The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe (2010)

Another Tom Sharpe novel (in fact, the last one) and so another big country mansion full of grotesques – in this case the vast, architecturally bizarre Sandystones Hall in which reside big, roaring Sir George Gadsley – who is partial to very fat lady cooks (like Philomena Jones, who makes him roast pork with all the trimmings) and his long-suffering wife, Lady Clarissa – who has an idiot son by her first marriage, Edward, who has failed every exam ever put in front of him.

Which is why Lady Clarissa, learning that the nice woman who helps out sometimes with one of her charities, Eva Wilt, has a husband who’s a lecturer at the local Uni and might be prepared to tutor Edward during the summer holidays, offers to pay him a generous £1,500 a week, and let the whole family come to stay in a cottage on the estate for the summer.

Thus does Henry Wilt, Head of the ‘so-called Communications Department’ at the former Fenland College of Arts and Technology – now, of course, upgraded to a university – enter the frame, still being harassed by his wife, nowadays nagging him to show some ambition and get a better job so he can pay for his horrible teenage quadruplet daughters to go to private school. Instead he gets disgustingly drunk with his old mate Peter Braintree or goes down the allotment with old Peter Coverdale, who had the sense never to get married.

The book runs multiple plotlines in parallel, told in short, punchy chapters:

  • Lady Clarissa has an Uncle Harold, a retired Colonel, who needs to go into a nursing home but refuses to. He is finally decanted into the ‘Last Post Rest Home’ and hates it, shouting angrily at all the staff until he stumbles on the fact that Lady Clarissa takes advantage of her frequent journeys into town to bonk her chauffeur at the local Black Bear pub/hotel. The manager of the hotel is an old army man and tips the Colonel off. And so the Colonel blackmails Lady C, claiming the room she uses at the pub is fitted with cameras and he has plenty of evidence of her high jinks, plenty to show Sir George. And so Lady C is forced to let the old colonel permission leave the rest home and hole up in the Black Bear itself, where she is wondering what the hell to do next, when he very conveniently drinks himself into having a stroke and dying.
  • At St Barnaby’s school for young ladies Wilt’s daughters, the quadruplets, now around 15, are causing mayhem in true St Trinians manner. They stuff a potato up the exhaust and put sugar in the petrol tank of the car belonging to a teacher they dislike, Miss Young, the multiple complications of which give her a nervous breakdown. They watch a naturist swimming in the nearby lake and have the bright idea of stealing his pants and trousers – and adding a used condom found in nearby bushes – and sneaking them into the bedroom of their headmistress, Mrs Collinson, for her husband to find when he gets home late that night, leading to a massive drunken row.
  • When Wilt finally makes it to Sandystones Hall he is astonished by its raw ugliness, by the way it is stuffed with furniture from Imperial-era India and by the way Lady Clarissa makes a blatant pass at him which, in true Wilt style, he runs away from, red-faced.

After that it gets complex with the endless running on and off stage of different characters getting lost, shouting and swearing at each other, getting drunk and passing out, corpses and coffins and vicars and coppers all increasingly enmeshed in the tangled farce.

Briefly, Uncle Henry’s body is brought to the Hall to be buried but Sir George refuses permission to let it lie in the family chapel. While he and his wife argue, Wilt’s wicked teenage daughters steal the body from the coffin and replace it with a log – which surprises the local vicar when he and a pall bearer open it, and even more so the police who are called in to add to the general confusion.

The quads drag the colonel’s body off to a clearing in the wood, intending to burn it, but are interrupted by Edward the psycho son stalking towards them firing one of his step-father’s many guns, oops. Until one of the quads hits him a lucky blow on the head with a stone, Edward trips, and blows his own head off. Double oops.

So the quads mock up the scene to look as if it was Edward who stole the body in order to do macabre target practice at it, but then stumbled and accidentally killed himself (the last part being more or less true), and then the police – called by the horrified vicar – turn up with sniffer dogs and even Wilt’s old nemesis, Inspector Flint, arrives from Ipford. The bodies are found which leads to an orgy of recriminations in which everyone blames everyone else – Sir George, Lady Clarissa, Wilt, Eva, the quads – until all concerned break for a nice cup of tea served by the housekeeper, Mrs Bale…

And when they reconvene Sir George and Lady C have come to an arrangement. She will testify to Sir George always keeping the gun cabinet locked, but that Edward must have found the keys, stolen a gun, purloined Uncle Henry’s body and been using it for target practice when he had a terrible accident. (In return Sir George allows Edward’s body to be buried in the family crypt and pays for Lady C to take Uncle Henry’s corpse back to Kenya, where he wanted to be buried – and where she stays on for a three-month holiday, being shagged senseless by the chauffeur. While she is away, Sir George takes advantage of her absence to invite the obese cook, Philomena Jones, back into the kitchen and then into his bed where, a few months later, he dies happy, whether from all that pork crackling or from more strenuous exercise or from both, who can say?)

Inspector Flint – who thought he had finally implicated his old enemy, Wilt, in a particularly bizarre murder – is foiled once again. Eva extracts full payment for the tuition to the now-dead Edward from Lady Clarissa and uses it to pay for the quads to return to their private school, having fulsomely apologised to their headmistress. Relieved to have escaped yet another adventure, they drive back to their nice quiet home at 45 Oakhurst Evenue, Ipford.

And Wilt? He goes back down his local, the Hangman’s Arms, for a ruminative pint with his old mate, Peter Braintree, Head of English at the Tech – only to be told that the Tech is finally being closed down and that he and Peter will be made redundant. What does the future hold, for him, for them, for anyone?

Who knows?


Credit

The Wilt Inheritance by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2010. All quotes and references are to the 2011 Hutchinson 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 with the unconscious Esmond 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.

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe (2009)

Sharpe was 81 when this book was published and had, according to the dedication, survived a serious illness which nearly killed him in 2006. We’re lucky to have the book at all.

Although not one of his best, The Gropes trundles along at a kind of guaranteed basic level of comedy without ever reaching the heights of maniac hysteria which the two South African novels, for example, ahieve in their first chapters. But it is genially amusing.

The Wileys

The book is in two parts, set in two locations. In boring suburban Croydon live timid bank manager Horace Wiley and his sentimental wife Vera. It is a funny idea that Vera lives her life entirely through the prism of the romantic novels she has consumed since childhood, seeing in her mind’s eye dashing heroes with their blouses slashed open to the waist revealing manly chests, while their black locks blow in the wind which is also whipping up the storm-tossed waves of the sea, and so on and so on.

The way Vera forces timid, knock-kneed, big-eared Horace to drive all the way to Beachy Head and propose to her is funny, as is the way he gabbles out his speech and then grasps her to his heaving bosom (i.e grabs hold of her) because he is terrified of being blown over the cliff edge and Vera is, whatever she thinks of herself, very solidly built and a good object to cling onto in a gale at the top of a cliff.

They have a son, Esmond (named after the hero in one of Vera’s simpering romances), who is the spitting image of his dad and who grows into an unprepossessing youth whose habit is lurking in unexpected corners. He looks so exactly like his father that Horace becomes more and more upset at looking at his own mirror image every day and when Esmond takes up the drum, Horace finally snaps, getting drunk one evening and going to attack Esmond with the nearest thing to hand, a carving knife, before tripping over and then bursting into tears. His puzzled wife and son put him to bed.

The Ponsons

Vera calls her brother over to help. Albert Ponson is known in his part of Essex as an extremely dodgy second-hand car dealer, with a reputation for violence. Still, even Albert is horrified when he goes up to Horace’s bedroom and listens to the mild-mannered bank manager raving about chopping up his son and dissolving the body in a vat of acid. In fact, this is a ploy by Horace to achieve precisely what then follows: Albert offers to take the boy off Vera’s hands for a bit till Horace calms down.

The reluctant Esmond is piled into Albert’s swish Aston Martin and driven back to the Ponson bungalow in rural Essex. Sharpe gives a funny description of how it is stuffed from top to bottom with the latest gadgets – plasma TV, microwaves, designer kitchen, swimming pool with jacuzzi – and a slightly more unsettling description of how it is only surrounded by this army of kitchenware that Albert’s wife, Belinda, can manage to keep her sanity, in the wide flat boring landscape of Essex.

Apart from his criminal friends, Belinda knows that Albert is routinely unfaithful to her and she’s been wondering whether young Esmond would make a suitable toyboy lover. With this in mind she not only shows him the jacuzzi moments after he’s arrived, dazed and confused at the new house, but strips off and gets into it, scaring the boy – as timid, knock-kneed and shy as his father – witless.

So when he and Belinda return to the bungalow’s shagpile living room half an hour later, Esmond is grateful to accept a whisky from Albert, even though he’s never drunk spirits before in his life. And then another. And another. When Belinda walks back into the room after preparing dinner it is to find Esmond lying unconscious in his own vomit and Albert only barely capable of talking. That does it. He’s a pig and a bully for getting the boy into this state and she has had enough.

Belinda packs her bags, lugs the unconscious Esmond into the Aston Martin, then locks all the bungalow’s internal and external doors, sets all the alarms, and drives off, leaving her unconscious husband forever. When Albert regains dim consciousness later that night, with an appalling hangover, he finds all the doors and (bullet-proof) windows are locked so is forced to pee into the ornamental pot plant in the corner. Then he starts banging and hammering for release. And eventually uses the handgun he keeps in a drawer to shoot off the lock of the door into the garage. It’s about now that the concerned neighbours call the police, alarmed by the sound of shots.

The police

The police are exactly the same kind of dependably burly, straightforward, easily confused coppers who have populated all Sharpe’s novels – in fact are a vital ingredient in all of them – since Wilt. They are thrilled to be called to the bungalow, since they’ve been looking for an excuse to lock up Albert Ponson for some time.

When Albert yells through the garage door that everything’s locked from the outside and he can’t get out, they reassure him that they’ll get a nearby digger truck to hook a chain over the top of the garage door and wrench it open. ‘Don’t do that,’ he yells, ‘because…’ but – too late! As the digger pulls the garage door open the whole side of the house falls onto it and the house collapses in a pile of rubble, leaving a dazed and dust-covered Albert surrounded by sparking electric wires and spouting broken water pipes. His beautiful house!

The police are always, in Sharpe, not agents of law and order but the opposite – stirrers up of confusoin, misunderstanding and anarchy.

Horace does a bunk

At the same time, and interspersed with Albert’s adventures, Horace the bank manager has decided he’s had enough. He too packs his bags and slips out the back door of his nice semi in Croydon, to elude his distraught wife. He goes to his own bank, rummages through the deposit boxes and steals the passport of a customer who looks vaguely like him. After a few nights in an anonymous London hotel, he pays for a berth on a tramp steamer to Latvia where he thinks his wife will never track him down and he can start a new life, thousands of miles away from her endless yacking about Regency heroes and heroines in tight bodices.

This is all easy to do because Vera is contacted by the police in Essex who tell her about her brother’s plight. Thinking her beautiful son is trapped in the house with Albert she drives across the country to be there.

The Gropes of Grope Hall

But Esmond is miles away. Belinda has abandoned her marriage and life in Essex in order to return to her ancestral home, Grope Hall, stuck away in thousands of acres of inhospitable Northumberland moorland. Because, it turns out, she is herself one of the Grope family, the legendary lords of the manors of this remote fastness. In fact the ‘lords’ of the manor have been female ever since a timid Viking, around 900 AD, feeling seasick after the long voyage from Denmark, was assaulted by the ugliest woman in the Saxon village his mates were looting, one Ursula Grope, and carried off back to her village.

That founding abduction of a feeble man by a strong woman set the tone for a dynasty which is a true matriarchy, where power has been handed down from mother to daughter, and where men have been abducted, used for their sperm to fertilise the Grope women, then kept on as chattels and servants.

For a thousand years the Grope women have ruled the roost, through political and industrial revolutions and Belinda, wondering why she ever left for the boring flatlands of Essex, is back with the latest in a long line of kidnapped men, poor Esmond Wiley.

Parallel storylines

In the second half of the novel these storylines proceed in parallel, in brisk comic chapters dominated by frenzied dialogue:

  • Horace Wiley leaves the tramp steamer at Holland and catches trains to Germany, picking up spare passports and identity papers wherever he goes, sometimes catching local buses, sometimes walking remote tracks, south into Italy and then across into France, all the time driven by a (frankly not very believable) desire to evade his ghastly wife. He ends up blundering more by luck than judgement into Catalonia in northern Spain where he comes to rest in a hotel with a fine view of the beach and the thousands of scantily-clad young women who spend the day sunbathing on it. He buys a pair of binoculars and devotes his days to letching at their nubile bodies then, one night, is accosted in the bar by a middle-aged woman, Elsie, who, improbably has been watching him watching her. She boldly invites herself up to his hotel room, quickly strips and gives Horace the first sexual experience he’s had since the act of love which conceived Esmond, seventeen years earlier. Hooked, intoxicated, they eat a big lunch, then retire for more championship sex but just as he is getting into bed for yet another session, Horace drops dead of a heart attack. Panic stricken, Elsie rummages through Horace’s belongings, tidies up the room as best she can and bolts back to her room.
  • Meanwhile, Esmond has come into his own at Grope Hall. Far away from his fussing mother and hate-filled dad, taken under the wing of Old Samuel the groundsman, Esmond turns out to be a natural at all kinds of practical tasks to do with running the farm, looking after the pigs and even the two enormous bulls, bought years ago, to stop any nosy parkers intruding. Belinda decides that she too (like Horace) needs to elaborately cover her tracks and asks Old Samuel to think of a way of disposing of Albert’s car, the one she drove up north in and, to Esmond’s delight, Old Samuel conceives the idea of driving it into one of the many abandoned coal shafts (source of Grope Hall’s wealth in the Industrial Revolution) and then blowing up the mine with dynamite, which fulfils a lifetime of weedy Esmond’s fantasies of violence and destruction.

Taken together these two plotlines reveal the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

The strength is their absurdity, the lengths to which Sharpe can ravel out lunatic conclusions for initially fairly plausible beginnings.

The weakness is that neither really comes to the explosive climax which characterised his earlier books: In the old days Horace Wiley wouldn’t just have dropped dead of a heart attack, he would have been caught in the middle of some kinky bondage position and his girlfriend would have been hand-cuffed to him, as the wardrobe fell over and the hotel staff smashed the door down – something like that. Whereas in this muted version, Horace just drops dead and Elise sneaks off without even discovering that he has a huge sum in cash stashed in his bags. Here, as on many other occasions, it feels like Sharpe is missing a trick to create the kind of mayhem he used to revel in.

Similarly, as soon as I read the word ‘dynamite’ I imagined that Old Samuel might blow up not just a mine shaft but the whole network of disused mines under Grope Hall, ideally at just the moment the entire Grope Family (of mainly women) was assembled in the main hall, at the climax of a great feast to celebrate the return of long-lost Belinda from the wastes of Essex, etc.

But no. The dynamite causes a little explosion which is just enough to cover the stolen car and then he and Esmond block the entrance with barbed wire and a warning sign. Er, that’s it. Compared to the mayhem of Sharpe’s earlier novels, very disappointing.

  • The blundering police blunder on for quite a while, blaming Albert for murdering his missing wife and nephew, and call in a brace of psychiatrists who have no trouble declaring Vera – now hysterical at the unexplained disappearance of her beloved son and husband – clinically insane. One of the dim coppers mistakenly things he overhears the words ‘al-Qaeda’ and so, for a while, there’s the promise that Albert will somehow get involved or be blamed for acts of Islamic terrorism. But this promising idea is never really developed, and he is just subjected to long, wearing interrogations which have none of the comic energy of, say, the battles of wits between the canny Henry Wilt and the hapless Inspector Flint from the first Wilt novel.

Conclusions

The book dawdles towards the marriage of Belinda and Esmond.

Esmond has grown in stature through working the land and making a genuine friendship with Old Samuel and he goes through with the small wedding ceremony to Belinda despite misgivings about making his new wife a bigamist.

Meanwhile Old Samuel digs up the ancient brass plaque in the church and discovers a big bag of gold sovereigns beneath it and gives it to Esmond – who promptly declares they must both share it.

And when Esmond finally nerves himself to make the big speech to Belinda which he’s been preparing for weeks – saying that he rejects the ancient matriarchal traditions of Grope Hall and that he, Esmond, will refuse to be slipped sleeping pills and treated like a skivvy – she agrees! Belinda agrees that the old traditions are barbaric. They are both equals. If they have a baby girl, so be it. If it’s a boy, fine. Let them live equally and happily ever after.

And so, without anything blowing up or burning down, without the police, army, bomb disposal or the air force being at all involved in a massive firefight and the reckless devastation of the entire neighbourhood i.e. without any of the characteristics of a classic Tom Sharpe climax – the novel ends on a quiet sensible note of domestic happiness. Which makes it by far the weirdest ending of any of Tom Sharpe’s novels.


Credit

The Gropes by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books in 2009. All quotes and references are to the 2009 Hutchinson 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.

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe (2004)

This is the fourth in the series of novels about hapless polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his wife Eva, and their incorrigible four little girls, now aged 14, at convent school and bubbling over with an unhealthy interest in all things sexual.

The plot gets going when Eva receives an invitation for her and the girls to go visit her Aunt Joanie who lives in the US of A, in the town of Wilma, Tennessee, with husband Uncle Wally, head of Immelmann Enterprises. They own a big town house and an even vaster mansion out by the lake.

On the flight over to America a nice man who introduces himself as Sol Campito stealthily stashes a capsule in Eva’s hand luggage. It contains a super-powerful and super-addictive new narcotic manufactured in Eastern Europe. The US Drug Enforcement Agency, tipped off in advance, stop and search Sol at US Customs, but to their disappointment he is clean, so their suspicions shift to the fat woman and four unruly kids who were sitting next to him on the plane. Their suspicions are confirmed when they contact the cops in Wilt’s home town and examine Eva Wilt’s impressive record of shenanigans, as chronicled in the previous three Wilt novels.

Soon the DEA have staked out and bugged Uncle Wally’s mansion – nicknamed ‘the Starfighter Mansion’ (to the chagrin of the local cops who don’t like being treated like hicks). And since Sol himself had carefully taken down the name and address where Eva would be staying, we can expect him and his colleagues to make a visit. It all promises much mayhem and chaos.

Wilt in Nowhere

Where’s Wilt? Well, our Henry had successfully managed to extricate himself from the invitation and from going to America at all, by pretending he’d been tasked with mugging up revolutionary communist movements in order to teach a new course on it at the Technical College – something they both know would be a red rag to Uncle Wally’s good ‘ole boy, Republican beliefs.

On this flimsy excuse Wilt is left behind and puts into action a much-longed-for fantasy – of putting on walking boots and walking clothes and donning a light backpack, catching a bus to somewhere on the Welsh border and then setting off, without even a map, to follow his instincts and discover the beauties of the English countryside.

At first this goes well, tramping the open country by day and sleeping in village b&bs by night – but on the fourth day he finds himself in an exposed heath just as storm clouds gather and the heavens open. By the time he’s made it to shelter under a copse of trees he is soaked to the skin, so he pulls out the bottle of scotch which he brought along for medicinal purposes and drinks some to warm up. Then some more. Then just another nip. Staggering to his feet as darkness falls, Wilt blunders through the gloom, trips over some roots and falls down into a deep lane, in fact straight into the back of Bert Addle’s pickup truck, where he is knocked unconscious.

Bert Addle, Bob Battleby and Ruth Rottecombe

Bert Addle? Yes, because now The Farce Begins. Bert is the nephew of old Martha Meadows, who was cook and housekeeper to nice General and Mrs Battleby who loved at Meldrum Manor. But when they were killed in a collision with a lorry, the old manor went to their nephew, Bob Battleby, an offensive drunk. Not only that, Bob is having an affair with the wife, Ruth Rottecombe, of a local politician, the Shadow Minister for Social Enhancement, Harold Rottecombe. Not only that, she and ‘Beat-me’ Bob indulge in bondage sessions where Ruth is transformed into ‘Ruth the Ruthless’, ties him up and whips the drunk, sobbing Bob.

What sets the plot going is that Bob has got roaring drunk one too many times and insulted good old Martha to her face and sacked her, leaving her without an income to look after her husband, incapacitated by a stroke. (Although in a different tone and setting, this trope reminds me of the worthy Madge Walker, devoted to looking after her bedridden husband, in Kingsley Amis’s final novel, The Biographer’s Moustache.) Martha tells her sorrows to nephew Bert Addle, recently laid off at a shipyard, and together they cook up a fiendish plan for revenge.

Bert drives over to the Manor one night when they know the Bob’n’Ruth will be out at the Country Club, drinking and playing cards. Bert assembles flammable items in the kitchen bin, and sets fire to it. But he hadn’t reckoned on a bunch of aerosol air fresheners the couple had thrown away, lurking at the bottom of the bin, which explode rather noisily, blowing out the windows with a boom and alerting the neighbourhood to the fire.

When the fire brigade arrive they find Ruth’s car – which Bert has thoughtfully stolen and parked to deliberately block the drive to the house. When the firemen break into it to move it they discover a pile of the vilest S&M magazines, cuffs, whips and equipment on prominent display. (Martha, being their housekeeper, knew all about these and had told Bert where to find the couple’s porn stash in the nearby barn.) But farce in Sharpe must be savage, and so thrown in among the adult porn are photos and magazines about paedophilia – with some particularly grim examples of children being violently raped and abused which Bob kept in his most secret hidey-hole. But now his secret is out.

When the police arrive they conclude that the fire is deliberate arson and, when shown the magazines, arrest Bob – who’s arrived drunk and abusive from his club – along with Ruthless Ruth, who has quickly seized up the situation and – stone cold sober – realises she has to separate herself from her doomed partner-in-lust.

Where’s Wilt?

Where is Henry Wilt in all this? When Bert discovered Wilt unconscious in the back of his pick-up as he was nicking Ruth’s car, he unceremoniously dumped our man in the Rottecombe garage. When Ruth finally gets back from the all-night interrogation of herself and Bob Battleby at the police station to her home, Leyline Lodge, it is to discover her politician husband Harold incandescent with anger at the shitstorm she’s stirred up – the phone is ringing off the hook from journalists following up the story about ‘Shadow Minister’s Wife In Kinky Sex and Arson Scandal’ – but also demanding an explanation for the body of a man he has discovered in their garage: just another one of her and Bob’s pick-ups’, is he? For once Ruth is totally innocent and knows she has to do something drastic!

Comic developments

Having created two pots bubbling over with comic potential and a ripe collection of grotesque characters, Sharpe spends the second half of the book stirring them and adding extra farcical ingredients to maximum comic effect.

1. American grotesque

The most Sharpe-esque is in America, where Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan take Eva and the quads up to their place in the country, a big ‘cabin’ by Lake Sassaquassee, in grounds cleared of trees so no grizzly bears can sneak up on Joanie.

Uncle Wally guilelessly shows the quads his various types of US can-do technology, including an old fashioned reel-to-reel tape tape recorder he has hooked up to a mega sound system which can deafen the neighbourhood with Abba or Frank Sinatra or machine gun fire, depending on his mood.

That evening the quads, with a wickedness nice Uncle Wally couldn’t begin to suspect, hide the tape recorder under his and Joanie’s bed and set the timer to go off after dinner. It starts recording just in time to perfectly capture a prolonged argument the couple have, with drunk Wally insisting he wants to make love to Auntie Joan, who refuses and then heaps all sorts of abuse on Wally, with scornful references to his tiny member and his inability to get it up, before, in a rage, he forcibly mounts her but appears to be prodding the wrong hole – whereat she screams even louder at him, in a diatribe which manages to bring in references to the Bible and even to their lawyer, who happens to be Jewish.

Next day the quads sneak the tape recorder back, stick a label claiming it’s Abba’s Greatest Hits onto the tape which recorded last night’s fight, and carefully put the machine back in place, hooked up to the cabin’s vast loudspeakers system. And set the timer on the whole thing.

A bad-tempered Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads get in the car and drive back to town. It is only hours after they’ve arrived that the tape automatically starts playing and projects over Wally’s 1,000 decibel sound system his argument about wanting to fuck his wife and her refusal to take it up the back passage, so loudly it can be heard for a distance of over ten miles all around.

The local police are called and drive out to the cabin can’t even get near because the volume shatters their windscreens and deafens them. An Army assault unit tries to clamber over the barbed wire fences into the grounds, but here a typical bit of Sharpe takes place. Earlier we had learned that the country cabin sits amid Uncle Wally’s huge collection of instruments of death, including Sherman tanks, various armoured combat vehicles, even a B-52 – all hideous reminders of America’s ability to hand out mega-death to all and sundry. What the Army assault squad don’t know is that these things are primed to react to intruders. So as they climb over the perimeter fence, deafened by Auntie Joanie’s shrieks of pain as she receives Uncle Wally’s penis in an unnatural place, the machine guns on all the tanks and armoured cars swivel towards them and start firing.

Now this is more like the Tom Sharpe we know and love. This is like the hysterically improbable and wildly violent climax of so many of his other farces. However, oddly, this scene comes half way through the book and, after the troops have backed off, a squad of Army bomb disposal experts, deafened in the Iraq War, manage to make it through the defences and finally turn off the tape. I was expecting something more apocalyptic – at the very least a fleet of helicopters strafing the cabin like in Apolcalypse Now, preferably with Wally, Joanie, Eva and the quads still inside.

Thereafter the narrative switches between America and Britain, but the US storyline winds down after this not-quite-mad-enough climax. Despite bugging his town house, searching his swimming pool and raiding his country cabin, neither the FBI nor DEA find anything to do with Sol’s drugs on Uncle Wally.

Admittedly the broadcasting of the most humiliating drunk sex conversation possible over a radius of 15 miles hits Wally so hard that he has a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. Where he has barely recovered, before he discovers that the quads had, in another quiet moment, hacked into his computer and sent foul-mouthed rants and obscene requests to everyone on his email address list – thus pretty much destroying  his company. Which gives him another heart attack.

So it comes as no surprise that by this time Wally and Joanie have had enough of their English visitors, kick them out and pay for the taxi to the airport and the air fare home.

Harry Rottecombe’s death

Back in England, with the nation’s press moving in on their house, Leyline Lodge, to follow up on her relationship with the disgraced Bob Bartleby, Ruth had set her two Rottweilers (wittily named Wilfred and Pickles) on the most foolhardy pressmen, the so-called Butch Cassidy and the Flashbulb Kid who had been snuck into the garden and were planning to get photos through the windows. They are severely mauled, their screams for help successfully deterring the rest of the pack.

But when she goes back inside the house, Ruth realises that husband Harold has done a bunk. Wise move, she thinks, and gets on with things. While Ruth was supervising the savaging of the journalists, Harold had snuck out the back of the house and down to the local river which runs at the bottom of their garden. But the river is too high and fast-moving to row on (partly due to the very storm which had prompted Wilt to take shelter and get drunk a few days before).

So Harold sets off walking along the river heading for the nearest town and then on to some safe haven for a while. But after a few miles walking he is shattered, his shoes pinching and chafing but, when he stops to examine his feet, one shoe rolls into the river, he scrabbles to retrieve it, the tree stump he’s leaning on snaps, he tumbles into the river and bangs his head on the pier of a nearby bridge. Then drowns. And his supine body is washed out into the Bristol Channel.

Where it is eventually found by the police, who identify it and open a murder case.

All this feeds into the Wilt plotline adding another layer of confusion and complication. The narrative certainly becomes complex but is ultimately disappointing. In fact as you read on you realise the whole book has suffered from having its climax – the armed assault on Wally’s country fortress – in the middle.

Ruthless Ruth loads the still unconscious Wilt into her Volvo estate and drives to a run-down part of the nearest town, Oston, and dumps him there half-naked. A little later some skinheads come by and give his unconscious body a good kicking for no particular reason, then stroll on. Eventually an old lady in the nearby high rise flats – a testament to local authority greed and corruption – phones an ambulance which collects Wilt and takes him to Oston hospital.

And eventually word gets through both to Eva and to Wilt’s old sparring partner, Inspector Flint of Ipford police, that Wilt is somewhere in Oston hospital. There is then a lot of satire about the bureaucracy and incompetence of the National Health Service with Wilt being moved from one department to another faster than Eva and Flint can track him down, hampered by unfriendly or gormless secretaries, receptionists and nurses.

When Wilt finally regains consciousness, he complicates things further by deciding to pretend he’s lost his memory, in order to provoke the shrinks who are treating him. Which also has the effect of winding up his old nemesis, Inspector Flint – who’s finally tracked him down through the vast labyrinthine hospital.

After some initial fencing and sparring between the old foes, Wilt eventually comes clean about the events leading up to his drunkenly tripping over a tree root. But as for the rest, including the mysterious disappearance of a member of the shadow cabinet, he genuinely has no knowledge.

Meanwhile, Ruth has been subjected to days and days of questioning without sleep or a lawyer, both about the fire and the death of her husband. The cloud of suspicion hanging over her is not helped when it is revealed that she is in fact a former prostitute who specialised in bondage, who fled her patch when a client died from a little too much whipping years earlier, adopted a fake identity and then cosied up to the repellent but well-connected Bob Battleby as ‘cover’.

Finally she cracks and tells the cops everything she knows – she was involved in S&M with Battleby but knows nothing about the arson, she found Wilt in her garage with no idea who he was or how he got there, it’s true that she took his body to a nasty council estate and dumped him there but that’s the sum total of her activities regarding him, and she has no idea where her husband the Shadow Minister is or – when his body turns up drowned – how on earth it happened.

A shadow of guilt covers her for a while – after all, Wilt is suffering from a blow to the head very similar to the one on dead Harry’s corpse – but eventually this nexus of circumstantiality unwinds and dissolves. Forensics show Harry probably drowned in an accident (as we know happened). All the evidence (including the empty whisky bottle where he said it would be) exonerates Wilt of any wrongdoing, notably the arson of Meldrum Manor.

Although Wilt and Eva and Flint and various policemen, doctors and nurses all get their knickers in a twist, shouting and insulting and abusing each other at the drop of a hat, in the event the plot fizzles out, all charges are dropped (the true arsonist, Bert Addle, covered his tracks well and gets away scot-free) and the last pages find Wilt happily ensconced back in the family home at 45 Oakhurst Avenue and determined never to leave it again.

From the way it was set up I expected at the very least that Sol and his mafia colleagues would lay siege to Uncle Wally’s house; I expected someone to accidentally consume the vial of new super-powerful narcotic (Auntie Joanie? Eva Wilt?) and go on a demented spree; I expected the DEA and FBI and the local cops – who all resent each other – to break out into fisticuffs if not armed conflict. Disappointingly, none of this happens.

And the climax of the English section is really only caused by Wilt’s stubborn refusal to come clean and give his story to the cops. It is only him faking amnesia and giving deliberately confusing replies to the psychiatrists and police which causes even a whit of farce, and this is limited to him being put into a mental home for a bit – and as soon as he decides to come clean and tell what he knows, he simply walks out.

Author’s message

In this final section, when Wilt has been transferred to a mental home while the psychiatrists try to sort out his amnesia and other confusions, we the readers know that he’s faking, so there’s no risk or charge involved.

When he decides to leave he pretty much simply walks out the door with Eva at his side. The best Sharpe can come up with by way of comic climax is to have one of the quads, Emmeline, do her party trick of slipping her pet rat Freddy under her jumper and encouraging him to move around, thus giving anyone she encounters the impression that she has a mobile breast moving around her chest.

This is all it takes, in this fictional world, to spark an outbreak of panic and hysteria at the mental hospital. Eva and Wilt have only just made it to the car when a crowd of demented patients runs screaming out of the main door, trampling the unfortunate Inspector Flint underfoot.

It is at this point that Flint has in insight into the ways of the universe:

Tripping on the gravel and then being trampled over by a herd of maddened lunatics had given him fresh insight into Wilt’s inconsequential view of life. Things just happened to people for no good reason and, while Flint had previously believed that every effect had to have a rational cause, he now realised that the purely accidental was the norm. In short, nothing made sense. The world was as mad as the inmates of the hospital he had just left. (p.269)

This is a useful, if rather pedestrian, summary of the worldview of Sharpe’s books.

But how much better when an author’s worldview is embodied in the narrative and text, rather than pinned at the end like a post-it note. At his best Sharpe’s novels are full of a genuinely outrageous comic madness, violence, obscenity. This one has moments and ideas which hint at the true Sharpean madness, but nowhere really achieves it.

Contemporary references

As with The Midden, Sharpe sprinkles the text with topical references – to 9/11 and al-Qaeda or to Harold Shipman (the GP who was found guilty of 15 murders in January 2000) and these certainly add to Sharpe’s anger and ferocity, but they don’t really improve the design or effectiveness of the plot. They just show that he reads the papers and is appalled at the same kinds of things the rest of us are.


Credit

Wilt in Nowhere by Tom Sharpe was published by Hutchinson Books by 2004. All quotes and references are to the 2005 Arrow 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.

The Midden by Tom Sharpe (1996)

Thatcher’s legacy

Sharpe is revolted by the power, corruption and lies in British society. Since this book was published in 1996, he’s talking about the power, corruption and lies which rose during Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, 1979 to 1990 and the book contains a number of surprisingly cutting references to her and her policies, specifically the privatisation of public utilities. The Midden is the name of a place in the novel, but it is also a not very subtle reference to the shitheap England has become under Tory rule.

Sir Arnold Gonders had learnt the political catechism of Thatcherism very well indeed: only money mattered and preferably the newest money that talked about little else and cared for nothing. (p.89)

Thus Sharpe looks back at Thatcher’s 1980s as the Triumph of Greed when idiots in the City could earn a fortune, when heads of newly privatised companies found themselves being paid millions of pounds, when a new breed of amoral multi-millionaire arose who could use all the forces of law to silence their critics – exemplified in the figure of Robert Maxwell (died 1991), vilified in this novel as he was in the previous one.

Timothy Bright

It is against this real historical background that we’re introduced to the comic character Timothy Bright, scion of the family of Brights who have undeservedly made fortunes down the ages from the entire catalogue of dodgy British behaviour, starting with the slave trade. Young Timothy is just the kind of cocky dimwit to thrive in the City of London, where he is duly – as per the family tradition – made a Name at Lloyds, and dishes out all kinds of reckless and useless advice to clients while himself prospering obscenely.

Until the train hits the buffers and the Recession of the early 1990s strikes. There are a series of big claims about asbestosis which bankrupt fellow Names he had introduced to Lloyds, and then Timothy himself loses everything: his flat, his car and his job at a big bank. He goes to a casino with his last reserves of cash but loses heavily and is taken to meet the threatening owner: he must pay back the £30,000 he now owes within the week or the boys will be round.

Not coincidentally, Timothy gets a phone call from someone he doesn’t know and is invited to go to a nearby wine bar, where he is astonished to be confronted by a vicious foreign criminal, Mr Markinkus, who tells him the boys are very unhappy at the way his uncle, the High Court judge Benderby Bright, has been locking some of the lads away. Therefore, they are charging Timothy with taking a ‘package’ down to Uncle Benderby’s holiday yacht, moored off the Spanish coast, and taking the ‘package’ aboard and hiding it somewhere. The alternative is… and Markinkus passes over a photo of a pig which has been eviscerated for the abattoir, flesh hanging off, dripping in blood. Shaking with shock, Timothy emerges into the street clutching the ‘package’ and with a down-payment of £5,000 for carrying out the ‘mission’.

OK. So be it. Timothy now steps over the line into criminality y using his position as financial adviser to sell off shares of various aged Bright relatives and draw the cash.

Cornwall

He packs the money in a light bag and drives his motorbike down to Cornwall to stay a night with his uncle Victor Bright en route for Spain (one of the comic ideas is that the Bright clan is so vast it has branches everywhere). Uncle Victor’s house is the bucolic Pud End near Fowey and he just happens to have his jolly decent nephew, Harry Gould, staying with him.

They are both so repelled by Timothy’s boorish selfishness that within 24 hours Harry conceives the naughty plan of lacing Timothy’s special tobacco with ‘Toad’ – essence of Toad, the most powerful hallucinogen known to man – which he happens to have bought on his recent trip to Australia and was bringing back as a favour for a friend who is a toxicologist.

The mad motorbike ride

Thus, without realising it, Timothy smokes a portion of Toad and goes bonkers. Suffering fantastic hallucinations he jumps on his motorbike and drives at 170 mph north up the motorway, off onto a random side road, before crashing into sheep, landing amid fir trees, but surviving all this with the reckless invulnerability of the very stoned, before climbing over some wall – accidentally squelching the snarling guard dog – through the open front door of the nearest building, up the stairs and into a completely strange bed, where he passes out. Quite a funny sequence.

Sir Arnold Gonders

Which is where he is found late that night by the Chief Constable of Twixt and Tween, the very corrupt Sir Arnold Gonders, who runs his police force for the benefit of local property developers and crooks, going to great lengths to frame the innocent and cover the backs of local drug dealers and criminals. The police in his earliest South Africa satires had been brutal and stupid, but Sharpe goes to great lengths to depict the corruption and immorality of these comic policemen. Gonders is a vile, corrupt specimen who placates his conscience by being highly godly and regularly giving the sermon at  his local church – a reference, for those who remember him, to James Anderton, a former chief constable of Greater Manchester, England, sometimes referred to as God’s Cop for his frequent references to the Almighty, who retired in 1991.

Gonders He had been at a piss-up of his police force, complete with numerous strippers, when the jackals of the Press invaded and he stormed out the back, got a patrol car to drive him up to his country house near Scarsgate, and drunkenly stumbled up the stairs only to discover his horrible but posh wife, Lady Vy, in bed with an unconscious naked man (Timothy). He bludgeons Timothy with a heavy bedside lamp – blood everywhere – but in doing so wakes Lady Vy so suddenly with his shouting and raving that she seizes the gun she always keeps at her bedside and lets off potshots at her suddenly terrified copper husband.

Hiding Timothy

When he’s calmed Lady Vy down, the Gonders tie up the unconscious Timothy in bedsheets and manhandle him down to the cellar, grab a few hours’ kip and then dress up to host a party of the revolting nouveaux riches – the crooks and property developers and TV presenters – who they count as friends. One topic of conversation is the persistent refusal to allow local property development by the old fuddy-duddy family, the Middens, who live across the reservoir in the huge monstrous Middenhall, whose main representative is Miss Marjorie Midden, presented as something like an upholder of old-school values and decency (as much as anyone is, in a Sharpe novel).

Pud End

Meanwhile, uncle Victor and Harry Gould, feeling a little guilty at Timothy’s probable fate, discover that he left in such a hurry that he left behind a ‘package’ and bags. These they stash under the stairs, expecting Timothy to return at some stage, eventually, maybe.

The Midden

It’s here, 100 or so pages into this 340-page-long book, that we finally meet The Midden. It is a house belonging to the Middens, a large and ancient family. It is near to the monstrosity named Middenhall which was built by ‘Black’ Midden, so-named because of the techniques he employed and the people he worked to death to build a vast fortune in South Africa at the turn of the century. When Black Midden returned to the north of England at the turn of the century, he sent several architects round the bend with his request for a vast, indestructible and grotesquesly ugly hall plonked down in the middle of the north country fells. As if this wasn’t enough, the long drive was lined with twenty-foot-tall statues of classical characters performing explicit sexual acts on each other. (pp.120-124)

When he died as a result of a fashionable monkey gland operation to restore his flagging virility in 1931, Black Midden’s will stipulated that Middenhall must become a sanctuary for all members of the Midden clan who wished to live there. He hadn’t anticipated the post-war collapse of the British Empire which resulted in all sorts of arrogant colonial shits retreating from abandoned colonies across Africa and the Far East, to seek sanctuary in what rapidly became a kind of multi-roomed madhouse, bullying the staff and calling the local cooks and cleaners ‘kaffir’ and ‘boy’.

However, Black Midden’s great grand-daughter Miss Marjorie Midden put a stop to all this nonsense. Miss Midden restored some order to Middenhall and made the horrible Middens behave with a semblance of decency. She herself preferred to live in a converted cottage in the grounds, known as The Midden, along with a cook and a puny non-Midden character, a Major McPhee. In fact McPhee is given something like a sympathetic back story, explaining that he was always a hopeless small time crook, who was dazzled by the glamour and decisiveness of Army officers he met after running away to sea. And so he set out to copy their manners and dress and slowly succeeded in becoming known as ‘the Major’ despite having never been in the army. (pp.136-140)

Timothy is moved

Middenhall is not far from the Boathouse home which corrupt cop Sir Arnold Gonders has bought and renovated, and where he found Timothy’s drug-blasted body. Now, in the dead of night, Gonders packs the tied-up body of Tim into his Land Rover drives without lights into the grounds of Middenhall and down to the Midden – having rung ahead and established that Miss Midden was away from home – and manhandles Timothy through an open window, up the stairs and under the bed of Major McPhee (also away from home).

Briefly, after some comic misunderstandings, Miss Midden discovers Timothy and forces him to tell his story: the threat to his life, the mission to take the ‘package’ aboard Benderby Bright’s yacht, his stopover at Pud End where it all goes blank.

Puzzled, Miss M motors down to Cornwall to Uncle Victor’s house. Here she masquerades as a nurse at the hospital where (she claims) poor Timothy is recovering from a terrible motorbike crash (putting the willies up Uncle Victor and Henry), and collects Timothy’s clothes and bags, before returning north to Middenhall. (And that’s the last we hear of the Cornish connection.)

When she opens Timothy’s bag, sure enough, there is posts of cash, and the ‘package’ – I wondered if it was a bomb – turns out to be full of drugs i.e. Mr Markinkus and his crew were going to tip off the authorities and get Judge Benderby a taste of his own medicine, either that or blackmail him.

Instead, Miss M travels all the way to London to confront the judge, to give him Timothy’s written deposition of the plot against him, and to hand over the cashed shares stolen from the Bright family members. Order is restored. She sweeps out, leaving the judge speechless.

God’s cop

Meanwhile God’s Cop has not been inactive. There is a richly, disgustingly farcical scene where he is attacked by his wife’s lesbian lover, the shrivelled Auntie Bea, who whisks Lady Vy off down to her posh father’s house in London. In a now permanent state of half-drunk incandescent anger, Sir Arnold comes to the completely erroneous conclusion that the only person who could have placed the body of a naked stoned young man in his wife’s bed must have been that wretched Midden woman from across the reservoir. He’s got his own back a bit by dumping the wrapped-up body of said man in her house. Now he goes one step further to concoct a vicious revenge.

Urnmouth Hydro

First he travels to the nearby seaside town of Urnmouth and to the old hydro building, built by the moralistic Victorians as a health centre and now converted by a sleazy American immigrant, Maxie Schryberg, into a sado-masochistic brothel. Each of the rooms is equipped with an array of bondage equipment but, unknown to the users, also hidden cameras.

Sir Arnold is shown to his usual place, the Video Room, by the servile owner, from which he can watch all the activities going on in each of the rooms. The extent of Arnold’s corruption is rammed home by stories of the various local MPs and dignitaries who have been filmed in the dungeon rooms, being tied up and whipped etc, and who Arnold has then been able to blackmail into framing innocent citizens or to getting crooked drug dealers or property developers off the hook, or letting crooked property deals go by on the nod.

The prolonged visit to the Hydro (pp.202-212) is justified in the plot because Sir Arnold is supposedly looking for ideas with which to frame Miss Midden and stumbles across the idea of framing her for child pornography and pedophilia. But there are three pages or so devoted to the vile Schryberg describing in salacious detail two particularly extreme cases he’s witnessed: the client who asked for a priest to be in attendance while he was actually hanged by the neck by a woman in bondage gear, and another who wanted to be completely wrapped in cellophane and have a whore crap and pee on his face.

Sharpe’s thing is farce, savage farce, extreme farce, farce which seeks out and pushes the sensitive buttons and so which has been devoted from the beginning to depicting the most bizarre and grotesque sexual misadventures. What gives it extra piquancy in this book is the way the nasty brothel-keeper is not only a Yank – like the vile drug dealer and his team in Grantchester Grind – but a keen fan of Mrs Thatcher.

‘You wouldn’t believe it but I am a believer always in family values. Sure, you laugh but it is true. Like the Great Lady say, “What we need is family values like the Victorians.”… Some great lady. I drink to her. The Iron Maiden.’ (p.205)

Something has gone very badly wrong with the whole Thatcherite project if it’s staunchest supporters include corrupt cops and American brothel-keepers.

Operation Kiddywink

So, anyway, Sir Arnold decides to frame Miss M and the inhabitants of Middenhall for child sex abuse. He sets his most devoted and dumbest officer, Superintendant Anscombe on the case, who Sharpe viciously says would have made an excellent supervisor of an Execution Squad when the Nazis invaded Russia. Instead, living in England in the 1990s, he takes his boss’s orders to stage a raid on Middenhall very literally and organises a Rapid Response Unit to creep up on the hall, ready for a raid.

Sir Arnold had prepared the way by anonymously posting to Major McPhee a big package stuffed with child pornography which McPhee opens to his horror – though not as much as Miss Marjorie’s, who is standing by when he opens it.

But reality exceeds Sir Arnold’s wildest dreams because the ‘raid’ happens to coincide with the annual visit to the large grounds of Middenhall by children from the Porterhouse Mission for deprived East End children, set up under Black Midden’s high Victorian ancestors, in co-operation with the very same (fictional) Cambridge college, Porterhouse which is, of course, the subject of Sharpe’s previous novels, Porterhouse Blue and Grantchester Grind. (p.278) (In an intriguing example of recurrence, Lady Mary Godber’s solicitors from that novel, Lapline and Goodenough, recur in this one as Marjorie’s solicitors, p.291).

The officers hiding in the bushes and filming all this report back to Stagstead police HQ that an entire mini-van of children has arrived, that some are skinnydipping in the lake, and that – my God! – there’s a man dressed up as a priest being rowed across the lake to some kind of makeshift altar carrying a kind of cross. Good God! They’re going to perform a black mass! What the officers on the spot fail to convey is that the priest in the rowboat really is a priest and he really is going to try and conduct a Christian service, even though most of the ‘deprived children’ are in fact hulking teenagers who are more interested in bunking off to smoke fags or explore each others spotty bodies in the undergrowth, and the remainder are mostly Muslim so watching in boredom.

But this doesn’t prevent dim, worked-up Inspector Ranscombe of course thinking these demons are about to stake out a helpless child on the ‘altar’, then rip its heart out and drink its blood. So he sends in the Armed Quick Response Team, who grab their guns, race to the hall, and make their way from bush to bush and tree to tree to intervene in the disgusting bloodbath.

Firefight

Nobody knows any of this is happening until old ‘Buffalo’ Midden, legendary hunter back in Africa, spots men in camouflage outfits infiltrating themselves into the grounds and goes up to the roof of Middenhall with his trusty Lee Enfield .303 rifle and start sniping them, at which point all hell breaks loose. He shoots quite a few of the AQRT, whose screams send the vicar and social workers in charge of the deprived children ushering them as far away as possible, while members of the AQRT inevitably start firing back, wounding and indeed killing various harmless old members of the extended Midden menagerie who happen to look out the window to see what’s going on.

In other words, the story reaches a bloody climax in an extravagantly violent shootout, leaving the park strewn with the dead and dying – a climax which powerfully recalls the bloody shootouts which have featured in almost all his best work (Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Blott on the Landscape, The Throwback).

But that isn’t enough. Because – of course! – cook left several pans full of fat heating on the hob to make breakfast. And it’s around this point that a kind-hearted old lady – Mrs Laura Midden Rayter – realises she ought to put them out and does so by chucking cold water at them. With the result that boiling fat goes everywhere including the flames and – whoosh! – the whole house becomes a raging inferno, rapidly consuming even more Midden hangers-on.

But even this isn’t enough, because Sharpe throws in a convoy of vehicles carrying social workers and Child Abuse Trauma Specialists who had been attending a conference devoted to ‘The Sphincter: Its Diagnostic Role In Parental Rape Inspections’ who had overheard police radio chatter about the break-up of the biggest pedophile ring in a generation and so have come rushing to lavish their hard-faced ‘care’ to the young victims. A couple of pages are devoted to excoriating white-hot anger directed at so-called sex abuse experts, and directly references the Orkney child abuse scandal of 1991 when a load of children were taken from their parents over what turned out, in the end, to be completely baseless allegations. And so Sharpe’s Child Abuse Trauma Specialists include:

witchcraft experts from Scotland, sodomy specialists from south Wales, oral-sex-in-infancy counsellors, mutual masturbation advisers for adolescents, a number of clitoris stimulation experts, four vasectomists (female), and finally fifteen whores who had come to tell the conference what men really wanted. If they were anything to go by, what men wanted was anything, but anything, with two legs, a short skirt and a mouthful of rotten teeth. (p.310)

You can feel Sharpe’s anger and disgust erupting from the page.

The whole point of Sharpe’s style of farce is that wherever he sees a boundary line, a barrier, a limit of decorum or restraint, he is compelled to smash it to pieces and push the destruction, sexual depravity, moral corruption and pointless violence to the max.

In the aftermath of the bloodbath and enormous fire, there are enquiries and post-mortems on the various corpses and:

  • Miss Midden is secretly joyous that the responsibility and the curse of Middenhall has been lifted from her shoulders.
  • She is visited by her patronising neighbour, stout Phoebe Turnbull who is obsessed with traditional field sports, and tells her she knows of a nervous young man, one Timothy Bright, who’s had a nervous breakdown after working too hard in the City. Could she take him to her bosom and relieve his spirit by learning country ways and sports?
  • And Sir Arnold Gonders? Realising the poo he’s landed in he takes drastic steps, deciding to feign illness, misremembering from somewhere that eating lots of toothpaste brings on severe symptoms. It does, but when they rush him to hospital and pump his stomach to reveal pints of Colgate, he emerges as even more of a buffoon than the Middenhall fiasco has painted him. His career is over.

Mrs Thatcher

It is striking the vehemence with which Sharpe links Thatcher’s name with the rise in Greed Culture and public amorality, with the privatisation of public utilities which immediately doubled their prices and the pay of the senior executives, and with numerous other forms of corruption. Making the vilest character, Maxie Schryberg, into her greatest fan is a hard dig. But when Lady Vy’s father – Sir Edward Gilmott-Gwyre (p.238) – thinks about his son-in-law Sir Arnold, he thinks of ‘a man who was as brazenly corrupt as any police officer promoted and protected by Mrs Thatcher’ (p.244). I’m surprised that’s legal.

Then Sir Edward downs a drink in readiness for meeting an old pal to whom he wants to expound his latest theory about why Mrs Thatcher is so keen for the government to arm the Muslim Croats during the Yugoslav civil wars.

Her son was an arms dealer and by backing the Muslims so openly she was bound to help dear little Markie’s standing in Saudi Arabia. (p.246)

Very personal attacks, these. In the final pages, Sir Arnold delivers a two-page sermon to a nearby congregation (blissfully unaware of the holocaust taking place at the Middenhall), ‘a series of admonitions which made God sound like the Great Lady herself at her most mercenary’ and which consists of calls to the congregation to unleash free enterprise and free endeavour, crack down on spongers and beggars, and help the police with their holy work. (pp.329-330) Her successor appears in a cameo scene, too, when news of the disaster obviously hits the Home Office and Prime Minister’s office and they discuss what to do with the now radioactive Sir Arnold. Hang him out to dry, obviously. But we mustn’t rock the boat, cautions the PM. ‘He really was a very weak man.’ (p.336) This can only refer to John Major, Prime Minister from 1990 to 1997.

But there are other contemporary references too. There was an eleven year gap in Sharpe’s novels between Wilt on High (1984) and Grantchester Grind (1995) and it is as if Sharpe has been saving up his rage and despair at the human race for all that time ready for it to burst forth, not only in the gruesome plot, but in a text which is unusually larded with contemporary references.

As well as Mrs Thatcher and Robert Maxwell, and the Orkney child abuse scandal, the book references the utter stupidity of the Oklahoma bombing (April 19, 1995) as a comparison for the boom which can be heard across the county when mad old Buffalo Midden decides to shoot the big propane tank behind Middenhall. And the devastation which greets the solicitor Lennox Midden as he makes his way through the smoking ruins of Middenhall Park is reminiscent of the ‘devastation unnecessarily and barbarously inflicted on the Iraqi convoy north of Kuwait City’ (February 1991).

Conclusion

Though not as gut-wrenchingly outrageously funny as the novels from the 1970s, this is nonetheless a lot funner that Grantchester Grind and something of a return to demented form.

Only when old ‘Buffalo’ Midden starts taking pot shots at the cops in the grounds and they return fire, mortally wounding various ancient members of the Midden family, did I remember how much the we’d been missing by way of Sharpe’s comically insensate violence.


God’s cop

Sir Cyril James Anderton CBE, KStJ, QPM, DL (born 1932) served as chief constable of Greater Manchester from 1976 to 1991. He was nickname ‘God’s cop’ by the popular press for a series of controversial statements he made, most notoriously about gays and AIDS, in which he invoked the authority of God and the Bible. This led the Manchester pop band the Happy Mondays to write a song about him.


Credit

The Midden  by Tom Sharpe was published by André Deutsch in 1996. All quotes and references are to the 1997 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.

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis (1994)

‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear… (p.128)

Amis was born in 1922, so he started secondary school just as Herr Hitler took power in Germany (1933) and reached manhood during the Battle of Britain (1940). He grew up in a middle-class, South London household and went to the local grammar school.

Maybe writing his Memoirs (published in 1991) brought a lot of his teenage years back. Whatever the cause, You Can’t Have Both is, for most of its length, an easy-going third-person narrative about an Amis-like boy, then young man, named Robin Davies, which is surprisingly mellow and forgiving about his parents, his chums at school and Oxford, and about the hapless young ladies he clumsily tries to seduce.

The use of a throwaway everyday phrase for the title is characteristic (I Like It HereI Want It Now) and highly symptomatic of the casual, half-baked thought processes and style of the narrator and all the characters – they sort of, kind of, in a way, vaguely, maybe did something, or not – or something, at any rate.

From his earliest novels, Amis’s prose style, and the attitude it’s built on, have always struck me as oddly detached and alienated – a style which regards everyone around the narrator as creatures from another planet whose behaviour is unfathomably mysterious and unpredictable. There are glaring examples of his bewildered attitude on every page. That said, from time to time the prose reads like the work of someone who is actually trying to be funny, and fairly regularly – in among the strange attitude and clotted prose style – succeeds.

It’s divided into four chapters:

Chapter 1

Robin is 14 or 15, at Grammar school, good at Latin, with the usual small circle of school chums. He lives with his extravagantly normal dad, who insists on having manly heart-to-heart conversations and referring to him as ‘old boy’, as well as his mum, who likes to prepare the sitting room so they can have one of their ‘chats’. When neither of them are around the teenage Robin’s acts of assertiveness or rebellion are very much of their time (around 1936?) – plugging in and listening to the radiogram without his father’s permission; smoking a cigarette till it makes him feel sick and giddy; listening to Louis Armstrong at a friend’s house (reminding me of one of the few true-feeling scenes in The Crime of the Century, where the detective and the boy hero discuss just what it is that’s so exciting about Armstrong-era jazz).

Into this stiflingly boring world comes the 20-year-old son of one of his mum’s friends, Jeremy Carpenter, who is at Cambridge, knows about jazz and smoking and poetry, and is generally a god-like idol.

In the second half of this act, Robin is packed off to stay with his father’s relatives in Wales, who are made out to be yokel gargoyles. His one clumsy attempt to kiss his much older cousin, Dilys, who had led him on a bit, ends in disaster. But then, to Robin’s astonishment, Jeremy turns up in Wales, saying he was staying with friends in nearby Shropshire anyway. Jeremy takes him out for the day, treats him to a slap-up lunch with wine, then a drive out to a sunny hillside. Here it all comes to grief when Jeremy asks young Robin whether he has any experience of ‘the other’ i.e. of boys i.e of homosexuality. Robin blushes and says no, Jeremy quickly asserts that he hasn’t either, they repair to the car, and Jeremy drives him back to his Welsh relatives’ house, before reversing the car and disappearing. Robin trudges up the lane to the cottage blind with tears, his idol-worship smashed (one of the few times I can remember any Amis character revealing a weakness or expressing any emotion apart from bewilderment).

Chapter 2

Jump forward a few years to Robin now at Oxford studying classics. Expecting some local colour or  history? Forget it. We learn almost nothing about the university, his particular college, the wider city or the period it’s set in. Instead, the text claustrophobically focuses on Robin’s consuming need to seduce a fellow student, Barbara Bates. He eventually gets her into bed where – it’s difficult to make out through the evasions and euphemisms to which the 70 year-old Amis is still prey – but it seems he performs badly, or his post-coital attitude is maladroit, and so she ends up avoiding him.

No problem, though, because in the rooms of his best mate, Embleton, at another Oxford college, he meets young Nancy Bennett, just 17 and not at the university. She works at a record shop in the High Street and they go on a few dates before he is invited to meet her parents (her dad standing behind the bar in his lounge and delivering politely menacing threats). Then Nancy is invited to spend a weekend at his parents’ house, in London.

Here they take advantage of his parents being out unexpectedly long one day, to go to bed and have full intercourse. There follows an excruciatingly embarrassing scene, when the parents return, of his dad asking Robin on his honour whether anything untoward took place when they were out. Robin lies but Nancy goes bright red with shame and then the secret comes tumbling out.

The book describes in horrible detail the embarrassed way Robin’s dad, a decent bloke really, himself doesn’t really know what to do and, after consulting his wife, decides they must ask Nancy to leave. This causes upset for all the people concerned – Robin, his dad, his mum, and Nancy – effectively blamed and humiliated – which takes some time to simmer down.

Chapter 3

The timeline jumps again to After the War (1946?). Robin had been called up, managed to secure officer rank, won a medal and, in its final stages, was taken prisoner and saw the war out in a German POW camp. In this long third section there are two important storylines:

1. His father is diagnosed with cancer and the book describes Robin and his older brother George’s efforts to deal with it, to visit the visibly failing old man in hospital, and then to organise the cremation at a dreary suburban crematorium.

2. But by far the bigger amount of time is devoted to the fact that – on returning from hearing his father’s diagnosis – Robin has fierce life-affirming sex with Nancy (who, surprisingly, he’s still going out with, years and years after the initial embarrassments recorded in the previous chapter) but – oops – she gets pregnant, a disaster at a time when abortion was illegal and being an unmarried mother carried a crippling stigma.

These is a long sequence which describes their stuttering immature attempts to think through all the solutions, given Robin’s extreme reluctance to get married, her reluctance to become an unmarried mother, and the impossibility of getting an abortion.

Eventually, via their shady landlady, they are put in touch with an abortion clinic in Wales (always Wales in Amis’s books), Robin borrows the necessary £100 from his older brother, George, and he and Nancy catch a train down to Cardiff, there to stay at a boarding house which is part of the package.

The accretion of detail – albeit filtered through Amis’s tortured prose – slowly and effectively creates an air of suspense and expectation and muted horror, both Robin and Nancy behaving and talking ‘normally’ while their unconscious minds are obviously screaming. It all builds to the climactic scene where Robin takes her to the clinic, leaves her in the room where she is to prepare for the operation – then hears her burst into tears and goes back into the bedroom to find her flung on the bed and absolutely distraught. In more or less the only decent act of his life, Robin realises he is being a selfish bastard. He packs her stuff for her, whisks her away and, in the train waiting room at Cardiff, proposes to her. Wow. Quite a turnaround.

There is then a sub-plot where Nancy’s staid mother and father refuse to attend the hurried registry office wedding which Robin has organised within just a few days, until Robin’s own mother insists on going to a face-to-face meeting with them and, surprisingly, gets them to change their minds.

In parallel to all this are several scenes where Robin visits his brother George and is witness to the appalling hell of having a child – in his brother’s case his little girl, Marian – who screams and bawls and throws food everywhere and is generally a monster all day long. Some of this is very funny but mostly it confirms Robin in his horror of fatherhood, marriage, commitment – the whole shebang.

And so to the title of the book. As he discusses in one of the many long-winded and obtuse conversations which dominate the text, this one down the boozer with brother George, you can’t have both: you can’t have commitment and marriage – and at the same time remain a footloose bachelor, free to screw around. Why? Why can’t you have both? Because you have to bloody well grow up!

After his dad’s funeral Robin and his mother have one of their chats in which he is disconcerted to realise how transparent his character is to other people – how self-centred all around realise he is, how unreliable and shifty and duplicitous. God, is it really that obvious? He’s not even a shallow character. For all his endless calculating and his smart-arse pedantry about the Classics (his own private name for Xenophon’s Anabasis being How To Fuck Up A Good Story, ho ho p.212) – when it comes to relations with other people, he is barely human.

Chapter 4

A short, 15-page epilogue, in which our hero is revealed, nine or so years later, to have becomes a Reader in Classics at a Midland University and we think we are just going to be shown his boring after-life as a respectable middle-class, middle-aged paterfamilias. And certainly we see him motoring home at lunchtime to kiss his wife, the very same Nancy, and his two rambunctious daughters, Margaret and Matilda.

But there’s a sting in the tail. For quite quickly we realise that Robin, despite being respectably married, is still having extra-marital flings. In fact he’s off to one in London now, making up a cock-and-bull story about having to go do academic work or attend a conference. And so he takes the train to the Smoke, the tube to Fulham and checks into the quiet boarding house where he commits his deeds of darkness there to await… none other than the now rather stout Dilys, his cousin, older than him and who flirted with him in Wales when he was a pimply adolescent.

They have barely finished an aggressive act of congress before the phone rings in the rented room and, when Robin absent-mindedly picks it up, it is Nancy on the other end. She is downstairs. She has followed him. In fact she’s had him tailed by a private detective. She knows everything. Has done for months.

Robin creeps downstairs like a naughty schoolboy and there has to put up with a massive harangue about what a self-centred little shit he is, Nancy alternately shouting in his face or bursting into tears. She says she’ll take him back for one last chance but if anything like this happens again, she’ll leave him and take the girls and he’ll never see them again. Then she lands him a colossal punch in the face.

This might seem like a come-uppance, and almost like some kind of moral reckoning, but it isn’t. It feels exactly like the end of Take A Girl Like You from 26 years earlier, in which northern lass Jenny Bunn ends up marrying the caddish Patrick Standish despite knowing that he’ll never change; or like That Uncertain Feeling where we watch John Lewis lured into an adulterous affair which really, deeply hurts his loving wife, and so upsets the reader. Men who have the strength of character of a goldfish.

Similarly, the worldview behind this novel hasn’t shifted a jot in Amis’s 30-year-long career. If he thinks painting a warts-n-all, brutally self-flagellating portrait of this kind of man and this kind of character somehow redeems or justifies the behaviour, it doesn’t. Some readers have found the book moving, but I found the overall affect depressing and lowering. There is no joy to this compulsive coupling: just a brainless addiction, shallow deceptions and an aftertaste of ashes.


Amis’s sort of vague & diffuse style or something

It’s a real oddity that Amis wrote many essays and at least one book about English usage, and yet his own style is so contorted and obscure as to be sometimes almost unreadable.

His central tactic is to include in the narrative prose and dialogue the kind of throwaway, ‘whatever’ phrasing that many people use in everyday life (or used – the exact diction is, of course, very dated throughout). But in his hands it has become a mannerism with half a dozen specific elements or aspects, all contributing to make the characters and narrator sound infuriatingly vague, so casual in what they’re describing that it often becomes difficult to follow, so persistently offhand as to become wilfully obscure.

The tactics include:

The pointless qualification

Adding an extra clause at the end of a sentence, ‘or something’, to any previously firm statement, in order to make it feel weaker and vaguer.

  • ‘This makes all the difference. Well, quite a lot of difference.’ (p.142)
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway.’ (p.145)
  • At other times, or even at the same time… (p.149)
  • He thought he’d make me like it by being around too much when I was a nipper, or not being around enough or something.’ (p.158)
  • He assured himself, with some truth, that in wartime such arrangements, or non-arrangements, were common, or not uncommon, (p.162)
  • Actually a different accent might have done his cause some good or at any rate less harm. (p.169)
  • The temple or secular chapel or whatever it was they entered… (p.204)
  • ‘What did you make of that extract or oration or whatever it was that your brother read out?’ (p.207)

Deliberate vagueness

Almost all the perceptions and thoughts which occur to any character are deliberately vague. There is a willed blurriness about what or who people or things are.

  • If anything the last bit was a faint surprise to Robin who had vaguely supposed…
  • Robin was mildly disconcerted by this approach, or lack of it…
  • And it is my business a bit, after all…
  • He’s always been one for speaking his mind, that’s to say some of his mind…
  • Oh he’ll be as nice as pie to you, or he’ll do his best to be…
  • Robin tried to make it clear, but not too clear, that he spoke largely in jest…
  • They sort of have to fall back on being very fed up…
  • ‘I see all that, some of it anyway…’ (p.145)

The passive voice

I hadn’t previously noticed Amis’s use of the passive voice in oddly inappropriate settings. I’m sure it’s a new tactic in his campaign of undermining the English language’s ability to state facts and convey information.

  • The half-dozen little glassed-in cubicles, known to some as audition booths… (p.99)
  • He switched the wireless on and music from a brass band was to be heard. It was not a very agreeable noise… (p.119)
  • Food was visible, but dishing-up time went on being not yet. (p.168)
  • An indifferent recording of some archaic quasi-religious piece of music made itself heard for a minute or so… (p.204)
  • No actual detritus of food or make-up was to be seen… (p.232)
  • A solitary flash of gold was to be seen among his teeth. (p.239)
  • A man’s voice was soon to be heard… (p.242)

Amis’s laboured jokes

It’s meant to be a comic novel, but Amis was never simply funny in the way Tom Sharpe or Howard Jacobson or even David Lodge are funny. Right from the start there was always a substantial amount of knotty, difficult or ambiguous ‘real life’ in his books. Since his novels mostly tell of unappealing characters, from another era, conveyed in his peculiarly convoluted prose, these grapplings with serious issues or unpleasant experiences aren’t necessarily the good or enjoyable bits.

Sometimes his perceptions are just funny, no effort required.

She wore a dark garment that resembled, and perhaps in former days had actually been, a page’s tabard in some historical pageant. (p.89)

He, Robin, could on his own accord have wished for nothing better in its line than the absence of Mr and Mrs B from his wedding, except naturally for their absence from his life for a trial period of say fifty years. (p.273)

But sometimes his long-winded style makes you work considerably harder before you get to the punchline, at which point you ask, Well, was it worth it?

Robin’s bedroom, even when not given over to Nancy, boasted a gas-fire of curious three-dimensional design, with gnarled black burners instead of the more familiar straight white ones, a legacy of some previous owner of the house. It probably threw out no more heat at no greater cost than more conventional appliances, but its unusual horizontalised appearance made it not a thing to be trifled with, in other words not a thing to be used except at times of imminent glaciation. (p.130)

The punchline made me smile, but note the deliberate tone of vagueness and so-whattery – some previous owner, probably more heat. The narrator – well, Amis – just isn’t very interested in the world about him, except for girls and sex, a monomaniac compulsion which becomes very boring. As Robin himself confesses to brother George:

‘As long as I can remember I’ve thought about almost nothing but getting my end away…’ (p.147)

His older brother invites Robin and Nancy to accompany him and his girlfriend to the cinema. What an opportunity that could have been for adding in the detail of the films people went to see in the 1940s, with a snappy one-liner about Cagney or Bogart, a phrase encapsulating George or Robin’s character, a flash which would make the text come alive.

Instead George throws away the remark that the movie they’re planning to see is ‘some gangster thing’. A small example of the way none of the characters nor the narrator really notice or care very much about the world around them.

Amis’s acting

Everyone is acting and performing and hyper-aware of it, timing their performances of such business as laughing, smiling, frowning, shouting, hesitating, putting on a show. These performances come in blocks and chunks; instead of a flow of time the reader gets disconnected excerpts, sections, bits of stuff, sequences of performance by one or other character.

  • After doing a certain amount of laughing about something or other…
  • The tea was made, with hot water standing by but no fanciful extras like slices of lemon. Robin managed not to grin at the very unwatchful way Nancy watched for consumer reaction to what she had prepared. To be on the safe side he limited his show of approval to minor noises and faces. (p.146)
  • He tried to get reliability and and unplumbed experience into the way he tilted his head forward and over to one side. (p.178)
  • This section lasted only a short time. (p.239)
  • Silence and pretended shame seemed called for… (p.219)
  • [George got] to his feet with caricatured haste. ‘Right on cue. I’ll have to go and do some welcoming home.’ (p.221)
  • [Marian attacked her tea] in the spirit of someone registering appetite in a silent film. (p.223) (p.231)
  • ‘Beck,’ he announced, stooped over Nancy’s hand and vigorously shook Robin’s, then did some more chuckling and went on with a good imitation of ferocity. (p.238)
  • When he answered he tried not to overdo his appreciation of the justice of her diagnosis. (p.259)
  • There followed a sort of silent film couple of moments in which Mr Bennett laid his hand on his wife’s arm and she went through a hurried series of reactions, from a start or jump of sheer physical surprise through mild indignation to acceptance and gratitude. When this reached completion, he said to Robin’s mother… (p.274)
  • Jeremy showed himself in good form as entertainer, as old friend, as affectionate and attentive son but not too much of either. (p.288)
  • He had tried bewilderment shading into muddled protest just now and had cut no ice at all. (p.301)

Sometimes these descriptions of the characters’ permanent acting for each other is funny.

‘Oh yes, Mum, you did quite right to tell me,’ said Robin, hanging out situation-well-in-hand signals as he spoke. (p.152)

This is the kind of thing you read about the young Amis keeping his mates in stitches with at Oxford, and which the early books like Lucky Jim are stuffed to the brim with. But equally as much of the time it feels oddly alienated and detached, almost robotic. It feels weird.

  • Either she was doing a marvellous imitation of a girl quite uninterested in the impression she was making, or she was such a girl. The latter, he thought, and good for her. He knew it was bad luck on her to have got tied up with a chap who hardly knew what it was not to care how he seemed to other people. (p.165)
  • It was one of those rare times when he forgot to care how he seemed to other people. (p.166)

And in fact at some moments, it feels almost panic-stricken. The comedy is so close to panic fear, to a Kafka-esque level of alienation from other people, from the world and from himself, that it’s impossible to even smile, let alone laugh. In the climactic scene when Nancy confronts him with his stupid, selfish promiscuousness and threatens to leave:

A great fear of being altogether alone swept over him, as if she might take from him not only herself and their life together but everything familiar to him, all his reference points, whatever made it possible to steer through the hours between waking up and falling asleep. (p.302)

It’s ironic that Amis once or twice is quoted as taking the mickey out of continental philosophy, especially the Sartrean existentialism which was fashionable as Amis came to notice – because all of his novels, for me, far more than the superficial comedy, bespeak a really powerful terror of existence, a nausea in the face of other people and great yawning chasms of Time which cannot be faced or handled without a multitude of tricks, pulling faces, negotiating bits of time, manipulating other people, drinking and a pointless pursuit of sex. In  his way, Amis is the great English existentialist novelist.

Sections of time and bits of stuff

There’s a particular mannerism which bugs me, which is when a character gets cross or happy or delivers a speech or something – and then the narrator or protagonist or some characters refer to what we’ve just heard as a performance or, even more vaguely and demotically, as ‘a bit’, or ‘that lot’, or some ‘stuff’.

Instead of characters responding to each others’ dialogue, they just sit through it, regarding it all as ‘stuff’ that has to be endured. After Mr Davies very mildly criticises them for being indecent in his house, Nancy retreats to the bedroom to recover and Robin goes to ask if she’s alright.

‘I’m fine. I just sort of wanted to rest for a moment before the next lot.’
‘Oh, there won’t be a next lot for quite a time.’ (p.116)

  • Robin had had time to prepare some of that…. He would probably not had the cheek to blurt out the last bit… (p.154)

Time itself is broken down into sections which have to be defined and then navigated. Absolutely nothing flows naturally. Here he is in bed with Nancy and failing – I think – to get an erection.

  • The particular kind of embrace that should have come next seemed no less firmly indicated, but that was only to start with. After a minute or so he found he had nothing much to go on with, not enough, in fact. Such a thing had not happened to him since the time before he met Nancy and he was put out, though not as much as much as he might have been in the absence of anything else to claim his attention. (p.243)

Time gets tied up in knots in Amis’s prose. It is the one issue – even more than sex – which his characters are always fretting about.

  • ‘If we go along there now we can set about filling in the time to some purpose.’ (p.277)

Beady-eyed

Above all, the protagonist has a permanent, beady-eyed air of calculation, calculating the impression he’s making on people, manipulating and manoeuvring everyone around him in order to give himself the easiest ride and, above all – obsessed with getting women into bed. Even if it’s to a disappointing experience, even if it involves unhappiness and regret, it doesn’t matter – women women women, bed bed bed sex sex sex. The real world barely exists.

For the next couple of minutes, Robin’s attention was not on the shops and such about him as he walked, which surely must have changed since he last saw them but in no way that interested him or caught his eye. (p.153)

As a typical example, it emerges that – surprisingly – while on active service during the war, Robin won a medal. His friend Jeremy asks him about it.

‘Does that thing above your pocket mean you were very brave about something?’
‘No, just that I was somewhere in particular at a particular time.’ (p.157)

Everything is downplayed, underplayed, dismissed, not taken seriously, it’s just stuff to sit through and be endured while you act whatever part the tedious old shags around you require, till you can get free to have a smoke, better still a couple of jars with a mate, best of all a bunk-up with some dolly bird in a rented room.

Between then and the time fixed for Robin’s departure for Oxford the next morning nothing of great significance happened. (p.184)

Most of life apparently consisted of being in a minority of one, a status worth going to some lengths to alleviate at events like your father’s funeral. And old Emble had intrinsic merits too, seeming older than Robin, actually being richer and posher, also staid of demeanour, just the sort of fellow whom luck or good judgement could turn into a means of mitigating or even removing some minor disagreeableness like having to chat to an uncle or find an erstwhile business colleague a seat. (p.202)

In other words, his best ‘friend’ is in fact merely a convenient tool for assuaging the protagonist’s inescapable solipsism.

Feeling and meaning

Surprisingly, the text rises to a handful of moments of something like real emotion – for example, when the narrator describes the scenes around his father dying or at the climax of the abortion plotline. But I couldn’t make out whether the feeling was really in the text, or just me supplying it because I knew it was appropriate.

Certainly, most of the time, the reader has to add their own feelings to animate scenes which seem to lack any emotion on the part of the calculating protagonist. For example, to the later scenes when his mother tells him what his dead father really thought of him, or when his gay friend Jeremy lets loose a stream of 1940s prejudices about queers and women.

But for the most part I felt little or no emotional involvement with any of the characters, since I was repelled in almost every sentence by Amis’s weird prose style and his deliberately vague and alienated worldview.

Towards the end, it dawned on me that the frequent use of the passive voice has a moral dimension, too. It typifies the protagonist’s sense that he isn’t responsible for events. Things just keep on happening to him, damn it, and his only concern is how to negotiate ‘this bit’ and live through ‘the next section’ and handle the ‘stuff’ that keeps on coming his way, and do some ‘welcoming’ or ‘laughing’ or making polite small-talk, or whatever guff it takes to appease the irritating old duffers who seem to populate the world around him.

He could think of no other way of passing the next hour or so, and concluded that this was one of those times when you had little choice in what you were to do. (p.183)

Objects are seen; voices are heard; people are said to appear; houses come into view; expressions are registered. The passive voice not only indicates the strange alienation from the world of the protagonist and narrator, it also points towards his continuing evasion of responsibility. His brother George surprises Robin by saying that for most of his life his father had a nickname for him – O.O. Davies – standing for Options Open (p.220) – describing the way he can’t get anywhere near committing to anyone or anything because he is always calculating and gambling on something better coming along.

Thus Robin has a reasonable amount of self-knowledge: he knows he is self-centred, only after one thing, casually hurtful – he knows he is ‘selfish, self-indulgent, lazy, arrogant and above all inextinguishably promiscuous by nature’ (p.245) –  and the narrator doesn’t spare him, just as he didn’t soft pedal the unpleasantness of so many previous protagonists, like adulterous John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling or Patrick Standish, the compulsive fornicator in Take A Girl Like You.

This unflinching honesty may be admirable, up to a point, but it doesn’t really compensate the reader for having to wade through what is, more or less, the same kind of story about the same kind of unpleasant, selfish and, above all, unimaginative – in fact aggressively anti-imaginative – character.

The streets [of London] were not crowded, but there were enough people in them, moving rapidly enough, for Robin to become aware of his small and shallow experience of the city he had been born in, not because he had been brought up near its distant edge but inevitably, not at all exceptionally. He would live and die without having found out anything much about it, anything personal to him, perhaps nothing worth remembering about anything. (p.229)

The casual sexism and homophobia will presumably outrage the politically correct, or even averagely decent, modern reader. What upsets me far more is the deliberately and insultingly vague and obtuse vision of the world and the people in it, a wilfully unobservant, ignorant and uninterested view of life which is lamentably narrow, dull and self-blinkered, and which becomes extremely wearing far before the book reaches its end.


Credit

You Can’t Do Both by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1994. All quotes and references are to the 1996 Flamingo paperback edition.

Related links

Kingsley Amis 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 with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, 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 in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with 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. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based 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. Was it worth it?
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 all the time, and completely failes to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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.

Redback by Howard Jacobson (1986)

I walked back the way I’d come at a furious pace. I needed to exercise off my exasperation. No good comes of talking to old people, especially in Australia where they strike themselves as characters. Their opinions invariably lack truth and wisdom. And when they have finished listening you are denied all the usual methods of obtaining relief: you can’t really shout at them and you oughtn’t really to knock them down. (p.325)

This is Jacobson’s third novel in a row to be told in the first person by an anxious, guilty, intellectual, hyper-literary, sex-obsessed, verbose, very funny and, ultimately, rather wearing narrator.

This one is called Leon Forelock and given an autobiography distinct in incident from the two previous heroes – Barney Fugelman (Peeping Tom) and Sefton Goldberg (Coming From Behind). Unlike them, he is not Jewish. But despite these surface differences, the actual narrative voice we experience is much the same. Wordy, prolix, effortlessly articulate, addicted to showy paradoxes and subtle distinctions, self-dramatising, obsessed with women and sex, consistently humorous in tone but only occasionally prompting actual laughter.

‘But there’s no-one else here,’ I expostulated. I’m not being wordy – that’s really what I did. I expostulated. I complained and pleaded and debated in an aggrieved manner. (p.328)

(Sefton Goldberg, anti-hero of Jacobson’s first novel, actually turns up as a character, one of a loose association of expatriate Brits Leon enjoys necking tinnys with at the pub named The Whingeing Pom, p.247. Jacobson takes those opportunities to highlight that whereas Sefton is a Jew, Leon – the narrator of Redback narrator – is not.)

A tangled plot

The plot is easy enough in outline, although, at its key turning points, quite hard to follow. Broadly, Leon Forelock grows up in the wettest town in England, Partington, caught between Liverpool and Manchester. Here he is prey to a collection of stock characters from the ‘miserable North’ school of comedy – his father an ineffectual shorty, his mother a harumphing shrew who runs a hair salon assisted by two fearsome aunts named Hesta and Nesta who, the young Leon thinks, must spend all their time shoving pillows up their fronts to produce such peculiar and ever-changing shapes, and sticking black hairs into their prominent warts the better to look like old witches.

Nesta introduces young Leon to the joys of operetta, which makes for some entertaining passages about great operetta singers of the 1940s and 50s, and the silliness of their Ruritanian plots provides an amusing thread which runs through Leon’s memories and experiences.

I vas never kissed before, sang Georges Guétary, een zat kind ov vay. I knew exactly what he meant. I loved Georges Guétary. He was my ideal musical European. A voice like Georges Guétary’s, a stage presence like Nelson Eddy’s, an appetite like Mario Lanza’s. and I would have died happy. (p.234)

Like Jacobson’s other novels, although the plot is very roughly linear – moving from Partington to Cambridge to Australia – the text is made up of innumerable flashbacks, of countless detours, digressions and divagations, as the narrator rambles forwards and backwards over his life, picking up and continuing numerous storylines at various points, as well as wandering off for pages at a time on a wide range of subjects which occur to him and inspire ad hoc meditations and musings.

From this densely-woven plethora of prose we make out that Leon’s father ran off with a posh local woman, named Trilby, and that they ran all the way to Australia, from where he receives the occasional postcard inviting him to visit.

Cambridge

There is a prolonged interlude as our lower-middle-class hero goes to Cambridge (as Jacobson himself did) to study Moral Decencies (unlike Jacobson, who studied the rather more conventional English Literature) at the fictional college of Malapert. There are comic memories of Cambridge, the main one being the almost total absence of women, or ‘totty’ as they were referred to. Exceptions being an exotic, probably Hindu, princess, Ankhesenamen, whose ten little toes remind Leon of scarab beetles peeking out from under her sari (p.67). There are some funny moments, but by and large Tom Sharpe is much funnier about Cambridge in his Porterhouse Blue novels.

Recruitment for a political mission

The main event is his accident with Father Dinmont Manifest aka ‘Dinny’. Despite rereading it this whole episode remains rather opaque to me: Dinny appears to have let himself be crashed into by Leon on his bicycle in order to pick him up, take him back to his church (?) and then recruit him. ‘Recruit him?’ Yes because Father Manifest works for a CIA front named Freedom Academy International, and recruits Leon to go on a mission to Australia to combat ‘Tristanism’, the odd name they’ve given to the wave of permissiveness which is allegedly sweeping the West.

On this very slender and barely comprehensible pretext, Leon sails off to Australia, where he spends the best part of the 1960s stuck in the offices of The Black Flag magazine (named because it was seeing a black flag which led the medieval hero Tristan to his death; pretty obscure stuff.)

Mission to Australia

This idea that Leon is on some kind of undercover mission opens up a set of comic references to the Australian Secret Services who he claims are keeping tabs on him, and also explains why he gains admission to the world of Australian small political magazines, to meeting other crusaders for moral values, and so on, all of whom are painted as loons and freaks of various degrees.

Leon is credited with implementing various wacky right-wing schemes, including OPERATION POM and the mildly funny idea of creating an Immigration Test based on knowledge of the obscure medieval English poem, Piers Plowman. As an English graduate who’s read (and enjoyed) Piers Plowman I got the reference, and laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea, but it all feels a bit of an in-joke for literary types.

Leon repeatedly insists he is not a very political person, that – as he tells us on page 197 – he is ‘a personality rather than a principle man’ – that is, his opinions are formed by people and personalities, rather than intellectual principles – and the text bears this out, as you get very little sense of any of the political or social ideas which transformed the western world during this tumultuous decade.

Leon ends up staying in Australia for the rest of his life – from around 1962 up till the present (ie when the book was published, in 1986) and he mentions various Australian politicians whose names ring a bell (Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke) but it is impressive how little sense the book gives you of Australian politics or history.

And no sense at all of Leon’s own politics. Because they are based on personal tastes and prejudices, his views are difficult to nail down, they they change as his feelings change and so the ‘Big Change’ which supposedly dominates the second part of the book – when he shifts from being a conservative to being a radical – is built up several times in the text, but actually takes place with no change of voice or attitude – because he never had very strong objective beliefs to start with.

About Australians

So off to Australia Leon sails, on this supposed mission to promote conservative values, and coincidentally to drop in on his Dad and Trilby. He’s met at the dock, for reasons I didn’t quite follow, by a Jewish academic, a humorously-titled professor of Pessimistic Philosophy, Orel Rosenfeldt, and quickly whisked back to his house.

By this stage the reader is realising that the storyline, the plot, isn’t all that important – it may even be part of the comic intention that it barely makes sense at several points. The real driver of the text is to introduce us to an unwavering line of comic grotesques and caricatures, who are often very funny indeed.

Leon’s mother – permanently hissing ‘shush!’ at the young lad – his two ugly aunts, the handful of eccentrics he met at Cambridge, all these are eclipsed from about page 100 onwards by a wall of comic Australian characters and long disquisitions on all things Australian, the food, the landscape, the culture, the lingo and so on.

The art of vilification was in its infancy in Australia when I first arrived. There was a certain rough native idiomatic vitalism around sure enough, but it was of a kind that could easily make detraction sound like flattery; it was a coarse, affectionate, bachelor style of disparagement, and it needed to settle down in the company of some cruel European contempt. I, if you like, officiated at the wedding. (p.85)

Jacobson’s basic style is a comic grandiosity, a mock pedantic orotundity, a humorously over-inflated self-importance which dresses his every thought and feeling in a grand and aggrandising rhetoric. His narrators are the superstars of their own convoluted perorations, so that one among many comic tricks is the contrast between the Jamesian complexity of their long-winded prose being brougfht down to earth with a bump by the abrupt bluntness of the external world, by some piece of Ossie repartee or the name of an obviously comic character. E.g:

Melbourne? Yes, Yes I know – it wasn’t the centre of sublunary wickedness exactly. It wasn’t Hades or Gomorrah. It wasn’t even Hamburg or Gillingham. But it had made the Festival of Light see red; it had given the world the Women’s Movement, and – no negligible claim to infamy – it had given the world Bev Belladonna. (p.300)

As his first novel was stuffed with rather dubious generalisations about Jews, so this one is stuffed with equally carefree generalisations about Australians. Most of them have enough of a germ of truth to be funny, but their function is nearly always to trigger or enable an ensuing rhodomontade of opinionated prose.

There’s no moving an Australian over forty, once his mind’s made up. (p.345)

The really nice thing about Australians is their lack of interest in finding their politicians honourable. They actually prefer them dodgy. The rougher they are – the more they pissant around where they shouldn’t – always provided they remember to blubber where they should – the more they’re trusted. In the country that idealises the ratbag and the larrikin, the scoundrel will always be a hero. (p.332)

‘Have you noticed how much time Australian men spend scratching their dicks?’ (p.202)

He was wearing one of those ascetic beards difficult Australian men sometimes take refuge in, a fringe around his face, leaving a half-moon of chin and the whole of his upper lip bare. (p.322)

Delsey pulled one of her vital-weary, arch-exasperated Australian faces – the kind that are meant to win over an imaginary third party, the sort that famous Australians employ to amuse audiences when someone else is speaking. (p.319)

Of course I should have known that Delsey had to be sitting on a pretty snazzy vaudeville routine. She was Australian, wasn’t she? All Australians – certainly all Australians of her class and generation – put a high value on snap vitality. This was part Americanisation: every girl her own Shirley Temple; and part indigenous sentimentality: nostalgia for the good old Australia of wandering shysters and mountebanks and song-and-dance men. The more serious the Australian, the more thorough-going the nostalgia. (p.313)

Jacobson published a non-fiction book about Australia, In The Land of Oz, the year after Redback (1987). It would be interesting to know whether it is any more factual, sober and logical than this fantasy, or whether it contains as many recklessly wild generalisations about Ossie life and culture.

Jacobson’s prose

Passages like these demonstrate a number of things about Jacobson’s prose. First and foremost is his ability to spin long paragraphs of comic inventiveness out of almost anything. The sheer length of the paragraphs explains why the pages look so dense – often solid blocks of text with no break or indentation – as the narrator holds forth, at length, about another thing which has just crossed his mind. There is far more comic soliloquy by the narrator than dialogue between characters. A Jacobson novel is a prolonged ‘holding forth’.

Techniques which help him spin out such lengthy prose include generalisations. Once you’ve stated a generalisation, no matter how dubious, the narrator can argue for and against it and under it and over it, and he can create characters, or whistle up conversations between characters, which also debate and discuss and digress around the invented topic. Women and Australia, in particular, come in for regular generalisations.

  • That combination of irony, tomboyishness, and country-town rawness which is to be found in all Australian women makes it difficult for them to throw themselves into public sexuality. (p.215)
  • Mind you, Australian feminists don’t need much to set them ticking, and they do make a big bang. (p.232)

Of course, the more ridiculous the generalisation, the more it’s used for comic exaggeration – the funnier it can be.

You cannot move in Melbourne, you cannot hear yourself think in Melbourne, you cannot find a spare place in a bar in Melbourne, for schoolteachers, apologists for schoolteachers, teachers of schoolteachers, and theoreticians of the teaching of apologising for schoolteachers. (p.297)

Another technique is the use of rhetorical questions. Almost any paragraph of length includes one or more:

  • Does that sound like a perfect mutuality? Well don’t forget that nothing is ever equal between men and women. It’s in the nature of their conjoining that one will always be on a more urgent mission than the other. (p.281)
  • Marriage is prostitution, Norelle Turpie made herself famous for saying. And who except Hartley Quibell would bother to deny it? (p.268)
  • Have I said enough to convey our total lack of interest both in our own and in each other’s Dreena? In that case will it surprise you to hear that when I turned up at Ruddles’s place one evening, as arranged, and learned that he was at that very moment turning up at my place, some six or seven hundred miles away, also as arranged, I was unable to stop myself taking Ruddles’s Dreena in my arms and telling her that I had wanted her ever since I’d clapped yes on her, yes, and even for some time before that? And will it surprise you to hear that although he would most certainly have been reeling with distaste from her open occidental pores, Ruddles was saying the very same thing, yes, and in the very same voice, to the Dreena who was mine? (p.190)
  • Wasn’t that what our own irregular but highly formalised arrangement implied? Wasn’t that the idea? Weren’t we meant to be disapproving of everyone except ourselves, conventional in regard to everything except what really mattered? (p.287)
  • What was before or below me now? I wondered. What did I aspire to? What was I after? (p.281)

These rhetorical and unanswerable questions create a kind of space in the text, a sort of elbow room where the narrative grinds to a halt while the narrator considers the various questions he’s posed himself and generally addresses them by asking even more questions. Some are rhetorical and don’t need answering and are left hanging; others trigger further ruminations and ratiocinations.

In fact, now I read a selection of these in isolation, I also realise they are a classic teaching method. Jacobson was a university lecturer for some 15 years and, since the time of Socrates, what has been a key pedagogic method but the posing of questions to debate and discuss? Who is the narrator asking so many questions of? His class.

Maybe this is why the tone of voice is the same in these three early Jacobson novels, despite the ostensibly different narrators: because they are all the voice of a richly and comically pontificating pedagogue.

The style of mock heroic narration, its ability to spool seemingly endless paragraphs of rumination out of very modest subjects, the rhetorical flourishes and repetitions, the deployment of grand professorial questions, maintain the narrative at a permanent level of amused urbanity. But it can, over the long run, become a bit wearing. Towards the end, as the plot grew ever more random but the prose continued at this high, rather demanding pitch, the temptation grew to skip yet another page-long purple paragraph and then, maybe, whole chapters…

Climax

The previous novel, Peeping Tom, made repeated mention of the Big Event which – it was promised -transformed his life and explains the existence of the whole narrative. It is something Big and Horrible which happened with his lover Camilla, and which affected him so badly that he is only now recovering from it. The text builds up our anticipation of this Event with repeated mentions, drumming it up to be the Climax towards which the text is hurtling and which will explain everything.

In the event, it turns out Camilla ran off with the owner of the candyfloss and seaside rock shop after, admittedly, giving him a bad fright for a few hours by pretending she’d swum out the sea and drowned. But then he discovers – No: she just dumped him.

Hmm. This isn’t quite the Great Comic Climax we had been led to expect. The rock and candyfloss man is, in fact, a lecturer in the French nouveau roman who ran away to Cornwall to start a new life and has been bitterly disappointed, which is quite funny, but being dumped by your lover is just sad, and it’s more than a bit disappointing that this banal fact turns out to be why Leon haunts the cliffs and byways of North Cornwall, alone and forlorn.

Similarly, in Redback, the title refers to a type of poisonous spider native to Australia and we are told repeatedly that, when the hero went for a poo in an out-house, a specimen of redback bit him on the testicles, causing them to swell up and our hero to be hospitalised and that the event is the Major Trigger for his change of life and attitudes, for the Big Changes which the book records, and that it will explain everything!

The spider bite is set up to provide exactly the same narrative End-Point as Camilla’s departure in Peeping Tom and, as in that novel, proves to be similarly anti-climactic, when the moment finally comes, right at the end of the novel.

First Leon dumps the synchronised swimmers he’s been going out with for years. Synchronised swimmers? Yes, apparently what persuaded two beautiful lithe athletes to agree to spend eight years sleeping in the same bed with the weedy, nerdy narrator, was his reassuringly conservative views. When – for reasons which are hard to follow – his conservative views start to crumble and he shows dangerous signs of liberalism, they dump him.

Equally inexplicably, his first reaction to being dumped by the swimmers is to seek out an Ossie woman he had sex with in Cambridge all those decades ago, and whose face he’s seen in the paper as running an all-women feminist commune in the outback. And so he sets off to find her.

He  tracks her down to a rough bar and, improbably, she drives him out to the commune and says he can stay as the resident man and fixer, so long as he doesn’t enter the actual commune building, but restricts himself to the so-called tent down the hill and uses the extremely primitive ‘dunny’, or outside loo.

These scenes around the feminist commune are very funny, particularly urban Leon (and Jacobson’s) response to the feral, malevolent Outback, with its low humming of aggrieved wildlife just waiting to take their revenge. I laughed out loud at a lot of the descriptions of the scandalised townie recoiling form the hairy, crawling critters which share his tent with him – and this kind of scandalised exaggeration suits Jacobson’s rhetorical style perfectly. But, again, it was hard to see what kind of plot logic had brought us here. It’s all very funny but seems to come out of nowhere as a whim.

In the event Leon is having a poo in the dunny when the redback spider lurking there bites the underside of his tackle. Cue fever, facial rictus and the crown jewels swelling to twice their usual size. The feminists are unsympathetic and so he hitches a ride back into town with some passing retired tourists and gets himself admitted to the local hospital. Here – in scene which takes authorial randomness to new levels – he is momentarily addressed by a British Royal Couple who happen to be visiting at just that moment, to whom he finds himself having to explain precisely what satyriasis is ie the permanent, unrelievable giant erection of the penis. They nod sagely. Unflappable, these royals.

In the last pages, a restored Leon goes to visit his father’s second wife, Trilby, the woman he ran out on young Leon for all those decades ago. Along the way, Leon’s dad has died and buried in Botany Bay. Trilby she explains that she’s going back to Blighty – she wants to be among her family. Fair dinkum, but Leon stays on in Australia and his last thoughts are about the vast jamboree which the country is going to treat itself to at its two hundredth anniversary in 1988. The Trilby scenes, his dad’s death, cast an odd shadow over the ending of this comic novel.

Timeline

It’s worth mentioning how long ago the plot is set. Leon was born in 1940 (Jacobson was born in 1942), so attends Cambridge in 1958 through to 1962, which is when he’s recruited to Freedom Academy International. He spends most of the 1960s working for a right-wing magazine in Australia, launching countless campaigns against the permissive society and trying to get smutty books banned, before, some time around the end of the Vietnam War (the mid-70s?), experiencing his conversion to radical politics which is, in fact, so barely perceivable to the reader.

Although much of the novel is set in the 1960s, if you thought it will shed any light on the 1960s, you’ll be sorely disappointed. It sheds endless light on the narrator’s favourite topics- Australians, the oddities of marriage or this or that comic character, women, sex – but it isn’t a serious analysis or meditation on anything much. There are lots – hundreds – of short comic disquisitions on minor points – but hardly any sense of the social or political background. Or the broader history of the period.

Eventually, right at the end, some years after the spider bite, it turns out the menacing figures keeping tabs on him from a dark Mercedes parked outside his door which he’s spent most of the book thinking are the Australian Security Services, aren’t at all, but turn out to be the three dim Cooney brothers – George, Bernard and Shaun – part of the right-wing group he was introduced right at the start of his Australia trip. All they want is for Leon to help them pass the Immigrant Test he devised when he was a rabid right-winger, the comic one based on detailed knowledge of the medieval poem Piers Plowman.

It is this final sequence which mentions funding for the 1988 biennial celebrations of Australia’s founding. So somehow we have flown from 1958, to 1962, to the late 60s, the end of Vietnam and – whoosh! – on to the date of publication (1986) with huge amounts of comic improvisation and humorous disquisition, but very little sense of time passing or characters changing or developing, especially the central narrator, who is as bright, perky and ironically verbose at the end as he was at the beginning.

Some comic characters

  • Leon’s Dad – tiny and forgetful, he routinely takes Leon out in the pram when he’s a baby and walks off forgetting all about him, one time absent-mindedly putting him in a litter bin in a park and coming home with the rubbish bag from a picnic. Runs off with Trilby, the nearest thing Partington knows to a classy lady.
  • Leon’s mum – runs Partington’s hair salon with mixed results for the customers.
  • Aunt Nesta – keen on operetta.
  • Aunt Hesta – keen on outings to castles and old ruins.
  • Ruddles, Leon’s friend at Cambridge, who hangs around the train station on the lookout for stunning blondes but, since he is short-sighted, needs Leon to help point them out to him.
  • Dinny i.e. Father Dinmont Manifest – priest who is in fact a recruiter for the CIA-backed  Freedom Academy International.
  • Orel Rosenfeldt, Professor in Pessimistic Philosophy at the university of Wallamaloo, like so many of Jacobson’s male characters, a hen-pecked weedy specimen. His main habit is elaborately peeling apples to that the peel forms one long spiral, before carefully depipping it, and then cutting it into sections. Can takes hours.
  • Vernie Redfern and Maroochi Ravesh, gorgeous tanned pair of synchronised swimmers who become Leon’s girlfriends.
  • Frank Whiling, mewling, feeble lefty, ‘a snuffed-out volcano, an inactive activist, a sort of soporiferous socialist who argued with his own bedclothes’ (p.128), permanently lifting his right fist and feebly yelling ‘Victory to -‘, the gap to be filled by whichever cause is fashionable this week.
  • Lobelia Sneddon: her comic trait is sprinkling her speech with French tags and then elaborately translating them for his presumed-illiterate audience. But, as Lobelia would say, c’est la vie or, that’s life!
  • Alex Sneddon – her husband, committed to the sanctity of the family.
  • Norelle Turpie, one time Senior Tutor in Women’s History, later leader of the Eastern Suburbs New Hegemonists (p.86), whatever that means.
  • Ruddles Carmody, fellow right-winger who – for a while – has a girlfriend named Dreena, which happens to be the name of Leon’s girlfriend of the time, so that in a chapter created solely for this purpose, they end up sleeping with each other’s girlfriends and not really noticing.
  • Henry Dabscheck, right-wing editor of The Black Flag.
  • The Cooney Brothers, George, Bernard and Shaun, who (comically) surround anyone they’re talking to.
  • Gunnar McMurphy, primal poet who expounds D.H.Lawrence. ‘His ambition was always to refer to the most private parts of women’s bodies in the most public places that would allow him to do so.’ (p.123)
  • Doug Kiernan, Vaughan Cantrell and Hungarian Rudi, three operatives of Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) who park in a Mercedes outside Leon’s flat after he converts to become a ‘radical’ (p.236). In one of the final coups of the novel, it turns out it’s not them at all, but the harmless Cooney brothers, who Leon’s been afraid of all this time.
  • Hartley Quibell, right wing conservative and owner – according to him – of the ‘last marriage in Australia’ i.e. resisting the rising tide of promiscuity and pornography.

Credit

Redback by Howard Jacobson was published in 1986 by Bantam Press. All quotes are from the 1987 Black Swan paperback edition.

Related links

Howard Jacobson’s novels

1983 Coming From Behind – Introducing miserable 35-year-old, failed English lecturer, frustrated lecher and anxious Jew, 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 – Sex-obsessed Jewish Barney Fugelman looks back over his life – his early marriage to big-breasted Sharon at whose whim he undergoes hypnosis and discovers he can channel the spirit of Thomas Hardy; then, when she reveals she’s pregnant, he dumps her and moves to Cornwall and has an affair with a full-blown Hardy expert, the Amazonian Camilla before she dumps him.
1986 Redback – Weedy northerner Leon Forelock escapes his narrow childhood in rainy Partington, first for eccentric Cambridge, and then as a CIA-funded right-wing writer and agitator in Australia, where Jacobson’s comic gift really flowers in extravagant fugues and riffs about Antipodean culture and characters.
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

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 –

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis (1992)

Richard had reached a kind of steady state of indecision. Everything that had happened seemed to make it harder to know what to do about anything. (p.179)

Richard Vaisey’s circle

Another novel set among the professional middle classes in London, this time focusing on Dr Richard Vaisey, lecturer in Russian Literature at the (fictional) London Institute of Slavonic Studies. He is married to the stunningly beautiful if odd, the mannered but reassuringly rich, Cordelia. It’s Cordelia’s second marriage; previously she was married to theatrical set-designer Godfrey Radetsky. Richard has been surprised to find himself becoming quite friendly with Godfrey’s plummy brother, Crispin Radetsky, QC, i.e. top lawyer, less so with his bitchy wife, Freddie, who cordially dislikes Cordelia. Nonetheless, Richard goes by himself to a dinner party at their house, where there’s an unexpected third party, Sandy, a middle-aged woman friend of theirs who’s always fancied Richard.

Richard is flattered but also worried to realise that, during the dinner, Crispin is trying to steer the pair together. After dinner Richard finds himself giving in to Sandy’s invitation to accompany her to a party somewhere in north London. In the cab he is suddenly having a kiss and a grope with her but then, when the cab arrives, manages to find the resolve not to get out and accompany her into the house party and to further fleshly entanglements. Instead, he decides to go take up an alternative invitation and go to a dowdy, mouldy house lived in by various agéd Russian émigrés and exiles. Here he meets Anna Danilova, a young Russian woman poet on a fleeting visit to London – and this becomes the nub of the plot.

Anna Danilova

It is 1991, Russia is in turmoil following the fall of the Soviet Union. Anna’s brother has been arrested and held illegally for a year. She wants Richard to help get her poetry published, so that she can get well known enough for her to be able to rally top British literary figures into her campaign to get her brother released from prison. Unfortunately, Richard finds her poetry unspeakably appalling. Problem.

Eventually Anna wears him down, they have sex, and Richard realises he is having an affair. It is blindingly obvious to his wife and all those around him, as he spends every day arranging things to forward Anna’s campaign, taking calls from her and so on. Cordelia is unnervingly urbane about it all: ‘Just tell me when you want the divorce, darling.’

Richard plucks up the courage to ask Crispin to help and the plot, I think, crosses over into implausibility when this urbane and very worldly man improbably agrees, and starts using his impressive contacts book to arrange for Anna to do readings, have her book published, and so on.

He takes them on a memorable set-piece visit to an eminent old architect, Sir Stephen something or other, a leader of London’s artistic circles, who he hopes to recruit for The Petition. Alas, they find the eccentric old buffer kept under tight guard by his sister and an unnamed other woman in an odd household in Hampstead; browbeaten by his women, Sir S refuses to sign up, causing Crispin to politely leave and then walk up and down the elegant streets outside, swearing profusely.

Kotolynov

There’s another set piece when Richard motors Anna out to the country (‘full of fields and such’) to meet a well-known and successful Russian émigré, one Kotolynov. He turns out to live in a picture book thatched cottage and to have acquired a perfect American accent while in the States. He refuses to sign Anna’s petition and gives several pages of reasons why not, which might be a sort of Author’s Message, namely that Literature all over the world is being murdered by politics; Russian literature was more or less liquidated by the Bolsheviks and is everywhere else forced into the service of repressive regimes or strangled. Therefore, he refuses to put his name to yet another project entwining literature and politics i.e. bolstering Anna’s poetic reputation for the sole, worldly aim of discomfiting the Russian authorities.

Ippolitov

Richard drinks a lot at Kotolynov’s house, then more at the pub lunch in the village, then drives squiffily back to London where he is doorstepped by a heavily-built Russian who’s been trying to reach him by phone him for days.

Realising that his doorstep is not a good place to chat about life, Richard drives this man, Ippolitov, to a nearby hotel bar. Here Ippolitov claims to be from Russian domestic police on a mission to the UK to collaborate with our police about war crimes, but also with the time to pick up small side issues. One of them is that he has been instructed to strongly request Richard to call off The Petition. He explains that Anna’s brother is a genuine criminal who defrauded small investors of money, and throws in obscure references to child abuse as well. Richard is left confused (as so often) – not helped by the fact that he is by now pretty drunk.

Richard gets back into his sports car and drives, by now very drunk, blacking out large sections of the journey, back to his house. Here he senses there is no-one in and, on impulse, drives over to Crispin’s very grand mansion. He’s let in by Sandy (from the taxi, in the opening scene) who, realising how drunk he is, takes him off to a side room and begins molesting him again. Unfortunately, at this moment Crispin’s wife, Freddie, herself drunk, barges in, followed by Crispin himself. He explains he’s in the middle of hosting a loud party in the main rooms of the house, having won a small fortune on a racehorse bet. However, Richard delays him long enough to describe the whole Ippolitov incident and they speculate whether he truly can be a Russian copper, or is some kind of stooge. But why approach Richard in that way, and why care that much about The Petition?

Still very drunk, Richard drives home, and enters an empty abandoned house, for Cordelia is gone. Next morning there is a very funny, if rather obvious, description of his appalling hangover, from the depths of which he can’t remember where he left his car keys and, after going out to the car and not finding them, realises he’s closed the front door and doesn’t have his house keys, so has locked himself out.

He is forced, half-dressed and with hardly any money, to take a bus to the Institute, something he hasn’t done for years. A humiliation which is compounded when he finds himself sitting next to one of the trendy, left-wing lecturers who we had met in one of the opening scenes of the novel (which was set in a typically campus novel faculty meeting). Humiliatingly, this man, Duncan, offers Richard a handkerchief for the razor cuts on his chin, then a fag, then some money.

Criss-crossing London

Around about this point the wanderings of Richard get quite confusing, as the ‘plot’ becomes more a tangle of his hungover peregrinations around London. He takes a taxi to Crispin’s but has barely got £20 out of Sandy, who opens the door, before he jumps back into the cab to go to Anna’s lodging house. Here he confronts her with what Ippolitov told him and she admits that, yes, her brother is a crook, but that doesn’t stop The Petition being valid. He asks to borrow the phone and arranges to meet a man from the garage at his house, to let him into the car. He and Anna take a taxi there and, sure enough, the man has spare keys for the car. Then, when Richard is reluctant to do it, Anna uses a stone to smash a window and break into his house, where he’s now sober enough to finally remember where he left his house and car keys.

The next scene opens with Richard having driven Anna out of London to stay the night in a country hotel. Next morning he answers a phone call to find it is Godfrey, Cordelia’s first husband, strongly asking that Richard return home, so he jumps in his car and motors back to the London house. Here he finds an odd atmosphere, one of Cordelia’s female friends downstairs, while Godfrey and a complete stranger are upstairs in Cordelia’s bedroom. Here Cordelia delivers a long rambling speech less about his infidelity than about her childhood speech defect and how much effort she took to overcome it and how she knows it still sounds odd but how she still knows what’s going on around her, oh yes.

Godfrey and Richard against Cordelia

Downstairs, shaken, Richard agrees to accompany Godfrey to Crispin’s. Here Godfrey, for the first time, candidly describes his own marriage to Cordelia, and the two men agree how awful and manipulative she is. They both express one of Amis’s recurring accusations against women – that they communicate in a different way, that they don’t say what they mean, that you have to work damn hard to excavate the real meaning of their conversation from the snowstorm of distractions and emotions.

Cordelia’s two husbands then go on, over sandwiches and a rather fine bottle of red wine etc, to discuss the progress of The Petition, which Crispin now has an assistant in his office working on full time. Crispin is urbanely interested to learn that a) Ippolitov has cautioned Richard against the Petition b) Kotolynov himself refused to sign it – but Crispin is not deterred. He now shows Richard The Petition itself, on formal paper and with an empty slot at the top for his signature!

Tristram Hallett and the Institute

Richard gets a taxi back to what used to be his home, and sneaks into his car without even going in the house. He drives to the flat of one of his colleagues from The Slavonic Institute, Tristram Hallett. The opening scene of the novel had been set in a faculty meeting at the Institute which had made the novel seem, for 10 or 15 pages, as if it might turn out to be a classic ‘campus novel‘ – for the Institute where Richard teaches is described, like all its fictional kindred, as being a hotbed of professional jealousy, scene of pointlessly bureaucratic meetings, stricken by perpetual financial crisis, and whose tutors have a cheerfully contemptuous attitude to the students.

Amis adds the comic, and ‘modern’, twist that the embattled older tutors feel they need to speak and dress rougher than they actually are in order to fit in with the younger, politically correct, faculty members. It’s sort of funny that, whenever one of these approaches in a corridor, Richard and Hallett instantly drop their aitches and lard their sentences with ‘sort of’ and ‘like’. Hallett is described as leaving all his new clothes on his wife’s washing line for three weeks before wearing them, so they look suitably rumpled and proletarian, ho ho.

But all this was before the book turned into an ‘adultery-among-London’s-professional-upper-middle-classes’ novel and, for the most part, left the campus behind.

Among all his other phone calls during this confusing period, Richard had had one from the faculty secretary saying his closest friend on the staff, Tristram Hallett, had been off work ill. Now Richard has come to visit Tristram in his rather shabby flat. He finds him looking pale and ill, having shaved off his beard, an act which suddenly reveals his age. Tristram has had a heart ‘incident’ and it looks like his working career is over. Richard commiserates for a while and then they go on to discuss Anna, since Tristram had helped organise her early readings and events and so has met her. They both sadly agree that Anna’s poetry is worthless ‘shit’ – the precise word they use. Richard leaves, wondering more than ever what he is doing with his life.

Richard’s dilemma

For Cordelia is not only his wife, she is very rich. By leaving her he will abandon his nice lifestyle, not least the sports car he loves cruising round in, drunk or otherwise. And how has he got mixed up in this Petition nonsense which, in Crispin’s capable hands, is escalating far beyond his original intentions? And just how much trouble might he get into if he ignores the warnings of Comrade Ippolitov? And all for a ‘poetess’ whose poetry, everyone agrees, is not just bad, but monstrously bad.

Richard phones Ippolitov’s number, hoping for some kind of second opinion, to discover he’s in London. So he phones the posh Piccadilly hotel number he’s been given, and pops round for a drink. Here Ippolitov is big, bearish and disconcertingly American in his manners and gets straight to the point: Richard’s professional self-esteem is all he has, right? Especially if he leaves his wife,in which eventuality he will be poor. So is he willing to destroy his professional self-esteem in his own eyes and that of all his colleagues’ by signing the petition on behalf of a worthless poet? No. He must keep his professional self-respect even if it means hurting the young woman he says he loves. There are plenty more fish in the sea. OK?

Dazed by this lecture, Richard drives home, only to find one of Cordelia’s friends, Pat, who’s been a peripheral presence throughout the book, in the kitchen, in tears. Tears of frustration at being bossed around and used, told to fetch this and go for that, and just took up a lovely breakfast in bed to Cordelia who did nothing but criticise.

However, her role in this scene is not to highlight what a bitch Cordelia is (though she is, she is) it is to sharpen Richard’s dilemma even more: for when Richard explains that he’s NOT going to sign the Petition in order to maintain his professional self-respect, Pat more or less laughs in his face, saying – ‘So you love this Anna enough to sleep with her, enough to abandon your wife for her, enough to drive your wife into a collapse for her, but… not enough to tell a little white lie for? You will, in fact, end up screwing up your whole life, losing rich wife and sexy lover… and for what?’

God. Who’s right? Ippolitov or Pat? What should he do?

The lie

In a repeat of earlier scenes Richard is alarmed by yet another phone call from Freddie, over at Crispin’s house, saying he’d better come over quickly, like NOW, because Anna is here in a complete state.

Richard drives over, kisses Anna and they go into Crispin’s garden. Here Anna explains that she’s got wind of Richard not liking her poetry: he’s never referred to it, never mentioned the edition of her latest work she gave him: she thinks he doesn’t like her poetry and, for her, being a poet is as important as being an academic, as his professional self-esteem, is for Richard. Therefore, last night she got drunk and burned all her poems, all her manuscripts and notebooks, and ceased to be a poet, carried on drinking vodka, rode round on the Tube, passed out and was brought home by the police.

With little or no description of his feelings or motivations, but aware of all the preceding conversations he has had, we see Richard rush to contradict her, to assert that her poems are the best he’s read in a long time, they stand out from the crowd, they are of the highest value, and he tells her they taped her readings so many of the new poems are preserved. Anna cries tears of joy and embraces him.

The ‘happy’ couple return to the house where Richard tells Crispin what he’s just told Anna. Crispin raises his eyebrows, but declares that champagne is called for, and hadn’t Richard better now sign The Petition?

Richard drives back to his house to see Cordelia. She is upstairs sitting before her dressing table. Richard begins a speech about how sorry he is, but… but Cordelia interrupts him. If he thinks she is going to sit through a sentimental scene in which he declares his heart is torn in two but, alas, he has fallen in love with the most beautiful etc etc, then he’s sorely mistaken. ‘You have been unfaithful. You want to leave me? There is nothing more to say. No. Nothing. Now please leave. I have things to do.’ (pp.264-65)

Cordelia’s revenge

The novel has many funny moments. Little things like descriptions of the roaring London traffic or the malign menace of one of Richard’s many taxi drivers, moments of exasperation or exaggeration, comic similes, the comic over-acting of many of the characters, Richard’s perpetual expectation of hearing a remote control rocket land on him – a lot of this is very funny.

But I found the final thirty pages or so consistently laugh-out-loud funny, because in them Cordelia, who has been so comprehensively trashed by the male characters, gets a sweeping and exhilirating revenge, confirming that she is either a) the monster the men make out or b) a strong independent woman taking justified revenge, according to your taste.

Cordelia’s revenge is thorough and systematic: Richard drives to a hotel to phone Anna and tell her he’s officially left Cordelia but when he goes outside he finds policemen standing around his sports car, who proceed to ask to see proof of his identity. They were rung and told the car was stolen 39 minutes ago. Aha. About the time Cordelia sent him packing…

The police insist on accompanying Richard to his house to confirm his identity but where, to his acute embarrassment, he finds the locks have been changed and his front door key no longer works (p.268). When he explains that he’s having a little difficulty with his wife, the police sympathise and simply ask him to attend the local police station with his driving license in the next three days.

A few hours later, fortified by lunch and with Anna he returns to the house (p.269). The key still doesn’t work and Anna is about to break in (as she did several scenes earlier) when merely touching the window she smashed last time prompts an enormous uproar (p.270). Richard thinks must be the sound of an airliner crashing into the garden, but turns out to be that every window and entrance is now booby-trapped to trigger loudspeakers playing the amplified howling of wild dogs. Probably also triggering an alarm at the local police station. Cordelia has been hard at work. Richard realises this is War.

Richard decides next to try the émigré house, owned by one Professor Léon. As they drive up to it they see it thronged by police and police cars. Richard parks a few streets away and walks back to find someone has given the police an anonymous tip-off that the house is used by drug dealers and contains stashes of illegal drugs. Also, it’s the same police sergeant as asked Richard about his sports car outside the hotel and watched him unable to get into his own house. Fortunately, the police have come to the conclusion it’s a false alarm and Richard is able to reassure the terrified old Russians there will be no further consequences. But wherever he turns, Cordelia is one step ahead.

Thoroughly rattled, Richard and Anna check into an obscure hotel in Bayswater and the next morning Richard makes a few phone calls to organise a subterfuge, namely to ask Pat, Cordelia’s hard-done-by ‘friend’, to open the door when another of his allies phones Cordelia to distract her attention. All goes exactly to plan, the phone rings, Pat opens the door and Richard slips inside his house and mounts the stairs to his study (p.274).

What he finds there amazes and horrifies him. His study has been stripped bare. All furniture, bookcases, desk, chair, all notes, folders and files, tax and VAT returns, driver’s license, his NHS records – all gone! At that moment Cordelia’s voice wakes him from his trance. She is standing in the doorway and confirms that all his clothes are on the way to charity shops which are thrilled with his generosity. All his notes and working papers have been shredded and burnt. Begone. (p.275)

Richard staggers back to the car and back to the hotel where he’d left Anna. Here he goes to pay the waitress for the coffees he and Anna have been drinking, but she returns a few moments later: his credit card is not accepted, does he have other means of payment? (p.276) Richard stalls and goes to visit a local branch of his bank. He isn’t surprised to find all money has been emptied from his account; he is officially penniless.

At that moment Harry, Pat’s husband calls, and in an upset phone conversation tells him that Pat has been arrested for shoplifting. Obviously she’s innocent, and he is angry and upset that Richard’s bloody wife is obviously behind it (p.277).

Richard phones Crispin to ask for a loan but when Crispin refers casually to the Institute, Richard’s eyes widen as he realises that this is another aspect of his life Cordelia might be sabotaging even as they speak. He drops the phone and runs for his car. Drives like a maniac to the central London location of the Institute of Slavonic Studies, parks, bounds up the stairs to his office to say hello to his secretary, Mrs Pearson. Yes, she confirms, he’s only just missed the nice gentleman who called to collect his stuff; they had a hand-written note from him and she rang his wife to check, just to be on the safe side, and she confirmed that Richard was leaving the Institute and could all his stuff be packed up and sent round, please?. Sure enough, when he walks into it, Richard finds his office has been gutted. A career’s worth of lecture notes, students’ work, as well as his ongoing notes for a study of Lermontov – all gone. Cordelia’s revenge is complete. (p.279)

He returns to collect Anna. As they drive off from the hotel and Richard updates her on all the bad news, she says, well, at least she can’t do any more damage. At that moment they both become aware of a horrible grinding noise, and as Richard brakes the car a little …. the front offside wheel goes trundling off ahead of them as the sports car, minus front wheel, comes grinding to a screeching halt. They both watch the wheel cross to the other side of the road and hit a motorbike, whose rider gets off lightly with only a broken collarbone, cuts and bruises. (p.280)

Aftermath

It may not sound it, but this is really a very funny sequence of disasters, beautifully paced with a mounting sense of hysteria. The final chapter cuts to days later, with Richard and Anna mercifully ensconced in a pleasant country cottage courtesy, of course, of Crispin’s contacts. Crispin, Freddie and Godfrey drop in to take them for lunch. Already Anna and Freddie are close friends. Godfrey and Richard swap notes about Cordelia and for the first time Richard learns that when Godfrey left her, she burnt down the theatre where his new stage production was opening. Wow. All this is presumably meant to bolster Richard’s side of the argument, that Cordelia is incontrovertibly mad. Kind of impressive, though.

A letter from Tristram has told Richard that the new head of the Institute is downgrading Russian studies; he’d better start looking for a new job. Luckily, Crispin has been asking around and a friend of a friend has a vacancy for a Russian translator at the EU in Brussels. Probably hard work, not the same kudos as being a literature prof, but the pay is significantly better, free flat, all the perks. Richard gratefully accepts. What it is to have wealthy and well-connected friends.

Anna writes Richard a love poem and it is rubbish. Richard tells her so and she accepts it but says it reflects her true feelings and hopes one day she will write something worthy of him, and they embrace. Once again, despite the strange plot and the unnerving style, I find myself moved at the end of an Amis novel.


Characters as puppets

Amis is (presumably) aiming to describe contemporary life and contemporary people, and I think he is admired by his fans for his precise recordings of the behaviour and thought processes of a certain type of professional middle-class, middle-aged Londoner – the emphasis generally being on the male protagonist although almost as much time is spent delineating female characters.

But it shouldn’t be overlooked that a big part of his style, of the way he gets his effects, is to describe everyone as performing ‘routines’, schticks, delivering lines and generally acting, or over-acting. From his first novel onwards it has been his consistent fictional position that people are almost incomprehensible, women doubly so: both first person and third person narrators have, through successive novels, observed the characters like an anthropologist among a rare tribe, or even a zoologist recording the peculiar behaviour of primates in the jungle. Amis can never get over the bizarreness of how people look and behave.

A human shape had passed the window and a sound was heard at the front door, soon identifiable as that of a key being inserted into a lock. Cordelia sat upright and went into a fast pantomime of eyes first dilated then close-shut, shaken head, brandished forefinger, shoulders raised to ear level, though anything less than a bellow would have been quite secure and perhaps more informative. Pat watched, vainly striving for detachment, for close observation only, as always at one of these shows. There came a final wrap-up gesture from Cordelia and her husband entered the room with a kind of skirmisher’s gait, quite unlike his familiar rather resolute stride… (p.82)

Nothing ever just happens; people are always doing jobs and ‘bits’ and performing.

This latest in a famous series – jewels of Cordelian taste and intellect – might not have been so noteworthy without the accompaniment of dilated Apache-type eyes and the gruff staccato bass-baritone delivery… (p.84)

In the theatre actors and directors talk about the need to be doing this or that piece of business, required to fill a gap or pad out a speech or bring out a character. Amis’s characters are always engaged in these kinds of bits of business:

‘If I can just break in there,’ said Godfrey, giving a brisk nod and doing something emphatic with his glasses like taking them off or putting them on. (p.97)

Not quite swinging her shoulders to and fro and not putting her head on one side exactly, just sort of round the corner… (p.103)

She listened closely with a slightly fixed smile, watched him closely too, with her eyes shooting out to the sides every now and again, as if he had been telling her how he was going to be collected presently by a flying saucer. (p.117)

As this was being handed to him, Sir Stephen started to put on a pair of spectacles. He did this in a furtive, shoulder-hunching way, like a man putting in or taking out false teeth. Then, like a stage actor now, he read through the list reacting visibly in one way or another to every name on it. (p.130)

After a moment 2nd woman interlaced her fingers pointing downwards, in the manner of somebody about to give another a leg-up on to a tree or high wall. (p.131)

Cordelia did her standard precision job on refilling the teapot… While this was going on… she went into a bit of muttering about time getting on, examining her watch etc.

Sometimes the purpose is plain and obvious comic exaggeration, like the comparisons of someone’s behaviour to a character in a B-movie or war movie or similar. But other times it is obviously not comic, the external point of view seems more bewildered, alienated, estranged.

And all the way through people are described, especially in their dialogue, as doing bits of this or bits of that, an aggressive bit, there was bit more of that before… he could see a bit more coming… there was no answer to that… after some more of the same he…. ‘after a bit more Good-Godding…'(p.279) and so on, throughout. The narrative is made out of umpteen bits of people bitting.

This approach, this worldview, of seeing people as puppets, automata, unknowable, unpredictable, opaque, their dialogue never really communicating, made up of performances, women especially never expressing themselves through words but through eccentric physical signs and signals – this observing people from the outside like clockwork dolls, is striking and peculiar.

At moments it is so alienated that it makes Amis, a notoriously grumpy anti-intellectual and anti-Modernist, end up seeming as Modernist as Samuel Beckett, and his novels – generally marketed as easy-going comedy classics – sometimes really difficult to read.


Moral questions

If this was a GCSE English Literature set text, then teachers and examiners would be asking: ‘Was Richard right to leave Cordelia?’ ‘Should poetry and politics mix?’ ‘Is infidelity ever justified?’ or some such puzzlers.

More than most Amis novels, The Russian Girl contains A Decision – Richard’s decision to leave his wife Cordelia and throw in his lot with Anna – and the chapters leading up to his declaration in Crispin’s garden are packed with characters giving him conflicting advice, so that the reader has loads of ammunition to interpret the characters’ behaviour (and the author’s attitude towards them) from multiple viewpoints, and prepare long essays about it.

For what it’s worth I think Richard was a fool, a man old enough to realise that a comfortable lifestyle (and well-provided-for old age) are worth hugely more than a short-term fling with a younger model, especially a talentless one who, deep down, he doesn’t believe in…

But I’m not very interested in the supposed ‘morality’ of fiction or the ‘moral’ questions it throws up or dramatises – in the ‘moralising’ approach which characterised literary criticism from the mid-twentieth century for several generations. Nor in judging the behaviour of characters as if they’re people I know through work or my children’s school.

For me, a fiction either ‘works’ or it doesn’t, it engages or it doesn’t, and this traction is created at the level of language. My interest is in the use of language to create the illusion of plot, characters and the ‘world’ in which they ‘move’. The basically white, middle-class, generally London-based world of Amis’s characters I find boring and predictable, if admittedly done with a mannered hyper-precision which does take you right into their lives.

For me the interest is in the acuteness of his perceptions and the slightly bonkers phraseology in which he articulates them, in the oddness of his worldview and the bizarre mannerism of the style he has created to express it. Long, and not necessarily very believable, The Russian Girl is still one of the funnier Amis novels, where his obviously humorous intentions outweigh the oddity of his style. I’d put it in the top three or four.


Credit

The Russian Girl by Kingsley Amis was published by Hutchinson in 1992. All quotes are from the 1993 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Kingsley Amis 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 with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, 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 in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with 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. But instead of being starkly punished Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged, London-based 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. Was it worth it?
1994 You Can’t Do Both
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache

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.

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