Porterhouse Blue author Tom Sharpe dies aged 85

John Walsh marks the demise of the writer who found comic gold in the world of Oxbridge

Tom Sharpe, who died today at the age of 85, was a comic writer in the great English tradition, stretching back through PG Wodehouse and Waugh to Thackeray, Dickens, Smollett and Fielding. He combined a prose style of breezy elegance with the instincts of a farceur. But behind his bawdy scene-making and love of mayhem, he was a moralist with a keen sense of English decency.

Sharpe died in the coastal town of Llafranc in north-eastern Spain from complications arising from diabetes. His wife, Nancy Looper Sharpe, said he had recently suffered a stroke and had lost the use of his legs.

His first two books were satires about South Africa’s apartheid regime. Sharpe travelled to South Africa in 1951 after leaving Cambridge, to work as a teacher and photographer. He wrote anti- apartheid plays which (though produced only in England) came to the attention of the police and he was deported back to Britain in 1961. The experience left him with a perfect subject. He wrote Riotous Assembly in just three weeks, a comic extravaganza involving a racist Zululand police chief, an eccentric English spinster and her black cook and lover whom she “obliterates” with a quadruple-barrelled elephant gun. The police chief’s efforts to keep a lid on the scandal become increasing farcical. The book was published in 1971. A sequel, Indecent Exposure, following the same incompetent policemen, came out two years later.

Blott on the Landscape showed that he could adapt his satirical eye to subjects back home. It featured a Wodehousian plot – the proposed building of a motorway through a gorge in rural England and the stately home of an MP, Sir Giles Lynchwood – but with very uncosy complications. The MP covets the compensation money, and his wife’s main ally in the fight to save her home is her gardener, a former German POW. Sexual fetishism, arson and death made for a very un-Wodehousian package.

The Sharpe style was established. His books became merciless sallies into the British establishment, with shocking, destructive, sometimes explosive consequences. The Great Pursuit lampooned the supposedly genteel world of British publishing, in which a snuff-taking literary agent called Frensic takes on a book of breathtaking immorality and signs up a high-minded innocent to pretend to have written it, following a $2m deal with a US publisher. The book was funny but was hindered by the fact that Sharpe’s idea of a shocking and disgusting book – in which an 80-year-old woman has an affair with a 17-year-old youth – didn’t seem too bad (it was the plot of the film Harold and Maude.)

Porterhouse Blue took a four-barrelled elephant gun to the world of Oxbridge, and the compromises made by the college system in balancing tradition and modernity. The new master of Porterhouse College is a new broom, keen on introducing women students, canteen food and contraceptive machines. Ranged against him are the college servants, led by Skullion and the academic Fellows.

A certain narrative heartlessness became more evident in his later books, especially the Wilt novels. The original Wilt was a brilliant black comedy about a hacked-off college lecturer who plots to murder his henpecking wife and comes to the attention of a suspicious police inspector. Later books tended to punctuate the plots with violent eruptions and sudden death, with diminishing returns of hilarity.

Sharpe can be accused of dealing in caricature and vulgarity, but his readers don’t care; his fury at racists, thoughtless modernisers, greedy opportunists and smug politicians is translated, in his novels, into comic gold. They hark back, wrote the critic Adrian Mourby, “to a golden age of academic dottiness of a kind that has all but disappeared.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?