Tom Sharpe’s fiction can be compared to the single-wheeled electric scooter – a fantastic invention and widely admired, but one that there is now inexplicably no commercial demand for. Nobody writes books like Sharpe’s first book Riotous Assembly (1971) these days. Sharpe’s madcap hilarity has remained his own personal literary product. He even stopped writing this sort of book himself after a while and there was no faithful protégé or school-of-Sharpe to retrieve it from where he had let it fall.
When one inspects Amazon’s “Best Sellers in Humorous Fiction” page, the withering of humour on literature’s vine is there for all to see. None of the featured writers are household names and their books look synonymous, as if they might as well have been written by the same person. Nothing remotely threatening is conveyed by any of their covers; there is a tyranny of friendly pastels and the implicit oath that there will be only rom-com clichés inside. These are, if we are going to stick the knife in, books for old women to flick brainlessly through after a tiring afternoon with the grandchildren. The most appealing, Alex Brown’s The Secret of Orchard Cottage, is the least openly humorous in appearance. The cover depicts a cottage and a wildflower garden. The story is adorned with the recommendation, “As sweet and charming as homemade apple pie,” a description that would be career death for most respectable writers.
Not only are books like Riotous Assembly no longer written any more, but nobody attempts the covers either. When you look at Paul Sample’s jacket, you have absorbed this novel, and all that is left is to read the words. Has no book been written since Sharpe’s day that merits a cover splashed with such lewd mayhem? Or are eligible books currently expected to appear in public with toned-down artwork?
There were certainly many hilarious middlebrow writers before Sharpe – with PG Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Saki and EF Benson just to get started. You would have an uphill battle to compile an equivalent list from those who came afterwards. Or rather, there has since been a downgrading of humour’s status, if not that of the middlebrow more generally, within English literature. For example, Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black (2005) is surprisingly funny for a novel from a Booker-winning author, but Mantel does not devote all of her skill to making you laugh. Part of her is busy in the prose, another part is away touring literary themes, another remains loyal to her melancholy. There is not the humour running clear that you find in Sharpe.
Actually, the Spectator’s Duncan Fallowell had discovered plenty of nostalgia within Sharpe’s own fiction. It was 1976 and he was reviewing Sharpe’s Wilt:
But it is obvious that the Wodehouse connotation… is slowly freaking out Mr Sharpe’s style. The review quotations printed on the back cover mention PGW four times, in addition to starting off with a plaudit from the great mocker himself. It is a tiresome incantation which, while it solicits the attention of those nursing a sore lack since the old man went, reduces Tom Sharpe to something akin to a votive offering on the end of a cocktail stick. And we know what happens to those.
Fallowell was not a hostile critic – he found the novels very funny – but he had marked Sharpe down for his “ungainly pastiche” of PG Wodehouse’s dialogue. When reading Riotous Assembly I concur. Many of Sharpe’s sentences too much of a mouthful:
“He used to have emissions prematurely,” she said, and when the Kommandant ventured to suggest incomprehendingly that, in his humble opinion, Fivepence could not have gone to mission prematurely enough considering his filthy habits in later life, Miss Hazelstone stooped to the level of the stable and explained in language the Kommandant was forced, however unwillingly, to recognise as all too intelligible.
Yes, it is meant to be parodic of Victorian prose but the overall effect quickly becomes buzzing and tinny. You sometimes think that Miss Hazelstone should have orated this novel from the stable door. On the upside, the humour soon blasts through everything with an elephant-gun force that is given emphasis by the previous fussiness of the writing. Sharpe also on occasion spits it out. “… the Chaplain had jumped at the opportunity afforded by the hanging to see a riot of prickly pears,” is one of my favourites. As is “… policemen clad only in bathing-trunks and with facemasks and snorkels clambering aboard the Jojo lorries and diving into piles of semi-liquid meat…”
The sex in Riotous Assembly apparently innovates upon Wodehouse. The reviewers Toby Clements and Simon Savidge have each vividly described encountering Sharpe’s novels as children and being left “wide-eyed” by the smut. You might think that in the days before instant pornography, Sharpe’s fiction must have broadened the horizons of many clueless suburban teenagers. Even so, the sex in Sharpe is often unmistakably horror. Let us savour the hypnogogic image of Miss Hazelstone, resembling “an elderly man with unspeakable feminine characteristics,” dressed in a salmon-pink rubber suit and poised to administer a penile injection. The death-dwarf in Daphne du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” is a mere baby by contrast. If Sharpe’s fiction was really the first introduction to human intimacy for his younger readers, he is surely responsible for decades of terrified celibacy.
Why cannot Sharpe’s writing be outdone, refined, or even just continued? Why do ambitious young writers today grow up to become Ian McEwan or Zadie Smith, and not Tom Sharpe? All of the relevant skills still exist, but I see them being practised purely in television sitcoms, and in farcical plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, and occasionally in student films on YouTube. Sharpe’s knowhow can be declared extinct within English literature. The middlebrow farce that Sharpe had invented is now as dead as the Apartheid system that it had once gaily reduced to rubble.
Then again, the man himself had maintained that, “I’m not a great writer, for God’s sake. I’m just a fool.”
Sharpe was a hardened foe of “political correctness” and yet his writing about South Africa has remained on the whole durable. You cannot in fact point to any foot wrong. The peril that Riotous Assembly flirts with is of ending up with policemen who are Wodehousian buffoons and blacks who are hapless natives. Sharpe avoids the latter problem by setting his novel in a world where there are effectively no blacks.
The story can only begin once the cook Fivepence, its single important black character, has been blown to smithereens. Fivepence makes a posthumous, even spectral appearance when his lover and murderer Miss Hazelstone plays a film reel of him cavorting around the lawn “pretending to be a white woman.” Here, tellingly, Fivepence is silent; he “executed his last pirouette and ended his performance with a curtsy.” A Zulu is allowed a lone speaking part at the book’s climax, but he is a madman at the lunatic asylum and, like Fivepence, masquerading in a costume. The book finishes with a joyous Zulu sing-song. These are the only black interruptions to the story’s monotonous white madness. We are left to asphyxiate within the whites’ world, an airtight, soundproof bubble of civilised hysteria.
Neither are the policemen depicted affectionately. Indeed, this is the key that unlocks Sharpe’s novel – he absolutely hates these people. Sharpe had moved to South Africa in 1951, and after writing critically about apartheid, he was arrested, interrogated, jailed, and then deported in 1961. The rubber that the fetishist Miss Hazelstone unleashes across her garden utopia comes to increasingly symbolise the denseness of Kommandant van Heerden and his fellow policemen, as they are bounced and flung every which way. The joke is not complicated here – indeed, it is out-and-out abuse. When Sergeant de Kock is forced to dress in a rubber nightie, he fears “that he would be known for the rest of his life as Rubber Cock.”
If one measures up Riotous Assembly against, say, Evelyn Waugh’s debut novel Decline and Fall (1928), then the former seems to have a life of its own and one that is independent of how these things are usually done. Waugh’s writing is still brilliant but it also seems oddly sedate. Whilst Waugh has affection for Oxford, Sharpe’s dismissal of South Africa is apocalyptic. He has given up on the country entirely.
There is a kind of conspiracy between Sharpe and his readers, and one that has been deepened by history: “Thank goodness that we are far away from this place! Thank goodness that we are so far away that we can laugh about it and not worry anymore.” The happiness of his book – the “anything-can-happen” exuberance of it – no doubt reflects Sharpe’s relief at being freed from South Africa. He levels its landscape of prisons and fortifications in a transport of total freedom. The novel concludes with a mayor and a prison governor numbering amongst the casualties. Sharpe is like a sincere Godzilla, not embodying some post-Hiroshima dread or a glib Hollywood fantasy of apocalypse, but genuinely wanting to smash up his South African township.
Konstabel Els, the police dogsbody, have-a-go hangman, and death-bringing angel-of-Apartheid, is the novel’s sticking point. Sharpe evidently likes him and so, possibly, do we. Yet Els is the murderer, torturer, and rapist of countless black South Africans. The solution is that Els is such an innocent that he becomes somewhat unfixed from Apartheid. In the interesting and admittedly belated attempt to get him off the hook at the end of the story, he goes awol disguised as a “coloured convict.” A cynic who views Apartheid as the easiest pretext for violence and mayhem, his racism is only skin deep. It would be too sick-making for Els to be rewarded though, and so the last we hear of him, he has received “twenty lashes for indecent assault.”
Kommandant van Heerden is so stupid that there is no point in punishing him – it would merely bounce off the rubber. We give up on him with a fatuous happy ending in which he thinks that he has had a “change of heart.” Unfortunately, this change is literal rather than metaphorical and the transplant was, in any event, aborted.
Sharpe insisted that he was not a satirist and that he did not want his books to become “propaganda.” Nothing revolutionary occurs in Riotous Assembly: the police state is so unfit that, like the town’s decomposing gallows, it simply collapses in on itself, albeit with a helpful push from the game old liberal Miss Hazelstone. Nonetheless this lady is explicitly ruled out as a figure to rally round. She is given selfish, nonsensical motives – she shoots her chef with a four-barrelled elephant gun because she loves him so wildly. This is as much as the novel will concede to progressive politics. Salvation, when it comes, will have to come from the blacks. Riotous Assembly does South Africa over but it does not sort it out.