Sunday, June 09, 2013


The death has been announced of the wonderful comic novelist, Tom Sharpe. He is one of the few writers who made me laugh out loud and, despite the darkly murderous and sexually explicit absurdities he weaved his characters into, he remained a liberal moralist.

Charles Nevin uses his death to locate him within the campus novel genre. This is a little unfair as much of his work is not set on any campus at all and his greatest educational comic creation, Henry Wilt, worked in the less rarefied setting of a technical college, teaching liberal studies. Boy, was that a thankless job. My stint doing it at what was then the Manchester College of Building was mercifully brief. I had fun with the bricklayers, who wound up an observer by playing a Derek and Clive tape, but Carpenters and Joiners Three on the Friday afternoon on the final day of their block release is seared into my brain. The asphalters were legendary, but no novice would be let anywhere near them. Sharpe's Oxbridge novel, Porterhouse Blue, is a hoot. But it is Wilt that is the ultimate in capturing the despair and the ideals of someone caught up by an insane system and beaten into submission by Meat One.

Nevin's piece is good though and I liked this observation made by David Lodge:
"Universities became more and more dominated by a management culture which became less and less tolerant of eccentric behaviour. It became puritanical in a way. I was quite relieved to leave the university [Lodge retired from teaching at Birmingham University in 1987] … My impression is that now it's not so much fun."
It has to be said that some of the behaviour that was tolerated, should never have been. It was rank bad practice. But he is right that the fun has gone. Maybe I am looking back at fond memories of my younger self, but if Universities were fun adult education was a riot. It was very serious, but also sociable, inclusive and emotionally engaging. It was a heady mix of a personal lifeline and thrilling new opportunity. And some of my students certainly knew how to party.

Adult education was always an anomaly, but it became a sea of laughter and enjoyment in an increasingly utilitarian desert. I remember one hideously tortuous faculty away-day when, after our Centre's presentation, I heard someone mutter, "I had heard that they are rather strange in that department". Yes, it has become puritanical.

The word "strange" was completely wrong. Instead, I would have used a memorable phrase coined by Tom Sharpe in his second Wilt book, The Wilt Alternative. What we were was "idiosyncratically sane," as indeed was Tom Sharpe. Both he and the wonderfully ill-disciplined and anarchic world of adult education will be sorely missed.

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