I’ve always said that the history of Brexit is being written by Tom Sharpe, that writer of brutal farces in which the most awful events escalate without mercy, British society is shown to be rotten through and through, and civilised values are not upheld with anything except the most perfunctory lip service.
I have been reading, after a gap of many years, his 1975 novel Blott on the Landscape, and it has only confirmed my suspicions.
The plot concerns the poisonous marriage of Sir Giles Lynchwood, MP for South Worfordshire, with Lady Maud Lynchwood. Lady Maud is the aristocratic owner of Handyman Hall in Cleene Gorge. Sir Giles plots to divorce his wife and to gain financially from the process, via a complicated scheme to get a new motorway built right through Handyman Hall.
What follows is an increasingly manic tale of sexual blackmail and destructive violence, catalysed by the appointment of the fanatical and incompetent civil servant named Dundridge (I don’t think we ever learn his first name) to the role of “troubleshooter” to ensure the motorway gets built as planned.
I talked with Suzanne about the book and its parallels with Brexit, and she said at once that Dundridge was Dominic Cummings. She is of course exactly right. Dundridge’s obsession with military terminology in the inappropriate setting of roadbuilding (he puts together a “task force” of bulldozers to execute unexpected “sorties” in the Gorge), his lunatic scheme for an alternative route for the motorway through a tunnel under the Cleene Hills, above all his zealot’s conviction of perpetual rightness, all fit perfectly. Today, he would undoubtedly be writing massive obsessional blogs setting the world to rights. Then, he was confined to useless feasibility studies and fantasies of military cunning.
Sir Giles Lynchwood MP lives for only two things: money, and being tied up and whipped. Lady Maud lives only for the protection of her name and of Handyman Hall. Her gardener, the German/Italian ex-Prisoner of War Blott, loves Lady Maud and executes a ruthless plan to protect the Hall entailing getting a demolition man blind drunk and encouraging him in a drunken rampage which virtually destroys a nearby village and kills one of its leading citizens. Lady Maud, in a separate plan to ensure the Hall is not destroyed, converts it into a wildlife park (banking on the British love of animals), as a result of which Sir Giles, sneaking back to the Hall to burn it down, is devoured by lions instead. I don’t think any of this can be considered a spoiler; much of it can be guessed from the cover illustration.
I confess I do not find the book especially funny. The characters are too horrible for me, the jokes are too crude. There is more than a whiff of misogyny about the whole business. But all the same, there is something in the book that is undeniably compelling. Sharpe’s blithe cruelty to all his characters makes a genuine commentary on English society, then and now.
It was one of the maxims of Georges Feydeau, that master of French farce, that whenever there are two characters who must not on any account meet, they should be brought together at the earliest opportunity. Tom Sharpe took this a step further. In his books, he appeared to consider what would be the worst possible thing to happen at any given moment and ensure it then occurred as soon as possible.
When I think of the trail of destruction that has followed in the wake of the Brexit vote, four long years ago, it seems almost incredible. Political parties transformed into extreme caricatures of themselves; economic disaster portrayed as triumph; obvious lies proclaimed as religious beliefs which it is heresy to deny; xenophobia become the orthodoxy; corruption standing in plain view. A drunken demolition man in charge of a wrecking ball is a fair symbol of what has happened, though the ruin wrought has been much greater.
Tom Sharpe died in 2013 at the age of 85. If he had lived just a few years longer, how he would have relished these mad times! I would love to read his Brexit novel.