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.

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  1. Book Review: Riotous Assembly. | Tychy

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