The Great Pursuit by Tom Sharpe (1977)

Sharpe’s longest novel to date, a satire on the worlds of literary criticism and publishing. For the first time it contained what felt like genuine personal concerns and attitudes in the narrator’s fierce animus against the hypocritical literary critic, Dr Louth.

Plot

Frederick Frensic is a successful literary agent who has built his career on inverting everything he learned at Oxford, under the elitist (lady) literary critic, Dr Louth. Out of the blue he is posted an anonymous novel of breath-taking pornographic content describing the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman – Pause O Men For The Virgin – via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it.

Now Frensic has had on his books for ten years a no-hoper novelist named Peter Piper, a lost soul thoroughly misled by his literary education into thinking he must only write high-mindedly about ‘significant relationships’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘the soul’, who treats the very same Dr Louth’s masterwork of criticism, The Moral Novel, as holy writ, reading it every night before bed, and who every year rewrites his hopeless account of his sensitive adolescence in the style of one of the literary Greats.

So Frensic and his American partner, Sonia Futtle, decide to pass off the crude novel off as being by Piper and oh what a tangled web this creates, a web of deceits and contracts which determines the rest of the increasingly labyrinthine plot:

Piper is told he will get money and the wretched book he’s been working on for so long will be released as his second novel, so he reluctantly agrees. A firm of posh British publishers which is down on its luck is persuaded to publish the English version because Frensic, correctly, predicts that this high-brow imprimatur will make it easier to convince the American publisher Hutchmeyer, ‘the Al Capone of publishing’, to snap it up and publish and promote it in the States. This the bullish, illiterate Hutchmeyer does, paying an incredible $2 million advance, not least because Sonia flirts outrageously with him.

But things begin to veer out of control when Hutchmeyer insists that this Piper fellow does a promotional tour of the States to do TV and book signings. There is a very funny scene at New York’s docks where Hutchmeyer’s sidekick organises an ‘event’ for Piper’s reception, something that will get him on the news, by inviting activists from widely varying groups to meet him – Jews are told he’s an ex-Nazi Peipmann, Palestinians that he’s a leader of the PLO Piperfat, the Irish that he’s O’Piper the IRA leader, gays something else, with the result there is a massive riot, from which Piper barely emerges in one piece to scramble into a waiting ambulance, where the fixer – MacMordale – grabs a bag of blood from the bewildered nurse and breaks it over the dazed Piper’s head. Any publicity’s good publicity, right?

At the upstate Hutchmeyer residence, actually a vast tasteless mansion, a bloodied and bandaged Piper is introduced to his overwhelming host and his wife, Baby, one-time beauty queen in the 1930s, now the recipient of so many facelifts that, as Sonia points out, if she smiled, she’d scalp herself. In typical Sharpe fashion Hutchmeyer and his wife hate each other and, by a roundabout process, Baby comes to believe Piper is the real thing, a young man of genius and sensitivity who deserves protection from the cruel world.

Sonia, drunk, flirts with Hutch and persuades him to take her out in his yacht in bad weather. Baby takes advantage of the fact to act on impulse and reject the lies and frustrations of the past 40 years. Pack your bags, she tells Piper, we’re getting out of here, as she determines to act out a scene from one of the great historical novels. What makes it Sharpe is she decides to burn down the wretched mansion, so empties cans of petrol across it and sets them afire, but has brought the last one trailing gas down to the quayside and the cruiser where a very nervous Piper is waiting with his bags, so that the trail of flame follows her and leaps into the boat just as Piper accelerates the engines. They both leap off into the sea as the cruiser, now aflame, heads off into the bay where it collides with Hutch’s yacht and explodes. Hutch is rescued by the typically Sharpe Sonia, a big, strong, calculating lady, while Piper and Baby swim ashore further down the coast.

Baby realises she has burnt her bridges (and her husband’s house to the ground) and decides on impulse to head South, to the Deep South, of slavery and mangrove swamps and drags a reluctant Piper along with her. Everyone presumes they are dead and in scenes reminiscent of Wilt for a while Hutchmeyer is suspected of murdering  his wife. Instead Baby persuades Piper – his head still swathed in bandages from the New York riot, to write out a full draft of Pause O Men For The Virgin, which they photocopy and post to Frensic in London.

Frensic had become very nervous about Piper revealing the elaborate scam to Hutch who would doubtless sue for all his money back and more, but when he receives the manuscript of the novel in Piper’s own hand-writing he is very perplexed. He goes back to the firm of solicitors in Oxford who posted him the typewritten manuscript and winkles out of them the name of the secretarial company which typed it up, run by a Miss Bogden.

In the true Sharpe manner this Miss Bogden is a frustrated divorcee and, having had his phone enquiry flatly turned down, he realises he must woo her: so he sends her red roses then phones posing as a long-time admirer from a distance, then invites her to dinner, all the time probing for any proof of the author’s whereabouts. Miss Bogden drops that she had a phone number she could ring if she had problems with the manuscript but then evades the subject and Frensic finds himself forced to accompany her back to her flat and, well, to be engulfed in her consuming sexual appetites in the name of his quest. He goes so far as to propose to her and, next morning, finds himself going to a jewellers to choose a ring before he finally finally gets the phone number out of her and makes his excuses. It is a funny moment when, after all this build-up, Frensic rings the number and it is an Indian takeaway 🙂 He realises he’s transposed the numbers in his excitement, and dials again, A quavery voice answers and says it is is Dr Louth here.

Frensic puts down the phone thunderstruck. So the high-minded and elitist literary critic, whose insistence that her students only read novelists of her Great Tradition – Austen, James, Conrad, Lawrence – and who cast into the outer darkness all mere entertainers, anyone who wrote for money – Dickens and Trollope and Meredith, let alone the entertainers from an earlier era, Smollett and Sterne and Fielding – whose baleful influence ruined generations of would-be writers by making them aspire to an impossible, and irrelevant, high-mindedness, who misled Frensic in his early career until he threw off her influence, and whose damaging influence is embodied in Piper’s unreadable screeds – it was she who wrote this pornographic best-seller. Frensic’s anger at her is real, and bespeaks Sharpe’s own experience at Cambridge in the heyday of the elitist literary critic, Frank Leavis, who similarly insisted on the existence of a Great Tradition. In fact the title of this novel is a simple merging of two of Leavis’s most famous books of criticism, The Great Tradition and The Common Pursuit. And of course, in none of these books or Leavis’s lectures or stern admonitions was there any place for the kind of well-crafted entertainments that Sharpe himself writes.

The novel hints at the journey Sharpe himself had to make, to throw off the stifling high-mindedness of Cambridge, before he could find his own voice and métier as a satirist and entertainer of genius.

Frensic goes on a hateful pilgrimage to Oxford, visits Louth in her ancient house, confronts her with the truth and forces her to burn the manuscript of the novel as going some way to making reparations for all the lives she’s ruined. Meanwhile, we learn that Hutchmeyer, liberated from his nagging wife, has made the umpteenth proposition to tough Sonia and – to his surprise – been accepted, and they get happily married.

In the tiny southern hamlet of Bibliopolis Baby and Piper come across Deep South prejudice and real hellfire preaching. In fact at the first service they are forced by their fanatical landlady to attend, the congregation get so carried away they insist on ‘bringing out the snakes’ which promptly go mad, biting lots of people, in fact killing the preacher himself while Baby, in an orgy of guilt and self-recrimination rips open her blouse a) to reveal her perfect (silicone) breasts b) to let a poisonous coral snake take hefty bites of them – to no effect. This so impresses the good folks of Bibliopolis that they promptly elect Baby their new preacher, and Piper finds himself giving hand-writing lessons to the locals, in time (ironically) setting up an official School of Writing.

Coda

As with many of Sharpe’s novels, you would have thought things could stop right here: The mystery of the book’s author has been revealed; Frensic’s quest is at an end; Hutch and Sonia are happily married; Baby and Piper have found their niche in a sleepy southern backwater.

But no. There is more. It’s a little hard to follow, but Baby has encouraged Piper to continue writing out Pause O Men For The Virgin in his own hand-writing, but each time, making it more in his voice, turning it into his version. Which Piper does, dutifully posting it off to Frensic in London, who is perplexed. Like everyone else, he thinks Piper and Baby perished in the fire at the mansion.

Meanwhile, Miss Bogden, jilted by Frensic (who had used a false name during his 24 hours of passion with her), is set on revenge and tracks him down. Frensic hears her voice on the stairs to his Hampstead flat, grabs his essentials and decamps to Corkadale’s house where he reveals the truth that Piper is not the author of this wretched book. He then takes a plane to new York, on to Miami, and hires a car to drive to this wretched place Bibliopolis. Here he finds Piper a part-time preacher in the Church of the Great Pursuit and there is space for another bitter screed against Dr Louth/Leavis and their deadening, anti-humane influence, before Frensic confronts Piper, lashing out at his wretched ambitions and telling him to stop sending him rubbish manuscripts of his awful novel.

But outside a ‘welcoming committee’ of the local sheriff and assorted hicks await Frensic; they’ve all heard him crticising that nice Mr Piper, a fine upstanding pillar of the community, and drag Frensic before the local judge who turns out to be — none other than Baby Hutchmeyer. She grimly dangles in front of Frensic the prospect of being sentenced to the local chain-gang, which he will survive for, ooh, maybe a month. The alternative is the final stitch-up in a book made up of crooked contracts and devious deceptions. He, Frensic, must allow his name to go on the succession of novels which Piper will send him, once a year, from Bibliopolis. He, Frensic, must arrange for them to be published and promoted.

And so it comes to pass. Frensic arranges for Piper’s first novel to be published, but under his name: he quits his literary agency and goes to live in obscurity in the South Downs and – the final cruel irony – the critics love Piper’s first novel, and it is a roaring success.

Anti-American

The entirely gratuitous excursion into the deep South reminded me a bit of the journey of young Martin and Mark Tapley to a disease-ridden swamp in Dickens’s funniest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), which was criticised in its day for its surprisingly savage satire on the bad manners, appalling speech, filth and greed of contemporary America. Something similar is going on here. In Wilt the worst excesses of fashionable politics and trendy sexual openness are associated with the American couple, the Pringsheims, who are slowly exposed as hateful liars. The Great Pursuit moves almost all its plot to America the better to satirise the crass commercialism, philistinism, crudity, violence and shallowness of American life.

F.R.Leavis

That said, the real core of the novel’s anger is with Dr Louth, a transparent version of F.R. Leavis, the enemy is English through and through.

The Great Pursuit was Dr Sydney Louth’s latest, a collection of essays dedicated to F.R.Leavis and a monument to a lifetime’s execration of the shallow, the obscene, the immature and the non-significant in English literature. Generations of undergraduates had sat mesmerised by the turgid inelegance of her style while she denounced the modern novel, the contemporary world and the values of a sick and dying civilisation. Frensic had been among those undergraduates and had imbibed the truisms on which Dr Louth’s reputation as a scholar and a critic had been founded. She had praised the obviously great and cursed the rest and for that simple formula she was known as a great scholar. And all this in language which was the antithesis of the stylistic brilliance of the writers she praised. But it was her anathema which had stuck in Frensic’s mind, those bitter, graceless curses she had heaped on other critics and those who disagreed with her. By her denunciations she had implanted the inhibitions which had spoilt Frensic and so many others like him who had wanted to write. To appease her he had adopted the grotesque syntax of her lectures and essays. By their style Louthians were instantly recognisable. And by their sterility. (p.205)

F.R.Leavis was still alive when this novel was published. Was he made aware of its savage criticism of his life’s work? What on earth must he have made of it?

Related links

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Cover of the Pan paperback edition of The Great Pursuit, illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the cover, above, depicting the riot which greets Peter Piper – centre, thin, looking scared, and being defended by the feisty Sonia Futtle – on his arrival at New York). You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Wilt by Tom Sharpe (1976)

Wilt is probably Tom Sharpe’s best-known novel. Its opening sentence is:

Whenever Henry Wilt took the dog for a walk, or, to be more accurate, when the dog took him, or, to be exact, when Mrs Wilt told them both to go and take themselves out of the house so that she could do her yoga exercises, he always took the same route…

It’s all here: the pedantic comic style; the stereotype of the henpecked, resentful husband; the wife in thrall to the latest fad (hard to imagine, but there was a time when yoga was new and widely ridiculed).

Setting Henry Wilt is a feeble failure of a lecturer at a shabby Fenland community college, trying to teach The Mill On The Floss to classes of apprentice gasfitters and plumbers, amusingly grouped as Meat One (butchers), firemen, mechanics etc. He is 35 and married to fat bitch Eva (as he refers to her), a misogynist stereotype who becomes brainlessly addicted to every passing fad in the faddish 1970s, and who Henry fantasises about murdering.

Campus novels of the 1970s Insofar as it is set in a college and deals with politics among the faculty and staff, Wilt sits alongside other campus novels such as Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (published in 1975; Bradbury adapted Sharpe’s novels Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue for TV) and David Lodge’s great Changing Places, also published in 1975.

Plot Wilt’s wife falls in with some trendy Californians who epitomise the shallow hedonism Wilt despises. At a swinging party Wilt refuses to have sex with the let-it-all-hang-out-wife (Sally Pringsheim), in evading her clutches slips and bangs his head, and awakens to find she has wedged his penis inside a blow-up sex doll. As he is trying to extract himself the partygoers burst in to the bathroom to discover and humiliate him, his wife included.

The next day the Californians maliciously post him the doll and, drunk, he decides to try out how easy it would be to murder his wife by breaking into the building site next to his college and throwing the doll down a hole. Unfortunately, the doll gets stuck half way down and the tipsy Wilt drops loads of handwritten notes about his lectures around the building site and is seen in the act by the college caretaker. The next morning the builders have just lined up a concrete mixer to fill the hole and it has begun pouring when the foreman and a builder spot the body far down waving feebly up at them.

The police are called and several witnesses come forward to wildly misinterpret what they saw as Wilt throwing a body down the hole and – because his wife has taken an unscheduled break with the Californian couple on a boat in the Broads and is nowhere to be found – the police arrest Wilt on suspicion of murder.

This leads to a farcically prolonged police interview in which the bloody-minded and over-educated Wilt is able to run rings round his police interlocutors, especially Inspector Flint who is driven to his wits’ end. The interrogation is intercut with the much darker farce of his wife’s adventures with the unscrupulous Californian couple on the boat which has run aground in the Norfolk Broads. Slowly the facade of the trendy Americans is peeled away to reveal that he is a plastic fetishist and Sally, far from the enlightened sex therapist she claims to be, is an ex-prostitute who agreed to accommodate his weird lusts in exchange for money and security.

The enmity between the couple descends to open violence when Sally tied up her husband in what promises to be a bondage sex session but in which she genuinely intends to drown him, only interrupted by the unwise intrusion of the local (alcoholic) vicar who saw their distress signals. Witnessing the bizarre sex set-up, he immediately flees back to his rowing boat and to his quiet bachelor vicarage only to find the bedraggled, big and quite naked Eva dripping in his living room. Eventually the police arrive, Eva’s identity is confirmed and Wilt – much to Inspector Flint’s chagrin – is released.

The 1970s The time of right-on Marxists (like Bradbury’s Howard Kirk), burn-your-bra women’s libbers, sexual liberation (all clitoral stimulation and vibrators), and the strong feeling among middle-aged white men that  the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Just as in Lodge’s Changing Places the story needs an injection of hyper-Californian trendy characters to set the plot rolling – here the loathesome Pringsheimers, there the über-academic Morris Zapp – in order to make England look the tired provincial backwater the author feels it is and yet which he loves.

The ignorance, the naivety: neither Wilt nor his one male confidant/friend know what a blow job is. Eva doesn’t know that a dyke is a lesbian. Wilt earns £3,500 a year. They reference holidays on the newly-fashionable Costa del Sol. Wilt despises parties where trendy lecturers smoke pot and talk about Hegelian dialectics (just as they do in The History Man). At the Pringsheimer’s party a group are sitting round listening to the Watergate Tapes on the novelty of a stereo tape machine.

40-something men The 1970s might have been the era of the rangy Howard Kirk and overconfident Morris Zapp, but were also the decade of Rigsby (Rising Damp, first broadcast 1974), Basil Fawlty (first broadcast 1975), Reginald Perrin (first published 1975) – of a cadre of frustrated, middle-aged men living by the ‘old standards’, who are affronted by the liberties of the younger generation, the sexual and linguistic permissiveness they associate with ghastly Americans and – often – the sympathy shown for all this by their shrewish wives (Sybil Fawlty, Eva Wilt).

It is the Comedy of Resentment.

Crude There is a lot of swearing. All the characters swear a lot, but particularly the police interrogating Wilt. The humour is broad, the farce absurd and extreme, the bitterness against the modern world savage.

Sergeant Yates leant across the table: ‘Let me tell you something. When we get Mrs Wilt out of there, don’t imagine she’ll be unrecognisable.’ He stopped and stared intently at Wilt. ‘Not unless you’ve disfigured her.’
‘Disfigured her?’ said Wilt with a hollow laugh. ‘She didn’t need disfiguring the last time I saw her. She was looking bloody awful. She had on these lemon pyjamas and her face was all covered with…’ he hesitated. There was a curious expression on the sergeant’s face.
‘Blood?’ he suggested. ‘Were you going to say blood?’
‘No’, said Wilt, ‘I most certainly wasn’t. I was going to say powder. White powder and scarlet lipstick. I told her she looked fucking awful.’
‘You must have had a very happy relationship with her,’ said the sergeant. ‘I don’t make a habit of telling my wife she looks fucking awful.’
‘You probably don’t have a fucking awful-looking wife,’ said Wilt, making an attempt to conciliate the man. (Page 115)

Crude? Yes.
Vulgar? Yes.
And very funny.

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback of Wilt with illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Related links

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe (1975)

Between Porterhouse Blue (1974) and Wilt (1976) Sharpe published Blott on the Landscape (1975). For some reason I found this funnier than the other two, maybe because I’m getting a feel for a Sharpe novel, what it does and does not try to do. In particular, a feel for the genre of Farce:

‘Farce – a comic dramatic piece that uses highly improbable situations, stereotyped characters, extravagant exaggeration, and violent horseplay… Farce is generally regarded as intellectually and aesthetically inferior to comedy in its crude characterizations and implausible plots.’ (Encyclopedia Britannica)

Plot Sir Giles Lynchwood, MP for the fictional constituency of South Worfordshire, hates his fat wife, Lady Maud, and is casting round for a way to leave her but without initiating a divorce – which would mean he loses the riches she brought to the marriage. He stumbles upon the idea of getting a motorway extension driven through her Family Seat, the home they both share, Handyman Hall – as husband he would get the substantial compensation the government would pay and Lady Maud wouldn’t get a thing. Perfect! However, having pulled the necessary strings in Whitehall to get the ball rolling, he makes every effort to appear to his wife and the local gentry to be leading the campaign against it, a feat of Machiavellian hypocrisy.

Thus starts a farcical sequence of events drawing in:

  • a senior judge tasked with running the public enquiry who is stoned and bottled out of town by the yokels of Worford – easily bought by Lady Maud with gallons of free beer
  • a naive man from the Ministry, Dundridge, who is swiftly made drunk at a local golf club party and photographed in compromising positions with an obliging local beauty, leading to contorted blackmail schemes as the photos change hands
  • the eponymous Blott, a German Prisoner of War who managed to stay on after the War as the gardener at Handyman Hall and who Lady Maud tasks with spying on Sir Giles and his mistress in London
  • Mrs Forsyth, the mistress in London, who is paid to (reluctantly) tie up Sir Giles in a variety of bondage outfits

and much, much more. We witness:

  • Blott getting the motorway demolition men drunk, especially the one in charge of the wrecking ball who he persuades to show off his skill and ends up inadvertently demolishing half of Worford High Street and setting on fire a row of historic almshouses.
  • Blott digs up his stash of World War Two weapons and transforms the triumphal arch-cum-lodge where he lives into a fortress, filling it with concrete, ringing it with barbed wire, from which he holds off both the local police and the Army with machine guns and rocket launchers.

So sucked are you into the crazy logic of Sharpeland that you accept it when Lady Maud gets the Hall converted into a safari park in seven days flat, so that when a tipsy Sir Giles returns from a sojourn in London he is surprised to find his home surrounded by a barbed wire fence and, once he has broken in, very surprised to encounter real-life lions in his rose garden. Hungry lions.

Farcical stereotypes 

  • the fat sexually voracious woman (here, Lady Maud; Porterhouse Blue Mrs Biggs; Wilt Eva Wilt)
  • her ineffectual male victim (here, Dundridge; Porterhouse Blue Lionel Zipser; Wilt Henry Wilt)
  • the Machiavellian committee man (here, Sir Giles Lynchwood; Porterhouse Blue Sir Godber Evans; Wilt Dr Board)
  • the Neanderthal but obstinate prole (Skullion, Blott)
  • the obtuse police (here, Henry Percival; Wilt Inspector Flint)
  • the inadequate Army

Sex farce The English are embarrassed by sex (well, the polite English middle classes are). Hence all those Whitehall Farces with titles like Run For Your Wife and Whoops, There Go My Trousers! Once you accept these novels as farce, it is easier to accept the multitude of excruciatingly embarrassing scenes which the plot generates. Thus the completely sexless nature of Sir Giles and Lady Maud’s marriage drives them both into farcical mishaps with other partners, Sir Giles into the chains and straps of Mrs Forsyth in St John’s Wood, Lady Maud into the hilarious attempt to seduce Dundridge. Both Dundridge and Sir Giles are stripped naked and photographed at their most abjectly humiliated. Something very Freudian going on with this humour.

Bureaucracy There is also something intrinsically farcical about bureaucracy, which so often fails or results in the opposite of what was intended. (When Kafka read his great novels about bureaucracy to his friends there were, apparently, tears of laughter running down his face.) Thus Sir Giles’ cunning plan to route a motorway through his own property for the compensation money drags in the Ministry of Transport, with its hierarchy of twitchy civil servants, each devoted to protecting their own backs right up to Cabinet level. Although it’s from a different era the accumulated nitwittery of the men from the Ministry reminded me of the wretched civil servants who have to cope with the girls of St Trinians (books 1948-53; films 1954-60).

Compulsory purchases This kind of fuss about a proposed bypass or motorway seems rather dated. The protests about the extension of the A30 which led Swampy to prominence were in the 1990s. I think it was during the 1970s that this kind of protest first became widespread, as the government hugely expanded the motorway and A-road network. The entire premise of The HitchHiker’s Guide To The Galaxy is that Arthur Dent’s protest about his house being knocked down to make way for a town bypass is ironically mirrored by the entire planet being demolished to make way for a galactic bypass. That was broadcast in 1978, presumably written in 1976 or 77 ie the same time as his novel.

Prose style I love Sharpe’s prose. It is clear and unconvoluted. It is made up of crisp sentences which clearly describe the concatenations of cataclysmic actions and schemes. There is as much description of place as is required to locate the narrative’s hopeless puppets. The comic plot fits together like a Swiss clock, all the interlocking pieces immaculately clean and precise. In this scene Dundridge has been reluctantly forced to seek shelter for the night at the home of the sexually voracious Lady Maud. He thinks he has managed to be given a room of his own, but…

Dundridge went across to the window and opened it and then, moving carefully so as not to stub his toes, he went back and got into bed. As he did so he knew there was something terribly wrong. A blast of Chanel No.5 issued from the bedclothes overpoweringly. So did Lady Maud. Her arms closed around him and with a husky, ‘Oh you wicked boy,’ her mouth descended on his. The next moment Dundridge was engulfed. Things seemed to fold round him, huge hot terrible things, legs, arms, breasts, lips, noses, thighs, bearing him up, entwining him, and bearing him down again in a frenzy of importunate flesh. He floundered frantically while the waves of Lady Maud’s mistaken response broke over him. (Page 110)

The novel is like a series of Donald McGill postcards come to life, bawdy, crude, brilliantly inventive, wonderfully funny. Speaking of illustrations…

Jacket cover of Blott on the Landscape by Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Blott On The Landscape – illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story (the ferocious Lady Maud dominates this cover, sprinkled with the incriminating blackmail photos of Dundridge, a rhinoceros horn peaking out form her left buttock and the buildings of Worford being demolished at top left). You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

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.

Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (1974)

Sharpe attended Pembroke College, Cambridge. His time there is liberally plundered to create this violent and crude farce about a hidebound institution caught between dusty tradition and pointless change, which is often very, very funny.

Plot Unpopular politician Sir Godber Evans is squeezed out of the Cabinet and rewarded with the position of Master at the hidebound Porterhouse College, Cambridge. Here he sets about trying to modernise things, coming into conflict with the crusty old dons and, in particular, the long-serving Head Porter, Skullion. Evans wants women undergraduates, a condom machine in the toilets, caterers brought in to do the cooking, and so on. There is a hilarious sub-plot about a sorry post-graduate student, Lionel Zipser, who for no very good reason has conceived a crush on his enormously fat bedder, Mrs Biggs and, in a sustained comic passage, goes for haircuts at a succession of barbers in order to buy the condoms he’ll need for their Big Encounter…

The book ends darkly: not only does Zipser’s comic sub-plot come to a premature conclusion when he and Mrs Biggs are killed in a gas explosion, but Skullion, a touching as well as a comic character, suffers a stroke and is paralysed. These aren’t really funny incidents. Sort of, but not really. They give the book a mean, nasty flavour.

The 1970s A haircut costs 30p. You can only get condoms at a barber’s. They moan about the Common Market.

Stereotypes Comedy relies on stereotypes, but it’s interesting to see which ones are used when and why. Again we have the henpecked feeble man (Wilt, Zipser), the voracious, man-threatening Big Woman (Eva Wilt, Mrs Biggs), the painfully earnest female do-gooder (Lady Mary Evans, Eva Wilt), the ludicrously self-serving committee members of both colleges.

Cover of Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (Wikimedia Commons)

Pan paperback cover of Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Indecent Exposure by Tom Sharpe (1973)

The sequel to Riotous Assembly, the second (and last) of Sharpe’s ‘Piemburg’ novels, Indecent Exposure is also (loosely) based on the author’s time in South Africa (1951-61) and features the three catastrophically clottish policemen from the first novel: Kommandant van Heerden, LuitenantVerkramp and Konstabel Els.

The Kommandant, continuing his obsession with all things English, meets a flirtatious middle-aged English woman at the local golf club. She is Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon, wife of Colonel Heathcote-Kilkoon, they live at a big house outside the town of Weezen with a Major Bloxham, nickname ‘Boy’. They are, in fact frauds, chancers from South London who won the Pools and came out to Kenya where they reinvented themselves among the snobs of Happy Valley. Booted out of paradise by the Mau Mau rebellion, they have come to practice English snobbery in apartheid South Africa where they have set up a Dornford Yates fan club and have parties where they re-enact episodes from that author’s novels of posh 1920s society. Hence the house’s name, White Ladies, based on the house of the same name in Yates’s ‘Berry’ novels.

Attracted to the Kommandant’s coarse brutishness, Mrs H-K invites him to come and stay – which is downgraded to an invitation to stay at the local hotel by the worried Colonel who doesn’t like boorish Boers – and this leads to a classic cock-up when the Kommandant arrives in Weezen armed with a load of English clothes, jackets, ties etc, and a book of etiquette, only to be directed by unhelpful locals to what they insist is the only hotel in town but is in fact a health spa, stinking of sulphurous water, inhabited by whispering old ladies. After a series of misunderstandings, Mrs H-K finally tracks the Kommandant down and invites him to a posh English dinner party where he misunderstands everything that is said to him and takes offence at the rather camp and fey atmosphere.

There is a fabulous scene where Mrs H-K encourages the Kommandant to come fox hunting with the local Hunt and, when the Kommandant falls badly from the mad horse the Colonel has deliberately given him (infuriated by his Boer crudeness), the Kommandant is carried into a dark copse where he is tended a little too intimately by Mrs H-K. She is quickly naked except for her riding hat and crop and straddling the Kommandant in a very compromising way, when with a hullaballoo the hounds come bursting into the clearing and swarm all over the prostate Kommandant and around the naked Englishwoman, closely followed by the Colonel and ‘Boy’ and their guests. Luckily the Kommandant is invisible under the howling hounds and Mrs H-K displays the legendary British sang-froid: When her husband shouts, ‘What on earth are you doing?’ she roars back, ‘I am having a shit‘ and the men retire in chastened confusion…

But this, the bogus posh English circle, is the minor strand in the story. The main action is what happens in Piemburg in the Kommandant’s absence, having left his over-zealous and none-too-bright subordinate, Luitenant Verkramp, in charge. He immediately implements two long-standing ambitions of his:

  1. To put an end to inter-racial relations on the part of his men ie to stop them screwing black women, he puts into practice a theory he learned from the over-zealous and oversexed lady psychiatrist at the Piemburg prison, Dr von Blimenstein, viz. he has cohorts of policemen put in strait-jackets, their penises wired up to electrodes and shown slides of naked black women projected on the wall. Each new slide prompts a horrific electric shock. (Sharpe’s fiction is not subtle and not for the faint-hearted.) Grotesque as this sounds, the outcome is even more gruesome for the several hundred constables turn out to be put off not just black women, but all women, and become camp homosexuals – big South African rugby-playing cops reporting for duty wearing loud lipstick and garish wigs!
  2. Verkramp’s second plan is to flush out the communist subversives who must be causing all the unrest among the blacks (what other reason could there be?). He calls in a dozen secret policemen from out of town and tasks them with tracking down the secret communist cells and working their way into them, committing some limited acts of terrorism, if necessary, to back up their cover stories. The result is the secret agents – none of whom know about the others – end up infiltrating each other’s little set-ups, committing ever more egregious acts of violence in a bid to prove their seriousness and penetrate the heart of subversive organisations which don’t, in fact, exist.  Thus, the secret agents are responsible for blowing up the power station, the radio station, the town sewage works and much more, plunging Piemburg into anarchy. Things come to a head when two secret policemen, each convinced the other is a communist subversive, meet in the Piemburg zoo and conceive the bright idea of sowing panic by placing gelignite attached to timers inside condoms and getting the zoo’s ostriches to eat them, then letting them loose. This, after much embarrassment about buying the condoms etc, they manage to do, but the released ostriches turn out to be very affectionate creatures and instead of running off into the town at random, decide to follow the secret agents who’ve given them the nice meals, who start panicking as the timers inside the birds tick down to their explosive climaxes.

Eventually, the Kommandant is contacted and told about the mayhem going on his absence. Verkramp has finally realised all these nightmarish incidents are his fault, and has contacted all his agents and paid them to leave town. Van Heerden returns to deal with the knotty problem of finding a group of white men (the agents were seen by witnesses at some of the explosions) who can be blamed for all the mayhem… until Mrs Heathcote-Kilkoon learns of his problem and suggests… the pompous Britishers of the Dornford Yates club! Yes, they offended the Kommandant with their lofty superiority and now he can get his revenge!

Which leads to the novel’s violent climax as various police agencies approach the unwitting home of the good Colonel and Major, in the midst of holding another gay and frivolous party, when suddenly shooting breaks out, the Britishers respond, and the whole thing comes to a fiery climax when the reliably psychopathic Konstabel Els floods the cellar of their mansion with petrol and throws in a match. Whoompf.

Slowly Piemburg is restored to normal. The terrorists all appear to have died in the inferno. The memory of the exploding ostriches dies away. Luitenant Verkramp is hypnotised by the large and fearsome lady psychiatrist, Dr von Blimenstein, into marrying him and Kommandant van Heerden adopts one of the habits he learned from the Yates society, fox hunting, having rescued their pack of bloodhounds and now regularly ties a bag of aniseed to a black prisoner, giving him a five minute head-start, and then – Tally Ho!

Civilisation – South Africa-style – has been restored.

Related links

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant Paul Sample

Pan paperback cover of Indecent Exposure by the brilliant 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 (eg naked Mrs Heathcote-Kilgore straddling the Kommandant and surrounded by baying hounds – the red face of the Kommandant she’s straddling is to the left oof her thigh, with a hound’s foot in his mouth; the row of South African police with their penises attached to electrodes watching projected image of naked black women; the big woman in pink on the front is the voracious psychiatrist Dr von Blimenstein, waiting to seduce the (typically for Sharpe) skinny, scared male, Luitenant Verkramp, cowering just behind her buttock).

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.

Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe (1971)

A black man pretending to be a white woman, dancing steps of a ballet he has never seen, dressed in clothes made of a material totally unsuited to a hot climate on a lawn which was imported from England, and kissing the stone face of a man who destroyed his nation, filmed by a woman who is widely regarded as the arbiter of good taste. Nothing could better express the quality of life in South Africa. (p.143)

The word farce doesn’t begin to adequately convey the out-of-control extremity, the relentless savage absurdity of Sharpe’s very funny first novel. The story or, rather, the narrative stuffed with absurd and absurdly violent incidents, focuses on three thick-headed, cruel and blundering policemen in apartheid South Africa – Kommandant van Heerden, Luitenant Verkramp and Konstabel Els. The plot kick starts like a rusty motorbike when they receive a phone call from Miss Hazelstone, an elderly Englishwoman who lives in an old colonial mansion, her grandfather having led the forces which conquered this part of Zululand, her father having been a notorious hanging judge.

Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook. Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time shot any number of Zulu cooks. (p.16)

These three short sentences convey Sharpe’s style. Quick, effective prose which crisply conveys the ludicrousness, the heartlessness and the absurdity of the events with the maximum of biting humour. Comedy is in the timing and, when applied to comic prose on the page, this means sentences must run briskly and crisply up to a punchline – ideally one with an unexpected insight or comic thrust. As Sharpe’s prose does. Time after time.

In a much later scene, the tied and bound Bishop is visited in prison by a cynically detached English chaplain (who has only been persuaded to do this unpleasant chore because he was assured there some rare wild flowers to be seen in the grounds).

The chaplain paused, and looked at the manacles and chains. ‘Do you wear those all the time?’ he asked. ‘They must be frightfully uncomfortable.’
‘Only when I’m going to be hanged,’ said the Bishop.
The chaplain thought he detected a note of bitterness in the remark… (p.192)

Crisp, clear, ironic dialogue.

Back at the plot, the three police officers drive up to Miss H’s house to find her holding a vast elephant gun from the colonial era and a dead cook lying on the lawn by the statue of her dignified ancestor – and things quickly start descending into Sharpeland. Not wanting the criminality of such an honourable old family to be publicised, van Heerden orders the very stupid Konstabel Els to go down to the gatehouse and make sure nobody comes in or out. ‘Shall I shoot?’ asks the Konstabel and the Kommandant rashly says yes. Els finds a colonial-era blockhouse hidden among bushes and takes up position with the elephant gun, a revolver and lots of ammunition. Which is a shame, because the Kommandant has also called the police station and ordered everyone up to the house, fully armed and accompanied by the six Saracen armoured cars the force possesses, to back up the Konstabel.

On the way they are ordered to post large signs warning against rabies and – just to be on the safe side – bubonic plague, around the perimeter of the estate, and this has the unfortunate effect of creating a large-scale panic in the town in which a lot of the population get caught up and start fleeing.

But the main result is that when the policemen advance towards the gatehouse they are immediately fired on by the psychotic Konstabel Els, the elephant gun having truly awesome powers of destruction and mutilation. — Thus, the first half of the book is dominated by the rapidly escalating absurdity of this stand-off, with the armoured cars being brought up to attack the impregnable blockhouse, and a contingent of officers sent round the side camouflaged as bushes – only to discover the hard way that Miss Hazelstone’s military grandfather had prepared an elaborate system of defences including concealed trenches with sharpened spikes at the bottom onto which many of the hapless officers fall, shrieking with agony. Sharpe’s world is not for the faint-hearted. Many people die.

On entering Miss H’s mansion, Kommandant van Heerden discovers a naked man covered in blood snoring in a bedroom and takes him for the murderer, when it is in fact Miss H’s brother, the very Christian bishop of Barotseland, who had run from his bedroom immediately after the shooting to give Fivepence the last rites (hence the covered-in-blood).

There is a sequence of events which involve the bishop eventually waking, having a bath to wash off the blood and walking down to the luxury swimming pool in the grounds where he takes long relaxing lengths underwater, just as the police arrive at the mansion and start shouting for Miss H to come out. Being underwater, the bishop only dimly hears these shouts, which he mistakes for the voice of God announcing a new calling to him.

Meanwhile, Kommandant van Heerden makes a series of unpleasant discoveries about Miss Hazelstone which turn his (admittedly dim) understanding of the world upside down, namely that she has been having a sexual affair with her Zulu cook, in which they both dressed up in rubber fetish suits, Miss Hazelstone dressing as a man, the cook (named Fivepence) dressing as a woman; further, that the cook had premature ejaculation which could only be staved off if Miss H injected his penis with novocaine.

Unfortunately, Kommandant van Heerden only discovers this after he recovers from a blow on the head incurred while fleeing for her savage Dobermann Pinscher to find himself dressed in just such a rubber sex suit, handcuffed to a king-size bed, with Miss H bearing down on him, syringe in hand!

Eventually Konstabel Els realises the enormity of his actions in killing and maiming some 20 of  his colleagues, beats a hasty retreat from the gatehouse and stumbles across the swimming area in the dark (it’s night-time by now), discovering a handy suit of black clothes in the changing area whose pockets he promptly fills with his revolver, all his ammunition and the empty bottle of scotch which had been fuelling his orgy of shooting.

Thus it is that the bishop emerges from the pool and is just discovering something odd in his pockets when a whole load of policemen and their German Shepherd dogs fall on him, chasing him round the swimming pool, before finally arresting him for the murder of the black cook (not that anyone cares about Fivepence by now) and the massacre of 21 policemen. He is handcuffed and dragged off to the police station where he is amiably tortured until he admits to everything and a whole lot more.

And so the narrative goes, madly, absurdly, dizzyingly, on, having left all plausibility and verisimilitude far behind after the first few pages as it escapes into a completely new world of absurdist farce, bitterly satirical, savagely violent and very, very funny.

Autobiography and ‘impurity’

In the past month or so I’ve been reading novels by Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, which are characterised by a high degree of autobiography. Lodge’s novels in fact amount to a lightly fictionalised autobiography, very obviously based on the key milestones in his own life (boyhood in south-east London during the war, mind-expanding visit to post-war Germany, National Service, impoverished junior academic trying to support a wife and children, academic exchange with an American colleague, and so on).

Amis’s fiction not only hints at his autobiography (bolshie young academic, librarian in Wales, freelance writer) but is further ‘impure’ in the sense that, no matter who the central character is, and whether it’s a first person or third person narration, they all tend to have Amis-style thoughts (grumbles and exasperations), be prey to the characteristic self-conscious deployment of plans and strategies (generally to seduce women, or get revenge on enemies), and all couched in Amis’s deliberately throwaway attitude.

The impure text Taken together, the heavy reliance on autobiography, and the tendency of their characters to sound like their authors, make the work of both novelists ‘impure’ ie the texts relate strongly back to their authors’ tone of voice and obsessions. In any Lodge novel you are likely to come across a lecture about Catholic teaching on sex, in any Amis novel passages of the narrator wondering out loud about some quirk of his consciousness or why women are so ‘difficult’.

The pure text This is by way of contrasting them both with Tom Sharpe, whose comic universe is complete, perfect, and miraculously detached from the real world, like a zany balloon which has slipped its mooring and is floating up into an entirely new dimension, previously unknown to humankind.

No chief of police, trussed in a rubber fetish suit, has ever dangled from handcuffs attaching his wrists to the posts of a bed wedged in the second-storey window of a colonial mansion in provincial South Africa. No constable has barricaded himself into a Victorian gun emplacement and systematically slaughtered 21 of his colleagues with an antiquated elephant gun. No provincial bishop has been interviewed by police so stupid they take his mentions of rubrics, chasubles and orbs to refer to the sexual implements he uses in depraved midnight orgies.

And no elderly lady, confined to a South African mental asylum (as Miss Hazelstone is in the novel’s finale) has organised a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Islandlwana, with the black inmates impersonating their Zulu ancestors and the white inmates their Boer antecedents, and which goes disastrously wrong when they get their hands on live ammunition.

No chief of police has ever been promised a heart transplant from an Anglican bishop about to be hanged and has been anaesthetised and cut open in preparation – when at the last minute the hanging goes disastrously wrong, the ancient gallows collapsing and killing half the witnesses with only the bishop making a freak escape – so that the the embarrassed surgeons quietly agree to sew the chief’s chest back up and assure him the transplant was a complete success!

In a refreshingly welcome change, no character in the book is a ‘substitute’ for the novelist. Nobody in it is a writer or an academic. It is uncontaminated by the ‘infection of literature’. Although it is ‘set’ in South Africa under the laws of apartheid – both of which really existed in this world – the narrative itself is wonderfully free of the limits of logic or plausibility, it is as completely alternative and fantastic a world as Wonderland, and the reader staggers from one over-the-top scene to the next feeling like a hallucinating Alice, and experiencing a unique and powerful sense of imaginative liberation.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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