blackmail scam after the others agree to quit while they’re ahead; so they kill him and dump his body with cut-out newspaper letters on it, to confuse…
  • Meanwhile, a creepy man named Mr Addams goes down to the shed at the bottom of his garden, locks himself in while his wife is in the main house watching TV, and places flags with the victims’ names on a big map of London on the wall, adding their cases to the creepy file he is keeping, fingering his knife. Hmmm. Towards the end of the novel he sits bolt upright, walks into the living room, asks his wife where his bike is (he should know), cycles to the nearest police station and hands himself in for the murders. The psychiatrist the police call up declares Addams has total amnesia combined with some sort of copycat psychosis.
  • In a separate development two men drink up at a pub while the bosomy barmaid closes up. They offer to walk her home but she says it’ll be fine, not far to go, and sets off through the empty streets. Very empty. Very creepy. And then someone darts out from a darkened doorway. A hand goes over her mouth, another hand moves a blade to her chest — but she is a strong lass, seizes the smothering hand and knife hand, head butts the attacker as others come running out their houses, attracted by the noise, and they pull of his mask to reveal…. (this is one of the cheesy chapter-ending cliff-hangers)… the crime writer? the radical psychiatrist? the leading QC? No, the disgruntled she’s dumped a few days earlier. Oh.
  • All the time there is a kind of meta-fiction at work, because the work opens with a page of crime detection which we are just getting into when it is revealed to be the first page of Dane’s next crime thriller; he is having trouble with it, but had been working on a plotline of a number of girls getting murdered. Is he acting out his own storyline? Is someone reading his typescript and acting it out? Preposterous. In the committee meetings, he appears to make predictions about the next developments which are proved to be eerily true.
  • In fact, quite early on Dane develops the theory that someone on the committee itself is responsible, and shares it with the only two men who have cast-iron alibis, the two policemen on it, Barry and Young. Their escalating suspicions lead them to set a police guard on all the committee members, with subsequent discussion/debate/assessment of which of them it could be and what their motivations and how strong their alibis, and so on.

After this orgy of disinformation and wild goose chases, the most suspected individual (the reactionary MP) himself tells the police he thinks the whole thing is part of a conspiracy which – abruptly and implausibly – is targeting the Prime Minister himself! Just as an anonymous phone call comes in that ‘the last one will be at 2.30’ ie Prime Ministers Questions!! It is 2pm!!! Police cars career across London, the MP and Barry race into Parliament, through the lobbies, arriving among the throng just as Big Ben rings the half hour, and… and…

Whodunnit? Get a hold of a copy and find out.

Thoughts

The restriction on space immeasurably improves Amis’s style by making him dump all the mannerisms I have enumerated in previous reviews. Every scene, every encounter, every scrap of dialogue is pared to the bone and serves a purpose, generally fleshing out the half dozen or more red herrings which keep the ‘plot’ ticking over nicely. It is an easier, slicker read than any of his previous books.

That said, plot is not Amis’s strong point. An enjoyable enough concoction, a beach read, I didn’t believe a word, and laughed at the supposed thrilling climax. Recently I reread Frederick Forsyth’s debut, The Day of The Jackal, surely one of the best thrillers ever written.

It is linked to this novel because both have as a central feature a committee trying to solve the case from which vital information is leaked to the perpetrator. The comparison makes Forsyth look like the Terminator and Amis like an affable geezer who likes crosswords.

Related links

Kingsley Amis books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with his boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, a clingy neurotic girlfriend, and amiably contemptuous colleagues at his cheap rooming house. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in south Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of the genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation, then sex, on a nearby beach, then the mistress’s mad car driving leading to a crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves to a mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infants school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets, not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public schoolteacher Patrick Standish, who is sometimes unforgivably harsh with her, sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending meetings which turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, with dire consequences for its officers, in particular dashing James Churchill and his love affair with beautiful sensitive Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (pseud. Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts but finds himself falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess taken as symbolising the collapse of values in late-60s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in suburban Home Counties where the loss of of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with the murder of a neighbour both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – Five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down cottage, are shown getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending, in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic attempt on the Prime Minister’s life!
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as Christendom, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is so talented he is selected to be castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a hilarious journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women
1986 The Old Devils
1988 Difficulties with Girls
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill
1991 We Are All Guilty
1992 The Russian Girl
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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