Issue 109, Winter 1988
The only child of a highly literate and eccentric barrister and his wife, John Mortimer was born into a life of literature and the law. After Mortimer’s birth in April, 1923, he was raised in his parents’ flat in the Inner Temple in London and later the Chiltern Hills, in a home and garden designed by his father. Mortimer led a rather solitary childhood, enlivened by long walks in the company of his blind father who recited Sherlock Holmes stories to him from memory.
Mortimer was educated at The Dragon School in Oxford, then at Harrow where he escaped the sports program to attend the theater, and at Brasenose College, Oxford. During the war he served in the Crown Film Unit making documentary films as an assistant director and then scriptwriter. He studied law and was called to the bar in 1948, subsequently working as a divorce barrister and later as a Queen’s Counsel in criminal law. He went on to act as defense lawyer in several celebrated cases concerning questions of censorship and freedom of expression.
Mortimer retired from the law ten years ago, but not before he had established himself as a playwright for stage, screen and radio, and as a novelist, journalist, translator, and author of nonfiction volumes—even while pursuing a full-time law practice. He has written over sixty-five scripts for film and television, some forty scripts for radio, nine novels, several volumes of Rumpole stories, five volumes of nonfiction, and countless articles for newspapers and magazines. One of his latest accomplishments is a translation of the Strauss opera Die Fledermaus.
Mortimer was married to the writer Penelope Mortimer for twenty-three years, during which time the couple had two children and were parents to her four children from a previous marriage. The two wrote one travel book and a screenplay together.
In 1972 Mortimer married Penny Gollop, with whom he now has two daughters, Emily, age seventeen, and Rosamund, four years old. The family resides in London and in the expanded house in the Chilterns, in Oxfordshire, where they maintain the lovely gardens established by Mortimer’s parents. The Mortimers also spend considerable time in Italy, where Mortimer has set his latest novel, Summer’s Lease (1988).
The following interview was conducted in Mortimer’s homes in London and Oxfordshire, and in his favorite local pub, The Bull & Butcher, a stone’s throw away from the idyllic churchyard where his parents are buried. We also conversed during a tour of his garden. There he spoke about his father while pointing out various flora that his parents had cultivated as well as the very tree where the accident occurred that destroyed the elder Mortimer’s vision. Driving us through the Chiltern Hills in his red Mercedes with opera gently emanating from the stereo, he recalled his boyhood and showed us some of the locations filmed for productions of Voyage Round My Father and Paradise Postponed. Places from his boyhood, familiar to viewers of the television series—the local churches, a windmill, the homes of the local gentry, even the grave of a pet monkey—were all pointed out in due course along with revealing comments disclosing that this rural outbuilding actually houses a Jacuzzi, and that one is owned by a rock star. It seems the chair makers and field-workers of Mortimer’s childhood were driven from their beautiful real estate years ago. But the bulk of our conversation occurred in Mortimer’s study in the Oxfordshire house, where he relaxed on a sofa with his dog Tizzy beside him, and where he frequently bestirred himself to stoke a blazing wood fire.
Because of the popularity of your character Rumpole of the Bailey, and because you practiced law for the greater part of your working life, one thinks of you as a barrister and writer. In your autobiographical novel, Clinging to the Wreckage, you wrote, “As a barrister who wrote, or, as I wanted to think of it, as a writer who did barristering, I was stretched between two opposite extremes.” Did your dual professions sometimes make you feel as if you were leading a double life?
Yes, but then that’s what I like. I liked it! I mean I love leading double lives because I have a very low threshold of boredom. My happiest thing was to go to court and do a murder case and then come out and go to a rehearsal and see a lot of actors acting something I’d written. And I’d always had a feeling that the real life was in the acting and the pretend life was in the murder trial!
Which was the more real to you as a person, the role of the writer or of the barrister?
Life as a barrister never was terribly real to me and courtrooms were always a place of fantasy to me. They had nothing to do with discovering the truth, really, of course.
Your father was a barrister, so presumably the idea of a barristerial career came to you early in life. Did you also, at a young age, dream of becoming a writer?
I knew early on that I was going to be a writer. I think it’s something rather like a curse that you’re born with. I knew I wanted to be a writer and my father was far too intelligent to tell me not to be one. Instead of that, he said, “Of course you’ll be a writer. Of course you’ll be a very successful writer, but just till you make a fortune by writing, just divorce a few people. You know, just a few. There’s nothing in it.” He thought that writers’ wives led such terrible lives because the writer was always at home brewing tea and stumped for words. And he said, “Your marriage will be much happier if you go down to Temple tube station and go to the law courts and divorce people.” And he told me there was really nothing to being a lawyer except a certain amount of common sense, and relatively clean fingernails. You see, I was practically born into the divorce courts. My father was the doyen of the divorce barristers. He was an extremely erudite and very famous divorce barrister. So that when I was a little boy in the nursery, instead of a story like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” I used to get “The Duchess and the Seven Correspondents.” My father used to return to me glowing with his triumphs in the divorce courts and give me wonderful lines, which I was afterwards able to use in a play I wrote about him. He did really come home to me one night in the nursery and say, “I had a wonderful day in court, John. Terrific trial,” he said. “Managed to prove adultery by evidence of inclination and opportunity,” he said. “The only piece of evidence we had was a pair of footprints upside down on the dashboard of an Austin 711 parked in a Hampstead garden suburb.” That was my father. You’ve read Voyage Round My Father, my play about him, so you know that my father went blind and my mother had the task of reading aloud to my father all of this terrible evidence in all of his divorce cases. And they used to travel up to London from Henley-on-Thames, where we lived, and they used to sit in the first-class compartment on the Great Western Railway. If you may picture the scene: my mother was reading out all this terrible evidence about stained sheets and male and female clothing scattered around hotel bedrooms—and the train would grind to a halt, somewhere around Slough, and the entire first class carriage would fall absolutely silent, listening to the ever-diminishing tale, in the hope of catching the name of some close friend or relative who has at last been caught out!
According to both your play and your novel about your father, his blindness was never mentioned by anyone in his family?
Yes. That is so.
Your work about your father is handled with humor and affection, yet it would seem that the circumstances of having such a father would not always have been easy. It appears that there was sometimes a lack of communication and, as in the case of his blindness, an unwillingness even to mention an issue of major importance. How did you come to your fond comprehension of your parents?
Well, they were very nice to me, my parents; they were never nasty. And they did treat me as if I were grown up. I try and treat my children from the age of ten months as if they were totally grown up, which I think is the only way to treat children. But as for that lack of communication you mention, I’m very fond of that, I think. I hate people saying what they think. If you’re an American you must say what you think, whereas if you’re English you should say everything except what you think.
This leaves much more room for speculation, obviously.
And also it’s a much more interesting way to write, because you have to tell the audience what people think by means of what they’re not saying, instead of what they are saying. So with my parents, I was perfectly able to cope with all of that, really, and the fact that they didn’t say things indicated a trust, in a way.