Colin Murphy recalls interviewing John Mortimer in 2005
For Prospect Magazine, 19 January 2009
“I’ve got a bouncy Jesus somewhere,” said John Mortimer. He sat at a writing desk cluttered with little plastic figurines: Shakespeare, Freud, and numerous Jesuses. His eyes sparkled behind inch-thick glasses, and he slumped a little in his chair.
It was the early summer of 2005, and I had travelled from Dublin to interview him at his home in the Chilterns. It had been an early flight: his “best times” were in the morning, he later explained, when he would sit at his desk and write, a thousand words a day. In the afternoons, he would get melancholy, and in the evenings, “a little drunk”.
“Someone said, ‘life is short, but the afternoon is long’,” he reflected
John Mortimer died last week, aged 85. He was the author of a dozen collections of the ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ stories, more than 30 novels, film and television scripts (including ‘Brideshead Revisited’) and three volumes of autobiography. But his most famous character was perhaps himself: a renowned raconteur; an irrepressible, though old-school, gadfly; a “Bollinger Bolshevik”, as he called himself.
There were some standard tropes of any interview with Mortimer. The visitor would be invited to share a glass of champagne early in the morning; and there would be stories of past (virile) exploits with fellow thespians.
Accordingly, a few minutes into our interview, a young woman entered the study and asked if we’d like something to drink. “I’m going to have a little white wine,” he said, and I sensed a dare. It was ten am.
Yet the wine sat on his desk, barely sipped, while we talked. Beside it was an almost-empty glass of a syrupy, chocolate-looking drink. “I find it difficult to eat nowadays,” he said.
He talked about his health in a vague way (“My legs aren’t very good… my eyes aren’t very good…”), chuckling as if amused at his own precariousness. His voice was so gentle it was sometimes barely audible, and his answers to questions repeatedly tailed-off midway, into a chuckle, or an almost inaudible sigh. He speech was clear, but slow, as if he were not certain sometimes whether what he had to say were still interesting. How old was he, I inquired. “I think I’m 82,” he said.
Despite the pastiche devotion, he was not a man of faith. “In a way, you quite envy those writers with God, because God’s such a good character,” he said. As for his own creed, he quoted Noel Coward: “I believe in life before death.”
He spoke of living on simply as an echo in his children’s personalities, and this seemed appropriate, for he seemed to echo his own father.
“I think I always felt very close to him, because he was blind, so I did a lot of reading to him, took him for walks and things. I think about him every day. I live in the house he built… I fall over in his garden, where he fell over… all of that.”
His father was “a sort of lesson in English stoicism”, he said. “I like all that English stoicism very much. I think it’s quite moving. It makes writing characters much more interesting, because you have to deduce what English people think from what they’re not saying, whereas if they’re Americans, they say it out.”
His father was a barrister and, after a stint during the war writing propaganda films, Mortimer took over his father’s practice.
“I used to have breakfast with a murderer and lunch with a judge and dinner with an actress,” he quipped. The line was an old Mortimer epigram, but this time, it came tinged with wonder. “I don’t know how I did it all really,” he mused.
The law and politics were two great passions that animated his writing. Being a barrister was “a wonderful experience for a writer,” he said, “because everyone comes and calls out all their inner lives to you; you learn how people behave in moments of crisis and terror.”
He was a lifelong, albeit disaffected, Labour voter. Politics was interesting, he said “because of the great gap between people’s desires and reality… (Despite) people’s craving for a better world… what emerges is not very much better, sometime a great deal worse.”
He denied this was a cynical view. “My books can be sad and funny,” he said. He found comedy in politics, and in power. “The gulf between what politicians preach and what they’re really like is funny.”
The “war on terror” was just one more instance of this. “Terrorism is a huge gift to politicians because it enables them to take more powers,” he said. He dedicated his last Rumpole book, ‘Rumpole and the Reign of Terror’, to the subject.
“I lived through the Blitz when we were bombed every night, and we all managed to lead a pretty interesting, entertaining life,” he said, with a sparkle in his eyes at the nuances of “interesting”.
And so I raised the predictable questions about his famous philandering, but his answers were gentle and ruminative. I told him he’d once said that writing was the only time he wasn’t thinking about sex.
“Did I?” he exclaimed, and snorted, gently. Behind the thick glasses, his eyes brightened, with a slightly abashed twinkle. “I’m not sure that’s true.” He frowned in thought, as if searching for a lost memory. “Well, there you go…”
Later, he made a passing reference to the role of “sudden attacks of love” in his life. “I think that they are interesting; unexpected contact with people is interesting,” he said. But he wouldn’t elaborate. “I have to point out that it’s all in the deep past.”
He told the story of the son he never knew he had. Out of the blue, a few years ago, Wendy Craig, an actress with whom he had had a brief affair with, 43 years previously, contacted him. She had been contacted by a man writing a book on Mortimer, and she wanted to discuss how this would impact upon Ross.
“Who’s Ross?” said Mortimer.
“Your son,” said Craig.
Their affair had ended suddenly when their spouses found out; Mortimer hadn’t known she was pregnant, and hadn’t received a subsequent letter telling him. He told the story as if being presented with a fortysomething son was the kind of surprise somebody might come up with for a birthday present. Not only did they go to the trouble of getting a present, but it was actually quite a good present.
“He’s really very nice, and he does look very like me,” he said, with a bashful smile.
I asked whether he dwelt, much, upon those halcyon days. “There were incredibly…” he said, but he didn’t finish.
Later, he said: “I think I played the hand I was dealt as well as it could be played, almost as well as it could be played.”
The afternoons were long, and life short, but John Mortimer made the most of them.