Malcolm Sharps 1954-2024

Malcolm Sharps

Malcolm Sharps: an appreciation

By Peter Bendall

Malcolm Sharps, a frequent contributor to the Richard Howe site, died recently at the age of seventy after suffering symptoms of long Covid, though the exact cause of death is not yet known. I knew him for nearly forty years and he was one of the best friends I have ever had.  The following is an appreciation of his character, talents and doings insofar as I personally know of them.

To me, Malcolm’s life was in some ways like a slightly surrealist work of art or a free verse poem with half-rhymes at irregular intervals or a series of impromptus. Certainly my first meeting with him was not planned: I answered a knock on my door one summer’s day in 1984 and there stood this thirtyish, stocky man with a gentle but quizzical smile on his rubicund face. He introduced himself as the co-editor of a local literary magazine called Scheherazade and said that he had enjoyed reading the story I had sent him, but was unable to publish it because the magazine was closing down after three issues. I invited him in for coffee and we discussed literary matters. He had written some poetry and a few short stories but had published nothing except a couple of poems in the magazine he edited. Some of his literary tastes coincided with mine, but he knew far more about East European literature than I did. At that time he was living in Duxford, a village outside Cambridge, and doing menial work in the Imperial War Museum there. This was one of the many less than fulfilling jobs he did in order to earn enough money to go on his travels to Eastern Europe every summer. He was certainly good at spinning out the meagre funds he accrued, being adept at finding bargains of all kinds. While he was living in Duxford we often met at the Square and Compasses pub in the village of Shelford, halfway between his place and mine. We would have two or three pints of beer and he would tell me about obscure Hungarian, Czech or Polish writers while I tried to ask intelligent questions about them. If he had managed to pick up a second-hand translation of one of their books he would present it to me (“I have a little present for you”, he would say) and urge me to read it. He also regaled me with tales of his surreal adventures in Hungary and other East European countries, which at that time were still behind the Iron Curtain. Rather than flying to these countries, he would usually cycle, camping on the way. He often had to repair punctures and once, while he was on the way to Estonia, all his possessions, including his bicycle, were stolen. Undeterred, he reached his destination by train and bus and was fortunate to be supplied with clothes by his host, who then became his partner. Sometimes, instead of cycling, he would go by bus, which took about 30 hours. He also travelled by bus all over England and Wales, taking the slowest routes and stopping in obscure places.  He loved to linger. From wherever he was staying he would send long letters full of humour and colourful descriptions. He prided himself on his style, and indeed one of his early stories was entitled ‘Doctor Style’. When he returned to Cambridge from one of his trips he would always bring a present of a particularly spicy sausage or a strange liqueur in a shapely bottle, usually together with a bar of Toblerone. When he came to mine for a meal we would take it in turns to cook. I usually provided a beef stew, whereas he never cooked the same dish twice, though his experiments were not always completely successful.

His love of Hungary originated in a music festival he attended in one of the smaller towns there when he was in his teens (he went to music festivals all over Europe in those days). He knew the music of Bartók and Kodály, among other Hungarian composers, extremely well. Over the years he acquired a very good knowledge of the Hungarian language, one of the most difficult to learn for those from other language groups, and was able read novels by Attila, Krudy, Márai and Szerb in the original. Later on, he translated articles and books on music from Hungarian to English. Eventually he managed to scrape together enough money to buy a small ground-floor flat on the outskirts of Budapest. I visited him there on several occasions. He took me on various trips, once to the border town of Komárom, from where, having shown our passports, we walked over the iron bridge across the Danube to Komárno in Slovakia in order to sample the coffee and buy some food items which were cheaper there than in Hungary. He also took me up Gellért Hill (771 ft) near Budapest for a spectacular view of the city. We went to Lake Balaton, to the Beethoven museum in Martonvásár and to many other places, usually by slow train, involving several changes, and always on the way he would say “There’s a place near here that serves really good Lángos [a kind of Hungarian pizza])”, or “The gulyás [goulash] here is wonderful” and we would sit and gorge ourselves. He was a great connoisseur of Hungarian cakes and took me to all the best places that served them. They truly were the most delicious cakes I have ever tasted. He did a lot of home cooking and before one of my visits he asked me if I could bring some English flour. I was mystified: surely they had flour in Hungary; the name of one of their most famous composers, Liszt, means “flour”. It turned out that in order to make proper cabbage strudel Hungarian flour just would not do. Needless to say, when I went through security with this English flour in my hand luggage I was questioned about the purpose of it.  Somehow I convinced the security people of the need for English flour to make cabbage strudel in Hungary.  Every morning Malcolm would provide a cooked breakfast, of Hungarian sausage or the Hungarian version of eggs and bacon (rather more extravagant than the English one) and he would ask me to identify the composer of whichever piece of music he had put on his CD player. He knew German and Italian opera inside out and was a connoisseur of specific recordings of The Ring, Die Meistersinger and Otello, among other operas. He would go to flea markets to pick up such recordings at knockdown prices. No visit to Malcolm was complete without a visit to the opera, and he introduced me to works by composers I had never heard of. He was also familiar with most of the lesser art galleries in Budapest. He probably knew more about Budapest than many of the locals.

After he bought his flat in Budapest, Malcolm’s travel itinerary was reversed. Having trained as a teacher of English to foreign students he came to England to teach for three months every summer instead of going from England to Hungary for three months. The income from this would more or less keep him going for the rest of the year in Hungary, though he did give some private lessons there too, as well as doing translation work. During these periods he usually stayed in a small, not entirely waterproof caravan in the village of Cottenham, a few miles north of Cambridge and not far from the Great Ouse River. I often made the 45-minute cycle trip there and he would provide a barbecue if the weather was good, or cook something he had bought at half price in the local supermarket.  Once we walked from there along the Ouse to Ely, a distance of about twelve miles, having great fun clambering over stiles and avoiding the cows and bulls in the fields. If I went there by bus he would walk me back to the bus-stop over the fields, from where, when the weather was clear, we could view the spectacular night sky, unspoilt by artificial light.

Malcolm was a multitalented man. At university he had studied sociology, but also became very involved in acting – I wish I had seen him on the stage.  During his stints of work in England, he had acquired a good knowledge of electronics and he could make almost any faltering audio device work, as he did with my sound system. His greatest talent, though, was for writing, and it is a great pity that only towards the end of his life were some of his works published online, mostly non-fiction. He wrote many short stories, among them at least ten set in a fictional country called Livonia, which were based on his experiences in Estonia and Lithuania. These, in my, opinion, were among his best works, cleverly constructed and stylishly written. Some of his sentences could stop readers in their tracks. He also had a gift for dialogue. He wrote a very funny send-up of Edwardian drawing room drama whose main character was a butler named Swutters. His ambition was to publish a novel, and over the years he worked on one entitled ‘The Three Twins’, a comedy set in the Midlands, which he eventually completed. Much of this work, too, is extremely well written, as well as being very funny, though in my opinion more work needed to be done on its construction.  From time to time I would urge him to try to get his works published but he seemed satisfied with the comments of the friends he sent them to. I would be happy if there were any prospect of publishing his short stories posthumously. As readers of his blogs will know, Malcolm was also an exceptionally gifted commentator and critic on a wide range of subjects.

Malcolm was born in Liverpool , the only child of a plumber and a housewife. He lived there until he went to university in Stoke, where he met many talented people who went on to have literary or artistic careers of one sort or another. After his parents died he seems to have lost or broken off contact with any other relatives he had. After university he went to London and for a time worked at the Stanley Gibbons stamp dealership, where he acquired a wide knowledge of philately. When I first met him he still had a large stamp collection; every so often he would sell a few of the stamps to finance a trip, and in the end he sold all of them in order to help pay for his flat in Hungary. He never seemed to have any inclination to pursue a career, preferring instead to make enough money from low-grade jobs for his travels and his concert-going. The only thing approaching a career was his English teaching, but this was never a constant and he gave it up altogether when he qualified for a pension. He had many friends in England and Wales, whom he would endeavour to visit on his trips over from Hungary, as well as in France, the Netherlands, the United States, Poland and of course Hungary. He made friends with people on the street, on trams, in shops or at the opera. There was something reassuring about his large presence and large smile. He had many, mostly short-lived relationships, one of the longer ones being with a Russian woman, with who he lived in Estonia and Lithuania for two years. His last relationship was with a Hungarian woman, Eva, who lived near him in Budapest, and whom he cared for solicitously through her various health problems. She survives him.

6 Responses to Malcolm Sharps 1954-2024

  1. Ed DeJesus says:

    My sincerest condolences to Peter Bendall and his friends in Voices of Lowell & Beyond.

    I’m a fortunate Florida fly-in freshman to this blog, serendipitously drawn here like Mr. Sharps was by Stephen O’Connor—my hometown Facebook friend—whom I’ve admired since I swooned over Smokestack Lightening. As an appreciative aspiring author, I was amazed here by the heavyweight wordsmiths: Steve O, David Daniel (my decades-old writing mentor), and others, plus the mystical Malcolm Sharps, posting paralyzing paragraphs from across the big pond with profound prose pervading my mind long after I’d left my monitor.

    Malcolm could evoke memories of mundane jobs you had to endure with a piece on downtrodden laborers doing menial tasks or tip your mind back to his observation of Tom Wolf’s love for locomotive traveling in America with his tail about sleeper trains in Europe. He could convince you that Hollywood got The Sound of Music all wrong and enlighten you on the rituals it evolved from.

    When he cobbled together a bunch of quantum quotes, he triumphantly transitioned to his praise for his favorite Lowell-based author’s frequent usage of quotes—a telltale sign that he’d found a virtual home with a family that appreciated ‘Doctor Style.’

    Malcolm Sharps struck me as a guy you’d enjoy hoisting a pint with or walking a wooded Walden Pond path, getting lost in his European folklore, and not surprised later when he vividly describes everything you’d missed in the pub or the woods that his soul-searching journalistic eyes took in.

    I found his last poignant piece—his moving story about the plight of poor Béla—an astounding testament to how easily this man befriends anyone, young or old, and charms his way into their domicile. Peter Bendall’s heartfelt appreciation and tribute to his kind and close friend reaffirmed that. And while Malcom closed that story with an optimistic hope for young Stephen, sadly, perhaps due to his failing health, he never (thanked) commented on the praise he got from his respected author friends, which seemed out of character for him.

    It’s understandable for Steve O to say, “It’s now time to start drinking.”

    Here’s to Malcolm and his adopted family of friends. Courtesy of Maroon Five’s Memories

    “Here’s to the ones that we got
    Cheers to the wish you were here, but you’re not
    ‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
    Of everything we’ve been through
    Toast to the ones here today
    Toast to the ones that we lost on the way
    ‘Cause the drinks bring back all the memories
    And the memories bring back, memories bring back you.”

  2. Louise Peloquin says:

    Dear Malcolm,

    You hopped on a train to a place you’ve never been. This time we won’t hear about your serendipity moments.
    Charles Baudelaire asserted:
    La vie a une fin, le chagrin n’en a pas. Life has an end, grief has not. We agree.
    You’ve always like quotations. Surely, these are familiar. Rereading them is like meeting up with an old mate, right Malcolm? So here we go.
    Albert Samain mused:
    Ton souvenir est comme un livre bien-aimé,
    Qu’on lit sans cesse, et qui jamais n’est refermé.
    Memories are like a well-loved book, ceaselessly read and never closed.
    We go back to your blog pieces when we want a lesson, a boost, a smile.
    Théophile Gautier spoke about radiant words, words of light, words with rhythm and music. That’s poetry, he said.
    Des mots rayonnants, des mots de lumière, avec un rhythm et une musique, voilà ce qui est la poésie.
    Your words, Malcolm, are glittering gems.
    Victor Hugo stated:
    Le souvenir, c’est la présence invisible.
    Maybe you’re invisible to the eyes Malcolm. But, like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince, we know that the essential is invisible to the eyes. On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux. Seeing with one’s heart makes for the clearest of vision and your words touch our hearts.
    Reading is travelling, Victor Hugo said, and travelling is reading. Lire, c’est voyager; voyager, c’est lire. Your words turn us into travel mates who share adventures in places we never would have known.
    Had he met you, Alphonse de Lamartine would have confirmed:
    La vie est ton navire et non pas ta demeure. Life is your ship but not your dwelling place.
    Lamartine expressed how we, your blog family, feel right now:
    Un seul être vous manque et tout est dépeuplé. A single being is missing and the world is deserted.
    Like you, we’ll all take that last train journey. Upon arrival, I’ll find you and thank you for all of your exquisite words. They help me grasp Nicolas Boileau’s statement:
    Ce que l’on conçoit bien s’énonce clairement, et les mots pour le dire arrivent aisément. What one conceives well is enunciated clearly, and the words to say it come easily.
    George Eliot asked – What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?
    Your words make life less difficult.
    My letter to you will end with Victor Hugo:
    Quand je suis triste, je pense à vous, comme l’hiver on pense au soleil, et quand je suis gai, je pense à vous, comme en plein soleil on pense à l’ombre.
    When I’m sad, I think of you, like we think of the sun in winter, and when I’m happy, I think of you, like one thinks of shade in the full sun.
    According to Hugo, Creating is remembering. Créer c’est se souvenir.
    When next I try to create my own words, I’ll remember yours.
    Bon voyage Malcolm!

  3. Steve O'Connor says:

    Well done, Peter. A good summation of this extraordinary character, full of interesting details that reveal so much about the man. My aquaintance with Malcolm began in 79 when we worked in France together, and again in 1980, when we worked together picking grapes and as general laborers at a chateau. We hitchedhiked around the country together and parted ways when he went off to Hungary and I got a job in a gas station. Since then, our friendship had been maintained through letters and then emails.
    I told Malcolm that in light of the research and effort he put into many of his Howe blog pieces, he should be sending them to The New Yorker or some national publication that might well be interested in a finely crafted piece with an Eastern Eurpean angle. Yet Malcolm seemed to have found a home at this Lowell-based blog. He would talk to me about Louise Peloquin, Dave Daniel, Dick Howe and Paul Marion as if they were people he knew from a coffee shop in downtown Lowell.
    Having, as Peter Bendall says, been largely content just to share his writing with friends, he loved receiving comments on the blog from a new and wider audience and greatly appreciated all of the people who commented.
    I’ve met some brilliant people in my life, but I have never met anyone more brilliant than Malcolm Sharps. His death leaves an empty space in the lives of everyone who knew him.

  4. David Daniel says:

    In his fond appreciation of his longstanding friend Malcolm Sharps, Peter Bendall gives those of us who knew Malcolm only through his essays on this blog a fuller portrait of the man. In their peregrinations about the English countryside or the byways of eastern European cities and opera houses, Sharps emerges as a latter-day version of Matthew Arnold’s Gypsy scholar… with the food and beer appetites of Jack Falstaff.

    Like Ed Dejesus, I got to know Malcolm through Steve O’Connor, and only via long distance and in the past few years. But, as Peter Bendall makes plain, Malcolm was an easy guy to connect with. The result was an ongoing exchange of lengthy emails on a variety of subjects. And as time went on, his got longer and longer.

    He could be, all in a single email, solicitous, inquisitive, scolding, encouraging, and always tender. A key point of connection, for me, was his love of movies, as well as his early friendships with a talented group of his Liverpool mates (among them Clive Barker and Ramsay Campbell).

    My selection of favorites from his posts on the Howe blog would include his piece on Thomas Wolfe ( ); his insightful exploration of Scandinavian cinema ( ) and his nostalgic on-the-cobbles piece on leaving Liverpool ( )

    I join Ed DeJesus and Louise Peloquin in their eloquent in memoriams. In Shakespeare’s words, Malcolm Sharps was a man of many parts.

  5. Charles Gargiulo says:

    Sadly, I never had the opportunity to meet Malcolm Sharps. However, I felt like I developed a relationship with him just from reading his contributions to Dick’s blog. His writing was so powerful his talent drew me like a magnet every time I saw his byline and reading his new posts felt as rewarding as bumping into a dear friend on a gloomy day. And I felt like my I.Q. rose a few points each time I brushed up against his intelligence and insights.

    My deepest sympathy to all who had the good fortune to know him. I feel a deep sense of loss knowing I will not be bumping into that dear online friend anymore, so I can only imagine how profound his loss must feel to those who knew him.

  6. James Atkins says:

    I was a very good friend of Malcolms, also living in Budapest. We had lunch mid February, always a good laugh, fascinating anecdotes and analyses. I was entrusted to take a letter to England for him.

    I rang him, emailed and messaged him late Feb, a couple of times in March. Started to worry, when no replies came, phone was off. Now I find this post… It’s a terrible shock because he seemed in good spirits when we had lunch, no sign of ill health except his sore leg.

    I loved his writing. I don’t know anyone who writes so kindly and perceptively and brings everything to life as if it happened there in front of you. But not superheroes. Ordinary people.

    I wonder if we can do something in Malcolm’s honour. He was the most modest person but his unheralded and brilliant humanity should not be forgotten.

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