Acclaimed comic writer with a strong social conscience
Tom Sharpe: 1928-2013
Tom Sharpe, who has died aged 85, was in the great tradition of English comic novelists and his bawdy style and vulgar approach were said to have made bad taste into an art form.
Tom Sharpe, who has died aged 85, was in the great tradition of English comic novelists and his bawdy style and vulgar approach were said to have made bad taste into an art form – like “PG Wodehouse on acid”, in the words of one critic. Sharpe did not start writing comic novels until 1971, when he was 43, but once he got going he gained a large readership.
Wilt (1976) introduced perhaps his most popular character: Henry Wilt, a mild-mannered teacher of literature who gets involved in a murder investigation. Sharpe claimed that the account of teaching day-release apprentice butchers and tradesmen in classes timetabled as “Meat One” and “Plasterers Two” was based on his own.
Henry Wilt has a plain common sense that gives a touch of ordinary, everyday reality to the novel and its sequels – The Wilt Alternative (1979), Wilt on High (1984), Wilt in Nowhere (2004) and The Wilt Inheritance (2010). A film starring Griff Rhys Jones in 1989, brought Sharpe an even wider audience, as did the TV adaptations of his novels Blott on the Landscape and Porterhouse Blue.
Surprisingly for a comic writer and such a jovial character, Sharpe came to attention first as a hero in the struggle against apartheid in 1960. After leaving Cambridge with a degree in history and social anthropology, he had gone, in 1951, to South Africa, where he did social work for the Non-European Affairs Department, witnessing many of the horrors inflicted on the black population.
He taught in Natal for a time and then set up a photographic studio in Pietermaritzburg in 1957.
He wrote a political play which criticised the country’s racial policy. Although it was not produced in South Africa, and had only a small production in London, it was enough to bring down on him the wrath of the Bureau of State Security. He was hounded by the secret police, spent the Christmas of 1960 in jail, and was deported back to Britain in 1961.
In 1971 he wrote the novel Riotous Assembly, a comic send-up of the South African police. The inspiration for the book came from hearing about the aunt of a friend of his who lived near the police station and complained that the screams of tortured prisoners disturbed her afternoon naps.
The aunt came to life in the book as the eccentric Miss Hazelstone, who amazes a police chief, Kommandant Van Heerden, when she says she wants to be arrested for murder because she has shot and killed her Zulu cook. Sharpe dedicated the book to “the South African police force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of western civilisation in southern Africa”.
Crusade against racism
Sharpe continued his crusade against racism in South Africa with Indecent Exposure (1973), in which Kommandant van Heerden returns under the mistaken impression that he had been given “the heart of an English gentleman” in a transplant operation.
If readers thought he was a one-subject writer, with Porterhouse Blue (1974), set in a Cambridge college, he proved that he was a true comic novelist in the great English tradition.
He continued his dissection of English life with Blott on the Landscape (1975), a farce on urban development and the spoiling of the English countryside.
Born in south London, Sharpe had an unusual and troubled boyhood. His father, the Unitarian minister Rev George Coverdale Sharpe, was a fascist, a follower of Oswald Mosley and of Hitler. From the start of the second world war, the family was continuously on the move to avoid the father being interned with other British Nazis. His mother, Grace, was South African and a rich South African aunt paid for him to go to school in Sussex. During that time, he wore a German army belt with Gott Mit Uns on the buckle. He said that when he went to the seaside he used to daydream of scrambling over the barbed wire and swimming across the Channel to occupied France to “join the good guys”.
He did his national service from 1946 to 1948, and went to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He was married for a short time in South Africa and then in 1969 married Nancy Anne Looper from North Carolina. They had three daughters.
He is survived by Nancy and his daughters.