Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue (1974) isn’t my usual type of go-to novel; social satire, in this case a satirical take on the traditions of our elite colleges, those who teach and study in them, and the perennial battle between traditional values and modernity. My only other encounter with Sharpe was the 1985 TV series Blott on the Landscape, which, if memory serves, was quirky and quintessentially English. I wasn’t a huge fan, so on being recommended Porterhouse Blue I was slightly sceptical.
Our novel finds us in the fictitious Porterhouse college, Cambridge, where Sir Godber Evans, an alumni of the college and a former Government minister, has been appointed (by the Prime Minister) to become master of the college. Evans’ appointment is unprecedented – unlike his predecessors, he wasn’t appointed on the previous master’s deathbed. Moreover, Evans as a reformer within parliament, and eager to remedy the stuffy old ways that he was immersed in while a student at the college, is on a collision course with the college’s senior tutors, fellows, porter, etc.
What follows is a running battle between Evans and the staff over proposals such as the introduction of a contraceptive machine in the men’s toilets, women students, a canteen, and even accepting students on academic merit rather than the size of their family’s cheque book. Meanwhile, Zipser, a research student, is fixated by his landlady, and an investigative journalist, also an alumni of the college, is on the prowl.
First things first, it’s well written and the characters are nicely drawn, especially Skullion, who’s been porter at the college for nigh on forty years, and isn’t looking for change any time soon. However, while heavy on the satire, it was light on the humour. I just didn’t think it was very funny. Perhaps, if I’d read it on its appearance in 1974 I might have found more delight in inflated contraceptives floating about the college, much to the consternation of Skullion. The thought occurred to me while reading Porterhouse was how good the novel would have been were it to be written more in the vein of literary fiction. However, it wasn’t.
Looking at the cover of the book, I think it nicely summarises the content. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover.