Thursday 19 November 2009
The Last Champagne Socialist
A memorial service was held at Southwark Cathedral earlier this week to mark the life and the achievements of Sir John Mortimer, who died in January of this year. A barrister and a writer, he was the creator of Horace Rumpole, Rumpole of the Bailey, one of the great comic heroes of English literature, who inhabits the same pantheon as the likes of Sir John Falstaff and Wilkins Micawber. I read the Rumple stories going up to school in my early teens. I so wanted to be a barrister at the time, the last of the great free lances. I so wanted to be Phyllida Erskine-Brown, nee Trant, ‘the Portia of our chambers.’
I admired Mortimer, not just for his writings, for the hours of simple fun he gave me, but for being the kind of person he was; a free spirit and a rebel in the most complete sense. He was Rumpole, or he invested a lot of himself in the character of Rumple, a rebuke to all of the joyless puritans and the heath n safety crowd; to the political correctness that dominates so much of contemporary life. There's no pleasure on earth that's worth sacrificing for the sake of an extra five years in the geriatric ward of the Sunset Old People's Home, Weston-Super-Mare, Rumpole said, which was very much Mortimer’s own view. In 2006 he wrote a piece on the proposed bans on smoking for The Telegraph. Here is part of what he said;
I gave up smoking many years ago. I was never very good at it, being unable to inhale. Recently, however, owing to my extreme irritation with the anti-smoking lobby, I have been compelled to take up the daily smoking of small cigars, as recommended by Rumpole of the Bailey.
I have now been pushed by a parliamentary majority of snivelling puritans, who seek to control every moment of our lives, to increase my consumption.
Returning to smoking after so many years is to recover a definite pleasure. As the smoke curls into the air the nerves are soothed, worries disappear, and thoughts can turn to the business of writing.
The best part of it is that governmental disapproval now adds considerably to the pleasures. The words "smoking kills" add, to many people, a welcome feeling of danger to the lighting of a cigarette.
If there also appear, on my tin of small cigars, the words "smoking is illegal", it will make the practice irresistible. The Government should take warning from the laws against foxhunting, which have greatly increased the following of the sport throughout the country.
One major novelist told me that when she gave up smoking she found that she was giving up writing as well. She has happily returned to smoking and her latest novel is now going extremely well.
The absurdity of a government that kills thousands of innocent people in Iraq and then worries about smoking in pubs should be obvious.
Indeed. I could never really understand why Sir John identified with the Labour Party at all; he seemed to me to be a natural Tory, a lover of liberty. Still, whatever his political views, he was a great and good man, the last of the champagne socialists, and I use that expression without any sense of irony.