15 MAY 1971, Page 19

Auberon Waugh on Lancing farce

The highest praise anyone can give to a novel which has a humorous intention is to say that it made him laugh out loud. How- ever, when a fellow-reviewer describes a book in these terms, I always find that quite apart from the usual reservations about his ability

• to recognise humour or distinguish good jokes from bad, a host of other questions ' arises. Was the reviewer drunk or sober? Does he frequently laugh out loud for no apparent reason? Was he being tickled with an ostrich feather held by a homosexual - second secretary from the Russian embassy? Well, this reviewer •laughed out loud about ten times, in Tom Sharpe's first novel, when sober and without any external stimulus. He very seldom laughs.

Farce is one of the most difficult things to write successfully. Wit and craftsmanship are the ingredients required, and the two very seldom go hand in hand. If one must be strict, Mr Sharpe is by no means faultless on either score: jokes are sometimes repeated once too often; the timing is occasionally wrong; .a few of the jokes are embarrassingly • unfunny. But-his farce is of the black variety, which makes it easier to overlook occasional failure. There is basically only one joke in the book, which is the time-honoured South African character of Farmer Van Der Merve. In this case. he is not a farmer but a number of South African policemen: Konstabel Els, whose only interests are raping and shooting kaffirs; Lieutenant Ver- kramp, who is a politicised version of Van Der Merve, being on the look-out for com- munism—in all its many forms—sexual perversion, racial incitement etc; and Kom- mandant van Heerden who carries in his .heart the pathetic ideal of an English -gentle- man.

Where Mr Sharpe leaves the basic situa- tion-joke of horrible old South Africa and starts playing around with jokes about rubber fetishism he is on much less certain ground. But the grand• finale, a set battle between patients in a mental hospital re-enacting, as part of their therapy, the. great battles of the Zulu war, is a masterpiece of black farce, and makes me suppose that there is a true comic genius here. If Mr Sharpe does not allow the praise which this first novel will quite deservedly excite to go to his head, if he worries a bit more over his characters, takes a little longer to develop his situations without running after every joke on the hori- zon, if he refrains from giving further copy to interviewers like the murderously preten- tious drivel which Alex Hamilton wrote about him in the Guardian two weeks ago . . . if he can do all these things he seems assured of a place in the neglected, despised and backbiting world of English letters.

Miss Hazelstone, the chatelaine of Jaca- randa Park, shoots her cook, who is also her lover, a Bantu called Fivepence. Out of respect for her English descent, Kommandant van Heerden is reluctant to imprison her; by mistake, Konstabel Els shoots twenty-one fellow-policemen; Miss Hazelstone's brother, an Anglican bishop, is accused of this crime and sentenced to be hanged. Miss Hazelstone is consigned to a lunatic asylum, where she 'organises the mock battle between Zulu and white lunatics. This gets out of hand and ends in a massacre. Kommandant van Heer- den has a weak heart, and persuades the Bishop to agree to a heart transplant after the execution. Konstabel Els is such an in- efficient executioner, and the ambulance men so keen to get their corpse to the hospital, that the bishop is delivered alive etc etc.

The slapstick would not be nearly so funny, of course, if there were not real-life Kon- stabel Elses. Satirical purists would probably say .that the book is a failure in that it falls between two stools—savage political satire - and loathing of man's brutality etc on the one hand, slapstick on the other. They would be right to say that the book falls between two stools, but wrong to say that it is there- fore a failure. It is extremely enjoyable to

• read and therefore a success. its imperfec- tions are only relative to its many excellences. - I see no reason why Mr Sharpe should ever write about. anything else. The fund .of jokes . about Konstabel Els seems inexhaustible. : And cruel, mocking ridicule seems to me the . only sane -attitude to take towards South Africa and the South African system among those like myself who intend to do nothing about it.

The humour of cruelty is not generally thought funny among reviewers and opinion formers. No doubt this will be acceptable, because it is written in such an impeccably respectable cause. But before leaving the subject, 1 should like to distinguish between two types of cruel joke. There is the humour of suffering itself, being an extension of the basic banana-skin joke, we laugh at some- one's discomfiture. Mr Sharpe takes this to the extent of asking us to laugh at people being so blown up that their innards hang from trees. Then there is the humour of wholesome repugnance, where we are asked to laugh at the extreme illogicality and stupidity involved in making others suffer. Both are perfectly good types of joke, but the first is generally thought more disreputable. It is not quite good enough to describe people's innards hanging from trees, and then, explain that you are being 'savage' about the situation in South Africa. That, I am afraid, is a form of intellectual dishonesty. It does not matter in Riotous Assembly 'because the hook is every bit as much a farce as it is social satire: but if, as I suspect he Nv i I I. Mr Sharpe decides to be a social satirist rather than a straight comedian, he will need to observe this distinction more closely.

Mr Sharpe went to Lancing and so did

Adam Diment, which is why I picked up his new novel for review. The coincidence seemed too great to escape remark, and I thought it might provide useful material for generalisations about the Lancing school of novelists and political thinkers and its in- • fiuence on contemporary thought; Bishop Huddleston, Tom Driberg, E. Waugh, Tom Sharpe and now Adam Diment. I missed his first three novels : The Dolly Dolly Spy, The Great Spy Race and The Bang Bang Birds, but their fame reached me. In literary circles, the titles were taken as demonstrating the reduction to absurdity of any writer's inspira- tion to a larger market. This, we were told, is what the loathsome public really wants.

I do• not propose to give his publishers a free present of some advertising copy by saying that Adam Diment is a disgrace to his old school, but it seems to me that he has a long way to go before he is .a credit to it. Perhaps it is too much to expect a thriller . to have a theme, or any particular purpose. But he really should concentrate more on thrilling. Fairly random episodes of hijack- ing, smuggling, gunfighting are not good enough in themselves. The sex is frankly amateurish, and although the descriptions of pot-smoking are mercifully free from the tedious proselytism which seems• to afflict many people in this field, I can't help feeling that his parents were wasting money when they sent him to Lancing. I see he went to live in India and now lives in Rome. If he lived among his own people more, he would learn that jokes about colour between black and white people are now embarrassingly old hat. The best thing in the book is his com- mand of the technicalities of flying. But it is not quite enough, and my theories of a Lanc- ing school of writers must be put away for another occasion.