In honour of the famous creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, born on this day in 1923, we republish in full for the first time the interview with Sir John Mortimer, CBE, QC, from the Rare Book Review magazine. The article was originally published in 2004, five years before the author’s death.
RM Healey meets Sir John Mortimer and discovers the naughty schoolboy within
The creator of Rumpole is not an easy person to find. Sir John Mortimer lives on the edge of a wood in the heart of the Chilterns in a unique one-storey house built by his father in 1932. When at last I located it through the autumn trees the light was fading so fast that I was glad his father had chosen a bright green roof. I pressed a doorbell and was greeted by a woman wrapped in a large white towel who showed me into her husband’s cosy study. As soon as we had shaken hands the great man announced that he was ill. It turned out that as well as receiving the house with the green roof from his father, he had also inherited glaucoma and asthma. At 80, John Mortimer looks rather frail and seems unsteady on his feet. Nowadays he hobbles around his home and uses a wheelchair for longer distances. His most recent book, Where There’s a Will, reveals that he has never taken exercise for pleasure and I later found out that he has always hated all forms of sport. I can quite imagine him as the boy most likely to have been called “brains” at school, as once again he skipped games to read Proust or Tolstoy in the lavatories.
Looking around his home it is quite obvious that books have played a large part in his life. There are books everywhere – in every room of the main house and in the two rooms of the annexe. And as we went on a preliminary tour, I discovered that while the latter contained some interesting volumes, it was the sitting room that housed the books closest to him – all of his poetry collection, most of his novels and the art books. It was here that I picked out patches of ancient leather among the cloth and dust jackets – a pocket edition of Peregrine Pickle; a beautifully printed Paradise Lost dated 1749; a set of Swift; and a first edition of Thomas Browne’s whimsical Pseudodoxia Epidemica. And on the walls, there was theatrical memorabilia of all kinds. John Mortimer’s love of the theatre is obvious, but how early did it show itself?
“As a child I was only interested in the theatre. All I did was to do plays. I began making model theatres from the time I was in prep school in Oxford. For instance, I remember making an Elizabethan theatre similar in size to a real stage set. I also acted at school, playing Richard II. We did a whole Shakespeare play. And I was very lucky that my parents would take me along with them when they went to plays in London and Stratford. I saw John Gielgud of course, and Olivier, and also Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft.”
Sir John Mortimer confesses that there is a lot of himself in Rumpole, but I suspect that the character contains much more of his father. But did he really go around quoting chunks of Shakespeare? Apparently, it’s all true.
“Yes, he would quote Shakespeare at every opportunity and at the most inapposite moments. For instance, when he saw me he would ask ‘Is execution done on Cawdor?’ This is a very difficult question to answer. And when the cook came in with breakfast he would declaim ‘Nymph in thy orisons, may all thy sins be remembered.’ It was by a combination of these quotations and the visits to Stratford that I came to love Shakespeare. Also, I did perform the plays in front of him.”
Clearly a precocious boy. I wondered who else he had read at prep school.
“All the poets of the time – Auden, Isherwood, all the rest. Eliot was a bit forbidding, but I did read a lot of him. But it was Auden’s work that I loved best. I think he’s totally brilliant. He’s a wonderful technician and like Byron can create these superb rhymes. Of course, this was also the time of the Spanish Civil War, and I got very involved with the political issues surrounding it. I was very left-wing as a boy. In fact I was in a communist cell of my own.
“Then I went to Harrow, which was boring. For one thing, I hated any form of sport, and the school didn’t encourage my love of the theatre, but there were a few good things about the place. I was there with Sandy Wilson, who later wrote The Boyfriend, and Harrow did introduce me to Byron. Well, you could hardly avoid Byron there. Best of all, I was introduced to Wordsworth, and I am grateful to Harrow for that. We read a good deal from The Prelude I recall. Like my parents, I was never a religious person and I suppose the pantheism of Wordsworth must have appealed to me.”
I asked him whether it was the moral side of Wordsworth that he liked, rather than the descriptions of nature, but he seemed reluctant to pursue this line. I couldn’t picture him striding over Shap Fell, improvised walking stick in hand, communing with clouds and lakes. And when I asked him if he had explored the chalk and flinty beech woods of the Chilterns as a boy he didn’t recall having had much interest in them as natural habitats. However, he seems to have made up for this in later life. When he mentions the two areas of woodland he has bought near his home, there is a note of pride in his voice as he describes a nearby meadow in which rare orchids flourish. He also manages to keep his large garden in trim but, unlike his father who used to grow peaches and melons, he is not a keen gardener. I would find no rare books on botany in his collection.
Harrow, the law and the War
It was back to the other Romantics. He didn’t have too much use for Keats or Shelley, although along with the other romantics, I did find biographical books on Shelley on his shelves. But Byron – well all Harrovians were brought up on him. He points to a long line of green cloth volumes on the top shelf, above Notable British Trials. It turns out to be the Works published by John Murray in 1831.
“I think Byron’s wonderful and I think Don Juan is one of the masterpieces of English literature. I used to write letters home in Byronic stanzas. I now have a first edition of Don Juan. I’d given a talk for someone who ran a bookshop in Cheltenham and after I’d finished he asked me what I was interested in. I told him Conrad and Byron, so he gave me a complete set of Conrad and this first edition of Don Juan.”
I asked him how he got into writing. For instance, did he always want to be a writer, or did his father push the idea of law into his mind? To me it seemed that the world of the courts, though it furnished material for his novels and plays, was always secondary.
“As a boy I wanted to be an actor. I then wrote a short story at Harrow and managed to sell it to the Evening News. I was asked if I thought I’d be a writer and I replied that I thought I would. But it was all planned that I would become a barrister – so I became a barrister. My father just assumed I would follow him into the profession. You see, when I knew I would write I also knew that I would have to do another job. I discovered that many writers started off as schoolmasters, but I knew I didn’t want to teach.
“Then the War came and I left Oxford to go into the Film Unit of the Ministry of Information to write scripts with Laurie Lee. Although we were essentially creating propaganda, we made some good films. Humphrey Jennings was one of our directors and Jack Cardiff was a cameraman. I later wrote a novel based on my experience there.”
John Mortimer’s own early novels – Three Winters, The Narrowing Stream, Like Men Betrayed – are arranged together on his shelves close to firsts of Evelyn Waugh, PG Wodehouse, Muriel Spark and EM Forster. This early proliferation suggests that writing was his first love. But I also discovered that the law had suited him equally well. He doesn’t seem to have resented his father’s assumptions.
“As a barrister you are never saying what you think, but… what others would like you to say. It’s a bit like being an actor…” Sir John Mortimer
“I’m glad I took over my father’s practice. Being a barrister helped me – not just in my writing, but also in my everyday life. As a lawyer you see people at a crisis in their lives and they see you as a sort of confidante. Being a barrister was exciting and I’m terribly glad that I did it. I learnt an incredible amount about people. For one thing, as a barrister you are never saying what you think, but are always saying what others would like you to say. It’s a bit like being an actor, but of course you are using your own script. As a writer, you are doing exactly the opposite. You are being paid to say what you think.”
I wondered if a boyhood liking for detective stories had helped impel him into the law. His writings suggest that he had a particular affection for Sherlock Holmes. I was right.
“When I was eight or nine I did read a lot of detective fiction – Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and yes Sherlock Holmes, especially the short stories. One of my favourite images from the canon is of that snake slithering down the bell rope in The Speckled Band. The Rumpole stories are very much indebted to both Sherlock Holmes and PG Wodehouse. I also found the Notable Trials series useful. The set I have here belonged to my father. I’m a great admirer of Oscar Wilde and so I found The Trials of Oscar Wilde particularly fascinating.”
The talk then turned to Dickens, who, I noticed, was represented by a uniform set of volumes on a top shelf. I was shown an early edition of A Christmas Carol and his first edition of Bleak House in its original parts – adverts, stab holes and all – which his wife had given him. Also the framed letter written from Gad’s Hill and bearing the famous signature — another gift from his wife. Mortimer had studied Great Expectations at school but had been too busy with Auden and Isherwood to appreciate the novel. He is now a great Dickensian.
“He is a fantastic novelist. Each Christmas we do a stage version of A Christmas Carol. And not long ago we went to see the manuscript of the book at a museum in New York, which was quite a revelation. You would assume that Dickens would write with great facility, but in fact just about every word seems to be crossed out. It’s a total mess. Incidentally, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a mess too because his wife used to object to certain words as obscene. The only manuscript I’ve seen that has no crossings-out is The Picture of Dorian Gray.”
“We used to visit the Swiss Club and meet Dylan Thomas, who was always there. I remember going on pub crawls with him.” Sir John Mortimer
One of Sir John Mortimer’s favourite novelists is Evelyn Waugh. He adapted Brideshead for television and owns a nearly complete collection of Waugh first editions, some of which he must have bought as they appeared. He read Decline and Fall as a schoolboy and agrees that it paints a very accurate picture of life in a prep school of the 1920s. I asked him if Waugh’s politics irked him. “Not really. Mind you, I found all that stuff in the book about the wrong brandy glass at the dinner a bit tiresome. Waugh had a romantic idea about the upper classes, but I fell out of love with the upper classes at Harrow. When the register was read every day if you were the son of a lord you were called ‘Mr’ someone, whereas if you were not you were just plain whatever your name was. And when I was at Oxford there were still some remnants of Brideshead hanging about the place. Reading law was a mistake. Budding lawyers should be made to read history or poetry, or something. You either know law or you don’t. It’s not an academic subject.”
Evidently, the dry business of Tort had its effect on the aspirant writer. After just two years he had left Oxford for the film unit, but before that it seems that he was part of an undergraduate group that sought excitement in London literary life. Who did he meet?
“We used to visit the Swiss Club and meet Dylan Thomas, who was always there. I remember going on pub-crawls with him. I also recall going to the offices of Horizon with my friend Michael Hamburger, the poet, and meeting Cyril Connolly and all those people. We also used to go to the Fitzroy pub, where we would invariably find Nina Hamnett, who had had her torso drawn by Gaudier-Brzeska. Tambimuttu would be there too.”
Sir John Mortimer speaks of those far-off days as if they were still clear in his memory and doubtless he is reminded of them whenever he surveys his collection. He says he still collects through a ‘booksearch lady’, but he also told me that he has all the books he needs at the moment. He boasts that he can put his hand on any volume in his collection – and I believe him.
At 80 [in 2004], and with fading eyesight, perhaps he feels it’s time to take stock. Before I left the house with the bright green roof he signed his latest book for me and his wife handed me a glass of champagne, which I regretted having to gulp down. It was time to say goodbye to this ‘champagne socialist’ – a label he doesn’t actually repudiate – and brave the eerie beech woods once again.
A selection of works relating to Law
Breaking and Training Dogs.£125
Essays By Ralph Waldo Emerson.£1,800
The Sheltering Sky.£2,250
The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes.£6,500
The Botanic Garden.£4,000
Urne Buriall and the Garden of Cyrus...£7,800
The Tale of the Faithful Dove.£650