As the heat of August tails off down here, I’ve been getting some hammock reading in. While briefly in Wales two weeks back, I went into an excellent independent bookshop and purchased five titles – all of them on my list of must-reads. Had I stayed an hour longer there, I could’ve found another twenty; in W H Smiths these days, I can never find anything worthwhile at all.
The first book I started was a belated novel from the now ageing Tom Sharpe, The Gropes. It seems that after a near-death experience a couple of years ago, Sharpe decided he had one more novel in him. It’s a pity it didn’t stay there.
In his mid 1970s heyday, Sharpe wrote the funniest socio-political farces on the market. Riotous Assembly, Wilt and Blott on the Landscape were all laugh-out-loud books. Then – as suddenly as he had appeared – Tom went quiet. The Gropes is a very sad epilogue to his glittering career.
What can I tell you? The jokes are leaden, the characterisations dated, the writing sloppy, and the plot plain daft. Not funny daft – or even better, surreal satirical daft like they used to be – just daft.
Contrast this disappointment with the ever-fresh series of Adrian Mole books churned out by Sue Townsend. By definition contemporary, they are marvelously observed, ironically mordant statements on pc hypocrisy, and the failed aspirations of so many children of Thatcher who thought themselves Steve Jobs, but turned out to be just more bitter Del Boys.
My own view is that the series gets funnier with every book, and her latest – Adrian Mole: the Prostrate Years – is sheer comic genius from start to finish. It starts with the Brown coronation in 2007 and follows the further disillusionment of Adrian with all the ghastly elements of Cool Britannia become Cruel Britannia. Trust me, you’ll be rationing this book after just a few pages, and giggling on every page. The description of a gay funeral for Graham the Dog is, I fancy, destined to become a classic literary snippet.