Sharpe Barbs at the State

Eleven novels by Tom Sharpe


No one is safe from the satirical pen of British novelist Tom Sharpe. But above all, bureaucrats and powerbrokers should beware. Such targets Sharpe takes on fearlessly. There are murderous police officers in Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure, coercive urban planners in Blott on the Landscape, petty educational bureaucrats in Wilt, and rent controllers and tax collectors in The Throwback—and they are all blasted relentlessly.

For over a decade, Sharpe's vigorous attacks on prominent social, cultural, and political institutions have thrust his novels to the top of Britain's bestseller list. Now Americans can savor his ribald humor, his unrestrained romps across the boundaries of the conventional, the mild, the disciplined, and the polite. There is something—in most cases several things—to offend almost everyone amid the carnage, chaos, sex, rudeness, and coarse language of Sharpe's farcical novels. Offended some may be, but critics of the modern state will delight in his put-downs of public education, police, politicians, zoning laws, rent control, and other tempting targets.

Though Sharpe consistently attacks government institutions, it would be hard to characterize him as propounding any systematic political doctrine. He is not, for example, a pure libertarian, in the sense of consistently opposing big government and supporting individualism and free markets. However, he can, perhaps, best be seen as a libertarian critic; for, while not really offering a position of his own, his irreverent attacks on existing institutions reveal a strong antistatist stance.

Sharpe himself claims to be "anti the institution." He embellishes this comment by noting that "in the 19th century (English economist Walter) Bagehot said the reason freedom existed in Britain was that there were conflicting institutions, each of which was demanding the right of free speech against the other. I am against monopoly of power."

Some of Sharpe's political ideas clearly come from his own background. The British-born Sharpe attended a private school in Bloxham, England, until age 14, when he ran away to escape disciplinary action. He finished high school at Lancing, a distinguished private institution, and went on to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he studied history and anthropology. Porterhouse College in Sharpe's Porterhouse Blue is almost certainly based in part on his Cambridge years.

In 1951, Sharpe moved to South Africa, where most of his father's family lived, and took a job as a social worker in a black township. Later, he opened a photographic studio in Pietermaritzburg. During this time, Sharpe wrote several plays, but the only one produced was The South African, which he has described as very heavy and full of symbolism. The play, critical of the South African government's apartheid policies, promptly led to his deportation.

Upon Sharpe's return to England, he took a job as a lecturer in history at Cambridge College of Arts and Technology, an institution that provides basic technical qualifications along with liberal arts classes. This undoubtedly supplied him with the background for many scenes in his fifth novel, Wilt, in which England's education system suffers the brunt of Sharpe's barbs.

While still a teacher, Sharpe wrote his first novel, Riotous Assembly. Like his plays, it was sharply critical of the South African government. But in Riotous Assembly Sharpe abandoned the serious tone of his plays, turning instead to satire.

The book is an acidic criticism of the excesses of racist South African police. In the book, a wealthy white woman contacts the police station to explain that she has murdered her black cook, who was also her lover. In the course of the murder investigation, the police move into her house and the police Kommandant assumes dictatorial powers under the Anti-Terrorist Act.

The flavor of Sharpe's satire is captured in a passage in which the Kommandant is discussing the murder case,

"You say here," continued the Kommandant, tapping the report, "that the Hazelstones are noted for their left-wing and Communistic leanings. I would like to know what made you say that."…"I checked the library. It's full of Communistic literature. They've got The Red Badge of Courage, Black Beauty, the collected works of Dostoyevsky, even Bertrand Russell's banned book, Why I Am Not a Christian. I tell you, they are all dangerous books."

Kommandant van Heerden was impressed.…"That seems conclusive enough," he said.

Though Riotous Assembly is sprinkled liberally with satire, it is also full of scenes of mass murder, incidents of extremely unsportsmanlike hand-to-paw combat between a policeman and an attack dog, dismemberment, torture, and other assorted mayhem. His second novel, Indecent Exposure, which also targets South Africa's police force, is equally full of violence.

This time Sharpe satirizes government surveillance in the name of anticommunism. The novel recounts the instigation of a wave of terrorism in Piemburg by the chief of police in order to root out (nonexistent) communist subversion. All the terrorists in Piemburg are employed by the police chief, and they are all unknown to each other. They succeed in destroying the town with the terrorist acts that each one commits in order to gain credibility with the terrorist community. Unfortunately for Piemburg, the terrorist community consists entirely of these police employees.

These two books on South Africa are not nearly as funny as Sharpe's later writings. He seems, in these early novels, to be motivated more by hatred of the object of his satire than by wanting to make people laugh. In describing South African racist police, he gives so many incidents of extreme violence that the books are more abuse than farce.

Still, the two books do mark a distinct break from Sharpe's heavy-handed attempts as a playwright. Despite the violence, the satire does succeed in arousing laughter. Indeed, both books were well liked by critics. But it was not until his third, Porterhouse Blue, that Sharpe attained widespread recognition and popularity.

Perhaps Sharpe's funniest book, The Throwback, is also the one that most explicitly challenges government institutions. It concerns the adventures of an unusual young Scottish man, Lockhart Flawse, whose antisocial grandfather raised him in a barren Scottish estate with very little human contact.

Lockhart's wife, Jessica, owns an inheritance of 12 upscale suburban dwellings, which she and Lockhart want to sell. But the houses contain tenants who cannot legally be evicted because of strict rent and tenure (residence) controls. Lockhart's methods of convincing his tenants to leave provide considerable amusement. His urban terrorism leads to a rabid dog on LSD, an antiterrorist team attacking a suburban golf course, and a vicar arrested for soliciting.

Lockhart and Jessica do succeed in selling their houses, after which they return to Scotland, pursued by Mr. Mirkin, a determined tax agent who thinks that "tax evasion is a crime against society of the very gravest sort. The man who fails to contribute to the economic good deserves the most severe punishment." But "all is fair in love, war, and tax evasion." Little does the tax agent suspect what fate Lockhart has planned for him.

One classic Sharpe scene in The Throwback exemplifies the kind of jab he pokes at government. When Lockhart, fresh from the remote Scottish countryside, takes a job at a London tax accountant's, he puts into effect his eccentric grandfather's method of handling tax communications:

The old man had transacted all possible business in cash and had made a habit of hurling every letter from the Income Tax Authorities into the fire without reading it while at the same time ordering Mr. Bullstrode to inform the bureaucratic swine that he was losing money, not making it.

Nearly as incisive in its attack on state power is Sharpe's Blott on the Landscape (which BBC television has serialized this fall with a script by Malcolm Bradbury). The novel describes the efforts of Maud Handyman, the sole heir of the Handyman family. She is aided by her implacable gardener, Blott, as they try to prevent the Ministry of Environmental Planning from building a highway through Maud's family estate.

As aristocrats and politicians battle over the road in uncontrolled Sharpean fashion, the Ministry of Environmental Planning sends in arch-bureaucrat Mr. Dundridge to mediate. Dundridge's socialism, Sharpe writes, "was embodied in the maxim, 'To each according to his abilities, from each according to his needs', the 'his' in both cases referring to Dundridge himself." Faced with blackmail, bribery, and seduction, Dundridge responds by sending squadrons of bulldozers on strategic military sorties throughout the aristocratic neighborhood where the road is to be built, leading to even more drastic counter-strategies by Lady Maud.

Sharpe's own experiences in Britain's school system provide him with another sort of cannon fodder for his satire. The protagonist of Wilt is Henry Wilt, an assistant lecturer at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology, a fifth-rate technician school. There Wilt inflicts compulsory liberal studies on gasfitters, plasterers, bricklayers, plumbers, and meatcutters on whom some of the more subtle points of literary interpretation are, to say the least, entirely wasted.

Wilt entertains fantasies of murdering his wife and carries them out in a fashion one night by dropping an anatomically detailed, life-size plastic doll dressed in his wife's clothing down a hole that is to be filled with cement the next morning by a construction crew. When his wife then disappears along with an unpleasant American couple of strange sexual preferences, he is arrested on a murder charge and grilled by the police.

But his 10 years of dealing with rowdies have made Wilt impervious to any form of intimidation. The financial rewards of teaching in the higher-education system may be few, but the payoff for Wilt in survival skills is considerable. He causes the police intense frustration as he sends them on false trails and refuses to bend under interrogation. Happily for fans of invincible Henry Wilt, he reappears in The Wilt Alternative and in Sharpe's latest farce, Wilt on High.

Other pedants targeted by Sharpe include Marxist professor Walden Yapp in Ancestral Vices. In keeping with his egalitarian vocabulary, Yapp refers to a dwarf in the novel as a P.O.R.G. (Person of Restricted Growth).

Though overtly antistatist themes abound in Sharpe's novels, his primary purpose is not to present a political message. Above all, Sharpe is trying to make people laugh. Thus his literary slapstick—farcical scenes with no satirical content—stems from his desire to be funny at all costs.

On this subject, Sharpe has said: "I want to free people from their inhibitions.…I'm not out to improve the world. I want to provide comedy, and I want to be able to appeal to everybody, right across the board."

Yet there may be more to Sharpe's satire than he admits. Once, for example, in discussing Riotous Assembly, Sharpe alluded to Swiss author Friedrich Dürrenmatt's comment that comedy is the thing most feared by totalitarians, perhaps indicating a more serious purpose to Sharpe's farcical pen.

Sharpe rejects the view of writing, however, as an appeal to our finer moral sensibilities. This comes across most explicitly in The Great Pursuit, in which an aspiring writer of the moral novel is rudely awakened to the realities of profitmaking in the publishing business. He finds to his dismay that the moral novel just doesn't sell. Sharpe exposes his own opinion of moralizing literature by portraying a self-righteous moralizing literary critic as a thoroughgoing hypocrite.

Sharpe can be accused of being unsubtle, even tasteless, in his humor. Alan Franks of the London Times has aptly said that Sharpe is either "compulsive or repulsive depending on whether you are rudish or prudish." His novels contain large-scale carnage including explosions, torture, shootings, and explicit sexual humor.

Vintage Stuff, for example, was sufficiently full of death and destruction to lead one London Times reviewer to call it a "predominantly sombre thriller." The book involves the misadventures of the dull Rodney Glodstone, who fantasizes about a life more adventurous than the one he leads as a teacher at an uninspiring educational institution. A rival teacher, who is aware of Glodstone's fantasies, sends him fake letters from a nonexistent damsel in distress in a castle in Europe. Glodstone falls for the trap and sets off with a student, Peregrine Clyde-Brown, on an ill-fated adventure to an unsuspecting tourist resort in the south of France. It is here that the carnage starts, as Peregrine mistakes a French hotel for the headquarters of some international criminals. Among other things, Peregrine shoots an American professor point-blank in the forehead, blows up a squadron of police cars, and randomly takes potshots at a whole group of professors.

How can this sort of thing be funny? In part, because Sharpe is appealing to the teenager in all of us. But there is more to it than that. Sharpe's novels make a direct assault on society's pretensions. He sees laughter as a way to make people abandon their illusions about themselves.

Another reason we can laugh at Sharpe's sometimes grotesque accounts is that most of the people on the receiving end of the more-unpleasant incidents are experiencing the boomerang effects of their own avaricious schemes. However hard people in Sharpe's books try to get ahead by exploiting others, their plans backfire, and usually in a particularly nasty manner. This is not to ignore the fact that the body count in his novels includes many innocent bystanders who happened to get in the way of the plot. But the bad guys do kill considerably more innocent people than the good guys do.

Sharpe's characters do not live in the benign, morally balanced universe of some of the classic satirists, such as James Thurber, Mark Twain, and P.G. Wodehouse. But this is what makes his books so funny. He takes some of the unpleasant aspects of life and deliberately brings them out in the open in an unsubtle manner.

"I hope that when I prick the bubble of pretension I sort of whack it over the head with a sledgehammer," he has said. Let the pompous and the complacent beware when Sharpe is at work.

Robert Blumen is a student at Stanford University and was a summer intern at the Institute for Humane Studies in Menlo Park, California.

Sharpe Novels

Riotous Assembly (1971)
Indecent Exposure (1973)
Porterhouse Blue (1974)
Blott on the Landscape (1975)
Wilt (1976)
The Great Pursuit (1977)
The Throwback (1978)
The Wilt Alternative (1979)
Ancestral Vices (1980)
Vintage Stuff (1982)
Wilt on High (1984)

Blott on the Landscape, Wilt, The Great Pursuit, The Throwback, The Wilt Alternative, and Vintage Stuff have just been published in paperback by Vintage Books (New York), $3.95 each.

Paperback editions of Riotous Assembly, Indecent Exposure, Porterhouse Blue, and Vintage Stuff are available from Pan Books (London), 1.5 British pounds each.

British-published hardcover editions of all titles except Wilt on High are available from David and Charles (North Pomfret, VT).

Wilt on High was published this year by Secker & Warburg (London), 7.95 British pounds; a US edition is reportedly planned by Random House.