Monday, October 13, 2014

Riotous Assembly (Published in 1971) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - Satirical look at South Africa during apartheid

Published in 1971, Riotous Assembly is a novel by Tom Sharpe. A novel which showcases the Apartheid era of South Africa in a satirical and humorous way, Riotous Assembly is about a murder committed by a white woman of her Zulu cook. The murder that has taken place in South Africa at the time of apartheid and the local police who enforce it, is Tom Sharpe’s way of speaking out against the atrocities that were committed at the time. His knowledge on the subject was vast as a result of his staying in South Africa from 1951 until1961.
Tom Sharpe had shifted to South Africa and had worked as a social worker and teacher. The apartheid era inspired him to write 2 novels, and a play, one of the novels being Riotous Assembly. Like every phase of his life, this one too, resulted in the publication of a serious issue in the form of satire and mockery. However, it did not go down well, and he was arrested for sedition, and later deported to London in 1961.
The novel opens in a fictitious town by the name of Piemburg in South Africa. The police chief, Kommandant van Heerden, has risen to his current rank, only because of family connections. His work and merit leave much to be desired. So when this baboon of a Police Chief, who also happens to be pro-apartheid, is told to go an investigate a murder, involving a certain eccentric British lady by the name of Miss Hazlestone, there is bound to be some blow up.




It turns out that Miss Hazlestone has murdered or rather blown to smithereens her Zulu cook with an elephant gun. But since the murder was that of a Zulu and the one committing the crime was a British “white” woman, van Heerden seems it only fair to brush the entire matter under the carpet. However, when Miss Hazlestone divulges the fact that she and her cook were lovers, van Heerden panics. In his endeavors to try and contain the matter, he creates so much confusion that it all blows out of proportion on a nuclear scale.
He attempts to try and control the matter and also stop this news from spreading, by placing the lady, Miss Hazlestone under house arrest, and calls reinforcement to guard her, while he goes to try and make matters “better”. His assistants are stupider than him. When he posts the bloodthirsty but completely senseless Konstable Els as a guard outside Miss Hazlestone’s home with an elephant gun, Els manages to somehow kill over 20 police officers in his over exuberance to guard the house and its secret.
Not sure what to do, Els plants a wallet found nearby at the scene of the crime and then flees. The wallet turns out to be that of Bishop of Barotseland, Miss Hazlestone’s brother. He is then arrested and interrogated in a not so legal way, after which a trial is held and he is sentenced to death by hanging at the ancient gallows for a crime he did not commit.
Not a political novel, and a bit predictable, but yet, as always an entertaining read by Tom Sharpe. The book from the word go, puts light on everything that Sharpe found wrong in Apartheid South Africa. He uses all that and comes up with a story which is hilarious and yet a slap in the face of all racism, savagery, stupidities, juridical perversions and misunderstandings that took place in South Africa.

Riotous Assembly (Published in 1971) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - Satirical look at South Africa during apartheid

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Grantchester Grind (Published in 1995) - At a college - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Also known as A Porterhouse Chronicle, Grantchester Grind is a sequel of Porterhouse Blue. Released in 1995, the book is written by Tom Sharpe, who has yet again created a hilariously absurd story, which seems to start out simple and blows out of proportion. Born in 1928, and having completed his education at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Tom Sharpe has a good idea of the workings of such institutions and thus how to create a novel which has a ring of authenticity to it.
This book, like its prequel, is also based in a fictitious college, called Porterhouse, which is shown to be not only one of the best colleges in Cambridge, but also one of the most conservative ones. While the first novel, Porterhouse Blue was a standalone book, this novel has used references from the previous one.
The book opens with a simple plot and mostly the same characters as its predecessor, with a few new entries. Skullion, previously, the Head Porter at the College, is now Master, due to a chain of seriously ridiculous events, which have led to him murdering the previous Master, Sir Godber Evans, accidentally of course! However, Skullion too is frail after a stroke. Knowing he might not last very long, the others start to look for someone to replace him, when the time comes, from among the alumni.




Also, the college is in dire financial straits. The solutions to this problem gradually reveal themselves. First solution (laced with complications) comes in the form of Lady Mary, the widow of Sir Evans. She believes her husband was murdered. Though her beliefs and what the staff at Porterhouse wants to believe are two very different things. When she realizes no one is willing to take her seriously, or else is turning a blind eye to her convictions, she decides to plant an agent of hers in the form of a Fellow, by anonymously sending 6 million pounds to the Sir Godber Evans Memorial Fellowship. Her agent has one task only, to find out who killed her husband.
Even though the book is not a mystery novel, all the characters definitely behave that way, what with their vested interests and half-truths. Another financial messiah comes in the form of Edgar Hartang, the leading head of a big American media company, by the name of Transworld Television Productions. But Hartang, like Lady Mary, has some other plans up his sleeve. He wants to create a front for his money laundering business. And unfortunately for the Porterhouse College, they seem to be his most preferred option.
The team of Transworld Television Productions convinces the college to let them shoot a documentary there. And in their over-zealous excitement they damage a part of the chapel, and Porterhouse, demands they pay for the damages, subsequently upsetting Hartang’s money laundering plans. Eventually, an alcoholic by the name of Lord Jeremy Pimpole is appointed as the Master of Porterhouse.
Like Porterhouse Blue, this book too lives up to its reputation. It is funny, witty and full of misunderstandings, drunken admissions, and sexual ideas. In typical Tom Sharpe style, he creates a plot so simple and characters so ordinary, that when he takes them and twists them up, he creates a novel so absurd and out-there that as a reader, it might be easier to assume the events to be true!

Grantchester Grind (Published in 1995) - At a college - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Porterhouse Blue (Published in 1974) - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Published in 1974, Porterhouse Blue is one of Tom Sharpe’s finest works. Tom Sharpe of the Wilt Series fame wrote an even more satirical and farcical book than Wilt, namely Porterhouse Blue. This book was made into a TV series, which was adapted by Malcolm Bradbury. The sequel to the novel is Grantchester Grind. However, Porterhouse Blue is a novel with a standalone plot.
Porterhouse Blue is based on a fictional college called Porterhouse in Cambridge. The novel’s central characters include the Porterhouse Head Porter called Skullion, the only research graduate student named Lionel Zipser and the object of his affections, Mrs Biggs, who is his bedder, Sir Godber Evans- the master and his wife, Lady Mary.
The book opens with the death of the present master. In what may be 500 years, for the first time the college faces what they call Porterhouse Blue, which is a situation where the previous master fails to announce the name of his successor before his death. As a result Sir Godber has been named the master of Porterhouse. However, for a college that has been traditionalist to its very core, there are now rumors that the new master and his wife plan to introduce changes.
This is a source of major concern for Skullion and the Fellows. They plan to counter attack the proposals for contraceptive machines, women students and canteen. Meanwhile, the only research graduate student-Lionel voices his fixation on the buxom Mrs Biggs on the megaphone for the hard of hearing Chaplain. Consequently, the whole college hears about it. Mrs Biggs who did not hear this realizes something is fishy when Lionel starts acting awkward around her.
So as to divert his fixations from Mrs Biggs, Lionel is suggested to pick up foreign students. And in his attempts to remove a few condoms from the vending machine, he lands up removing 2 boxes full. What follows is completely bizarre. Afraid he has stolen them, he tries to get rid of them, the best approach according to him being, inflating them with gas and floating them up the chimney!




If the already bizarre situation was not astounding enough for the reader, here’s more! Some of the inflated condoms get stuck in the chimney and the rest float down into the quadrangle! So as to uphold the values of the school, Skullion (who finds the floating condoms!) spends the night bursting each and every one. The same night, Mrs Biggs makes advances on Lionel and lands up in bed with him. Only in the process she lights the gas fire in the chimney, which leads to the stuck inflated condoms catching fire, which leads to an explosion in which they both are killed!
If the reader could stop laughing on such an inexplicable situation, Tom Sharpe then takes the story towards even more astounding heights. The fire brigade are called to put out the fire, but Skullion who was busy bursting inflated condoms, refuses to open the gates for the fire brigade until all the condoms are burst! As a result, he loses his job. After getting fired, he visits the bank and finds out that he has actually been left a large sum of money in the form of shares, by the previous master.
After, some revengeful tactics, he goes to Sir Godber and pleads with him to let him have his job back. But when Sir Godber refuses the two get into a fight, and Sir Godber is fatally injured. Skullion flees from the scene. 2 academics that happen to be in the vicinity see Sir Godber and rush to his aid. Close to dying, Sir Godber whispers just one word - Skullion. And of all the things!!! The 2 academics agree that Sir Godber meant to name Skullion as his successor.
They go to Skullion to tell him the good news. But, guilty conscience, Skullion feels that they are on to him and are going to turn him in. As he is being told the news he suffers from a paralytic stroke. But even so he is named the new master, and his vast fortune is utilized in rebuilding the Tower which was destroyed in the explosion.      
The novel if full of puns and wit, which do not seem superficial but rather integrated into the plot. In typical Tom Sharpe fashion, the book is one long string of hilarious situations which seem completely absurd. An extremely entertaining read, the book is a must for not only Sharpe loyalists but all who feel like having a good hearty laugh. It is to be taken lightly and as a brilliant piece of satire.

Porterhouse Blue (Published in 1974) - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Wilt Inheritance (Published in 2010) - More problems for Wilt - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Written when he was 82 years old, The Wilt Inheritance is author Tom Sharpe’s last book in the Wilt Series. Like its predecessors, this book too has Wilt entangling himself in mind blowing crazy scenarios from which it looks impossible to get out. Not his best work, but the book is quite a laugh, especially for Sharpe loyalists, who will feel a tad nostalgic towards the central character and his antics.
Tom Sharpe died 3 years after the publication of this book, due to complications resulting out of diabetes. He was 85 at the time, and said to be working on an autobiography. A witty and engaging writer, Sharpe did not necessarily move with the times in his books (they seems to be locked in an era of dial telephones and quiet Sundays), but he did attempt it never the less. This book has Wilt showcased in the 21st century.
In the Wilt Inheritance, Wilt is stuck as the nominal Head of the Communication Department at the Finland University. He is teaching students whom he does not want to teach. But, he can’t afford to lose this job. It’s the money from this uninteresting lack luster job, which is after all paying for the quadruplets private school fees and the maintenance of his wife Eva’s every demand. If all this had not already caused him a headache, his wife decides to sign him up for a summer job.




This summer job entails tutoring the step-son of a wealthy but lusty local aristocrat. His step father has hopes of sending him to Cambridge. However, once Wilt does start tutoring him, he realizes that the boy is not only a complete idiot who probably would not be able to find the bus to go to Cambridge, but also dangerously violent. Wilt learns that the boy owns a gun, which he shoots at any object which is moving, or sometimes not necessarily moving.          
Gradually the situation starts to unravel, and Wilt decides that it is time to use this now deteriorating state of affairs to his advantage. He finds a way in which the current scenario could not only put him at a financial advantage, but also give his snooty wife Eva, some tensions and headaches of her own.
While the book is not his best work, it is still worth a read and quite entertaining. It is amazing how effortlessly Tom Sharpe can develop a believable situation, and then push its boundaries to crazy extremes where it no longer seems believable. The entire scenario, with his amoral horrible little monsters for girls, a wife who seems to have perfected the snooty attitudes of high society, and wilt himself- a constant magnet for all things bad, is unimaginable, yet totally comical.
While the book may not be “hurt your stomach laughing” good, it is fast paced and sharp, with the typical Sharpe dark humor and story line which takes the viewers to place they did not known they wanted to or could visit. Even though the ideologies and prose is somewhat stuck in 1976, it does have a sense of authenticity to it, making its readers sentimental for the books they probably grew up on.

The Wilt Inheritance (Published in 2010) - More problems for Wilt - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wilt in Nowhere (Published in 2004) - Wilt traveling - Authored by Tom Sharpe

After a break of more than 2 decades, Tom Sharpe returned with the fourth novel in the Wilt Series. Tom Sharpe acknowledged that the reason for such a prolonged absence in his publication was the lack of poison in his system as it was the period he was forced to give up smoking. Other reasons mentioned by him for the prolonged absence was that the ballpoint pen he used had gone out of production! And that he had even written to his readers to send him their pens!
Whatever the reason be, the introduction to Wilt in Nowhere feels timid and as a reader one worries that Sharpe might have finally gone soft. However, upon further reading it is clear that Sharpe has upped the antics and adventures of the anti-hero of his series, Henry Wilt.
In “Wilt in Nowhere”, there are 2 plots that start of simultaneously after Wilt’s wife receives plane tickets from her Aunt and Uncle who live in Tennessee, for the entire family, to go visit them. Eva, Wilt’s wife, see this as her opportunity to try and worm her way into the will of her Aunt and Uncle, who incidentally have more money than they can spend. However, Wilt tries and eventually succeeds in getting himself out of this trip.
From there on there are two plots. One involving Eva and their quadruplet teenage daughters, who have grown up to be sex starved, foul mouthed kids; and Henry Wilt, who as always takes the poor decision to try and take a walking holiday through London to once again find the romantic and nostalgic side to it. Wilt plans to do that with nothing but his walking shoes and ill advisedly, a bottle of whiskey!    




Meanwhile, Eva is caught in the middle of a drug trafficking racket, with her as the main suspect. This in no way helps her to worm her way into her Aunt and Uncle’s fortunes, on the contrary finds herself further away from it. Her foul mouthed daughters only add to the confusion by leaving behind them a trail of destruction, insanity and angry drug enforcement agents.
Incase everything seems to spiral out of control on Eva’s front, things are no better in England, when Wilt, who was supposedly backpacking is seen drunk and unconscious in the back of an arsonists’ pickup truck. If that isn’t complicated enough, Wilt wakes up in the hospital not sure how he got there, or why he is being accused of arson, robbery and murder! And for all the mess he has gotten himself into, his worst problem then appears in the form of his old friend, Inspector Flint who would only be thrilled to investigate Wilt for all the above mentioned crimes.
A brilliantly funny read, with all the crazy plot elements in place, the book reminds Sharpe’s loyal readers of past misadventures. But, the jokes do feel ever so slightly forced. Known as the king of slapstick, in this novel Sharpe has shown himself as not just that but also someone who is vengeful and wildly amusing in his writings.

Wilt in Nowhere (Published in 2004) - Wilt traveling - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wilt on High (Published in 1984) - More fun with Wilt - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Wilt on High, is the third installment in the Wilt Series written by comic novelist, Tom Sharpe, who made a bawdy and vulgar style of writing into an art form. His writings are quite similar to those of Wodehouse, from whom he took great inspiration. But funny is where the similarity ends. Tom Sharpe takes funny and adds more crass and vulgarity to the story. Even though he started writing comedy only by the age of 43 years, his stories were an instant hit, and found a large loyal reader base.
Wilt on High, follows the exploits of Henry Wilt, a mild mannered teacher, who always gets involved in sticky situations which make for an extremely entertaining read. In this book, Wilt is shown to still be teaching at Fenland Tech. His attempts at drilling English into the minds of plasterers and dozing his way through drab committee meetings is all rudely disrupted when a dark cloud hovers over the college in the form of drug dealing. And invariably like a magnet for bad things, the cloud of suspicion finds its way to Henry Wilt.
Henry Wilt goes about his mundane life, when suddenly a departmental inquiry is conducted. Someone in the department at Fenland Tech is dealing drugs. Wilt’s friends all find themselves resenting Wilt, as they all feel that he is the reason that the department has come under such investigation. Inspector Flint, an old adversary of Wilt, takes charge of this investigation. Seizing the opportunity to try and pin everything on Wilt, Inspector Flint goes about his job with double vigor to leave no stone unturned. Knowing that Wilt is guilty of something, he sets about to try and settles a number of old scores.




Wilt’s wife is of no support to him. Like every wife, she has her doubts about Wilt, and this does not help his cause. To make matters worse, Wilt only complicates matters for himself with his talent for creating new enemies. Wilt’s inborn talent to make people hate him, starts off with an allegation of voyeurism in the ladies staff lavatory, and ends at a showdown at a US airbase, with forces of law and order on both sides, and is Wilt as always, right in the middle of this messy affair!
The book is a constant topsy-turvy journey through oddities. And where Tom Sharpe’s brilliant writing shines through is how all these eccentricities come together to make sense. From situations involving a group called Mothers Against The Bomb, to the set of murderous quadruplets and a thermonuclear war that could be set off all because of the misusage of Spanish Fly, the book is a classic Tom Sharpe novel where things just keep getting worse and as a reader we wait for it to collapse in on itself. Only it doesn’t collapse, it just keeps getting better.
Tom Sharpe is known as P. G. Wodehouse on acid! He has more or less the same comic style of writing, but with loads of vulgarity and crude humor and bold satire. Wodehouse’s influence maybe visible in Sharpe’s plots and settings, but it’s the absurd and completely unbelievable twists and turns in the story that involve the reader.  A thoroughfare of absurd situations which grips the reader to follow the simple yet odd ball character called Henry Wilt.

Wilt on High (Published in 1984) - More fun with Wilt - Authored by Tom Sharpe

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Wilt Alternative (Published in 1979) - Terrorism and comedy - Authored by Tom Sharpe

The sequel to Wilt, Tom Sharpe’s second in the series is a continuation of the life and idiosyncrasies that seem to follow Henry Wilt. With satire, which is crude and offensive, Tom Sharpe was quite an acclaimed outspoken novelist. Once you are accustomed to his style of comedy, you might agree with those who feel that Sharpe is one of Britain’s funniest novelists. In the Wilt Series he has put forth a character that he does not seem to like very much himself. Hence, the strange and wrong situations that Henry Wilt, the books protagonist finds himself in often.
In The Wilt Alternative, Henry Wilt is shown to be the Head of the reconstituted Liberal Studies Department at the Fenland College of Arts and Technology. Having assumed power without responsibility, Wilt may no longer be a victim of his own uncontrolled fantasies, but visualizes how he would confront political bigots and bureaucrats.
The nature of his troubles has changed, but he is still faced with inane issues. These issues range from his wife’s over enthusiasm for everything organic and quadruplet daughters who seem to get more horrifying as they grow older, to nostalgia, temporary infatuation with a foreign student and the hostility shown by the medical services that refuse to attend to his most basic needs.
However, these problems seem to pale in comparison, when he becomes the unintentional participant in a terrorist siege. The heap of a house, which Wilt lives in, is all in line with Eva’s alternative organic living lifestyle. But when Eva, rents out the attic flat to a German student, Wilt regrets having laid his eyes on her so late in his life. He moons over her, without realizing that she is a terrorist and that their house is very soon going to become ground zero, when authorities come to try and arrest her.




He is forced to find a way out of this mess, as neither the terrorist nor the authorities know what to do when the Wilt family is caught in the crossfire. Wilt is not only confronted with issues of power, which he must deal with, but also has to resume dialogues with the famous Inspector Flint. In the process he must undergo the indignity of psycho-political profiling and at the same time fight for the liberal values which seem to be threatened by not only international terrorism but also the fancy methods of the police anti-terrorist agents.
Wilt shows great mental ingenuity, which is a result of his innate cowardice, and emerges the hero he is shown to be. Sharpe does a wonderful job to starkly highlight the bitter ironies and social norms present in today’s society. Wilt is shown to have not changed one bit. He still finds women to be horrible terrifying beings. He speaks his mind, even if at times it is just muttering to himself. Through Wilt, Sharpe has depicted albeit unsophisticatedly the absurd irregularities that exist in our societal norms.
While the jokes in the story are at times repeated or absent, and the language used to convey social realities is crude, the book has an absolute ring of authenticity to it. It shows perfectly an era of English history and fashion, which might soon be beyond living memory. Another thing that is truly ingenious about Sharpe’s style of writing is his control over the beat of the plot. As a reader, one keeps waiting for Sharpe to take a bow, after some crazy antic in the story. However, instead of hitting a peak and ending, the story just keeps getting crazier and crazier, making for quite an entertaining read.

The Wilt Alternative (Published in 1979) - Terrorism and comedy - Authored by Tom Sharpe