Deaf Sentence by David Lodge (2008)

An autobiographical author

Lodge’s novels are strongly autobiographical and, laid end to end, build up to the portrait of a certain type of life and its possibilities – in a quiet way, he has recorded the experience of a generation.

Out of the Shelter describes the boyhood and teenage years of the son of suburban south London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war – as Lodge was. The Picturegoers explores the lives of characters in the fictional south London suburb of Brickley – very similar to the suburb of Brockley where Lodge grew up. Ginger, You’re Barmy describes the experiences of a bright university scholarship boy plunged into the harsh world of National Service – based on the two years the university graduate Lodge spent in the Royal Armoured Corps.

Lodge married young (24) and had three children in quick succession while he worked to establish himself as a university teacher of English literature. The British Museum Is Falling Down describes a day in the life of young English academic, the unhappy Catholic father of three small children. How Far Can You Go steps back from the day-to-day to provide a panoramic overview of the lives and loves of 10 young Catholic men and women, students in the 1950s who mature during the social and theological changes of the 1960s and 1970s – as Lodge and his friends did.

Paradise News and Therapy describe in different ways the familiar subject of male mid-life crisis, the sense of being successful and surrounded by all the material good things of life, and yet feeling something is missing – a malaise which is healed by liberating sex and family reconciliation in Paradise News, and by joining an old flame on her devout Catholic pilgrimage, in Therapy.

Even his classic comic novels, the so-called Campus Trilogy – Changing Places, Small World, Nice Work – are closely based on his own experiences of teaching at a Californian university during the heady 1960s, of attending countless international literary conferences in the 1970s, and of working in a scheme designed to bring university and industry closer together in his adopted city of Birmingham – referred to throughout the trilogy as ‘Rummidge’.

Unexpectedly, at the end of his writing life, Lodge broke this pattern with two long and thoroughly researched ‘historical’ novels – Author, Author (2004) and A Man of Parts (2011) – based around the lives and loves of Henry James and H.G. Wells, respectively.

Slipped in between them is this ‘contemporary’ novel which reverts to the usual pattern and brings the generic Lodge figure into the final stages of life – into retirement, forced to face the indignities of old age, the difficulty of an ageing marriage, the fractiousness of an extended family, and the decline and death of his own parent. There is no escaping the fact that, despite occasional smiles, this is for most of its length quite a depressing novel which, at its very end, I found unbearably moving.

Deaf Sentence

The novel’s 300 pages are told in the first person by Desmond Bates, a retired professor of linguistics living in an unnamed northern city (presumably Lodge avoided the fictional city of Rummidge as too associated with his comic past), who began to go deaf in his 40s and now requires a high-powered hearing aid to hear anything at all.

The events take place over a defined period, from 2 November 2006 through to 8 March 2007. We know this because a lot of the sections are diary entries given a precise date but also because, like a lot of 21st century novels (by Amis, Jacobson, McEwan), it keenly references contemporary events, referring several times to terrorist atrocities, to the 7/7 bombings (7 July 2005), to the war in Iraq, to the hanging of Saddam Hussein (December 30 2006).

Are contemporary novels more weighted down by contemporary events than in the past? Does the news, in all its grimness, bear down more on the present generation than ever before? It sometimes feels like it.

The novel is an amiable, factual record of Desmond’s thoughts and feelings about retirement, the academic life, about deafness and marriage (he is married to the eight-years-younger Winifred, companionably nicknamed ‘Fred’), about his two grown-up children Anne and Richard, and his growing concern for his 89-year-old Dad, displaying evermore symptoms of senility.

Much of the tone is deliberately flat and humdrum to the point of banality:

  • 12th November I phoned Dad, as I always do on a Sunday evening, at about six o’clock.
  • 28th November I went to London yesterday to see Dad…
  • 22nd December I have spent the last two days in bed trying to get over my cold…

There’s not so much a plot as a number of relationships which develop and change over the four and a bit months of the narrative.

  • Desmond visits his old Dad in the shabby south London suburb of Brickley (the fictional setting of Out of the Shelter) and Lodge slowly builds up a portrait of the old boy, once a jazz musician playing in all sorts of bands in and around London, with a wide circle of musician mates – all dead now, like his wife – which is why he’s now living alone in their pokey old terraced house, where he refuses to have a cleaner and so everything is coated in a layer of cooking fat and dust. Brutally honest, the Dad sections were flat and depressing to read; there are no redeeming features to being this old and worn out.
  • Desmond’s family consists of his daughter, Anne, 6 months pregnant, and his son, Richard, a specialist in low-temperature physics at Cambridge, cultivated, clever but distant. Desmond’s first wife – the kids’ mother, Maisie – died of cancer when they were small. In their different ways they were all scarred by this tragedy.
  • After some time alone, Desmond met and began an affair with a mature student at the university where he taught, posh Winifred, who was raised in an upper-middle-class Catholic family. She herself got married young to a complete cad who was unfaithful to her, and it took her a while to summon up the courage to divorce him. Desmond and Winifred’s affair continued, deepened, and they ended up getting married. Desmond moved into her house, big and grandly furnished, and for a while they lived a high lifestyle. But his deafness and his early retirement have estranged them a bit, in addition to which Fred has had a second lease of life since she opened an interior design shop with a good friend, Jakki, and has been exercising, losing weight and even had a breast reduction operation.

Alex Loom

The nearest thing to a ‘plot’ is the intrusion into Desmond’s life of an American woman post-graduate student named Alex Loom. The novel opens with her button-holing him at an art exhibition and then she pops up periodically, displaying ever more psychotic behaviour. Initially she says she wants his advice and help with the thesis she’s writing, a ‘discourse analysis’ of suicide notes. She invites him to her flat, where her manner is odd and, when Desmond gets home, he finds she’s hidden a pair of panties in his overcoat pocket. Next, she sends him an email apologising and saying he is welcome to go round to her flat in a few days time, at precisely 3pm, when she will leave the door ajar, and will be in the study with the curtains drawn, bending over her desk, naked from the waist downwards, and he must say nothing, but roll up his sleeves and spank and spank and spank her until his anger is assuaged, ignoring her cries or pleas – and then rebutton his sleeves, put on his raincoat, and leave without saying a word (p.136).

The email gives Desmond an erection every time he reads it – an arousal he takes out on Winifred in one of their now-rare acts of coition – but Desmond wisely doesn’t keep the appointment. Nonetheless, Alex continues behaving like a bunny-boiler, scaring him by phoning him from outside Fred’s boutique and threatening to go in and tell her ‘everything’. What everything? Nothing has happened. Still, Desmond is now scared of her, and appalled when she turns up at the first night of a play at the local theatre and inveigles herself so successfully with Fred, that the latter merrily invites Alex to the couple’s big Christmas party.

In line with the novel’s realistic depiction of life as one damn thing after another there isn’t a particular climax, but a series of set pieces which bring various relationships and issues to a head.

Christmas First of all there is a long description of the complicated and large family Christmas which involves catering for 13 adults and two children (p.188). It involves Desmond in driving down to London to collect his Dad, to ferry him back to the northern city where the story is set. But Desmond has not made adequate provision for his Dad’s incontinence, which leads to an embarrassing/amusing scene of his Dad wetting himself and needing to have clean trousers and pants brought from the car and handed to him in a toilet cubicle at the next Services – to the entertainment of the horde of motorway toilet-goers. The Christmas itself is the traditional snake pit of frictions, mostly between Fred’s very prim mother, Cecilia, and Desmond’s scruffy, uncouth and deaf Dad. There are some comic moments, but more moments of irritation and fretfulness and family arguments.

Center Parcs It’s called ‘Gladeworld’ in the novel, possibly for legal reasons, because the narrator, in his grumpy old man way, is unremittingly hostile to it. He goes so far as to compare the hot, muggy, chlorine-saturated swimming pool with its piles of human bodies flinging themselves around through flumes and circling in the pointlessly shaped pools, to Dante’s vision of hell. He and Winifred are invited to spend New Year’s Eve there by her business partner, Jakki, and her smooth husband, Lionel, but the trip is not a success, leading to more friction between Desmond and Fred.

Poland To his surprise Desmond is phoned by an old contact at the British Council who asks if he’d be prepared to step in at short notice to cover a small lecture tour of Poland since the academic scheduled to do it has had a bad skiing accident and – to escape worry about his Dad and his increasingly argumentative relationship with Fred – Desmond accepts. The narrator skips the journey there, his lectures, the dinners and receptions, in order to zero in on his pained visit to Auschwitz, close to the final destination of Cracow. Here, at the end of his writing career, Lodge confronts a truth much bigger and all-devouring than anything tackled in his previous fiction. Since this the visit takes place in January it is growing dark as he arrives, and the narrator finds himself walking through the endless rows of barracks of the vast death camp as the light goes and the world descends into total darkness.

(Having recently reread the works of Primo Levi I am familiar with a lot of the factual background. In an odd way, I found the account of the death camp which is at the heart of Robert Harris’s first thriller,  Fatherland, almost as harrowing, because it was more fully crafted and embedded in a text fraught with terror.)

Back at the hotel there is a message saying his daughter has had her baby, prematurely. Panic that she or it might be unwell gives way to joy when he manages to phone England and be reassured that mother and daughter are well. But then another message is left for him saying  his father has had a stroke.

Dad’s death

There follow twenty harrowing pages, as Desmond returns to find his Dad was discovered on the floor of  his house, maybe been there for days, incapacitated and barely conscious. In the hospital he’s moved to, he sinks slowly and steadily, never regaining enough consciousness to talk with his son, who watches his battered bruised body, tortured by catheters and intravenous drips, slowly decay.

This is exactly what happened to my father. I watched the same inexorable decline five years ago. And last year I spent a week in a public ward at a big London hospital, surrounded by senile, demented and distressed old men, myself strapped up to intravenous drips and painkillers, suffering complete incapacity, dazed and helpless, in thrall to the banging rhythms of the noisy hospital and the endless smells of bad food and my neighbours’ excrement.

Reading these pages brought both experiences back much more vividly than I ever want to remember them again.

As if placing a trip to Auschwitz next to a harrowingly realistic description of his Dad’s death weren’t enough, at the core of the sequence Lodge has Desmond confess to Fred that he, Desmond, packed the kids off to stay with relatives during his first wife’s last days because he – with the complicity of their GP – knowing his wife was in the last stages of terminal cancer and in continual pain, helped her take an overdose of brandy and painkillers, curled up on the bed beside her, and held her till she died.

All three scenes, coming one after the other, make for a very harrowing and upsetting read.

Aftermath

He organises  his father’s cremation and the scattering of the ashes. In what now seems quite an anti-climax he decisively and finally turns down Alex Loom’s phone and email requests for him to supervise her thesis. He knows she’ll never finish it. He knows he’ll end up doing most of the work. And he doesn’t trust her. Even so, when he receives an email from her saying he’s right, she’s a useless failure, she always screws up and so that’s why she’s going to kill herself, she’s just taken the pills to kill herself – Desmond still jumps into his car and hurtles across town to her flat, hoping and praying she’s still alive –

But only to find the bailiffs and removal men taking out the furniture. She had fallen behind on her rent and payments for all the furniture so it’s all being repossessed. Alex herself was last seen heading off in a taxi with a few belongings, presumably to return to the States. It was a hoax.

So. With his Dad dead and cremated, Desmond is set to inherit some money, which he’ll give to his own children. The crisis has brought him and Fred together, wiping away the frets and arguments of Christmas. He is a lucky man and he knows it. He has admitted the extent of his deafness to himself and has started attending lip-reading classes – and gets along very well with the old men and women who surround him, and is himself amused by the little quizzes and competitions the class teacher sets them all.

Auschwitz and the experience of his own Dad’s death have made him treasure life, even in the smallest details, every bit of it, every minute.


An information novelist

In my review of its predecessor, Author, author I pointed out how most of Lodge’s books have a strong pedagogic streak: he is a teacher to his marrow. In the early novels you learn a lot about Roman Catholic teaching and practice, especially around the oh-so-taboo subject of sex in the chaste 1950s and suburban 1960s. The Changing Places trilogy is all the funnier for being stuffed with literary references and lit crit ideas. 2001’s Thinks… is packed with information about artificial intelligence and current scientific knowledge about consciousness, and Author, author routinely explains to the reader all kinds of details and aspects of late Victorian life and culture.

Lodge is often categorised as a ‘Catholic novelist’ or a ‘campus novelist’. Reviewing his oeuvre, I think it’s more appropriate to think of him as an information novelist; whatever the ostensible subject matter, Lodge is always calm, sober and, above all – informative. Making the narrator of this novel a professor of linguistics allows Lodge to share with his readers all sorts of diverting factoids about the use and abuse of language, specially as it relates to the central character’s dominating condition of deafness. He sets this pedagogic tone on the first page:

This is known to linguists as the Lombard Reflex, named after Etienne Lombard, who established early in the twentieth century that speakers increase their vocal effort in the presence of noise in the environment in order to resist degradation of the intelligibility of their messages. (p.3)

Desmond explains to us that in his professional life he was an exponent of ‘Discourse Analysis’ and then has, of course, to explain to us what that is and how it differs from linguistics, semiotics or structuralist analyses. And give us a few examples of his expertise:

‘F’ is called a labiodental fricative because you produce it by bringing your top teeth into contact with your bottom lip and allowing some air to escape between them. (p.20)

There is a steady stream of these informative snippets and factoids, which are always clearly explained at a kind of first-year undergraduate level, and are never less than interesting.

In the classic Austin scheme there are three possible types of speech act entailed in any utterance, spoken or written: the locutionary (which is to say what you say, the propositional meaning), the illocutionary (which is the effect the utterance is intended to have on others) and the perlocutionary (which is the effect it actually has). (p.104)

The visit to Auschwitz has plenty of explanatory matter that could have come from a guidebook. His Dads’s medical condition, decline, and the various treatment options are explained to him by the houseman with textbook clarity. In some ways, the world arranges itself around Lodge’s fictional characters like a textbook.

Deafness

The central element of the novel – before it is rather overwhelmed by the dark ending – is, as the title suggests, the severe deafness of the central character. This is based (as might be expected) on Lodge’s own deafness and the book shows a detailed knowledge of the scientific causes of deafness, the latest news about attempts at cures, and shares more than most of us probably want to know about the various hearing aids on the market. Some of this is played for laughs – for example, a sort of comic business is made of the never-ending failure of batteries at just the wrong moment at parties or conversations or holidays. And Lodge/Desmond lament that whereas blindness is perceived as being truly tragic, for the most part deafness – or at least partial deafness – has always been comic.

Desmond/Lodge shares his thoughts about famous ‘deafies’ such as Goya and Beethoven, both of whom might be said to have been made as artists by their affliction. Alex Loom’s macabre PhD about suicide notes allows Lodge to tie in with Beethoven’s famous Heiligenstadt Testament, written to the composer’s brothers to explain his surly and anti-social behaviour as a protection mechanism for an extremely proud and sensitive man who couldn’t bear not to hear or understand what people were saying to him, and fearful of seeming ridiculous. Better a curmudgeon that a cretin.

There is also a series of bad deaf puns, as the academic narrator refers to the Deaf Instinct (p.126), wishes he were half in love with easeful deaf, (in relation to Alex) thinks about Deaf and the Maiden (p.129), and titles a section of the book Deaf in the Afternoon. Ha ha.

The rest of the ‘plot’ aside, the novel amounts to the most sustained description of the indignities, the embarrassments and the strain on even the most loving marriage which the deafness of one partner creates that I’m aware of.

Experimental novelist

Lodge’s books use various Modernist techniques, the kind of thing he must have discussed countless times in his classes about James Joyce or Virginia Woolf – stream of consciousness, different points of view, parody and pastiche – but in a completely homespun way, somehow emptied of any of their original excitement or threat. Like his popular lit crit books, his novels draw the teeth of those formal innovations, demystify and domesticate them.

Thus the narrative is a little tricksy in the way it alternates between first-person diary accounts and having a third-person objective narrator describe many scenes – and yet you don’t really notice. The first time the text switches to the third person it does so with a laconic sentence, ‘I feel a fit of the third person coming on’ (p.28). Oh, alright. What’s remarkable is how easily the reader assimilates all this – the switching of point of view, the incorporation of diary format with emails, notes, conversations real and reconstructed – without blinking.

Sex

All of Lodge novels feature sex, some are dominated by sex as the main motivating force for the male characters – but I always find the many sexual events which take place are described in an unnervingly graphic and cold way. For me the enduring memory of his oeuvre is the number of erect penises which litter the books and the number of acts of coition described with clinical accuracy.

There’s still a fair amount of sex in this book, though it is now OAP sex i.e. Desmond fails to get an erection, fails to persuade Fred to do anything about it, or just falls asleep before there is any sexual congress. In a sort of funny running joke, whenever Desmond opens his email he is bombarded with adverts for Viagra and other erection-boosting panaceas, in increasing wildness of tone and promise, all of which remind him of the moribundity of his own sex life.

Now his protagonist is nearly 70, sex is no longer the consuming passion it was in the earlier books, but Lodge still describes his characters’ sexual proclivities and histories with unnerving factuality. Desmond contrasts his sex life with his first wife, Maisie (who had ‘an unconquerable aversion to oral sex in any form’, p.76) with the second wife, Fred, who still, from time to time, treats his penis as ‘a particularly delicious stick of seaside rock’ (p.76). Ah. Thanks for that. When Desmond and Lionel unwisely share the small sauna cubicle at Center Parcs, oops Gladeworld, Desmond is close enough to be impressed at the size of Lionel’s manhood, ‘his flaccid organ hanging down like a rubber cosh between his thighs’ (p.236).

What is lowering about all this is the protagonist’s predatory attitude – even towards his own wife, cunningly trying to steer her towards sex, shaping his conversation, the whole rhythms of his day, to manipulate her towards the bedroom. Half the time this has ‘comic’ results i.e. he can’t get it up or just falls asleep. But the unrelentingness of the lechery gets a bit wearisome. Coming to Lodge’s last books after reading the last novels of Kingsley Amis and the first four by Howard Jacobson I think I’ve had more than enough of bookish, middle-aged men who don’t appear to be able to think about anything else except sex sex sex.

Alex Loom’s ‘spanking’ email comes as a bolt from another life, another world, another discourse altogether – a little bit of Fifty Shades of Grey parachuted into the story of an increasingly grumpy old academic. It also has a life and vigour which Desmond’s addled couplings don’t. If you wanted to be provocative, you could ask why the only woman who shows independence and agency in her sex life – i.e. Alex, with her spirited creation and control of the spanking scenario – is described as mad and punished with expulsion from academia and from the country.

Out of touch

Lodge’s narrator describes the mundane realities of contemporary life in soul-sapping detail: the trips to Sainsburys with the marital shopping list, the two-for-the-price-of-one offers, the daytime TV, the traffic jams whenever anyone tries to drive anywhere, the morons shouting into their mobile phones in the ‘quiet carriage’ of trains.

The narrator jokes that he’s a grumpy old grouch, but he puts real feeling into the prolonged passage about why he hates Christmas, and the two-page diatribe against ‘Gladeworld’ is hilariously mean-spirited. But there are many smaller details which reveal the narrator as an old man. In fact, in these peripheral ways, the book is interesting for showing how even someone who has clearly made an effort to keep up with changing society – as Lodge clearly has – eventually lacks the feel for it, for the current conversations and experiences.

As a small example, Desmond notes the graffiti covering everything in South London but bemoans its lack of semantic content. He shares with us the only piece of graffiti which has ever amused him. Underneath the official notice ‘Bill stickers will be prosecuted’ someone had scrawled Bill Stickers is innocent. Ha ha. The internet says this joke goes back to the 1960s – that’s 50 years old.

In another passage Lodge writes the rather dull cliché that we live in an ‘age of communication’ and goes on to list the channels of communication as books, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the internet – and the way he places the internet last after all the others, makes you realise that this book, recent though it is (2008), was still written before the tsunami of comms which burst with the arrival of smart phones, tablets, iPads and the social media platforms Facebook, twitter, Youtube, Instagram and so on, which have revolutionised communication, especially between the young.

The novel won’t ‘die’ – indeed more novels are published every year than ever before. But it will be interesting to see how the tsunami of simplified and simple-minded digital discourse affects the rhetoric and strategies of longer fictions.

Conclusion

For most of its length it would be easy to dismiss this as a rather boring book – some but not many laughs, long stretches about car journeys, or the food in the cafés in Sainsburys, or the hassle of getting hearing aid batteries – in which not much happens.

But I think that would be to underestimate it. In his quiet, undramatic way, Lodge introduces us to quite a large cast of characters and slowly, through prolonged exposure to Desmond, Winifred and his Dad, we not only situate them in their web of relationships, but come to care for them.

You could argue that Lodge often treats his characters with the same kind of clear, logical, factual style as he treats his technical explanations of Discourse Theory or Speech Acts, in the flat factual tone set by the ageing academic narrator himself, a lucid, logical kind of fellow. There is little or no passion in his accounts of anything. When he describes how his first wife died of cancer nobody is moved. When he gets aroused and wants sex with his wife, the reader is not aroused, but feels like a zoologist observing the mating rituals of a peculiar species.

It is this calm, even tenor of Lodge’s prose which makes the final passages all the more upsetting. When the bad things happen – in Auschwitz, his father’s slow death and then the revelation of how he helped his first wife to die – it is precisely because they are occurring to such a sensible, rational, logical and inoffensive chap which makes them feel so terrible.


Credit

Deaf Sentence by David Lodge was published by Harvill Secker in 2008. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

David Lodge’s novels

1960 – The Picturegoers – An ensemble piece following the lives of various characters in the fictional London suburb of Brickley, all linked by their attendance at their local cinema, the Palladium, as they fall in and out of love, practice various degrees of Catholicism and worry about sex.
1962 – Ginger, You’re Barmy – Jonathan Browne is fresh from gaining a First in English when he is plunged into National Service among brutal proles and cruel NCOs in a windswept barracks in Yorkshire. Onto this amiable backdrop is nailed a melodramatic story about his friend at university, Mike the ginger-haired renegade of the title, attacking a cruel NCO, being imprisoned, being spring by the IRA, and then forced to return to make a raid on the barracks which Jonathan, by freakish coincidence, ends up foiling.
1965 – The British Museum Is Falling Down – a day in the life of young academic Adam Appleby, unhappy Catholic father of three, who spends a day at the BM failing to do any research and finds himself embroiled in more and more comic complexities, all the time panic-stricken that his wife might be pregnant for an unbearable fourth time.
1970 – Out of the Shelter – the boyhood and teenage years of Timothy Young, child of very ordinary suburban London parents, who is a toddler during the Blitz, a boy at the end of the war, and a teenager when he goes to stay with his older sister in post-war Germany, where he makes all kinds of discoveries about war and peace and life and love.
1975 – Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses – It is January 1969 and two English Literature professors are swapping jobs for a term: down-trodden Englishman Philip Swallow is heading for the Californian delights of Euphoria State University, and lit crit superstar Morris Zapp is heading towards rundown rainy Rummidge University. How will they cope with the resulting culture shocks? A hilariously knowing romp, a sophisticated comedy classic.
1980 – How Far Can You Go? – The stories of 10 young Catholics in the 1950s and their adventures as they mature during the 1960s and 70s, larded with lots of commentary about the sweeping changes to Catholic dogma during this period, and lots and lots of clinical descriptions of sex, in a surprisingly flat and unentertaining novel.
1984 – Small World: An Academic Romance – a brilliantly conceived comedy of manners satirising the world of modern literary scholarship with its cast of jetsetting, globe-trotting, back-stabbing, vaultingly ambitious and goatishly lecherous academics, led by the protagonists of Changing Places, but with a whole lot more characters added, all travelling, questing and falling in and out of love in the artfully contrived and very funny modern-day equivalent of a medieval romance. (A pilgrimage novel)
1988 – Nice Work – feminist literary academic Robyn Penrose reluctantly takes part in the university’s scheme to shadow figures from local industry, being assigned to the equally reluctant Vic Wilcox, Managing Director of J. Pringle and Sons, a local metal-working factory. Initially antagonistic, they open each other’s eyes to new worlds, rather inevitably, fall in love, but then go beyond that to reach a more mature and realistic friendship.
1991 – Paradise News – Agnostic priest Bernard Walsh is rung up by his dying aunt Ursula who lives in Honolulu (she married an American during the war) asking him to come visit her and bring his father (her brother). Thus begins a ‘holiday’ in ‘paradise’ in which old family secrets are disinterred, old wounds healed, and new life begins. (A pilgrimage novel)
1995 – Therapy – Successful TV scriptwriter Laurence Passmore has it all – hit show, sexy wife, grown-up kids flown the nest, big house, flash car – but is still obscurely unhappy, a problem which turns into a plight when his wife abruptly sues for divorce and he seeks refuge in the past as his life falls apart. (A pilgrimage novel)
2001 – Thinks… – At the (fictional) University of Gloucester, clever, lecherous cognitive scientist Ralph Messenger fancies fucking bereaved novelist Helen Reed, in a story sprinkled with lectures on artificial intelligence which feel as if they’ve been cut & pasted from the popular science books of the 1990s.
2004 – Author, Author – A long and fascinating account of Henry James’s life from the mid-1880s to the mid-1890s as he attempted to branch out from writing novels and short stories with a sustained attempt to write plays for the stage, which proved, in the end, to be a humiliating failure – all told in a book which is saturated with interesting stories and gossip from the era.
2008 – Deaf Sentence – A return to the ‘contemporary’ novel, in which Desmond Bates is a retired professor of linguistics struggling with his growing deafness and extended family, a fractious second wife, a senile father and a dangerously predatory American PhD student, which  moves towards some surprisingly dark and harrowing scenes.
2011 – A Man of Parts

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe (1995)

The Praelector waited in the drawing-room, staring out into the pulsating night and thinking about the May Balls he had known in his youth. They had been sedate affairs and he had enjoyed them enormously, swinging round the Hall doing the quickstep or a foxtrot and, most daringly of all, the tango with a polished liveliness and delight that was a world away from the mechanical Bacchanalia the young now seemed to crave. Not that he blamed them. They were drowning out a world that seemed to have no structure to it and no meaning for them, a monstrous bazaar in which the only recognised criteria were money and sex and drugs and the pursuit of moments of partial oblivion. (p.475)

The front cover and title page describe this as ‘A Porterhouse Chronicle’ as if it’s one of a whole series of novels about the fictional Cambridge college which made its first appearance in Sharpe’s 1974 novel, Porterhouse Blue. But it took 21 years for this sequel to appear and, in the event, there are only two Porterhouse books, this being the second and last one.

It’s a bit long for a comic novel, at 490 pages in this Pan paperback edition, and it is not as funny as its predecessor. Sharpe is still capable of rising to moments of savage farce, but they’re fewer and further between. And – crucially – the kind of swearing and sexual explicitness which felt taboo-breaking and transgressive in the 1970s, were no longer nearly as shocking in the mid-90s, and now – in 2016 – feels run-of-the-mill. Characters saying ‘fuck’ or dressing up in PVC sex outfits is no longer at the far edge of respectability.

The Plot

The fictional Cambridge college of Porterhouse has a reputation as being the most reactionary college in the university, but its finances are in a dire state. Much of the infrastructure is peeling and dropping off. The college is run by a council of Senior Fellows and the plot consists of following their bumbling and farcical attempts to drum up new financing for their alma mater. They are:

  • the Dean (a small round man with a red face, p.224)
  • the Senior Tutor
  • the Bursar
  • the Praelector (tall and thin, p.224)
  • the Chaplain – amiable, bumbling and deaf – giving rise to numerous comic misunderstandings
  • and the Master

The Master is in fact the former Head Porter, Skullion, who we saw, at the end of Porterhouse Blue, have a major stroke. In fact ‘Porterhouse Blue’ is college slang for just such a stroke. Now Skullion is permanently ensconced in a wheelchair and only intermittently capable of speech.

So off they go to find money. The Dean goes to visit Old Porterthusians around the country who, predictably, turn out to be various shades of nasty, drunk, impoverished and violent, notably the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole of Pimpole Hall, Yorkshire, who was once a gay blade but has turned into a violent alcoholic with a vicious cur.

The Senior Tutor is contacted by Lady Mary Evans, the widow of the former Master, Sir Godber Evans, who we saw dying at the end of the previous novel. Although the coroner ruled it accidental death caused by excess of alcohol and then Sir Godber tripping and cracking his skull, Lady Mary is convinced his death was murder. To confirm her suspicion she gives her dubious lawyer six million pounds to endow a new position at the college, the Sir Godber Evans Fellowship and, after some comic business with various unsuitable candidates, appoints the earnest and upright Dr Purefoy Osbert to the post. Osbert is an expert in capital punishment – author of a classic account of the subject, The Long Drop – and he’s given a remit to write the history of Porterhouse, with special attention to the fate of her late husband. She hopes Osbert will expose the murder and turn up enough evidence to convict the whole pack of Senior Fellows who she loathes.

Meanwhile, in what becomes the major storyline, the Bursar attends a conference on ‘funding ancient institutions’ where he is introduced to the slick American representative of a big TV company – Transworld Television Productions – one Karl Kudzuvine. At TTP’s shiny big London headquarters the Bursar is surprised to realise everyone is wearing an identical outfit of moccasins, white socks, polo neck sweater and shades. And when he meets the sinister head of the operation, Edgar Hartang, he learns they are all copying him.

The TV people say they love the idea of making a documentary series about Porterhouse, and will pay handsomely for using the facilities and persuade the Bursar to let them make a ‘recce’ or preliminary visit, where they swarm all over the ancient buildings, outraging the staff, and onto the roof of the chapel which begins to collapse under their weight, during an actual service, prompting a stampede for the exit in which Kudzuvine is trampled underfoot.

There now begins a lengthy sequence in which the foul-mouthed gangster Kudzuvine is put to bed by the cabal of doddering senior officials – the Bursar, Senior Tutor – while the college doctor casually injects him with a range of new drugs he’s been dying to experiment with. They set the speechless, wheelchair-bound gargoyle, Skullion, to watch over him, so that every time Kudzuvine wakes, befuddled and disorientated, he thinks he’s hallucinating and shrinks further into paranoid terror.

In this deranged state, he eventually reveals what we sort of suspected, which is that Transworld is a front for massive involvement in drug smuggling, but not actually making the shipments – TTP uses its offices worldwide and its international documentary operation to launder and clean drug money for various clients: the South Americans, the Mafia, the Russians. This line of business brings with it a serious risk of kidnapping or assassination from rivals, and it’s this which explains why the paranoid boss makes everyone dress like him – so that potential assassins getting past security in TTP’s Canary Wharf offices, will be confused long enough for him to get away.

All Kudzuvine’s confessions are taped by the wily officers. And the college solicitors send a lengthy claim for damages to college infrastructure and to the finer feelings of staff and students to Hartang personally, seeking £20 million! Obviously, his first reaction is to consider hiring contract killers to wipe out these limey motherfuckers, but he is restrained by his own lawyers, who advise actually paying up. It’s a fraction of his illegal takings. In fact Sharpe shows us the lawyers themselves taking steps to distance themselves from their criminal client.

Complications

Having established all these plotlines by half way through the book, Sharpe spends the next 200 pages detailing their increasingly out-of-control complications. This is one of the things that makes Sharpe’s novels farces – the sense of the plot developments spiralling beyond the sane, beyond the feasible, into a fantasy world of comic hysteria.

Thus the now thoroughly cowed Kudzuvine discovers that everything he’s said about his boss has been recorded, transcribed and witnessed: he can’t go back. Terrified, he is whisked away to the country house of Old Porterthusian, General Sir Cathcart D’Eath, there given work in the abattoir where – in a minor revelation – we learn the General slaughters horses and turns them into cat food. Knives and blood. Hmm. Wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t some comic consequences…

At his Induction Dinner, the fellows get Osbert drunk and are worried to discover what his real mission is and how much Sir Mary already knows, or suspects. They need to curtail the fellow’s activities – but how?

For his part, once he’s settled into his new quarters at Porterhouse, Osbert discovers that the wheelchair-bound Skullion likes to lurk in a corner of the quad where he’s brought food and bottles of ale by the college chef and they have a good natter. Intrigued, Osbert conceals himself nearby and overhears their conversation. Apparently Skullion has heard rumours that the Senior staff may be trying to replace him as Master and is infuriated. No sooner has ‘Cheffy’, as they call him, gone away than the Dean strolls past and is surprised to discover Skullion hidden in this corner. Their conversation takes a nasty turn, though, when Skullion – unusually drunk even for him – reveals that it was he who murdered Sir Godber at the end of the previous book, and threatens to tell all and ruin the college if the Dean and the other Senior Fellows try to get rid of him, Skullion.

The Dean blusters that no such thought has crossed their minds and walks on to his rooms, appalled – but not as appalled as Osbert. He has discovered the the truth Sir Mary wanted revealed after only a few weeks. But what proof could he bring in court? Everyone would deny it. What should he do with this knowledge?

Now the Dean has accidentally discovered that Sir Godber was murdered, and that Skullion is the cuplrit, the Senior Fellows realise they must do something to nobble Osbert’s enquiries before he finds out. They rifle through his desk and correspondence and come across the fact that Osbert has an unrequited romance with a Mrs Ndhlovo. One night, long before and much earlier in the novel, Osbert had attended an evening class given by Mrs Ndhlovo which he thought was going to be about penal reform in Sierra Leone but turned out to be about Male Masturbation Technique. Taken aback by the explicitness of the material, the naive Osbert fell comically in love. Since then he has romanced Mrs Ndhlovo assiduously but she, in fact already married once and from Uganda, has steadfastly refused his advances until he is ‘a proper man’ with ‘real money’. This was Osbert’s motivation for taking the job at Porterhouse, despite his many reservations.

All this is revealed to the Fellows from Osbert’s correspondence and so they concoct a comic scheme – thinking Osbert has a weakness for black women generally, they commission General D’Eath to find a black woman they can lure Osbert into bed with and photograph, and then blackmail to ensure his silence. The General fails – his old soldier friends turning out disappointingly thin on black prozzies – but he is recommended the services of an ageing white barmaid, Myrtle Ransby, the married mother of nine kids who’ll do anything for cash. So, in increasingly preposterous scenes, the General finds himself dressing – or rather laboriously squeezing – her into a PVC cat suit and then blacking up the exposed parts of her body.

A den of denouements

Of course, things dramatically worsen before anything can get better.

Osbert reconciled with Ndhlovo Unaware of the scheme to entrap him, Dr Osbert meets again with his lady love Mrs Ndhlovo, who reveals that that isn’t her name and tells a long complicated story about how she and her sister were abandoned at birth in Argentina, adopted by nuns, ran away to Europe and smuggled themselves around the Mediterranean using various stolen identities until they fetched up in England, where she mugged up on sexual peculiarities and made a living lecturing about male masturbation and female genital mutilation. Now she’s bored. She wants to be married to a Fellow at Cambridge. So the odd couple come to an understanding. In fact they become an item and the reader almost comes to think of them as real characters who are a little bit in love.

The humiliation of Sir Cathcart With his honeypot scam in place, the General posts a card inviting Osbert to a rendezvous with Myrtle, who gets all dressed up in her PVC suit in readiness – but, in a comic misunderstanding, the Senior Tutor, who is not in on the plot, is handed the invitation by the porter to pass on and, in a fit of irritation against Osbert, tears it up. Therefore Osbert never gets it, never keeps the appointment, and so Myrtle spends a humiliating night on her own in the little ‘love nest’ the General has arranged – drinking a little, then a bit more, then lots – to solace herself, waking up the next day with an appalling hangover. In this raddled state, half falling out of her PVC sex suit, she phones her cousin to come and pick her up and, when the latter has stopped laughing at her grotesque appearance, the pair drive on to Sir Cathcart’s country house. Now, to ensure maximum comic impact, the General just happens to be welcoming a selection of the county’s poshest gentry as dinner guests. In full view of the county’s finest, Myrtle storms up, fat and angry and hungover with various boobs and bulges extruding out of her PVC suit and proceeds to yell abuse at the General in front of all the guests – ‘Yes, he acts all la-di-da, but he likes fat birds in PVC painted black to look like Africans – but he stood her up and now she’s here for her money’. The General’s humiliation could not be more complete. Until the police turn up and ask him to accompany them to his little ‘love nest’ in a suburban street in Cambridge where they have discovered a wealth of sex aids and a one-way mirror with a video-camera behind it. Ooops.

This is an example of the way sexual satire no longer has the same bite. In Sharpe’s novels from the 1970s, a large part of the comedy comes from the way the curtain-twitching neighbours and the police and society at large reel in shock and horror at the protagonist’s sexual misadventures. The fact that Wilt is in ownership (by accident) of a blow up sex doll has the potential to end his career. 20 years later, when this novel was published, post-AIDS, in an era when everyone was encouraged to talk more openly about sexual practices, none of this has the same sense of shock, and therefore the risk of social stigma etc to the protagonists is hugely reduced. This explains why the scene where the police show the General all the sex equipment seems oddly muted and is very brief. This kind of thing no longer had the same charge in 1996. Now, 20 years later, post 50 Shades of Grey, it has almost no comic impact at all.

Skullion’s revenge Surprisingly, given his earlier opposition, Sir Cathcart successfully persuades Skullion to quit as Master. He is promised he can go and stay at Sir Cathcart’s country house. However, it is a trap. The ambulance which comes to collect him instead takes him off to the feared Porterhouse Park, a grim boarding house overlooking the bleak north Norfolk coast, where other super-annuated college staff have been sent to eke out their last days.

Osbert, surprised that Skullion has disappeared, discovers his fate and goes to visit him with Mrs Ndhlovo. Skullion begs to be helped to escape, so Osbert and girlfriend return with a transit van and some rope, liberate Skullion and spirit him away to a safe house in the suburbs of Cambridge. Here, in exchange for his freedom, Skullion begins dictating to the historian Osbert, an ‘alternative’ history of Porterhouse College, its history seen from the servants’ point of view, a very warts and all account. For days on end Skullion talks non-stop into a tape recorder. He dates the start of the decline in standards to after the war, when all the men who came up were returning from National Service, older, less malleable, more likely to be stroppy and ‘bolshy’.

This storyline has stopped being at all funny, but Skullion’s comments are quite interesting as social history.

A drug lord as Master There’s a world of confusion and misunderstanding among the senior staff about who knows, and doesn’t know, about Skullion being the murderer, and his stealthy removal to Porterhouse Park. To everyone’s surprise the weedy Praelector emerges as the strong man in this unclear situation and travels down to London to meet with Hartang’s lawyers and then with the foul-mouthed crime boss himself. And offers him the Mastership of the college!

The Praelector shocks the College Council with his plan at their next meeting, but by bullying and blackmail manages to swing the vote to get Hartang accepted as new Master. Hartang will get cachet and safety from the various forces pursuing him. The College will get a vast amount of money. Hartang comes down from London to check out his new domain and begins to be coached by the senior fellows on the manners and etiquette that will be required. Stop saying ‘fucksake’ all the time, for example.

British Intelligence Behind all this, Hartang wonders if there are deeper forces at work, and so does the reader. Because, coincidentally, four British intelligence officers visit him at this Canary Wharf headquarters. He agrees to co-operate with them in exposing all he knows about various drug-smuggling cartels, so long as they agree to him becoming Porterhouse Master. A week later his most dangerous enemy, one Dos Passos, is found dead in a mysterious car crash in South America. Then a load of computer disks found at Dos Passos’s house turn out to be bursting with incriminating information, their exposure all blamed on the dead man – rather than on Hartang, who was the one who in fact handed them over to the authorities. The security forces have done their job well.

None of this is particularly farcical or even comic. In fact it could come from a Frederick Forsyth novel.

Comic climax

I thought the climax of the novel would be the annual May Ball. It’s a traditional big event, we learn that security men are swarming all over it – I wouldn’t have been surprised if the South American mafia had turned up and run riot through the gayly attired undergraduates, seeking to machine gun their enemy, Hartang.

But nothing like that happens. In fact, throughout the novel the undergraduates are conspicuous by their absence. They are actually there – it is term time – but not a single one is referenced by name. the plot takes place entirely among the doddery ageing dons and senior fellows.

In fact the climax comes a week or so later when there is the grand feast to inaugurate Hartang as Master. His British security minders are protecting him in exchange for the masses of information he’s imparted about international drugs operations and the college is already benefiting from his munificence, with the chapel having extensive repairs. Osbert and Mrs Ndhlovo have finished listening to Skullion’s dizzyingly disillusioning version of the real history of Porterhouse and are busily editing the manuscript into shape.

Against this background, there is this huge feast with all the fellows and students in their gowns and regalia when, at the climax of the meal, the waiters sweep through the magnificent doors of the Grand Hall bearing vast platters carrying numerous roasted boar. Now, the Senior Staff had learned from their taping of Kudzuvine’s confessions hundreds of pages earlier, that Hartang has a loathing amounting to a phobia, a real panic-fear of pigs. Even mention of the name makes him go pale and fumble for his medication. Now, as the waiters spread out and approach the High Table bearing huge pigs at him from all sides, Hartang staggers to his feet, has a heart attack, and dies. That’s the climax of the novel.

Epilogue

Then there’s an epilogue which ties up the various storylines.

Both Skullion and the Praelector are now seen resignedly residing at the retirement home looking over the sea.

As his last act Skullion named his successor to be the Honourable Jeremy Pimpole, the appalling alcoholic who the Dean encountered early in the book. The surviving fellows put up with his boorish manners confident in the expectation that he will soon drink himself to death with the help of the college’s bottomless wine cellar.

Osbert delivers a first draft of Skullion’s history to Lady Mary’s lawyers, who both consider it so scandalous they quietly decide to suppress it. Neither Lady Mary, nor the world at large, will ever read it.

And Mrs Ndhlovo confides in a lady friend that Osbert is just too scholarly, too kind and considerate. So she is going to quietly leave him.

That’s it.


Anti-modern and anti-American

Broadly speaking, satirists tend to be conservative and right-wing in their thinking, preferring the old ways and satirising trendy new-fangled notions. This is very much how Sharpe’s earlier novels struck me. Thinking the modern world has gone to pot is part and parcel of the performance – and so the crusty old dons lament Harold Wilson’s honours list and Mrs Thatcher’s ennoblement of businessmen, the need for hospitals to treat high-spending foreigners in order to subsidise operations for long-suffering Brits, and other iniquities of the kind to be found in the pages of the Daily Mail.

More striking is the strong vein of anti-Americanism which runs through the book. Hartang and his various trusties express themselves in a harsh barely literate mafia-speak, and evince a brutal amorality, ready at a second’s notice to ring up hitmen and assassins to eliminate anyone who stands in their way. This crude criminality is combined with, especially in Kudzuvine’s case, a repellently gung-ho American chauvinism – ‘USA! USA!’. The combination provides endless opportunities for the fuddy-duddy English college officials to tut about American ‘culture’, American violence, and then wander off to discuss recent American foreign policy foul-ups, which, it is implied, arise out of its domestic violence and criminality.

Since the book was written in the early to mid-1990s, these now seem very dated, but include:

  • the Gulf War, during which US ‘friendly fire’ shot up some of our tanks and killed some of our troops
  • the US air strikes on Libya – codenamed Operation El Dorado Canyon – on 15 April 1986, which resulted in 40 Libyan civilians killed (p.208)

Sharpe punishes this crudity in the person of Kudzuvine, who starts off brashly yelling at everyone that he’s a ‘free-born citizen of the Greatest Nation on Earth’ etc etc – but is systematically reduced to a quivering wreck, at his nadir kneeling before the gibbering wheelchair bound figure of Skullion, and ending up hacking dead horses to pieces in a cat food factory. It is a deliberate humiliation of him and all he stands for – amoral billionaire American criminality.

This dislike of insufferable American chauvinism combined with its increasingly aggressive foreign policy reminds me of John le Carré’s post-Cold War novels with their growing hatred of America. Although it’s interesting, none of this is really very funny.

Sharpe died only recently, in 2013. I wonder what he made of this century’s turn of events – 9/11, the American invasion of Afghanistan, the American invasion of Iraq and other foreign policy triumphs. I wonder what his cast of comedy dons and duffers from Porterhouse would have made of it. I wonder whether these topics crop up in his final novels…


Credit

Grantchester Grind by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch by 1995. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

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.

Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobson (1982)

[Sefton] had a highly developed respect for authority and even the slightest telling off made him feel queasy. He didn’t at all like this submissive quality in himself and he tried to disguise it by barking at menials whenever he could and by bullying and frightening students, but in the still reaches of the night, when there was only him and his humiliations, he was prepared to admit that had he run into him in the street, in uniform, he would have said Sir and maybe even Heil! to Hitler. (p.126)

This is a really, really funny book. It had me weeping with laughter, laughing till my jaws hurt, at numerous places.

Howard Jacobson

Howard Jacobson (b.1942) was turning 40 as he published his first novel, Coming From Behind, in 1982. Jacobson, a Jew from Manchester, read English at Cambridge before getting a teaching post in sunny Australia, then coming back to teach at not-so-sunny Wolverhampton polytechnic. The hero of his first novel, Sefton Goldberg, is a Jew from Manchester who reads English at Cambridge, spends several happy years teaching in Australia, before making the mistake of coming back to teach in England, at the wretched, run-down, rainy ‘Wrottesley’ Polytechnic.

Jacobson arrived a little late in the genre of the ‘campus novel’ – maybe that’s one meaning of ‘coming from behind’. (Malcolm Bradbury had published what some people think of as the definitive campus novel – The History Man – in 1975, the same year as David Lodge published the hugely entertaining Changing Places; a year later Tom Sharpe published his hilarious satire, Wilt, set in a rundown polytechnic.)

Just as in all those novels, this book’s place of learning – Wrottesley Poly – is portrayed as a depressing hole, staffed by demoralised and depressed lecturers who are constantly moaning about petty-minded penny-pinching, pointless bureaucracy and the modish attempts of the authorities (the Dean or Vice Chancellor or Head) to keep up with the times (the Department of English is retitled the Department of Twentieth Century Studies, and so on), all the while holding their dim students in barely concealed contempt, and themselves in completely unconcealed contempt.

‘I know that we wouldn’t be teachers of books if we weren’t by nature sickly.’ (p.154)

The shambling anti-hero, Sefton Goldberg, hates his students so much he deliberately teaches them the wrong books, solemnly telling them that Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade is one of the most important novels of the 19th century, almost in the same league as Grasp Your Nettle by E. Lynn Linton (p.48).

The plot

Slowly, we are introduced to the nexus of relationships Sefton is embedded in:

  • the wife he is divorcing (never actually encountered)
  • his smarmy colleague, Peter Potter, always ready to politely rub in every detail of Sefton’s humiliations and embarrassments
  • Arthur Twinbarrow who specialises in all the twentieth century poets whose first or last names were Tom or Thomas, and who is permanently impoverished to pay his four children’s way through private school
  • the depressive head of his department, Charles Wenlock, who is about to leave his wife for an affair with a snivelling mature student
  • Dr Gerald Sidewinder, ‘bored as a snake’
  • the head of the whole soggy institution, Ray Grassby, who has more or less given up, and can only talk to his staff when facing the wall

There is also the stereotypical ‘man-eating’ woman academic – in this case the ultra-modern teacher of creative studies, Cora Peck, a scary apparition given to wearing blue cowboy boots, white jump suits covered in zips, and a black leather jacket with a large pair of lips on the back. Within days of her joining, Sefton takes her to a pub to chat her up, a foray which goes disastrously wrong as it emerges that she takes the students seriously, wants to share the joy of creativity with them, and despises Sefton’s cynicism. Oops.

The novel is set three years after that debacle and, whereas Cora has become a firm favourite with students who are invited back to her flat to discuss their poems and novels and plays, Sefton – embittered, yet to write anything worth publishing, depressed and angry – has come to hate her. Which makes it all the funnier when his gentile tormenter, Peter Potter, guilelessly asks Sefton to give her a lift to his – Potter’s – party that weekend.

There is a plot of sorts – the head of the polytechnic has made an improbable ‘twinning’ deal with the local football club – Wrottesley Rovers – under which some of the departments are going to be actually physically moved into the football stadium, thus making savings on overheads ‘and engaging with a whole new audience’.

And a sub-plot – the hated Cora has had a number of her works accepted by a publisher, driving Sefton into paroxysms of envy and despair, so that he accepts Potter’s suggestion of giving her a lift through gritted teeth.

And another sub-plot – Sefton is comically described as spending almost all his spare time filling in application forms for jobs, any job anywhere, anything, just to get him out of Wrottesley. Once established, this comic motif recurs with ever-increasing exaggeration and desperation, as the jobs become more preposterous – St Michael’s Agricultural College, Bath etc.

When, to his amazement, he gets a letter from a Cambridge college, saying they liked his application for the Disraeli scholarship, Sefton is thrown into a very funny panic when he realises he can’t remember what the Disraeli scholarship is, what he wrote on the application, what book he said he was working on, what whopping lies he told about his career and his (non-existent) publications, and so – desperately – on.

With much comic padding and folderol the novel arrives, in its final chapters, at the comic denouement of each of these strands:

  • The funniest sequence is an extended description of his visit to Cambridge, where once again he savours the feeling of complete and utter humiliation and embarrassment, at being a Jew in a high Christian institution, a grammar school boy in public school territory, a northerner in a posh southern location. His description of the hesitations, the inability of the locals to look you in the eye or even say hello, are hilarious. The visit goes from bad to worse as he discovers there are rivals to his application, and that they are former students of his. For example, the female student he was making love to in Australia when the postman knocked, one Helen Burns (see below). She’s not only employed at the college, she’s now its Director of Studies. During the High Table dinner which quickly descends into competitive bickering among the rivals, she – Helen – places her hand decisively on his thigh. And then on his stiffening member. Oh dear.
  • After this bravura scene, the party back at Wrottesley is a bit of a let-down: Sefton takes Cora and his enemy Fledwhite to Peter Potter’s bohemian bash. They get drunk and dance to the Beatles. Some faculty have brought their mistresses, some argue with their wives. In the middle it is interrupted by the arrival of sneaky Sidewinder who announces that the footballer whose book Sefton was, earlier in the novel, charged with reviewing – Kevin Dainty – has died in a freak accident. The merger with the local football team will be brought forward and sealed with a vast memorial tribute to him. And Sefton, to his horror, is charged with composing the Eulogy to the footballer in front of a crowd of his home fans.
  • The climax of the novel comes as Sefton steps up to the podium to address the crowd of booing football supporters, bored after a long-winded eulogy from the mayor and then from the owner of Wrottesley Rovers, and then a dire poem from Gerald Sidewinder. But this is the moment Sefton has been looking forward to all his life. As Jacobson has told us, in an earlier double-edged joke, Sefton ‘was as sentimental as Hitler about applause and crowds.’ (p.61) Which is why it has to be that the great moment is ruined when the disgruntled activist Fledwhite emerges from the crowd and pelts Sidewinder – whose idea it was to ‘twin’ with the football club – with eggs and tomatoes, thus causing the police to intervene. Fledwhite flees across the football pitch, eluding the cops, and completely ruining Sefton’s Great Moment.

Comedy

But the novel is less concerned with plotlines than with exploring topics or moments which provide Jacobson the opportunity to unleash his comic skills and reduce his anti-hero to a weeping wreck.

Thus the disastrous seduction of Cora is a typical scene in which two minds, two personalities, clash horribly and Sefton’s cocksure swagger is systematically deflated. In another scene he has a hilariously ineffectual confrontation with a bunch of Geography lecturers, outraged that he has parked his beaten-up old Anglia in their section of the ghastly car park behind the Poly.

The tone of the whole novel is set by the opening scene in which he recalls the moment, in sunny happy Australia, when he was making love to a female student (Helen Burns) on the floor of his office when the door – which he had forgotten to lock – swings open and there stands the university postman with a full view of Sefton in flagrente. Being Australian, the postman is only disconcerted for a moment before stepping forward and wedging Sefton’s post deftly between his clenched buttocks, before retiring and closing the door. That is our man Sefton in a snapshot: even at the height of human ecstasy, he manages to get himself elaborately and comprehensively humiliated.

The scene that made me weep with laughter is when Sefton is called in by the depressed Head of the Poly, Ray Grassley, who – in a moment of Dickensian brilliance – Jacobson describes as so manically furtive that he always looks as if he’s about to burgle his own office. Every glance, every shifty movement, seems fraught with intent to stash the sideboard under his jacket or stuff a pot plant into his pocket and tiptoe out. Which makes it quite hard to discuss anything serious with him. And makes it very difficult for Sefton to take it seriously when the Head announces that he – Sefton – is being asked, well, told, to write a glowing review of the sex’n’soccer novel by the captain of the local football team, Kevin Dainty, aptly titled Scoring.

Other sequences which don’t really have anything to do with the plot, but advance the text by deepening Sefton’s fathomless sense of failure and humiliation include: a detailed account of his lifelong rivalry with the only other Jew at his school who didn’t go on to study law or dentistry, Godfrey Jelley, who first triumphed by writing chatty accounts of his teas with the stars (Richard Burton, Morecambe and Wise, Mohammed Ali) for a posh Sunday paper – something Sefton was able to dismiss as superficial tinselry – before changing brand altogether and going with a crew of actresses and celebrities to a ‘retreat’ deep in the desert, seeking ‘the silence beyond language’ where they could find themselves – resulting in a bestselling book, radio, TV coverage etc. Sefton’s rage and jealousy go beyond ordinary bounds into new areas of emotional extremity.

It is a typical riff that even now, seven years after arriving, Sefton hasn’t unpacked many of his bags or boxes, refuses to sleep in the bed only on it and only buys small amounts of groceries – because he refuses to accept that this dismal dump is his actual residence, that he lives here, that his life measures who he is.

Almost inevitably, the dismal house where he rents a squalid flat is known as Paradise Apartments. A comic couple live downstairs: in one flat the tiny Fiona McHenry regularly plays hostess to her Chinese boyfriend, the evenings always following the same routine as, first the aroma of fried liver and onions wafts up through Sefton’s floorboards, then the sound of fabrics being disrobed and then the start of epic sex sessions, accompanied by cacophonous shrieks and screams and whimpers, astonishing that they emanate from such a tiny figure.

The racket is so loud that Fiona’s neighbour, long-term unemployed ‘artist’ Ron Penn, routinely puts on his Tom Jones LP and turns the volume up REALLY LOUD, with the result that Sefton’s bed vibrates to the din. If anyone visits him during these sessions, they have to YELL at each other to be heard over the strains of Delilah and The Green Green Grass of Home.

Being Jewish

A major element in Sefton’s character is the consciousness of being an outsider – an outsider to the English, to their love of nature, to their brutal sports and love of getting drunk – and a lot of this is attributed to his being Jewish. On one level, there is little point commenting on Sefton or Jacobson’s Jewishness, since the author is determined to pack as many observations about Jewishness into the book as possible. For example, these quotes are from just the first chapter, of about 28 pages:

… and because he was Jewish and short and knew all the answers they [the girls he taught in Australia] loved him (p.9)

Not being a poofter himself, but being Jewish, which is worse… (p.11)

Not that Norman Shorthall [husband of the woman Sefton is screwing as the novel opens] could ever have imagined, even in his blackest moments of fear and fantasy, what goatish Jew, initiate of secret rites and rituals, would at the eleventh hour do the deed of darkness with his wife. (p.11)

He had picked up from an Oxfam shop a Jewish Year Book which gave the Jewish population of every town in Britain which had a Jewish population, and by Jewish population they sometimes meant no more than seven families, and a synagogue in a tent – but Winchester did not even make the list. So it wasn’t going to be home-from-home exactly, and the residents were not likely to be hanging the Israeli flag or their daughters from their bedroom windows to welcome Sefton. But the warfare would be fairly open. (p.13)

They were the only two Jewish boys in the school who were planning to go to university to study something other than dentistry or law. (p.15)

When Sefton Goldberg took his degree there was still only one Educational Supplement and a Jewish boy from Cambridge could still count himself somebody. (p.16)

Despite taking advantage of his female students (or being taken advantage of, by them – he never really worked it out) on a scale that anyone who wasn’t Jewish or Welsh could ever possibly understand the need for… (p.16)

He was used to temptation and, being Jewish, he was used to a quick capitulation to it… (p.18)

His envy was rapacious and did not discriminate on the grounds of race, colour, creed, age or sex. It simply hurt more if the object were his age, male, and Jewish. (p.22)

Being Jewish, Sefton didn’t know much about the names or breeds or needs of fish. (p.24)

He had a gift of droll lugubriousness which he employed to damp his Jewishness so that it shouldn’t be too much of a trial for Peter Potter. He knew that he was the first Jew Peter had ever struck up a friendship with and he wanted to make the experience easy for him. (p.25)

He often struck Sefton as resembling a little English garden bird, though which garden bird Sefton Goldberg, being Jewish, couldn’t be expected to know. (p.26)

Jewish men, as a rule, weren’t hot on reverence. They went in, of course, for unashamedly public wife worship, but that was another thing entirely. Sefton Goldberg had been a Jewish husband once and although he hadn’t gone quite as far as public wife worship himself he could see how he might have. It was a necessary act of contrition and atonement. For never finally being able to renounce the world for the woman who had renounced the world for you. Being Jewish, you simply couldn’t give up your collusion with other men. (p.27)

But marriage acquainted him with unimaginable self-reproach. He accused himself even more energetically married than he had abused himself single. In the matrimonial life of the Jewish male every day is Yom Kippur. Sefton Goldberg’s super-Jewish squeamishness about intimate marriage talk…(p.28)

After a couple of mouthfuls Peter and Miranda Potter would lay down their cutlery and stare across the table as Sefton chewed and raved and sighed and allowed the juices to run down his chin onto his shirt. It was the least he could do. It was his way of saying thank you for the meal and of making his Jewishness harmless to those who had been brave enough to let it into their home. (p.30)

She [Cora Peck, teacher of creative writing] hated Peter Potter for hating her and she hated Sefton Goldberg because he goaded her, because he knew how to make her scream, because he closed his mind to innovatory structures, and because – although she did not know this was why she hated him – because he was Jewish. (p.32)

There’s a lot more where that came from, throughout the book.

1. It seems to me unlikely that all Jews know nothing about football or beer or birds or nature: much more likely that the numerous sentences which start ‘Being Jewish, Sefton…’ and then make swinging generalisations about all Jews, are a comic routine. Consider for a moment whether you’d want to apply any of the generalisations Sefton and/or Jacobson make about Jews to the actual Jews you meet in real life? No.

2. Leaving to one side whether the scores and scores of observations about Jewishness which occur on almost every page bear any relationship to Jewishness ‘in the real world’, in the novel they have multiple functions:

  • To emphasise Sefton’s outsiderness: the fact that he views the ways of ‘the gentiles’ as strange, brutal or inexplicable emphasises his comic ‘predicament’, in which he is permanently anxious that everything he says or does is somehow wrong.
  • An outsiderness which, paradoxically, sometimes bolsters the priggish sense of superiority he shows vis-a-vis his students, colleagues, bosses and other staff e.g. the argument in the car park with the geographers, who correctly identify his aloof air of superiority (though this might have more to do with the pompous way English was regarded at Cambridge in the 1960s, when F.R. Leavis was still teaching there, i.e. as the most important subject in the world).
  • But more often than not the references to Jewishness emphasise the exact opposite, Sefton’s craven abjectness e.g.:
    • The sequence describing how his Jewish parents went into a panic whenever there was a knock at the door, as if it was the Gestapo arriving for Anne Frank, and how that still explains Sefton’s bursting into a sweat of fear whenever he hears a knock at the door.
    • There is a disconcerting sequence where he emphasises that he eats like a pig in order to justify his gentile hosts’ stereotypes in order to make them feel more at home with his Jewishness. This reveals multiple layers of discomfort and cravenness beneath which lies a sort of aggression. I think the way it works is because Jacobson is always deflecting this permanent anxiety into aggressive over-compensation which is then sublimated into comic channels.
  • Quite often he uses his Jewishness as a stereotype against which to smash expectations, as a straw man to knock down with unexpected punchlines.
  • And sometimes he uses Jewishness to create exaggerated, almost grotesque jokes. Comedy which is also full of howling pain. For example:

‘It is pretty well-established now that the Gestapo was never fully operational in Manchester in the 1950s. But that did not prevent Sefton Goldberg’s early years from seeming every bit as fraught as Anne Frank’s.’ (p.160)

Words words words

The text’s hyper-consciousness of Sefton’s dizzying and self-punishing self-awareness sometimes expresses itself as detailed investigation of specific words and the ways people say them and invest them with meaning. I found these dazzling and riveting.

Deplored After the 65-year-old ineffectual department head has deplored the proposed move to the football stadium, the narrator goes on:

Deplored. It was his favourite word. It offered to do battle but it sounded instead a glorious retreat. It was one of his wailing sighs made articulate. (p.54)

Willed In the car park Sefton confronts a group of angry geographers after he inadvertently parked his car in their section! and finds his car windscreen plastered with leaflets and his tyres let down. One of the threatening geographers mocks him.

‘Now ‘oo’s done that to you, son? Oo’s let your tyres down?’
‘You might as well have. You willed it.’
‘Willed?’ Haslemere held up Sefton’s word by one corner and showed it to his colleagues. It might have been an item of fine silk underwear handed around a bar room.
‘Not a word you know?’ enquired Sefton, in the vain hope that it might be given back. (p.68)

You A few pages later the skinny, feeble looking ringleader of the gang, one Walter Sickert Fledwhite, emerges to confront Sefton wearing a donkey jacket festooned with the badges of political causes.

‘I’m not talking about your department,’ interrupted Fledwhite, advancing behind his outstretched finger as if it had a motor of its own and were dragging him after it. ‘I’m not talking about anyone else. I’m talking about you!’
Sefton had never before heard the little pronoun sound so shockingly persona. It seemed to come up from somewhere deep and most unpleasant in Fledwhite’s body. Sefton felt as if he had been spat at by a consumptive. (p.71)

Masturbation

He had long ago decided that masturbation was so irredeemably ugly a word that it should never be used; but Cora was able to reveal levels of bleakness and desolation in it which even Sefton didn’t know it possessed. On her lips it evoked all of humanity’s most damp and inglorious physical ills: it evoked rheumatism and sciatica and rickets and artificial limbs and trusses and congested passages and the thousand unwelcome juices and fluids which made men cold and wet and full of dismal needs. (pp.93-94)

There are many more comic meditations on individual words which lift and burnish them with a hilariously miserable magnificence.

Conclusion

Although the downtrodden, hen-pecked, over-educated, cynical, sexually frustrated literature lecturer is a stock stereotype of our times, in this début novel Jacobson imbues the character with a comic ferocity, with an imaginative and verbal force, which completely justify the effort. This is a bloody funny book.


Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer and frustrated lecher, Sefton Goldberg, trapped in the seedy environs of Wrottesley Polytechnic in the rainy Midlands. Saddled with argumentative colleagues, noisy neighbours and the mad scheme of merging the poly with the local football club, can Sefton escape all this when he is invited to interview for the job of his dreams at Cambridge?
1984 Peeping Tom –
1986 Redback –
1992 The Very Model of a Man –
1998 No More Mister Nice Guy –
1999 The Mighty Walzer –
2002 Who’s Sorry Now? –
2004 The Making of Henry –
2006 Kalooki Nights –
2008 The Act of Love, Cape –
2010 The Finkler Question –
2012 Zoo Time –
2014 J –

Wilt On High by Tom Sharpe (1984)

‘And don’t get the idea I’m on a right-wing, flog ’em and hang ’em reactionary high because I’m not… I’m just mister stick-in-the-middle who doesn’t know which way to jump.’ (p.138)

Third outing for Henry Wilt, bilious lecturer and Head of Liberal Studies at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology (‘the Tech’). The brilliant first novel (Wilt, 1976) rotated around the consequences of Wilt’s mishaps with a blow-up sex doll, which managed to spawn enough comic consequences to fill a book. This one, like later Sharpe generally, has its moments but struggles to be as funny.

The plot

Dead junkie A student dies of a heroin overdose at the college (straightaway, not that funny), prompting panic among the various time-serving lecturers and officials. Wilt is inadvertently involved because it was his secretary who reported seeing the young girl shooting up in the ladies loo, prompting Wilt to go running to the nearest toilets, where there is no junky but an outraged female Physical Exercise lecturer, who accuses Wilt of being a peeping Tom. She assaults him very violently and makes an official complaint. (Later, too late, Wilt’s secretary tells him she meant the upstairs toilets. Oops.)

A little later the poor girl is found dead in the boiler room and the police called. Turns out she is the daughter of Lord Lynchknowle, a cold-hearted aristocrat who doesn’t care much but has to make a show of grief to placate his ghastly wife, and so asks his good chum, the Home Secretary, to bring pressure to bear on the Chief Constable to sort out the drug problem in the county.

‘Fireworks’ Harry Wilt, meanwhile, has been picking up extra money by giving tuition to prisoners at Ipford prison. When a particularly unpleasant crook (‘Fireworks’ Harry McCullum, p.60) gets angry with Wilt, threatening to break out to come and ‘do’ him, a shaken Wilt – a few hours later from the safety of his local pub – phones the governor to ask if there’s been a breakout. It’s a bad line and the governor thinks Wilt has inside knowledge that there’s about to be a breakout and he moves to the prison to battle stations. All the prisoners on the higher floors are transferred down into the already cramped lower cells, prompting actual outbreaks of violence, fights and mattress burning. The over-officious Chief Warden decides to issue double strength tranquilisers to the inmates in their cocoa, which has the unfortunate result of killing ‘Fireworks’ Harry when he drinks his own and his cellmates’ portions.

Bugging Wilt The prison authorities find a load of heroin in Harry’s mattress and decide to hush up the tranquiliser angle and emphasise the illegal drugs. Which brings things to the attention of the local constabulary. Here, Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, always on the lookout for ways to nail Wilt, stumbles on the idea of giving all this incriminating evidence (Wilt somehow involved with the dead student, Wilt giving tuition to the dead convict) to the stupid, over-ambitious head of the drug squad, Inspector Hodge. Hodge, along with his idiot sidekick Sergeant Runk, promptly bugs Wilt’s house and car, from that point onwards misinterpreting everything which happens in the (admittedly bizarre) Wilt household, as further evidence incriminating Wilt, who ends up seeming like a drug-smuggling criminal mastermind.

Painful penis In a separate plotline Wilt’s wife had been persuaded by her friend the militant feminist, Mavis Mottram, to pay a visit to a disreputable herbalist, Dr Kores, seeking a remedy for Wilt’s low sex drive. She slips the resulting potion into Wilt’s home brew, which he drinks rather too much of after a crappy day at work with the result that, for the rest of the novel, Wilt’s penis gives him a lot of trouble – at first burning, then feeling like it is full of broken glass, then marching ants.

There’s an archetypal ‘Sharpe’ scene where the pain drives Wilt to go down to the kitchen in the middle of the night desperate for any kind of relief, in his desperation even using Eva’s icing cake syringe to try and inject cream up his penis. It is at this unfortunate moment that Eva walks in and catches him – which is bad enough – but he’s in the middle of explaining his behaviour to his wife when his four daughters burst in and see their daddy in this compromising position! Even after a few days, the painful penis is still liable to go to full erection at the drop of a hat – or the bending over of a pretty woman.

US Air Force It is in this state – liable to instant hard-ons at the most embarrassing moments and in a car stuffed full of bugging devices – that Wilt motors off to the nearby US Air Force Base, Baconheath, to deliver his regular Friday evening lecture about British culture. Except the base security officers locate the sonic devices planted by Inspector Hodge in Wilt’s car and, while he is lecturing, call a full scale security alert, sending in a SWAT team with immobilising gas (the new and experimental ‘Agent Incapacitating’) which sends lecturer and audience into a drug-induced delirium.

Interrogation Wilt comes round to find himself being interrogated by the dim but madly ambitious Major Glaushof who is convinced he is a Soviet spy and threatens him with such violence that Wilt eagerly co-operates, supplying him with the names of fake Russian contacts. Meanwhile, the much more sensible Head of Intelligence, Colonel Urwin, works out the truth that Wilt is under surveillance by the local cops.

But not before, in a characteristically wild scene, Glaushof takes Wilt back to his house to ever so cunningly get him seduced by Glaushof’s randy wife, dolled up for the occasion in bra, stockings and suspenders. Mrs Glaushof enters into the spirit of the thing much too enthusiastically, locking the bedroom door and taking Wilt’s swollen penis in hand, at which point the Major tries to abort proceedings, banging loudly on the door. As his wife manoeuvres herself to sit on Wilt’s face, the latter in disgusted desperation bites her thigh, drawing blood, at which she goes for the service pistol kept in the bedroom, shooting wildly through the door and injuring her own husband in the shoulder, before Wilt clobbers her with the bedside table.

When the unhappy trio are dragged before the base commandant (nickname: ‘old B52’), he is not impressed and swings behind Colonel Urwin’s more boring interpretation of Wilt’s innocence.

Mothers Against The Bomb Meanwhile Eva, sick with worry about her missing Henry, makes enquiries and is upset to discover Henry’s been deceiving her about teaching at the USAAF base: he told her he was teaching at the prison on Friday nights. Eva’s friend, Mavis Mottram puts the blackest possible interpretation on this deceit, accusing Wilt of visiting a mistress there (whereas Wilt simply didn’t want to prompt an anti-nuclear, anti-American diatribe from his trendy lefty wife). After driving out to the base and being turned away at the gate, Eva returns more determined, along with the quadruplets, and co-ordinating her arrival with Mavis calling up coachloads of ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’, the anti-nuclear pressure group, and arranging for local TV, radio  and journalists to report on the ‘protest’.

While the Mothers set up loudspeakers and start dancing the can-can, the quads attack guards who have come unwisely near them with a variety of home-made weapons, seizing their guns and then managing to threaten the driver of an oil tanker into pouring a massive slick of oil over the entrance gates. Think the mayhem of a St Trinians movie. The oil causes Major Glaushof’s car to skid and crash into the fencing, while the Attack Alert siren is set off, and the redoubtable Eva lays into the troops trying to restrain her. The whole riotous scene climaxes in the Mothers setting off an enormous inflatable penis – a symbol of the oppressive patriarchy – to float serenely over the chaotic scenes below and which, at the click of a switch, sheds its its skin to reveal underneath an enormous (balloon) nuclear missile. It’s at  this moment that dim Inspector Hodge arrives in a police car which skids over the oil and crashes into the TV vans.

Wilt was being questioned by the relatively benign camp commander when all this breaks out and it is he who – as in his previous novels – suddenly shows a burst of common-sense heroism. Into the mayhem he wades, retrieving his wife and daughters from the gatehouse and is joined by the practical Colonel Urwin who hustles them over to a waiting helicopter which, in moments, flies them high up over the scene and away to peaceful Ipford. As they alight in a field well clear of the base:

In the distance there was a sudden flash and a small ball of flame. Major Glaushof had fired a tracer round into Mavis Mottram’s inflated penis. (p.246)

Aftermath A short epilogue ties up all the loose ends: Wilt is back at the Tech. After fraught negotiations between US lawyers and MI5, Wilt and Eva agree to sign the Official Secrets Act in return for secret damages from the Americans, which Wilt uses to pay for a quarter of a million pounds worth of books for the Tech, from a supposedly ‘anonymous’ donor, but credited to Wilt’s influence. The Principal is gutted. He’ll never get rid of Wilt now.

Hodge is busted back to sergeant and Inspector Flint emerges as not such a shouty stereotype after all: quietly in the background he had been tracking down the real circle of heroin smugglers, work he shows to the Chief Constable who is duly impressed, even if he doesn’t realise that Flint is now going to get his convictions by framing the guilty men, planting heroin and equipment at their homes…

Mavis’s ‘Mothers Against The Bomb’ shoot to nationwide fame after TV pictures show them being gassed and dragged about by brutal US guards, and women flock from all over Britain to set up a ‘peace camp’ outside Baconheath. ‘Old B52’ never recovers from the sight of a giant penis morphing into a floating nuke and is retired early to a rest home for the demented in Arizona. And so peace returns to Ipford and the Wilt household. Until his next adventure…


Penises and Police

are both stock features of Sharpe’s savage satires. His first (and arguably best) novel, Riotous Assembly, is a madcap satire on the South African police and features their burly leader, Kommandant van Heerden, being tied up, dressed in plastic fetish outfit by a perverted old lady and threatened with having a syringe of novocaine plunged in his penis. In the sequel, Indecent Exposure, the ambitious but dim Luitenant Verkramp has the mad idea of attaching the entire police force’s penises to electrodes and giving them electric shocks at the sight of naked black women, in a crazed attempt to cut down on miscegenation.

The plot of Blott leads to the involvement of the police and then the Army in the bizarre goings-on at Handyman Hall, and a good deal of the first Wilt novel consists of the prolonged (and comically frustrated) interrogation of Wilt by Inspector Flint. The Throwback involves the police being called in to besiege Flawse Hall in Northumberland before the tremendous scene where various sections of the Army open fire on each other in the explosive climax at the Close. The Wilt Alternative shows the shambolic police handling the kidnap of Wilt and his wife by international terrorists, though the early section dwells long on Wilt’s penis after he has a drunken pee in a rose bush and badly gashes it, resulting in comic visits to his doctor and hospital.

This quick review suggests that it’s a close run thing, but although penises supply a useful comic topic of embarrassment, pain, shame and humiliation, in the long run it’s the police and the army which seem the most consistent feature of Sharpe’s satires. Again and again the protagonists – the unwitting victims of wildly improbable sequences of events – are hauled in for prolonged and humiliating interrogation at the hands of the authorities.

Is this because Sharpe has a Hitchcock-like fear of the police, or because there is something fundamentally comic about the Interrogation of an Innocent Man by Incompetent Cops?


Hysteria instead of comedy

Early on in the novel an observer from the Ministry of Education visits to monitor teaching at the college prompting the ever-obstinate Wilt to quickly become obstructive and abusive. Pages later Wilt’s nemesis on the local police force, Inspector Flint, meets his doctor to discuss his problems with his waterworks. Neither situation is particularly funny and nothing particularly funny happens. What does happen is the characters swiftly become seething with anger and aggression, start swearing and insulting everyone they can think of.

… a sense of grievance against Henry fucking Wilt… Wilt had buggered his career… The little sod was sitting pretty… and a right smart-arse he was too… the number of brainy bastards… ‘I don’t want any more of the piss pills… The bleeding things are dehydrating me. I’m on the bloody trot all the time… I’m not some bleeding dog you know… Fucking awful is all I know… have a prick parade and  ask the victims to go along studying cocks… I couldn’t get the fucking thing up even if I wanted to…’ (pp.29-32)

And so on and so on, almost all the characters effing and blinding, routinely referring to each other as sods and buggers and bastards, throughout the book. I’ve got nothing against swearwords, I enjoy them when deployed with style, but these characters are swearing at each other for no real reason. In the first half of the book, at least, there is a gap between the unnecessary maliciousness of the language and the relatively banal, not to say boring, underlying situations.

For me that gap lasts throughout the book, which is written in a frenzied style, describing characters constantly going off the deep end, effing and blinding at each other – when the storyline and the scenes don’t really justify it. Only in the last quarter of the book, the scenes set in the USAAF base, does the mayhem of the plot catch up with the profanity of the swearing when, ironically, the swearing actually drops off, as if it’s not needed; as if the madcap plot is now enough.

Sharpe’s earlier novels concocted fantastic, farcical, grotesque scenarios which fully justified their characters’ hysteria and mania. In the later novels the scenarios tend to lag behind the characters’ frenzied language. Put another way: although the storylines reliably build up to grotesque climaxes, it is jarring that the characters start at an unnecessarily high pitch; it would be more effective if the characters’ swearing crept in, if previously restrained people started losing it in proportion to their world going to pieces.


Social history

Only intermittently funny – at least until the climactic fiasco – the novel is often more as interesting as a record of social attitudes seen through the eyes of a rather right-wing, 56-year-old, public school-educated man. What’s most striking for me is the way so many of these issues are still with us:

  • Crisis in higher education It’s a time of austerity and the college faces swingeing cuts.
  • Bureaucracy Wilt is driven to distraction by endless meetings which generate long pointless documents full of impenetrable management speak about ‘aims’ and ‘values’.
  • Feminism Eva Wilt’s friend Mavis Mottram is a militant feminist constantly lecturing Eva about the awfulness of men, about evil multinational corporations, about the wickedness of the wars men start and the weapons of mass destruction they have created, never losing an opportunity to point out the everyday sexism of the book’s male characters.
  • Kids education Wilt is impoverishing himself and working overtime to pay fees to send his four daughters – the fiendish quadruplets – to a School for the Mentally Gifted, lacking faith in the state education system.
  • Computers Wilt jokes that the kids are better at computers than the adults, in fact worries that his girls are addicted to their computers.
  • Porn Eva and Wilt discuss (well, shout at each other about) the tide of video nasties and pornographic filth washing over the country.
  • Drugs Although, as with other Sharpe novels, the initial plot is soon lost sight of, the whole book does start off being about a tragic death from a heroin overdose and Flint’s detective work tracking down the drug smuggling ring continues right up to the last pages.

It’s as if, in the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a kind of hinge or turn in history, and a lot of ‘issues’, along with related stock social ‘types’, first appeared – trendy lefties, strident feminists, tiresome vegetarians, environmental activists, anti-nuclear marchers, alongside social features like the widespread availability of drugs (producing the stock figure of the ‘junkie’) and the proliferation of hard-core pornography.

These don’t appear in the fiction of the 1940s, 50s and early 60s – but have been permanent features of newspapers, magazines and middle class conversation ever since the 1970s, ‘issues’ and social types which have been with us for at least forty years, but – and this is the really puzzling thing – are continually treated as if unprecedented, front page news.


Author’s message

Right at the end of the book, as the helicopter lifts Wilt, Eva and the terrible quads high above the fray, Wilt has a moment of insight, an epiphany, which we can’t help but reading as also reflecting Sharpe’s view. It’s worth quoting at length for at least two reasons:

a) it’s a reminder that, although he pokes fun at trendy lefty lecturer, at feminists etc, Sharpe can’t be easily pigeon-holed as a right-wing writer; his satire, his contrarianism, is more wide-ranging than that;

b) it shows the mental pressure, the weight of anxiety, that the threat of nuclear war pressed down on everyone who lived through those years, and especially the sense of heightened fear that characterised the era of President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher, when many, maybe most, people genuinely thought there might be a world-annihilating nuclear war. (For some reason I think of Raymond Briggs’ deliberately shocking animation, When the Wind Blows, 1982. Or compare with the other novel from 1984 I’ve just read, Frederick Forysth’s The Fourth Protocol, which boils down to a plot to detonate a nuclear weapon at a US Air Force base in Suffolk and also features a march by largely female peace protestors. It is interesting to compare Forsyth’s attitude to these women – unmitigated contempt – with Sharpe, who sympathises with them.)

Ten minutes later Wilt looked down from a thousand feet at the pattern of runways and roads, buildings and bunkers and at the tiny group of women being carried from the gate to waiting ambulances. For the first time he felt some sympathy for Mavis Mottram. For all her faults she had been right to pit herself against the banal enormity of the airbase. The place had all the characteristics of a potential extermination camp. True, nobody was being herded into gas chambers and there was no smoke rising from crematoria. But the blind obedience to orders was there, instilled in Glaushof and even in Colonel Urwin. Everyone in fact, except Mavis Mottram and the human chain of women at the gate. The others would all obey orders if the time came and the real holocaust would begin. And this time there would be no liberators, no successive generations to erect memorials to the dead or learn lessons from past horrors. There would be only silence. The wind and the sea the only voices left. (p.245)

Reading both books made me realise how completely this terrible anxiety has disappeared from the culture of our time, 2015, and how impossible it is to convey what it felt like to anyone who didn’t live through it.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, illustrated by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Wilt on High, 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 shows: top left Ipford prison where Wilt starts a riot; middle left Mothers Against The Bomb doing the can-can; bottom left a canister of Agent Incapacitating releasing clouds of gas which have knocked out a couple of the nice ladies who attend Wilt’s lectures at USAF Baconheath; at right the frenzied faces of the US security officers during the climactic riot, one of them being lustily kneed in the balls by an outraged Eva Wilt; all dominated by the figure of Wilt, the skinny terrified man being mounted by Major Glaushof’s randy wife, at his feet the icing-cake syringe which he used to try and inject moisturising cream up his penis, and the revolver with which she shoots her own husband, and over it all the image of the giant penis-balloon shedding its skin to become a nuclear missile. It’s a mad world.

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.

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)

Why couldn’t they leave him alone? Why couldn’t every single one of them without exception whatsoever just go right away from where he was and leave him alone? (p.92)

This is Kingsley Amis’s first novel, published in 1954 when he was 32 (b.1922 south London), the comedy classic which made his name, giving voice to a post-war generation dissatisfied with the pompous provincialism of English life and rebelling against its smug narrowness. It led Amis to be included in the crop of writers labelled with the catch-all journalistic phrase, ‘Angry Young Men’, coined a few years later in light of the fuss around John Osborne’s famous play.

Lucky Jim

James Dixon is a short, round-faced young history lecturer struggling with his first job in an unnamed redbrick college. He is a fraud, having chosen the Medieval module in his history degree at Leicester University simply because it was the easiest course, then finding himself nervously emphasising it in the interview for the current job, then quietly horrified to find himself appointed the Medieval History specialist, all the while knowing nothing and caring even less about the subject.

The novel follows a few weeks in his harassed life, as he struggles to manage relations with just about every other human being in sight – the colleagues who politely despise him, his unbearably vague and high-minded boss, Professor Welch, and Welch’s wife and equally insufferable son, bearded self-satisfied artist Bertrand, not to mention the neurotic mousey young woman, Margaret, he’s somehow found himself lumbered with.

As soon as smug Bertrand enters the room accompanied by a trim, big-bosomed young woman named Christine, I suspected the ‘plot’ would be Jim and her falling in love and sure enough that’s what happens – but not without many ‘madcap’ incidents intervening along the way.

Fakery and philistinism

Dixon is a robust, beer-loving, woman-fancying philistine. His idea of hell is being trapped at his professor’s for a weekend of arty conversation and classical singing, which is exactly what happens in the first major event of the plot. The effete pretentiousness of the arty milieu is signalled by the Welch family fondness for performing madrigals accompanied by the recorder.

On the first evening Dixon manages to sneak away from the music-making to the pub, where he heartily downs 7 or 8 pints before sneaking back into the Welch domicile, taking a swig from a bottle of port for good measure. Unsurprisingly, he passes out on his guest bed with a lighted cigarette in his hand which burns through the blankets and sheets. His frantic efforts next morning to hide the evidence are pretty funny – funny but bring to mind the fact that Amis became an alcoholic in later life.

Similarly, the famous climax of the novel is Dixon delivering the long-threatened public lecture which hangs over him for the whole story, not only to College staff and students but to every important official in the town – completely drunk. It is a tour de force of descriptive writing, conveying the confusion, delirium, fatigue and bewilderment of deep intoxication – but it is also embarrassing and, somehow, humiliating. Dixon’s habit of impersonating everyone he knows, plus various made-up characters, comes back to bite him as he finds himself unable to remember his own voice, instead condemned to deliver the lecture in a series of impressions – of his boss, of the painter Bertrand, finally of a demented Nazi stormtrooper (!), before he passes out on stage. The students up in the gallery cheer and clap wildly; the Mayor and Lady Mayoress look on in stunned silence.

So both the most memorable moments in the novel are about drinking yourself unconscious. Might be funny in your 20s, the stuff of comically exaggerated anecdotes – less so in your 60s.

Anyway, I like medieval polyphony and renaissance music. It is a welcome relief from the boom-boom of our own times. Not only does Dixon not like it but – like the very subject he’s supposed to be teaching students, medieval history – he’s not even interested in it. The pub, smoking fags, reading cheap fiction, going to the flics, are what he really wants to do and what – by implication – he assumes his no-nonsense young rebellious readers want to do, too.

Dixon’s permanent panic at being ‘found out’, at being revealed to know next to nothing about the subject he’s meant to be teaching, underlies his his entire personality, and the novel.

He is afraid of his boss – the vague Professor – uneasy with his students – particularly the genuinely scholarly Michie who keeps asking Dixon for a reading list which the latter keeps failing to prepare, simply because he’s unable to – and the recurrent panic attacks about having to write the fateful end-of-term lecture about ‘Merrie Englande’.

At university in the early 1980s I heard plenty of stories about lecturers hired in the 1950s with only a shaky grasp of their subject, whose students never got a First. Ha ha ha, very funny – but also pitiful and also an indictment.

Hell is other people – alienation in Lucky Jim

It was in the 1950s that French existentialism in the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre became fashionable among bohemians and students. Somewhere I read Amis making a typically dismissive comment about pretentious foreign philosophy, zeroing in on Sartre’s quotable quote that ‘Hell is other people’, saying the chap had simply reversed the obvious fact that ‘other people are hell’.

This quote stuck in my mind as I reread Lucky Jim. It’s most salient feature is the almost incapacitating hyper-self-consciousness of the narrator. He is panic-stricken at almost every interaction with another human being, in a way which is eerily reminiscent of the protagonist of Sartre’s first novel, La Nausée (1938).

Dixon caught her eye, and although it held nothing for him he wanted to cast himself down behind the protective wall of skirts and trousers, or, better, pull the collar of his dinner-jacket over his head and run out into the street. (p.107)

Panic Even mild encounters, eg with colleagues over the breakfast table at his digs, are recorded like barely manageable assaults on his senses. Full-scale social events – like the arty weekend at the Professor’s or the rather feeble Summer Ball – send him into frenzies of anxiety.

Dixon experienced a return of the ill feeling he’d had some minutes before. Then he found his thoughts being blindly swept along by panic. (p.218)

The repeated wish, in numerous scenes, is to run, run far away from these scenes of confrontation and anxiety. A fair amount of the comedy derives from the narrator’s permanent panic about other people, and he panics about them because he can’t read them. He has an almost Asperger’s level inability to relate to or understand other people.

Dixon fell silent again, reflecting, not for the first time, that he knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about other people. (p.123)

Hyper-perception People don’t even have to say anything to give him the heebie-jeebies; he registers just their physical existence with a too-great, a too-detailed intensity:

Dixon looked again at Bertrand’s eyes. They really were extraordinary: it seemed as if a sheet of some patterned material were tacked to the inside of his face, showing only at two arbitrary loopholes. (p.47)

When she spoke again he noticed something else: that the whiteness and regularity of her top teeth gave place to a black gap beyond the canines. He felt uncomfortable again… (p.123)

The body baleful This hyper-awareness extends to his own body: the text features an unremitting record of Dixon’s own sense of the continual changes in mood and feeling within his own body, experienced with a ghostly detachment, as if happening to a stranger:

Dixon felt desire abruptly flooding his entire frame with an immense fatigue, as if he’d been struck by a bullet in some vital spot… Dixon was beginning to do what he’d have described as ‘feeling his age’… How hot it was and how his legs ached… The noise was enormous; every time it rose to a maximum Dixon felt sweat start out on his chest as if it were being physically squeezed out of him… (pp.118-120) … Stage-fright was upon him now; his hands were cold and damp, his legs felt like flaccid rubber tubes filled with fine sand, he had difficulty in controlling his breathing. (p.220)

His body is experienced as an enemy, an antagonist to his trapped, sweating consciousness, conveying to his experiencing mind a relentless assortment of puzzling and unexpected sensations. At high moments of hysteria, his own body becomes a mystery to him and he approaches a Sartrean level of alienation from his own being or what ‘it’ might do next:

How could he stand up there in front of them all and try to talk? What further animal noises would come out of  his mouth if he did? (p.223)

Dixon rose slowly from the bamboo table. What noise could he make to express his frenzy of hilarious awe? (p.234)

Other people Meanwhile, ‘out there’, is a whole world of ‘other people’, all with apparently malevolent designs on Dixon’s life and career. If he worries over brief dialogues, panics over social events, then the notion of ‘relationships’ throws him into ecstasies of convoluted over-rationalisation. He plans, plans again, and re-plans every encounter with another human, trying to anticipate where the attacks and counter-attacks will come from.

Military metaphors A tell-tale indication is the way the text is laced with the inflated language of military conflict – conversations are attacks and routs and counter-attacks, encounters are campaigns and assaults, relationships are subject to strategic planning and logistical planning.

Somehow he must mortar or bayonet Welch out of his prepared positions of reticence, irrelevance, and the long-lived, wondering frown. (p.82)…

Welch’s head lifted slowly, like the muzzle of some obsolete howitzer (p.84)…

The campaign against Bertrand he’d fantasised about at the Welches’ had begun, and with a dazzling tactical success. (p.103)…

Dixon realised he’d been wrong in thinking that the Bertrand-campaign was over and won; the last shot had still to be fired, and he was in the open and unarmed. (p.219)

Fantasies of violence The inability to read other people on a calm, sensible level which gives rise to this panoply of over-reactions, mad faces, lunatic physical gestures, to the over-planning and military metaphors, regularly spills over into fantasies of vindictive violence.

[Welch] was saying ‘Most impressive’, and for a second Dixon felt like picking up the spanner he could see in the dashboard pocket and hitting him on the back of the neck with it. (p.178)

‘Most people would have kicked your arse for you by now.’ (p.204)

One of the things he’d got to do today was to see Johns and abuse, or even assault, him for his latest piece of treachery. (p.229)

Dixon thought he really would have to run downstairs and knife the drivers of both vehicles. (p.245)

And so it is no surprise when the long campaign against the unbearable Bertrand finally erupts into an actual fist fight in Dixon’s digs, quite a serious affray. Dixon hurts Bertrand, knocking him to the floor, and himself receives a prize black eye, which he carries into public display for the big lecture at the comic climax of the story.

The narrative arc

The actual emotional events of the novel – insofar as you can make them out amid the babble of funny voices and the stream of self-conscious worrying – are that it opens with him encumbered with the unattractive and neurotic Margaret after she was unceremoniously dumped by the cad, Catchpole, and tried (in a surprisingly serious thread) to kill herself with an overdose of sleeping pills.

In this fraught context Dixon finds his previous mild flirtations with her suddenly converted into a life-saving love affair from which he is desperate to extricate himself. Thus every conversation, every drink with her down the pub, becomes the pretext for intense internal monologues by the hero analysing the sub-texts of whatever she is saying, feverishly calculating what his response ought to be as against what he actually wants to say, or what she expects him to say, and so on.

Every dialogue is fraught with multiple levels of possibility.

At the same time he finds himself increasingly attracted to Bertrand’s supposed girlfriend and thrown together with her on a couple of notable occasions – they share a taxi home from the summer ball, which leads to kissing. The last 100 pages of the book lead up not only to the famous drunk lecture scene, but to Dixon’s full realisation of how mad Margaret is (it turns out the suicide was attempted with the minimum number of pills, and she had invited at least two suitors to call on her that evening to ‘discover’ and ‘save’ her). And, once Christine conclusively realises what a cad Bertrand is (he is having an affair with another lecturer’s wife, as well as casual flings in London) then the path is clear, in the novel’s last pages, for the young lovers to be very satisfyingly united and sent riding off into the sunset.

Comedy

Lucky Jim contains many funny phrases, aperçus and moments, moments of impeccable comic timing, as well as longer set pieces – I particularly liked the fake letter from an aggrieved boyfriend threatening violence, which Dixon writes and posts to the most obnoxious of his colleagues and lets all the others know about so that they all watch him open the letter at their communal breakfast, stifling their laughter at his suddenly blanched face and hasty demeanour.

And the final frenzied bus journey to the train station to catch his lady-love before she departs on the 1.50 train leaving his life maybe forever, with the bus motoring excruciatingly slowly and stopping on the slightest pretext, thus driving Dixon mad with frustration – this and many other scenes like it are genuinely hilarious.

And the novel is regularly punctuated by a steady flow of comic faces and funny expressions which Dixon puts on at the drop of a hat to match his latest predicament, regularly getting caught by colleagues mid-leer and having to cough his way out of it.

While he was using the lavatory, he began making his Evelyn Waugh face, then abandoned it in favour of one more savage than any he normally used. Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout, he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes. (p.220)

It is at that exact moment that his future employer walks into the loo and catches Dixon mid-rictus.

Lucky Jim is still, 60 years later, a very funny book. But it is also, ultimately, a little draining to engage with a text which contains such a sense of people-phobic hysteria not far beneath the surface, the unnerving basis of the huge but sometimes uneasy comedy.

The movie

Lucky Jim was turned into a black-and-white comedy movie in 1958, directed by John Boulting and starring Ian Carmichael, Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith. Just a few moments fro it transport you back into the narrow, rationing-and-austerity, decent-but-deadly-dull 1950s which Amis was inchoately rebelling against.


Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. 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 his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small 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 infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and 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 its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, 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, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym 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 actually 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 which 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 somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, 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 is 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 and implausible 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 selected for the great honour of being 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 – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

%d bloggers like this: