He's spent four decades satirising a range of entrenched institutions, from the landed gentry to the Cambridge academic community. But, at 81, the Porterhouse Blue author now enjoys a love-hate relationship with his adopted home city, he tells PAUL KIRKLEY.
Tom Sharpe photographed by Roger Adams
It's a little after 10am and, at the kitchen table of his Great Shelford home, Tom Sharpe is in full flow.
“My grandfather was a carpenter,” he tells me, apropos of nothing. “I’m very proud of him, actually. He was a carpenter from Norfolk and he sailed to Africa in 1864, and there was something wrong . . . the weather was . . . there was a fight between the Methodists and the . . . it wasn’t the Methodists who started it . . . it was the other blokes, who were all drunk. And they sailed to get the wind to round the Cape of Good Hope, which is exceedingly dangerous.
Then they were marooned . . . no, not marooned . . . what the hell’s the word? Anyway, they were in the Indian Ocean and the wind died and they were there for a month. It’s all in his diary. You wouldn’t get a carpenter today who could write like that.”
He continues in this vein for some time, before suddenly bringing me up short with a question.
“What do you call those blacks – the natives?”
“Erm . . . Zulus?” I offer, tentatively.
He looks at me as if I’m entirely mad.
“Zulus? In Australia?”
Clearly my own attention has also gone adrift somewhere in the South Atlantic. But that’s an audience with Tom Sharpe all over: While he’s only too eager to share entertainingly rambling, frequently impenetrable stories of his family or recollections from his school days, what you shouldn’t expect is anything like a straight answer to a straight question.
This is something I discover with my opening gambit – a PR-friendly bit of soft soaping designed to let him talk about his latest slice of comic grotesquery, The Gropes. Can you tell me a bit about where the idea for this particular story sprang from? I ask.
“No,” he says, matter-of-factly. Right. Okay then, can you explain how you got the idea for the plot?
“I don’t plot, I can’t plot,” he says, with a dismissive wave of his cigar. “My mind doesn’t work that way. Now Wodehouse . . .. You see, I knew Wodehouse . . .”
This proves the cue for another wandering anecdote about the time he pitched up uninvited at the legendary Jeeves author’s home on Long Island, via a detour regarding the Cambridge academic Piers Brendon and something to do with a man called Townend, before he eventually winds his way back round to the point.
“Wodehouse did 400 pages of notes on ideas. I just launch myself in – boing. And if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’ve got no idea how my books are going to end – I’m in the middle of a book now, my 16th, and I don’t know how that will end.”
Wodehouse was clearly a major influence on Sharpe, whose broad, bawdy satires of life behind the curtains and drapes of Britain’s bungalows and stately homes have inspired a devoted following for the best part of 40 years. But he cites his greatest inspiration as the early novels of Evelyn Waugh.
“My father was a Unitarian minister – I daresay he preached at the Unitarian Church in Cambridge – and, as a child, I only really read the books that were in his library. He was poor as a church mouse – I think he only got £100 a year.
“My mother was his second wife – his first wife died of purpurial fever which, as you know . . .” He studies my reaction intently. “Clearly you don’t know. I can see that by your face.”
Erm, so, anyway, you were telling me about your early literary influences.
“When I was 11, I was in the library at my prep school and the Latin master asked me what I was looking for. I said I’d like an amusing book. He said ‘Try this’ and he gave me Waugh’s first book .. .”
He looks briefly annoyed. “Oh what’s the name of it? You would come on the morning when my memory’s on the blink. Anyway, it was the one with Grimes in it. Look it up. [I did – it was Decline and Fall]. And I loved it.”
Sharpe’s own literary debut came in 1971 with Riotous Assembly, a giddy farce inspired by his experiences in apartheid-era South Africa, from which he was deported in 1961 after being accused of sedition.
“I knew the wrong people,” he explains. “I started off in a finance corporation – they thought I was clever ’cos I’d been to Cambridge, but I wasn’t – then I was working as a teacher, and then I took up photography. I was wandering around townships – I was just showing the misery and horror of apartheid. They burned 36,000 of my negatives.”
Finding himself back in Cambridge, where he’d been an undergrad at Pembroke College, Sharpe took a job teaching history at the then College of Art and Technology, and set about establishing himself as a writer, churning out his first books in a “grotty flat” in City Road.
If Riotous Assembly and its sequel, Indecent Exposure, were ostensibly about South Africa, they also introduced
readers to several concepts that would become Sharpe trademarks, most notably his Rabelaisian portrait of the ineffectual, degenerate English ruling classes and the moral and sexual hypocrisy at play behind their thin veneer of respectability.
It is a theme he would develop in knockabout novels ranging from Ancestral Vices and The Throwback to 1975’s Blott on the Landscape, later the subject of a memorable TV adaptation in which the current Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) performed bondage on a naked Arthur Daley (George Cole), while dressed as a cat.
The following year saw the launch of Sharpe’s most enduring comic creation. A downtrodden lecturer at the fictional Fenland College, Henry Wilt is to some extent an avatar of Sharpe himself, and went on to star in four well-received novels and one very badly received film starring Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith (“I was so angry about that because it was so absolutely wrong,” he says. “I told the writer/director to get lost. He’d ****ed Wilt up. He really had. Nobody liked it.”).
By now, Sharpe had left the grotty flat behind and upgraded to his own office – if you could call it that. “I hired a hut in the university language research unit, which was run by a Mrs Braithwaite,” he recalls. “I wrote Wilt in there in three weeks.”
Though he’s now 81, boasts a “foot full of metal” following a gardening accident eight years ago and recently narrowly survived a serious digestive illness, Sharpe has lost none of his desire to prick the pomposity and prod the peccadilloes of the English gentry.
He appears to retain a particular fascination for the war between sexually predatory female battleaxes and their quivering, emasculated menfolk – a theme explored in extremis through The Gropes’ eponymous northern matriarchy, who have been conjuring devious ways to lure virile males into their crumbling country pile ever since their distant ancestor was rejected by the raping and pillaging Vikings.
It’s a very British, seaside postcard take on sex, isn’t it?
“Well I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it,” he says.
But does he actually meet many women like that?
“Yes, actually I do. Not a lot, but some. In Spain [since 1995, Sharpe and his American wife Nancy have divided their time between Cambridge and their home on the Costa Brava] I find quite a few of the English women a bit . . . domineering. Not all of them, of course.”
Ian Richardson and David Jason in Porterhouse Blue
Another target for Sharpe’s satirical barbs over the years is his adopted home city – or, at least what he perceives as the intransigent, reactionary university culture so vividly depicted in novels like Porterhouse Blue, The Great Pursuit and The Grantchester Grind.
“It’s actually not so much the university as Pembroke College,” he corrects me. “I made some very good friends at Pembroke – many of them have died, now. And actually the porter was very nice, I liked him [in Porterhouse Blue, college porter Skullion – brilliantly played by David Jason in the 1987 TV adaptation – represents the entrenched face of college tradition resisting the changes planned by the new master].
“But I was the odd man out at Pembroke. Everybody else went in two by two, Sharpe went in one by one. The senior tutor didn’t like me. I’d been in the Marines for two years before Pembroke. Pembroke at that time was
changing and . . .” He pauses. “No, you shouldn’t put this down. Don’t put this down.”
If he’s reluctant to dish the dirt on his alma mater, he’s less circumspect when it comes to Cambridge itself. You’ve remained here all these years, I say, with a house in the city as well as the one at Great Shelford. You must be quite fond of the place?
He shakes his head. “I don’t like it now for the simple reason there’s too much violence and not enough police,” he says. “I mean, the chief constable has said that herself.”
But it’s still a fairly civilised place to live, as far as British cities go, surely?
He fixes me with a Sharpe stare. “Up to a point, Lord Copper,” he says, quoting – who else? – Waugh’s obsequious foreign editor Mr Salter in Scoop.
By now, I think I’m starting to get the measure of who Tom Sharpe is as he rumbles into his ninth decade on the planet. He’s a man who loves to tell a tale (indeed, though we’ve been talking for more than 90 minutes, he seems disappointed when I start to pack up and leave, and insists on taking me on a tour of the garden, lame foot or no lame foot) but he’s entirely resistant – or
perhaps plain disinterested – in any attempt to analyse his work or the motivations behind it.
How would you like your books to be remembered? I ask.
There is a long silence. “Never thought about it,” he says.
What, not even one sly eye on the legacy?
“No. I don’t think I will be remembered. I mean, we already speak a different language to what we did 20 or 30 years ago. “
But we still read the literature of centuries gone by, don’t we?
“Oh yes,” he nods. “But they were great writers. I’m not a great writer, for God’s sake. I’m just a fool.”
:: The Gropes is published by Hutchinson, priced £18.99