We Owe Tom Sharpe a Thousand Laughs
A Nazi Unitarian father, expulsion from South Africa and a ménage à trois: the author of ‘Porterhouse Blue’ lived a complicated existence
The key moment in my friendship with Tom Sharpe came in the early 1980s when I was staying at his house in Cambridge. After a splendid dinner we retired to his spacious living room and Tom rummaged around saying, “You’ve got to hear this, I picked them up in a sale in Royston. Some old fascist living there must have died, I suppose.” Out he came with records of all manner of Third Reich marching songs, not just the Horst Wessel but a complete series of quite recherché numbers performed by SA or Hitler Youth choirs. Tom, clearly elated by these indeed often stirring airs, marched up and down the living room, singing loudly in German, for he knew all the words. At various points in between records he would say, “Of course, my neighbour, Mr Shapiro, objects to me playing these records (and they were rather loud), but I’ve said bollocks to that,” and then, after the next record, “Of course, Mr Cohen next door doesn’t like this music but what the hell” and then, “My neighbour, Mr Levy, has made a fuss about me playing this music but I don’t care.” Finally, the pièce de résistance, the SS march, a hugely menacing piece of music in which the only supporting rhythm effects are provided by thousands of pairs of goose-stepping boots crashing down in unison. Tom marched up and down, happily bellowing out the verses as if to the manner born. I grew increasingly dubious about the sale in Royston.
When the chilling SS march was over Tom asked me, “Well, what do you think of that?” I said, well your dad was a Nazi, wasn’t he, Tom? He looked chagrined. “How the hell did you know that?” Harold told me, I said. “Oh bloody Harold. Yes, he would, wouldn’t he,” said Tom. Harold was Harold Strachan, for many years a close friend of Tom’s in Natal. Harold, a gifted painter and later the first man to be jailed for sabotage by the apartheid government, was a man of comic and literary gifts quite equal to Tom’s. I had come to know Harold well. He kept me in constant fits of laughter but he also had a bitter grudge against Tom.
At issue was Tom’s young French wife, Criquette. Tom seemed to have married her on the hop. At the time he had given up being a social worker for the Non-Europeans Department in Pietermaritzburg (PMB) and become a professional photographer instead. After a year or two Tom and Criquette split up and Tom installed her in a flat on Point Road in Durban. Harold was a devoted fisherman and one day, returning from the beach with a magnificent shad on his shoulder, he heard someone call to him. It was Criquette from a balcony above. Harold ascended the stairs, decided he would cook the fish there with Criquette and then moved in for about three months, at which point Criquette announced she was pregnant. Harold happily proposed. Tom, hearing of this, hastened down from PMB and the next thing Harold knew, Criquette and Tom were together explaining to him that they’d decided to reunite. Harold left without a word and stayed drunk for three months, waking up in a lifesaver’s hut on South Beach. Later, he heard that Tom and Criquette had almost immediately split up again and that Criquette, still pregnant, had departed for Europe. Gradually realising that he now had a son or daughter in Europe, he pestered Tom for Criquette’s whereabouts. Tom said, Harold, you would not be a good husband, you don’t have a bean and you’re completely irresponsible, and refused to give him Criquette’s address. (In fact Criquette had married a wealthy Englishman living in the West Country, doubtless a real version of the upper-class English gent she had — wrongly — taken Tom to be.) Over the years, Harold’s resentment had hardened into hatred and he claimed that Tom had an elemental cruelty which he’d got from a Nazi father. In Harold’s version Tom’s dad had actually been signalling to the U-boats about which convoys to attack.
I thought Harold had a point and there was no doubt that Tom’s satires, from Riotous Assembly on, had a venom, even a cruelty, which all really fine satire has. But Tom was adamant that he had done the right thing. Later, after many years’ friendship, Harold suddenly and inexplicably turned on me, making it clear that he thought I was the devil incarnate. Even close friends could give no explanation and Harold refused all requests that we meet. I was left wondering if Tom might not have been right.
There was no doubt that Tom’s father, the Revd George Coverdale Sharpe, a Unitarian minister, was the key. Almost Tom’s last act was to push a copy of one of his sermons into my hands, saying, “See if this doesn’t knock you off your chair.” It did too. It was written in 1922 and boldly said that everything Englishmen had believed about the Great War was wrong. It had been a disaster and a disgrace, millions had died for no good reason, and the peace had been wickedly unfair to Germany. It is one of the best-argued and most finely written pieces of English prose that I have ever read: there was no doubt that the Revd George Sharpe had an exceptional talent. Tom never talked much of his mother. They had a very confrontational relationship and when she was dying she summoned him only in order to say, “This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” Tom was a solitary child. He had a half-brother, a London bobby 22 years older than himself, whom he regarded with a distant geniality. But that was it.
The Revd George Sharpe was thrilled to see what he took for a German renaissance: the young, bronzed and healthy members of the Hitler Youth marching at Nuremberg. They would right the terrible wrongs of Versailles. He took the young Tom to Nuremberg and he was entranced. Years later, when Tom was a famous writer, he was invited to address a Jewish women’s group and began his talk with the memorable line, “You have probably not often been addressed by someone whose chief ambition, at age 15, was to be an SS officer.” Tom’s dad was the Ealing and Acton member of The Link (a pro-Nazi organisation) and also a member of the Nordic League. A loyal Nazi, he said he hated Jews “in the sense that I hate all corruption”. When the war began the family was on the run from the Special Branch, moving house time after time, always haunted by the fear that the minister would be consigned to the Isle of Man along with other Mosleyites. Tom’s father died in 1944, just too soon to see the film of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Belsen which utterly devastated Tom; he realised that everything he had been brought up to believe had been wrong and that Nazism was pure evil. This hard lesson in deception and reality underlaid much of what he later wrote. Tom went to school at Lancing and thence to Pembroke College, Cambridge, where he got a memorable Third in archaeology and social anthropology by arguing in his Finals paper that it would have been better if the subject had never existed. He then enlisted in the Royal Marines, who were both the opposite and yet in other ways the equivalent of the SS.
Tom arrived in South Africa in 1951 and, hating apartheid, immediately threw his lot in with the Liberals. The ANC leader, Albert Luthuli, was not then a Nobel Peace Prize laureate but a much maligned and marginal opposition leader, in need of any help that he could get. Tom would regularly ferry him up and down from PMB to Durban on the back of his motorbike. Tom had a certain genius as a photographer and there were many pictures of Luthuli thus ensconced. Indeed, Tom once showed me enough of his photographic collection for me to realise that it is one of the great historical artefacts of the 20th century. Its pictures of postwar Britain and, particularly of 1950s South Africa, were far superior to anything else I have seen. Tom also fancied himself as a playwright and his anti-apartheid plays drew an increasingly irate response from the authorities, climaxing with his expulsion from the country in 1961. Tom told me that the man deployed to see he was securely dispatched on a Union Castle boat to England was Konstabel Els. Tom liked the one-syllable name and decided he could use it. Konstabel Els became the main protagonist of the bestselling Riotous Assembly (set in Pimburg = PMB) which, like its follow-up, Indecent Exposure, was banned in South Africa.
I first heard of Tom’s name through the South African exile network in the early 1960s. There was, I was told, this funny man who had roundly announced that he would write a bestseller and had sat down and done so in three weeks. It was true. Even non-South Africans found they laughed aloud at Riotous Assembly. Other vulgar and hilarious works poured out and Tom became that rare figure, a rich author. Once he came and stayed a weekend with me in Oxford and I took him into high table in Magdalen. At that time we had a famously bibulous president who, memorably, once got up from high table with DTs and broke into the college chapel, disrupting a service. Absent a proper president, a great deal of the college depended on the highly traditional head porter, Mr Strutt. Tom drank all this in with huge appetite and thanked me “for helping me in more ways than you can know”. Not long afterwards, Porterhouse Blue appeared and became a successful TV series. Though supposedly about a Cambridge college, a number of my Magdalen colleagues muttered to me that it was all strongly reminiscent of Magdalen. I held my tongue. Tom became a great satirist in the tradition of Swift and Hogarth. His work is undeniably vulgar, as theirs often was, and he had no regard for it. “My entertainments,” he would say, “are all a lot of nonsense. Surely we have better things to discuss?”
When I returned to South Africa I got used to Tom’s somewhat inebriated phone calls. He was endlessly sympathetic when I lost my left leg in 2009 and kept telling me I must come to Spain, whose medical services were first rate, and he would help me. In the end my wife Irina and I went, staying with Tom while I was kitted out with a computerised prosthesis which enables me to walk without crutches. Crucial to this was Tom’s doctor and great friend, Montsie Verdaguer, who was seldom absent from his household and who had made complex arrangements for our visit with the Catalonian medical establishment. It was weird. Tom, we realised, had not only sold hundreds of thousands of books in England but millions more in Germany, Spain and Catalonia. Everywhere he was a household name. Tom put us up for two weeks, insisted on paying some of the doctors’ bills, and even, despite infirmities of his own, came to some of the prosthesis-fitting sessions himself. In between, he sat at his desk smoking large cigars and drinking malt whisky (both medicinal, he said) and regaled us in Churchillian style. He had become a sort of emblematic Englishman while at the same time he despised and sent up that kind of person. We laughed and drank, discussed Waugh and Wodehouse. He wandered around the house singing “Die Stem”, an act of conscious self-satire. “Ons vir jou, Suid-Afrika,” he would happily hum and, grinning, would demand, “What’s wrong with that?”
Tom was far too complex a person for any obituary to do him justice. His widow Nancy, who bore him two daughters, tells me that in his last days he developed a consuming passion to revisit the Cambridge he had loved. This triggered my memory of a phone call in late April this year in which he averred an absolute determination to revisit South Africa. I said, how wonderful, we’ll make you welcome, but even then I wondered about the wishes of a dying man to see again the places he has loved. I feel I owe him my mobility, a hundred wickedly funny telephone conversations and thousands of laughs. Tom’s picture hangs in our kitchen and we cried the day he died.