Book Review: The Throwback by Tom Sharpe

1642again, Going Postal
Old Court, Pembroke College, Cambridge
RogerRabbit888 / CC BY-SA

Some books can influence the way we view the world, perhaps we read them at a particularly impressionable time in our lives. Perhaps when we are young or going through some form of major crisis or change.  When people are asked what the books were that most influenced them, perhaps they will mention some worthy works of great literature or profound philosophy, whether they read them or not, to look well read or intelligent or because they spoke to them with the right words at the right time.

I was thinking recently what the five books are that most influenced me, and one in particular surprised even me but I still read it regularly and still it chimes with me, even more so these days given its bitterly angry and cynical humour blended with outrageous slapstick.  I also think it would chime very well with many here in terms of its polemical world view and attitudes towards the forces that are destroying our civilisation.

Many here will have heard of the author Tom Sharpe. Most famous for his satires, especially Porterhouse Blue and Blott on the Landscape, both made into successful television adaptations.  Sharpe was an English academic living in Apartheid South Africa who was forced to return home after publishing two brutal satires on the governmental system and its police.

Most critics would understandably say that Sharpe wrote from a Left Liberal perspective, but the truth is more complex than that.  His three ‘Wilt’ books turned a withering eye on the development of identity politics, the LGBT agenda etc in universities right at its genesis in the UK, while his ‘Blott on the Landscape’ was a diatribe against the corrupt politics behind the building of a motorway in rural England.  In truth, while his output was uneven in quality, with some books feeling very underpowered, there was always a theme of ridiculing the corrupt, the deviant, those who abuse authority, and the unthinkingly pompous or followers of blind tradition.

Among his long career of books written and published, some of which have been highly successful commercially and critically acclaimed, one book is barely remarked on and is very obscure, but for me it is head and shoulders his best: hysterically funny, fast paced, driven by the bitterest anger anarchistic, reactionary conservative, virulently anti-politician. And I read it at 19 when starting to find my own way in the big bad world.  It’s influence on my world view remains profound.

The book is ‘The Throwback’ published in 1978 in the dark days of near bankrupt Labour Britain.  A low, strife ridden time of decline and despair, a country near bankrupt.  Sound familiar?  Without spoiling the plot, it’s set mainly in the wilds of Northumberland and in the heart of wealthy suburban Surrey, and is about the illegitimate grandson of a wildly unPC and eccentric Northumbrian landowner who has to fight to claim his inheritance from his scheming mother-in-law and various arms of the state.

Along the way he gets married in the most bizarre arranged double wedding on board a cruise liner, has a woeful introduction to the delights of wealthy Surrey suburbia, accountancy and the tax system, flouts just about every law in the land, wages a guerrilla war against his wife’s tenants (the funniest passage I have ever read which is a kind of Kind Hearts and Coronets on acid) and finally absconds to his family estate just after his highly eccentric and outspoken grandfather has just died, before the cataclysmic showdown with the tax authorities.

Every brilliantly observed feature of middle-class suburban pretensions, publishing and authors, the state, the tax system, the law, and social ‘respectability’ is targeted and mown down with a minigun.  The bodies pile up in hilarious fashion and the pace is unrelenting, and as for his LSD fed pet bulldog and the golf course…

So why is it so neglected when it is surely Sharpe’s funniest and most raucus book?  Perhaps because it is the bite back of an older and unafraid England, one that has no intrinsic respect for institutions or even the law if they so not do their job, that encourages people to fight back without pity or restraint against those that would strip away their liberties and accumulated wealth?  An England feared and hated by the complacent and liberal establishment of the South East who run everything.

To say it’s the most incendiary and reactionary book I have ever read would be true, and all the more effective for being wrapped in hysterical humour.  I’m not sure it would get published now, even for a successful author like Sharpe.  It’s bitter, right-thinking, focused on the hypocrisies of modern life, anarchic and deeply conservative in a peasant sense.   It’s the tale of a Northumbrian 16th century Border Reiver born out of his time in the late 1950s, and the two eras colliding.  If you hate what’s happening today, you’ll enjoy it.  If you hate cant, corruption, the suffocating big state, you’ll love it.  I love it, and the Grandfather is out of this world.


© 1642again / JD de Pavilly 2020

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