John Mortimer sits ensconced at his writing desk in his study, a folder of typed sheets lying open in front, the walls lined with books and pictures, a clutter of pens and dusty knick knacks on the desk. And some plastic figurines.
“Oh that’s Shakespeare and Freud, and lots of Jesuses. I’ve got a bouncy Jesus somewhere.”
He peers from behind inch-thick glasses and slumps slightly in his chair. He smiles gently, and looks past me into the middle distance. His voice is so gentle it almost evades the dictaphone, which is placed just under him on the desk and which he repeatedly pushes gently around, almost awkwardly. He waits patiently for questions and seem to appreciate them – but his answers repeatedly tail off midway, into a chuckle, or an almost inaudible sigh.
He speech is clear, but slow, as if he’s not certain whether what he has to say is still interesting. He smiles benevolently during pauses, as if indulging this unoriginal interviewer.
Mortimer is a renowned raconteur, the author of X Rumpole books, Y other novels, Z volumes of autobiography, films and TV series (including Brideshead Revisited). He has a new book out (details), and is in Dublin on Friday (date) with Mortimer’s Miscellany, a two-hour compendium of stories, song, poetry and drama performed by Mortimer himself, in his wheelchair, and with the aid of (details).
And he is an old man, now. Precisely? “I think I’m 82.”
Read any interview with Mortimer and there are a few dead certs: the interviewer will be invited to share a glass of champagne early in the morning and there will be stories of past (virile) exploits with fellow thespians. An old story acquired new life in recent years when Mortimer discovered he had a 42-year-old son he’d never met.
True to form, a few minutes into the interview, the young woman who just previously has helped him get dressed returns to ask us if we’d like something to drink. “I’m going to have a little white wine”, he says, and I feel like I’m being dared to do likewise. It is ten am.
Though the wine sits on his desk, barely sipped, through the next hour.
Beside it is an almost-empty glass of a syrupy chocolate-looking drink – quite good, actually, he says. “I find it difficult to eat nowadays”.
And generally, his health?
“I’m alright. Sort of alright, yes. My legs aren’t very good, so I’m in an wheelchair, and my eyes aren’t very good so…” He chuckles gently. “I may be going to have an operation on them. Cataracts. Apart from that…” He trails off, amused at his own precariousness.
He has a little giggle that he gives with almost prudish delight at unexpected (though surely predictable) questions.
“I like women, I mean, I’m not very good at going out with men. My idea of hell would be an all-men black-tie dinner of chartered accountants. My friends have always been women. They’re more down to earth, really, than men. So I’ve always been married to someone.”
He said once that writing was the only time he wasn’t thinking about sex.
“Did I?” He snorts, gently. Behind those thick glasses, the eyes brighten, with a slightly abashed twinkle. “I’m not sure that’s true.” He thinks, as if searching for a lost memory. “Well, there you go…”
Later, he makes 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.”) But he won’t elaborate, laughing gently at the very idea of recalling these “sudden attacks” for this prurient young interviewer. “I have to point out that it’s all in the deep past.”
A friend took him lapdancing for his birthday a couple of years ago. “They were all very nice… They talked about their children and their lives in the alternative theatre, and did I ever see them in Dr Faustas in Finborough Park…”
He put it in a story, Rumpole goes lapdancing (the title may have been different). Writing, now at least, is what makes him happiest – every morning, ideally a thousand words.
“My best times are in the morning, sitting and writing… I get a bit sleepy in the afternoon, and a bit drunk in the evening… I get melancholy in the afternoons.” Why? “I don’t know, I don’t like the afternoons. Someone said, ‘life is short, but the afternoon is long’.”
Why spoil his morning, dragging himself through these interviews?
“I rather like talking about myself… I couldn’t sit with my wife and talk about myself uninterruptedly for an hour.” The same energy drives his desire to do the show again.
“It keeps me going. If I didn’t work I don’t know what I’d do – die?”
The urge to perform seems closely linked to this urge to explain, or to analyse himself. He was an only child.
“I think I was habitually, not unhappily, solitary. I always had two voices, I always had a voice in me which looked at me, and said, ‘what on earth is he doing now, extraordinary, trying to pretend to be a horse galloping around the garden?’… I always had that, sort of, double identity, one identity looking at the other.”
After a stint during the war writing propaganda films, he became a barrister, taking over his father’s practice. “It was a wonderful experience for a writer because everyone comes and calls out all their inner lives to you, you learn how people behave in moments of crisis and terror.”
He has written much about his father, who was blind.
“I think about him every day. I don’t know why, it’s rather… I live in the house he built… I fall over in his garden where he fell over, all of that.
“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.
“It was a sort of lesson in English stoicism because he never talked about it or complained, he never talked about it really.”
That sounds severe, I say. Mortimer protests: “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.”
How does he feel about his own mortality?
“What did Noel Coward say? ‘I believe in life before death.’ Life after death’s not very interesting for me… My memory is also my children’s personality, and that’s sort of immortality.
He has no belief in a god. “In a way, you quite envy those writers with God, because God’s such a good character. Evelyn Waugh, Grahem Greene both had God as a character, which is quite a help.”
He moves the conversation on from mortality, and his father. “So”, he says, “I do a bit about him in this show”.
And it seems clearer, then, why he is doing this show – why at 82, and wheelchair-bound, he is animated to come to Dublin and tell old stories about his life to a group of strangers. He lives to tell these stories, to talk about himself.
And so to the story of Ross (or, the one where Mortimer meets his 42-year-old son).
“Oh yes!” He sparks up again. “Well that was very strange. Sometime in my married life, I had a brief affair with an actress called Wendy Craig… She was in a play of mine…”
You can imagine, in a land called Bohemia, the children gathering around the fire to hear the old story-teller’s tales of love affairs, proudly told…
Their spouses found out about their affair, and the relationship was cut short. Craig was pregnant, but Mortimer never knew. “Her husband, who was called Mr Bentley, made her swear never to tell anybody…” She did write him letters, but he never got them.
Forty-two years later, Craig is contacted by a man writing a book on Mortimer, and calls Mortimer to ask him what to do. They meet for lunch.
Wendy Craig: It’d be so embarrassing if he writes about it all, particularly for Ross.
Mortimer: Who’s Ross?
Craig: Your son.
He tells the story as if being presented with a son in his forties is the kind of surprise somebody might come up with for a birthday present. Not only do they go to the trouble of getting a present, but it’s actually quite a good present.
“And so then he came, and he’s really very nice, and he does look very like me.” A somewhat stoic affection shines through, and a bashful pleasure in the delights of getting to know this grown man who is his son.
The questions keep pushing back into the past. He recalls the height of his powers. “I used to have breakfast with a murderer and lunch with a judge and dinner with an actress.” The line is an old Mortimer epigram. But now it comes tinged with wonder: “I don’t know how I did it all really.”
Does he think much about those days?
“Yes, I mean, no, not really. I mean-” He is quiet, for nearly ten seconds. “They were incredibly-”
Later, he says: “I think I played the hand I was dealt as well as it could be played, almost as well as it could be played.”
We talk politics. The day of the interview, in early May, Labour have just been elected for a third term. “Oh no, isn’t it ghastly.
“That’s the thing about this government, they’ve got no liberal instincts at all. Thery’re so drearily authoritarian…
“I don’t really smoke but I’ve had to force myself because I’m so irritated with the people who are against smoking. I think you’re perfectly entitled to ruin your health.”
The Labour party, he thinks, are “trying to turn everybody into a sort of Guardian reader inhabitant of Islington, which I find very objectionable”.
He is a disaffected lifelong Labour voter, an Old Labour man.
“I think politics is interesting because of the great gap between people’s desires and reality…” He clarifies: “(Despite) people’s craving for a better world… what emerges is not very much better, sometime a great deal worse.”
That seems rather cynical. He denies this. “My books can be sad and funny.” He finds comedy in politics, and in power. “The gulf between what politicians preach and what they’re really like is funny.”
The war on terror is just one more, albeit extreme, instance of this. “Everybody exaggerates terrorism to get more power, don’t they? Terrorism is a huge gift to politicians because it enables them to take more powers.”
And so when Rumpole next sallies forth (later this year?), it will be to do battle with the increasing powers of the British state for arbitrary detention. Rumpole and the Reign of Terror is “all about these terrible terrorist trials when people don’t know what they’re charged with”, while Rumpole’s wife, Hilda, flying the flag for Little England, “thinks she sees a terrorist on every street corner”.
“I lived through the Blitz when we were bombed every night, and we all managed to lead a pretty interesting, entertaining life.”
He walks me around the house, cluttered with art, books and old furniture. I leave him at the kitchen table, and let myself out. The table is strewn with the papers: the Daily Mail, the Telegraph, the (local paper). The headline of the paper in his hands reads, “How long can he go on?”
It’s late morning, he’ll have lunch and then a snooze, and in the evening he’ll get a bit drunk. Tomorrow there’s a picnic, amongst the bluebells in the meadow at the bottom of their garden, and on Monday he’ll be back at his desk, writing.
The afternoons may be long, and life short, but Mortimer will make the most of them.
John Mortimer died on January 16, 2009. This interview was published in Village in June 2005.