Sir John Mortimer, who died this January at 85, left behind an imperishable fictional hero (the roguish Horace Rumpole of the Old Bailey), a celebrated legal career, and a ringing defense of delight—profane or profound—in the face of human darkness. The author recalls some of Mortimer’s finest arguments, both in and out of court.
by Christopher Hitchens WEB EXCLUSIVE March 9, 2009
“If the law supposes that, the law is a ass, a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law’s a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience—by experience.”
On the bleak January day that John Mortimer died, at the age of 85, I was trying to think of an American “parallel” to his personality and position. Is there, in other words, anyone we can name who combines the qualities of a Dickensian or Shakespearean character with the grit and brio of a Clarence Darrow–style defense attorney (the above blend served slightly chilled with a definite hint of Kafka and perhaps a smidgen of Evelyn Waugh)? Well, no, there isn’t, and there never was such an American. But don’t feel bad about that: instead, feel worse because now there isn’t such an Englishman either. True immortality doesn’t depend on national considerations: it is given to very few people to create one imperishable fictional person, and then to see that very person take on life and flesh as if animated by Pygmalion. In the name and figure of Horace Rumpole, old rogue and old hero of the Old Bailey, as impersonated—no, incarnated—by Leo McKern, we have someone for the ages, someone who will be available at need to our inner eye and ear every time it is demonstrated once again that “the law is a ass.”
“Never plead guilty!” was Rumpole’s invariable advice to his clients. If Mortimer had ever had to enter a plea in his own defense, it could only have been against the charge that he should have devoted himself to literature and never gone near the law in the first place. But in that event, though we might have had an even finer novelist and dramatist, we wouldn’t have had either Rumpole or—Mortimer’s second-greatest character—the man depicted in the most successful of his plays: A Voyage Round My Father.
The male parent in this domestic drama has become an Oedipal image vastly taken to the hearts of theatergoers on several continents, and has been represented on the boards and on television by Mark Dignam, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, and Derek Jacobi. This alone may give you a notion of how capacious a character he is. But the central fact about Mortimer’s enchanting old man was this: he lived his life “in denial.” Having gone blind as the result of a freak accident when he bashed his head on the roof of a taxi, he insisted ever afterward that his family should treat him as if he could see like a lynx. And, as if in some drama about an English country house dominated by a mad old duke who maintains that he himself is a poached egg (and may therefore at any moment need a mattress-size piece of buttered toast dragged into the room so that he can lie down upon it for a soothing slumber), everybody in the Mortimer family became an accomplice in the deception. Indeed, it was partly in order to pacify his father that Mortimer agreed to surrender his literary ambitions and take up the law. As Clifford Mortimer expressed the matter to his son: “My dear boy, have some consideration for your unfortunate wife. 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.”
At that stage, the younger Mortimer didn’t even have a wife. Indeed, he had been expelled from Oxford University when it was discovered that he had been writing avidly homoerotic letters to a handsome young man. (This might seem like an excellent qualification for becoming the future writer of the screenplay for Brideshead Revisited, but may I ask you to hold that thought … ) If anyone ever managed to remake himself as a heterosexual, and to get this fact inscribed in literature and legend, it was certainly John Mortimer. His first wife, Penelope, wrote a celebrated novel called The Pumpkin Eater, which fictionalized the tale of John’s affair with the actress Wendy Craig: a tempestuous fling that led to the birth of an off-the-record son who ceased to be “long lost” only in 2004. Marrying another Penelope and fathering—or do I mean authoring?—a brood of daughters (including accomplished actress Emily), Mortimer eventually became one of those paunchy and jowly old geezers who fill all other paunchy and jowly old geezers with hope. He surrounded himself with a seraglio of toothsome and fashionable young female admirers. A few years ago, I lunched with him at Sheekey’s, in Chancery Lane. Of the party was the sexy Kathy Lette, wife of his friend and law partner Geoffrey Robertson and author of Puberty Blues as well as many other erotic texts. Patting his arthritic thigh as the oysters arrived, she said, “We should be having an affair.” The old boy managed a leer that would have made Benny Hill look like a choirboy. Before his legs ultimately refused their office altogether, he would very often round off an evening by bidding good night to a young lady and then asking, “I suppose a fuck’s out of the question?” At the very least it would make her expression change, which can be almost half the battle.
In the same season the theater lost Harold Pinter, who was in some ways Mortimer’s antithesis but in another way his alter ego. Mortimer loved to give delight, to rouse mirth, to extort comparisons with Wodehouse and Waugh. Pinter lived to make people uneasy, both in the audience and in his company.
I see that other fellow’s play got very good reviews. You want to watch out he doesn’t put your nose out of joint. (He pauses.) I haven’t been sleeping lately. (He pauses.) And when I can’t sleep, you know, I sometimes like to make a list of all the things I really hate.
Pinter was the master of the menacing pause and the interval of domestic unease that betokens some nightmarish piece of injustice or random cruelty. Mortimer, too, knew that in every courtroom there was a potential theater of the absurd. His biographer Valerie Grove tells the following tale, about how the loyal audiences at his readings were convinced that the old jokes tended to be the best: “Tell us about the penis left in for two hours, Sir John!” cried a lady in our Sheffield audience last year. “Ah yes,” he replied. “That was a rape case, and we had to establish that penetration had taken place. At that point, the judge intervened and, thinking of his lunch, said, ‘Well, I think we’ll leave it there and all come back in a couple of hours.’”
Neither Mr. Bumble nor Horace Rumpole could have expressed it better. Like Rumpole, Mortimer would never take a prosecution case and always acted for the defense. He specialized in free-speech and civil-liberties cases, making a name for himself in contesting the censorship of Last Exit to Brooklyn and the even more disgusting Inside Linda Lovelace but also going gritty and publicly defending the victims of the Terrorism Act (making Rumpole defend an unjustly accused Dr. Khan into the bargain). Emphatically not a conservative, he managed to capture some of the essence of Thatcherism in the character of Leslie Titmuss, a right-wing politician whose commingled odiousness and intelligence—captured in the trilogy Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and The Sound of Trumpets—show how Mortimer could emulate Milton in giving the devil his due. His libertarian instincts were as natural to him as breathing: he took up cigar smoking only when the government tried to ban the habit in public places, and I have a clear memory of him standing on the Thames Embankment among a huge demonstrating crowd of red-faced country Conservatives, whom he normally despised, blinking owlishly in the sun and upholding the right of rural folk to pursue foxes on horseback without being shadowed by blue-uniformed policemen.
At about this point one is doomed to run up against the cliché about being “quintessentially English.” Even the sour and resentful Harold Pinter had his warm and bucolic recreations, considering the game of cricket to be the highest form of felicity. In one Rumpole episode, the old boy is found lunching alone and is asked by a female admirer, “Do you always eat by yourself?” He replies ruefully, “Well, it’s not always possible.” There’s Englishness, if you like. But Mortimer probably never dined alone, unless it was the champagne breakfast that he invariably poured himself—there seem to have been no foodstuffs involved—upon arising. He was compulsively social. And if you think that this, too, may have involved a dark side and an element of demon denial, well, you are probably right. (Incidentally, the terse, sinister, pause-ridden excerpt of dialogue back there is taken not from Pinter but from A Voyage Round My Father.)
Mortimer didn’t acknowledge his out-of-wedlock son until a biographer made it inevitable. He pretended never to have seen the scandalous boy-love object of his Oxford affections again, even though (and try making this up) the golden boy ended up as a distinguished judge and before that had appeared on the other side of the courtroom from Mortimer in a celebrated case involving the arcane offense of blasphemy. Even more alarming to his many admirers, Mortimer took credit for years for the famous Charles Sturridge/Michael Lindsay-Hogg adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, even though his work on the screenplay had been almost entirely discarded. He wasn’t in the least bit amused, or amusing, when this disconcerting fact was revealed not long before his death.
Even if it is true that his image as a heroic dissenter was actually all a bit of an act, whereby Clarence Darrow goes back to his country house in the evening after splitting a bottle of port at the club with the judge and the prosecution (and how many dissenters begin by trying to imitate their fathers in the first place?), one would not want to be without the gowned and wigged figure of the man whose family fortune was founded on fees won in the divorce court. In what other field of contestation is so much of the human heart laid bare? How else might one have acquired the sinews of the following dialogue, from his one-act play Lunch Hour, about the pitfalls and disappointments of adulterous assignation:
Girl: Or are you the sort of man that would bring his wife all this way to tell her something of great importance which might affect their whole lives and then shut up as tight as an oyster the moment he was in her presence!
(There is a pause … )
Mortimer was obsessed by the brevity and ephemerality of life and art, naming one of his books of memoirs after Lord Byron’s regretful view that the human span was like “the summer of a dormouse,” and maintaining that “the shelf life of the modern hardback writer is somewhere between the milk and the yogurt.” Taking a fatalistic view that was at odds with his ostensibly cheery humanism, he used to say that “if you look in playgrounds, you see the little judge and the little burglar and the little murderer and the little banker.” He tried and failed to derive consolation from religion, and once had the following exchange with Cardinal Basil Hume: Hume pontificated to him that, were there to be no God, human life would be absurd. “Well, exactly” was Mortimer’s rejoinder.
Surrendering to cliché in the end, he did accept a knighthood and become “Sir John,” and he did become Falstaffian in appearance and indulgence: “so surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane.” He declined to care about his weight and health, maintaining that “there is no pleasure worth forgoing just for an extra three years in the geriatric ward.” Approaching the root of the matter in one courtroom, he congratulated the jury on having sat through perhaps the most boring legal case on record. The judge in his own summing-up began by saying, “It may surprise you to know, members of the jury, that the sole purpose of the criminal law in England is not to entertain Mr. Mortimer.” Quite possibly not, but the attempt to prove otherwise was as good a way as any of keeping those demons at bay.
Full article and photos: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/04/hitchens200904