Tom Sharpe, satirical British novelist, dies at 85

June 6, 2013

Tom Sharpe, a late-blooming British writer known for his riotously satirical novels about misguided characters ensnarled in preposterous circumstances, died June 6 in Llafranc, the Catalan town in northern Spain where he lived. He was 85.

His Spanish publisher, Anagrama, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. He had complications from diabetes.

Mr. Sharpe, a onetime teacher and photographer who was briefly imprisoned in South Africa as a political enemy of the state, turned to writing comic fiction in his 40s. During the next 40 years, he published 19 satirical novels, many of them bestsellers, that spoofed British education, politics and social customs.

His work was sometimes described as combining the comic fiction of Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis with the madcap, absurdist humor of Monty Python.

In a 1984 review of three of Mr. Sharpe’s books, writer Alan Ryan declared in The Washington Post, “Tom Sharpe is writing what are very possibly the funniest novels in English today.”


British satirical writer Tom Sharpe. (Julian Martin/EPA)

He was sometimes criticized for being crude, with off-color humor and graphic descriptions of embarrassing sexual antics. His characters are repeatedly caught up in one mishap after another and often receive their comeuppance in the most outrageous ways.

In “Porterhouse Blue” (1974), Mr. Sharpe spoofed the clubby world of the University of Cambridge — his alma mater. In another of his well-regarded books, “Blott on the Landscape” (1975), he skewered British developers, bureaucrats and scheming politicians.

In “Blott,” a member of parliament who seeks to profit from a highway built through his wife’s ancestral estate ends up being eaten by lions kept in a tourist park.

Mr. Sharpe may have been best known for his six farcical “Wilt” novels about Henry Wilt, a hapless teacher at a third-rate technical college who is forever doing battle with incompetent students — “bloodyminded young thugs,” he calls them — imperious administrators, quadruplet daughters and a formidable wife. “Wilt,” a 1989 film (released in North America as “The Misadventures of Mr. Wilt”), was based on Mr. Sharpe’s fiction.

In the first novel in the series, “Wilt” (1976), the title character fantasizes about killing his overweight, sexually ravenous wife. Before committing the foul deed, Wilt rehearses by stuffing a life-size doll, dressed in one of his wife’s frocks, into a hole at a construction site.

He is caught, of course, and later learns that his wife has disappeared from their home. Arrested on suspicion of murder, Wilt must answer some uncomfortable questions at the police station. He is told to start from the beginning.

“God made heaven and earth and all — ” Wilt says, before the inspector interrupts, telling him he needn’t go back so far.

In a scene typical of Wilt’s dreary experience at the trade school, he learns that he has been turned down for an academic promotion:

“Wilt heard the news before lunch in the canteen.

“ ‘I’m sorry, Henry,’ said Mr Morris as they lined up with their trays, ‘it’s this wretched economic squeeze. Even Modern Languages had to take a cut. They got only two promotions through.’

“Wilt nodded. It was what he had come to expect. He was in the wrong department, in the wrong marriage and in the wrong life.”

Thomas Ridley Sharpe was born March 30, 1928, in London. His father was a Unitarian minister who openly supported the policies of Adolf Hitler.

It took years, Mr. Sharpe later dryly remarked, before “I discovered that Hitler was not the man I was led to believe he was.”

After serving in the Royal Marines in the 1940s, Mr. Sharpe studied at the University of Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1951. He then moved to South Africa, where he worked as a teacher, social worker and photographer and wrote several plays critical of the country’s discriminatory system of apartheid.

After one of his plays was produced in London, Mr. Sharpe was arrested, thrown in jail and ultimately deported from South Africa.

After returning to England, Mr. Sharpe spent 10 years teaching history at a trade college in Cambridgeshire, England. His first two novels, “Riotous Assembly” (1971) and “Indecent Exposure” (1973), were satires set in South Africa and ridiculed the country’s politicians and police.

Mr. Sharpe had a short-lived early marriage to a French woman. In 1969, he married Nancy Looper, who survives along with three daughters.

Mr. Sharpe adored the fine-tooled fiction of P.G. Wodehouse, but he deplored what he considered a coarsening of British culture.

“I love England but I don’t like the English,” he told the Daily Express in 2010. “I can’t bear the Brit culture, the hooliganism.”

Since the early 1990s, he spent much of his time in Spain — although he adamantly refused to learn Spanish. Among other things, he said, Spanish doctors didn’t ask him to quit smoking cigars or his pipe.

In 2010, Mr. Sharpe recalled how he endured his time in jail in South Africa.

“In prison they told me: ‘Make friends with the murderers,’ ” he told Britain’s Sunday Express. “ ‘Everybody else is afraid of them so if you’re with them the others leave you alone.’ That’s what I did. Good tip.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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