Now in his seventies, John Mortimer walks with difficulty and can see out of only one eye. Moreover, his last-leg-of-book-tour exhaustion was obvious when we met this spring for his final interview on the final day of his U.S. tour to promote Rumpole and the Angel of Death (Viking Penguin, 1996). Even so, his zest and sharp, often outrageous wit remained apparent throughout our conversation.
Mortimer, a retired British barrister and Oxfordshire, England resident, is well known on both sides of the Atlantic for his Rumpole of the Bailey stories and television series. He is the author of ten short story collections featuring the comic and courageous criminal defense barrister, Horace Rumpole, whose motto is "Never Plead Guilty." Mortimer has also written two memoirs, novels (Summer's Lease, Paradise Postponed, Titmuss Regained, and Dunster), and numerous plays, film scripts, and television plays, including an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Our meeting took place mid-afternoon in New York City's Mysterious Bookshop, in owner Otto Penzler's stylish, second floor office. The spacious, high-ceilinged room has floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases filled with Penzler's private book collection. Floors and tables were also crammed with books that day; hundreds of new mysteries waiting to be sorted, displayed and sold. In this literary surrounding, Mortimer expounded on everything from judges and feminism to prisons and family values.
Judges, according to Mortimer, "take themselves too seriously," while prisons are a "university of crime." Mortimer speaks from experience; he earned considerable acclaim as a barrister, especially for his successful defenses in censorship cases. He also represented many divorce clients and accused murderers during his barrister years. According to Mortimer, he much preferred the murderers.
Despite his success as a barrister, Mortimer always considered law to be a way to support his true love -- writing. "I never thought of the law, really, as anything other than a day job like girls who want to be actresses. My father was a famous divorce barrister. He told me to go and divorce people, which was really quite easy. I went into father's chambers and took over his practice. He was a myth in those courts, so it all fell quite easily into my lap."
Mortimer always "had a lot of mouths to feed." He explained, "I had four children and I married someone who already had four children." However, the law offered more to Mortimer than a steady source of income. "I got great insights. People will go to endless trouble to divorce one person and then marry someone who's exactly the same, except probably a bit poorer and a bit nastier. I don't think anybody learns anything." He sipped some champagne provided by Mr. Penzler and continued. "If you look in playgrounds, you see the little judge and the little burglar and the little murderer and the little banker."
But what about Rumpole, I prodded. Surely he's gone through some personal development over the course of ten books. "Not at all," Mortimer replied. "Nothing like that. If you write films for American producers, they think characters develop. I don't think anybody changes."
In his 1992 collection, The Best of Rumpole, Mortimer describes how he created his most popular character:
About seventeen years ago I thought I needed a character, like Maigret or Sherlock Holmes to keep me alive in my old age. I wanted a sort of detective, who could be the hero of a number of stories but whose personality and approach to life were more important than the crimes with which he was concerned. He would have to be a comic character, as well as being courageous and more than usually astute, because I believe life to be best portrayed as comedy.
When asked to explain, he said "I think that comedy more accurately expresses the truth of human life; it's so short, and we give so much importance to it and our pretensions are enormous and the reality is so insignificant, really. It expresses the whole contrast between the seriousness with which we take ourselves and the actual truth."
Mortimer cited Shakespeare and Chekhov as writers "who best express what life is like," explaining that they are "funny with an under-note of sadness." With perhaps his own under-note of sadness he added, "If that's what I could write, I'd be really very happy."
I asked Mortimer which was more difficult to write, comedy or tragedy. "Comedy," he answered without hesitation. "It is very easy to make people cry, be sad, be miserable. Farce is an incredibly difficult genre. Comedy requires enormous imagination. There are quite a lot of great tragedies, and there aren't many great comedies."
Mortimer was equally emphatic about the relative difficulties of his two careers. "Writing is much, much harder than being a lawyer. If you're a lawyer you can rattle on doing things other people can do. If you're a writer, you've got to do something which nobody else can do. Except writing has less disastrous results. If you write a bad book, no one goes to prison, which is rather a relief."
Mortimer credits his work as a lawyer as providing material for his writing. "If I had been a sea captain, I would have written books like Conrad." But Mortimer also uses his family life for inspiration. A New Yorker article quoted him on this subject as saying "I think all writers are ruthless. You have to be ruthless." When I asked about this, he explained, "Your material is your life. So anybody who lives with you has the danger of being in books all the time. When I have quarrels with my wife, which doesn't happen very often, I write down her dialogue and give it to Hilda." (Rumpole's wife)
Does Mortimer's wife (Penelope) object? "She doesn't like it. And I wrote the play about my father, and my mother thought that was a very wrong thing to do. But I ruthlessly use everything that happens."
Mortimer also uses the issues of the day throughout his work. "I think Rumpole keeps fresh for me by dealing with things like political correctness, animal rights, and other things that are going on." Indeed, the stories in Rumpole and the Angel of Death do just that, bringing the Mortimer wit and insight to such themes as animal activism (Rumpole and the Way through the Woods), international justice (Rumpole and The Rights of Man), and gender awareness (Rumpole and the Model Prisoner).
The complexity of Mortimer's characters keeps his writing fresh and relevant. In Rumpole, for instance, Mortimer has created a man who treats women fairly, but makes merciless fun of feminists. (The plot of one Rumpole and the Angel of Death story, Rumpole and the Model Prisoner, concerns a feminist lawyers' plan to blacklist a barrister. The barrister's crime? Calling a female lawyer "fat" or, as Rumpole playfully puts it, "slenderness challenged.") Mortimer confirmed Rumpole's duality, adding "I think the trouble with feminism is it has become discriminatory. All these things start out by wanting to be equal and end up by wanting to be on top."
Mortimer appears to relish making comments that would tend to provoke a rise, or at least a laugh. Indeed, he laughs easily and often, a condition I found quite contagious. When asked if it's possible for men and women to communicate without gender getting in the way, he said, laughing, "No. Thank God for it. Vive La Difference." He added with another chuckle, "I think women don't want to be sex objects, but I'd love to be a sex object. My own ambition is to be loved only for my body."
Mortimer, like Rumpole, enjoys making fun of feminists. Yet I sensed that behind his flippant love-me-for-my-body remark was a man who, again like Rumpole, measures women when it matters on merit alone. I suggested that while many women enjoy being sex objects, they don't want gender to interfere with their careers. "Absolutely," Mortimer responded, "and so it shouldn't."
A conversation with Mortimer often follows a pattern of outrageous comment measured with thoughtful response. Mortimer on computers: "I'm a luddite. I think the whole thing should be abolished." My question reminded him of some recent book tour experiences. "We bought something at Saks Fifth Avenue and it took half an hour for the person to do all this tick-tack-typing. You used to go to hotels and they'd look on a list and you were in the room. All these machines slow up lives so incredibly."
According to Mortimer, the computer will also have a negative impact on literary studies. "The Christmas Carol manuscript was written by Dickens with a pen. He crosses out everything, changes everything, and sends it to the printer. Had he written it on a computer, those changes would have disappeared and we wouldn't have known how Dickens worked."
"I think the world has gone mad," Mortimer continued. "We're all communicating without anything, really, to communicate. A man hung himself to get an orgasm and the only reason the police knew was the internet was queued to how to almost hang yourself and get an orgasm."
Mortimer's opinions on murder are just strong. "I think murder is one of the most understandable crimes," he began. "Talk about family values. Murder usually takes place in the family -- wives or friends. They're usually just quarrels that would have ended up as assaults and went too far. Most people wouldn't be deterred by the death penalty."
How are murderers as clients? "I found criminal clients easy and matrimonial clients hard. Matrimonial clients hate each other so much and use their children to hurt each other in beastly ways. Murderers have usually killed the one person in the world that was bugging them and they're usually quite peaceful and agreeable."
Mortimer was just as eloquent on the subject of God. "I believe in everything to do with Christianity except for God," he said. "I believe in all the Christian ethics. But God is either uncaring or unpleasant. I suppose the best thing he could be called is uncaring. Every time I've interviewed Cardinals, Archbishops, their answer is free will. But it's all rot. The Nazi guards could have free will, because they could decide whether to do it or not. But not the people who were put in gas chambers. Nobody has satisfactorily answered this question."
In speaking about religion, Mortimer had dodged my query on an unrelated subject -- Mortimer's newspaper profiles of other celebrities. I'd wanted to know what question he puts to others, but would himself decline to answer. "I always ask them whether they believe in God," he responded with a laugh, "and I don't mind answering."
I considered taking another stab at my unanswered question. But for some reason (Mortimer's charm, perhaps?) I opted not to and asked, instead, whether he had enjoyed his tour.
"My trip has been intensely enjoyable. Except, I went to Salt Lake City and got drunk in about the first five minutes because I thought maybe I'd never get another drink. Book tours are lovely, but not very good for the soul," he continued. "You exaggerate your own importance. You've got to stop doing that quite quickly, go home, talk to the children, and they put you back in your place."
The interview was over; it was time for him to sign dozens of Rumpole books reserved by fans and to relax a bit before the reading (which he terms a "stage show") he was to give that evening at the English-Speaking Union. I rose, shook his hand and thanked him, and we said our goodbyes. But as I descended the narrow, winding staircase that lead to the store's ground floor, I was already berating myself. Had Mortimer been conducting the interview, he almost certainly would have coaxed an answer to that query he so gracefully dodged.