The Throwback by Tom Sharpe (1978)

The Throwback by Tom Sharpe (1978) continues his vein of aggressively crude and violent farce, often with hilarious results. As I read it I realised that, if the plots are designed to be convoluted and contrived and the characters grotesque and improbably naive or fiendish or weird, in order to bring about ludicrous scenes and situations, then it makes sense that the language used is similarly crude and extreme. The characters certainly f and blind with ease.

Plot Old Flawse, 90-year-old owner of Flawse Hall in bleakest Northumberland, had a daughter who died giving birth to a bastard son during a hunt. The son is named Lockhart. Old Flawse hands the boy over to the gamekeeper Mr Dodd to be brought up in Puritan cleanliness of body and mind, dedicated to hunting on the moors. His doctor says he’s looking a bit peaky, so they both go on a cruise where they encounter calculating divorcée, Mrs Sandicott, whose husband has died leaving her with a dozen properties in Surrey, and a naive but stunning daughter, Jessica. The fortune-seeking Mrs Sandicott marries the old man, Lockhart marries Jessica, the old people maliciously calculating against each other, the young people ruinously naive about the realities of sex.

Back in Flawse Hall Old Flawse imposes a byzantine will on Mrs Sandicott by which she will inherit the hall but only on condition she never leave the house, never updates its ramshackle amenities etc. Though all these stipulations fall if young Lockhart can find his unknown father – and then thrash him within an inch of his life – whereupon he will inherit.

Meanwhile, young Lockhart moves in with his wife in Sandicott Close, East Pursley, Surrey and finds it very different from the wilds of Northumbria. He would very much like the money from selling the properties but finds himself constricted by modern tenancy agreements which mean the tenants of the 12 houses Jessica owns can’t be evicted. Ah, but they can be terrorised out of their properties – and this the bold huntsman proceeds to do, through a succession of evermore bizarre, violent, inflammatory and explosive techniques.

This goes on for some time, is very elaborate and very funny. Lockhart posts the two little old ladies in number 7 a variety of sex toys and a gigantic vibrating penis with realistic testicles, which they are unwrapping and wondering how to operate just as the vicar’s wife makes an impromptu visit and faints clear away, to come around to find herself on the kitchen table, being given the kiss of life by one old lady while the other approaches sinisterly with the gigantic penis – at which she leaps up and runs out of the house screaming: that gives a good flavour of the scenes. Another brilliant sequence is when Lockhart gives the retired Colonel’s bull-terrier LSD and it starts hallucinating prehistoric monsters everywhere, running round howling biting fences and telegraph poles and cars and policemen and fire engines before running off into the nearby bird sanctuary to cause untold mayhem…

Daily Mail Old Flawse and young Lockhart share a dislike of officialdom and, in particular, the Taxman and the VAT man. One of the latter is mercilessly hounded and hospitalised (as he approaches Flawse Hall Dodd opens the sluices of the nearby reservoir which washes him, and his car, miles along the Fell.) The accumulated gripes about the government, the taxman, the  corrupt ineffectiveness of bureaucracy, the collapse of our manufacturing economy, the collapse of the currency, the balance of payments deficit blah blah blah, begin to have the affect of being stuck at the bar with a drunk, middle-aged Daily Mail reader determined to go through his list of everything which is wrong with this blasted country, what.

Longeurs The book is funny – outrageously, savagely, brutally, funny – but ultimately rather wearing. (There’s a lot less violence in the Anglo-Saxon poetry I’ve been reading recently.) Like a lot of Sharpe’s books, you’re quite exhausted by page 180, but it goes on to start up a whole new series of outrages, in this case, the approach of the VAT men to Flawse Hall which is interrupted because Lockhart has buried loads of loudspeakers across the moor, and made recordings of the nearby Army training exercises complete with shellfire and machine guns – which recordings he suddenly turns on at full blast leading the terrified men to think they’re in the middle of the Battle of the Somme, some falling to the ground and covering their ears, some jumping into the reservoir to escape the banshee wailing, some running away screaming.

Practical jokes Farce as a genre is the Practical Joke transferred to the stage or page, crude physical humour designed to prompt explosive laughter. Pure farce is a narrative or text whose only concern is to hurry you on to the next practical joke, the next outrageous physical debacle.

Pan paperback cover of The Throwback with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of The Throwback 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.

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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