Kathy Lette Remembers John Mortimer

John Mortimer, the Dickens of our Day, died on Friday at his home in the Chilterns. As dawn broke over his beloved garden, and with his cherished wife and two daughters by his bedside, his last breath was accompanied by a broad smile.

His death was not unexpected, but the loss felt by his friends and family and millions of fans around the world (there are Rumpole societies from California to Western Australia) is seismic. Not only did he create in Rumpole that contradiction in terms , a loveable lawyer, but he showed in his own life, how to live it to the full, surrounded by love and laughter.

I first met John at a literary soiree 20 years ago. He was full of salacious gossip about the most arrogant male authors present. (He wasn’t known as “Radio Mortimer” for nothing.) But the hypocritical highbrows had been cut down to size (especially the pompous literary editor who apparently liked to be touched on the genitals by a rubberized gardening glove) and our friendship was sealed. We met regularly for riotous lunches consisting of our favourite menu – hot goss and cold champagne. We jaunted off to Paris to the Musee D’Orseyand to dine at Brasserie Lipp. We holidayed en famille in Tuscany and Sydney. Before he became wheel chair bound, we’d take laughter-filled strolls through the bluebell wood of his Turville Heath home. Although he loved the countryside, his more natural habitat was the theatre foyer, art gallery or anywhere where women gathered.

John always told me that, although he thought sex had been over-estimated by the poets, he much preferred the company of women, finding most men dull and pompous. His only commandment was “Thou Shalt Not Bore.” For a time I was under the illusion that I was his number one female friend – until I slipped backstage during the interval of one of his theatrical performances, (known as Mortimer’s Miscellany) at the Kings Head in Islington, to discover he’d invited another fifteen women to this intimate rendezvous.

We named ourselves “the Mortimerettes”. For his 80th birthday, this group of sirens, including Pyllida Law and Imelda Staunton, dressed up in top hat and tails to sing Gershwin’s “You Can’t Take That Away From Me”. The lyrics had been rewritten by Tom Stoppard and Richard Curtis, to feature John’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.

So what made John Mortimer, with his crumpled face, tombstone teeth and waist line of ordnance survey dimensions, such a babe magnet? Charm. The man was more disarming than a United Nations peace keeping force. He had the ability to melt all within a ten mile radius.

This was demonstrated when Clare Francis and I took him pole dancing for his 82nd birthday. And by pole dancing I do not mean some ethnic footwork in floral frocks around a bowl of borscht. Swallowing our feminist principles, we steered him to a seat beneath a gyrating, diaphanously-clad dancer in Stringfellows. John’s myopia required that we sit smack bang beneath the pole. I wanted to get to know the dancer, but not quite this well. She was revealing parts of her anatomy only an obstetrician should see.

Strip club etiquette requires you to tuck a ten quid tip into a dancer’s garter after each de-robing. If she deigns to sit at your table, there’s a hefty charge of up to 100 pounds. Within half an hour of our arrival, John had so charmed the flock of floozies – flattering their intelligence by asking if they were taking drama and psychology degrees, whilst plying them with witty anecdotes – that ten half-naked young women sat to chat, free of charge  -because John was such excellent company.

John understood that wordplay is foreplay for women ( how else does Woody Allen get laid?) and a wordsmith like John could thrust away for hours with his rapier wit.

It wasn’t just women he captivated, of course. At the bar, the one that doesn’t serve champagne, John was famous for charming expert prosecution witnesses out of their pre-conceptions. He said that the art of cross-examination is not to examine crossly.

Unlike the shambolic Horace Rumpole, John was a very successful barrister. In campaigning against censorship and the death penalty, he was a Rebel With a Cause. A Knight in Shining Armani. He saved lives, righted wrongs, freed underdogs from theirlocked kennels. Like Dickens, who was a court reporter, his work in the courts was the grist he used for his plots and characters.

What I liked most about John was that he treated everyone the same, from maid to monarch. His egalitarianism meant he was as equally at home in a council flat eating fried fish fingers or at Buck House, sipping Bolly. But he was most relaxed chatting to children. John often said that a house with no children was not a home. He and Penny hosted annual blue bell wood picnics and Easter egg hunts for all his friends’ offspring and local waifs and strays. They also started a charity for a holiday home in Turville Heath for deprived city children.

My daughter, Georgie, was so enamored of John that, aged 8, she sacked her Godfather and wrote offering him the position. John fulfilled his role with panache – taking her to the theatre and for ‘mocktails’ with the actors afterwards. His natural affinity with children stemmed from the fact that he never really got in touch with his Inner Adult. Unlike many other English intellectuals with their pinstriped underpants and emotions more restrained that Pavarotti’s panty girdle, John was always tongue in cheek and verging on the anarchic. My husband, his junior for many years, says that John’s final speeches, meticulously hand written, were not just major works of literature but that John was one of the few barristers who could have a case laughed out of court.

John proved that a writer could be pleasurable but also profound. He was a true Renaissance man. As well as his many novels, he penned plays, films, opera translations (Die Fledermaus for Covent garden) and adaptations (most famously A Christmas Carol for the RSC, and Brideshead Revisited.) Literary Love God and scintillating raconteur, he was also a radical lawyer and political activist. His activism began in his one man communist cell at Harrow and continued in his championing of the causes of the Howard League for Penal Reform. (During the last Tory Government he called it the Penal League for Michael Howard Reform.)

With Kenneth Tynnan he led the campaign to abolish the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship of the theatre which succeeded in 1968. Until then, incredibly, an ignorant ex army officer was empowered to blue pencil every play that appeared on the British stage. John’s work as a barrister defending “Last Exit to Brooklyn” and “Oz magazine” produced the freedom to write that we enjoy today. It also had a less desirable result; the immediate beneficiary of his victory in the Oz appeal was Rupert Murdoch, free at last to put page three girls in the “Sun”.

I imagine John in carpet slippers by a heavenly fire, smiling as he reads his obituaries. The right wing press who once excoriated him for his defence of Oz magazine – the Times, the Telegraph and Daily Mail, treated him as a secular saint, receiving, in the case of the Telegraph, editorial benediction. The news pages of the Guardian, on the other hand, barely noticed his death, relegating him to page 17. The front page picture was of Barclays Bank. John was always amused at his transition from hero of the left to crusader of the right.

John’s secret weapon was his power of persuasion. He once convinced me that murderers are some of the nicest people on the planet. “Having got rid of the one person who really annoyed them, they become so contented and gentle,” he explained. Under his spell, you’d suddenly find yourself quite kindly inclined towards killers – before your reality cheque bounced and you’d think “how on earth did he talk me into that!”

In short, the man had such an appetite for life he makes the rest of us look as though we’re on a psychological diet.The last conversation we had was about eternity. “Eternity? What an awful thought,” John deadpanned, “I mean, where’s it all going to end?”

— Kathy Lette

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/news/_1665

About English PEN staff

This content is published by the English PEN staff.

View all posts by English PEN staff →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *