Obituary: Tom Sharpe, author

Tom Sharpe. Picture: Getty
Tom Sharpe. Picture: Getty
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Born: 30 March, 1928, in Croydon, Surrey. Died: 6 June, 2013, in Llafranc, Spain, aged 85

Tom Sharpe was a satirical writer whose books contained wonderfully constructed humorous situations along with a biting edge that mocked many treasured customs and establishments. His earthy style – at times bawdy and coarse – made, some considered, bad taste respectable, but Sharpe laced the narrative with a deep sense of irony. Sharpe did not start writing novels until his early 40s but immediately joined the best seller list and many of his books were adapted for television or the cinema.

His five novels, devoted to the lecturer Henry Wilt, in many ways typified Sharpe’s cunning way of telling a story and keeping the reader gripped. The setting, an academic institution, was often the basis of Sharpe’s novels. He had been a teacher and his sardonic style captured the frustrations and insecurities of the profession.

The anti-hero, accident-prone Henry Wilt, a polytechnic lecturer in literature, was depressed by his career, his home life, his students and his colleagues. It was a dramatic cauldron in which Sharpe revelled.

Thomas Ridley Sharpe was the son of a Unitarian minister who was a rabid fascist, a member of Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts and a follower of Adolf Hitler. Sharpe’s early years were much interrupted as the family led a somewhat nomadic existence during the Second World War. Eventually his father was interned as a British Nazi.

An aunt paid for Sharpe to attend Lancing College but his father’s indoctrination resulted in some turbulent and difficult years.

At the end of the war Sharpe saw the films of the concentration camps (his father had died during the war) and was deeply affected. Already Sharpe was becoming a voracious reader, especially of wry and socially aware authors such as Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse.

From 1946 he did his national service with the Royal Marines and then read History and Social Anthropology at Pembroke College, Cambridge. His mother was a South African and Sharpe harboured a deep hatred of the Apartheid regime.

As far back as 1951, when he worked as a social worker for the Non-European Affairs Department, he witnessed the atrocities perpetrated on the black communities. He taught in Natal for several years and then set up a photographic studio in Pietermaritzburg in 1957.

By the end of the decade Sharpe had become a notable anti-apartheid campaigner and when he wrote a critical play of the regime, The South Africans (which was not produced in South Africa and was only given a fringe showing in London) his movements were monitored by the secret police. He spent Christmas 1960 in custody and was immediately deported back to the UK.

From 1963 to 1972, Sharpe worked as a lecturer in history at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology.

In under a month Sharpe wrote his first novel, Riotous Assembly, which was published in 1971. It lampooned the South African police and did so with a wry and withering wit. Reviewers labelled the book “hysterical”. But under the comedy Sharpe pressed home a savage political attack. With tongue firmly in his cheek Sharpe dedicated the book to “the South African police force whose lives are dedicated to the preservation of western civilisation in southern Africa”.

In 1974 Sharpe wrote what established him as a major literary force. He published Porterhouse Blue, set in a very traditional Cambridge college. It told of the struggle between accepted practice and the necessity for reform.

Sharpe created the wonderfully cantankerous head porter Skullion – deftly portrayed by David Jason in the 1987 Channel 4 series. Sharpe relates how the new master with his revolutionary ideas is supplanted by the cunning Skullion. It is a magnificent read: sarcasm, spite and double dealing all mixed with a harsh dash of wicked irony.

Blott on the Landscape (1975) was set in a rural idyllic landscape – England as in a post card – when an MP plans to drive a motorway through the area. There are farcical social passages when Sharpe’s strident writing hits home with a vengeance. But in Landscape it is his use of language and the subtle and fast moving dialogue that makes the book so memorable. Sharpe was, indeed, a magnificent wordsmith.

Other understated – yet always riveting and harsh – novels followed and in 1982 he wrote Vintage Stuff, which proved a delightful send-up of Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond and John Buchan’s Richard Hannay. But it was Sharpe’s talent to contrive an utterly ludicrous situation from a seemingly normal one then ensuring the characters were credible that lingers in the memory. That and his ability to concoct dialogue that made readers laugh out loud.

Sharpe lived between houses in Spain and Cambridge and died at his home in Llafranc in Catalonia. He was married in South Africa and then in 1969 married Nancy Anne Looper. She and their three daughters survive him.