The passing of our old friend John Mortimer

mortimer-johnWe’d been thinking about him a lot lately. First, desperately browsing at Barnes & Noble three weeks ago for last-minute Christmas ideas for others, we found a 2005 novel of his in a remainder bin that we somehow missed altogether, Quite Honestly. We snatched it up for ourselves and rejoiced in the thought that mortimer-quite-honestlythere was, after all, more Mortimer that we hadn’t read.

Second, realizing we’d carelessly forgotten to put it on our Christmas list, and having given up on finding a used copy anywhere, we ordered, received, and devoured (on Christmas Day) a new paperback copy of Mortimer’s remarkable 1971 play A Voyage Around My Father.

(Pointed reminder to the management of the Shaw Festival: this play, set in the 1930s, still hasn’t ever been performed in Niagara-on-the-Lake. We’d love to see Michael Ball in the title role.)


John Mortimer with Leo McKern as Rumpole

Then, blessedly, one of our offspring left for us under the Christmas tree a complete set of Rumpole of the Bailey on video, with Leo McKern. It’s a gift that will keep on giving, as there are 14 discs and 42 episodes in all, nearly an hour each. It’ll take a while; we don’t mind.

We don’t remember exactly when we first made John Mortimer’s acquaintance. It was certainly, however, through one of the earlier collections of Rumpole stories, which we probably bought on a whim at a used bookstore.

100_7602Mortimer and Rumpole rapidly staked out space in our library, and we kept acquiring new Rumpole books as they were written, right up until last year. Rumpole was a grand, marvelous comic character, like Pickwick or Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie, and we liked him for a lot of the same reasons we came to like Mortimer himself: his love for Shakespeare, his commitment to the rights of Englishmen (see this Emsworth post), his tolerance for the foibles of his fellow humans, and his sad failure to strike a decent balance between his profession and his private life. We admired Mortimer’s unsentimentalized picture of a barrister’s law practice and life in the lesser law courts of London; we can’t think of anything like it in American literature. And we learned a good deal about the differences between British and American law, which were greater than we’d suspected.

After a time we realized that Rumpole was also a television character and that more people knew him through the BBC series than, as I did, through the published stories. 100_7603We also came to realize that there was a lot more to Mortimer than Rumpole. We picked up a used copy of his 1985 novel Paradise Postponed with no particular expectations; this story of the fictional Tory politician Leslie Titmuss turned out to be one of our favorite books written during the last 30 years. Naturally, we snatched up its two sequels when they were published: Titmuss Regained (1990) and The Sound of Trumpets (1998). It’s not too much to compare Leslie Titmuss to Trollope’s Tory anti-hero, Plantagenet Palliser, the Duke of Omnium.

100_7610On my new set of Rumpole videos, an elderly John Mortimer introduces each episode, and it’s a treat to see him and hear his accent in his out-of-control tenor voice. He looks much as he does on the cover of this Rumpole collection.

Almost the first thing we saw when we checked the New York Times online this morning was the report of Mortimer’s death at the age of 85. The report must have come through only minutes before, because the Times apparently didn’t have time to update its two-year-old draft obituary (“An authorized biography, “A Voyage Round John Mortimer” (Viking), by Valerie Grove, is to be published in Britain in October 2007.)

Losing this old friend was a sad start to a day. We don’t suppose that we would gotten along very well if we’d ever met in person; his way of living was, to put it mildly, much different from ours. So were the old socialist’s political views, although we admired him for his love of liberty, his contempt for political correctness, and his devotion to the presumption of innocence.


Mortimer spoke at a gathering of the P. G. Wodehouse Society in the UK several years before his death

Like us, John Mortimer loved the performing arts, and indeed was a major figure in modern British theater. We had other close friends in common, like Dickens and Shakespeare. In an introduction to one of the episodes on the Rumpole series, he mentions how heavily he was influenced as a young man by the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and P. G. Wodehouse.

It’s gloomy to reflect that his typewriter has finally gone quiet. But we’ll watch another episode or two of Rumpole of the Bailey tonight, just for old time’s sake.


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