17 January 2009

John Mortimer

The English novelist and playwright John Mortimer has died, taking with him any hope that I might catch up with his writing while he lived. In 1994, I spent a fascinating day with the gentleman, whom Dan Rather was questioning for his recollections of V-E Day. Though that television interview took precedence, of course, over anything else, there might have been a moment for us to speak about books and other important matters. But the sorry truth was, and remains, that I’ve read very little of his work, and my esteem for him isn’t really an earned critical judgment but an ability to sum him up in conversation at cocktail parties as though I know what I’m talking about.

Mortimer suspected this, I think, when Dan introduced me as a fellow writer and an admirer (something at which Dan was always best when I was most in ignorance). He smiled graciously, as if pleased and flattered, but his glances went suddenly sidelong at me. A lucky break that Dan didn’t submit me to cross-examination by the former barrister.

With Leo McKern in Rumpole regalia

That day I drank in a full measure of what Mortimer described as his “Champagne Socialism.” We found him at his country house, in the Chiltern Hills in Oxfordshire, and he took Dan’s questions from a lawn chair on the brink of one of the most magnificent gardens I’ve ever seen. It was springtime, and every bush, bed, and branch was in riotous bloom, vomiting color and fragrance, testing the limits of human endurance. The English like to pretend that these things happen naturally, that their gardens are careless, almost accidental, but somebody must tend the buds, and that somebody manifestly wasn’t John Mortimer: already infirm, short of breath, unsteady of foot, creaky of joint, and foggy of vision. Sir John hired a gardener — several perhaps — to create and maintain his English Eden.

He took a sweetly subversive approach to the interview, managing very often to bring the subject ’round to how easy it was for a young man to get laid in London at the war’s end. This is a theme of his writing, too, but not of American television interviews, usually. And he stoutly defended the surge of Socialism that seized Britain after the war. It may not have worked out as intended, he conceded, but after confronting tyranny and hatred for so many years, what better purpose could Britons have found than equality?

Brideshead Visitor: Mortimer understood the seductions of luxury.

Inside the house, his wife, Penny, was leading some sort of political meeting, as I discovered when I had to locate the Mortimers’ loo. I doubt that Penny and her cohort were plotting much more than a petition against John Major, but I can’t know for sure what they were talking about, because they clammed up instantly as I came near, and stared at me with something near outright hostility until I left. I could practically feel their eyes drilling through the closed door; just try not to be pee-shy at a moment like that. “The English are frosty, when you are Amurri-kin,” as the poem goes. (Or something of the sort.)

I’ve long meant to read up on my Mortimer, not only the celebrated Rumpole novels but also the Titmuss trilogy and the memoirs, which do promise to be juicy. Like most Americans, I know him best for his television work, for Leo McKern’s Rumpole as much as for Mortimer’s, for Lord Olivier in A Voyage Round My Father and for Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited. Sir John’s Brideshead screenplay originally came in at a perfectly normal length, it’s said, until the producers insisted that they wanted something much grander — in order to bolster their claim to a license renewal. This is why the series stretched to 11 episodes, and featured so much of Jeremy Irons reading aloud from Waugh’s novel. Cut all that away, and you’ve got Mortimer’s version.

In the meantime, I honor Sir John’s efforts (more heroic than Americans know) in defense of a free press and free society; I do admire his literate entertainments and his habit of beginning each day with a glass of Champagne. Ah, to be more like him!

I’d settle for a demi-bouteille of Château Thames Embankment.

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