Tom Sharpe with his wife Nancy and daughters Grace and Jemima in 1975.
Photograph: Dunne/Rex Features
TOM SHARPE REMEMBERED
His books had the mad plotting of PG Wodehouse and the black humour of Evelyn Waugh. Later, when I got to know him, I came to understand what drove him
The Guardian, Thursday 6 June 2013
When I was an undergraduate at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in the early 1970s, an otherwise blissful life of indolence was occasionally blighted by the college's head porter, a pocket sergeant major of a man named Albert Jaggard. The 1960s had swept away most college rules. Those that were left – mostly relating to sex, drugs and alcohol – the authorities were too squeamish to enforce. So Jaggard, as head porter, made this his business. Like many bullies, he was a complex character, ferocious yet strangely loveable.
Those of us who nurtured secret aspirations for the literary life, would occasionally share the view that Jaggard was a figure "from fiction" or "should be in a novel". Then we discovered that this ambition had already been realised in a novel called Porterhouse Blue, in the immortal character of Skullion, by a savagely comic writer named Tom Sharpe, who died this week.
As a Corpus graduate, I became mildly addicted to Sharpe's comedies. They had some of the mad plotting of PG Wodehouse, the black humour of Evelyn Waugh – and something else (defined by Juvenal as essential to satire) called "savage indignation" (saeva indignatio).
Later, when I got to know him, I came to understand that what drove him was the resentful desperation of an outsider in a hurry. Sharpe first came to England from South Africa as a photographer. Through drive and talent, he broke into the English literary scene, and began to sell. One thing led to another. His books became bestsellers and he met and corresponded with his hero, Wodehouse.
For a while, he was spoken of as the heir to Wodehouse and Waugh. But Sharpe was too contrary to be comfortable with that kind of labelling. He retired to Spain (where his novels remain popular), and withdrew from the world of letters
When I came to write my biography of Wodehouse, I requested an interview and was rewarded with a wonderful sheaf of correspondence. Soon, we were in regular phone contact. The Tom Sharpe I knew was generous, acerbic, engaging, and full of wicked fun. Above all, he was supportive. He read my typescript in draft and made numerous suggestions. Long after the biography was published, he used to ring from Spain, after the siesta hour, to gossip, rant, reminisce – and amuse. I shall miss him.