BOOK REVIEW / Porterhouse 2

Is there honey still for tea? Michael Bracewell questions the nostalgic comedy of Tom Sharpe; Granchester Grind by Tom Sharpe, Secker, pounds 14.99

Across the lurid landscapes of his previous 11 novels, Tom Sharpe has described a world in which the forces of chaos and corruption are inevitably stronger than the best intentions of their sane and innocent victims. In The Great Pursuit (1977), a would-be novelist is ensnared in a nightmarish situation of mistaken identity and back-firing conspiracy; we discover, in the adventures of Wilt, how the frustrations of an embittered polytechnic lecturer explode into an epic of sexual intrigue, murder and political power-mongering. Sharpe's speciality is to pit the absurdity of deeply English class-bound institutions against the equal absurdities (in his eyes) of progressive reform and contemporary ambition.

In all Sharpe's comedies of innocence brought down, we are left with the sense that fate is either indifferent to human frailty or bloody-minded to the point of malignance. All that is good or venerable in Sharpe's comic world, be it the traditional values of literary publishing or the scholastic grace of an Oxbridge college, is described as under threat from the rot of modernity and the decay of civilised standards. Sharpe is an essentially romantic author, nostalgic for a better age of Englishness and incapable - like Waugh - of enduring the modern condition.

Granchester Grind is his first novel in seven years and the eagerly awaited sequel to the hugely successful Porterhouse Blue. The story picks up from the point in Porterhouse College's troubled history when the reforming and unpopular Master has died in mysterious circumstances to be replaced by Skullion, the Head Porter. The Master's widow wants to find out what really happened to her husband, while the Fellows are scheming among themselves to find new funds to defend their archaic home from the sweeping changes of educational reform which they regard as the ultimate disaster.

But having established this promising extension of a strong comic premise, Sharpe seems to lose all faith in the situation which he has created. He falls back, instead, on routines and stock characters from his earlier novels, loading plot upon plot and thus reducing the story to a long parade of partially achieved and structurally uncertain comic episodes. Wilt's bland polytechnic existence is revisited in the shape of Kloone University, from which a new Fellow is recruited; the foul-mouthed American publisher in The Great Pursuit is recreated in the tediously stereotyped personnel of the Transworld Television Company, who are seeking either to film or to buy the ancient college of Porterhouse.

Sharpe's particular brand of comic fiction can be seen as the uneasy continuation of a great tradition of English satire which achieved brilliance through theimaginations of Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse. Indeed, it seems to be these writers' inter-war wit that Tom Sharpe is straining to recreate in the modern world. The difficulty with this enterprise (and the flaws of Granchester Grind) can be seen in the simple conundrum which faces any author who tries to match the sensibilities of an earlier age to the reality of his own. Thus, Sharpe becomes rather like a character out of one of his own novels, defending the archaic and the untenable against the inevitable progress of history. In this matter, Sharpe's despair in the face of modern corruption can be read as reactionary anger at the collapse of Little England. Such an anger may be understandable, or even justified, but it fails to make good comedy when satire becomes rage and farce crosses over into mere confusion.

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