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Sharpe, Thomas Ridley [Tom]locked

(1928–2013)
  • Michael Barber

Sharpe, Thomas Ridley [Tom] (1928–2013), novelist, was born on 30 March 1928 at the Royal Northern Hospital, Holloway, north London, the youngest child of George Coverdale Sharpe (1872–1944), a Unitarian minister, and his wife, Grace Egerton, née Brown (1887–1976), a South African. At the time of his birth his parents lived at 165 Selsdon Road, South Croydon. His father, an overweening bigot who became an ardent Nazi following a visit to Germany in 1928, cast a long shadow. 'Horribly influenced' as a boy by his father's harangues (Desert Island Discs, 3 Nov 1984)—his early ambition was to join the SSSharpe later developed aggressive feelings towards anything that smacked of 'patriarchal power' (Clare, 280). One symptom of this was 'an almost irresistible urge' to shout obscenities in public places where silence was required (ibid., 279). Luckily his aggression was mitigated by what a friend called 'his highly developed sense of the ridiculous' (The Independent, 8 June 2013), a combination that gave his books their edge.

Sharpe was educated at Lancing College and Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he took a third in archaeology and social anthropology. At Lancing he had two significant experiences. The first was reading Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, who had been at Lancing during the previous war. Waugh, he said, was 'a tremendous influence' when he began to write himself (The Guardian, 7 June 2013). The second experience was traumatic. The school's students were shown newsreels of liberated Belsen, revealing to Sharpe the enormity of the murderous creed he had embraced.

Just as salutary were the two years' national service Sharpe did with the Royal Marines. 'I was a very arrogant young man', he recalled, 'and so the other men in my platoon, none of whom had been to a public school, knocked the hell out of me' (Daily Mail Online, 7 June 2013). He felt equally unwelcome at Cambridge, a hidebound institution where you could be ostracized for drinking sherry out of a tumbler rather than a glass. Some of his social unease later found its way into Porterhouse Blue (1974), a ribald cautionary tale about the mayhem that ensues when a new, reforming master is imposed upon an archaic Cambridge college full of gluttonous dons and over-privileged undergraduates. 'If Wodehouse wrote a plot and Waugh wrote a book around it, the result could hardly be more hilarious', wrote a critic in Time magazine (quoted in The Guardian, 7 June 2013).

After graduating in 1951 Sharpe spent ten years in South Africa, first as a teacher and social worker, latterly as a photographer. His social work took him into Soweto, where he witnessed the lethal consequences of apartheid at first hand. 'People were dying of TB because the drugs that might have saved them were reserved for white people' (New York Times, 9 June 2013). By now he had begun to write plays in his spare time, one of which, an indictment of apartheid called The South Africans, caused a stir when it was performed at the Questors Theatre, Ealing. Wind of this reached the South African authorities and in 1961 he was arrested, imprisoned, and deported.

After arriving home penniless Sharpe did a one-year postgraduate teacher training course at Cambridge and then lectured in liberal studies to day-release students at the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology. This he likened to 'casting fake pearls before real swine' (private knowledge), a sentiment endorsed by Henry Wilt, the hapless, hen-pecked anti-hero of Wilt (1976) and four other novels, who observes that 'the man who said the pen was mightier than the sword ought to have tried reading The Mill on the Floss to Motor Mechanics' (New York Times, 9 June 2013). In his spare time Sharpe continued to write, but it took several years for his savage indignation at apartheid to score a bulls eye.

Sharpe's first marriage, in South Africa to a Frenchwoman named Criquette, ended in divorce. On 6 August 1969 he married Nancy Anne Trowell, née Looper (b. 1937), an American teacher, daughter of Thomas Lee Looper, school principal, and former wife of Riddick Cornelius Trowell jun. They had two daughters.

Shortly before marrying his second wife Sharpe wrote the first draft of Riotous Assembly (1971), the novel that made his name. Set in the imaginary South African town of Piemburg, this made reviewers like Evelyn Waugh's son, Auberon, 'laugh out loud' at its scathing ridicule of apartheid and its enforcers (The Spectator, 15 May 1971). In doing so, said Piers Brendon, it achieved far more than 'the polemical pleading or passionate abuse to which they are normally subjected' (Books and Bookmen, June 1971). Dedicated to the 'South African Police Force and their struggle to preserve Western Civilisation in Southern Africa', it was triggered by a true story Sharpe heard about an elderly white lady who complained to the local police commandant that the screams of his black prisoners being tortured were disturbing her afternoon nap.

Sharpe's preoccupation with sexual deviancy, apparent in Riotous Assembly, was even more marked in its farcical sequel, Indecent Exposure (1973). For instance, in an effort to stop them having sexual relations with black women, a psychiatrist subjects the local police to such a radical programme of aversion therapy that they become homosexual. Sharpe also flayed Piemburg's smug English colonial contingent, who enjoy the benefits of white supremacy while incurring little or none of the obloquy.

Sharpe said that his South African novels almost wrote themselves: 'You hang on to the tail of it when it's running' (Daily Telegraph, 7 June 2013). At first he doubted whether he could start again from scratch. Then, to the relief of his publisher, who had put him on a retainer of £3000 a year, he was inspired by Performing Flea, P. G. Wodehouse's guide to the writing of popular fiction. He used to say that Wodehouse, whom he later got to know, 'taught me how to write' (Desert Island Discs, 3 Nov 1984). Another influence was Richmal Crompton. He relished the juvenile anarchy of her Just William books.

With the bit between his teeth, Sharpe completed eleven novels in thirteen years, all of them bestsellers. He discovered, as he later admitted, that 'he could tell the same joke twice' (The Times, 7 June 2013), a recurrent theme being Rabelaisian set pieces involving props such as exploding condoms, a booby-trapped lavatory pan, and a huge inflatable rubber woman. Unlike his prim mentor Wodehouse, he delighted in smut, and was said to have made 'bad taste into an art form' (The Guardian, 7 June 2013). Then in 1986, shortly after returning to Cambridge from Bridport, where he and his family had lived since 1976, he dried up. He had various inventive explanations for this, including 'conglomerate publishers' allergy', 'adolescent daughters' block', and 'giving up smoking' (Daily Telegraph, 6 Sept 2004)—which he did after having a heart attack during a live interview on Spanish television, an example, it was said, of life imitating art. If ill health was a contributory factor, so too was affluence. He continued to write, but not for publication, a luxury he could now afford thanks to the sale of film and television rights and a substantial readership abroad as well as at home.

In 1995 Sharpe resurfaced with Grantchester Grind, a gamey sequel to Porterhouse Blue. This was followed by The Midden (1996), a splenetic satire on the legacy of Thatcherism. By now, increasingly irascible in person as well as in print, he had become semi-detached from his family and was spending more and more time in Spain, where his books were very popular, eventually buying a villa at Llafranc on the Costa Brava. In poor health, which his fondness for malt whisky, cigars, and snuff did nothing to improve, he was lucky enough to meet a Catalan doctor, Montserrat Verdaguer, who devoted herself to his welfare. She must, thought a friend, have saved his life more than once. Under her care, Sharpe completed three more novels, Wilt in Nowhere (2004), The Gropes (2009), and The Wilt Inheritance (2010).

Despite his incendiary reputation—one reporter said he had never before seen anyone 'fuming' in real life (The Guardian, 7 June 2013)—Sharpe could be a joy to meet. Anthony Clare said that of all the interviews he had conducted on the radio programme In the Psychiatrist's Chair he had never laughed so much as he did when with Sharpe. When he was not writing Sharpe liked to garden; he was especially fond of roses. He gave large sums, often anonymously, to various educational institutions and also to PEN. He died in Llafranc following a stroke on 6 June 2013, and was survived by his wife Nancy, two daughters, and a stepdaughter. At his request Dr Verdaguer buried his ashes in the same Northumberland cemetery as his father, together with a bottle of whisky, a Cuban cigar, and his favourite pen.

Sources

  • The Spectator (15 May 1971)
  • Books and Bookmen (June 1971), 42–4
  • Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 9 Nov 1984, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009mh17, 6 June 2016
  • A. Clare, In the psychiatrist's chair, vol. 2 (1996)
  • The Times (7 June 2013)

Archives

  • priv. coll.

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, documentary footage
  • BFI NFTVA, interview footage

Sound

  • BL NSA, documentary recording
  • BL NSA, interview recording
  • Desert Island Discs, BBC Radio 4, 9 Nov 1984, www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p009mh17

Likenesses

  • S. Pyke, bromide fibre print, 1985, NPG
  • S. Pyke, photograph, 1985, Getty Images
  • C. Hay, cibachrome print, 1987, NPG
  • D. Secombe, cibachrome print, 1992, NPG
  • R. Gaillarde, photograph, 1997, Gamma-Rapho
  • Evening Standard, photograph, Hulton Archive
  • obituary photographs