The Wilt Alternative by Tom Sharpe (1979)

The Wilt Alternative is the sequel to Wilt (1976), possibly Sharpe’s best-known novel. It starts in the same comic-fantastical mode as its predecessor, with absurd events trying Wilt’s threadbare patience:

  • drunk on the way back from the pub, Henry Wilt has a pee in a rosebush but badly scratches his member, is then caught by his wife dipping it into her tooth mug which he’s filled with antiseptic, prompting a hissy fit from her, then is forced to go to hospital where he refuses to let various nurses or consultants touch it, and so on.
  • meanwhile one of the ‘radical’ tutors at the technical college where Wilt is head of department, has made a ‘revolutionary’ film featuring one of the students simulating sex with (what turns out to be a model) crocodile, thus involving Wilt in embarrassing or confrontational scenes with the other staff members and the college Principal.
  • his wife, Eva, with whom he’d been largely reconciled at the end of Wilt, is irritating him again with her enthusiasm for the Alternative Society – what we call environmentalism – eg composting household waste, recycling poo, drinking home-made wines and beers and – the latest enthusiasm – solar powered panels on the roof.

But at page 90 the novel turns into something drastically different.

For the Wilts have gone up in the world and, to suit their higher status, purchased a larger house, not least to be home to the four quadruplets Eva conceived and bore after going on fertility treatment between the last novel and this. And since there’s a spare room in the attic they let it out to a nice German au pair. Except that, as Wilt discovers when he takes her cash payment to the bank, the ‘au pair’, real name Gudrun Schautz, is one of the most wanted terrorists in Europe.

As Special Branch, the Anti-Terrorist forces and Army descend on his quiet suburban street, a shocked and stunned Wilt is persuaded to venture back into the house to quietly extract Mrs W and the quads. Unsurprisingly, things go disastrously wrong. His wife and children aren’t even in the house but Wilt determines to press on and confront this young woman who’s caused so much trouble, going upstairs to find her in the attic bathroom having a bath and, taking the opportunity to have a root around in her luggage, discovers various machine guns and grenades. It’s all horribly true!

At that fateful moment the children do return to the house through the garden door in the care of a kindly old neighbour, Mrs de Frackas, just as two of Gudrun’s ‘boyfriends’ – terrorist accomplices – come in the front, and Wilt, in his amateur zeal, stumbles out of the cramped attic storage space and trips over, oops, accidentally firing the machine gun through the roof.

All hell breaks loose. The assembled security forces in the garden start firing back at this attack from the house, the accomplices climbing the stairs start firing out the windows at the cops, Wilt locks Gudrun in the bathroom, the accomplices find and force the quads and old lady down into the cellar – and we have the beginning of quite a lengthy hostage/siege situation.

Somehow Sharpe manages to make this funny: the old lady shepherding the quads is the indomitable wife of a (deceased) British colonial officer, well-used to dealing with uppity natives, and the quads run around enjoying themselves, loving the gunfire, gorging themselves on miscellaneous foodstuffs and throwing up everywhere. While Wilt in the attic progresses from complete panic to various cunning stratagems designed to unnerve the terrorists. On the party phone line he puts on a funny voice and pretends he is a splinter group of the cell the main two terrorists are part of, making completely contradictory demands to theirs, puzzling and confusing them so they wonder whether their leader is part of a different cell.

Wilt then manages to talk Gudrun out of the bathroom by playing-acting the dim English twit and then, improbably enough, finds himself being seduced by her. All this is captured on the secret microphone the cops have dropped into the room from a hovering helicopter and is overheard in graphic detail by Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint of the local constabulary and – the seduction part – by his outraged wife, Eva. In a later phase of the long siege Wilt bamboozles Gudrun with the kind of Marxist rhetoric he’s picked up from the half-baked communist lecturers at the Tech, into almost believing that Wilt is the member of a subversive sleeper cell (not-that-funny satire on the Marxist mumbo-jumbo spouted by so many academics at this period).

The siege goes on for quite a long time and eventually, despite all the twists and turns – as the cops drop a microphone into the attic, as Eva breaks out of the local police station where she’d been kept for her own good and makes her way across country through the police cordon and into the house, as Wilt desperately runs through a series of ‘alternative’ scenarios to keep the terrorists confused, the Wilt alternatives of the title – eventually it becomes a little boring. Finally, as Mrs de Frackas distracts the terrorists by openly making for the kitchen door, Wilt bundles the quads into the cellar slamming the door shut, then up the external trap door into the garden and into Eva’s beloved compost heap. At which point Eva’s bio-loo device handily explodes covering the terrorists in crap and disorientating them long enough for the cops to move in and arrest them.

‘Shits in shits’ clothing,’ muttered Professor Maerlis, gazing in awe at the human excreta that stumbled about the lawn. (p.212)

The quads are freed. Wilt is freed. Eva up in the attic where she had swapped places with Wilt, is freed. The two accomplices covered in poo are arrested. And Gudrun is taken down from the complicated gallows Eva had barnstormingly constructed for her in the siege’s final moments. Alles gut.

In the final chapter Wilt is exonerated of all blame by the authorities, keeps his job at the Tech, and decides he and Eva will move out of the now ill-fated posh house into something more modest. The new neighbours won’t know what hit them… But we will, presumably, find out all his adventures in the next sequel, Wilt on High (1984).

1970s terrorism

Earlier this year I read The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot and one of the main themes of the decade is the widespread terrorist violence which occurred in almost all western countries: the Weather Underground (USA), the Angry Brigade and IRA (Britain), ETA (Spain), Baader-Meinhof (Germany), the Red Brigade (Italy), the PLO (everywhere).

With the benefit of hindsight, with access to interviews and even the autobiographies of some of the surviving terrorists themselves, DeGroot is able to show that their shared theory of ‘spectacle’ – that violent and spectacular terrorist atrocities would awaken the slumbering masses, make them realise their oppression and rise up in revolutionary fervour – was an unmitigated failure. And not only did revolutionary violence fail to create revolutionary mass movements, it failed in a secondary motive, to ‘purify’ and ‘cleanse’ the terrorists of their bourgeois guilt.

Instead, all the groups found themselves being drawn inexorably into a vortex of ever-more savage and pointless violence, eventually killing people for the sake of it, just to maintain their reputations, and to maintain discipline within their faltering ranks.

Which makes it all the more striking that this was Sharpe’s unsparing opinion during the period itself.

The vast majority of mankind lived in abject poverty, were riddled with curable diseases which went uncured, were subject o despotic governments and lived in terror and in danger of dying by starvation. To the extent that anyone tried to change this inequity, Wilt sympathised… [But] terrorising the innocent and murdering men, women and children was both ineffectual and barbaric. What difference was there between the terrorists and their victims? Only one of opinion. Chinanda [one of the accomplices] and Gudrun Schautz came from wealthy families and Baggish [the other accomplice], whose father had been a shopkeeper in Beirut, could hardly be called poor. None of these self-appointed executioners had been driven to murder by the desperation of poverty, and as far as Wilt could tell their fanaticism had its roots in no specific cause. They weren’t trying to drive the British from Ulster, the Israelis from the Golan Heights or even the Turks from Cyprus. They were political poseurs whose enemy was life. In short they were murderers by personal choice, psychopaths who camouflaged their motives behind a screen of utopian theory. Power was their kick, the power to inflict pain and to terrify. Even their own readiness to die was a sort of power, some sick and infantile form of masochism and expiation of guilt, not for their filthy crimes, but for being alive at all. Beyond that there were doubtless other motives concerned with parents or toilet training. Wilt didn’t care. It was enough that they were carriers of the same political rabies that had driven Hitler to construct Auschwitz and kill himself in the bunker, or the Cambodians to murder one another by the million. As such they were beyond the pale of sympathy… (pp.166-167)

In my review of Sharpe’s first novel, Riotous Assembly, I wrote that a great attraction of his violent farce was its hallucinatory detachment from the ‘real’ world, achieving a mad kind of imaginative purity. This has become noticeably less true as his novels proceed:

  • Wilt is a kind of portmanteau of middle-class male whinging about bloody Yanks and their bloody trendy fads and bloody women’s libbers
  • The Great Pursuit reveals a genuine hatred for the stiflingly narrow interpretation of literature he was taught at Cambridge, with large dollops of anti-American sentiment thrown in
  • The Throwback, set in the wilds of Northumberland and a fantastical Surrey cul-de-sac should have had that imaginative purity but contains numerous passages editorialising about the iniquity of income tax, the VAT inspector, what does the bloody government spend it on anyway?-type moaning which read like Daily Mail editorials

And now The Wilt Alternative which, despite numerous comic scenes, can’t help being overshadowed by its serious, angry, and still tragically relevant, analysis of the terrorist mindset.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of The Wilt Alternative illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of The Wilt Alternative illustrated 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 chooses Wilt’s accident in the rosebush as the main subject but also shows him firing the machine gun by accident (top left), the police helicopter at top right, the naked Gudrun emerging from the bath top right, the two terrorist accomplices middle left, his wife Eva a little too violently pulling the sticking plaster the doctors put over his ravaged penis middle right, and the terrorists slipping and sliding on the quads’ vomit bottom right.

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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