“If you don’t go away you can’t come back”: Rediscovering the writing of Alan Sharp
“If you don’t go away you can’t come back”: Rediscovering the writing of Alan Sharp.
The Anti-hero’s Journey, The Work and Life of Alan Sharp, David Manderson, Peter Lang. Reviewed by Eleanor Thom
During the Covid lockdown I attended an online writing group. If I am honest, this was more social catch-up than work. David Manderson, previously a regular in the group, was absent because he was too busy actually writing. His book, The Anti-hero’s Journey, The Work and Life of Alan Sharp, was published last month by Peter Lang. We all knew David, but no one in the group was familiar with the writer, Alan Sharp. I had never heard of him before.
If he’d been in our meetings, David wouldn’t have been surprised at our blank faces. Later, he told me this is exactly what attracted him to the project. Manderson is a researcher and writer from Glasgow. He’s the author of short stories and a novel, Lost Bodies. The work of Scottish writer Alan Sharp is ripe for rediscovery. Scotland has swept Sharp under the rug, Manderson says, and this is a forgetting that needed to be understood and undone.
Looking back, I agree this is a surprising cultural blind spot. Many of our writing group were graduates of Glasgow University’s Creative Writing Masters, and Alan Sharp was a prolific and successful novelist and screenwriter from Scotland’s West Coast. Sharp’s debut novel A Green Tree in Gedde, had won the Scottish Arts Council Prize in 1967, beating writers including William McIlvanney and George MacKay Brown.
Sharp authored dozens of radio and television plays while living in London, and after relocating again to California he had five films made in Hollywood over five years, pushing the conventional narratives of the Western, a genre he had grown up watching, and the film noir. Many more films and telefilms followed, including the script he is best known for, Rob Roy. Working across multiple genres, his work has probably been enjoyed by more people worldwide than any other Scottish writer.
How was it possible that Alan Sharp’s name had passed every one of us writers by? As the adopted son of a Greenock shipyard worker, Sharp had been one of the first to defy literary convention in favour of creativity, employing the words that rolled off his tongue as a boy. He was certainly the first to take it to the big screen. It is a freedom which writers in Scotland now take for granted. “Scottishness was important to him,” Manderson writes. Born in 1934 in Alyth and raised in Greenock, Sharp’s success came after he left Scotland, but he eventually returned, splitting his time between Scotland, New Zealand and the USA.
The events in Alan Sharp’s life are very much a story, but Manderson puts Sharp’s writing centre stage. Biographical detail nevertheless emerges, in part because Sharp’s characters and settings so often reflected his personal experience. Manderson consulted Sharp’s large family and descendants, many of whom have had interesting lives themselves and are as widely dispersed as Sharp’s career. They were enthusiastic to help.
The focus of Manderson’s research was the Alan Sharp Papers Collection, established at Dundee University in 2013, the year Sharp died. The holdings include manuscripts, letters, notes, interview transcripts, reviews and audience reports, and Manderson examined this material meticulously. For the first time, he has made the progression of Sharp’s writing career across multiple genres visible in a single piece of research. Manderson identifies themes, characters and motifs that followed Sharp even as he moved around the world adapting to other cultures and establishing himself as a writer for different audiences.
“If you don’t go away you can’t come back,” writes Sharp in A Green Tree in Gedde. Manderson begins his first chapter with this quote, one which is key to the reading of Sharp’s own life, and so many of the narratives he created. His typical main characters are men who suffer from inner insecurities, a longing for life to be different. They go on quests for new vistas both external and internal, but whether they physically travel away or remain where they are, what they strive for is out of reach. Sharp’s stories can seem fatalistic, a characteristic that has been regarded as a stamp of Scottishness.
Sharp himself left Greenock behind him and headed for London in the mid-sixties. It was an era when large numbers of young people left Scotland for the South. Sharp lived in Primrose Hill, round the corner from a spot on the Grand Union Canal where my parents lived on a boat.
They were part of that same exodus from Scotland, from Elgin in their case, and reading about Sharp’s time in London I couldn’t help but sense some cultural overlap. My mother and father were adopted by a group of artists and actors. It was a close-knit circle, and a decade later they all had young families, children I mixed with as if we were cousins. I remember how dumbfounded we were as teenagers, learning that our parents were not all in their original couples. Two of our mothers had been dating the ‘wrong’ dads in the sixties, but they all stayed friends. We knew we would never be as cool as our hippy parents.
Sharp was regarded in Scotland as belonging to the ‘free-love’ movement, and this affected his reputation. Imagining provincial life back in Greenock, Alan Sharp wrote in his first novel of inertia so stifling it caused even the blood to stiffen on trays in butchers’ windows. I can easily imagine my mother’s wry agreement with this sentiment. Sharp’s prizewinning novel was for a time banned by Edinburgh libraries for the sexual taboos it depicted, but this only boosted its popularity. A Green Tree in Gedde was successful in the way it captured a moment, the massive societal change that was already in the making. It became a bestseller.
Being a writer in exile brings advantages and disadvantages. Within Scotland, some believed that to leave home for London was to sell out. It was an accusation levelled not just at Sharp, but also at Muriel Spark and others. Sharp’s second novel was less successful, and at this point, he pivoted for the first time. Over twenty scripts for radio and television followed, but it wasn’t long before Scotland regarded him as a ‘lost’ and ‘once promising’ author. Writing for radio and screen was not yet regarded on the literary scene as an equally worthy outlet.
Accusations of homophobia and misogyny further undermined Sharp’s reputation at home. His texts were no longer kept in print and were removed from course syllabuses. David Manderson is keen to address this, believing that accusations of homophobia and misogyny were unfounded. On the contrary, he says, Sharp’s work was more about deconstructing the male hero in Hollywood and his writing was not extolling but exploring common beliefs about gender and sexuality.
Complex, strong female characters do appear multiple times throughout Sharp’s career, on screen, on radio and in print, and they possess inner qualities that the male anti-heroes fundamentally lack. In many cases, they are still trapped by circumstance, but Manderson reminds readers that Sharp was a realist. He wrote about life in societies where women’s opportunities were curtailed.
David Manderson would like to see Alan Sharp introduced to a new generation of Scottish literature and film students. His early work from London provides, Manderson says, a glimpse into a fascinating period of modernist radio and drama, and Sharp remained a prolific writer till the end of his life. His writing has continued to be produced since his death. In 2019, a co-written screenplay Our Ladies was released to warm reviews, and Vain Glory is a series currently in development. Picture This, which Manderson would like to see published, is an experimental novel that merges screenplay and prose. It achieves something new, Manderson says.
For anyone wishing to look back at Sharp’s early work, the novels can only be found on the second-hand market, but I was able to access at least some of his film work via streaming services. Rob Roy (1995), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), Night Moves (1975), Billy Two Hats (1974) and The Last Run (1971) were all available.
And then there’s the tantalising story about Sharp’s missing third novel, believed to be called The Apple Pickers. This novel was spoken about as forthcoming for years, but it never appeared. The manuscript, if any of it still exists, has yet to be found. Manderson believes it may be in storage in New Zealand with other unseen material. When I met with him, I could sense his enthusiasm for finding this missing piece of the puzzle, and I hope he will soon get a chance to go in search of it.