In brief: Tom Sharpe


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The Independent Online

Tom Sharpe (obituary, 7 June) arrived in Dorset shortly after the publication of Wilt, settling in a house on the edge of Bridport.

We met at the house of a friend, another writer; I was never quite sure why he’d decided Bridport was the place to be. Dorset, he said in a letter I got from him in 1986, after he had returned to Cambridge, “played up to that streak of melancholy which is part of my inheritance.”

The often surreal quality of his responses was the thing I loved about him most. Passing him in the street, you might have taken him as a pillar of society: the tweed jacket, the carefully parted smoothed-back hair, the kind of spectacles an accountant would choose. But odd things would suddenly spark him off – the terrible beery carpet of the hotel in West Bay where we sometimes had lunch, the impossible provenance of the food we were eating. Food hadn’t quite happened in West Dorset in the late ’70s. And even if it had, we wouldn’t have been eating it, because he didn’t like show-off stuff. 

The only bit of conspicuous consumption I remember was his brand new Lexus car. But that was a joke too, because he hadn’t the faintest idea what any of its many flashing lights meant or how to control them. He enjoyed the car much more after his puppy, a staggeringly ugly bull terrier (the white kind with pink eyes), chewed up the interior and disabled most of the car’s futuristic functions.

His passion for PG Wodehouse was well known, but I did not realise he was quite so obsessive about typewriters. He had shelves of them and not surprisingly he was an unenthusiastic convert to word processors. Writing shortly after he and his wife Nancy had left West Dorset, he reported that he had consigned his Macintosh and his Laserwriter to a far room “where (DV) they will grow mould upon their ‘memories’ and strange insects wax fat upon their floppy disks.” “Beware, Anna,” he said, “beware the ease with which one edits on the word processor beast. Stick to your Adler and your Olympia, I beseech you.” It was typical, of course, that he had clocked my two typewriters the very first time he came to our house.

He also had a mania for roses, which had begun in Cambridge before he arrived in our neck of the woods. For several years he dug and double dug and dumped heroic quantities of manure into trenches. “I suppose,” he said in an article I commissioned from him about his new-found mania for gardening, “I have over a thousand roses and there was a time when I could escort visitors proudly round the garden. Now though, you may find me pacing among the survivors of the Great Black Spot battle like some general consoling the walking wounded.”

He never wanted to talk about his work, and he got tired of people inviting him out because they thought he would be funny. He was fantastically funny, but it was a humour fuelled by his highly developed sense of the ridiculous, and that didn’t spark to order. In company that he didn’t know he could be curiously shy, lurking, looming in the doorway of a room, like a man summoning up courage to dive into dangerous rapids. But he loved gossip and you found yourself storing up things you’d seen that you thought he’d like. 

By May 1986 the Sharpes were back in Cambridge where, he announced in a letter, he had “bought a house that is as awful in its own way” as the one they’d had in Bridport. At that time, I had a writing place in Burghley Park in Stamford and from time to time Tom would loom up unannounced in front of the study window and take me for lunch at The George.

The unannouncedness was part of the charm. I can’t see him enjoying the mobile phone any more than he enjoyed word processors. But I remember him as an intensely loyal man, a friend we will never forget. And, underneath the careful carapace he constructed round himself, a romantic.