Sir John Mortimer remembered by his editor, Tony Lacey

Tony Lacey
News - Publishing 16 Jan 2009

John Mortimer's relationship with Penguin did not begin with the Lady Chatterley trial, though many assumed that it did: only last year he was invited by a literary festival to talk about his role in the case, and I suspect he was amused enough to feel half-inclined to go along with it. So strongly was he associated in the public mind with the causes of freedom of speech and publication that John's name was linked automatically with Penguin and Lady Chatterley's Lover , though he played no role in it. The relationship actually began with the publication of his first book of Rumpole stories in 1978. It was the first of many more than a dozen and right up to his death he was producing one a year. Even his most ardent admirers wouldn t claim that the most recent books were up to the standards of the magnificent earlier ones, but never mind: they gave John the opportunity to sound off on a series of contentious issues of the day. He would announce to me on the phone that he thought he ought to 'do a Rumpole' on ASBOs or Weapons of Mass Destruction, or some similar topic about which he felt particularly strongly. Rumpole and John became increasingly fused.

In time, the Rumpole books fulfilled John's wish when he conceived the character that they should provide a kind of pension, and the English-speaking public around the world from New York and Toronto to Sydney and Auckland continued to lap them up. To John's delight, one Californian fan produced an encyclopedia of the books: characters, dates, plot details, etc. It proved an invaluable tool when we sat down to go through the latest manuscript John would have it beside him and gleefully check an arcane detail like whether he'd given Hilda a second cousin back in 1978 he couldn t quite remember, but the encyclopedia would put him right. It saved many a howler.
I don t think he much liked being edited, though he liked the idea of it. I'd arrive mid-morning at the house near Stonor, to be warmly greeted with the offer of a cup of coffee 'with a splash of brandy', and we'd spend an agreeable few hours going through the text. He'd make notes in the margin, in an absolutely indecipherable handwriting, and just a week later a revised manuscript would arrive in my office a few sentences added, a few removed, a couple of phrases changed, but no wider issues addressed. John, who worked incredibly hard at everything he did, was eager to move on to the next thing: a film script, a radio play, an idea for a new Rumpole.
And of course he loved publication, almost more than he did writing. He'd tour the country, driven by his ever-faithful chauffeur Peter, always returning home that night, no matter how distant the venue, with sandwiches and champagne in the back of the car. For someone so obviously adored by his public, he was curiously anxious about his standing and his sales. A glowing review in an obscure American newspaper, sent over by his US publisher, would be faxed to me and I'd later be cross-examined about my reaction to it. (The fax was his favourite means of communication, hardly ever letters, and certainly not email in his study you were always aware of the whirring ghost in the corner, spilling out correspondence.) And the characteristic phone call first thing on Friday morning was John asking whether we'd sold any books that week and whether his career was flourishing, or whether he should pack it in. It always seemed a serious question.
John's relationship with Penguin was cemented with the paperback publication of his autobiography Clinging to the Wreckage in 1983. It sold 250,000 copies in the UK alone, and shortly afterwards he moved to Penguin's hardcover imprint, Viking, too. It was here, in three novels, that he created his other immortal character, Leslie Titmuss, the Tory MP who rises from rural poverty and humiliation to be a force in the land, portrayed memorably on screen by David Threllfall. It is quite some achievement: Rumpole, the Titmuss novels, and one of the best, certainly most entertaining, autobiographies of the late 20th century. And all the while, though he'd given up the law, he continued to write plays and film-scripts.
I suppose I ought to say something about the lunches. John loved lunching, and it's noticeable how often in his interviews or autobiographical writings he refers to the activity, most famously in his remark about the pleasures, when he was still combining the law with the theatre, of breakfasting with a murderer and lunching with an actress. He continued the habit even when he'd given up eating. Last year I had an early dinner with him, and I arrived at the restaurant to find that he'd managed to have lunch and tea at the same table with different people without eating a single thing. The ritual was played out like a scene from an Absurdist play in front of po-faced waiters who had presumably been primed by the management. He'd order soup, to be followed by a plate of whitebait. Neither would be touched, and the laden plates would be silently removed. Instead he'd regale you with the choicest items from the latest issue of Private Eye (usually embellished with a detail known only to John), scornfully describe the witlessness of the Prime Minister or more usually the Home Secretary, or tell you a new joke he'd just heard. Finally, exquisitely, at the end of this serious bout of non-eating, he'd ask for a scoop of vanilla ice-cream, and sometimes, not always, he would take a small, triumphant mouthful.
John didn t believe in the afterlife. He borrowed a joke of his father's that eternity sounded frightfully like spending every day in the lounge of a Trusthouse Forte hotel. (I once foolishly said this reminded me of Bob Dylan's line 'Voices echo this is what salvation must be like after a while', and John understandably looked completely baffled his popular music knowledge ran from about Fred Astaire and Noel Coward to very early Beatles, though he was proud of being able to recite a few lines of a Pulp song someone had taught him.) I wouldn t wish the hotel lounge on him of course he would find it torture, he was so easily bored but it's hard to think he's gone. At least we re lucky enough to have Rumpole to remind us just how remarkable he was.

Tony Lacey, Viking's long-serving Editorial Director, worked with Sir John Mortimer for many years.

Photo: Eamonn McCabe

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