When John Mortimer was just a child, he told his father he wanted to be a writer. Father advised against it, out of kindness for others.
"Be a barrister," said England's most prominent divorce lawyer to his son. "Writer's wives live horrible lives. Writers are always at home, walking around in dreary dressing gowns. Barristers go to an office."
Being an obedient son, Mortimer listened to his father and became a lawyer. He also listened to his own inner need and became a writer. A more felicitous marriage of callings could hardly have been conceived.
The barrister's life gave the writer much to write about. It sparked the creation of one of the richest Dickensian characters in modern popular literature -- if television scripts can be included in that catchall.
The character in question is Horace Rumpole, known to television viewers on both sides of the Atlantic (and, there is reason to believe, the Pacific, too) as Rumpole of the Bailey, assiduous defender of murderers, prostitutes, pornographers, and other denizens of London's underworld, Rumpole, the histrionic habitue of Pomeroy's Wine Bar on Fleet Street (El Vino's in real life), a man with a line of verse for every situation and, finally, the forebearing husband of the socially ambitious Hilda, "she who must be obeyed."
Mortimer is celebrated in this country mainly for the Rumpole series. In England, many think we miss the better parts of him. Maybe they are right; there is much more. His play "A Voyage Round My Father," his two volumes of autobiography: "Clinging to the Wreckage" and "Murderers and Other Friends," and his sequential novels about the maniacally scheming Lord Leslie Titmuss, MP, and other books and film and television treatments are known here, of course, but no doubt to a much smaller coterie of readers.
But that's all right. Rumpole alone can fill out the bill.
Asked why he created Rumpole, Mortimer said he "wanted somebody to keep me company in my old age. Also, somebody to be mistaken for. When I go through the airport in Australia, I hear 'Hello, Rumpole.' "
Mortimer is a portly fellow of 75. He has a cane, a prominent lower lip that would make anyone else seem in a pout (a Sidney Greenstreet lip, it is), and white hair that gives the impression it's defeated a thousand combs and brushes. He peers through thick glasses with rims the color of iodine. He is tanned almost to the color of iodine. A friendlier, more forgiving face one could not imagine.
He sits comfortably in his flannel gray trousers and cardigan, in his flannel gray room in the flannel gray Jefferson hotel on 16th Street in Washington. He is waiting to make an appearance in a few hours before a couple hundred Anglophiles at the Hirshhorn Gallery, of the Smithsonian complex, a gathering of true Rumpolites.
His latest book
Mortimer is on a book tour, touting his latest comic novel, "The Sound of Trumpets." It's about Lord Titmuss again, holding out in the still idyllic but relentlessly suburbanizing English countryside. In this latest book, which unfolds on the eve of the Labor Party's political ascendancy, Lord Leslie, acolyte of the reptilian Lady Thatcher, switches political sides to indulge every old man's favorite vice (being incapable of indulging most of the others), revenge.
It's a funny book and wonderfully free of insight on British politics.
Mortimer is not at all sure whether the exaggerated and eccentric characters he creates, like Lord Titmuss, Rumpole himself, the lawyer Guthrie Featherstone, are really exaggerations. Does he write satire? Or does he just report what he sees and hears and then changes the names?
"I'm not sure," he says mildly, his hands in his lap. It may be he puts characters on the page, and the actual personifications pop out of the woodwork as if called forth like hounds by a special whistle only they can hear. "There are a number of fat barristers who hang around El Vino's on Fleet Street," he says. "Each one insists Rumpole is based on them."
Actually, the garrulous one is a literary composite. "He was a lot like my father. He quoted poetry all the time," says Mortimer, who also drew on barristers he would see around the Old Bailey, London's criminal court. "They would always call the judge 'Old Darlin' [a Rumpolesque expression] but would never call their wives that."
Which is why Mortimer gave Rumpole such a wife as Hilda. "I wanted to give him as hard a time as I could, so I invented her."
At every interview, it seems, Mortimer is quick to confess that Rumpole's frequent allusion to his wife as She who must be obeyed, is not a creation of the author, but of the late British writer H. Rider Haggard. It refers to the principal character in Haggard's fantastical novel, "She," about a mountain queen who had the power to live eternally, but loses it.
After this confession he sometimes adds: "But I get the money for the 'She Who Must Be Obeyed' T-shirts."
Clifford Mortimer, was without doubt the most important influence in his son's life. He was, in his time, the country's foremost divorce lawyer, a great expert on wills. From him Mortimer drew the material for his characters, his profession, and his exquisite irony. Once, in a restaurant, with waiters avoiding the Mortimer family to the right and to the left, Mortimer's father raised his voice and queried of no one in particular, but of everyone in the room:
"Is there any danger of getting food?"
Father was a die-hard ironist. Literally. Son John relates how he was sitting by his father's deathbed and the old man tried to get up.
"I said, 'What are you trying to do?' He snapped, 'I want to have a bath.' 'Don't get angry,' I said. He said, 'I always get angry when I'm dying.' "
To this day Mortimer is unable to decide whether he said it spontaneously, or had been waiting his entire life to say it.
Clifford Mortimer's profession as a divorce lawyer was so dominant a fact in the life of his son that it was almost inevitable that he would follow along in the family trade. ("I didn't get 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' as a child; I got the 'Duchess and the Seven Co-respondents.') He recounts his first divorce case, back when divorce was not an easy passage, and to get one a husband or wife had to catch his or her mate virtually in bed with somebody else, the "somebody else" being called the co-respondent in English law.
"My first client was a man who was having a terrible time getting somebody to commit adultery with his wife," he recalled. "He was forced to put on a wig and false beard and creep into his own mobile home at night in an effort to become his own co-respondent."
Should one should consider this a true relation, or proof of Mortimer's comic capabilities? Why ask?
In fact, Mortimer did a lot of serious lawyering before hanging up his black gown and turning full-time to the writing life. (Asked about his writing schedule by someone in the audience at his presentation, he said: "I begin writing about 6 in the morning every day and quit about noon. Then I get drunk.") After his father's death he took over the firm, and expanded into areas beyond divorce and probate. He got a few high-profile cases defending pornographers.
"I called these my freedom-of-speech cases," he said. "My friends called them my 'dirty book cases.' "
He added, a touch hastily, "I didn't read the books. And I couldn't bear to look at the movies."
"It would put you off sex." It is not only the shared language that divides the English from the Americans. It is also the intense ironic style so many middle-class English intellectuals affect that separate these two great peoples. (The upper classes are thought too dense for it.)
Although Mortimer, ever kindly, gives Americans credit for having a portion of that sparkling quality of understatement (actually he gives it all to Woody Allen), he does allow that not only do the English have more of it, they might have it in fatal excess.
"When you write an American scene, people say what they think," he says. "In England everything is underneath. I think that in America people believe that if you say something you mean it. In England when you say something you mean something else."
He seems to enjoy elaborating on this theme, as if it were leading him to a familiar place.
"If an Englishman says you were absolutely brilliant, an American would think that's what he thought. An Englishman would really mean you made an absolute cock-up of it."
Which is to say, you screwed up whatever it was you are being praised for having done so well.
Asked to explain the reason, or submerged motivation, for this determined avoidance by English people of saying plainly what they mean, especially if it involves any expression of emotion, Mortimer resorts to personal examples.
His father went blind, slowly, as his legal career proceeded. But nobody in the Mortimer household would ever mention of it. "My father lived in terror that somebody would feel sorry for him," said Mortimer.
Though things may be changing in England, his father's generation was characterized by its stoicism. Even the naturally unstoical pretended to be, it was such a greatly admired trait, this reserve. It still is in certain quarters.
"The real example was my mother. She was an enlightened woman and became an art student in Paris. She went to live in South Africa. Her father was a bailiff [a sheriff's deputy; not a highly placed position in English society]. He shot himself, and all that her family did was send her a newspaper cutting of the thing out to South Africa."
"That's carrying English reserve a bit far, I'd say."
Much to draw on
John Mortimer has gotten much out of life, and never had to go far to get it. The material for his writing he took from his family. His legal career as well. He lives in the house he was born in. He has had two wives, both named Penelope. (The woman who answered the door to his hotel suite introduced herself as "Penny Two.") He has four children of his own, and four stepchildren from his first wife.
He is a lifetime supporter of the Labor Party, which often put him at odds with his neighbors among the horse-and-hounds set of Buckinghamshire.
But when Tony Blair banished the Tories from No. 10 Downing St. and placed Labor in power in Britain, the party was not slow in rewarding John Mortimer.
For his service to the arts, specifically to the Royal Court Theater on Sloan Square, they gave him a knighthood.
"I got it this year," Mortimer said, obviously proud, but no less determined to be self-effacing.
"It's useful on airplanes."
Pub Date: 2/17/99