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A truly great satirist: Tom Sharpe in 2005

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.

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February 10th, 2015
12:02 AM
That was an interesting article filling in gaps in my knowledge of Tom Sharpe. One small comment about the banning of his books in SA. In 1972 paperbacks of both "Riotous Assembly" and "Indecent Exposure" were on sale in a large bookshop in Pretoria. It struck me as strange at the time. The censors did seem to miss the sting in English satire - or the double entendres in the Carry On films. David Marais of the Cape Times also satirised the SAP with many of his cartoons at that time. All too close to the truth in my experience - and there is a feeling of deja vu in England these last few years.

Max Modine
July 6th, 2013
7:07 PM

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