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.
- 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…
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.
- Blott on the Landscape (novel) on Amazon
- Blott on the Landscape (TV series) on Amazon
- Blott on the Landscape (novel) Wikipedia article
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.