From his father, as Sir John Mortimer cheerfully tells everyone, he inherited bronchial asthma, glaucoma and a tendency for his retinas to become detached. He was also bequeathed a number of walking-sticks. On an autumnal Tuesday morning, as I approach the house his father built on a wooded rise near Henley-on-Thames, Sir John waves one of these sticks at me from his study window, which proves that his sight can’t be as bad as he makes out. His father went blind in middle life, though that was never spoken of, and his sticks were clouded malacca with large rubber tips – never white, as that would have been a demand for sympathy.
The study is capriciously arranged: bulging with books and photographs of Sir John’s children and his wife Penny, a pig farmer’s daughter and languages graduate 25 years his junior (he has been married twice, both times to Penelopes, and has eight children, half of them stepchildren from his first marriage). Alongside are children’s poems and painted daubs on yellowing paper; a framed letter written by Dickens; sticks on the window sill, the cupboard and hanging from the filing-cabinet drawer. Mortimer hobbles across this room to greet me, his shoeless feet shrouded in two enormous balls of dressings and socks, like a boxer’s fists beneath the gloves. With a snaggle-toothed grin, he explains that he has unfaithful legs, the result of falls in garden centres and down flights of stairs. I notice splashes of bright turquoise paint on his jumper. Has he been decorating? This tickles him. ‘Oh yes,’ he says. ‘I’m very active around the house.’ He lowers himself on to a creaky wooden chair, and props himself up with both hands folded over the top of his stick. He has a kindly face: heavy-lidded eyes small beneath large owlish spectacles; a crooked mouth with jutting lower lip; an occasionally lolling tongue. He hasn’t been active around the house, of course.
As he explained to great comic effect in his third and most recent volume of autobiography, The Summer of a Dormouse, at the age of 78 he spends large parts of every day just planning strategies for standing up. No one should grow old, he writes, who isn’t ready to appear ridiculous. ‘When I do readings from that book,’ he says in a fey, crinkly Old Harrovian voice, ‘people do laugh about my not being able to put on my socks. The effort of having to pee all the time, descending precipitous restaurant steps [to the lavatory], that all goes down rather well, too. The laughter is a form of release. No one really wants to face up to what happens in old age. Even when you are old you don’t think about dying. You proceed as if you’re not going to.’ He laughs wheezily. ‘Very irritating, death.’ This is a typical Mortimer formulation.
When I tease him about accepting a knighthood, despite being an unreconstructed lefty, he says, ‘I just thought it was rather sweet of them to ask.’ Later, when I ask whether his first sexual experience, aged 17, on a common, was a disappointment, he says, ‘No, I thought it was fine. A bit surprising.’ And as an atheist and a liberal he has gone through life, he says, finding potentially unpleasant things, such as churches and Norman Tebbit, ‘unexpectedly charming’. His public insouciance about death, though, conceals a private terror of it. Timor mortis, as he puts it, is for him a vague but constant and unexplained anxiety. Work, as a QC, novelist and playwright, has always helped take his mind off it. (He is the author of 13 novels, including Paradise Postponed and Summer’s Lease, ten books of ‘Rumpole’ stories, ten plays, four translations of libretti, three volumes of autobiography, and several screenplays and television adaptations, including Brideshead Revisited.)
Now, though, when he takes on long-term projects, such as writing a film, he wonders whether he will still be around by the time they cast it. ‘I do them anyway to save myself from total boredom. If I just sat here and vegetated I wouldn’t keep alive. I need people rushing around me.’ Next month he is publishing Rumpole Rests His Case, a new collection of short stories about Rumpole of the Bailey, the character who first appeared in 1978 and who has since accounted for a quarter of a million books sold in paperback.
Mortimer was, he tells me, up at five this morning writing, as he usually is. I ask if he sees an element of failure in his still needing to write as prolifically as he does, when he is so far past retirement age. Hasn’t he got it out of his system yet?
‘But you could say that about anything. You could say it about sex. You’re never satisfied with sex. You still want to go on doing it. Any activity which is important to you, you have to go on doing. It’s all you have left. Dear old Muriel Spark said the young should just sleep around and look beautiful and not do any work. Work is for the old.’ Is that what he did when he was young? ‘I didn’t look so beautiful.’
But wasn’t he an aesthete, first at Harrow, then at Brasenose College, Oxford? My question is, inevitably for someone who has written so much about his past, a cue for an anecdote. I know it, he knows it, and he does not disappoint. ‘The future Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie was on the same staircase as me and he once asked one of the college staff why I wore purple corduroys and always entertained young ladies to tea. “Mr Mortimer,” he was told, “has an irrepressible member.”‘ He chuckles at the memory. ‘I read law at Oxford, which is the most useless thing you can read. I should have done history or English, then a second degree in law. I read law to please my father. It was predestined that I would become a barrister.’
This seems strange coming from one who is naturally rebellious: from a pillar of the permissive society; from a libertarian in favour of penal reform, fox hunting and promiscuity (he once said the trouble with orgies is that you have to spend so much time holding your stomach in); from a barrister who defended Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 and the underground magazine Oz against obscenity charges in 1971. Mortimer has spent his whole career rebelling against the Establishment. Why didn’t he rebel against his father? He stares wanly out of the window. ‘Isn’t it funny I didn’t? I suppose it was because I was fond of him and because he was blind. Being a barrister, I thought, would be a good day job for a writer, like waitressing.’
At Harrow Mortimer wore a monocle, carried a cane and, to amuse the other boys, grew mustard and cress in his top hat. But he wasn’t a typical dandy; he was, was he not – and I smile in anticipation at the anecdote I know is coming – a Communist dandy? ‘It’s true,’ he says obligingly. ‘I had a one-boy Communist cell. It was the time of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and I got instructions to slow down production on my factory floor. So I told my fellow pupils to translate Virgil more slowly.’ He found the idea of the Spanish Civil War, ‘of bouncing around dusty olive groves with machine guns’, incredibly romantic. ‘Then came the War and I went into a film unit instead of the Army, and went to union meetings where the sparks called me “brother”. I, having had an upper-class education, was deeply moved. They didn’t judge me, they just thought me comical, I think.’
Where did his libertarianism come from? ‘It came from my dad. The big political moment in his life was the Liberal landslide of 1907. His God was Darwin, so I was never christened. And my mother was an artist who taught painting. She was an Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism type. Much more serious than my dad. I feel guilty about her because I’ve never really written enough about her.’ But he also felt guilty because he wrote too much about his father. ‘She hated that. Thought it ghastly. A lot of things I’ve done she would have thought ghastly. Like building a swimming-pool here. The pit of vulgarity.’
Clifford Mortimer, immortalised in the play A Voyage Round My Father, was by his son’s estimation an irascible, unreasonable and, in many ways, impossible divorce lawyer who drowned earwigs to amuse himself. John’s mother, Kathleen, was a snob. She said of his first wife that she had ‘really nice eyes; not at all the eyes of a divorced person’. She didn’t believe in expressing her emotions and never praised her son. When she heard that he had been made a part-time judge she laughed so much she dropped the phone. Is this why he can never take himself seriously? ‘Yes, perhaps it is. I hadn’t thought of that.’
It’s worse than that, though, isn’t it? Didn’t she leave him with low self-esteem? ‘Yes, but she was very nice to me. I remember one thing she did which was incredible, actually. My father loved Shakespeare [he could recite nearly all of it from memory], and I did all these plays for my dad and my mother, like Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice, with only one actor, me. So I was doing The Merchant of Venice, and my mum suddenly painted on herself a beard and moustache and became Tubal, which is a very minor role in the play. So we had a scene together, my mother and I, in front of my blind father, it was a very silly idea.’ He smiles fondly.
Does he regret not having kept such memories private? His parents have become public property; and because he – an only child – still lives in their shadow, in their house, it could be argued that he has cannibalised his own life as well. ‘I have imitated my father. I followed him into the legal profession, I live in his house and I look out at a garden he designed. Maybe the character my father is now in my imagination has replaced the real one. When I wrote Voyage Round My Father I couldn’t remember which were lines he actually said and which I put into his mouth. He has been fictionalised and given to the public. He is rather like Rumpole now. They’re equally fictitious. He went away into a book. I lost him.’ He looks wistfully around the room, as if for a ghost. ‘When Lawrence Oliver did Voyage it was all filmed here. I watched my father dying in the bed upstairs here and then, years later, I watched Lawrence Olivier re-enacting his death in the same bed, with Alan Bates sitting beside him playing me, the whole place full of cameras.’
His father would never allow anyone to come to the house in case they dared to sympathise with his blindness. Having had such a lonely childhood, John was, he says, attracted to the idea of a ready-made family. Penelope the First (as he calls her) was the author of many books, including The Pumpkin Eater. She was aggressive, intense and pessimistic, often introverted and sometimes suicidal. She poured scorn on her husband’s writing, once boasting that she had never managed to finish any of his novels, and in her autobiography she painted a picture of her husband as a mentally cruel and manipulative man ineptly shambling through numerous affairs. She said that she felt like a day tripper to hell being married to him. For his part, John Mortimer said his marriage was bloodstained but never boring. They divorced in 1972, after 23 years, and, when Penelope the First died in 1999, Mortimer found he could remember only the happy times: their first visit to Venice, the No‘l Coward-style songs they wrote and performed for their children. In Summer of a Dormouse, he wrote of her funeral, ‘It is hard to believe that so much talent, anger, humour, dash and desperation could be shut in a long and slender box. The mere act of being alive seems somehow selfish, a cause of guilt.’
Now he says, with a sigh, ‘Although we had a tempestuous time, I can’t say anything but good things about her. I think writing what I wrote was, in a way, cathartic.’ Does he think his character has changed, in that he was faithless in his first marriage and faithful in his second? ‘Well, they were very different types of wives. I think I always thought in those unhappy times that I was going to meet somebody and it would all be much nicer. Which I did. Also, I think that achieving some of the things you want to do doesn’t do you any harm, does it? Or does it?’ He chuckles. ‘You become more comfortable with yourself. I think there was a time in my life when I was much more showing off, much more abrasive.’
Maybe he didn’t like himself that much as a young person, because he hadn’t proved himself, to himself or to his parents? ‘I think that’s true. I was probably this young barrister who was quite conformist, conforming outwardly with the law to begin with. Then I was more seething within. Then there came a time when I could be myself as a lawyer, too. I suppose that’s what you do, you fit into yourself. Also I think all humour, everything, depends on people taking themselves very seriously, having high opinions of themselves. It’s all about puncturing people’s image of their own importance. If my characters were Swedish undergraduates in a steam bath, there would be nothing funny about them.’
In his books he has often found humour in death. Has he thought of his own last words? ‘”The defence rests” would be good. But it’s always something more mundane in real life. My father had this beautiful one. I said, “Do you want to have a bath?” And he snapped, “No.” And I said, “Don’t get angry,” and he said, “I’m always angry when I’m dying.”‘ Sir John has a reputation for not being angry – he has spent years cultivating the genial buffer image – but there is a dark, bitchy side. He has always known that there is a great well of aggression inside him. He can be intolerant, he concedes, but he is better mannered than his father. Also, he has a low boredom threshold, is fickle in the way he drops people, and has never had many close male friendships. Penelope the First suggested he shied away from self-examination, turning everything into anecdote as a means of avoiding unhappiness; gossiping as a defence against introspection. Penelope the Second says that his public urbanity hides a professional insecurity; he is constantly worrying about going bankrupt, or never writing again.
Is his reputation for niceness and politeness, his usually thinking the best of people, informed by a fear of making enemies? ‘I think I am a conciliator in arguments. My dad did shout and yell at people, so I don’t like that at all. I didn’t like it when I was young. But actually I think I’m genuinely curious about people, and they do tell me extraordinary things. I think that’s because all my niceness is directed towards [he laughs] pumping them for some ridiculous confidence. People like to confess things to me. They tell me anything. There’s a great division in life. You either think people are fundamentally ghastly and therefore need Draconian treatment and discipline and ordering about otherwise they’ll go mad and rape the traffic warden. Or else you think they are fundamentally decent and rather nice but sometimes they will stray and do misguided things – like trying to become leader of the Conservative Party – through no fault of their own. I definitely belong to the second lot of people.’
He must have met some really unpleasant characters in court? ‘My murderers weren’t real gangsters. I didn’t really do those cases. My murderers were husbands, wives, lovers, best friends – quarrelling, you know – an instant quarrel and then suddenly it goes too far. Those were not particularly nasty.’
Was it that he could relate to them because of his stormy first marriage? ‘I don’t think I was ever really well, I don’t know. We did have fights, physical fights.’ And he knew the weaknesses of the flesh? ‘Yeees, I knew that. I suppose that’s what is disconcerting about these Tories one thinks of, you assume they must be hypocrites or that they’re not fully rounded human beings, because they’ll pronounce upon other people’s moral values as if they are completely without never been unfaithful, which they always are, of course. Either that or they’re like William Hague – sexless men – so you don’t trust them for that reason. I’m quite tolerant on hypocrites, though. I don’t think it matters too much to your beliefs if you can’t live up to them.’
This seems an extraordinary moral code. Does he consider himself to be a moral person? ‘No, not especially. I am, in a way, too detached to be moral. I really regard myself as an observer, someone on the sidelines watching it all. Not judging.’ It’s to do with his being an only child, he thinks. He always wanted to describe his view of the world. At the moment he is writing a play about a hard-hearted judge who says that if you believe that everyone is fundamentally good, then there’s no point in being good. After all, if you forgive all the people who behave badly because they’re fundamentally good, all the decent people don’t deserve a reward for behaving well. ‘I thought it was quite a good point to make.’
Sir John thinks that prison is largely futile, and probably makes people worse. Rumpole Rests His Case contains an attack on Labour’s management of the criminal justice system. ‘My real bogeyman was Michael Howard. His views were poisonous. And then Jack Straw appeared and proved to be an identical twin. I don’t think Mr Blunkett is going to be any better.’ A phone rings. There are two on the table beside him, a black one, and a white one that only rings in the house, so that he can summon help. ‘Is that a white phone? No, I think it’s black. I’ll leave it.’ He returns to his theme. He has become not exactly disillusioned with politics but disappointed with it. ‘The idealism has gone out of it. It is sad. There is nothing left but efficiency, and Labour are not particularly efficient. Politics has become dull and silly. We were much happier in Thatcher’s time – it was comforting to have someone to really hate. I’ve never met her but I did hate Thatcherism, which is now a prevailing creed for this Government. All this idea of education solely for turning out middle managers in computer firms. There is no sense of education as a means to enrich your life or to become more interesting to yourself.’ Although the poignant and wry Summer of a Dormouse is written in the style of a journal – ‘A year of growing old disgracefully’ – it is short on self-revelation.
Does he keep a private diary in which he purges himself of his dark thoughts and angst? ‘Oh God, I have angst! But no, I don’t keep a diary. I can’t think of writing as a private performance. What I think of is performing on a page. I think it’s a public showing-off.’
He craves applause? ‘Yes, I don’t know why. I think it does have something to do with being an only child and wanting to be noticed all the time.’ A slight, dark-haired young woman pops her head around the door.
‘Do you have Nick’s number, Dad?’
‘This is my daughter Rosie. Green’s? No I don’t. If you ring directory enquiries’
She smiles and leaves. Mortimer thinks Rosie, who is a teenager, finds him totally embarrassing. For his part he says the thought that he might not be around to see her grow into her twenties makes him appreciate her more. ‘She went through a bit of a bad patch at school [Bryanston] because she does very little work but is very very good at exams, which irritates the teachers incredibly.’
He can’t have found being an Old Harrovian such a burden in life if he sent his daughter to a public school. ‘Harrow was a big disadvantage in my life in that I was writing in the John Osborne era when to have been to Harrow was, well, I had to keep deadly quiet about that. I’m not proud of having been to Harrow because I didn’t think it was a very good school.’ He has written about how the headmaster had a very laissez-faire attitude to homosexuality.
Was he ever seduced by the idea? ‘I never felt that there was anything very wicked about being homosexual, though it didn’t appeal to me; it was about the only thing on offer at the time. I really didn’t meet any girls until I was at Oxford. But the common [near his home] was a great haunt of lesbians. You couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a lesbian – should you have wanted to hit a lesbian with a stone. My lesbian friends used to change into mess jackets for dinner. They were nice to me. Very sweet.’ His career as a womaniser began at 17, and his infidelities from then until his second marriage he now puts down to a delayed adolescence. He thinks Penelope the Second, Lady Mortimer – Penny – has made him less aggressive and sarcastic and much happier. They shout at each other occasionally, but it doesn’t last.
As Sir John leads the way through to the kitchen, where a farmhouse lunch of cold meats, salads and pies has been prepared – and, of course, a bottle of Italian wine opened, Mortimer being the man who coined the term ‘Chiantishire’ about his beloved Tuscany – his wife appears and asks if ‘Hezza’, one of their neighbours, is now a lord, because she wants to write and ask him to sponsor her on a charity bike ride across Turkey. He is, I say. Sir John looks thoughtful for a moment. Lady Mortimer and I talk about hunting, her great passion. As a spokesperson for the cause, she has had many telephoned death threats and even razor blades and excrement posted through the letterbox. But she knows no fear – indeed, not long ago she agreed to be photographed wearing just her wellies, while feeding her chickens, for a photography exhibition.
Sir John, no longer lost in his thoughts, turns round again and begins shuffling off in the direction from which he just came. A visit to the lavatory before he sits down for lunch, he explains, just to be on the safe side. Such are the amusing indignities of old age.