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Sir John Mortimer

Sir John Mortimer, barrister, playwright and author of the immensely popular Rumpole of the Bailey books, died on 16 January 2009. He was 85.

The Guardian gives the best pen-picture of the young John’s parents:

Though born in Hampstead, north London, John grew up in the house at Turville, near Henley, Oxfordshire, that he never really left. His father was an irascible, blind barrister, the Mortimer of Mortimer on Wills, Probate and Divorce. His mother, devoted and stoic, read aloud the sad, true stories of cruelty and passion between the wars contained in his father’s briefs for the divorce court.

All the newspapers comment that he followed his father’s wishes in studying law; the Daily Telegraph does so vividly, quoting Mortimer’s own description from A Voyage Round My Father:

Young John was educated at the Dragon School and Harrow, where he marked his individuality by joining the Communist Party. He had some hope of becoming an actor; and at other times spoke of becoming a writer, an ambition which his father (who became blind in 1936) sharply discouraged.

“My dear boy, have some consideration for your unfortunate wife,” Mortimer senior would advise. “You’ll be sitting around the house all day wearing a dressing-gown, brewing tea and stumped for words. You’ll be far better off in the Law. That’s the great thing about the Law, it gets you out of the house.”

The Independent has this to say about his formative years:

From the interwar turbulence he learned more speedily than most of his coevals (never beating Kingsley Amis on points, but seeing off the literary likes of John Braine and John Wain) that irony and detachment were profitable weapons, provided you were equally armed with a capacity for care and involvement. Only if regarded as a comedy in middle England’s temperate terms, he suspected, could the grim desolation of being English in mid-century be given perspective.

He obtained a wartime degree in Law from Brasenose College, Oxford, in spite of being sent down after writing what The Times describes as “florid” letters to a sixth-form Bradfield pupil:

Pronounced medically unfit for the Armed Forces, back in the family home, a modest house built by his father in 1932 in the deeply rural Thames Valley, he embarked on his first (unpublished) novel. But he had to fulfil the approved war work requirement to get his degree. Jack Beddington of the Crown Film Unit lived near by: he arranged for 19-year-old Mortimer to join the unit at Pinewood, making propaganda films. This supplied him with a cast of characters and plenty of dialogue and plot to inspire his first novel, Charade, published to high critical praise in 1947.

Then came his first marriage, to up-and-coming author Penelope Fletcher, as related by the late David Hughes in The Independent:

Overnight in 1949 he became a father, the youthful mentor to four stepdaughters when he married Penelope, five years his senior. They had two more children. (Much later, in 2004, he discovered that he had had a third, a son, by Wendy Craig, with whom he had a brief affair in the Sixties.) But a pair of writers in adjacent workrooms were apt to eat up the same material. His sensitive The Narrowing Stream (1954) was, in its lingering look at adultery, a foretaste of Penelope’s literary obsessions. The couple ran the risk of sinking their quarrels into their books, of one developing at the expense of the other.

The Times describes the marriage (which lasted until 1972) thus:

Though a loving stepfather, Mortimer — busy dealing with divorce cases by day — was an unfaithful husband, incapable of saying no to a lucrative film script or resisting a seductive starlet. His wife, by common consent the superior novelist, was driven to distraction by his behaviour and, after 1955, when their son Jeremy was born, the marriage struggled not to unravel.

While building up his reputation as an author, playwright and scriptwriter in the 1960s, though, he was also building up a strong reputation as a defence lawyer – first in murder trials, then in censorship cases – as Geoffrey Robertson tells us in The Guardian:

John was a successful silk – he had become QC in 1966 – having reinvented himself as an advocate in murder trials. He found a macabre fascination in the pattern of bloodstains, and acquired a singular ability to charm expert prosecution witnesses out of their preconceptions. He was the greatest cross-examiner of such experts (“the art of cross-examination is not to examine crossly”) and many alleged murderers owed their liberty to his ability to draw out a doubt in the apparently closed mind.

But nothing in the training of the English bar and bench had equipped it for the underground press, and when, in 1971, a largely unreadable magazine called Oz published a cartoon strip featuring Rupert Bear with an erection, its editors were treated as if they had committed treason. QCs, their cab-rank principles forgotten, fled from the proffered defence brief. A few days before the trial – for conspiracy to corrupt public morals, an offence carrying a maximum of life imprisonment – Richard Neville and I showed John the offending publication while he was lunching a young woman, also named Penelope. They giggled. We begged him to take the case. “Goody,” was his response.

The Daily Telegraph wonders whether not just his career at the Bar, but his whole life, was a sustained bout of play-acting:

A professed atheist (albeit “an atheist for Christ”), he was obsessed by the possibility of God, and belaboured those whom he interviewed with questions about their faith. A dedicated opponent of censorship, he admitted that he was sickened by pornography. A devoted father, he supported more liberal divorce laws. Politically a man of the Left, he expressed a Whiggish distaste for the material aspirations of his social inferiors — “I do not especially like the working-class Tory” — while himself rising at 5am every morning to gain the wherewithal for his own opulent tastes. Mortimer cheerfully admitted to being a champagne socialist; genial and unruffled as ever, he held that he wanted everyone to have champagne and was pro-hunting.

Mortimer’s greatest creation, Horace Rumpole, gets its own eulogy from The Independent:

His 1980s saw the dawn, less on the page than on screen, of Horace Rumpole, a creation intended “to keep me alive in my old age”. Again the character was based on his father, his nattiness of dress, his fondness for poetic tags, his enthusiasm for Rider Haggard that led to Mrs Rumpole’s enthronement as She Who Must Be Obeyed. By now Mortimer’s own qualities were fused with the father’s – a fine spirit of disrespect, a dislike of pretension, a relish for putting the boot in, or rather the soft shoe.

Rumpole’s appeal lay in the very idea of defence: here was a drinker and dreamer defending us all against injustice, the law’s absurdity and our own mistakes. The part was played by Leo McKern, whose acting, Mortimer said, “was where I hope my writing will be, about two feet above the ground, a little larger than life, but always taking off from reality”. Rumpole ran, rather raggedly at times, to a lengthy series of novels, collections of stories and TV series (the last novel appeared in 2007).

But the last word goes to the Daily Telegraph with its quotation of one last bon mot from Sir John Mortimer:

“I am not by nature a truly convinced person,” he once admitted, “I’m never actually sold a million per cent on anything.” Cardinal Hume once put it to him that, if there was no God, life would be absurd. “Well, exactly,” Mortimer returned.

(Sir John Clifford Mortimer CBE QC, born 21 April 1923 in London; died 16 January 2009 in Turville Heath, Buckinghamshire)