‘Wilt’ by Tom Sharpe

Narrator: Nigel Graham

Length: 7 hrs 47 mins

Publisher: Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB)

Release date: unknown

When I was a lad, one of my school friends had an abridged recording of ‘Wilt’, read by Andrew Sachs (of ‘Faulty Towers’ fame). Back then, in the early days of audiobooks, abridged versions were pretty much the only option, and though I hated not getting the full story, they did have the advantage that you could get through a good book, read by a professional narrator, in a couple of hours. It was how I discovered some of my favourite authors, including Dick Francis, Alistair MacLean, and, of course, Tom Sharpe.

Being a teenage boy at the time, I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t the titillating smut that first drew me to ‘Wilt’. But, though I came for the filth, I stayed for the story. Even then, as I laughed along with Wilt’s embarrassment and Inspector Flint’s hopeless bumblings, I understood that behind the outrageous goings on, the book was actually a deeply insightful satire of the human condition. When I recently came across an unabridged recording I decided to see how it held up after all these years.

Before talking about the book itself, I suppose I should admit that this review is something of a cheat. As the more observant of you may have noticed, The unabridged recording in question is a copy produced by the RNIB some years back. This means that, unless you are fortunate to be one of us blind folks, you won’t be able to borrow it from their library and listen to it. I suggest you get yourself a print copy instead, and consider this payback for all those times you strolled past charity boxes without putting your hand in your pocket.

Henry Wilt, is a mild-mannered liberal studies lecturer in a nondescript technical college. He is unhappily married to Eva, a large, overbearing woman who throws herself enthusiastically into every fad she comes across. As the pair approach middle-age they are both, in their own ways, in search of something that will bring meaning into their lives and rekindle the ideals of youth that have been stripped away by the drudgeries of everyday living. They each think that the answer lies in being something they aren’t. It takes a series of bizarre and hilarious happenings before they each realise that maybe being themselves isn’t so bad after all.

I first read “Wilt’ around 1990. At the time I thought it was a recent book and had no idea that the original publication was in 1976. That makes it nearly 50 years old. No wonder it was considered somewhat ground breaking, highlighting as it did sexual taboos, female emancipation, LGBT+ issues, and much more.

Things have moved on a lot since then and though the content remains very funny, it is no longer shocking. At first glance some of the attitudes and prejudices appear a little out of time, though not perhaps as much as you would hope. While you might struggle today to find a man who doesn’t know what a ‘blow job’ is, I don’t think you’d have to look far to find someone who wouldn’t be embarrassed about copulating with a rubber doll and harbour a strong desire to get rid of one if it ended up in their possession. And while the lesbian character in the book was not portrayed in a sympathetic light, that had nothing to do with her being a lesbian. Her problem was that she represented a shallow world based on superficial pleasure with no depth. If Sharpe was writing today maybe she’d be a social media influencer, but in essentials she wouldn’t be any different, because we aren’t.

What it boils down to is that nearly fifty years on, the book still manages to capture the reality of existence and our fear of insignificance in a way that is totally intelligible. The mobile phones might be absent, but the people remain much the same.

If you fancy a good, thoughtful laugh, then definitely give this one a go.