Tom Sharpe, Cambridge, 1992. Photo © David Secombe
Farewell Tom Sharpe … the author of Wilt, Porterhouse Blue, The Throwback, Riotous Assembly, etc. has died at the age of 85.
As an adolescent, I loved Tom Sharpe’s books. In his 1970s pomp, his fierce, majestic and paralysingly funny satires were a cause for great joy, and even made one proud to be British. But it can be a tricky thing to meet your heroes; and driving to Cambridge in the company of a nervous Spanish journalist (on his first ever visit to the UK) to interview the great man, I was fighting off my own attack of nerves. The interview started a bit awkwardly, as my colleague tried a line of questioning about the power of literature, during which he asserted: ‘Madame Bovary changed my life’ – to which Tom replied, ‘Well, you can’t have met that many doctors’ wives’. Things settled down after that, and we ended up going to a local pub – driven there at high speed along wild Fen roads by the author himself – where I finally got my chance to tell him that I thought Chapter 4 of The Throwback was the funniest thing I had ever read.
We discussed contemporary comedy and literature (he wasn’t much impressed), film version of his books (he hated the Smith/Jones version of Wilt but loved Channel 4’s Porterhouse Blue adaptation) and indeed photography, as he had once been a professional photographer and had pleasingly trenchant views on the subject. (When we came to do the photos, he insisted that I use his own tripod for the purpose of making the above picture, as he wasn’t convinced that mine was up to the task.)
The interview was for the Spanish edition of Elle magazine, as Tom had a strong following in Spain, and he eventually went to live there. He ascribed his popularity in Spain to the surrealism Spanish readers found in his books; but his own offering of an example of ‘typically English humour’, as requested on a Spanish TV interview, did not go down too well. He told the story of a troop of Tommies marching to the front line on the Western Front, and an exchange between a young soldier and a sergeant at a posting on the way. ”Ere, Sarge, when do we get to have a rest, been marching all day!’ ‘Don’t worry son, you’ll be dead in half an hour’.
My recollection of the day has a kind of glowing quality: it’s not often you an encounter someone whose work you love and in whom you discover someone who feels like a friend. He struck me much as he appears in the photo above: elegant, droll, mischievous, and as English as a Tudor manor house. We have lost another great one.
… for The London Column.