John Mortimer: Where There's a Will & Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murder

By John Gardner, Reviewed by John Gardner

At 81, John Mortimer has achieved a rich, full life. And it is still producing surprises, with last year's disclosure that he had a son, of whose existence he was ignorant, from an affair 40 years before with actress Wendy Craig.

He has been a barrister, playwright, screenwriter and novelist of remarkable fecundity and, as these books demonstrate, he is still going strong. In Where There's a Will he produces a string of autobiographical sketches informed by a vigorous intelligence and an unsinkable love of living. They draw on a lifetime's accumulated experience and wisdom but are as contemporary as they are nostalgic and several have a relevance that stretches further than Britain, even if it is hard to imagine a more quintessential English background than Mortimer's.

Describing the behaviour of the Blair Government he says, among other things: It contemplates returning refugees to countries where they may face torture in contravention of our obligations under the Convention of Human Rights. I was recently talking to Michael Heseltine, once the Tarzan of the Right-wing jungle. I asked him if he was still active in any way in politics. 'Not really,' he said 'We've got a Conservative Government in power so why should I worry?' Politicians do make it very hard to have deeply held political beliefs.'

But Mortimer himself, while involved in civil libertarian causes, has no time for political orthodoxy or indeed any other form of restriction on the flowering of the individual. In a piece splendidly entitled 'The Domino Theory and The Tyranny of Majorities', he urges avoiding anyone whose views on every subject can be predicted from their views on one. 'You know with some people who utter dire threats about global warming, for instance, that they are going to be hostile to smokers, motor cars, jokes about mothers-in-law, school nativity plays, strip shows and the swallowing of live oysters.'

Other topics which arouse either his ire or approval - and you can't always predict which - include outdoor sex, male clothing, Shakespeare, paintings by Piero della Francesca and Velasquez, the working of the free market and the virtues of giving offence. There are several accounts which revel in the pleasures of family life.

Not surprisingly, he draws throughout on the law, having had a long career at the criminal bar. He seems to have avoided the cynicism which is not unknown in practitioners of that profession and it provided him with the range of acquaintances that someone of his comparatively privileged social position might otherwise never have encountered. His dealings with the arts obviously gave him an even more eclectic cast list from which to draw his meditations about the human condition.

The most consistent hallmark of his work and, presumably, his life is his sense of humour. There is hardly a page without at least one decent joke. His 'half-full glass' approach extends to finding advantages in the physical deterioration of age. Failing legs, according to him, allow you the privilege of being whisked past airport queues in a wheelchair, poor eyesight means you 'can reduce the world around you to a comforting blur' and moderate deafness allows the ignoring of inconvenient conversations.

His sense of humour is also the primary pleasure of Mortimer's latest excursion for his best-known character, the rumbustious defence lawyer Horace Rumpole.

Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murder is a piece of light entertainment and none the worse for that. After a recent diet of Nordic thrillers determined to look on the dark side of life I found it a blessed relief to turn to an early episode from the casebook of his ebullient claret-swilling hero.

It is not just knockabout fun. At its heart is a real sense of the displacement of those men whose return from the danger and excitement of war to the humdrum of suburbia was so psychologically unsettling.

Even in this comedy Mortimer displays flashes of anger over the obscenity of capital punishment, but the general tone of bonhomie rules in this story of Rumpole turning to writing his memoir of his first major case.

Even fans of Rumpole who know him only through the television portrayals by Leo McKern - portrayals which Mortimer acknowledged led to his hearing Rumpole's utterances in the voice of the actor - should be tempted into this book. It does, after all, provide our first full account of what could be called the courtship of the woman who became the legendary She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Typical Mortimer and typically great fun.

* John Gardner is editor of the Herald's Weekend Review.

* Where there's a Will, Penguin, $28
* Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow murder, Penguin, $35

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