Sunday, January 18, 2009

Death of a Character

I was saddened to read of the death of John Mortimer in yesterdays paper. If the name Mortimer doesn't ring any bells, maybe the fact the he was the creator of Horace Rumpole and the "Rumpole of the Bailey" series will help. For most of us here in the United States, that is how we knew of Mr. Mortimer.

It is interesting that Sir John (knighted in 1998) really was a barrister in Britain. In fact, to many Britons he might be better known for his defense of free speech and human rights than for his role of creating and writing the Rumpole series. He was the champion of the Sex Pistols in their battle against their records being declared obscene. He was also the champion of author Hubert Selby, Jr. whose "Last Exit to Brooklyn " was deemed unacceptable under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 in Britain. In one of those six-degrees of separation oddities, he was also the defender the London edition of Oz magazine when they published an issue written and illustrated by student readers. (And that is noted because one of the objectionable illustrations was drawn by none other than Robert Crumb who went on to found the underground comix movement with characters like Mr. Natural , Fritz the Cat , and of course his ongoing "Keep on Trucking ".) Mr Mortimer journeyed as far a Nigeria to defend playwright and poet Wole Soyinka from criminal charges. In short, he was in some sense a barrister's barrister or as we would say here in the States, a "lawyer's lawyer." Which makes it all the more amazing to me that he could write a continuing string of stories and books.

The legal cleverness shown by Mr. Mortimer and his Rumpole character might have roots in Mr. Mortimer's father, Clifford Mortimer, who was a famous divorce lawyer. The New York Times noted that Mr. Mortimer's father "once established adultery with no more evidence than a pair of footprints upside down on the dashboard of a Austin Seven." The elder Mortimer went blind when John was a youngster, but carried on without acknowledging it or discussing it.  Clifford was also known for his temper and harsh tongue. What a combination! I think it would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall when the the two Mortimers got talking (or fighting or ...). Sir John was a noted liberal who "hated vegetarians, atheists and animal-rights activists". It makes his impassioned defense of free speech issues even more interesting.

What I remember most about the Rumpole stories has little to do with law or even English jurisprudence. It is the characters.  Horace Rumpole himself, quoting Keats and drinking claret at Pommeroy's wine bar every evening. Rumpole's absolute slovenliness and untidiness and confusion; right up to the point where he stood up in court and was clear, concise, and brilliant. And then there was Hilda, his wife, known generally as "she who must be obeyed", always trying to protect Rumpole from his own vices. One thing that was interesting to me is that every Rumpole story seemed set in the same time and social milieu. In fact Sir John acknowledged that he intentionally did not develop his characters. That in and of itself is amazing considering it covered 30 years of stories, novels, and TV scripts.

Rest in peace John Mortimer. You and your creations will be missed.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice ode to Mr. Mortimer.
    Never saw the series, but I have his autobiography in my bookcase, inherited it from a friend and I may just make it my next read.


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