Years ago (in fact, to be honest I’d better say decades ago) I was visiting a bibliophile friend in England and talking, as we usually do, about books. Somehow we got around to the topic of what we like to read while traveling. We agreed that lighter fare is better when you are listening for your train stop or being constantly interrupted with updates from the cockpit. He told me he liked Tom Sharpe for such occasions. I had never heard of Tom Sharpe but the next day, at the train station, I picked up a paperback copy of Wilt and I was hooked.
Since then I have put together a collection of every Sharpe novel in first edition. Sadly my copies will never be signed because Sharpe died last summer. Many critics loved Sharpe, but some found him vulgar, unfocused, or shallow. Maybe they didn’t read him while traveling. To me, Sharpe was a P.G. Wodehouse for the second half of the twentieth century. Acerbic and witty, he contrived plots that you wanted to believe no matter how absurd they seemed—simply because they were so funny. Many of his main characters (and especially Wilt) were the sort of bumbling everymen that we all fear ourselves to be in our weakest moments.
His personal life was like a novel itself—from growing up in a home with an anti-Semetic father to being thrown out of South Africa for writing an anti-apartheid play. I was especially interested to read that he was educated, in part, at the Bloxham School in Oxfordshire. Bloxham is just a few miles from our cottage in Kingham, and I’ve driven past the school many times. The image of incipient novelist Sharpe as one of those uniformed school children waiting to cross the street from the playing fields to the tuck shop made me feel that much more connected to the man and his works (see my previous blogs on literary tourism).
I don’t know if a lot of people collect Tom Sharpe. Perhaps my collection is unparalleled. I do know that the next time I travel, I will revisit some of those delightful novels. I know I’ll enjoy them. And I know I’ll miss him. R.I.P. Tom Sharpe and thanks for the laughs. And to those of you sitting next to me on the train or plane while I’m enjoying those laughs—sorry. But you should give Sharpe a try.